Monthly Archives: September 2010

What keeps us from knowing our Buddha Nature?

Central to Buddhism is the understanding that there is no place to get to, that enlightenment is not some distant place, but lives ever present within us. This sense of presence is called our Buddha Nature. It is our inherent loving-kindness, our spacious mind that knows we are each expressions of a whole rather than the separate individuals we habitually believe ourselves to be.

This Buddha Nature may be a treasure we have yet to recognize, hidden in plain sight but camouflaged by our habitual patterns of seeing. But have no doubt! It is there, shining within us, a light of incredible brilliance that, when discovered, illuminates our experience, clarifying our understanding and dissolving the tangle of fear-based roots that has kept us feeling tethered, weighed down and out of kilter.

We have been studying the Third Noble Truth that promises that we can know and even live fully from this Buddha Nature. Our practice is to make ourselves available to this Buddha Nature by being as present in this moment as we can. We relax into the moment, for it is in this ‘here, now and fully-relaxed’ state that the inherent Buddha Nature makes itself known.

It seems simple enough to do this. The instructions are clear. Yet often, sitting after sitting we come away feeling as if we have waded through a bog of mental mud! We begin to doubt if we are capable of finding clear spacious open-heartedness or even a little precious peacefulness where we can momentarily rest our weary minds. We begin to worry that we are the only person in the world who doesn’t actually have Buddha Nature.

This is absolutely normal. There are so many ways our habitual mind sabotages our intention to access our Buddha Nature. We know that habits die hard. I remember when my mother finally quit smoking after her doctor told her she had emphysema. She told me that it wasn’t the addiction that was so difficult; it was her inability to imagine who she would be without a cigarette in her hand. In her mind, smoking made her more sophisticated, intelligent and glamorous. Without that little burning stick in hand, who would she be? After she quit, she was still just as vital, beautiful and exciting as she had ever been. And once the smoke cleared, she could see that that cigarette did not define her and had instead been hindering her from full enjoyment of life. But for so many years she had been too afraid to let go, to find that out; and that fear fostered the self-destructive behavior that killed her.

My mother’s experience illustrates how we cling more tightly than ever to our habits if they are entwined with our self-image. So if, for example, we like to think we are practical and not susceptible to any woo-woo nonsense, then we create a strong resistance even to something that offers us the possibility of a happier life.

This is not to say we should abandon good judgment and fall for every feel-good scheme that gets marketed to us! Quite the opposite! Instead, we need to become aware of our OWN inner wisdom. When we are disconnected from it, if we are honest we can feel that disconnect. During a period many years ago when I was ‘too busy’ to meditate or even to give myself much-needed alone time, I remember saying to a co-worker, “I feel totally separate from myself.”

This was a potentially pivotal moments in my life. Had I heeded the words coming out of my mouth instead of just finding them amusing, I might have saved myself and those I love a lot of subsequent suffering. (Often the wisest words are words we say ourselves, and just as often we don’t listen to them. It really pays to notice what advice we are giving others. It’s often for us as well.)

But I didn’t pay attention to my words of caution. Instead I continued my grueling schedule and ended up getting a serious chronic illness that incapacitated me, forcing me to leave my career, cutting our family income in half. Had I heeded my own words, I might have been able to make a milder and less painful course correction.

I began to meditate again, and since there was little else I could do, I meditated as if I were on what turned out to be a nine month retreat. I had been so out of balance and then so ill that that level of intensity felt necessary. In this way, I came home to my own inner wisdom, my own Buddha Nature, not just in rare moments, but as a steady guiding light in my life. Eventually that inner wisdom diffused in such a way that I understood it was not some separate inner guru replete with personality, but simply a shift of perception, from a sense of separation to a sense of connection.

These habits of mind we all have are deeply rooted in this disorienting belief that we are separate and isolated beings encased in envelopes of skin. I say ‘disorienting’ because at some level we know it is not true, so we have angst and restlessness, as we look all over for the things in the world that will make us feel connected. When everything fails to satisfy this deep longing, we feel steeped in fear that expresses itself in all manner of negative emotions and results in suffering, for ourselves and those around us.

As we meditate, we practice developing the mental muscles of setting clear intention to be present with whatever arises in our experience. We practice relaxing our muscles and letting our bones support our bodies. And we develop a sense of compassion so that we can meet our distracted minds with kindness rather than our habitual harangue. With steady practice we begin to find more spaciousness, and more clarity to notice habitual mental and emotional patterns. With compassionate curious attention, these patterns soften and may even dissolve.

The briefest glimpse into this spaciousness can be sufficient to begin the unraveling of these old fear-based habits. Buddha Nature is timeless, and therefore, once known, once perceived, is always available. Years ago there was a popular activity of staring at a visual puzzle, where an image was hidden within a complex pattern. People would stare and stare at this puzzle. Some would become frustrated and give up. Some would see it quickly. With others it took time, but by relaxing and keeping their vision refreshed, they finally saw it. But everyone who saw it couldn’t later un-see it. The image would always be there. This is also true of Buddha Nature. Once you know it, you can never un-know it. You may ignore it, but you will never again be unable to sense it if you open to it.

Since we are creatures of habit, we can set the intention to develop new healthy mental habits – habits of noticing, habits of being aware of sensation, habits of compassionately observing our mind at work. This is a very effective way to prepare ourselves for whatever shift in consciousness that might arise out of repeatedly making ourselves available.

Allowing for the possibility, making ourselves available – these are good ways of thinking about how this shift of awareness happens. They remind us that this is an opening to what already is, rather than a search for something hidden elsewhere. It’s more like tuning our instrument to play harmoniously. Perhaps we are currently strung too tight and so are playing a sharp instead of a natural. Or perhaps we’re strung too loose, sluggish in our energy, foggy in our thinking, sleepy in our meditation, so we need to focus on refining, clarifying and brightening our concentration. This is not done by hunkering down, gritting our teeth or bracing ourselves, but through opening to the energy that is ever-present. We can draw it into our being, feel its strength and healing power, and let it rise up to express itself through us.

As we open, allowing for the natural shift to a more fluid connected state that is always available, we can see that in this state the old habits of fear that we thought were serving to protect us serve no purpose. Their efforts only exacerbated negative situations, escalated arguments and confrontations, and cut us off from healthy interaction.

The idea of retiring our emotional weaponry sounds nice, but what if we are feeling stuck in fear? What if we are fearful of the ideas presented here? First, let’s remember that none of this is new news but draws from the well of universal wisdom that is at the core of all world religions and spiritual traditions. And, if religion scares us, we can find the same wisdom in the latest scientific findings.

Secondly, it’s valuable to recognize that all of these habits of mind are striving for our survival as best they can. They are trying to protect us from a perceived harm. So it is just another fear-based habit of mind to feel threatened by the habits themselves. It is more useful to see them as misguided allies.

I have occasionally referred to working with the various aspects or voices we discover as we really listen to our thinking mind. I have found in my own experience the value of inquiring into the specific desires and concerns of these aspects, and then compassionately negotiating a way for the aspects needs to be met without undermining my well being.

You may recall the story of my inner aspect ‘Slug’ and his resistance to exercise. He loved bed. Bed was for him a big mommy hug, and he missed his mommy. Well, of course, I missed my mommy too as she had died a few years before this encounter. But I knew my mother wouldn’t want me lollygagging in bed anymore than my own inner wisdom did, so I found a yoga class with a teacher about my mother’s age and who, at the end of class, as we students were lying on the floor in shivasana pose, would come to each of us with a blanket and tuck us in. Well, of course Slug LOVED this yoga class. And that’s how I was able to negotiate getting some much-needed exercise.

But as useful as it can be to work with aspects of self in this inter-personal way, giving them cute nicknames and personalities to encourage compassion in our dealings, there are many other ways to view these complex inter-workings of our mind.

These habits of mind are caught up in a view that is totally relative. Through the lens of these habits steeped in fear, we see things from an embedded perspective, like a journalist embedded in a military operation. We see a very intense, very personal, but very one-sided view of things. And it is so intense — this living a life — that we completely buy into it being the whole truth. But all the while we are stuck in this perspective that is vested in maintaining this singular point of view, as if we have pledged allegiance to it and must defend it, or are employed as its public relations representative.

We are not! We are free agents! We are free to walk about and observe with fresh eyes and see for ourselves what is true and what is not. How much of what we hold to be true have we really questioned or examined?

I was so taken years ago when I heard about a listening project in the Southern US, where trained volunteers visited homes and simply listened to the inhabitants express their views of the world. They were trained to notice when they made statements that seemed rote, as if accepted long ago and not examined since. And they knew how to probe, encouraging deeper self-reflection, so that on their own the interviewees began to see the flaws in their own arguments, and through further exploration, using their own good sense, they found they didn’t buy into the pre-packaged hateful things they had so readily spouted just an hour before. In this way the listening project did not promote another view; it just provided the space for exploration.

And this is what we do. We provide space and a willingness to notice and question our standing operating procedures, our pre-packaged beliefs, our previously unquestioned inheritance of values and ideas. We see where we may be holding two opposing beliefs at the same time and have never stopped to question them. No one else can do this inner work for us. We may be inspired by what others say, but the experience of questioning is an ongoing inside job.

For some this idea might at first feel very threatening. Our inherited beliefs may seem comforting, something to hang onto in a dangerous world. They may seem like the one way we do feel connected to something. And it may be true that at core they do offer that entrance to a sense of connection, but unexamined, accepted as truth without exploration, they are about as powerful as a baby’s security blanket.

Opening to the possibility that these habits of mind — these negative emotions, judgments and discomforting thoughts — are not personal but universal, helps us to feel safe in our exploration. Understanding that most of us look at the world from a particular mindset — not from our deepest and truest nature — helps us to let go of the need to defend our position.

How refreshing and relaxing it is to realize that these habits of mind are not traits that define us, but common patterns that course through us, shaping our thoughts and our behavior. These patterns are like the readily visible patterns in that visual puzzle mentioned earlier, before we see the image that is hidden in plain sight.

Insight meditation is the practice of noticing these patterns of mind, actively observing in a spacious way. If we notice when we are getting caught up in them and pause to breathe more spaciousness into our noticing, and then look with fresh eyes in a more relaxed way, we can begin to see something else emerging.

These relative mindsets we have believed to be our true selves all these many years, do not define us any more than my mother’s cigarette defined her. As we make that distinction and begin to see that we are not these habits of mind, then we can open ourselves more easily to the possibility of allowing them to pass through our current experience without feeling we have to rise up and do battle with them. In time we see that bringing spaciousness into our relationship with them gives us the ability to see them more clearly, to see all the thoughts, emotions and image associations that give us deeper understanding. Eventually, with that shift into seeing from our inherent Buddha Nature perspective, these habits lose their sense of purpose. With their need to protect us gone, they can dissolve quite naturally.

So what keeps us from knowing our Buddha Nature? Believing that our habits of mind –our endless thought stream, and our ocean of emotion — define us. As we let go of our clinging to this sense of separate self we become available for the revelation of the absolute reality of oneness with all that is that patiently waits within us. This is our Buddha Nature.

Autumnal Equinox

This week instead of my usual dharma talk after meditation we were treated to a preview of a speech one of our meditators. Dr. Lonnie Barbach, is giving at the AARP Convention coming up in Orlando, Florida.

But within the meditation, I was able to bring in the concept of balance to honor this moment of the equinox, when the day and night are equal — such an opportunity to notice how we find balance in our lives, and how easily we get out of kilter.

So happy Equinox to all of you! May the crisp air bring more spaciousness in your mind and heart, so that you can hold all of life in an open embrace, finding equanimity, upekkha.

Black-eyed Dharma

I recently taught a day long retreat with a black eye, the result of a fall I had while hiking in the mountains. My hands and knees were also bruised but not so on display as this amazingly dramatic black eye and bruised chin.

‘Well, meditation clearly doesn’t save you from pain,” my students might well have thought.

True! But it did help to illuminate in the moment of impact and those that followed as I sat on that granite cliff, gasping for breath, sobbing, as my forehead gushed blood down my face, my hair and all over my clothes and the rock below, and my dear husband dug frantically around in the backpack to find our first aid kit.

In that moment, I noticed the physical sensation of having fallen, and there was pain, of course, but the pain was not as severe as pain I’ve known in my life. The tears came from the thoughts that were coursing through my head. ‘Oh my God! Why didn’t I pick up my foot a little higher?’ and ‘Oh please, don’t let anything be broken!’ and ‘Oh no, how will we get ourselves back down the mountain? Can I possibly hike three miles in this state?’ and ‘Oh no, I’ve ruined our perfect camping trip!’ and ‘Thank goodness I fell here, not twenty feet earlier where I might have tumbled down a cliff.’ But my over-riding concern in that moment, as Will tore open the little packets of alcohol, anti-bacterial unguent and bandages was for the way the strong mountain wind was whipping those little white pieces of paper up. I kept grabbing them and collecting them, determined not to leave litter on the mountain. Will assured me he would pick everything up after we got the blood staunched and my wounds tended, but I knew the wind was going to blow them off our little outcropping to places he would not be able to reach and I simply could not bear to litter this pristine wilderness with the detritus of my mishap. That was the pain that focused my attention.

Noticing. That was the gift of meditation in that moment. And later, safely back down the mountain, assured there was no permanent damage, and comforted by a chocolate ice cream cone and an ice pack on my swollen brow and lip, I was able to see that the cause of my fall was my lack of mindfulness in previous moments. I had stubbornly resisted my body’s cues that clearly warned me I had hiked high enough, even if I hadn’t reached our goal: a picnic spot at a pair of mountain lakes. I had multiple opportunities to heed what my body was saying: When I noticed I was too tired to go on; when I noticed that even though we were trying to conserve water, I really needed to be drinking more of it; and when I let a whole series of future and past thoughts override my awareness of the moment.

What tripped me up was not just a little tree stump, but the thought that for the past few years, every time we are in the mountains and we decide to hike to a certain spot, we never get there! We always turn back! So it seemed to me that to give in again, to ‘not get there’ this time, was to acknowledge something much larger than merely the tiredness I was feeling in my body. It was acknowledging aging, change, a lack of control over what I could or couldn’t do. Or it was acknowledging that I was out of shape and needed to spend the rest of the year being more active, taking much longer more rigorous walks. All of this thinking was weighing on me as I hiked up that rocky trail that required intense concentration for each step.

And so, I refused to turn back each time Will suggested I seemed tired and maybe we should. The heat was oppressive, especially as I covered myself thoroughly, not trusting my sunscreen to be enough to protect my skin, and not sure how many hours we had been hiking.

Youthful hikers bounced by us and I felt ancient in a way I’ve never felt ancient before. Their ease made my discomfort all the more unacceptable. Oh comparing mind! Also I occasionally chide myself for being comfort-loving and soft, and I wanted to challenge that image, I wanted to show that inner voice that I was made of tougher stuff.

But in the last portion of the trail to the lakes, there was suddenly a very steep, much narrower dirt section that I had to look at with the eyes of the surgeon who replaced my hip two years before. It looked very slippery and precarious. Maybe I could get up it, but how would I ever get back down? Maybe I could do it if I was fresh, but I could never do it in this state.

So we turned around. Once again! Defeated and exhausted, I followed my long shadow back down the gravel trail that demanded even greater concentration going downhill. My shadow was hypnotic, an elongated version of my three-year old self who, according to family lore, was dragged up the Smokey Mountains against her will. Now the shadow of my straw hat pulled in at the sides by the shirt I tied to keep it anchored from the strong wind, made the shape of the little bonnet I wore on that journey sixty years before.

So we walked together this small grumpy child and I, following my beloved husband down the mountain. Our descent was slow but buoyed by our plan to return to a shady view spot we remembered from our climb that seemed a good place to rest and have our picnic. Somewhere along the way, I took the lead, and when we arrived at the spot and I stepped off the trail, relaxing into my tiredness, thirst and hunger. And in that moment of release, of letting down my intense concentration on each step that had been necessary for survival on this challenging trail, I missed seeing the little stump in the shadow of a rock, and I tripped and fell.

Will says that for him it happened in slow motion, watching me fall and feeling helpless from his position to save me. For me, there was a moment lost somewhere. There was the arriving at the rest spot with a sense of relief, and there was being flat on the granite, my sunglasses flying off to the left, my face smashed against the jagged rock, blood erupting, and me saying, “I’m fine. I’m fine.”

During the week that followed, I found the most challenging part was dealing with the dirty looks my sweet husband was getting when we were together as strangers assumed he did the damage.
One male friend joked that Will should point to my black eye and say, “She wouldn’t listen.” I was horrified by his suggestion because of the serious nature of spousal abuse. I couldn’t find the humor in it. But you know what? He was right. I got a black eye because I wouldn’t listen! I didn’t listen to Will when he expressed his concerns about my well-being on the climb, and I didn’t listen to my own body when it said enough already. So let that be a lesson to me!

So no, meditation doesn’t always save us from pain, though in this case it could have, had I stayed more present with my experience. We’ll discuss that aspect more when we get into the Eightfold Path and Wise Action.

But, just as that black eye has healed so quickly, showing a wonderful resilience, my meditation practice provides me with more mental and emotional resilience than I would have had otherwise. It provides a more expansive view of things so that I don’t keep kicking myself for my misstep, don’t keep knocking myself down over and over again. And, although I admit I did give that little stump a good kick and a piece of my mind as we left that now-bloodied rest stop, it was in jest, and I haven’t indulged in railing against it, or the trail or the heat or my body or any other condition that could easily become the tarbaby dukkha delivery system. How many events in our lives are still holding us hostage, still delivering dukkha as if we have a standing order?

My meditation practice gave me the patience to give myself a lot of down time to rest and heal, even though it’s been a busy time. It gave me the ability to process a painful experience with compassion and more clarity than I would have had otherwise.

It gave me gratitude for being alive, an awareness of impermanence and a new appreciation for my face without bruises. I look prettier to me now! During the period my face was so shocking to see that people gasped or averted their eyes, I appreciated this gift of insight into how it might be to have some permanent disfigurement in such a prominent place as the face; how it must be to constantly deal with the responses of others, when one feels perfectly normal inside. This experience carved a deeper sense of compassion in me, as I felt my desire to just stay home, to just avoid going out all together.

I have made use of the black eye, working it, making ‘lemonade’ out of this lemon experience. This dharma talk, a poem brewing somewhere within me, and even a two minute speech at the Civic Center. I was scheduled to give a ‘Tip of the Day’ at my Toastmasters meeting there, and had planned to talk about our camping trip with a suggestion people visit that area. I did that, but I choreographed it to keep my ‘dark side’ covered with my Veronica Lake locks until the dramatic reveal of my black eye and the suggestion that people should watch their step when hiking. The gasp of the audience was priceless!

It’s a traditional Buddhist practice to sit with such examples of impermanence, so I was providing a service to you, my dear students as you watched me giving my dharma talk in class and on retreat. What a devoted teacher!

So I open this up to explore that quality of noticing, of heeding our inner wisdom and what happens when we don’t. What recent experiences in your own life have given you this same lesson, or this same sense of gratitude for the practice? What past events are still holding you hostage? When you have some time and want to explore, meditate and then ask these questions of yourself. The answers will arise and may even surprise you.

The Flow of the Four Brahmaviharas

As we explore the Third Noble Truth and begin to understand the nature of the promise it offers, we can look at the Four Brahmaviharas, the Heavenly Abodes that are the gift of the practice, and understand them in a deeper way.

To review, the Four Brahmaviharas are:
Metta — Loving kindness to all beings
Karuna – Compassion for all beings
Mudita — Sympathetic Joy, the ability to feel happy for the happiness of others
Upekka – Equilibrium, the ability to balance our lives even when challenged

(If the Four Brahmaviharas are new to you, please read more about them before proceeding, as this post is an additional layer to our understanding, not a detailed explanation of them.)

To continue from the last post, when we shift our perspective from seeing ourselves as individuated, solid and separate to a more scientifically-aligned understanding of the vibrant interconnectivity of all being, we look at these four states of being, these Four Brahmaviharas, with enriched understanding and deeper insight.

From a solid, individuated perspective, metta is most likely a feeling we try to create by remembering our feeling of love for someone specific, then trying to imagine feeling that same sense of love for others, even those for whom we feel just the opposite. This is a fine attempt, and the best we can do when we are operating from a sense of separateness and isolation. From this perspective we try hard to be kind, loving and generous to all beings, but it isn’t easy. In fact it is full of pitfalls. Can we understand the nature of infinite loving-kindness from the feelings we have toward one individual with whom we have a strong bond arising out of chemical attachment, similar world views, physical attraction, shared interests, shared personal history, etc.? I certainly struggled with that for years, imagining metta to be some finite resource that I reserved only for my closest loved ones, not wanting to squander my well-wishing and not have it when I most needed it. I just didn’t get it! And it’s now easy to understand why I didn’t. I was stuck in a sense of solid separateness, where even emotions are commodities that must be conserved to have real value.

Now, with this subtle but profound shift, we can see that metta is infinite and vast. It is the very sea we swim in, the air we breathe, and the fabric of all being. How sweet it is to break free of the bondage of fear that contracts us into a sense of separation! How rich and bounteous is this sense of metta now! There is no way to hoard it even if there was a reason to try. Instead we allow ourselves to be loving conduits of this infinite life energy that expresses itself through us and through all beings.

Opening to this spacious loving kindness is often our first real glimpse and understanding of the infinite nature of being. We can test it out for ourselves and see how when we send metta to those beyond our little circle, even to those we judge harshly, whose world view is so different from our own, whose behavior causes us discomfort or even harm. Challenging our limited view of the nature of loving kindness seeds the possibility of awareness of the spacious nature of being.

Karuna, the second of the Brahmaviharas, means compassion. Even locked in to our perspective of being solid and separate, we understand from our practice and the teachings that feeling sorry for someone else is not compassion, though it is certainly better than scorning them. We recognize the importance of developing compassion in ourselves, compassion both for ourselves and others. Our ability to do so varies to a great degree on the circumstances and the particular person. Often we find our true feelings to be more pity than compassion, and, if we are honest, a sense of relief that we are not in their situation.

From this separate perspective, our sympathy is an expression of our fear of such a situation some day happening to us. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we tell ourselves in order to encourage the behavior in ourselves that we think we would appreciate from others were we in that situation. And this is the best we can do from our separate solid sense of life. In fact, most of us aren’t even that gracious! We may find when we look closely at our thoughts that we need for each person’s situation to be his or her own fault because for us to think their situation could be beyond personal control means it could as easily happen to us. We are terrified of not feeling in control of our lives. Fear keeps us separate, judging and blaming. (As we discover these thoughts, of course it helps a great deal if we have compassion for ourselves, and understand that we are not our thoughts.)

We may admire compassionate people like Mother Theresa and use her example as a gauge. Perhaps we see Hitler on the other end. She was good, perhaps in our view ‘too good’ and he was bad, the very definition of evil.

(For some of my students hearing the name Hitler in the middle of a dharma talk was very jarring. So we paused and sensed in to our bodies and noticed the jarring sensation at the sound of that name. We noticed the physical constriction that arises out of a complex network of fear-based emotions being suddenly activated. In our practice we are not creating a space separate from life where we can get away from it all. We are finding spaciousness in ourselves to be able to open to it all in a fearless and compassionate way.)

With a shift of perspective to a fluid interconnected state, where loving kindness is the air we breath and the fabric of life, we can see clearly that Mother Theresa was not just a person bent on being ‘good.’ Goodness arose from her like a sweet scent arises from ripe fruit, effortlessly. She was simply aware of her connection to all beings, and was therefore fearless in easing the pain she sensed around her. It was not always easy. At times she was undoubtedly locked into a separate sense of things and questioned everything she was doing. But some deeper perspective was sufficiently available to her to keep her clear of her path in life. Since she was religious, she saw this connection as the infinite nature of God’s love in all being. But whether we define it that way is not important. What is important is opening to this shift of perspective, however we define it.

Now Hitler saw separation everywhere. He was so afraid, so isolated, that he had to exterminate millions of beings he perceived as ‘other’ and therefore threatening to his safety. The very possibility of there being another perspective, a fluid open expansiveness, would probably frighten him, threaten him with extinction. Thus he was held in a prison of his own making, in solitary confinement, without possibility of parole.

In class we discussed guns. It is my strong belief that a gun is an emblem of fear. That the person who needs a gun to feel safe is locked into a prison of separation and fear, one that has to be defended at all costs. Now I’ve never held a gun in my hand, and one student who has shot a gun said that there is a sense of power, a physical adrenaline rush to shooting at a target. I can certainly imagine this, and for purposes of thrill-seeking in a controlled target range, my only concern would be developing an addiction to that rush. But we are talking about needing a gun to feel safe in the world, even though those that carry guns are statistically more likely to be shot or have a loved one shot by those very guns, than they are to be protected by them. But that doesn’t matter because the gun satisfies some sense of defense from the ‘other’ that is ‘out there.’ Carrying a gun may instill a feeling of control over our situation, and we’ve seen how needing to have a sense of control can control us!

When we think about Hitler or any other person so rooted in separation, it often knocks us back into a sense of separation too. We want to be separate from the Hitlers of the world. We want to connect only with the pleasant parts and set the destructive parts aside, but the destructive parts are of being are the tight knots, the eddies in the flow of life. We need to be aware of them, but the moment we refuse to acknowledge connection with any aspect of life, we create separation and fear.

While we choose to resonate with joy, creativity, vibrancy and ease, it is not skillful to deny the existence of fear and fear-based emotions as they arise in ourselves and others. We may choose not to focus on them, as whatever we align ourselves with, we amplify, but we do not have to hide or suppress any aspect, any thought or emotion. We simply bring ourselves fully into the moment, sense into our bodies, expand into spaciousness and see if we can access a sense of compassion, karuna, for that tightness and fear wherever we find it.

Now let’s see how this shift of perspective from solid and separate to fluid and connected affects our ability to feel Mudita, or sympathetic joy. What a challenge Mudita is when we feel separate! Trying to be happy for another’s happiness when we don’t get what they have seems a hopeless task. It cannot be done from a solid, separate state. As separate beings we can only be happy when things benefit us or someone so close to us that we have an established chemical bond. Being happy for your grandchild when he or she wins a prize, is not mudita. That grandchild is perceived as an extensive of your solid self, part of your solid inner circle. Mudita is feeling joy for the happiness of a stranger, someone with whom you have not bonded, feeling their joy in their grandchildren, even when you have none and wish you did. It is feeling joy for the soaring bird, even though you on the ground cannot know what it is to have wings. It is feeling joy at the sight of the youthful grace of a young body, sensing the ease, even when yours is tight, aging and painful. In other words, mudita is a seemingly impossible task.

Shifting into fluidity, we are astonished to discover that the joy arises naturally. His joy, her joy: it’s all joy. It’s like an infinite flow of joy completely accessible to us at any moment. In this shift to interconnection, letting go of fear, craving for acknowledgment, possession and all else that arises from fear, the ‘prizes’ we had perceived become superfluous. Recognition is nice, but it’s only important if you feel separate, if your are a package that has just gotten a magic added ingredient, another star on its chart, an impressive addition to a resume or simply bragging rights over others. Feeling separate, there’s so much to defend, protect and promote! How exhausting!

Aware of our fluid nature, recognition is just the universe smiling at itself. It’s joyful acknowledgment that we are aligned with a sense of purpose, a good use of our skills and talents, etc. All nice, but not the goal, not the purpose of having done whatever it is that caused us to receive recognition.

If everything is fluid, then we release the idea that accumulating stuff protects us or defines us. If someone drives by in a shiny red car, it is simply eye candy that adds to our pleasure in the day. In this interconnected state, it is not a reminder that we are failures because we don’t have that shiny car.

So the seeming impossibility of mudita, being happy for the happiness of others, becomes a naturally arising phenomenon from a state of fluidity.

Finally, Upekka, equilibrium, is another challenge for us when we are in a state of feeling solid and separate. In this state, all causes and conditions of our life are battering us from some external place, usually put into motion by some ‘other’ individual against whom we spend massive amounts of time railing. If only they were different! If only we were different! If only, if only… When really the only ‘difference’ required is a subtle shift of perspective into focusing not on individuals but on the interactive energy connecting us, and more specifically on the energy we are generating, and whether it is fueled by loving-kindness, infinite metta; or by sharp constricted fear so that we are always embattled, always causing them to put up their defenses.

The wonderful Hindu greeting phrase ‘Namaste’ means basically that the God in me honors the God in you. When we can relate to each other in this way, it is acknowledging this deep connection, and setting the intention to interact in this fluid connected state rather than in the divisive other-making way that seems to create more and more problems and less and less happiness or sense of equilibrium.

Upekka, equilibrium, naturally arises out of a fluid state. How can we become overwhelmed if we are infinite? If we can simply expand beyond our sense of limited separation and fear to take in what is occurring in this moment, whatever it is, how will we get out of balance?
This ability to hold great sorrow and joy at the same time is one of the more amazing moments of our lives, offering true portals to insight. The next time you are faced with such a situation of sorrow paired with happiness – perhaps a son is getting married while a daughter is seriously ill, or a grandchild is being born while a close friend or relative is dying – sit with it for a while in silence and allow for the possibility that you are spacious enough, infinite enough to hold it all in an open embrace. We each have the capacity to be present with all the thoughts, emotions and senses that arise in our experience around any situation. And that willingness to be present with it, rather than try to change anything, is key to this sense of equilibrium.

So that is our little review of the Four Brahmaviharas and how accessible they are from this fluid perspective. That’s why they are the fruits of the practice. No matter how hard we ‘try’ to be loving, compassionate, happy for others, and able to hold our lives in balance, we get caught up in the constriction of the trying, the seeing ourselves as separate objects in need of improvement and change.

So we meditate. We walk slowly in nature. We have insights about the nature of life, and we let go of any sense of striving to ‘get to’ this shift of perspective. We open to whatever arises in this moment, making as much room as we can with as much loving-kindness as we can create, and we trust that this is enough. And it truly is.

Who is this ‘I’?

Scientific research is finding that our consciousness, the ’I’ and the ‘me’ that we refer to, is not a physical (or ethereal) form in our body but the relationship, the interactivity, the conversation between different parts of the brain. When researchers anaesthetize someone and study their brain activity, comparing it to the waking or dreaming brain, the difference is clear: The anaesthetized unconscious brain activity is very limited and centralized, while the conscious brain looks like lightning in different parts of the sky, call and response; like birds in the forest calling from one tree to the other.

This discovery is not all that surprising really. As we meditate and become more aware of the nature of our being in the world and in our own thoughts, we see that it is all about relationship. There is no solidity, there is only interaction. We know that even our bodies are not truly solid, but a series of processes that renew, repair and replicate cells. Nothing about us is the same as it was seven years ago, except the processes that organize matter to keep our bodies looking pretty much the same over the years (or doing the best that they can given external causes and conditions such as gravity, inadequate self-care and exposure to sun rays!)

Ever since the discovery of the atom, science has told us there is no solidity anywhere. What we perceive as solid – the furniture in the room, for example – is just an arrangement of molecules not totally unlike our own, and within each molecule, within each atom is mostly space. It’s convenient for functioning in the world to organize and perceive all this separation. Different creatures organize and perceive differently, based on what works best for getting their basic needs met. We would not recognize the world the bee sees as it buzzes towards flowers. We may not even exist in that world, so unimportant are we to the scheme of things from their point of view!

This idea that perceiving solidity in our surroundings and in our being is a kind of choice we’ve made as a species is unnerving. And it’s totally optional whether we are curious about exploring beyond this convenient way of perceiving the world and ourselves. We crave solid ground to stand on, to be sure of and to trust. But if we are curious and do sense that there is another way of seeing then we can begin to explore the possibility of trusting in this fine network of inter-relational activity.

You don’t have to hang out in a science lab to do your research, but can come to it within your own experience. Buddhism and other world religions support this exploration, this direct experience of some difficult-to-define way of being in the world. (At some point we will explore the concept of the Net of Indra, an ancient Buddhist model that supports the current scientific findings. But it deserves more time than I can give it now.)

But why would we want to explore this non-traditional way of thinking? Perceiving the world as solid works very well for us, does it not? Yes, but to over-rely on just this way of seeing, this way of being in the world, comes at a high price. When we resist opening to a more relational way of perceiving, we give up our sense of connection with nature and with each other. Instead we cling to the idea that being solid we are somehow protected and impervious to change.

As we age, most of us begin to see the false supposition of this presumed imperviousness. We may not be comfortable with it, but we see that this solidity we imagined isn’t true. Our bodies change as they age. Our parents and other loved ones die. If we stay with this view of solidity, we feel isolated and lonely. We feel we are going through a whole set of causes and conditions, and that we each have to face these difficult challenges alone.

So what good news when science shows us that indeed we are not solid, not separate, not alone! What a relief that the ‘I’ is a lively intricate set of patterns in a constant state of interaction. We are released from isolation and can dance in interconnection.

But what does this really mean to us in our day to day activities? It means that if we shift our focus from the solid to the interactive network we will find more vitality, creativity and joy.

If we sense our connection to each other, for example, rather than get stuck in defending the solid person we believed ourselves to be or judging the solid person we thought someone else to be, we can relax and release our fear. There is no ‘other’ to defend our separate self from. There is only this ongoing pattern of dancing molecules, of interactivity of thoughts, emotions and sensation.

In practical application, we focus not on another person but on the natural connection with them. Instead of seeing them as solid, isolated and locked in, we accept that they are fluid, connected and fascinating ever-changing expressions of life. This flushes out our harsh judgments about them, held over many years. It allows them to be in the space of our open embrace and to dance in the light of our awareness. What a difference this makes in our relationship!

We know from our own experience how it is to be with someone who thinks they know us, who thinks they have our number. We feel pre-judged without any room to fully be ourselves, that ever-changing fluid self that cannot be contained. So how much richer would our relationships be if we allowed for the ever-changing fluidity of others?

How often do we find ourselves bored in relationships because we think we are dealing with known quantities? We are not known quantities! Each of us is fluid. But when we are in the company of someone who sees us a certain way, we may fill that pre-defined shape just as water fills a glass.

So in this practice we notice when we are holding relationships in containers of pre-judgment, and if we can notice we are doing so, perhaps we can gently shift our focus to the fluid nature of being itself. This shift is enhanced through the use of metta – sending loving kindness and well wishing, staying with that outpouring of love without agenda.

Opening to hold the person in an open embrace, sensing in to the lightness, the spaciousness, we can be surprised by the interconnected quality of life responding to our openness.

This subtle shift into a more fluid way of perceiving life can happen in any moment, so we can relax and allow for it, rather than setting it as a goal and trying to achieve it. And even if it happens for only one brief moment, even if we only get a whiff of it, so to speak, it’s important to know that because it is timeless, that one whiff, that brief glimpse, can permeate our whole being. Just like a tea bag dipped in water, once introduced, however briefly, it can flavor our whole life.

Through our awareness practice we bring a quality of noticing. We can notice when some fear-based emotion knocks us into seeing ‘other.’ We can sense in our bodies the constriction, the rigidity, the tension that indicates how solid and separate we hold ourselves to be. And with time, this noticing will enable us to infuse breath, metta and spaciousness into any constriction, bringing wisdom, compassion and balance to the fear we feel.

In this way, we shift back and forth from seeing separated solidity and the fluidity of interconnection. But because the former has an increasingly false ring and supports us less and less (and in fact seems to get us into pickles more often than not!), it becomes easier to shift to this richer more joyous perception, this net of interactivity that is the true self, within our brains and between all beings. We resonate with it, because it rings true.

Third Noble Truth: The Good News

All this suffering! Is there any end to it? The Good News it is that through insight, through seeing how we make ourselves suffer, we also begin to expand into seeing the optional nature of this self-inflicted suffering. The Third Noble Truth is simply that there is an end to suffering, according to the Buddha. It’s the good news. The oppressive tangle of our suffering can be seen for what it is, and it can, through insight and compassion, be made more spacious so that we can find joy in simply being with whatever arises.

Yes, we are still confronted with tar-babies, and maybe we still get entangled in the sticky tar from time to time; but through the regular practice of meditation, we are learning to notice when this is happening.

When we notice, we remember to stop struggling and simply be with our experience, as uncomfortable as it may be. Through the practice of meditation and the development of spacious awareness we find our center, our inner access to a sense of equilibrium and ease.

When we were reviewing the First Noble Truth in class a while back, I read from Wes Nisker’s article in Inquiring Mind magazine about what he called ‘Firsters’ and ‘Thirdsters.’ He claims to be a Firster. For him, having The First Noble Truth’s reminder that there is suffering in life is not just a first step to awakening, but a gift that keeps on giving, sufficient for a lifetime’s practice. He doesn’t have much patience for those ‘Thirdsters’ as he calls those who want to be remade into enlightened beings.

Because of the interpretation so many of us put on the Third Noble Truth, it can become a tarbaby in itself. We are attracted to its promise, and may feel compelled to see it as some distant goal of happiness and enlightenment. We get caught up in it and it just becomes another way for us to suffer. We want it. We want it so badly. And we want it now. The wanting is an ache we cannot satisfy. Succumbing to the dazzling promise of the Third Noble Truth can actually keep us from ever experiencing it.

The Third Noble Truth is not about some future version of us, someone who will be so much more calm, peaceful, kind, compassionate and enlightened. The Third Noble Truth is about the promise held within each moment.

Each moment holds the gift of sight. Okay, most moments we may ignore it. But the gift lives fully in each moment, whether noticed or not. This moment for example, as you sit here listening or reading this talk, you have the capacity to be fully present, to sense in to your body, to notice what is true in your experience right now – pain, beauty, emotion, thought – and in that noticing is spaciousness.

The Third Noble Truth is not a destination; it is an ongoing ever-present totally accessible present. When we make it a destination, one more vacation we have to save up for, make time for, one more thing on our to do list or our bucket list, then we have lost touch with its true nature. It becomes a fairy tale, a Shangri La, a Wonderland or an Enchanted Isle.

It is none of these.

The Third Noble Truth is about what is inherent in each of us: our Buddha Nature. This naturally arising way of being in the world is not in some cave on a mountain top in the Himalayas that is beyond our reach. It is always present.

We expend a lot of energy ignoring it, discounting it, pooh-poohing it, but it is there. Here. Now. Always. It is a light that shines within us, one that we may keep carefully shuttered, but from time to time we are able to see things more clearly by the light through the cracks of our shutters. We get a glimpse of insight, an intuitive hit or a moment of clarity. Learning to trust what is revealed by the little light we allow, we begin to notice the light more. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna’ let it shine.” Such a great song! It’s impossible to sing it without the heart feeling full. When we sing it, we are setting an intention that resonates deep within us. When we act out of that intention to allow what is naturally arising within us to express itself by showing compassion to ourselves and others, by trusting what the light reveals to be true and stepping out of the shadows, then the shutters begin to open even more.

The light shows us the lay of the land, reveals the tar-babies for what they are before we get suckered into entangling with them.

We can remind ourselves that the Third Noble Truth is not a distant promise but a constant presence shining its light within us, patiently waiting for us to open the shutters of our hearts and minds.

Here is a chant from the Heart Sutra:

Gate, gate
paragate
parasamgate
bohdi svaha.

It translates loosely as:
Gone, gone,
gone beyond,
gone beyond the beyond,
into awakened mind. Aha!

Chant this for a while, staying fully present in your body with all your senses or just the rising and falling of your breath. Be present with whatever arises, without expectation.

This present is not an intellectual maze you must master, but a simple, even subtle, shift of attention from the belief that we are the thoughts we think, the labels we’ve accepted, or the emotions we feel. This is a shift into expansive ease and open awareness of the spacious nature of being.

We access the present moment through the portal of sensation. Simply sensation. Simply being.

During meditation over the past months, we have been allowing for this subtle shift from thinking in labels, compartmentalizing ourselves and the world around us, to accessing an infinite spaciousness as we experience pure sensation without tagging any particular sensation with the label ‘itchy foot’ or ‘achy back’, for example. Instead, we sense in to the energy field of being, the being that isn’t demarcated by the ‘edge’ of skin.

The Third Noble Truth is not a promise of some heavenly pain-free existence, but an invitation to discover the unlimited nature of our being, the compassionate ease of feeling one with nature, one with all beings; knowing it, not as knowledge we learn from books — although science now supports it — but knowing it deeply, from personal experience.

The last time we were studying the Four Noble Truths, my post on the Third Noble Truth was a sharing of something I wrote many years ago, an exercise called The Dance of the Seven Veils. The Third Noble Truth invites us to discover who we are under all the veils we wear.

Fix-it? Forget it!

We were discussing the Second Noble Truth, and how we can each notice the way we create suffering for ourselves through clinging, grasping and pushing away our experience instead of holding it in an open compassionate embrace. A meditator said that she was noticing this, but that she hoped that the Third Noble Truth was going to offer the next step: How to fix what we notice.

I said that the noticing is all there is. Now this may have been a tad disingenuous because of course the Buddha offers the Eightfold Path (The Fourth Noble Truth.) I suppose it could be regarded as a fix, but I see it more as a circle of light with which we surround ourselves in this practice. Each aspect of the Eightfold Path is a guidepost shedding light that helps us see where we have strayed too far from the core of consciousness and compassion. But the Eightfold Path itself does not fix anything; it simply brightens our way so we can notice. The noticing itself is the one and only step in this process.

The minute we try to fix whatever arises in our thoughts, we are caught up in the stickiness of suffering. Our ‘noticing’ is fault-finding and once we have found a fault, like a fissure in a tooth, we want it ‘taken care of.’ We want it drilled, filled and made perfect.

This is a reasonable response, a naturally arising thought from our creative brain activity. But in this regard, when it comes to releasing from tight constriction into a spaciousness of mind, you can see that this fault-finding fix-it methodology is more likely to shut us down, make us feel defensive and constrict us, rather than open us to feel more and trust in the process. Thus our desire to fix ‘the problem’ undermines the process.

The only tool that is up to the task is this ‘noticing.’ At first our noticing might be rather coarse, full of judgment and attitude, like “Oh there I go again with my big mouth,” or “Yup, I see how angry I get at the least little thing that person does.” Even this has some consciousness to it, some willingness to acknowledge what is happening, or why things are happening as they are, even if we are harsher than we need to be. If this is where we are, we can acknowledge that this is considerably more skillful than not noticing we’ve said something offensive or not noticing our own anger or what seems to trip our trigger.

The next step is not to ‘fix’ what we have noticed, but to refine the quality of our noticing.

Noticing is polished to a rich sheen through meditation practice, both concentration practice and metta practice. This is why we practice and why it is ongoing. The practice is the way we keep our tool of noticing polished.

At first we might think that meditation is a place we go, a retreat we take to get a breather from the hectic life we lead. And if it offers this, that’s lovely, but it is not the purpose of meditation. The core purpose is to develop and refine the ability to see with clarity and compassion whatever arises in this moment.

You can think of the knife-sharpener or the silverware polisher performing a vital service. This is a good way to think of meditation because it takes away the allure of thinking it is about having a mind-blowing experience. It takes away comparing one meditation with another. It is just the practice of being as fully present as we can be in this moment with as much compassion as we can manage right now.

It is just polishing our ability to notice what arises. There is no bad or good meditation, only this taking the time to do the task, to do the practice. If it creates inner peace, sparks creativity, etc. all to the good. The knife sharpener at his grinder and the silver polisher with her felt cloth also may experience this quieting down of the mind. And all the while the knives get sharpened, the forks get polished and the food is well cut and served. Just so, with meditation practice insight, we polish and refine our ability to notice what is arising in this moment and to hold it with acceptance, wisdom and compassion.

And through this practice we can see how the quality of our noticing shifts from, “Oh God, there I go again” to something along the lines of, “Ah, thinking. Noticing a tightness in my jaw when that thought arises. The emotion that arises with it is a sort of_____. Hmmm, the associative images that are arising are ______. Making space in my field of awareness for this to simply arise and fall away.

This kind of inner process could be called a dispassionate curiosity. Although the subject is personal, we are willing to allow for the possibility that it is inherently human, that we –though unique and individual in our own ways – are dealing with a universal stream and we are constantly testing the waters. It is not our job to fix the water, but to become more skillful in navigating in it. We can only do this through noticing the nature of the tides, the undercurrents, the weather, etc. We tune in. We notice. We notice everything.

So through our regular daily practice of meditation this quality of noticing gets polished up into a tool of self-exploration and expansion, rather than a weapon of harsh judgment that cuts us to the quick and leaves us to find a hole to hide in while we lick our self-inflicted wounds.

As you give yourself this gift of meditation, trust that whatever noticing you experience is sufficient for now. Yes, with regular practice, over time the noticing will become more insightful, but judging your state of noticing now as lacking is just another sticky dukkha delivery system, just another tarbaby to get caught up in. So trust the process, trust that as long as we live there is the polishing.

Let your light shine.