Monthly Archives: February 2009

Eightfold Path: All Speech, No Action?

As we move from discussing Right Speech to discussing Right Action, let’s pause at the conjunction of the two. Where in our lives are we talking about something but not doing anything about it? Perhaps we have strong opinions about something that we are only to happy to voice, but we don’t act upon them. We don’t use whatever skills we have to bring about the change we see as necessary.

Or perhaps we talk a lot about what we plan to do, putting words to our fantasies, but after a while people realize that they are only that, just fantasies, not plans that we will actually fulfill.

When we are paralyzed, unable to act, yet continually complain about the way things are or fantasize about the way we want them to be, we are ineffectual, inauthentic, and let’s face it, annoying. We cause suffering to ourselves and to those who must listen to our continual harangue. Our expressions of dissatisfaction have become a habit that we may not even be aware of. They become black holes that suck out our energy and leave us feeling powerless. People don’t like to be around us because they don’t want to be sucked into the black hole.

Perhaps our harangue is fueled by what we hear on the radio. Since what the speaker says resonates with some fear-rooted anger within us, we are ready to believe what we hear, and we may repeat it, spreading the fear with a sense of authority that is based on hearsay. The people we draw to us are others who are rooted in fear, who resonate with the despair and anger of our words, and are fueled by it. Then we wonder why we are surrounded with such angry challenging friends.

Without questioning what we hear, without making any effort to confirm it with other sources, we mindlessly spew out this information like gossip to pepper a conversation, instead of exploring how, if this is a real concern, we can be effective agents of change. This is a kind of purgatory of the mind where suffering is endless.

But before we rush out to ‘walk the walk’ of our talk, we need to be sure our planned actions will be skillful. For this we can do a little self-exploration. We bring our full consciousness to our judgments and beliefs. We question them: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Is this statement aligned with my deepest wisdom and my deepest intention? Is it coming from a whole hearted love or is it rooted in divisive fear? If it is indeed aligned and loving, is this concern one I am ready and willing to work to remedy? If so, can I use my creative energy to find skillful means to be useful? For example, is there an existing organization working on this issue where I can volunteer or at the very least send funds? If it is a fantasy for myself, can I put together a detailed step by step plan of action? And if not can I employ the skills of someone trained in doing so to help me?

If I can’t honestly say I will work toward remedying this situation, can I compassionately let go of my habitual commenting on it? Can I open to the possibility of perceived imperfection being an integral part of this life?

The pursuit of perfection is just one more allure of Mara, trying to keep us from awakening. Seduced by the pursuit, we feel we can’t really live until everything is ‘just right.’ We are holding out for a certain level of satisfaction when all aspects of our lives or the world are perfectly aligned with our personal preferences or our greater global vision. But nothing can ever be just right, it can only be as it is. True awakening happens in this moment, seeing the integral nature of existence, seeing through the drama, the violence, the pain, the boredom, and recognizing the infinite beauty that permeates it all – the patterns, the cycles, the seasons.

The answers that arise out of a spacious, calm honest exploration will provide either acceptance of the way things are or a means to be an effective agent for change. Either way, we have skillfully alleviated some suffering in ourselves and those around us.

Eightfold Path: Right Speech, Part Two

Since every situation is different, we may feel that coming up with Right Speech is near impossible. We need to think on our feet. We don’t have time to ponder what would be the most perfect skillful words to say.

If we are rooted in Right View and Right Intention, then pausing briefly to take a breath and bring our awareness fully in the present moment, is sufficient to assure us that the words we speak will be as skillful, heartfelt and timely as possible.

But we are human and we misspeak at times. Right Speech will not spout forth from our mouths just because we’ve heard a dharma talk and agree with the concepts in principal. Buddhist practice is an ongoing experiential exercise in learning how to access our deepest understanding.

All of the aspects of the Eightfold Path are life-long practices of awareness. Expecting that suddenly, having heard about Right Speech, we will know the perfect words for every situation is just one more way to cause ourselves suffering. But as we develop greater awareness through our practice, we may begin to notice our words. And this noticing is a great leap toward Right Speech.

We may also notice the variety of causes and conditions that can affect our speech. If we find ourselves babbling, we can notice if we are nervous, excited or if we are experiencing any biological fluctuations, energetic or hormonal, that may be influencing our speech patterns. As we notice, we can focus on our body sensations including the breath. This focus on sensation will help us to be fully present in the moment. Skillful speech might be giving ourselves a rest from speaking all together by asking the other person(s) a question, and then practicing being present as we really listen to their answer.

For most of us this is a new and challenging activity. No one has yet invented a mechanical filter to attach to our throats to assure Right Speech. Fortunately we do have some tools to work with: We have our intention to meditate regularly. We have our intention to bring our attention to the present moment every time we notice that our minds are stuck in the past or the future. And we have our intention to be as kind as we are able to be to ourselves and others.

If we practice honoring our intention, we can trust that our minds will become more spacious and peaceful over time. Then our speech will attune to this state, and be more rooted in the truth of our experience, more anchored in the present moment, and more filled with our growing sense of caring and compassion.

Of course, we are so used to instant gratification of our desires – if only we could charge enlightenment on a credit card! – that we may become frustrated when our minds keep falling into old habits of seeing and thinking. At the moment that we notice we have the opportunity to bring ourselves back to the present moment where expectation and disappointment find it difficult to take root, for they thrive on leaning toward the future and dwelling in the past. We’ve all had the painful experience of saying or hearing words dredged up from disappointment or aligned with expectation. So just this intention to return to the present moment will make us more skillful speakers.

More tools at our disposal are skillful questions with which we can explore our words. Choose any of the following questions that are resonant for you, or create your own:

Are my words reactive or responsive?
(Reactive words often feels defensive, self-protective, justifying our position. Responsive words are spoken from a deeper place and let the person know we have heard them.)

Do my words lean toward connection or separation? Do my words lean toward inclusion or exclusion?

Do I feel tension in my body when I say these words? (If so, what is causing this tension? What am I afraid of?)

Am I speaking from the present moment? (Or am I speaking from past disappointment or future expectation?)

Do I have lingering misgivings about my words? (If so, explore to see if the words you are concerned about were true, useful and timely. Accept this valuable lesson, bring this new awareness to any future conversations, and let this memory go.)

Is what I am saying in harmony with my core values?

Are my words sabotaging me into inaction? Am I saying I can’t do something, I’d like to do something, I want to do something, or I’m trying to do something, instead accessing our awareness of ourselves as connected, expansive, expressions of all that is, and going forth and doing it?

What do I hope to achieve by saying this?

When I’m telling my story, am I using my words to show off or to share?

Do I see the person I am addressing as ‘other’ or even as ‘enemy’? (From this dualistic view, real deep sharing is impossible.)

Questions help to create spaciousness because by questioning our assumptions about the way things are, we free our minds to look at things anew. Answers are all around us, if only we have the right questions with which to explore ourselves and the world.

Happy Metta Day!

Yes, I know it’s Valentine’s Day with all its complex history and delightful rituals, but a day devoted to romance is so limiting. In Mexico it’s called El día del amor y la amistad, Day of Love and Friendship. That’s a little more expansive. If you aren’t in a romantic relationship you don’t have to hole up watching old movies, eating bon bons and grabbing tissues. You can let friends know how much you love them. A nice addition!

But when it comes to love, there’s nothing that can compare with Metta or loving kindness. This radiant well wishing is love from an infinite source. And because it can’t be depleted, we can tap into our natural desire to be generous. We don’t have to pick and choose among the people we know to single out ones who are worthy of sending metta. We send it to everyone, we send it to all beings.

So what would it be like to have this day be about sending metta? Well, first we could give up a lot of expectations around receiving valentines and other displays of romantic affection. We can give up comparing mind around what others are doing for their sweethearts. We can give up worrying about whether what we do is enough to satisfy our sweetheart’s need for acknowledgment of love. And of course, if we aren’t in a relationship, we don’t feel we have to hide away, or find other friends not in a relationship in order to survive the day. In other words we could give up fear, fear of not being loved, fear of not being enough, fear of being misunderstood, fear of being perceived by others as unattractive or unlovable. That’s a whole lot of unpleasantness. How great to let it go!

On Metta Day we just send blessings all day! First we start with ourselves, sensing in to that radiant loving energy, soaking it up as if it were the sun’s rays. A little metta-bathing. The sun doesn’t pick and choose who is worthy to receive its light, and neither does metta. “May I be well.” “May I be happy.” “May I be peaceful.” Any resistance to saying such words to ourselves, spoken or internal, is worthy of noticing. Most likely it is just residue from that old fear-based pattern of thinking. We send metta to the aspect of ourselves that is clinging to fear.

After we feel fully saturated with this loving energy, (or as saturated as we are willing to be at this point) we recognize that we are a conduit for metta. We breathe it into ourselves, accepting it fully, feeling the unconditional quality of this love. And then we breathe it out to the rest of the world. “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be peaceful.” As we go about our day out in the world, we let the metta blessings flow, wordless for the most part yet strongly heard and strongly felt by every person we meet. Every exchange will be sweeter for this loving intention.

And what of our sweetheart, if we have one? Radiant metta, loving from an infinite an unconditional source, is the best gift to any relationship. When two beings meet in metta the love expressed is transformative. And the chocolates taste even better, the flowers look even more beautiful and the time spent together, fully present in the infinite embrace of loving kindness, is a true union of our deepest selves.

So Happy Metta Day! May you be well. May you be happy. May you be peaceful.

Eightfold Path: Right Speech

The third aspect of the Eightfold Path is Right Speech. This is a very challenging one for most of us. When we were kids, we discovered that words are powerful. Even though we said ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me’ we knew even then that wasn’t true. Words can cut, they can scar, they can destroy. We got hurt by them and then perhaps on occasion we turned around and hurt others. As children we might have relished the little power we could find in our lives, and words surprised us with their power. We could make people laugh. We could make people cry. We could make people angry. We could make people look at us and smile. This word stuff was huge!

I remember being eager to grow up because it seemed to me that grown ups were generally nicer. They didn’t say cruel things, they didn’t make fun of me. Of course much of children’s talk is not purposely cruel, just bluntly honest, curious and untimely. When they see something different than they are used to, they stare and ask questions. This is appropriate for their main quest in life at their age: to discover this new world they find themselves inhabiting.

As children we may have received some variation on the theme of ‘children should be seen and not heard’ and if we couldn’t say something nice we were told not to say anything at all. If we felt the pressure of those sentiments, we may now as adults find we have a greater resistance to the idea of Right Speech than to any of the other aspects of the Eightfold Path. We want to feel we can speak our truth. We don’t want to be silenced. We may feel that to be quiet is to be dis-empowered, because we recognize that indeed words have power. We want to be able to express ourselves in our own way, and we don’t want our speech to be dictated by some set of rules that might squelch our unique creative expression.

We want to feel absolutely free to say what we want, but then sometimes we end up feeling terrible when our thoughtless words leave destruction in their wake. Words have power. We know this is to be so, but still we find ourselves occasionally talking without thinking, talking in ways that are harmful to ourselves or others.

And at that point, even if we have resisted the idea of Right Speech, we can appreciate it as a valuable tool for reflection. It, like the other aspects of the Eightfold Path, is not a rule but a guidepost to light our way out of the murky mire of our guilt over having misspoken. “Why do I feel so miserable?” we ask ourselves. The guidepost of Right Speech reminds us that unskillful speech can cause misery, and we might want to review the speech we’ve been using, asking ourselves,” Was what I said true, useful and timely?” for these are the three criteria of Right Speech. If we are feeling miserable, chances are we can’t answer ‘yes’ to all three.

With the regular practice of meditation our mind becomes more spacious so that we can see our thoughts and hear our speech more clearly. This spaciousness has given us at least glimpses of Right View (sensing in to our deep connection), and has brought us into alignment with Right Intention (to be fully present in the moment and to be kind to ourselves and others.) So now we can see more clearly whether our words are rooted in Right View and Right Intention, and are therefore most likely to be true, useful, kind and timely. Or whether they are rooted in fear, from a view of ourselves as separate and in need of defending. These fear-rooted words are weapons. They have been crafted to cut or to block out. Becoming aware of the roots of our words is vital in developing a natural and authentic expression that is true, useful, timely and kind, i.e. Right Speech.

Through trial and error we find our way, allowing our errors to be valuable learning experiences. Beating ourselves up about it every time we mis-speak is not Right Speech, but only compounds our errors. Acknowledging what we have done and being compassionate with ourselves as we gain personal insight into the ways in which we have misused words, is an ongoing practice. We have habitual patterns of speech that have the power of a lifetime worth of energy behind them, so we need to be patient with ourselves if from time to time we slip back into unskillful ways of expressing ourselves.

At the heart of Right Speech is deep listening, settling into the moment fully, accessing that deeper vaster vantage point of connection, so that we can truly hear what the other person is saying. If our mind can let go of planning what we will say next and truly stay with the conversation as it unfolds, we create a safe environment for honest exchange.

By being in the moment, we are less likely to say “You always do this” or “You never do that.” Instead we might sense into our body to gauge our emotional state and express our truth grounded in this moment. The “I feel…” statements that will naturally arise out of this kind of inner awareness are more useful and timely than accusatory statements that dredge up grudges from the past.

When we are fully present in this moment we are not rushing to the next appointment, or thinking about what to make for dinner. So we are better able to listen with full attention and patience, and take the time to speak with consideration and a full heart.

To develop Right Speech with others we need to really listen to how we talk to ourselves. Are we rude, scolding, name calling, or diminishing ourselves in some way? If we spoke to someone else that way, would we expect them to want to be around us? If we spoke that way to a child, would it be abuse? Does our self talk seem comfortable because it’s what we heard as children?

If so, we must remember that our adult self is here now to see more clearly and to set boundaries when we are abusive in our language. How can we possibly expect to speak with kindness to others if we are constantly speaking so cruelly to ourselves?

As we begin to consider incorporating Right Speech into our lives, let’s bring metta into the mix. Metta/loving kindness is the radiance that helps this guidepost cast a much brighter light. If we send metta to ourselves saying, “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be peaceful,” our interior conversations are more likely to be kind, if only because the contrast between this well-wishing message and our usual rudeness is so sharp that it makes us aware that we are taunting ourselves as cruelly as any playground bully or critical parent ever did.

Developing kindness in our interior speech comes from the wise understanding that we are acceptable because we are an integral part of all that is. No exceptions. Metta is like the sun, shining on all equally. The sun doesn’t pick and choose who is worthy of its light. Nor does metta. It doesn’t matter if you think you are deserving. There is nothing you have to do to receive the absolute blessing of Metta.

So we begin with ourselves, using metta to set the tone of our inner dialog. We use our awareness to begin to notice the kind of language we are using towards ourselves, the predictions of failure, the ‘I told you so’s when we fulfill our own negative expectations. With our increasingly spacious awareness we see the tight tangle of our thoughts become looser, so that individual thought threads become more visible. We can follow them back to their roots. If they are statements of judgment, if they are enemy-making, if they make us feel tension in our body, they are rooted in fear.

And what is fear? Fear is simply a momentary forgetfulness of our true nature. Fear rises up because we feel separate. Feeling separate, of course we feel we need protection. We are not aware that our fear draws to us exactly what we fear. It excites the energy of fear in others and they respond in ways that further exacerbate the situation, confirming our worst fears.

Metta practice is something we can do whenever we recognize fear arising. Metta awareness is one of the fruits of the practice, one of the Four Brahmaviharas (heavenly abodes), but it is also a gateway into Right View or Wise Understanding. It is particularly valuable in developing Right Speech because it uses words.

When we begin a conversation with others, we can send them metta as well. The briefest pause at the beginning of a conversation to take a breath, bring ourselves fully into the moment and send out metta to the other person, can make all the difference.

When we understand our connection to each other, when we see that we are one with this great infinite energy, we can release our fears, our clenched fists and jaws, so our words don’t build fortresses but celebrate the connection we feel. And when we remember our intention to be kind and to be fully present in the moment, we are much more likely to speak from a sense of deep connection, and our words will be true, valuable and timely.

As you can see, by practicing Right View and Right Intention we are more likely to use Right Speech, We are more able to discern whether what we want to say satisfies the three criteria of being true, useful and timely. If it is not, then silence is the better choice. But this is a very different silence from the zipped mouth we imagine. Because if we have Right View and Right Intention we have a quiet loving presence that doesn’t need the power of words to communicate. We are not in need of a power tool to accomplish a task. We are in need of nothing more than what we have – our full awareness of the present moment, our full understanding of our own deep connection to all that is.

If you have ever been on a silent retreat, you know how delicious it is (especially if you are a talkative person) to simply give up speech all together. To just let it go of all that potential for misunderstanding and simply be fully present in the moment with no agenda except to be fully present in the moment.

Of course, we still have our interior talk. And being able to hear our various inner voices and all their discussions, advice, scolding, etc. is a real gift to ourselves. On a silent retreat this inner discussion may feel amplified because it’s the only show in town. No radio, TV, books, internet, MP3 player, or exchanges with others. Just this. Whoa! A real opportunity for inner discovery! A real opportunity to send metta to ourselves, metta to all the raging aspects within us, metta to the wondrous natural world we inhabit, metta to our teachers and our fellow retreatants – the wonderful sangha (community) that shares this dedicated practice to awaken to this moment, to awaken to understanding our deep connection, to awaken to awareness.

Eightfold Path: Right Intention, Part Two

I mentioned in the previous post that as meditators and Buddhist practitioners we have three main intentions: First to develop a regular practice, second to return again and again to the present moment, and third to practice kindness to ourselves and others. In this post we will explore these three intentions in a little more and find useful means to help keep our intentions.

Intention: To develop a regular meditation practice
Setting the intention to develop a regular practice involves first recognizing that the practice is valuable. To the degree that we have already practiced, in a class or retreat, we may have begun to notice a subtle or perhaps significant change in our lives. This recognition of the gift of meditation sparks the desire and fosters the discipline to maintain a regular practice.

Setting up a regular practice requires a few practical decisions. Where, when and for how long will we practice?

Choosing a place to practice in your home, you will want to find somewhere you can sit comfortably erect where you will not be disturbed. Many people find creating a specific space is useful in reminding them to practice – everything set up just so. But this is a very portable practice, and place is ultimately not that important. Sitting in the airport waiting for a flight is as good a place as any. But in this tender time of developing a regular practice, designating a specific spot in your home and setting out reminders – a zafu cushion, an altar, a bell, for example, can be visual aids to remind you to practice. But place alone is not enough.

Setting a specific time that works best in your daily schedule and keeping that date with yourself no matter what is very important. Let meditation be the non-negotiable focal point of your day, and work everything else around it. For many, first thing in the morning is the best time. It’s usually quiet, easy to be alone while others sleep or have already left for the day, and is less likely to be interrupted by phone calls or doorbells. Usually the mind is not yet full of the day’s story, making the sitting easier. If mornings are a busy time for you, you can either get up earlier so you can have the time, or choose another time of day that works best, not just on some days but every day. Right before bed is another time of day that is usually available, but it is more challenging as most of us are inclined to fall asleep.

Setting a length of time for your practice is also important. Ideally you want to meditate for 30 – 40 minutes, or twice a day for 20 minutes each. There are no hard and fast rules on this, but its important that when you set a time you keep it. If you are new to meditation, starting with ten minutes, then working up to a longer meditation is a good way to go. You can set a timer to help you stay with the meditation.

Taking your personal practice seriously can be challenging at first. You are not used to sitting in silence with your eyes closed, and when your thoughts wander you might actually physically begin to wander, acting upon a thought of something you have to do. Be kind to yourself during this adjustment period, but don’t give up! When you find yourself reaching for the phone or standing at the refrigerator door, with great compassion but firmness bring yourself back to your practice.

Intention: To be fully in the present moment
In our practice we find ourselves lost in thought and we bring ourselves gently back to an awareness of the breath and sensations in the body. In our daily lives we can also use this embodiment practice, just sensing in to our general sense of aliveness, as well as to any specific sensations. We can run our hand against a texture – a rough fabric, a smooth stone, the bark of a tree. We can listen to sounds without attaching story to them that leads us into memories. We can look around us with fresh eyes, noticing light and shadow, pattern, color, varying levels of detail, etc. – using our artist eyes even if we never intend to paint what we see. We can really taste our food as we eat, savoring the melding flavors.

To help you stay in the moment notice when you are multi-tasking and decide which thing you will stop doing and which you will continue to do right now. Giving full attention to whatever we are doing is necessary in order to stay in the moment.

Notice when you are doing something out of habit, i.e. mindlessly. We want to bring mindfulness to all our doings. For some people it helps to turn habits into rituals. Think Japanese tea ceremony and the possibility of bringing a beauty and artfulness into making the bed, brushing your teeth, washing up, and cooking. On retreat we each have yogi jobs in which we learn to be mindful while doing simple useful tasks. It changes everything to have these daily duties change from things to be gotten through before ‘real life’ begins to being the essence of life well and fully lived.

Pay attention to the moments in between ‘real life’: waiting in line, waiting on hold on the phone, waiting at a stop light. See these as opportunities to pause, calm down, sense into the body, to be fully present with all that we see and experience. Don’t waste your time ‘killing time,’ filling these periods with mindless distractions. Each moment is a precious gift if only we can bring our full awareness to it, no matter what is going on.

For more about staying in the moment go to the Archive and read the posts in July 2008.

Intention: To be kind to ourselves and others
Developing kindness begins with noticing how we are treating ourselves and others now. When we are nice to people, is it an act or our true feelings being expressed? When it’s an act, then it’s not kindness, not a true caring. Instead it’s using kindness as a tool to keep ourselves safe from potential harm, or using it to obtain a desired result. That’s not really kindness at all.

If this false kindness is our modus operandi, once we know people, we may feel we can let down our guard. And because we see kindness as a shield or a tool, we might feel we can set down our shield and let our true feelings out. Perhaps we misinterpret a sense of connection as entitlement to impose our opinions, or we think we are creating intimacy by being (maybe teasingly) abusive. We may treat the ones we love with less respect, because for us respect is based in fear, and we no longer fear them. We may feel we have a certain shorthand together so we can skip the niceties of please and thank you. Or perhaps we feel that those close to us should understand us and we shouldn’t have to be kind.

These kinds of interactions with others are usually about power, and the need for power is rooted in fear. So when we stop to listen to how we talk to ourselves in our minds, it’s not surprising to find we are calling ourselves names and beating ourselves up at every turn. Rooted in fear, seeing the world as a dangerous place and ourselves as bumbling idiots making mistake after mistake, it is almost impossible to be truly kind.

True kindness stems from the Right View, from that shift of vantage point from seeing ourselves as separate in need of creating a protective fortress and operating our of fear, to seeing ourselves as an integral part of the universe, as interconnected with all life. We see that we are yet another expression of the loving creative mystery.

Once we make this shift – even a brief glimpse of this wise understanding can transform a whole life, the way one drop of something can flavor a whole glass of water – then we can become the natural conduits of the loving energy (metta/loving kindness) that flows through and around us, previously unnoticed.

This is vital understanding. We have all experienced the ‘kindness’ of people whose body language spoke otherwise, and we have felt the discomfort of that dishonesty. From our deeper more spacious vantage point, we can have compassion for them. Because we can imagine how they treat themselves, how cruel their inner conversation must be. We know because we have experienced it ourselves.

In order to develop true kindness, we must start with ourselves. We will explore this more fully in an upcoming post on Right Speech as we notice the language we use when we talk to ourselves. But there is much more about loving kindness/metta in the August 2008 posts. Check the archive.

Setting these three simple intentions will radically enhance your life. Start with one of them, the one that resonates most deeply right now, and begin. Then begin again. No matter how many times you lose the intention, it is there for you. Keep it alive. Write it down and put it some place you will come across it often. Explore it with as much spaciousness and compassion as you can. The rewards are infinite, and absolutely free!