Monthly Archives: November 2008

Meditation on Gratitude

Tomorrow we Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, and for many of us it’s a very busy day filled with the three F’s: food, family and football. So filled, in fact, there doesn’t seem to be room for the G’s: gratitude, grace and giving thanks.

So here’s a chance to focus on our sense of gratitude.

What are we grateful for? It is easy to launch into our list: Our family and friends, our homes, our health, our jobs, our financial security to whatever degree we have it, etc. If things are bad — and for many of us these are difficult times indeed — we are grateful that they aren’t any worse.

Watching the devastation of the recent firestorms in Southern California — how within 20 minutes hundreds of people’s homes just vanished into smoke — we know what the survivors will say. They say what all survivors say after losing their homes: That as difficult as the loss of cherished possessions is, they are grateful: Grateful to be alive, grateful that their families survived

It is only human to view these horrific news reports with a combination of feelings: compassion for those who are going through the experience, fear of anything like that ever happening to us, and renewed gratitude for our own homes and families, still safe and sound.

Looking more closely at this perfectly natural kind of gratitude, you might notice that it is rooted in fear, the fear of losing what we have. That’s why we feel it more strongly when we witness the losses of others. “There but for the grace of God go I.”

It is, therefore, a conditional gratitude, dependent on there being enough left on our list that we value. Dependent on this kind of gratitude, we may fall into patterns of clinging to the people and things on our list, terrified of losing them. Clinging, as you will recall, is the root cause of suffering identified by the Buddha in The Second Noble Truth. This clinging strains relationships and tightens us into knots. This kind of gratitude is, as I said, perfectly natural, but being so conditional, it is shallowly rooted in the hard cake soil of fear, and what grows out of it can be distorted and unnourishing.

From this shallow rooted place, we may find our gratitude list has many qualifiers. ‘I am grateful for this, but would be more grateful if it were different.’ These qualifiers may overwhelm our sense of gratitude, and we find ourselves with a shorter and shorter list. Then we ask ourselves how did we end up with such a puny little list?

The less we are able to write on our gratitude list, the more this gratitude is likely to be counter-weighted with a sense of deprivation, anger, failure, humiliation, envy or frustration. Other people have what we wanted for ourselves. We are exhausted from trying to acquire the things we want to be able to write on a gratitude list, the things that we believe will make us happy.

Frustrated, we may be compiling another list that grows longer: the list of our complaints, worries and gripes. Nothing is ever quite good enough. There seems very little, if anything, to be grateful for. In this case our gratitude is very conditional indeed.

So how do we get to unconditional gratitude?
There are many gateways. One of them, strangely, is grief. By a certain age, most of us have lost someone dear to us, some of us have lost quite a few. We have experienced our hearts imploding in grief, and the pain that rises and falls like waves, sometimes carrying us away into realms we didn’t know existed.

How does this create gratitude? Well, perhaps right away it doesn’t, but if we are able to stay present with our experience, eventually we will notice the way our hearts have been carved deeper by this loss, making room for a deeper form of gratitude, an unconditional gratitude, not dependent on our ability to hang on to everything in our lives that matters to us.

Other forms of loss can be gateways as well. Perhaps because they bring us up short, break us out of our habitual patterns, force us to really look at ourselves and the world around us with new eyes.

Fortunately, loss is not the only gateway to unconditional gratitude. Through regular meditation practice, we can access it as well. We feel gratitude for being conscious in each moment as it reveals itself. We learn the fine art of holding it lightly and savoring it. It is a gratitude for ‘the best seat in the house’ where the amazing gifts of the world, in a vast variety of forms, continually come onto the stage of our awareness. These gifts are probably not what we wrote on our wish list or our to do list, but our willingness to be present, to let go of having to dictate the outcome, allows us to be available to savor whatever arises.

This devout gratitude sheds light on the darkest despair, allowing us to discern the treasure buried deep within. It allows us to experience pain as a symphony of passing sensations. Deep unconditional gratitude can be a constant companion that opens our eyes and our hearts. And ultimately, at the moment when we breathe our last precious breath, we are grateful even for this.

Gratitude can be a practice unto itself, allowing us to savor every moment, to appreciate every being we meet. Because underneath the hard cake fear is the nourishing soil of unconditional love that supports us. We can toss the list because we would be writing forever if we tried to keep up with all that we are grateful for in this expansive unconditional way. We can simply let the gratitude breathe us, illuminating our lives.

Happy Thanksgiving – today and in every moment of your life!

Meditation, Spaciousness & Letting Go

The tight tangle of our lives becomes more spacious through the regular practice of meditation. We find that increasingly we can see our thoughts and emotions as they arise. Instead of succumbing to their seduction or going into battle with them, we can more often simply notice them. It may seem as if there is more time and space around them to evaluate the most skillful response to any given situation.

In this increasing spaciousness, we are able to be more gracious hosts to our thoughts and emotions. We are not at their mercy or here to do their bidding. We begin to learn more about them, their histories and motivations. Why does a particular thought keep recurring? Why does dealing this person always bring up this negative emotion? With a greater sense of ease than we ever thought possible, we can focus on these thoughts and emotions and begin to see patterns. We see the loving intention of all these various aspects of our personality. We see the fear behind their misguided strategies. And by giving them our attention we begin to see how some of our beliefs are at odds with each other, causing an inner sense of imbalance and strife.

I am still touched by a conversation I had many weeks ago with a young woman in Colorado whom I called as part of my volunteering for Obama. She was holding down two jobs and had two small children, so she just hadn’t had time to really look at the candidates and make up her mind. So I asked her what her issues were. “Well, I’m against abortion and gay marriage. What does Obama believe?”
“Senator Obama believes in equality for all people,” I told her.
“Oh! I believe in that!”
“Then Obama’s your man.” I went on to tell her that perhaps if she was working two jobs and had small children, she should vote for whoever was going to give her the best tax break and the best health care for her kids. But I was then and still am struck by her very human capacity to hold two opposite ideas in the same brain. That she could support equality for all people but feel okay denying gays the right to marry did not seem like a contradiction in her mind. Probably because she hadn’t had the time to really look at her various beliefs for the same reason she hadn’t had time to choose her candidate.

But for those of us who are meditating regularly over long periods of time, somehow we do have time to notice conflicting beliefs and to see which ones are aligned with the core values that arise out of being in touch with our deep sense of connection. This level of observation and awareness enables us to more easily release old beliefs that don’t serve us, that just got a free ride all these years because we never bothered to examine them.

Often these beliefs were never ours to begin with but were hand-me-downs or borrowed briefly just to try on and we kept them around, and after awhile we forgot where we got them and assumed ownership. But now they are just piles of clutter that get in the way of living fully.

If there are beliefs that we are ready to release, where do we begin to look for them? We don’t need to search them out. They are ever present. We just have to pay attention to those moments when they crop up as statements or judgments that we think or say. Chances are these will be strained moments. Since these beliefs are at odds with our core values, when we hear ourselves voicing them, they sound discordant to our ears. We may feel a sense of discomfort: guilt, embarrassment, confusion, astonishment, or maybe amusement, depending on how vested we are in believing that we are our thoughts.

A wonderful way to deal with whatever comes up is to ask a question. The teacher and author Byron Katie suggests asking, “How do I know this is true?” The inner dialog that follows begins the process of self discovery and potentially to letting go of whatever doesn’t serve us well.

The inner dialog needs to be compassionate, patient and truly curious in order to be useful. Judgment, criticism and ridicule shut the process down, but if they arise, simply switch the dialog’s focus to them. Ask “What am I afraid of in this exploration?” Because all three are rooted in fear.

This kind of inner work can be rich and satisfying. Journaling inner dialogs can be very useful as we are more likely to stay focused on writing than just thinking, and we can read the conversation later from a different vantage point and see things we might not have seen at the time.

In my book, Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living, I suggest the possibility of giving personality to these beliefs, desires and fears in order to engage in dialog exploration. I find this a very useful and enjoyable way to really notice patterns of thoughts that arise — thoughts of self-doubt, thoughts that undermine my intentions, thoughts that keep me from living the fully engaged and grounded life I want to live. I give them names so that when I meet them again – as I certainly will – I can recognize them.

This recognition is something like the Buddha’s experience of being tempted by Mara as he sat under the bodhi tree. By recognizing Mara as the tempter in various forms, trying to seduce him away from his intention, the Buddha was able to reach enlightenment. The key part of his relationship with this tempter was that he always welcomed Mara, saying “I know you.” And in knowing Mara, in all its forms, he was able to be patient, compassionate but unseduced.

In inner dialog exploration, we can come to know these various seductive voices by name, and we can extend them the courtesy of compassion and respect. Inner civility is key! We can ask these tempters questions about what they want and what they fear. What we discover is that they always want the best for us, that their purpose is always loving. But their strategies are misguided because they are operating out of fear.
EXAMPLE: Many of us have a voice we could call “Little Sweetie” – that sweet tooth that draws us continually to the ice cream, pastry and candy shops. Or maybe you have a “Little Salty” – so hard for me to understand since Little Sweetie rules in my panoply of characters. So what would a conversation with Little Sweetie be like? We could say, “What do you want, Little Sweetie?”
And maybe Little Sweetie would say, “I want sugar!” as if that was obvious.
“Why do you want sugar?” we might continue.
“To sweeten up this life. Everything about sugar is pretty, festive and fun. Every time we eat it we are having a party.”
“And you want to party?” we might ask.
“Yes, I love to party!”
“Could we party without the sugar?”
“What kind of party would that be?”
“It could be a party with music and dancing.”
“I’d like that. But what about a cake?”
“It could be a party with lots of interesting conversation.”
“Yes, I’d like that. I like people and connection.”
“If you were sitting in deep conversation with someone and a cake suddenly appeared on the table across the room, would you stop mid-sentence and run across the room?”
“Hmmm, well not mid-sentence. A really good conversation? Like really interesting and rich?”
“Well, then no. I wouldn’t even notice the cake.”
“So when there isn’t a party or deep conversation, you are bored?”
“Kind of.”
“And sweets are interesting?”
“But you can’t talk to them. You can’t dance with them. You can’t interact with them.”
“No, but they are so easy to find and so forbidden!”
“Yes, they are everywhere. But what’s so good about them being forbidden?”
“It adds spice to life! Sugar and spice! ha ha!”
“So our life needs spicing up? Is it boring, plain, uninteresting?”
“Well, in a word, YES!”
“Okay, what, besides sweets, would make it more interesting for you?”
“More sweet moments!”
“Sweet moments like when?”
“Sweet moments like last night standing on Ring Mountain in the moonlight looking at the twinkling lights of San Francisco across the Bay. That was a very sweet moment.”
“Indeed it was. This is a sweet moment too.”
“This one?”
“Yes, here we are having a dialog, sitting in a comfortable spot with a beautiful view of the mountain lightening in the morning sun.”
“Yes, this is sweet.”
“Any moment can be sweet, don’t you agree? If we are really paying attention?”
“I suppose.”
“Shall we try it? Shall every time you ask for sweets, I take it as a request for noticing the sweetness of this moment?”
“No harm in trying, but if it doesn’t work, I vote for chocolate.”

So there’s a sample inner dialog. Let’s review what just happened:
– I recognized a chronic tempter in my life: the urge to eat sweets.
– I recognized it as a problem, something that thwarts me in maintaining my health and weight.
– I gave it a name. This name captures something about the tempter’s character and has an endearing quality so that I am more likely to speak to it with love and affection.
– The conversation begins with a simple question: “What do you want?”
– The conversation follows, speaking as honestly and openly as possible from the point of view of this aspect of our personality.
– The questions are created from open curiosity and deep compassion.
At first the questions are more open ended, just trying to discover the root fear, concern, lack, etc. of the aspect.
– When that is discerned – in the example, the aspect Little Sweetie was bored – then the questions can switch to ‘what if’ scenarios in a ‘negotiation’ stage.
– Whatever is negotiated must be something that addresses the deep need, that is in line with core values, not the surface desires of the tempter aspect, whether the ones originally stated or replacement ones.
– In this sample conversation, I didn’t offer to provide a continuous set of exotic locales, more parties or any other surface distraction. What I offered was to be more fully present in every moment so that Little Sweetie could find the sweetness in life, just as it is.

This kind of exercise may or may not appeal to you, but inner dialoging in whatever form suits you can be very valuable in identifying and examining beliefs that cause suffering in your life.

Letting Go: Beyond the Labels in Relationship

After reading through the Dance of the Seven Veils in the previous post, it may seem as if we are being asked to give up possessions, relationships, our very skins! But of course that is not the case. Instead we are looking at what it might be like to let go of our habit of defining ourselves by what we own, how we look, what we do for a living, or who we know. We are exposing the lie that all these things are the sum total of who we are. Abandoning the things themselves would serve little purpose, but abandoning our misperceptions about them as our identity could serve us very well.

Let’s look more closely at the third veil: ‘the you that is defined by your relationships with others…. To the degree that these roles define you, they confine you. Let them go.’ We are not giving up our relationships. To the contrary. We are finding a more spacious way to be in them so that the relationships are enhanced and vibrant. By releasing labels of ‘sister’ ‘father’ ‘wife’ or ‘friend’ to the degree that these terms confine us in these relationships.

The first clue to a problem with these labels is that we always use them with that dangerous word ‘my’ in front. My sister, my husband, my child. The word ‘my’ confers a clear sense of ownership. If something is mine, I have a say about it. If something is mine, I think of it as an extension of me, that it represents me in some way.

That sense of entitlement to have a say creates toxicity in relationships. We feel not only entitled but somehow obligated to remake those we own in order that they can live up to our expectations.

We have all felt the pain of being ‘owned’ by some well-intentioned but delusional person who was unable to see us as ourselves. And as painful as it is, we often turn around and hurt others close to us in the same exact way.

So how do we expunge the idea of ownership from a relationship? It would be an interesting challenge to spend a week without using the word ‘my’ or ‘our.’ Would we find a new way to talk about our relatives? Or would we stop talking about them? That would be a very positive outcome indeed!

But even if we don’t speak in the possessive, we still have our lifelong habit of thinking that way. How do we rephrase it to ourselves? Awkwardly, no doubt, but that’s alright. When something is awkward it brings our attention to it, and that breaks us out of habitual patterns and lets us see things anew with fresh eyes.

How would it be to see the person you married with fresh eyes? What if the veils dropped away and you saw the wondrous luminous being with whom you chose to spend your life. (I assure you there is a wondrous luminous being in there! Keep looking!)

If you are not an only child, imagine a person you have known your whole life, who is close to your age and was raised in the same household, who shares a rich wealth of memories from a different vantage point, who in personal traits is unique and yet incredibly perhaps endearingly familiar. Might there be some fresh and wondrous delight in seeing them without the veils of expectation, duty or obligation?

The labels we put on ourselves burden our relationships. The roles we play become who we perceive ourselves to be, and all our accumulated ideas about what it is to be a good wife, mother, sister, husband, father, brother, etc. come into play. We struggle and suffer in the vast field between our imagined ideals and our uneven ability to fulfill them.

For example, I lived with Will for the year before we married. After the wedding I found myself suddenly saddled with a lifetime of images and expectations of what it is to be a wife or a husband, culled from observing my parents’ marriage, from reading novels and watching movies. Of course, Will too had his ideas and expectations, and suddenly a simple loving relationship was floundering in a sea of misunderstandings. It took nearly a decade for us to find a way to be together that didn’t rely so heavily on fulfilling these mostly misguided expectations.

Friendships too can get complicated by our ideas of what it is to be a friend. Our expectations set us up for disappointment. We may say, “A real friend wouldn’t” say or do this or that. What would it be like to let these concepts go? To simply be with someone with whom we share so much and have no expectations and no sense of obligation. How much deeper could the true connection be?

Certain relationships come with contracts. Marriage and parenthood, for example. These contracts are taken on joyfully, and are best kept if that joyfulness is renewed in each moment from our most authentic selves.

Letting go of our identity around these relationships is not necessarily easy because these are ingrained habits of being and perception. But doing so, to the degree we are able, frees us to be fully ourselves, just as we are, with every person we are with. We can allow them to be fully themselves as well, without the drag of our expectations around the role they play in our lives.

Letting go is a gentle process. It is the result of continued compassionate attention. Force has no role here. Judgment is counter productive. Coming into awareness of our thoughts, emotions and sensations is sufficient for the task. The trees let go their leaves when the time is right, and so will we.

The Dance of the Seven Veils

We have looked at the first and second Noble Truths: that there is suffering and that the cause of suffering is grasping, clinging and pushing away. The Third Noble Truth is that this suffering can end.

The following is something I wrote many years ago, before studying Buddhism, but it speaks to the same possibility.

The Dance of the Seven Veils, An Exercise in Letting Go

The first veil is the you that is defined by material possessions. These possessions reflect your taste, your financial status and your values. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The second veil is the you that is defined by your achievements, your failures, your badges of honor and your battle scars. The title you hold, the awards you have won, the degrees you have earned, the good deeds you have done, the guilt you bear, the pain you have suffered. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The third veil is the you that is defined by your relationships with others. Your roles as son or daughter, sister or brother, father or mother, husband or wife, friend, lover, student, employee, employer, citizen. To the degree that these roles define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The fourth veil is the you that is defined by your beliefs. Your religion, your political affiliations, your judgments, the angers and resentments that shape your judgments, your assumptions about other people. To the degree that these define you, they confine you. Let them go.

The fifth veil is the you that is defined by your physical, emotional and psychological traits. These are what you were born with: your gender, your race, the fundamental aspects of your personality. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The sixth veil is the you that is defined by your body’s very existence. It is your perception of your skin as an encapsulation and barrier. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you.
Let it go.

The seventh veil is the you that is defined by mind. It is the you that maintains resistance, through fear, in order to exist as a separate consciousness. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you. Let it go.

Now who are you? Beyond the barriers of all your veils of identity, beyond the veils that create shadow, mask and distortion, suddenly all is clear. Who are you? You are One. One with all that is, a manifest expression of the joy of oneness, undefined thus unconfined, free, expansive, beyond the beyond. Yet completely here and now, always in this moment.

Now as you dress in your veils, lovingly drape yourself with these manifest expressions of self, full of richness, full of clues. But never again will you mistake them for you. The authentic you, merged with the all that is, with God beyond personification, you that is light energy source and receptor, transmitter and receiver. You that is released from the limits of fear and knows the infinite power of love. Behold your true self. One with all that is.

© 1992 Stephanie Noble

In this post election moment

Globally shared euphoria. This is a new emotion for me! As I sit with it, I marvel. I watch how just the thought of ‘President Obama’ sends a warm bath of relaxation through me, how my lips of their own accord turn up at the corners. How my eyes tear up for joy.

I also feel incredible relief. So much so that I am aware in retrospect of all the fear and tension I was holding. And how much I had denied myself the right to hope for this outcome. I allowed myself to want it, to work for it, but not to hope for it. Strange.

Oh, and I feel pride! I am so proud of our nation! I am proud of how this albeit imperfect system of government actually does work well at times. My faith in the fine tradition of transition of power has been restored. (But we still need to make sure every vote really does count in all future elections!)

I am proud of Senator McCain. As he gave his concession speech, he displayed the best of himself, the person that seemed to have gotten lost in campaigning.

I am proud of all the donors and volunteers for the Obama campaign, some of whom I know personally. We all did things for this campaign we have never done in our lives. My friends Michael Rosenthal and Marleen Roggow traveled from California to Michigan to knock on doors and canvas college campuses. Most of my friends made phone calls to swing states, but my friend Patti Breitman made calls every weekend for many weeks. I’m sure other friends were doing whatever they could as well. I am proud of Barbara Gately and Stephanie LeGras who early on in the campaign asked me to design a website called Women Over 50 for Obama, which I did as part of my volunteer work for Obama. I am proud of myself as well. I joined Toastmasters in order to get up the nerve to pick up the phone for Obama!

I am proud of all the people who stood in line for hours to cast their votes, who did so with great spirit.

I am proud of the way campaign was run. It was incredibly efficient, clean, collaborative, inventive and just plain brilliant. Bravo!

I am proud of all those in public life who stood up for Obama early on.

I am proud of Michelle Obama whom I would like to nominate right now for president in 2016.

And most of all I am proud of our President-elect Barrack Obama. He has a deep awareness that keeps him clear, steady, genuinely caring for all people and the planet. He holds the world in an open embrace, with love and lightness. He sees through the mudslinging mess and brings the conversation to a new level. His natural born leadership skills and his ability to bring out the best in people so that we may all work together to solve the many challenges we face, are exactly what we need right now.

So yes, I am proud. And excited! And grateful!

Undoubtedly other feelings, thoughts, concerns will arise in the coming months and years, but in this moment right here and now, I am – and I am not at all alone in this – deliriously delighted! Elated! Euphoric! YAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!