Monthly Archives: June 2009

Summer Solstice: Mindfulness & Metta

The summer solstice, when the nights are shortest and the days are longest, brings to my mind two aspects of Buddhist meditation practice.

The first aspect is mindfulness, the joyful ability to fully inhabit the present moment. Staying in touch with the seasons helps to keep us present. The changing seasons teach us so much about the nature of letting go and opening anew to whatever arises. By staying fully present we can learn to graciously accept whatever nature offers in the way of temperature, light and moisture.

Most of us have preferences when it comes to seasons. We look forward to our favorite season and our anticipation of it can take us away from noticing what is true right now. Or perhaps we dread another season, and our knowledge that it is coming may affect our ability to enjoy what is here and now, the season we claim to love. Most celebrations of the winter solstice are focused on the return of the light. Summer solstice would then be about the return of the darkness. For each coming day will be shorter than the last, until there we are back in darkness.

As practitioners of the present, we live with that knowledge as it streams through our awareness, just as we live with the knowledge that we and everyone we know will die some day, we don’t know when; that life can turn on a dime; and that change is the only constant. We hold this awareness in an open embrace as well. Whatever fear arises around it we also acknowledge with friendliness to whatever degree we are able.

We practice being present to what is and letting go of the past, which despite all our efforts cannot be done over. We stay in the present and let go of trying to predict the future. At first our attempts to stay fully present may feel like standing on the head of a pin, it’s such an unstable awareness. But eventually this foundation of the present widens and supports us more fully. The regular practice of meditation with the intention of staying fully present, guiding ourselves gently with great compassion back to this moment just as it is, develops this ability.

During summer solstice with its long warm days, nature is teeming with life and growth. We too may feel ourselves opening and expanding, entering a time of relaxation and/or easy bountiful productivity. With our days so full of light, we may be reminded of our own lighthearted nature. Laughter may come more easily, bubbling up from within. Or the contrast between the lightness of the world and our own inner turmoil, sadness or fear, may be so pronounced, it helps to illuminate our experience and our resistance to our experience. We may be drawn to walk in nature and open ourselves to the teachings all around us.

By being attuned to the seasons, present and aware of the subtle incremental changes day by day and week by week, we may notice our own inner seasons as well. There are seasons for reflection and seasons for outgoing activity. Seasons of darkness when exploring our inner mysteries is rich and satisfying. And seasons of light when just being a joyful part of nature is rich enough.

Another aspect of Buddhist meditation that comes to mind for me especially at this time of year is how the infinite radiance of the sun is like the infinite radiance of metta, loving kindness. Like the sun, metta shines on all indiscriminately, not just on those who are ‘worthy’ or ‘lovable.’ This radiance is not something we have to earn. It is our birthright to feel the sun on our skin when it shines. It is our birthright to feel the infinite loving kindness of the universe supporting us. And it is our intention as meditators to be conduits for that radiant loving energy, offering it without the filter of judgment to all beings everywhere.

Being a conduit of metta is a lovely way to be in the world. We don’t have to struggle so hard to control our experience because we have the best thing we can offer to any situation: loving kindness. At first we might think this is just a kiss off, an easy out, but metta is transformative. It paves the way for challenging conversations to become deep, heartfelt and connecting. It can help us sense in to what is truly needed rather than getting caught up in promoting ourselves as heroes, or habitually trying to adjust the world to our particular wave length. It opens us up to the possibility of the co-existence of multiple viewpoints. There may be more we are moved to offer in certain situations, but our offering is powered by the infinite radiance of metta that prompts a burgeoning sense of generosity.

Sending metta to ourselves when we get upset helps us let go of a story that might have ruffled our feathers and kept us unsettled for hours, days or years! It is empowering and releasing at the same time.

So those are the two aspects that come to mind for me: attuning to the seasons to develop our ability to stay present, and sending metta to ourselves and others with the infinite radiance of the sun.

By being present with the changes of the seasons, we can break out of the bondage of our habitual nature. We can celebrate the summer solstice by rising earlier in the cool of the day to enjoy the fresh morning, relaxing in the heat of the afternoon, and by getting out and enjoying the extended evening light. By recognizing that we are loved, have always been loved and will always be loved, held in the buoyancy of infinite metta, we can be infinitely generous with sharing loving kindness with the world, holding it in an open embrace.

I wish all of you a joyous (and slightly belated due to when I post my dharma talks) summer solstice!

Meditation & Creativity: Process vs. Product

We have been talking about creativity and the challenges to getting into a free flowing creative mode. We are exploring the subject from various angles that have some overlap because different people resonate to different approaches.

Last week we talked about shifting from a limited exhaustable (and exhausting!) finite source into accessing the infinite, the bottomless spring of universal creative energy.

This week we will focus on another shift we need to make if we are to embrace and sustain creative life. The challenge here is to see ourselves and our creativity more clearly, because the myopic view prescribed by our culture gets in the way of being able to step into the flow of true creativity.

Prescribed by our culture? Yes. I spent a decade in advertising writing prescriptions, and I saw how advertising, with the goal of getting us to buy something, very effectively convinces us that we are somehow lacking. Since advertising is all around us, we have grown up under the collective cloud of believing that we are in need of improvement, that we are products ourselves.

We may be following a spiritual path with the hope of self-improvement, striving to get to the point where we can say, “There, now I can be happy with who I am.”

Even as we recognize the crazy fallacy of this idea, we don’t know how to opt out of it because we are so deeply habituated to believing we are lacking. We strive to gain self-acceptance, to weed out this faulty belief that we are a self-improvement project, only to find that we are even more deeply entrenched. It’s like one of those Chinese woven finger puzzles where the more you try to pull, the tighter it holds onto your fingers. Because pulling, the obvious choice, is not in this case the right effort.

In this same way we struggle to like ourselves just as we are until we can struggle no more. We give up, exhausted. In the aftermath of giving up our struggle, in the burnt out emptiness of our inner devastation, having given up the fight, having laid down our weapons, having surrendered to the impossibility of our struggle, then, in that stillness, we may begin to notice what is true in our experience right now. We may notice our body sensations, the sights and sounds around us, the emotions and thoughts that pass through us. Aha!

We have been practicing accessing this state of passive awareness, where we see clearly the hopes, fears and stories that storm through us. Perhaps we judge them, then notice the judgment. We bring as much compassion as we can manage to our own experience. And we create a compassionate space to experience whatever arises, even our least compassionate thoughts.

This practice of meditation is a practice. It is an ongoing process, and it is all about the process itself, in each moment, and not about some end product of liberation or enlightenment. Because the liberation that is possible is in each moment, not at the end of some path. The enlightenment is lost when we strive for it.

Now what does all this have to do with creativity. Well, as long as we believe we are products, how can we not believe that anything we create is even more of a product. And then, if we sell what we create, it is impossible not to take into account the marketing aspect of what we do.

But for creativity to truly thrive within us, if we are to access the infinite source instead of the finite depletable one, then we need to stay present in the moment of creating, present and fully engaged in the process.

The minute we think of it as product, we are projecting into the future. We are imagining other people looking at it, and that can send the chilly finger of fear into us, knocking us out of the infinite and into the fear-based finite shallow safety-seeking depletable mode. The infinite is only accessible from the present. Thinking of our creativity as a product knocks us out of the present. It’s as simple as that. The fear shuts us down, clams us up and maybe even causes us to abandon our passion.

In a poetry workshop I took with Prartho Sereno at College of Marin, we did many in class writing exercises to free ourselves from the confines of the finite source. And I found it incredibly helpful to remind myself ‘This is just an exercise.” I was freed of worrying about what I was writing being a Poem with a capital P and calligraphic script and all the other encumbrances that would make it a product to be read, discussed and criticized. So now whatever I am writing, I tell myself it’s just an exercise.

So what about marketing? Well, that’s just a different process. That’s a process that happens after we are done with a series of exercises in which we have thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The process of marketing is all about sharing a passion, communicating and opening to connection. Whether you are reading a poem at a mike, sending slides to a gallery or serving up your newest recipe to your friends, this too is process. Staying in the process we bring to it our full attention, noticing the fearful thoughts, the hopes and dreams, and having compassion for ourselves. Staying in the process, we nurture ourselves when we are feeling vulnerable. Staying in the process we remember that we ourselves are not products to be judged, that we are like drops of water briefly dancing above the oceans depths where we will soon return. Staying in the process we accept the challenge of sharing that which is joyful in us with a loving generosity to the world. This is what Buddhist teacher Philip Moffett so aptly calls “Dancing with Life.”

I have had a lifetime of struggles with this theme of product vs. process. But there are moments where the struggle falls away, where the process itself is so powerful that my resistance, my misgivings, my fears of failure and ridicule evaporate for a time. And when they rain down again another day, as they are prone to do, I bring as much compassion and awareness as I can muster. Again and again.

That is the practice.

Meditation & Creativity: Finite & Infinite

Having explored our own experience of creativity and what might be sabotaging our ability to begin or continue to create without beating ourselves up, now we will begin a discussion of a few common challenges to living a full, open and creative life. Over the course of these discussions, beginning today with ‘finite and infinite,’ you may see some commonalities and overlap. This is because all the things that sabotage our creativity and our lives in general are rooted in fear. We will explore the variations on the theme because you may relate to one way of seeing this fear arising more strongly than another.

Finite & Infinite
What could this mean in the context of what we are discussing?
Many of us are operating from a finite source within ourselves. We border on exhaustion because the energy we tap into is finite and easily depleted. Does this resonate with you? It isn’t a physical exhaustion, though it can manifest there as well. It is usually more a sense of being overwhelmed and never being enough.

So what do we do when we have a finite resource? The intelligent response would be to conserve it, budget it out. Naturally we become a little stingy with this energy as we feel it depleting so rapidly. This stinginess causes us to tighten up, to cling to what we have for fear of losing what little is left. This tightness causes tension in our words, our brush strokes and our interactions with others.

But what if instead of drawing on a finite resource, our metaphorical oil reserves, we could tap into our inner solar energy, our infinite source of creativity and joy?

This shift from finite to infinite resources within us is a natural one that happens as we develop a regular practice of meditation. When we operate from this infinite source we feel enriched in the process rather than depleted. Creating from this source, we feel that we are conduits for something larger than ourselves. You hear people say, ‘The book wrote itself,’ ‘The characters told me what to say,’ or ‘I was painting so in the zone and somehow this is what came through.’ We amaze ourselves when we produce something in this state. Our ego wants to take credit for it but can’t seem to do so, because there is this sense of having plugged in to something, so it’s not ‘ours’ in the small tight judgment-fearing sense of that word.

When we are writing, painting, singing, acting, designing our garden or whatever creative pursuit draws us, we are well aware of this shift. When we are in a finite mode we struggle. When we are in the infinite mode the process feels effortless. When we are in the finite mode we have incessant inner chatter, rude monologues that keep us too terrified to truly engage in the project at hand or keep us questioning the value of anything we do.

When we access that infinite source, we are open channels of creativity. Struggles fall away and are replaced with rich complex engaging challenges that make us feel incredibly alive. We have tapped into something so bountiful we can relax and enjoy it rather than worry about if it, or we, will be enough.

When we make this shift into the infinite, it feels like a blessing that just happened. This state of infinite richness doesn’t feel like something we can access at will. And maybe it’s for the best that we feel this to be true, because to believe otherwise might create a striving for it, which would block the possibility of it.

But when we meditate, by letting go of all striving, we open to that infinite source. It arises our of the quiet, out of our willingness to make space for the unknown, our willingness to be open and receptive and to let go of our need to control our experience. We lay down our defenses and simply accept whatever arises. We let go of the idea that what arises is us and all the judgment that stirs up, and all the fear of judgment by others.

By maintaining a regular practice of meditation, we create conducive conditions for accessing our infinite creative source.

Now when we are in this infinite state we may become so enamored of it that we cling to it, afraid of losing it. And thus it immediately falls away. Our fear of losing it immediately douses the creative flame.

With regular practice we can become more steady in our access to this infinite source. We are more accepting of what is our experience in this moment, regardless of whether it is euphoric or pedestrian, whether we are contented or in pain. This acceptance is not resignation, not ‘oh, whatever.’ It is more awake, alive and juicy than that. Whatever arises is held in loving awareness that has both compassion and curiosity. In our concentration practice we see the transitory nature of all experience. We can discover pure joy, not dependent on causes and conditions. That is the gateway to the infinite.

Now this idea of shifting from a finite source to an infinite source may very well be shifting from left brain thinking to activating the right brain. You may be familiar with Jill Bolte Taylor, the Harvard neuroatomist and author of the book Stroke of Insight, who in 1996 suffered a massive stroke. Her stroke was centered in her left brain, so she was able to really experience the right brain, and because she was studying brains, she saw this as an incredible opportunity to pay attention to her experience. Talk about taking lemons and making lemonade!

She describes the difference between the left brain and the right brain this way:
“The right brain is all about the big picture. It thinks in pictures and it looks at everything as connected. It experiences everything as radiating energy and is intimately connected to the kinesthetic movement and learning of our bodies. It is our intuition, which includes our ability to look at the big picture and see if everything is fitting together in a way that makes sense. It is all about the present moment experience of now.
“The left brain is all about breaking our lives down into details. It thinks in language and uses words to communicate what it is thinking. It thinks linearly and knows that we need to put our socks on before our shoes and why. It is capable of connecting our thoughts with thoughts in our past, giving linearity to our thinking. It is our identity, the cells that say ‘I am an individual’ and these are all the details of my life. It defines things as right or wrong, good or bad.”
Obviously we need both parts of our brain. Each plays a vital role. In her experience of only having the right brain to depend on, she was unable to function in the world, unable to make a phone call or remember what she needed to do next. But in our culture we over emphasize the left brain, and the right brain isn’t exercised and its findings aren’t recognized as valid.
So through meditation practice we are bringing the two hemispheres of our brain back into balance. We are cultivating the ability to access the infinite.

Tibetan Buddhist Exercise: Feeding the Demons

In our Tuesday class we continued to work with our inner critic who keeps us from our truest creative expression. We did an exercise based on the teachings of the American Tibetan Buddhist leader Tsultrim Allione who has taken the wisdom teachings of a 11th century female Tibetan Buddhist teacher Machig Labdrön and developed an experiential exercise called ‘Feeding the Demons.’ (Demons, dragons, Mara — it’s all the same. Don’t get caught up in trying to distinguish between them. They are just imaginary personifications of obsessions, fears, habits, chronic illnesses, addictions, depression, anxiety – all the things that sabotage our highest intentions.)

This powerful exercise, as I said in the last post, goes beyond conversing and negotiating with whatever is sabotaging our highest intention. I have had profound changes in my life made instantaneously by having participated in this half hour exercise. Judging from their faces as they left class yesterday, at least some of my students had profound experiences as well. I encouraged them to make notes and sketches of their ‘demon’ before and after feeding, as this enhances the exercise and its benefits, though is not required.

The basic premise of the exercise is the same as the exercise I developed for myself years ago, as mentioned in the last post: That these saboteurs are well intentioned but unskillful, and doing battle with them just fuels their power to disrupt our lives. As indicated by the title, the answer is to find out what the demons need and how they imagine they will feel when they receive what they need, and then to imagine ourselves as an infinite source of that feeling and imagine feeding it to the demon. Ultimately the sated demon is transformed into something benign or even an ally we can call on when in need. Pretty powerful stuff!

Although I will not talk through the exercise here, here is a link to an article in Tricycle magazine that does so, if you want to try it on your own. Or, better yet, buy Tsultrim Allione’s book titled Feeding Your Demons.

Comments from anyone who has experienced this exercise and would like to share them are invited. Click on ‘comments’ below.