Monthly Archives: August 2010

Holding Your Life in an Open Embrace

This was a speech with visual aids. I will try to get permission to use the photos I shared in person, but until I do, imagine:

(A black & white photo of a little girl holding on tight to her three dolls, with a distrustful scowl on her face.)

Here’s a photo of a little girl with her dolls. What a lucky little girl to have three dolls! She should be happy. But when I look at her, I don’t see happiness, I see fear. Maybe she’s afraid someone will take her dolls away. Look how tight she’s holding them. She is planning on defending them.

Of course, holding them this tight she can’t really enjoy her dolls, can she? Enjoying her dolls would be holding them in front of her, looking in their faces, talking to them, singing to them, feeding them, dressing them…maybe having a tea party and inviting other children over with their dolls to play.

But she can’t do any of that because she has to hold on tight to these dolls for fear of losing them.

We can all recognize ourselves in this little girl. We all cling to something, afraid of losing it. Whether it’s our possessions, our money, our relationships, our career, our beliefs, the way we see ourselves, the way we see the world – we hold on tight because we don’t know who we would be without them, and we are afraid to find out.

But just as this girl can’t play with her dolls when she holds them so tightly, we can’t really enjoy our lives and all the wonderful things in it when we hold them in such a tight grip.

What happens when we hold on so tight in a relationship for example? When we clamp down on the one we love, begging them to spend more time with us, pay more attention to us, tell us they love us. What happens? Usually we suffocate the love we hold so dear, we strangle it, we squish it. It turns to nothing in our hands.

So this tendency to grasp and cling to what we care about isn’t really a very effective strategy. At best we can’t enjoy it, and at worst we might actually cause it to disappear.

(A black and white photo of another little girl.)

Now here’s another little girl. She’s not happy either. She’s got her pouty face on and her arms folded. But instead of holding on to something she loves, she’s focused on something that hasn’t measured up to her standards, her expectations, her desires. Maybe her mother said she couldn’t have ice cream before dinner, and she’s determined to be miserable about it for a good long while. Or maybe she’s just arrived at a party. Maybe she’s been fantasizing about this party ever since she got the invitation three weeks ago. She imagined the entertainment, the cake, the friends who would be there, how much fun she would have. And here she is and something is not right. It may be the most fun party in the world, but she is stuck on the one thing that’s lacking, the one way in which it doesn’t measure up. So she can’t enjoy herself.

I’m sure we can all recognize ourselves in this little girl too. We’ve all had experiences that didn’t measure up to our expectations. We’ve all at times let that disappointment ruin the whole experience. We’ve all had trouble enjoying this moment because we’re still caught up in what happened last week, last month, last year, and we’re letting it color our whole experience.

The Buddha defined these two ways of being – this grasping and clinging and this aversion as the primary causes of suffering. He acknowledged that there is unavoidable pain in this life, but that most of the suffering we experience is optional, actually caused by these two tendencies.

But it’s not our fault that we’re like this. Like all animals we are programmed to go after what is pleasurable and avoid what is unpleasant. This is the basis of our survival instinct. We are attracted to bright colors and nature made the brightest color vegetables the most nutritious. We are attracted to the mates that will best help us procreate for the survival of the species. We are programmed to avoid the big sharp-toothed roaring bear who might maul us to death.

Our human brain is a little different however. With our highly developed cortex, we can dwell in the past, remembering in incredible detail all that has happened to us. And we can imagine infinite futures, so we can spend a good portion of our time in a state of planning and daydreaming. Now this is an amazing skill to have! Without it we would not have literature, history, inventions, technology, ever evolving architecture, design and the arts.

But we’ve been given this gift without a user manual, without a warning notice that spending too much time in the past or the future instead of staying in the present moment is hazardous to our health and our happiness.

But the brain is still evolving, still developing, and part of this development is tuning in to awareness, consciousness, rediscovering our ability to be in the present moment.

The primary purpose of meditation is to create this ability to be present, to come into balance, to open ourselves to what is arising in this moment and be able to savor it without grasping and clinging.

(A full color photo of a little girl holding a frog in her cup hands in such a way that she can see the frog in front of her. She has a look of curiosity and a smile on her face.)

In this final picture is a little girl who is living in the moment. You’ll notice that this photo, unlike the other two, is in full color. That’s because she is in the present, the only place that is real. The past and future are just thoughts.

She is holding a frog in her hand and she is holding it in open cupped palms, what I call and open embrace. She is able to fully enjoy the frog. She knows that the frog could jump out of her palm at any moment, but she knows that she will still be okay. The frog is not the source of her happiness. Her ability to be with whatever arises is the source of her happiness.

So this is what I hope for all of us: That we take responsibility for our own happiness, by learning how to be present with our experience, how to hold life in an open compassionate embrace.

Nature: Honoring Our Wisest Dharma Teacher

Like all animals we are programmed to go toward what is pleasant and to back away from what is unpleasant. Our chemistry is set up to flush our brains with a sense of pleasure when see something valuable for our survival – a brightly colored vegetable that will nourish our bodies or an attractive potential mate with whom we might procreate and continue the survival of our species. In the same way, we are set up to be flushed with fear when we come near anything that might threaten our survival, and programmed to run, hide or do battle with it.

This system has worked pretty well for most species. The fact that we are not extinct seems to imply that it is working for us humans as well. But when we look around we can see how much misery we as individuals continually cause ourselves and others, how our collective behavior, especially over the last two hundred years, has brought many species to the brink of extinction and beyond. We can see how many cultures we have lost, how much devastation and degradation to the environment we have caused. Given all of this, it seems that we have, in fact, lost touch with our natural survival instinct.

While few of us are proud of this course of events, many of us are so uncomfortable with the emotions that come up around this knowledge that we avoid it, push it away or deny it. We cling to what we have that tells us we are doing well. But we need to be with what is arising in our experience. We need to face it with clarity, compassion, courage, integrity and equilibrium in our words and actions.

This is not easy when we are coping with remorse, guilt, shame, disgust, dread, anger, wishful thinking and denial. So let’s look at how it is that we as a species got so off track so that we are in a constant state of fear and looking for every possible distraction to keep ourselves from effectively coping with what is arising in this moment, personally and globally.
Humans have a highly developed pre-frontal cortex, a more recent brain development that enables us to imagine the future and dwell in the past. With this addition to the brain, our species is uniquely able to remember, record, celebrate and sometimes even rewrite its complex history. We have created architecture that doesn’t just shield us from the elements but satisfies our longing for beauty. We have developed institutions for self-governing, education, edification and socialization. We have created literature, visual art, myths, beliefs, theories, science, deep understanding of the world we live in, all of which we are able to transmit from generation to generation through writing, and through audio and visual recording. We have created means to carry ourselves around the planet, and to communicate instantaneously with people in any part of the world.

Wow! One little tweak of the standard mammalian brain and we get all this! When you think how we humans start out the most helpless and naked of creatures, without the benefit of fur or feathers, claws, speed or strength, without even the ability to stand or walk until a year into our existence. And yet, through the two gifts we have – our opposable thumbs and our highly developed brain – we have compensated for all our other lacks. Perhaps we have over-compensated!

We not only can fly like birds, we fly to the moon and beyond. We not only can dig like moles and gophers, we dig deep into the earth, mining its resources. We not only can build nests, we build cathedrals and soaring skyscrapers.

In this over-compensation there’s been the creation of separation from wild nature. Many people in the modern world go from their insulated homes with interior garages by way of their cars – isolation chambers on wheels – into the basement garages of their workplace with its non-open-able windows, and never leave the building because there’s a company cafeteria for food and a company gym for exercise. At the end of the day, having returned home, they can go to bed without ever once having breathed fresh air or felt the natural outside temperature.

Cut off from nature, we get out of synch with the natural rhythms. We lose touch with the seasons, the tides, the phases of the moon, the myriad ways nature has always cued behavior in creatures.

The cost of being so out of synch with nature is high on a personal level and devastating on a global level. Out of synch with nature, we make misguided ill-informed choices that cause misery for us, the planet and the rest of the species who inhabit it.

Instead of the circular rhythms of nature, we have created a linear view of passage of time. We do this in order to accommodate our unique human ability to dwell in the past and imagine the future. But you can see how it gets us out of synch with the rest of nature. We have isolated ourselves, believing ourselves to be a species apart, and yet everything we do affects all other species and the planet. We have denied this connection, and deadened ourselves in that denial. Why?

Perhaps we think that in our encapsulated state we are protected from the vagaries of life. If we can set up a routine, a series of habits, and just keep them up, maybe we can keep the threat of change at bay. We don’t want our state of denial to be punctured, and we intuitively know that walking out into the wild will do just that. It will bring us to the basic truths inherent to life on earth. It will remind us of impermanence with every fallen leaf and every fallen tree. It will put us face to face with our own mortality, with the fact that our bodies are no different from those of any other creatures on the planet.

But if we stay in the wild a little longer, we start to understand that the fallen tree feeds the forest. We see the cycles of life with no moment in that cycle better or worse than another. We see creation, destruction and decay all serving the whole. We see that change is the only true constant, and that the natural rhythms of the earth and the stars bring a deeper comfort, a deeper sense of connection, than all the constructs we’ve created to ‘protect’ ourselves from this intrinsic truth.

Meditation, like a silent walk in nature, functions as a tuning fork that re-attunes us to the natural rhythms of our own nature. We learn to find a balance that allows us to use the gift of our highly developed brains without running amuck into seriously unskillful behavior. But it is not enough to meditate. We need to give ourselves as many opportunities as possible to be in nature. When we attend a meditation retreat, it may be hard to know how much of the value of the retreat was sitting on our cushion, and how much was the slow walks we took, communing with trees, grasses, lizards and birds.

In a couple of weeks Will and I are heading out on our annual camping trip up into the mountains. It’s not that I love pit toilets, going without a shower, dealing with mosquitoes and other potentials for discomfort. It’s just that my daily walks in nature get me into nature for short periods of time before I retreat back into my isolation chamber and check my email. Yes, in the summer we have a wonderful screen room where I can sit for awhile reading and enjoying the birds in the waterfall. I am so fortunate! But then I go back inside. So camping is like a forced nature retreat to get me outside my box. If I don’t occasionally take myself far from the comforts of home, my habitual nature sends me back into the house for something to eat, a more stable temperature or a whole slew of other reasons. When I’m camping, there is no inside to go to. And that’s the idea!

But after a few days I am ready to come home. Just as after a meditation retreat, I am ready to return to my regular life. I return with a more balanced, attuned understanding of my place in the natural world. The wild world has so many lessons to teach me, has so many answers to any question I might ask. It is an ever ready dharma delivery system, providing truth after truth, and requesting only a deep and abiding respect in return.

I had an employer once who was a devoted follower of the nineteenth century political economist Henry George, who believed that property should be taxed more heavily in its undeveloped state to encourage development and improvements. This kind of thinking, this seeing nature as a kind of blank canvas for human creativity to unleash itself, is still alive and well in the 21st century.

I was reminded of it last weekend when a dear relative of mine was visiting from rural Washington. She told a story of her neighbor whom she asked to stop driving his four wheel drive ATV all over her grassy meadow.
“But you aren’t using it,” he said, totally baffled by her request. After all, she had allowed his horses to roam the meadow without complaint. In his world view, an open meadow is not a rich vibrant network of living systems but a vacant lot serving no purpose until a human designates one.

Thank goodness there are people like Dr. Marty Griffin, a friend whose 90th birthday party I attended this week also. He put his well-developed brain, his deep sense of connection and any other resources he could find to good use to save wild nature, particularly the Marin and Sonoma Coasts. The Audubon Canyon Ranch, that amazing nesting ground for blue herons on the Bolinas Lagoon that he founded decades ago, has just been renamed The Martin Griffin Preserve in his honor.

Through spending time in nature in a meditative way — really being present for what arises in our experience, being open, receptive and curious — we start seeing and understanding the role of wild nature in supporting all life, including our own. And we start seeing our role in the natural world. When we insulate ourselves from nature we have a distorted view of the world and who we are in it.

So, what is your relationship with the wilderness? Are you muscling through it, focused on burning calories and building endurance or on getting somewhere? Are you talking with friends or listening to the music plugged into your ears, staying in sensory disconnect from the nature that called to you?

How many questions do you have that nature could answer if you opened yourself up and listened? About impermanence, about comparing mind, about judgment, about connection, about self-acceptance, about just about anything!

Over the coming week, if you haven’t already done so, add to your meditative practice at least a few minutes of being completely alone in nature. You could spend a few minutes star gazing before bed. You could sit in your garden and listen to the birds. You could ask your walking companion to participate, each taking at least five minutes to walk in silence at a distance from each other. The minute we are alone, that powerful energy field of another human dissolves and frees us to really sense our connection with the rest of nature.

While experiencing nature, let go of any sense of goal. The desire to capture nature in a photograph or a memory can deplete the power of the moment fully experienced. The hope to recreate a past experience or to make this somehow an ultimate experience gets in the way of simply being present for whatever arises. Noticing all the thoughts that pass through, and letting them arise and fall away too. Letting go of a need to judge the experience as to whether it measures up to your idea of what a moment in nature should be. This is not some romantic notion. This is simply the reality of this moment.

Unplugging, creating silence and solitude, breathing and releasing tension, opening to whatever is in this moment: What a gift!

I’ll end with the a poem by Li Po, titled Zazen on Ching-tnig Mountain:

‘The birds have dissolved into the sky.
The last clouds have faded away.
Here we sit, the mountain and I,
‘til only the mountain remains.’

Mirror, mirror

‘Okay,’ I thought as I began writing this talk, ‘This will be the big one. This will be the dharma talk where I teach myself to make friends with the mirror, to make friends with the wrinkles that arise and don’t fall away.’

The First Noble Truth identifies that there is suffering in life and the Second Noble Truth identifies the cause of suffering. The original Pali term was tanhā or craving. It was translated to a word in Sanskrit that means thirst. In Tibetan the word that is used is dzinpa which means grasping or fixation. The causes were further clarified as the ‘three poisons’ of greed, aversion and delusion.

You can see that these words together begin to paint a picture of how we create dukkha, the unsatisfactory feeling that underlies so much of our existence.

So, the mirror: What a clever dukkha delivery system this is! Who thought up the idea of hanging this so prominently over my bathroom sink?

Noticing? I’m noticing aversion! I’m noticing fixation on patches of wrinkles. They are larger than life, just as the pimples of my youth were. If I read this ten years from now, assuming I’m still incarnate, I will laugh and say, Honey, you don’t know from wrinkles! But I also know that my older self will have compassion for my concerns, as I have compassion for my younger self, troubled over other mirror revelations.

It really doesn’t matter what we see in the mirror. Even if we saw the most gorgeous creature on the planet, it would still be simply our perception. It would still be relative reality and not some fundamental truth. It would still be a snapshot of a moment in time from one point of view — a lesson in the nature of impermanence.

Okay, okay, fine, I say. But how do I make friends with my wrinkles? I admit it does help to remind myself how much I love the wrinkles on other women’s faces — how the Mexican grandmothers in my adopted second home town of San Miguel de Allende, with deep crevices crinkling the landscape of their faces, are as beautiful to me as the grandchildren so often sitting on their laps.

It does help that when I look at my dry wrinkly hands with the pronounced blue veins I am reminded of my paternal grandmother’s hands. How I loved to push those veins around and watch them return to place, slowly. It is no small thing to be able to provide a grandchild with such ongoing amusement. And my hands remind me too of how much I loved the feel of my mother’s dry strong hand, holding my small one as we scurried around town, keeping me safe. There is absolutely nothing I did not love about these two women’s hands.

When I look upon these women’s faces or remember my mother’s and grandmother’s hands, it’s not just that I see beyond the ‘ugliness’ of the wrinkles to a greater beauty underneath. No, I love the wrinkles themselves, the veins and the dryness, all of it is not just acceptable to me. It is the beauty I behold.

So what is it that’s going on here? Why is another woman’s wrinkled face or hand lovely to behold and mine so abhorrent? Simply this: I am not afraid when I look at their faces and hands. But when I look at the mirror my perception is clouded with fear.

What do I fear? I fear change and all that I have to lose through these changes. I see my wrinkles as time taking its toll. Tick tock, tick tock.

So is this just a fear of death, or a fear of pains associated with aging? Well, it’s certainly that, no denying. But there’s more there. What is it? What is it really? Hmmm. When I look in the mirror, I am afraid of losing love. I am afraid of losing respect, becoming the butt of old people jokes that I have heard all my life. I am afraid of losing the power to attract my mate. I am afraid of being alone.

Is this a rational fear? It doesn’t matter! It is a fear I feel and that is enough to work with. Here is a pivotal moment in the practice. If I were to simply talk myself out of it at this point, pooh-poohing it, nothing would be accomplished. I could comfort myself with how much my husband seems to love me, and as grateful as I am for that, it really doesn’t change a thing.

When I see that word ‘change’ in the last sentence, I recognize it as a clue. I begin to see the fallacy of my attempt to make friends with my wrinkles. I have a goal and an agenda. I plan to change the way I think, come out with a brighter perspective, a new way of seeing, and a new reality. I want to smile at myself in the mirror. I want to be compassionate. I want to be wise. I want to not care. I want this sense of dissatisfaction to go away. I want to accept myself fully just as I am. I want, I want, I want. This is dukkha! I am struggling! I am battling my own thoughts, trying to prove them wrong. I am trying to talk myself out of something, because I believe that looking in the mirror without full acceptance is wrong. Apparently I believe that until I am fine with what I see, I am a flawed being, drowning in the error of my ways.

You see how this dukkha thing works? You see the tar-baby effect going on here? As many reasons as I can think up to debate with my feelings, beliefs and opinions, they just gets me more stuck in suffering.

How did this happen? I approached the challenge with all the best intentions, didn’t I? Maybe. Maybe not. Is trying to bypass suffering the way to end it? Isn’t it just a tradition of making nice-nice with whatever arises, hushing bad thoughts, begging everything and everyone to just get along so I don’t have to deal with difficulty?

This is not the way to end suffering. It is just the way to suppress it. The way to end suffering is to be with it, to notice it as it arises and falls away.

During the time I have been writing this, my feelings towards my wrinkles have fluctuated a great deal, from ‘Woe is me!’ to ‘Who cares?’ These feelings will undoubtedly continue to fluctuate for years to come. Sometimes I will look in the mirror and see ugliness and sometimes I will see a kind of beauty. Many times my thoughts will be elsewhere and I won’t even notice.

My attitude toward writing about wrinkles has fluctuated a great deal as well. Part of the time I think, why am I bothering to write about wrinkles? How ridiculous! How petty! At other times I recognize that any belief, no matter how we judge that belief, is as good as any other to work with and to illustrate the practice. It’s all suffering in one form or another. It’s all useful. Perhaps the fact that I have such judgments about it makes it even more valid a focus. And then there’s the fact of it being ‘in my face’ every day.

The way to end suffering is not to duel with judgment, opinion and beliefs, as if there was a potential victor. It is simply to notice them. This noticing on its own helps to lighten the weight of them. When I accept that I have opinions, when I see them arise in my thoughts, when I feel the associative emotions and the physical sensations, then there is more clarity, more spaciousness making more room for more revelations. What seemed so solid thins into a veil blowing in the wind — transient, impermanent, impersonal.

I could spend my days looking for a better mirror, a way of seeing this situation, that will give me something more pleasant to live with, but ultimately that’s not much help. I could complain to friends, who will jump in to tell me, “Why you look just fine! I hardly notice any wrinkles! What are you talking about?” for this is the wonderful thing we women do for each other, and don’t for a moment think I don’t appreciate that kind of loving comfort.

But really, what I need from myself is to see the nature of relative reality.

What is that? It’s the reality I’ve constructed over the course of my life based on my experiences of interacting with the world around me. It’s what I hold to be true about myself and the world. It is ‘relative’ because it is only true in a narrow context. For example I am old to a person of 20 and young to a person of 80. I am tall to anyone shorter and short to anyone taller. I am fat to anyone thinner and thin to anyone fatter. My belief about my age and weight changes to a degree as well, depending on who I am with!

My relative reality is not completely my own construct. It includes the relative reality of the culture in which I live. This discussion of wrinkles would be totally out of context if I lived in a culture where visible signs of aging are met with respect. My choice of this focus here is so totally relative a reality that it doesn’t even translate! (If this is being read by someone in such a culture, notice the judgments that have been arising around the neuroticism of ‘Westerners!’)

Culturally shared beliefs are worth noticing and questioning, too. Think of all the beliefs that were accepted as fact in our history, even very recent history, that have been held up to the light by wise people and found to be totally untrue. This is an ongoing valuable questioning we do as a community, holding up beliefs to the light of kindness, compassion, justice and common sense. And it is something each of us does, hopefully, within ourselves.

As meditators, we can use the (relatively!) spacious minds we have developed through meditation to notice whatever thoughts and emotions are arising in our experience. We can notice the associative links of these thoughts to beliefs we hold to be true. We can question the beliefs as they reveal themselves, gaining insight. Is this true? How do I know this is true?

This is part of the practice. It is a very spacious, non-goal-oriented, non-aggressive activity. We are not exterminators routing out infestations. We are simply being present for what arises with an awareness of the nature of relative reality, an acceptance that our beliefs do not define us, and can be brought into question.

The fear that arises is also to be noticed — not to be banished but to be explored. Fear is what feeds the beliefs we discover. If we notice the fear, a part of the practice is to notice where we feel that fear in our body. We can sit with that sensation, really feeling it, allowing it its full expression. And then we can ask that sensation, ‘What am I afraid of?’

Questioning In

When we ask a question we need to be prepared to notice everything that arises, all the various ways that we give ourselves vital information. Not just in words but images, memories, often in strings that paint a more complete picture of the source of this particular fear-based belief.

These might be alarming images. We might want to shut them down. But if we are practiced meditators, experienced in being present, we can stay with whatever arises, breathing compassion. These images are not offered for us to revise them or make them better. The practice is to notice them, and to recognize that they are in direct response to the question we have asked, even if time has passed since we asked the question so that we have forgotten that we even asked it!

Sometimes we ask a question and the answer appears neither in words or images but in some other way. A book jumps off the library shelf; a friend calls and says something that answers the question; or perhaps that friend represents a quality that is a part of the answer. The answer my come through dreams as well.

Finding a way to be open and receptive to whatever arises without grasping the answers that come, holding them to be truth or proof, is also part of the practice. Is this true? How do I know this is true? The Buddha was very clear that even revealed wisdom needs to be thoroughly examined, bringing all our faculties to bear.

Quantum physics shows that waves of energy, when observed, become particles. Can we feel this in ourselves? Is it possible that our collective consciousness has shifted us into seemingly separate particles, that at the same time we are naturally part of a great infinite pattern of oscillating energy? Then if we relax into our energetic nature, our connection beyond time and space, then why wouldn’t we have access to infinite wisdom, infinite resources from which to draw answers to our questions?

If you say that makes no sense at all, just try it for yourself some time, dropping your shield temporarily. Think how each atom — that building block of corporal existence — is mostly space with the tiniest speck of dense matter within it. You can let this factual knowledge help you, if needed, so you can feel safe in exploring this sensory perception of spaciousness, rather than always being totally fixated on the dense little dot with which we construct the separate objects of our lives.

Painters are taught to not just look at the central subject, but to be equally aware of the ‘background,’ the ‘negative space.’ What is this space? Is it nothing? Or is it perhaps everything, the is-ness, the energy that is more ‘us’ than the thin edges of the cells that sketch out what we hold to be solid constructs. Have we all our lives been paying exclusive attention to only the particulate aspect of being? Have we accepted as reality the relative reality, instead of the spacious energy — this throbbing wholeness, this infinite wave — that holds all the answers to every question we ever posed, spoken or unspoken?

Now there’s a question!

But back to these darn wrinkles. From a spacious point of view, this transient edge that I hold to be so solid, so real, is less real than I imagined. But it is unlikely I will hold this view for long. I am having a corporal life experience, with all the emotions, thoughts and sensations that go with it. It is a gift and I am truly grateful, even if it doesn’t seem so when I am standing in front of the mirror pulling and pawing to find that younger face, the one that wasn’t satisfactory either! There’s a good chance I may never become close personal friends with the mirror. Perhaps I will even decide to go the route my mother took, removing every damn mirror from the house except a tiny one on the back of the bathroom door to check to make sure there was nothing stuck in her teeth.

It doesn’t matter! Just my noticing this pattern of dissatisfaction, seeing it as a veil of illusion in the great scheme of things, part of what Taoists call the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows of earthly existence, is enough. It is enough for me to wear the veil more lightly, to see through it from time to time, and to stop believing it to be the fabric of my being.