Monthly Archives: June 2010

First Noble Truth: Embodiment as Awareness

We’ve been exploring the First Noble Truth, that there is suffering in life. We have re-visited a couple of dharma talks on the topic and discussed our own experience of the First Noble Truth.

When we revisit a subject, especially one as big as the First Noble Truth, naturally we see areas that were not covered in the first go-round. For me, one of these areas is embodiment. What is embodiment? It is, quite simply, coming home to our bodies, to the sensations in our bodies, to anchoring our awareness in these sensations in order to stay present in the moment.

In class we do a lot of embodiment practice as we settle in to our meditation. We come into awareness of the whole body, as an energetic field, and we practice concentration practice on specific areas of the body, or on specific sensation, like the rising and/or falling of the breath or the sounds we hear as we sit.

But I don’t believe I have focused on this embodiment in my dharma talks, and as I reread the talks, with an eye to editing them into book-form, I see that this is a gaping hole in my writing, especially since I happen to be reading a book of essays titled Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment.

Exploring our relationship with our bodies is a vital and valid practice. It is a primary relationship and for most women, one that is fraught with much suffering — physical, emotional and mental. So it is a very useful place to explore the First Noble Truth. There is suffering. Yeah! So I’ve noticed! Ouch!

I just read an essay by Linda Chrisman titled ‘Birth.’ As a Buddhist practitioner and a woman who had done a great deal of body-focused awareness practice in many different forms, she had a hard time accepting the fact, in retrospect, that she had experienced so much pain in childbirth. She had thought all her meditation and body awareness practice would exempt her from the pain that birthing women have experienced throughout history.

She writes, “..it was only after giving birth and feeling like a failure that I realized I had expected these practices to protect me from pain.”

Through the process of writing about her experience, she saw that the point of all her practices was not to protect her from pain. Instead, they had given her the gift of being conscious and fully present for the powerful sensations that are a part of the birthing process.

This brings up such a good question about our own motivations for meditation practice. Are we expecting our practice to protect us from pain? When we experience mental, emotional or physical pain, do we feel like we must not be doing something right, that an awakened being is beyond pain?
Let’s be clear that the only being beyond pain is a corpse. And even though that’s where we will all end up, practice or no, let’s not get ahead of ourselves!

As you may recall Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert, wrote a book titled Be Here Now, and was a key figure in turning people on to awareness in the 1960’s. In the late 1990’s he had a stroke, and I remember his account of being strapped to a gurney and being pushed through the hospital corridor. He felt that all his years of meditative practice had forsaken him. What was it all for, if, at this moment of crisis, he was absolutely terrified and confused?

His experience of a stroke momentarily threw him for a loop. But after that initial derailment, his lifelong focus on awareness gave him a way to be with his experience, with all the losses of ability, with the loss of the life as he had known it, and he was able to find his way again. He was able to complete his book on conscious aging, titled Still Here.

That moment when he felt forsaken reminds me of how Jesus on the cross asked God, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” I imagine that Jesus must have previously felt so supported in his own ‘practice’ of sensing his connection to God and to his fellow beings. But on that cross, in that moment of extreme physical and emotional pain, despair arose within him as it would for any of us, as it did for Ram Dass. And one can’t help but wonder, ‘What’s the point? If in the moment you most need support, the rug is pulled out from under you, what’s the point of the practice?’

But this moment passes. Whether it’s a moment in meditation where we feel we will never ‘get it’ or a moment on the scale when we feel no matter what we do we will never lose those pounds, or a moment where we have received awful news, personal or global, that leaves us wondering why bother going on when life is so sad or scary? Meditation does not make us immune to this experience. Meditative practice is not a vaccine that protects us from pain. To believe that is just one more prescription for suffering.

There is no practice, belief or behavior that will create a magic protective shield against life. And really, is that what we want? To arrive at death’s door untouched by life, as if we’d never pecked open the shell of our lives and allowed ourselves room to grow?

No, if we are honest with ourselves, we find that we want to experience this earthly life fully, not by simply checking off a bucket list of things we want to do before we die, but by being fully available for whatever experience we go through, planned or unplanned, deserved or undeserved, pleasant or unpleasant. We live fully by letting life in, by letting it carve our hearts a little deeper, fill our skin with wrinkles, sags and cellulite, and letting life use up our cartilage, leaving us aching. We let life in so that we may know what it is to be alive as soft complex animals on a verdant planet traveling through vast space.

So the point of the practice is to develop awareness, not to create an insulating shield. The point is to develop compassion for ourselves and all life, to feel deeply connected to this collective is-ness of energetic being, purring in the delight of being alive.

So if you have been feeling a failure because your practice has not yet delivered the pure perfect contentment you desire, ask yourself instead if it has delivered on the only promise it ever made: that you might become more aware and more compassionate.

If things are so painful, why do we want to be aware of them? Because when we are not aware, when we go numb or unconscious, we not only experience pain but we create incredible amounts of additional suffering for ourselves and others.

The distinction between pain and suffering is crucial. This earthly existence provides abundant opportunities to experience pain — pain in our bodies through accident or illness, and pain in our hearts through loss and misunderstanding. But when we compound this pain by borrowing from the past or the future — remembering previous pains and fearing this pain will go on forever – then we suffer.

Embodiment, the practice of centering our awareness in physical sensation, helps us to make this distinction. When we notice pain, with awareness we can distinguish between the sensations that we are experiencing as unpleasant, sometimes unbearable, and the emotions and thoughts that rush in around the experience. This is the practice.

The practice does not erase pain. And at moments of extreme pain, it might even seem as if the practice has forsaken us, as it did for Ram Dass in that moment of panic flat on his back on a gurney, his body screaming, his mind in anguish, being pushed through the hospital corridors.

But in fact, when our panic subsides, we find the benefits of the practice we have cultivated are there to support us. The practice doesn’t flatten the sea of our experience. Instead it provides us the means to navigate more skillfully, even allowing us to be present enough to surf the waves, savoring the experience of life as it is in this moment.

First Noble Truth – Uncle Remus Redux

We are staying with the exploration of the First Noble Truth. In class I shared again the First Noble Truth as Told by Uncle Remus. I also read some excerpts from a few essays from the book Being Bodies, Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment, edited by Lenore Friedman and Susan Moon, and from Wes Nisker’s editorial titled ‘The First Noble Kvetch’ in the Fall 2009 issues of Inquiring Mind magazine. (Inquiring Mind is wonderful for exploring various subjects from a Buddhist perspective. Subscribe to it!)

Then we continued our discussion from the previous week about our own experience of suffering, what we noticed during the week. It’s an exploration that can take a lifetime.

One meditator shared that on her recent trip she was surprised to find herself somewhat hysterical when her carry-on luggage, filled with all her most necessary possessions, was lost by a small airline. She said she had thought she had evolved beyond such reactivity, and was humbled by her experience. But as she was telling it, we all noticed that she had in fact evolved. She had evolved into really noticing her initial reaction, and, as soon as possible, applying what she had learned through meditation to come back into balance. She apologized to those she had yelled at for her initial rush of panic-driven words, and she was able to use the experience for further learning. She exhibited increased awareness, an increased sense of connection with all of life, including those who lost her luggage, and a willingness to see where she strayed off the Eightfold Path into unskillful behavior, the ability to step up and do whatever possible to correct it, and compassion for herself and others. To ask more from ourselves than that is really stepping into deep dukkha!

So if you were not in the class, read the Tar Baby tale and give yourself the opportunity to further explore your own relationship with suffering.

First Noble Truth – Review

This week we started our Summer Rerun Series, so the posts will be shorter than usual, as we will be re-reading an older post and then discussing it in class. I will provide links to the original post so you can follow along.

The class requested this review period because they feel that now that they have been meditating for a couple of years, they want to bring their deeper understanding to the Buddha’s basic teachings. (Also, we have several new students in class for whom this is not review.)

You can never step in the same river twice. Even if you read the dharma talk before, or studied these concepts elsewhere, you are in a different place now. You will hear the words differently, and you will have different insights. So I encourage you to join us!

I began the series by reading the post on the First Noble Truth. After reading this dharma talk for yourself, you are invited to join the class in noticing during the coming week when you are in pain. See if you can sit with the pain, whether it is physical, mental or emotional. We are practicing awareness, in this case awareness of pain, and noticing how we amplify whatever pain exists by piling on emotionally charged associated memories from the past or fears for the future.

In class we shared current physical and emotional pains to use as examples to work with. This wasn’t a bunch of whining, but an informed exploration of the experience, and the physical sensations that arise around pain of any kind. ‘Where do I feel this in my body?’ is an important question to ask ourselves when we notice ourselves suffering.

The Middle Way – Don’t Tip the Boat!

In class we have been trying to find real life examples of what the Middle Way is, and what it is not. As discussed in previous posts, the Middle Way is not finding oneself at one extreme and trying to compensate by dashing over to the opposite extreme. Two extremes put together do not neutralize each other, but exponentially compound each other. Think of trying to balance a tippy boat by rushing from port to starboard. All you do is stir up so much wave activity that in the end the boat overturns. Not the Middle Way!

After the Buddha recognized how much suffering is caused by living at extremes – in his case the extremes of opulence and asceticism – he did not solve it by living part of the time gorging on rich food and part of the time seeing how little he could eat and still keep his body alive. But that’s what many of us do to find balance in our lives. We run from one extreme to another, exhausting ourselves and never making our lifeboat balance.

The Middle Way is being rooted, the way a tree is rooted to withstand high winds and storms, without becoming rigid or brittle. That means anchoring in to our senses, feeling the support of the earth. From that position of strength and resilience, we can open our arms to welcome all the thoughts, emotions and experiences that arise and fall away from moment to moment. We can sense our deep intrinsic connection to all beings, and we can weather physical, emotional and mental storm states with more grace and presence than we would have thought possible.

We are not trying to avoid extremes. We live in a world where extremes happen. We lose a loved one, a job, or a home. We achieve a goal, receive an honor, or meet someone who feels like home to us. The world around us provides wonders and horrors of unimaginable extremes. This is the nature of things. The Middle Way is developing the ability to create a spacious awareness that can hold whatever extremes arise within our experience – the extremes of loss, pain, happiness, ecstasy – each a passing gift of earthly life. From our strong rooted open consciousness, we allow it all to pass through our awareness. This ability to be present fully for whatever arises is the Middle Way.

This week’s class was not a dharma talk but a discussion with students sharing personal examples of the suffering caused by living at extremes. Story by story the Middle Way started to reveal itself. These stories are not mine to share on this blog, so this is a very short post.

But it is a valuable to explore in your own life and in the lives of those around you examples of the Middle Way and examples of life out of balance. Our lives provide infinite opportunities to notice and learn – from each other, from nature, from our own inner wisdom.

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I notice that this is the 100th Post on the Open Embrace Meditations Blog. That’s two years of weekly dharma talks. May they be useful to those who read them! For me, teaching meditation and Buddhist concepts keeps me honest in my own practice, and formalizes my own learning. Please share this blog with others so that they might be encouraged to develop in their own meditation practice. Gratitude to my students and blog readers for your interest and your support.

May the merits of my practice and my teachings be of benefit for all beings. May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at peace.

The Middle Way: Working with Neurological Diversity

Continuing our discussion of the Middle Way, we recognized that there is no one Middle Way for everyone. Rick Hanson’s book Buddha’s Brain talks about neurological diversity, the wide range of tendencies of temperament we were born with, influenced by our culture and life experiences. Understanding this natural variation provides us with the opportunity to more compassionately accept our way of being in the world without beating ourselves up about it, and to be more compassionate with others who clearly operate differently.

But, Hanson also says that we can work with our brains, through concentration practices, to develop skills to find more balanced, less extreme neurological patterns. In other words, the Middle Way.

There is a chart on page 181 of Buddha’s Brain that shows the range of neurological diversity in three aspects of attention: The capacity to hold onto information, the ability to update awareness, and the desire to seek stimulation. We used this chart in class to identify where we are in the three different aspects of neurological diversity. This recognition can help each of us to both accept and challenge our tendencies.

Acceptance of something in our nature does not make us a slave to it nor does it give us a permission slip for unskillful behavior. In fact, acceptance opens us to become more aware of the tendency and to see how it impacts our lives and the lives of those around us. Seeing it as innate, we can let go of any guilt or shame around it. We were born with it, we didn’t create it. If we recognize a way in which it as a product of the culture in which we were raised, or as a product of a specific experience or set of experiences in our own lives, we can see the tendency and its roots more clearly. Beginning to see the workings of our mind, our way of being in the world more clearly, with less sense of having to defend ourselves, is a welcome breakthrough. So Hanson’s chart is a useful tool for exploration.

One thing I’ve noticed in exploring this chart and identifying my own tendencies is that they are really just tendencies. The highs and lows are places I might go if I am tired or feeling overwhelmed in some way, or if I go through a period where I’m not keeping up a meditative practice, as one time when I was traveling – I could literally watch my tendencies unravel and reveal themselves anew.

In class, one student said, and others agreed, that given certain circumstances she has at one time or another experienced all the extremes on the chart, from the obsessiveness to concentration fatigue in the category of ‘Holding onto Information;” from distractibility to obliviousness in the category of “Updating Awareness;” and from hyperactivity to lethargy in the category of ‘Seeking Stimulation.”

(If you do not have this book and don’t feel able to purchase it at this time, email me and I will send you a copy of the chart to make this discussion more meaningful for you. I would not feel comfortable publishing it online, since it is not mine to do. However, I do feel comfortable, when teaching from the book, sharing an excerpt with my students, and I think Rick Hanson, as a meditation teacher, would agree with that.)

Another student was bothered by the fact that all the terms in the high and low range in each category were pejorative: “Over-focusing, Thrill seeking, Fixed views, etc.” while all the moderate terms were positive: “Good concentration, Mental Flexibility, Enthusiasm, Adaptibility.” She asked what was wrong with the term ‘adventurous’ instead of thrill seeking. She has taken on the assignment of finding other less negative terms that might suit. I agree there is room for ‘adventurous,’ but perhaps it is in between the high and the moderate. We all know from our own experience that operating at the extremes is not just an interesting variation of character trait; it can actually be destructive or dangerous. A thrill-seeker can use poor judgment in pursuit of a challenge. A tendency toward apathy or stuckness can also be suicidal. So I think it is reasonable that these terms exist at each end of the spectrum.

One of the main benefits of meditation is to bring us into this more moderate range where we find we have good concentration, mental flexibility, enthusiasm and adaptability more of the time. This is the Middle Way. It comes as a surprise and relief to find that while tendencies toward being obsessive or experiencing concentration fatigue, distractibility or obliviousness, hyperactivity or lethargy are not unusual, we are also not locked into them forever. They are just tendencies. They don’t define or confine us.

As we become more aware of a tendency in ourselves or in others — children, employees, students, patients — we can see the tendency for what it is, letting go of harsh judgments, and we can see how it might be put to good use in career choices, for example. Being over-focused is a quality we might want in our accountant, for example. Knowing tendencies helps us adapt information sharing to a tendency-related learning style.

Acceptance of these tendencies and working with them is great. But we can also challenge our tendencies. According to Hanson, the brain is malleable. With practice in the areas of awareness and focus, the brain develops new ways of seeing and being.

If you have the book, look at page 181 and look over this chart in each of the three columns and make note of any that you recognize as yours.

Choose one tendency that resonates with you the strongest right now to be your focus for inner exploration over the coming weeks. Just make this choice intuitively and quickly, without worrying if it is truly accurate, or only true to a slight degree. If it resonates in any way, just take it. It’s just an exercise.

Your practice will be to notice how this tendency impacts your life. When you notice yourself reacting to a situation, pause to consider if and how this tendency is involved.

You might want to jot down these examples as they arise to get an even clearer picture of what goes on. This is the path of insight that provides incredible opportunities for growth through inner exploration. You don’t need your Sherlock Holmes outfit. You don’t need to do any inner historical survey of past behavior. Just stay present, and when something resonant comes up, make note.

Due to these neurological variations, each of us learns and works in different ways. As we’ve seen in our class over the years, each of us finds we respond better to different ways of practicing meditation. That’s why in leading the meditation in each class, I am always offering new ways to explore how we can each best maintain alertness and stay present with whatever arises. Over the course of the past few years, each meditator has had the opportunity to develop a toolbox of techniques that work for her. There is no one right way to meditate that will be effective for every individual. And this chart clearly shows us why that is so.

Lest you feel resistant to the idea of inner work or transformation, let me just share this example of inner transition that has nothing to do with meditation, but captures the spirit of doing inner work:

A few years ago, a friend of mine would be exhausted after reading a few pages of a book. Today he finds reading enjoyable, sometimes addictive. How did this change happen? He didn’t force himself to read. He simply challenged his assumption that he couldn’t do it. He gave himself the opportunity to read on a regular basis, stopped when he got tired, and over the course of time found that, without efforting, just by providing himself with regular opportunity, he became an enthusiastic reader, able to maintain attention and read multiple chapters, when before he would burn out after a few pages.

This is how we develop the ability to meditate. It’s really just a matter of being willing to show up on a regular basis. We don’t force ourselves, but we offer ourselves the opportunity. Again and again. And eventually, we find that the practice becomes easier and more nourishing.

Since we are individual in our tendencies, each of you is invited to request a one-on-one session with me occasionally to discuss how meditation is going for you, and get help with refining your practice to better meet your needs. Some of you have done this and say it has transformed your practice. This is offered to both regular students and to blog readers. It is offered on a dana basis, as are the classes.

Okay, back to the book. Buddha’s Brain is chock full of really valuable information, but because it has no index, I’ve experienced some frustration in doing research. “Now where did I see the bit about the basal ganglia?” etc. What I have not found in my searching is specific meditation style recommendations for each of the extremes in all three categories, only general recommendations standard in any book or class on meditation. If it’s in there, I haven’t found it, because, did I mention there is no index?

However, over the years of meditating and teaching meditation, I have had a lot of experience in fine-tuning the practice to many personality types, though I haven’t before labeled them in just this way. So I will attempt here to provide some suggestions for each extreme.

In each case, I think it is valuable to first find a practice that works with the tendency, and then a practice that would challenge the tendency. Working with the tendency makes it more likely to become comfortable and regular in meditative practice. Once the practice has become a regular part of life, then experimenting with ways to challenge the tendency will help bring us into the Middle Way.

So I will use the neurological diversity aspects defined in Buddha’s Brain, providing specific meditation suggestions for each extreme. These are just suggestions. Feel free to come up with your own as well.

Holding Information
High – Obsessive, over-focused
With this tendency, following the instruction to stay focused on one object – the breath, for example – seems quite easy. We may not see what all the fuss is about. Or we may find that we cannot shift easily into meditation from the particular thought we have been focused on. In this case we can practice different means of gently but firmly setting the thought aside for now. This might be simply reminding ourselves that the thought will be available to focus on after meditation. Or if we don’t want to return to it, we can simply focus on holding the thought with warmth and compassion, encouraging our awareness of it to be more all encompassing, able to see it as just a thought, not intrinsic to our being.

Hanson doesn’t use the word perfectionism here, but I can’t helping thinking obsessiveness is the need to make everything perfect in some way. To challenge this tendency we might focus on relaxation techniques, letting go of any sense of goal or accomplishment, sending metta to ourselves, bathing ourselves in complete acceptance, and practicing creating a spacious mental field for thoughts to arise and fall away without such focused attention. I would also encourage walks in nature with special attention on the ‘imperfections’ and how totally acceptable and natural they are, perhaps even bringing home a sample of such ‘imperfection,’ like a gnawed on leaf, and let that be a point of focus and potential insight.

Low – Small working memory, concentration fatigue
Keeping instruction clear and simple is key. Here is my three part easy to learn practice, using the three key words: tension, intention and attention. Whenever you notice the mind has wandered, bring your awareness back to the body, releasing any tension that has built up.

Then set your intention. I find this works best by feeling the support of the earth beneath you and pulling it up throughout your body on an inhalation, especially feeling it coming up the vertical channel of your spine (giving yourself some backbone). If it helps, think of how the Buddha touched the earth, saying ‘the earth is my witness.’ Imagine the earth supporting you in your practice. It is not unreasonable to think the earth does want us to become more in tune with the nature of things, to be more open hearted, compassionate and clear seeing. Let that support firm up your intention.

Then focus the attention on the breath or another sensation. Meditate for very short periods at first, then gradual increase the length of your meditation over time, thus challenging this tendency and developing an ability to concentrate.

Updating Awareness
High – Porous filters, distractibility, sensory overload

If we are easily overwhelmed in meditation by thoughts, or find guidance by a teacher to be too much, we need to find a strong anchor within our meditation that we can return to again and again. This anchor can be the breath, or it can be a phrase that we repeat when our mind wanders.

It could be a single word. I find the word ‘or’ to be incredibly powerful, because wherever my mind has wandered, I can always answer my thinking mind with the phrase ‘…OR I could focus on the breath.’ It helps me to know that there is this solid option. This option oriented word actually works with the distractible mind, giving it the feeling of a multitude of options, while really gently but firmly encouraging a narrowing of focus to the important task at hand: staying in the present moment.

Through practice, the miasma of thoughts becomes less overwhelming. The tangle becomes more spacious and we can begin to see the source of the thoughts and the associative connections. Insights arise. Aha! It becomes more a sea of thoughts we can skillfully swim through with compassionate curiosity. With practice we may find we can keep our head above water for longer and longer periods, or even mount a surfboard with which we navigate the waves without getting dunked in them, aware of the sea of thoughts rather than drowning in it.

Low – Fixed views, obliviousness, flat learning curve
With this tendency we might not be open to meditation at all. If we are, we have a clear idea of what it is and what is required. Assuming we meditate, we begin where we are, taking advantage of any habitual tendencies we have. We set up our practice; we adopt the techniques that we believe in. We are not lacking in intention or dedication, so this part is relatively easy.

But we may well be lacking in ability to release tension, to relax, to open, to simply be. We may be lacking in compassion for ourselves and others. So within our practice, we challenge ourselves to really pay attention to bodily sensation and to relax and release muscular tension in our neck, jaw, shoulders or elsewhere. Throughout the meditation we can return to this task again and again, because the tension will build up again.

We can release tension even more effectively by developing soothing techniques, telling ourselves we are loved and lovable just as we are. We don’t need to be ‘right’ to be loved. We can begin to incorporate play into our meditation, experimenting with insights that challenge our need to know everything. We may begin to discover the joyous freedom of the Don’t Know Mind. We might experiment with concepts that are initially frightening to us, like No Self, which is really just challenging the idea of boundaries that keep us separate from the world around us, that lock us out of the richness of fully experiencing life. And as we explore the edges and the dissolving of edges, we might find ourselves allowing for the possibility of there being other ways to think about things that are equally as valid as our own. We might let go of the need to convert others to our way of thinking. We might develop a curiosity about all the variations and develop a thirst for learning that surprises us.

Seeking Stimulation
High – Hyperactivity, thrill seeking

If we need a lot of stimulation, then we give ourselves that by using a technique that is very active – chanting, counting, repeating a mantra, etc. But eventually, once we have an established practice, we want to begin challenging our tendency. In this example, we might challenge ourselves to find a sensation we can become curious about, really noticing the variations in our breath, for example. We could do some combination within a meditation period, starting with what’s easy and introducing what’s more challenging for increasing periods of time.

Low – Stuckness, apathy, lethargy
This tendency has relaxation down pat. But we may find ourselves sleeping a good deal of our meditative practice. We want to be sure to practice at the time of day we are least likely to fall asleep. Using our tendency, we can really sink into the senses in our body that capture that lethargy. We can focus on loving-kindness, feeling ourselves wrapped in a sense of warmth and kindness. In this cocoon that is a safer version of the cocoon we are already in, we can begin to investigate the subtle sensations, thoughts and emotions that arise.

As we become more practiced at creating this sense of loving kindness, we can expand it, sending it out into the world, developing a greater capacity to reach out, connect and care. As we do this, we empower ourselves, and that sense of empowerment offers us strength and clarity. Eventually we are ready for greater challenges, and we bring in concentration practices.

After this talk we had a good discussion, stimulated by the following questions:
Do you see your own patterns in each of the three categories on the Buddha’s Brain chart?
What techniques are in your meditation toolbox that have been most useful?
How does the technique that works best for you reflect your tendencies?
How does it challenge your tendencies?

As we meditate on a regular basis, we may begin to come into balance, finding our own Middle Way.