Monthly Archives: December 2008

Celebrating the Winter Solstice

(This is a pastel by my friend Wendy Goldberg, titled Twilight Tomales.)
Paying attention to the seasons and rhythms of the earth helps me to stay more present, so I enjoy celebrating the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. This year on December 21, 2008 at 4 :04 AM PST the earth is tipped on its axis to the greatest degree, so that in the northern hemisphere, the sun appears at its lowest point. (Those in the southern hemisphere are experiencing the summer solstice.)

Throughout the centuries in cultures around the world winter solstice riturals have been focused on the return of the light. I can certainly understand that, especially in times before electric lights and central heat, but I want my personal celebration to focus on what is in this present moment. And what is most present in this moment is the darkness.

So in 1992 I wrote the poem that follows. It has since been incorporated into solstice rituals around the world, including our Friday morning class at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

For yesterday’s class I was again asked to read my poem, but our dharma teacher Dana de Palma added a new twist, asking me to create a solstice altar, something we have not done before.

Here is the altar:
I happened to have a black and white patterned shawl that I set in the middle of our circle. On it I placed a small low table. I covered the top with aluminum foil to protect it and to reflect the candle light, and filled it with candles, small decorative objects, some natural items I had gathered on recent hikes, and some inspirational phrases (see below). Around the table I took some upturned circular lids from big yogurt cartons and made a ring of twelve around the table, placing a candle in each one. My sangha sisters Patti and Alice brought additional candles, and together with sangha brother Bill, we prepared the altar, making sure each candle was secure and wouldn’t burn down the building! (If it had not been wet out, I might have added some evergreens as well.)

After a delicious hour of yoga led by Janice Gates, in which she encouraged us to feel our expansive hearts radiating out in all directions, even while feeling totally present in our bodies and in the room, and a lovely meditation by Dana in which we felt our inner light growing with each breath, I read my poem and we did a candle lighting ritual.

As I introduced the poem, I told the circle about my own personal difficulty with some of the wording over the years, and how just that morning I had found a different way of seeing it. The poem tells us “Do not be afraid…” Well, I object to anyone telling me how to feel or not to feel, even a poem that I wrote! As practitioners, we are instructed to be with what is, not try to change our feelings.

But now I can see that the poem is just offering an opportunity to question some long held assumptions and beliefs about darkness, to look more closely at this culturally inherited negative story about darkness and see something more there than previously thought. Looking more closely and finding a way to reframe the story is a very Buddhist practice indeed. Phew! It’s not a bossy poem after all.

Here is the poem:

In Celebration of the Winter Solstice

Do not be afraid of the darkness.
Dark is the rich fertile earth
that cradles the seed, nourishing growth.
Dark is the soft night that cradles us to rest.
Only in darkness
can stars shine across the vastness of space.
Only in darkness
is the moon’s dance so clear.
There is mystery woven in the dark quiet hours,
There is magic in the darkness.
Do not be afraid.
We are born of this magic.
It fills our dreams
that root, unravel and reweave themselves
in the shelter of the deep dark night.
The dark has its own hue,
its own resonance, its own breath.
It fills our soul,
not with despair, but with promise.
Dark is the gestation of our deep and knowing self.
Dark is the cave where we rest and renew our soul.
We are born of the darkness,
and each night we return
to the deep moist womb of our beginnings.
Do not be afraid of the darkness,
for in the depth of that very darkness
comes a first glimpse of our own light,
the pure inner light of love and knowing.
As it glows and grows, the darkness recedes.
As we shed our light, we shed our fear,
and revel in the wonder of all that is revealed.
So, do not rush the coming of the sun.
Do not crave the lengthening of the day.
Celebrate the darkness.
Here and now. A time of richness. A time of joy.

— Stephanie Noble copyright 1995

And here is the ritual we did:
Each person in turn lit a candle saying one of the following intentions or another intention that rose up naturally within them, with absolute permission to do so in silence:
May I be a lamp unto myself. (This was the Buddha’s last instruction to his students.)
May I be guided by my inner light.
May my practice bring awareness of my own inner light.
May I light the darkness with awareness.
May my inner light grow and glow.
May I sit and savor the darkness until I see the light.

Because we had about twice as many candles as people, I encouraged people to light a second candle to send metta to anyone they knew that was in need. Everyone did light a second candle, and that addition, though unplanned, sweetened the ceremony further. (My second candle was for my beloved sister-in-law Rose and niece Doris, mother and daughter, who are both in the (same) hospital right now. May they both be well.)

For lighting the candles, we had provided both lighters and matches. Some people had trouble with the lighter or just didn’t like it. People who used matches sometimes felt rushed in saying their intentions while the flame was headed straight for their tender fingers. For anyone wanting to create a ritual like this, I would suggest having a lit taper candle resting in a solid holder – a short glass or cup would do – that would make the lighting simply a matter of picking up that candle and lighting another. (Although I must say that each person’s way of dealing with the challenge was lovely to behold.)

At the end of Dana’s dharma talk about the solstice, after she dedicated the merits of our practice to all beings, we took turns blowing out the candles, saying ‘so be it’ or ‘may it be so.’

Later one sangha sister asked me if I thought she could get away with incorporating a ritual like this into a dinner party she was having with some people she didn’t know well enough to know how they felt about the solstice. Her question brought up such an interesting truth: That many people have resistance to acknowledging this natural annual event of the earth. There is a long history of seeing it as pagan ritual, and a long history of seeing pagans as anti-Christian, when they are just not necessarily Christians, which is quite a different (and totally non-threatening) thing. Even in our little Buddhist community, a significant number of people left before the ritual began, when usually everyone stays for the whole class.

So, with that in mind, I told my friend to celebrate the solstice with her guests by having the radiant heart of a hostess, offering a delicious meal, creating a candle-lit atmosphere, and by staying fully in the moment, allowing the conversation to grow rich and deep. And if, by chance, through that conversation she finds that her guests are interested in celebrating the solstice too, she could have extra candles to create a ceremony, or simply suggest they all bundle up and step out into her lovely garden on this cold clear night and take in the beauty of the star-studded darkness.

So however you celebrate the solstice over this weekend, whether with friends or family, or by adding a little ritual to your personal practice, or simply by giving yourself the gift of a little longer rest on these long winter nights, may you find a sense of joy and deep connection in being fully present in the darkness, present enough to sense your own inner light glowing and growing.

May it be so! Happy Solstice.

Earth: The Element of True Compassion

I have never read or heard anything about this, but it seems to me that each of the Four Brahmaviharas has an elemental quality. Metta (loving kindness) is like the radiant sun, shining on all without discrimination. Mudita (sympathetic joy) is like the sparkling water, dancing with reflective joy. Upekka (equilibrium) is like the sky, able to hold sunshine and storm clouds equally with great ease and spaciousness. And Karuna (compassion) is like the earth, receiving our tears, supporting us, nourishing us.

This earth-like quality, Karuna, gives effortlessly from its bounty. You never see the earth running around assessing needs, doling out its nourishment in fair proportions for each plant. The earth is just there, fully present and fully supportive.

So how does this translate for us? Can we be like the earth to someone in need? Can we relax and just be present. Can we be solid enough for them to lean on, receptive enough to receive their tears, and available for whatever they have in mind in any given moment?

This may be a real challenge for us if we are used to being in charge, if we like to direct the show, if we automatically make assumptions about the needs of others, if we have an agenda, or if we have to try to fix everything.

If we cling to the idea of ourselves as generous givers, assessing needs and filling them, it may be challenging to let that identity go, in order to tap in to a level of deep and effortless compassion. It helps to realize that a lot of what we do is based in our aversion to what is going on. In our discomfort we rush around trying to change it. We cannot bear for a loved one to be in pain, so we do everything in our power to make it stop. If we stop and be present with our own experience, we can recognize the aversion and simply accept it as part of what is in this moment. Recognizing it allows it a voice in the conversation but disengages its ability to run the show.

If there are people for whom we can’t be compassionate because of their behavior, then we are letting our judgments keep us at the surface, letting our personality get all tangled up with their personality, instead of accessing that universal quiet core of ourselves that recognizes that the very thing that makes them difficult is the burden of suffering with which they struggle. From our still center we connect with their still center for it is one and the same, and it is this awareness of oneness that allows the compassion to be infinite and ever present, regardless of circumstances.

Karuna, like all the Brahmaviharas is infinite in nature. When we feel that we have to solve other people’s problems or prove our love for them by taking on their burdens, we are operating from a shallow fear based place, and our energy will soon be depleted. What we have to give is finite and we will exhaust ourselves and the person we are trying so hard to help.

Karuna doesn’t try to change the experience of another person, or suggest that they look on the bright side, or distract them from what it is they are feeling by offering ways to ‘take their mind off their situation.’ Karuna simply sits, without anticipating anything more than the need for a tissue.

I remember the honor I felt as a witness to my father’s process of dying in the last weeks of his life. As his primary caregiver, of course I did a lot of behind the scenes activity to make sure that he had what he needed physically. But in our time together, I took on a more receptive mode, uncharacteristic of me. He was thus able to relax his natural defenses. I didn’t exhaust him by trying to commandeer his experience. He needed every bit of his limited energy for the huge transition he was making. My love made no demands on him. It was way too late to ask for anything more than he had ever been able to give me. To the degree that I was able, I let myself become like the earth, receptive, ever present to the point of not being noticed. This quiet way of being with him allowed him his own space for his experience.

The only time I felt like I totally failed him was when we were watching ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and I kept blurting out solutions before he had a chance to figure them out himself. So thoughtless! Would the earth do that? I don’t think so.

But that brings me to the first most important aspect of Karuna: having a deep compassion for ourselves. How typical it is of us to beat ourselves up over our supposed failings. Would we ever speak to another person the way we speak to ourselves on a regular basis?

The truth is we can’t offer what we don’t have. By becoming aware of the way we treat ourselves, and accessing that deep quiet stillness within, we can become the very earth under our own feet. Through our regular practice of meditation, we come to a level of deep compassion that is infinite and accessible, for ourselves, those around us and the earth itself.

Karuna, Accessing Deep Rooted Compassion

Have you ever been in a situation where people were feeling sorry for you? Perhaps you had suffered a great loss, had a serious illness or experienced a big upheaval in your life. Suddenly people’s eyes seemed full of pity or sympathy. And how did you feel? Like you couldn’t get away fast enough?

Why? One possible reason is that, much as they might try, others cannot imagine exactly what we are going through with any accuracy, even if they have experienced something similar. From moment to moment our emotions are changing, so if someone claims understanding, they are projecting their own ideas of what they think we must be going through onto us. As well meant as they are, these projections just add to our challenge. They muddy up our ability to sense into our own direct experience and be present with it.

So then when someone else is going through a difficult experience, we may feel paralyzed with the fear of saying or doing something wrong ourselves. We are afraid that our heartfelt empathy will come across as pity. Yet we feel antsy in our wanting to do something. And of course anything we do is better than doing nothing, so we call or send a card or bring a casserole, but all the while we are not sure if we are truly being helpful, if we are doing enough or if our words will be misunderstood.

As discussed in previous posts, when we are operating out of the shallow hard cake of fear, the results of our efforts are distorted and fail to nourish us or those around us. And now here we are again, rooted in fear, terrified of doing the wrong thing but wanting very much to help.

Here is a moment to center in to ourselves, to focus on the breath. The fear may exist. We see it. We know it. We can feel where in our body it grips us tight. And that simple acknowledgment allows us to relax a little. Through relaxing into this present moment fully, it is possible to release our fear. We don’t push it away, overcome it, conquer it or ignore it. That is just fighting fear with fear – a battle without end.

Instead we notice the fear, notice how it feels in our body, notice all the sensations that accompany it. As we breathe into these sensations we can eventually find a quiet center within ourselves, a shift of perspective from which we can see the fear more clearly. With great tenderness, as a mother would do for her baby, we hold the fear in an open embrace until it settles down, dissapates or disappears. This open embrace is expansive – a vast and loving awareness. We become aware that we also are like a babe being lightly held in an infinite loving open embrace.

When we are able to rest in this vast and loving awareness, the compassion that arises is karuna.

The difference between mere sympathy and karuna is the difference between ‘There but for the Grace of God go I’ and ‘I am you, and you are me and we are all together’ – an awareness of the seamless oneness of being. In the first sentence there is well wishing, but there is also the relief that it is not happening to us, and the fear that it might someday. So there is a part of us that wants to run away, fearful of contamination. These added fear-based emotions communicate loud and clear to the other person.

In the second sentence above, there is no where to run away to. Karuna is rooted in the knowledge that if it is happening to anyone, it is happening to us. And instead of ‘offering sympathy’, we sit by their side or hold them in our arms, listening with our full attention when they want to talk, and resting in the deep silence when they don’t, all the while surrounding them with loving compassion in our hearts. We keep in the present moment, instead of dragging our own past experiences in to bear, or our fears for the future. In this way, we can stay along for the ride on the roller coaster of their emotions, wherever it takes them. We can let go of our desire to have an agenda or a playbook.

When needed, we may do whatever practical things we can to ease their burden, freeing them for a while to be with their own experience. We don’t pretend to know what that experience is, but we stand with them as witness to it. We ‘have their back,’ lending our strength to their present needs.

Like all the Brahmaviharas, karuna is naturally arising, most often a result of the regular practice of meditation. It is a state of being that cannot be donned like a costume and acted out. Still, it is good to be aware of it so that when it arises within us we can know it and feel gratitude for such a bountious gift in our lives.

Meditation & The Four Brahmaviharas

In the last post I talked about gratitude and how the gratitude we have for temporal things – possessions, relationships, situations – is rooted in fear. This fear I suggested is like a hard cakey soil that isn’t able to offer any nourishment. Whatever is planted there grows distorted and has a tortured look about it. Fortunately, this hard cake of fear is just a shallow crust on the surface. Just below it is a deep nourishing rich soil we can access through regular meditation. When our gratitude is more deeply rooted in that richer soil, we are able to grow strong, resilient, and authentic.

But what is this rich soil below the surface? Well, if in this analogy the shallow layer is fear, then the rich soil is love: A spacious love without boundaries. A rich soil nourishes all roots. It doesn’t favor one plant over another. And this love is the same. This love is infinite.

In Buddhism, this infinite love is called metta. We focused on metta in August, and you can read more about it in the archive.

Metta is the first among equals in the Four Brahmaviharas. Bramavihara is a Pali word meaning heavenly abode. An abode is a dwelling place, in this case a dwelling place for our consciousness, or a state of being.

The Four Bramaviharas are ‘heavenly’ because they are states of well being, in which we are able to see beyond the illusionary boundaries that seem to divide us, and we can feel ourselves held in the infinite embrace of loving awareness.

The Four Brahmaviharas are: Metta/lovingkindness, Karuna/ compassion, Mudita/sympathetic joy and Upekkha/equilibrium.

Each of these states of being are the fruits of the practice of meditation. As you practice you may begin to notice your heart softening so that it is easy to feel loving kindness towards people you previously found difficult to tolerate. You may find yourself letting down your defenses and accessing a level of compassion that you had not dreamed possible. You may surprise yourself that you feel truly happy for someone else, even when they obtain a prize you had sought. And you may find that your practice has brought more balance into your life, so that you can be more skillful in stressful situations and not be so tormented when life seems to throw you a curve.

These states are not something we can achieve through will power or determination. They are not something we can force upon ourselves or scold ourselves into. When we attempt to do so, our efforts are shallowly rooted in that hard cake soil of fear: Fear that we are not good enough as we are, fear that people won’t like us if we don’t exhibit these traits. Anything rooted in that shallow hard cake soil of fear will be distorted and won’t nourish us or anyone around us. When we let go of our striving to attain these states, and simply stay with our intention to maintain a regular practice of meditation, we are more likely to begin to experience them – at first in brief glimpses, then small but more regular doses, until we find ourselves in them more often than not, and finally, the Buddha says, our suffering ceases and we can dwell in these heavenly abodes as our normal condition.

Notice that, like deep gratitude, these states all are infinite in nature.

METTA – loving kindness
This infinite source is radiant like the sun, shining on all. When we access its infinite we are free to be generous with our loving kindness, rather than meting it out to those who we think most deserve it as if from a small precious reserve. In this sweet web of life, where would we draw the line? Why would we withhold our own capacity to nourish and heal from any being?

KARUNA – compassion
From this infinite source compassion wells up within us. Knowing that pain and suffering is a part of the human experience, we do not turn away from it but anchor ourselves in the infinite source and extend our compassion in a fearless open loving embrace.

MUDITA – sympathetic joy
From this infinite source we rejoice in the good fortune of others, for we deeply know that all is one, and joy is contagious and bountiful. From this perspective we can see more clearly that no person’s good fortune is stolen at our expense, and that no human being has a life devoid of pain, no matter how perfect their life may seem to us.

UPEKKA – equanimity
From this infinite source we find ourselves rooted so deeply no storm can knock us down. We find our awareness is so spacious that we can hold great sorrow and great joy in the same moment. We are able to be fully present for whatever arises and see it as it is.

So as we explore these individually in the coming weeks, keep in mind that they are not goals but gifts. Let them rest lightly in your awareness as you rededicate your intention to maintain a regular meditation practice.