Monthly Archives: July 2009

Yin, Yang & You

This is the Yin Yang symbol. It was developed over 2000 years ago in China by followers of the Tao, a philosophy for leading a richer more meaningful life. It was probably originally created as a teaching tool, and that’s how I will use it here, because this isn’t just some symbol of some foreign religion, but something we can learn from today in order to bring greater balance and understanding to our own lives.

First let’s talk about what we see when we look at this image. It is a circle and this is important. It is the circle of life, whole and complete unto itself. Then within that circle are two swirls, one black, one white. The black one is called Yin and it represents energies that are passive, weak, receptive, soft and dark. The white one is called Yang and it represents energies that are active, strong, hard and bright.

Yin is considered feminine and Yang is considered masculine. This may cause a bit of consternation, because as a woman, I can tell you I don’t feel passive or weak, and I’m not very receptive to the idea of feminine being associated with those words! But wait a minute, this isn’t about gender. This is about energies. If this were being developed today, they would probably choose to talk about the hormones estrogen and testosterone rather than feminine and masculine.

Because all of us, men and women, know what it feels like to have testosterone coursing through us. We feel strong and able, ready to accomplish whatever we put our minds to. And maybe sometimes we feel it as anger, frustration, even an urge to be violent.

Likewise, we all know what it feels like when estrogen flows through us. Perhaps we tear up with empathy at a movie. We feel a sense of connection with others and the world around us, we feel open and curious. But perhaps at times we might feel vulnerable, sad and weepy.

So we understand that women are not all Yin and men are not all Yang, that we all feel the effects of both these hormones to varying degrees throughout our lives. Our awareness of these energies helps us to bring them into balance and become more skillful. Chinese medicine and martial arts are all about this balancing of the yin and yang within us.

So this symbol of the Yin and the Yang is about opposites. We know a lot about opposites in our culture. When presented with opposites, we are geared to take sides, to choose one over the other. We root for teams, we get caught up in limiting ourselves to either/or decisions, and we define ourselves by our preferences. We might say, “I like summer better than winter.” By locking ourselves into choosing, we lock ourselves out of appreciating the fullness, the entirety of this earthly life. We doom ourselves to being dissatisfied at least part of the time.

But doesn’t the Yin Yang symbol confirm this point of view? When you really look at this symbol you notice that there is more to it than just two swirls. Within each swirl is a small circle of the opposite. This is not just an artistic decision to make a pretty design. This is the real message within the Yin Yang symbol.

When you look at the symbol, think of it not as a static image but as one frame in a continuous loop of the movie of life. A few frames beyond this one we are looking at, you would see that the little white circle and the little black circle are growing. In each subsequent frame they each grow and grow until the black swirl becomes white and the white swirl becomes black, and then small dots of the opposite emerge within them, and so forth and so on in an endless fluid motion. The Yin and the Yang are continuously merging and separating and merging again.

I mentioned that this was the movie of life. Yes! Look around you! Here we are in the middle of the day in the middle of summer. In twelve hours it will be in the middle of the night. In six months it will be the middle of winter. But night doesn’t suddenly appear. It makes its coming known, just like the growing dark dot within the white swirl. We feel it in our own bodies that are a little more tired than they were this morning, and in the slant of the sun and the shadows cast. Likewise, even in the middle of this hot dry season, the cool wet season makes itself known. The rolling hills covered with dry grasses call out to the coming rains. We feel the changes as they come, if we are paying attention.

And so it is within ourselves. If we are paying attention, really noticing our experience, we notice the growing of the opposite within ourselves, and within our current situation. How does this serve us? Well, say we are in an unhappy situation, things are going badly, we aren’t well or we have suffered a terrible loss. How great is it to become aware that within this very situation, there is a seed of change, a kernel of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel? “This too shall pass,” is an expression that the Yin Yang symbol embraces.

Yes, but what about when we’re in a good place, in a good relationship for example. Why would we ever want to think about it changing, of losing our loved one? Well, we all know the truth already. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all know that life is temporal, that we will all die, that nothing stays the same. That change is the only constant. It’s just the way it is. No point in kidding ourselves about it.

Brutal? Well, maybe. But when we allow that potential for change to be a small but acknowledged part of our experience, we are able to fully be present for the joy of our lives. We are able to really appreciate our loved ones rather than take them for granted. We can open to our experience, savor it for what it is, and stay present for the ways in which it changes.

This is why the Yin Yang symbol is valuable to us today. When we see it, maybe on jewelry, a poster or flag, we can take a moment to reflect on its message for us, and open fully to the ever-changing nature of this temporal life.

And we can also expand our awareness beyond this small circle that represents our earthly experience, beyond the dance of opposites merging and separating, and rest in infinite spaciousness, in the oneness of all that is.

If you are interested in learning more about the Tao, I highly recommend the very accessible book the Tao de Ching, which is available in many English translations.

Meditation & Creativity: WABI SABI

We have been exploring creativity and I would like bring in the idea of wabi sabi, the Zen Buddhist concept of finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence. Wabi sabi is, in effect, the expression of fully living in the moment brought into the realm of aesthetics. Fully living in the moment we see things as they are, letting go of the overlay of ideals of perfection. We treasure wrinkles, cracks and the patina of age.

I am presenting this in our exploration of creativity because artists instinctively embrace wabi sabi. I remember the uproar among a class of life drawing students when their teacher kept hiring models who were young, slender and flawless. The artists wanted some folds, some wrinkles, something interesting to draw. They wanted variety in age and size. What they didn’t want was something they could have copied out of Playboy magazine.

Although there is nothing wrong with the dewy beauty of youth, when we limit ourselves to only embracing that fleeting moment when a body or a flower is in a state of full blossom, then we are caught in the trap of perfection, and we are promoting this limited view in our art – that only one moment in the life of a flower or the life of a body is beautiful. This makes for very stagnant art and a life full of constant dissatisfaction as we cling to such a limited view. In other words Dukkha!

This is equally true in writing as in the visual arts. A character with quirks, flaws, imperfections is a delight to write about and read. A character without foibles is a character that feels surface and not fully drawn. We instinctively know that no one is perfect, nor would we want them to be.

We have been weaving the concept of finite and infinite throughout our exploration of creativity, and here is an excellent example. How finite a view it is to value only perfection, only youth, only symmetry, only sameness! Dip into the infinite beauty of impermanence and you really get into the rich and juicy stuff of creativity.

Nature, the greatest teacher of all, constantly shows us that all is impermanence. Staying connected with nature helps us to befriend this truth. The lush green leaves of spring become the dry yellow leaves we scuffle through on the sidewalk in the autumn. That is not sad, it is simply true. As we age, as family, friends and beloved icons die, this valuable lesson comes home to us again and again. Becoming spacious enough in our hearts and minds to openly embrace the fleeting nature of life is one of the basic benefits of meditation. And having a term like wabi-sabi helps us to celebrate it, even have fun with it.

The word wabi comes from the root word ‘wa’ which means, as I understand it, harmony, tranquility, peace, balance. Sabi means the bloom of time, or all the wondrous transitions that come with aging: Tarnish, rust, etc.

When we bring wabi sabi consciousness to our bathroom mirror, we can develop an appreciation for our lumps, bumps and wrinkles. We can soften our view, lighten up on our constant striving for perfection. Even artists who naturally prefer the beauty of wabi sabi in the world around them can be quite merciless when it comes to their own bodies. But there’s no way around it. Our bodies are imperfect and aging. Can we release for once and for all the filter of the perfect lithe youthful body that was or never was, and lovingly care for our bodies as we would for the fine cracked china inherited from our favorite grandmother? To whatever extent we can release ourselves from the ruthless dictates of that stagnant aesthetic of perfection, we open to the possibility of a joyous life. We can allow the authenticity of our character to shine through, adding luster to our wrinkles and a twinkle to our eyes.

As with all aspects of our practice, this is not a forced transformation but simply noticing our thoughts and emotions. We notice the sour, unkind, miserly view we tend to have of this corporal manifestation where our consciousness resides for now. This noticing sets off a subtle, then not so subtle shift. At some point the ‘shoulds’ start to soften and fall away. Only then do we stand a chance of coming slowly into a state of acceptance, then perhaps even enjoyment of the wabi sabi of our bodies.

A little gratitude practice is always useful here as well. For all its flaws how grateful we are for this body that works so hard and so well for the most part. This body that has carried us through thick and thin. This body that has tolerated so much on our behalf. Yes, gratitude practice helps to put things in perspective.

Now wabi sabi isn’t just about appreciating imperfection. It is also about paring things down to their bare essentials. An artist does this when she looks at a landscape or a figure she wants to paint and then simplifies it on her canvas. She seeks out what speaks to her and composes her painting accordingly. She recognizes what is aesthetically vital to the composition and doesn’t need to duplicate nature in every detail.

We can do this in our lives as well. Paring down our possessions to only what is truly useful, what has a vibrancy in our lives, is a wabi sabi process. D.T. Suzuki described wabi-sabi as “an active aesthetical appreciation of poverty.” He said it is “to be satisfied with a little hut, a room of two or three tatami mats, like the log cabin of Thoreau, and with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall.”

Wabi sabi is finding beauty in simple things, each in their season. As we age, most of us feel this call to simplify, if for no other reason than we don’t want our children to have to be burdened with too much of the detritus of our lives when we die. But even for ourselves, for our own lives, this ongoing process of divesting and simplifying has rich rewards in lifting the weight of concerns. It seems almost to be a biological phenomenon that we do this.

An example from my own life just happened this week. We are in the process of reorganizing our basement storage area, and a lot of what we are doing is reassessing our feelings about these objects we have been storing. One such object is a round oak table that we bought when we were first married. It was stored in the basement of an older couple. They were ready to let it go and sold it to us for $25. That table became the centerpiece of our lives throughout the years when our children were very young. We had our family meals around it. The children did their homework there. We played monopoly, scrabble and yahtzee there. But eventually it was too small to seat our whole family or dinner guests. So for many years now it hasn’t had a central role in our lives, and ultimately it ended up in our basement. None of our children wanted it, so finally I put an ad on e-bay at a reasonable price. No takers. I posted it again asking for ‘Best Offer.’ No takers. Then this week I put ‘Free to Good Home.’ Immediately I heard from a couple in Rohnert Park who drove down Sunday evening and picked up the table. They arrived in their SUV with their two children reading comics in the back seat as we loaded the base into the back and the father Miguel strapped the round top on the roof. And off they went, and I was so happy. The table will once again be central to the lives of a young family, and we are the older couple who is letting go of whatever no longer serves us.

For me there’s beauty in that sense of continuum, our dear oak table finding its new home. And wabi sabi is all about beauty. Here’s a definition of wabi sabi beauty: It’s a mellow beauty that is striking but not obvious, that you can imagine having around you for a long time.

When seen this way, it becomes clear what in our lives has value and meaning, and what we can release so that we can live more simply and with greater authenticity.

It is this word authenticity that keeps coming back to me as I study the concept of wabi sabi. Because it wouldn’t be wabi sabi to buy a table that had been distressed. It’s only wabi sabi when the scars, stains and cracks are authentic, the result of having been fully in the world. Wabi sabi is the beauty of a life lived. It is our stretch marks, our wrinkles, and all the rich living that caused them. It is appreciating what is and letting go of some false inauthentic ideal. It is not just accepting the wear and tear of aging, but celebrating its true authentic beauty.

Meditation: Beyond the Toggle Switch

Sometimes meditators fall asleep, not because they are tired but because the mind sometimes thinks all it has is a toggle switch, either on or off, awake or asleep. The idea of being fully awake and fully present with the eyes closed may make no sense to the mind at first, and as we know habitual behavior dies hard, so even experienced meditators may have resistance to exploring further.

Of course, you can meditate with the eyes open and in Zen Buddhism meditators are trained to have eyes open with a downward unfocused gaze. But even with our eyes closed, we can train our minds to start noticing all the subtle states possible besides simply being awake or asleep.

Yes, this training can be challenging. It is like learning how to be a wine connoisseur when you have no idea why anyone would want to do all that seemingly pretentious sniffing, swirling, sipping, and swishing. As meditators we have the potential to develop the same kind of subtle noticing that the true wine connoisseur is experiencing. And if you have taken the time out of your busy day to sit, you might as well savor it!

The meditation version of sniffing, swirling or sipping is to savor the present moment, creating an open, receptive field of awareness, then noticing what arises – thoughts, emotions, sensations – and opening to whatever is present in our experience with as much compassion and non-judgment as we can manage. Sometimes, especially at first, we may be overwhelmed by the thought or emotion and get lost in it. But at some point we notice we are lost, and then we compassionately set our intention to be present again.

If this whole process eludes you because you fall asleep, then you can give yourself practice in small bits at various times of the day when you know you will not fall asleep. When you are in a waiting room, for example. Close your eyes and simply notice what is. Notice sensation inside your body, notice sounds around you, notice where your energy is, notice any emotions arising, perhaps restlessness and impatience at having to wait. Whatever comes up in this brief little exploration is simply exercise, training the mind to discern the subtleties of experience beyond the on and off of the toggle switch.

Now the concept of a toggle switch has application beyond learning to meditate without falling asleep. When we check out when it comes to bodily sensation rather than sense in, we miss out on vital information, the body’s wealth of wisdom, that can give us guidance in our lives. For example, when we have an important decision to make, our ability to notice if our jaw clenches or our stomach gets queasy at one choice and our heart gladdens and our shoulders lighten at another, allows us to make the right decision with greater ease and better results. Even a decision that looks good on paper can be the wrong decision if our body response is negative. We may find that we sabotage the choice taken because it ‘made sense’ instead of a choice that our senses agreed with. And when we follow the paper trail choice we often cause suffering to ourselves and others. We want to make choices in life that sing clearly throughout our whole body, whole hearted choices that help us thrive.

You may well ask why does the body often have a different take on things than our brains? Our bodies are freed from the concerns about what we think we should do, what others around us would think if we did this, any sense of obligation or guilt, any sense of numbness out of habit. Of course, the body has its own issues, hormones for example, and it isn’t familiar with the law (though it usually is intuitively ethical), so we need to be aware and take that into consideration. We’re not throwing logic or common sense out the window!

For some people this sensing in to the body is difficult. In our culture this ‘touchy-feely’ stuff has been actively discouraged and effectively trained out of us. In this conditioned state, we stay in our heads and steer clear of our senses. The minute we register a hint of pain, the toggle switch in our brain sets off a mental pattern that courses through, pushing panic buttons that say things like, “Oh pain, I hate pain, I remember what pain is, why is this happening to me? How long will this go on? How can I get rid of this pain?” All this happens instantaneously. The very idea of slowing down to sniff, swirl or sip the experience, to sense into the pain seems ludicrous. Instead of checking in with the body, we are conditioned to simply check out. Thus we have incredibly busy brains struggling to find formulaic solutions to problems that the body could help us solve in a moment of sensing in.

Through meditation we relearn the natural skill of sensing in to the body that we have been conditioned to ignore. We may notice that this sensation, previously labeled pain and filed away, is not just one thing, one terrifying concept, but a whole symphony of changing sensations. In this way, we allow ourselves to slow down and learn the language of the body beyond the toggle switch.

When we can’t sense into our bodies in this way, when we shut down when pain hits and go on automatic pilot mode, we are trapped in a tight cage of fear that creates incredible suffering, what in Buddhism is called dukkha. (See January posts on the First Noble Truth.) Shutting down might seem like a good response, a way of self-medicating for the duration. But what about chronic pain? Must we be numbed out forever?

And something else to consider is that when we use this shut down response for pain, we also unfortunately cannot truly experience physical pleasure, because we shut down our ability to be fully sensate in all forms. When the mind is trained to shut down at sensory overload, it doesn’t distinguish pain from pleasure, it is all sensation.

One benefit not much mentioned about meditation is the increasing ability to fully enjoy the sensory pleasures of the body. In the first place, our minds are fully present to enjoy it. We are not making to do lists but fully experiencing the sensation. But also, by intentionally listening in and honoring the body’s wisdom, we avail ourselves of being more intensely aware of every subtle nuance of pleasurable sensation. Sounds good? Meditate regularly!

Now this is not a cult of the body, nor about seeking out pleasure. It is just acknowledging that the body has some wisdom the mind on its own can miss, caught up as it is in synapse patterns of fear. By practicing awareness of the body’s response to our experience and our thoughts, we develop useful tools for coping with the challenges of life. By getting beyond the toggle switch, we see much more clearly all the subtle layers of life.

We have been studying creativity for a number of weeks now, and this idea of the toggle switch has application here as well. Fully inhabiting our bodies allows our creative expression to rise out of felt experience. We can allow the body’s wisdom to help us in choosing a color or a word. We can notice when we are tightening up out of fear, and we can either allow that noticing to be the basis for a creative exploration, sensing in further, asking some questions, noticing associations, or we can offer ourselves some relaxation techniques. Either way we have insight.

In the arts we often explore painful material. Last week I found myself writing a poem about scattering my mothers ashes. When it came time to read the poem in class, I had to turn it over to a classmate to finish, because I was so overcome with tears. Staying in touch with the bodily sensations, I was able to access the experience. Staying in touch with the bodily sensations, I was able to weather the storm of emotion it brought forth without getting lost in it. Even being able to savor it, the bitter sweetness of still missing my mother, and being able to let it go as it passed.

Tapping into the wisdom of the bodily sensations is a rich way of beginning any creative session. Allowing ourselves to really notice what arises, the sensations that come up in response to the thoughts and emotions that stream through. Sensing in, and allowing that process to inform our decisions and our explorations enriches the whole process of creating and of fully living our lives, beyond the limitations of the toggle switch.

The Comparing Mind

I just got back from a camping trip in an area we enjoy around Carson Pass on Highway 88 in the Sierra mountains. We set off for a hike we had taken before, up the trail to Lake Winnamucca. The previous hike had been so glorious that my husband, the artist Will Noble, had come home and commemorated it in paint. (See painting at right) That time there were thousands of species of wildflowers in bloom, literally every inch of hillside was gloriously festooned with color.

On this hike either spring was late or we were early. There were just a few tentative blossoms, mere hints of the wildflower explosion to come. “This will be really something in another month,” my husband said. We were both seeing this beautiful mountainside through the filter of our last experience. Much as we admired the beauty of the snow-capped peak before us, the rushing stream beside us, the rock outcroppings, the towering trees and the brilliant green of new shoots emerging now the snow had melted, we couldn’t seem to free ourselves from the heavy overlay of the vision of loveliness that had so captivated us on our last visit. We remembered how long it had taken us to walk back down the hill because I was stopping every few feet to take another photo of yet another spectacular flower. We remembered that there had been so many other hikers out enjoying the glory of it all that it had been festive and celebrational. Now we had the muddy trail pretty much to ourselves. We tried to enjoy the solitude, but finally decided perhaps with the limited time we had on this trip we might want to try a trail we hadn’t hiked before. And so we turned around half way up to the lake.

It is our nature to compare and contrast experience. It is part of the function of mind to notice similarities and differences. It is a skill set that is useful in decision making. It keeps us from getting stuck staring at a menu or paint chips for hours ad nauseum. But the mind often fails to distinguish when comparitive analysis is useful and when it is unskillful.

My memory of that hillside covered with wildflowers got in the way of my simple enjoyment of the beauty of the moment I was living. But at least I noticed my comparing mind. Years ago I would not have noticed it. I just would have whined and complained and made myself miserable.

Noticing is really all our practice asks of us, noticing with as much compassion as we can bring to ourselves when our minds get caught up in the tangle of preferences. To whatever degree we are able, we bring our attention gently back to the present moment. For in any present moment there are incredible riches to be noticed. You don’t have to be on a mountainside to feel the glory of just being. You can look up from your computer right now and notice the light and shadow, the colors, the textures, the feel of the air on your skin, the sensations in your body. Every single moment fully noticed is illuminated and beyond compare.

When we meditate we often find ourselves comparing this meditation to some other meditation we did before. Perhaps we had some glorious wordless wonder of a meditation where we were in a state of bliss. Lovely. Had we only known we would turn around and use this exquisite meditation as an instrument of torture in every subsequent meditation, it would not have been so blissful!

All we can do is notice our comparing mind and smile at its capacity to get itself caught up in a tangle, like a little kitten in a ball of yarn. “Oh sweetheart, look at you, caught up in the tangle again,” we might say to our mind as we bring ourselves back to the present.

(Yes, we can be that kind. It doesn’t matter if we feel we deserve kindness. It is just the practice. Nothing personal. Be kind! It’s good for you. You don’t have to earn it! It’s free!)

Over the past weeks we have been exploring creativity and the challenges to accessing the bountious flow. Comparing mind is certainly one of those challenges. We compare our creative abilities to others, not just in our immediate circle but artists throughout the ages. I remember in art school my friend saying, “What’s the point? It’s not possible to be original. It’s all been done.”

Sometimes we do feel as if there is no point in adding one more painting, poem or ceramic piece to a world already so full of art. But accessing the creative flow is a rich and glorious experience. Whatever comes out of it is simply by-product. Yes, the world is awash with the by-products of others of our species who have also accessed the creative flow. Imagine it! All that luscious creativity flowing through us all! What a rich festive generous world of wonder!

Is it possible to let go of needing our by-product to be unique, special, best in show? Is it possible to put away the ruler by which we measure our creative output? Is it possible to allow the process to be so nourishing and enriching that we have no need of admiration or comparison of any kind? Is it possible to simply rejoice in the celebration of life?

Of course it is possible. But the practice is not about striving to achieve this ideal where we have gone beyond any need for praise. The practice is simply noticing with great compassion the tangle of thoughts and emotions that pass through us as we go about creating, meditating or living our lives. We notice. We give gratitude for noticing, for noticing is the gateway to the present moment. With tenderness and understanding, we usher our minds and hearts back, even if very briefly, to the present moment. The present moment where we are able to relish the process rather than some end product, where we can tap into the infinite source of love and creativity, and where we see with new eyes and beginner’s mind the beauty of the world around us in this moment, a moment beyond compare.

‘What Is holding you in bondage?’ meditative exploration

“What is holding you in bondage?”
That question was posed by the Spirit Rock teacher Mark Coleman back in 2002, and it sent me on quite a journey.
“What holds me in bondage?” I asked myself over and over again in the following weeks. Finally, I had a big aha! It’s my habitual nature, my habitual thinking, that holds me in bondage. My repeated patterns of behavior and thought tread such deep ruts in my life that they create steep walls beyond which I don’t feel I can go, beyond which I can’t even see. I have created my own prison for no other reason than my habitual nature.

But why? Why would I do such a thing to myself? Why would I create a prison for myself when life is so short and there is so much I would like to experience?
In the following weeks I kept noticing my habitual nature, how it contained my experience, how, given the choice, I always chose the way I had always done something, the path I had always taken. I continued to ask myself why I cling to these habitual thoughts and patterns.

And then another aha! In my noticing I realized that I cling to my habitual mode out of fear, out of a yearning for safety. If I just keep doing the same things in the same way, stick with the known and avoid any unknowns, my life will stay as it is and I will be safe.

But this is a total fallacy, that I could possibly keep things staying the same, no matter what I do, no matter how I behave. I have no control over the fact that the nature of things in this universe is change. Everything changes! Impermanence is the only constant. Living in fear of change I had created a rut that I thought was safe. But it wasn’t keeping me safe, it was just keeping me tight in fear and numb to the life around me.

So I stayed with the noticing and set the intention to see beyond my rut, to see other options when they present themselves. I promised myself that when given two paths of equal value (i.e. both ethical and healthy), I would choose the one less traveled by me.

That discovery and realignment of intention has changed my life! And even though at times it has felt scary and challenging, it has also felt immeasurably richer and more alive. It also feels more honest because I am constantly aware that there is no promise of permanence, and that the hypnotic drone of the habitual mode cannot secure that promise, no matter how hard I had wanted that to be true.

Of course there are times when I go a little numb and forget my intention. I wake up and notice the rut rising around me, and see how easy it is to succomb to the hypnotic drone of my habitual nature.

In this class the past weeks we have been studying meditation and creativity. So how does this experience of mine relate to creativity? How does the habitual mode affect creativity? Well of course there are good habits, like getting in to the studio to do the work, even if the creative urge isn’t there. But beyond that, for most of us, habits tend to get in the way.

We begin to believe we are our habits. “I am the type of person who does things this way. I would never do things THAT way, etc.” We let our habits define who we are. We cling to the carefully constructed identity we have created out of this habitual behavior. We may not be able to imagine who we would be without them, which could be very scary indeed.

Since habits are based in fear of change, then we are stuck in finite fear based mode. This tightness cramps our ability to create. We talked a couple of weeks ago about creating from the finite vs. the infinite source. When we are in habitual mode we are most definitely operating out of the finite source, and our experience in the process will be limited, tight and fearful. Breaking free of our rut, we tap into the infinite source. We become fearless, intuitive, inventive, inspired.

Habits are mindless, opposite of mindful. In our practice we simply notice what is, bringing mindfulness to our experience. We notice what is true in this moment. But when we are in our rut, it is hard to notice it. When we do, we don’t have to beat ourselves up about it, but just the noticing opens us to all the possibilities.

At every point in every moment we have infinite choices. There are the obvious choices but if we sit with it we find many variations and maybe even ones we never thought of.

If we are fully present in the moment we have the luxury of pausing before proceeding down a habitual path to appreciate all the possible ways we might go now.

This is not a day dream that gets us stuck at the crossroads, just an awareness that our options are infinite. How does this feel? Maybe a little scary, too open, too many choices, like being spilled out onto a vast plain when we were in that seemingly easy rut.

Being with our own fear, our own discomfort is an important part of the practice of being present. If we can be present for this we can be present for anything. Being fully present allows us to access that infinite source of creative energy. Letting our fears cut us off from it is handing keys to a jailer, when he was fast asleep and we could have skipped out. And not realizing we’ve been paying him to be there.

Habitual mode is automatic pilot. It is the opposite of true engagement in life. It is numbing out and dumbing ourselves down. It is never questioning authority, the authority of past behavior to dictate our present and future.

Of course we of a certain age have found ways that work for us, ways that are hard won and comfortable, thank you very much. We know what we like, what we don’t like, why we go this way and not that. We have learned and don’t want to go back to when we didn’t know what we know. Why should we?

Sometimes it’s useful to question what we know. The teacher Byron Katie has built her whole teachings on questioning. “How do I know this is true?” is a very effective question to pose to oneself every time we make a statement. Because what happens with habitual behavior is we stop questioning, we just keep building on assumptions from the past. If those assumptions are erroneous, and they often are, then we are building this mountain on a trash heap.

No one wants their whole live’s brought into question, so there is bound to be a lot of resistance to this idea. But give it a try next time you choose a direction out of habit. Pause and sense in to the body. Notice what sensations arise, if any. Then consider an alternative (kind, healthy and legal) option and sense in to the body again. Start noticing the body’s response to the directions you choose.

Just noticing that we do have a choice in each moment is huge for some of us. We are in such ruts in our thinking that we feel we have no options. This numbs us out so that we are barely alive. We may be on such automatic pilot that we are in a mobile comatose state.

When something jolts us out of our rut – a crisis of some kind perhaps – we are suddenly challenged to use muscles we haven’t used in too long: the muscles of choice. And it is painful! And it can be dangerous because we are not adept or quickwitted any more. We are stuck, calcified in our habitual mode that suddenly doesn’t support us.

Newsflash: The habitual mode doesn’t support us even now, even when things are going relatively smoothly. Because life isn’t meant to be gotten through, it’s meant to be lived.