Monthly Archives: September 2009

Freedom from Struggle

We have been framing the conversation over the past weeks in terms of freedom. A sense of freedom is one of the many benefits of a regular practice of meditation. But I am aware that talking about these freedoms could easily set up expectation about what we should be feeling when we meditate or how our lives should be because we meditate. It is not my intention to ‘sell’ anyone on meditation by promising a multitude of benefits. Instead I want to keep reminding my students, my blog followers and myself to simply stay present with our own experience as it arises with an open embrace.

Have you noticed how when you try to be a ‘really good’ meditator, you end up miserable and disappointed? We create terrible stories about ourselves and our situation that make a simple practice of sitting and being aware that we are sitting into a Herculean struggle. The struggle locks the door on accessing the spaciousness of mind that can arise from being here and now. It is like those Chinese woven straw finger puzzles that the harder you try to pull your fingers out, the more stuck you become. With the puzzle, as with meditation, calming down and relaxing releases us from the struggle.

These terrible stories we tell ourselves have many variation. One is that we have hopeless ‘monkey mind,’ as a friend of mine recently told me she had.

This idea that the mind should be thought-free sets us up for struggle. We tell our minds to be quiet and we get frustrated because the thoughts continue. It is not the thoughts that are causing the problem. It is the belief that the thoughts are unacceptable. It is believing that we, of all mediators, are the only ones whose mind wants to think.

I remember attending a daylong retreat at Spirit Rock years ago, and at one point at the end of the day the meditators were invited to comment and question the teachers. One meditator said that she was a psychic and she noted that there certainly was a lot of chatter going on in the gathered meditating minds. She said it as an accusation, like the iconic old schoolmarm scolding us bad children with our naughty thinking. I don’t remember the teachers particularly responding to her other than to nod sagely as teachers do. Yes, the thinking mind. Quite a lot of chatter, it’s true.

Does it help to know that a whole roomful of practiced meditators had chattering minds, according to our resident psychic? Yes, I think it does. We like to be normal. Thinking is normal. How could thinking not be normal? It’s what our brains were created to do!

But most of us see thinking during meditation as naughty, just as that woman did who sat in judgment of the rest of us. She might have held us all in tenderness and compassion, but instead she felt that we were the obstacle that kept her from being able to meditate, with our chattering minds. It was all our fault. How would her experience have been different if she had taken the opportunity to send metta (loving kindness) out to her fellow meditators. How would our experience of meditation be different if we sent a little compassion to that part of ourselves that sits in judgment? (Sending metta is a wonderful way to deal with any source of irritation or anything we deem as ‘other.’ It is usually our judgments that are our problem, not the ones being judged, so shifting into metta mode changes the whole experience. Try it and see if it doesn’t help the next time you find yourself impatient or irritated by someone’s behavior.)

Insight meditation is not about shutting down the mind, but opening as much as possible to whatever is arising in the moment. We open our field of awareness to be spacious enough for thoughts to come through without our attention getting carried away by them, getting lost in them. We are ever expanding the field of our awareness so even with thoughts floating through we are still fully present, fully aware of all the sensations in our body, our breath, the temperature on our skin, the sounds we hear – everything! – including these threads of thought and emotion that pass through the field. If we discover we have been caught up in a thought, that we have lost awareness of this moment, it’s not time to attack but to celebrate our sudden awareness of the moment. After all, not everyone has access to even this much awareness in their lives. So even this little bit of awareness is a rich gift to feel thankful for. And then, before we get caught up in self-congratulatory thinking or remembering, we simply check in with our bodies, releasing any tension, softening and expand our awareness so that we can make room for the thoughts that arise.

You know how when you see a cyclist straining excessively up a hill, you want to call out ‘Change gears! You don’t need to work that hard!’ Well, it’s the same with meditation and anything else in life really. If we notice we are struggling, striving, exerting painful amounts of energy to do whatever we are doing, we might consider whether there is another gear that might be more efficient and effective.

In meditation ‘switching gears’ is sensing in to the body, noticing that tense jaw, for example, and then breathing into it and letting go. The gears will shift. It is that simple.

The Buddha called this kind of noticing Wise Effort, which we discussed back when we studied the Noble Eightfold Path.

Ultimately, in the deepest awareness of this present moment, we come to know that there is nothing to struggle against, that just as with the finger puzzle, instead of struggling, relaxing into the truth of whatever is happening in this moment is what frees us. We let go of this idea of perfection and achievement, and dance with the one that brought us: This life, this body, this mind, this moment.

Maybe You Already Have the Makings of a Personal Practice

I teach a weekly meditation class, but I encourage my students to meditate on a daily basis as well. Some have developed a personal practice, others are struggling to find a way to carve out time in their over-scheduled lives to do so. When this is the case, I usually ask, “What other activities do you already do during the day that could, with some fine tuning, be a part of your practice?”

One student says she spends 15 minutes a day in a restorative yoga pose, with her legs up a wall and a sand bag on her feet. She also mentioned that she walks the dog twice a day, and in the morning when she walks with her dog, she refuses offers of companionship from friends, finding that she treasures that alone time.

All it would take for her to turn these into meditative practices is setting the intention to stay present in the experience, and then to continually bring the mind back to the moment, with great compassion and understanding, whenever she gets lost in thought.

While walking the dog, she can thoroughly engage in enjoying his antics, his interests, even taking a cue from his enthusiasm for his immediate environment, really using her senses to feel the air and sun on her skin, the smells of the season, the flowers and foliage, the light and shadow as it plays with the landscape, etc.

She left class feeling she had gained hours in her day and a great weight lifted off her shoulders. She doesn’t have to feel badly that she’s not ‘meditating’ enough.

Of course, I hope everyone makes a point of finding time to have a sitting practice. Early in the morning before the world is so much upon us is a perfect time to spend a half hour to forty minutes in silence. And of course, I hope everyone attends some kind of regular class where their practice is supported and inspired by a dharma talk and their questions answered in discussion. And I hope everyone gives themselves (and thereby everyone around them) the gift of going on an extended silent retreat, where they can really become intimate with their own inner experience in a safe and supportive environment.

But staying present is a practice we can do at other times as well. Many of us already have some regular solitary activity that can be tweaked to have meditative benefits as well. Another student of mine goes swimming. I advised her to pause before entering the pool to arrive in the moment, center in, and set her intention to be mindful in her swimming practice. Swimming has so many sensory elements, yet it is possible to be numb to the experience and think think think the whole time, multi-tasking ‘to get more out of’ this period. Actually in that mode she would get less out of her time. By setting the intention to be present, she can really feel all the sensations of the interaction of her body and the water, and the powerful movement of her body engaged in this activity. This ability to focus, to feel, to be present will serve her in all subsequent moments of her day to a much greater extent than the habitual thinking she would otherwise have done.

I advised her to stay present after she climbs out of the pool, perhaps sit with her eyes closed on the edge of the pool, and when she goes to her shower to let herself stay present with that. A total water meditation!

So keep that in mind when you look at your own day. Where are you already giving yourself the gift of solitude? How could you fine tune it to be more meditative? Could you put away your iPod or cell phone when you are out walking or running, and give yourself over to the experience of simply moving through the world?

When you are making yourself your breakfast in the morning, perhaps slicing a piece of fruit, can you really be present for the beauty of the experience, the engagement of so many sensations. Can you pause before eating your meal to give thanks to all involved in its creation and to set the intention to be fully mindful, savoring every bite completely? Can you do one thing at a time, giving whatever it your full attention?

These are the ways in which we practice, not just on the cushion, but in our lives.

Metta Beyond Measure

Following up on ‘Freedom beyond measure,’ the discussion of measure wouldn’t be complete without mention of metta, or loving kindness, and how easy it is to think that it is some meager allotment that we measure and dole out sparingly. Quite the opposite!

We practice meditation for the benefit of all beings. We end each class with a dedication of the merits of our practice, whatever they may be, for the benefit of all beings everywhere. This is such an important part of the practice, and is a wonderful way to end any meditation. Try not to measure the merits! I know I have been sorely tempted at the end of a particularly distracted personal meditation to dedicate the merits of this practice ‘such as they are.’ This is the traditional qualifier I learned from my father. Perhaps it was handed down from his Amish father, I don’t know. He used to compliment my mother at the end of a meal, saying, “It was a fine meal, what there was of it. And there was a lot of it, such as it was.” My brother and I found this very entertaining, but I doubt if my mother, having worked hard to create a nice meal, was all that amused!

When we dedicate the merits, we offer up whole-heartedly all our effort, intention and love, with full acceptance of all the ways we fell short of our own expectations. So we neither measure the value of the metta we are sending, nor do we pick and choose who to send it to. It is for all. That all may be happy, well and free. That all may know peace.

There’s a Buddhist story about a man whose wife died, and he asked the monk to send blessings to her. The monk agreed and said that it was their tradition to send blessings to all beings. Well, this didn’t suit the man at all. He didn’t want her to have to share the blessings received. He wasn’t sure she had the strength to claim her fair share. And anyway, there were some people he really didn’t want receiving any blessings because they were not deserving.

I know that mourning man character in me. For years, when my children were growing up and going out on their own and my husband was doing a gruelling commute every day, I would wrap them each in loving light as they left the house. This was before I studied Buddhism, so my own personally invented practice was to say, “White light all around, keep my baby safe and sound.”

It never crossed my mind to send this white light out into the world to envelope the whole world in it. Even as I understood its infinite nature, at the same time I held the belief that there wasn’t extra to expend on anyone else beyond my little chosen circle of family and friends.

That I could hold these two conflicting beliefs – the finite and the infinite – both at the same time is not surprising. First because this kind of conflicted thinking is common to the human experience. When we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to quiet down, listen in, ask questions and notice our own thoughts, how can we see that there is a contradiction there?

And secondly, this shift between the finite and the infinite is one we make throughout our lives, from moment to moment. We use the finite view, the right brain view, to do our bookkeeping tasks, to read maps, and other similar daily functions. Shifting into the left brain is less common, less sanctioned in our culture, and so we give it up as children. We give up gazing aimlessly at dust floating in the air. We give up spinning around and making ourselves dizzy, savoring all the sensations and the silliness. We are told to get into that right brain and be productive. And so we do. Sadly, we ‘put away childish things’ in favor of the solid finite world that seems to promise security and success.

Through the practice of meditation, walking without goal in nature, experimenting with art materials, dance and music in an open and curious way, among other activities, we again access that left brain. And it feels like coming home to ourselves. But still we don’t live there full time. We shift back and forth. And thus are able to hold these contradictory thoughts, like the one I held about the nature of loving kindness.

One day my inner contradiction became crystal clear to me. We were driving across the Richmond/San Rafael bridge on a particularly messy traffic day, and I wrapped our vehicle in white light. Suddenly that felt very tight and selfish. Did I want only our car to arrive at its destination unscathed? No, of course not! I wanted there to be no accidents on the bridge that day. I wanted all of us travelers to be safe.

And I suddenly sensed how that was possible. I didn’t have to rely on some statistical odds. It felt perfectly reasonable to hope that there would be no accidents anywhere in the world, that all people would be well and free of disease, that all people would be happy.

In my right brain thinking, I had subscribed to logic, facts and statistics to draw the conclusion that some percentage of the population would have to crash and burn. But suddenly, in a left brain moment, I could see through that tight flawed veil of illusion.
I saw how crazy it was to subscribe to the belief that there was some rule that some portion of the population would have to be sacrificed to the accident god, or the illness god, or the poverty god.

In that moment it seemed as ludicrous a belief as the one held by the Eloi in the 1960 movie The Time Machine, those people in the distant future who hear a siren and go into a trance-like state to sacrifice themselves to the Morlocks, the predatory monsters who live under the earth. I must have been thirteen when I saw that movie and that one scene has stayed in my mind all these years later. Yvette Mimeux, so alive and vibrant one moment, suddenly turns into a vacant sack of flesh tuned to walk with the rest of her people toward their certain fate.

So what kind of trance are we in when we assume that there is limited metta to go around, that someone will have to be sacrificed, but please don’t let it be me or someone I love?

When I was on retreat recently, I was reminded again that the statistical oddity of peaceful coexistence and well being is possible. When we quiet down, slow down, sink into the present moment and release any sense of need to get somewhere else, it is quite possible, even likely, for us to become aware, have a deep love and compassion for the whole sangha (community). Quite naturally peaceful coexistence arises. How lovely it is for 90 people to seamlessly move among each other, without words or eye contact, managing to not just avoid crashing into each other, but really towards the end of the week beginning to move as cells in a single organism, in concert with each other.

The funny thing is that if someone from outside were watching us, the way we don’t talk or make eye contact and move so slowly, they would think we were zombies in a trance. But it’s just the opposite! On retreat we are incredibly alive, alert, present, compassionate, sensing our connection to each other and all that is.

What if we all slowed down, relaxed, meditated? What if we weren’t operating out of fear of being sacrificed on the altar of poverty, disease or accident. Of course, we would be more considerate of each other, more compassionate and caring, more able to enjoy each other without feeling threatened. And how would that impact our health and safety? Less stress, less mindless behavior, less addiction – is this not a prescription for well being?

I am not saying we would not die. But what is death? Go out in the garden, out in the woods and ask about death. The tree that falls nourishes the forest floor and regenerates life. Is it dead? Only if it thought itself to be separate, but the tree is an intrinsic part of the whole. It doesn’t die.

What of disease? It’s not all caused by stress, addiction and mindless behavior. Well, in the world of plants, we can see that the life force has just taken a turn, that bacteria, virus, fungi, or whatever has taken the lead. Again, the plant is a part of the life of the garden, not diminished by the life force fluctuations in and around it.

I know this sounds a little woo woo. Okay a lot woo woo! But that’s just the right brain feeling threatened by the possibility of a saner way to live, a way that is open, expansive and inclusive. A way that is joyous!

I know also that sending metta as is our practice can sometimes feel crazy. May all beings be well, we say, while wondering how that’s possible. May all beings be happy, we say, while knowing that’s even less likely. We cannot imagine such a cohesive arising of well being in the world we live in. And all we have to do when we are sending metta and having these doubting thoughts is to notice and allow the thoughts to coexist with the well wishing. Really! We are not about excluding ANYTHING that arises. So acknowledge those doubts. They are a part of the moment.

Do I believe that when I send metta all beings will be well? No. I believe that if all of us sent metta, the world would be transformed in an instant. But this is just a waft of a thought that passes through, it is not my goal to change the world. It is my intention to stay present with my own experience, and I notice that when I send metta I am happier. When I send metta there is an internal shift that seems to create peace within and around me.

One of my students asked an interesting question upon hearing all this. She said, “When we see someone in dire straits, we can’t help but think ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ What do you think when you see such a person?”

I said, I think, “There go I.”

Because really that’s the way of things. We may believe we are separate, but the truth is, as modern science clearly shows, there are no edges to ourselves that can be discerned. The molecules in the air, the molecules in the body are all of a piece. So when we believe ourselves to be separate, it is just fear rising up within us. Fear makes us believe that we are alone in the world, isolated, judged, in danger.

If I believe myself to be separate from the ‘person in dire straits,’ I suffer the isolation and all the manifestations of that fearful thinking. I feel afraid of contagion, guilty, lucky, awkward, responsible and a host of other emotions. I want to get away, not just from the person, but from these uncomfortable feelings.

If I believe myself to be an intrinsic part of the world, not separate from it, then when I see pain, I feel the pain. I am not overcome with the pain, but I hold the thread of pain as part of my immediate experience. I hold it spaciously. I notice my thoughts and fears, and in noticing them they often melt or soften, leaving me more able to recognize the person beyond the pain. No person is all pain, and when we treat each other as if our situation is our being, we create more pain where we wanted to be helpful.

I know when I was going through hip surgery, there were some people who began to see me as my situation, and it was very uncomfortable to feel so invisible to them. Imagine how invisible I would feel if this were an ongoing situation or circumstance! Imagine if I didn’t see what was causing me to feel so invisible, if I truly began to feel lost and fading away. This happens to people all the time when everyone around them treats them as if they are their illness, their poverty, their addiction, etc.

So when I see this ‘person in dire straits’ if I can stay present with my thoughts, emotions and sensations in my body, I will be more likely to see that there is no difference between us. And from that perspective, my metta, my well wishing, is deeply rooted and authentic. Perhaps it will also manifest in some way I can be useful, but at the very least I have shared humanity with him, felt an outflowing of loving kindness, perhaps made him feel visible as an intrinsic part of all that is, made him less object, isolated and alone. This may sound like a small thing, but it goes a long way toward healing, and it helps in a way that bread alone cannot.

Incorporating Metta in the Way We Work
In our daily life we do so many things that are for the benefit of others. In our work, around the house, in our grooming, shopping, etc. – everything we do can either be a tightly held tit-for-tat measured thing or it can be expansive, offered up with loving kindness from a bottomless source.

I’m reminded of the other day hearing a young person complain that she does way more around the apartment than her roommate. I was sympathetic because she was suffering from feeling used and put upon. But how different would her experience be if she stopped measuring who did what, if she established the yogi jobs she would do, based on what is important to her to have done, and then did it with awareness and loving-kindness. In the first place, her experience would be more pleasant. She could sense in to her muscles working in concert to clean, lift or whatever the chore is. She could also offer it up as a gift to her roommate, herself and the universe. Truly, a yogi job done with awareness and loving-kindness is a benefit to all.

Without measuring, she might notice that her roommate does other things that are of value to both of them. Perhaps she does more of the cooking, the bill paying or the shopping. If not, is there some reason she feels she should do less? Does she live there less of a time, feels less responsible for the mess, etc.? Does the roommate feel it’s not her home, that she is only responsible for her own room? Why would she feel that way? Lots of room for interesting conversation, without accusation, but with curiosity.

Without measuring, our young woman might find that a change happens in the household. Perhaps cookies are made in the oven she cleaned and offered lovingly. Or maybe her roommate has been inspired by the cleanliness and begins to see what she hadn’t noticed before. Not everyone knows what clean is unless they experience it.

In every relationship there is this potential for measuring, being miserly and creating misery. We think, ‘I did this, so you have to do that.’ ‘I did this, so you owe me.’ ‘I did this, and you are a lazy good-for-nothing bum who is disrespecting me with this behavior. Why do I have to tolerate this? I deserve better.’

We each deserve the joy that comes from accessing the infinite source through quieting down, listening in, being present for whatever arises in our experience. We discover the benevolent nature of things at the core, and sense at last that we are wholeheartedly and forever loved and lovable, that we are not dependent on the love, approval or respect of others for our happiness. We recognize that we are made of that love and able to transmit loving kindness generously because it flows through us from an undepletable infinite source.

We all deserve to let go of our own misery-making measurements and start offering metta in all we do. Without expectation of a return on our metta investment, it becomes unimportant if all labors are matched equally. But often, out of the contagious nature of loving-kindness, the balance comes into harmony. Our minds expand and we see the bigger picture, the ebb and flow of energies and abilities, and how things all work out.

Back to that day years ago driving across the bridge and having that metta insight: I recognized then the possibility of that kind of peaceful loving coexistence that we have together on the Spirit Rock retreat. If all of us stopped withholding our well-wishing and loving kindness from ‘strangers’ and ‘enemies’, how different would the world be? What would be possible?

Here is a poem I wrote about it at the time.

Metta Cake

A careful baker, I measured metta,
leveling each cup with the back of a butter knife.
Yet the cake would fall or simply lack sweetness for no reason I could figure.
My frustration mounted. I raged at the miller, the leavening, the oven.
But cake after cake was politely nibbled or set aside
by my carefully culled guests at my perfectly laid table.

I suffered deeply the humiliation of failure,
not to mention the waste of expensive ingredients.
But relentless, I kept trying, needing so badly to be seen,
if not as a baker extraordinaire, at least as a
really hard-working good-hearted person.

One particularly painstaking night,
exhausted from my futile labor,
I fell asleep in tears of self-recrimination.
To awaken in a dream world of metta beyond measure:
Of infinite love boundlessly flowing,
of hearts open to give without depletion,
to receive without questioning their worthiness,
in an endless circuit of loving light.

I sensed the warmth of sunlight upon my salty cheek.
I rose and threw open the windows to the boundless morning light.
I waved at a neighbor passing by, and was met with a radiant smile.
Then I took a stroll in the garden, plucking a peach off the tree.
Biting into its juicy flesh, my tongue delighted in its sweetness.

Maybe I would not bake today, I thought,
but if I did, it would be a kind of boundless baking.
Like the generosity of a peach tree whose fruit ripens
without concern for whether it will be eaten. Could I bake like that?
As if my cakes grew from an infinite source where I am deeply rooted?

I breathed in the fragrant air of all life intermingling in a rich chaos
and felt an infinite and indiscriminate tenderness.
Why not? I thought. Yes, why not?

– Stephanie Noble

Meditation brings freedom beyond measure

We have been discussing various aspects of freedom. (See previous posts.) We may believe ourselves to be free because no one is constraining us from doing anything we might want to do, as long as it is legal. That is an important and valued freedom. But most of us are imprisoned and don’t even know it. Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet and mystic, wrote, “Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open? Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking. Live in silence.”

Regular meditation practice brings a sense of freedom that is rare in our lives. We begin to release some of the habitual thinking that has held us imprisoned. In this series of talks we have been exploring some of the ways we imprison ourselves. Today I want to talk about how we imprison ourselves with numbers. Most of us can rattle off a whole set of numbers that describe us, age, weight, height, etc. To the degree we believe these numbers to be ourselves, we are anything but free.

Of course, measurement can be useful. When you are building a house for example, it’s important, as any contractor will tell you, to measure and then measure again, or you are going to be walking around on uneven floors, wind will be howling through the walls and rain will be pouring through the roof.

But we are human, not construction projects. We are organic beings deeply interconnected with the organic universe. We are spiritual beings deeply interconnected with each other and all that is, even though we forget that, imprisoned as we are in our retracted state of separation. When we get caught up in measuring and comparing our measurements, it pops us out of our awareness of our true nature.

Though there are uses for the measurements available to us, most of us make the mistake of absorbing the numbers into our sense of who we are. We become our height, our weight, our IQ. We create a numerical prison, a misery index, dependent on what the scale told us this morning about ourselves and our ability to manage our weight to conform with what we have learned is acceptable in our culture. We allow these numbers to define us and to rule our emotions.

You may be surprised that one of the magazines I read regularly is Wired which focuses on cutting edge technology as it finds its way into our culture. Recently I was reading an article about living by the numbers. Today we know not just our height, weight and circumference, but our heart rate, our blood pressure, our metabolic rate, our blood glucose level, our cholesterol, all the various levels of elements in our blood, our body mass index, and that’s just a start. This is useful for working with our doctor to pinpoint a possible health issue, but if we focus too heavily on these kinds of measurements, we will find ourselves figuring out some formula by which all these figures add up to us.

And that is not the case. At all. We are not the sum of these measurements nor are we the size of the clothes we buy. Our ancestors didn’t know their size because clothes were custom made. They may have still dealt with fear-based numbers of security and status in the quantity or quality of possessions they claimed as their own. But these numbers we are dealing with that measure our physical size and all the intimate details of our body seem much more personal somehow. There’s no possibility of winning the lottery tomorrow and coming up with a whole new set of these personal numbers. There is just this struggle with the hand we have been dealt compounded by the challenge of our beliefs, desires and emotions around food, exercise and physical well being. These measurements are so intimate, measuring the inner workings of the very organism we inhabit.

Still, it’s all the same deluded process. Measuring and comparing. keeps us from simply living in this moment fully, sensing our aliveness, feeling gratitude for the gift of life in whatever form we experience it.

At earlier and earlier ages, girls compare their bodies to those of their classmates and as they develop into women, they compare them to the models and celebrities that fill magazines, television and movie screens, without understanding the misery and artifice involved in creating these unreal figures. It is a rare woman who feels comfortable with all her physical and mental attributes. Even the ones who look ‘perfect’ to others carry fears of being failures in some arena.

But it isn’t just girls, of course. I just heard a story about one little boy teasing another that his male member was too small. Of course, the one being taunted was devastated and depending on his personality and how the event was handled by his parents and school staff, it is perfectly possible that he could be deeply affected by the event, especially if he has been told that the ‘manly’ thing to do is to suck it up and forget about it. Without the opportunity to process it, question its veracity, the event sinks deeper and deeper, so that the boy, then the man doesn’t recognize the source of his resulting unskillful behavior for the rest of his life. This kind of thing happens all the time and parents often don’t know about it to address it, so there it lays: this little time bomb of pain and self-doubt that sets off perhaps a defensive aggressive need-to-prove-oneself kind of behavior that could bring more pain to that person and those around him. And we wonder why there are so many difficult people around? We need to see them as the walking wounded, and have compassion for them. They are us. We are all wounded in some way, we are all reacting to long-buried but still toxic stimuli.

In meditation we quiet our minds down enough to see our thoughts more clearly as they stream through, and eventually we have enough clarity to see that our thoughts are not who we are. (See previous posts.) If they are not us, we cease feeling the need to defend our thoughts. We only need to be curious about them. So let’s say this little boy didn’t have the kind of counseling that could have neutralized the schoolyard taunt he received. Let’s say he grew up and has a history of aggression issues, bullying other children, then in adolescence needing to prove himself over and over again in sexual situations. Probably this behavior followed him into his adult life, adversely affecting his relationships. And now here he is meditating, hoping to find peace in his heart and mind.

With regular meditation he finds himself becoming less defensive, less aggressive, less angry. And one day in meditation he has a thought, perhaps a thought he has had many times in his life, about proving his sexual prowess. But this time his mind is very quiet and he is unattached to the thought, neither ashamed nor proud. It is just a thought passing through. So this time he can look at the thought more clearly instead of building on it or pushing it away. He can sit with it in spaciousness. He can ask questions of the thought: Is it true? Where did this come from? And perhaps this long buried scene from his childhood will rise up in answer to his question. He will see the playground bully and remember his cruel words. He may be surprised how clear the memory is when he had forgotten it all these years. He can sense into his body and feel the pain of the attack and the emotions that arise around it. He can bring compassion to these emotions. He can also, from his adult perspective, recognize the wounded nature of the bully acting out. He can see that those words were spoken in pain and with no bearing to any truth, no bearing to him at all, that he just happened to be there, an innocent bystander of an inner violence blurting out. He can see how throughout his whole life he has let those words live and breed within him, stirring up so much pain that he lashed out again and again in pure reaction to that one long-forgotten moment.

If this sounds overblown, then you are forgetting how it is to be a child, sensitive and vulnerable and searching for identity. And if you doubt that we can draw forth long forgotten memories, don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself. Quiet down and ask a question, and see if the answer doesn’t arise in the form of memories. The thoughtless cutting thing some parent, teacher or friend said to you that has become a ‘truth’ that you live by, without questioning its source. Question it now! It will set you free.

I am talking about a meditative stillness of mind. Without that we rarely quiet down enough to see the ramshackle construction of our beliefs about ourselves and the world, made up of things people said that resonated with us in one way or another, sometimes confirming our worst fears. The sources may be long forgotten and the beliefs calcified within us unexamined, yet we rely on them for every decision we make, every word we say throughout our lives. How can this be true? Don’t take my word for it. Check it out for yourself.

The power of meditation is this clarity of mind, this release of identifying with our thoughts so that we can really see them and question their veracity. This is why trying to change our thinking, replacing corrosive thoughts with bright cheery ones and trying to convince ourselves they are true, is unsuccessful. We are trying to replace one habit of mind with another, but both are mindless habits, numbing us down to get through life untouched.

We can’t force inner transformation, we can only set the stage for it by quieting our minds as much as possible and listening in. The regular practice of meditation itself will set into motion all the changes that are needed, unfolding at the pace that is best suited for us to process them. This may be a long slow process, this unfolding. Certainly I don’t claim to be free in regard to this concept of measurement! But I trust in the process, the slow revelation, layer by layer.
Ultimately we come to realize that we are not our bodies, just as we are not our thoughts. And if we are not our bodies, then all the measures lose their power over us. But even though we are not our bodies, we are responsible for their care, and filled with gratitude for the gift of life in whatever form we inhabit. In Buddhist teachings it is said that the opportunity to inhabit the human form is as rare a gift as a sea turtle in a vast ocean surfacing in the circle of the only life preserver floating on the whole ocean. That has to be pretty rare indeed! And the human realm is considered the only one in which true liberation is possible, because the higher realms are too content to bother looking and the lower realms are too miserable to have time for such exploration. I’m no expert on Buddhist cosmology, and don’t have much interest in it as it seems for me superfluous to the Buddha’s core teachings which are timeless and culture-free truths that need no cast of characters, human, godly or angelic. But I appreciate any reminder of how fortunate I am to be here in this present moment in the form I am in. From that perspective being grumpy that my ‘big girl’ pants are tight seems pretty ungrateful.

It is useful to notice when we are finding fault with ourselves and comparing our bodies to others, and then to bring spacious awareness to the pain, the sensations around the pain, and the attachment we have to these harsh judgments. It is interesting to notice the emotions that arise, whether we feel guilty, ashamed, angry or victimized. These are all valuable opportunities to begin an inner exploration, questioning: ‘Why do I feel guilty?’ If victimized: ‘Who do I hold responsible for this unacceptable state?’

As with any inner dialog, don’t shut down the process by judging the answers unacceptable. ‘But that’s just stupid!’ is really not a very useful reaction. If it is the one that arises, then question it and let the process continue. What has come to be called Emotional Intelligence is something that has been developed over the past few decades. For most of us it is relatively new territory, especially our interior dialogs which may still be very rude and thoughtless. Noticing how we talk to ourselves is an important part of developing compassionate tools for self discovery.

Through meditation practice we develop a sense of caring – for the world, other people and ourselves. Bit by bit we tune in to our bodies and find that when we are really paying attention, instead of acting on automatic pilot, we crave healthy nutritious food instead of processed refined empty calories, which when our taste buds are fully engaged taste like cardboard and chemicals. When we really tune into our bodies, we take pleasure in exercising regularly to the degree that feels right for our body right now, neither too much nor too little. And we are grateful for the wondrous specificity of measures that modern science has at its disposal to help us when we are facing serious health challenges, but don’t mistake the numbers for ourselves.

If you are a regular meditator and the area of food and exercise is still shut down or numb for you, so that you behave unskillfully, it simply means that this is a very deep issue for you. Keep exploring. Really practice being present while eating – no reading or other activity to get in the way of the experience of all the sensations involved in the process. Really listen to what you are telling yourself when you don’t get the exercise your body needs. Use the scale to keep you honest. (Mine recently caught me in a bit of delusion. You really cannot trust stretchy clothes! They lie all the time.) But balance all of that with as much loving-kindness as you can muster for yourself exactly as you are.

If you, like me, are not quite there yet with this letting go of your comparing mind, at least let us bring as much awareness and compassion as we can to the experience. We see a photograph of a body and we see the vast disparity between it and our body, and we notice the various bad feelings that ensue. We don’t need to fight our habituated comparing mind so much as be aware of it when comparing thoughts arise. We can be curious about them. We can notice what sensations arise in our bodies when we start comparing and measuring. We can begin to see how we make ourselves miserable by measuring ourselves against others. Being compassionate with ourselves, we can gently free ourselves from the tangle of it, and return to the present moment.

We can also really look at the person in the photograph. We can go beyond the cookie cutter figure they have molded themselves into and send metta (loving-kindness) to the person feeling the need to be perfect in order not just to feel good about themselves but to make a living. What a burden that must be! We can let go of envy and let ourselves feel compassion.

With regular meditative practice we can relax into fuller acceptance of ourselves as unique but integral aspects of all that is, just as lovely as anything else in nature, just as perfect, just as flawed, and it’s all okay. We can rejoice in the variety of beauty possible in all forms of life, and accept who we are in the scheme of things. And that is freedom!