Monthly Archives: March 2011

Spacious Action – ‘It’s not the load that breaks you down’

When we look at our cooking pot analogy of the Eightfold Path, we can see how Right Action or, as we are experimenting with it, spacious action arises as steam out of mindfulness. So, theoretically, if we tend the pot, i.e. hold our consciousness in spacious view, fueled by spacious effort, sparked by spacious intention and stirred by spacious concentration, then spacious action will arise quite naturally. Theoretically. In reality that doesn’t always happen. Why not?

Many of us compartmentalize our lives, so that once we are done with our meditation or our silent retreat, we re-enter our ‘real life’ as if it is something quite separate from what we have just been doing. Thus we quickly fall right back into unconsciousness, back into that murky soup of habituated patterns of thought, behavior and speech. We forget that the practice of meditation is to develop skillful means to stay aware, to stay conscious, and to stay clear and compassionate throughout our lives, not just during meditation. Not just on retreat!

Action, how we conduct ourselves in all areas, is not some separate function but an intertwined co-arising aspect of the Eightfold Path. It can be an entry point to the path if we become aware of how our behavior is impacting our well being and the well being of others. This observation may come upon us at any time with or without the benefit of meditation. The difference is that with a strong meditation practice we have skillful means to see the whole of what is happening. Without the practice, the recognition of unskillful action may be used as just another way to beat ourselves up, another way to blame someone else or some cause or condition for our behavior, another binge, and another sinking into deeper and deeper murkiness. But, sometimes the recognition comes with an insight that leads us to begin meditating, and thus it can be an entry point to the Noble Eightfold Path. Perhaps it was yours.

If so, the next step is still and always to return to our skillful intention to be present in every moment and our intention to be compassionate. Thus we are able to see our actions more clearly and we can look at them without running away.

Through this skillful process, this Eightfold Path of developing more clarity and compassion in our minds, our hearts and our lives, we begin to understand that even though we are fully responsible for our actions, they do not define us. Absolutely we need to rectify any suffering we have caused to whatever degree is possible, but we do not need to defend our behavior. There is no excuse possible. Coming up with one is just another self-protective device, based on the erroneous assumption that we are a unique isolated fortress rather than an intrinsic and beloved part of the rich and wondrous flow of life. Excuses keep us churning in the miasma of misery and foster more and more unskillful action. So when we are unskillful, we own up to it. We recognize the error. We understand that error is part of the human experience, arising mostly out of fear and unconsciousness. Think of anything you have done that you wish you had not done and see if you weren’t afraid of something. It might have been a little something but the ramifications were great, like you were afraid of being late so you were speeding in your car and had an accident. But that little fear of being late might be seated in a larger fear of losing love or respect, of being separate. (Being on time is a show of respect to others, of course, and is skillful behavior that starts well before we get into the car, but once we are in that heavy vehicle with all its capacity for harm, with the responsibility for the well being of ourselves, our passengers and everyone else on the road, then driving mindfully is our highest priority.)

Most of us don’t like to own up to how very afraid we are. It helps to see that it is a common part of the human experience to lose our awareness of our interconnection with all of life.

Through meditation practice, renewing again and again our intention to be present (conscious) and compassionate (sensing our deep connection), we begin to be more skillful in our behavior. We become more even in our behavior, not treating some people one way and others another. We behave as if everyone matters. Everyone does! We relate to people from that deeper more connected source of being, and we respond to that deeper more connected source in them. (Think about the phrase ‘namaste’ — the God in me bows to the God in you.)

We stop worrying about what others think about us, and we find we care more about them as an integral part of life. We lose any desire to impress them and instead gain the joy of seeing them happy, finding that when we stop needing to defend ourselves, to prove ourselves then we can focus on what we can share with others, with the world that brings more joy and awakening.

This is a huge and wondrous shift! And it comes through awareness practice. Not just during meditation, but continuing throughout our day, day after day. The ongoing support of our practice enables us take responsibility for our actions, to correct our errors, to loosen the stranglehold of destructive habits and to feel our actions as a dance of interconnectivity rather than a battle that saps us of our will to live.

So, actions are not automatically wise, skillful or spacious because we see meditation as separate from the rest of our lives. But there may be other reasons as well. Old patterns of behavior, deep seated fears as yet unexplored erupt in ways that create unskillful actions. When they do we may be disappointed and feel that our practice isn’t working. But it is! Because now we are able to see the unskillful action, and begin to see the patterns of fear that are still operative because still unconscious, still stuck in the sludge at the bottom of the pot!

Remember that at first, before we started having a regular meditation practice, we couldn’t see these patterns. We justified the behavior they caused and pooh-poohed that the matter could have been handled any other way.

Once we begin to see our unskillfulness we might feel ashamed and guilty. We might stop meditating because we don’t like what we see. This is a challenging stage because we are still defining ourselves by our thoughts and actions and now we see ourselves as ‘a person who does bad things.’ We are still unaware of but firmly attached to the fear-based patterns that caused the unskillfulness. But at some point, if we can just hang in there and give ourselves as much loving-kindness as possible, we begin to see more clearly and the patterns are much more noticeable because they don’t fit anymore. They stand out against the more spacious experience of our life as the tight and toxic sludge that can still be stirred up by certain events and conditions.

I remember finding myself almost twenty years ago in a shouting match with my then teenage daughter. That had been our pattern for a while, but on that day I saw myself more clearly. I saw my out of control and shouting behavior and I started to laugh. It was so absurd to be once again in this pattern of behavior that in no way expressed my true feelings for this child I loved so much. Needless to say she was a little surprised. I’m pretty sure that was the last shouting match we ever had. We found other ways to communicate, ways that were more accurate expressions of my concerns for her well being and her desires for the freedom to live her own life. This is not to say that we never had misunderstandings, but it was a great breakthrough for me to see a leftover destructive pattern arise in my growing awareness. These kinds of breakthroughs remind us that the practice is working! If they feel few and far between, just keep resetting your intention to be present and compassionate.

At times this kind of exploration and self-discovery is painful. We may simply want to get rid of or bury patterns, but this just fuels them. We might be over-efforting, digging too deep too fast. Insights arise out of awareness. If you have to put on an oxygen mask and dive into the depths, you may be forcing the exploration beyond what is skillful in this moment.

We are simply noticing patterns of behavior as they arise in this moment through awareness, compassion and inquiry. In the light of our growing mindfulness, we can see them for what they are, acknowledge them, learn from them and let them go. (Remember our image of holding the world in an open embrace, neither clutching nor pushing away.) Then our actions will be more spacious, arising from compassionate mindfulness. Until then we use the unskillful actions we notice as information for our inquiry to discover what we are afraid of and what old patterns of fear are still holding such power over our behavior.

Where do we begin this exploration? We start from where we are and work with what we have. Discovering what that is takes spaciousness as well. Chances are we have readymade long-held assumptions about who we are and how we are, but spaciousness allows us to take the time to inquire into the veracity of our assumptions. Many of our assumptions were made when we were quite young, when we were sponges for any information about ourselves and were ready to accept other people’s opinions without questioning the source. Conversely we may have been overwhelmed by other peoples’ opinions and in an effort to protect ourselves we shut out even useful insightful perception.

Either way, we have cobbled together the vehicle of our beliefs about ourselves into a reasonably functional means of getting around in the world. So what if the wheels are square and the ride is painful?

We suffer because we keep relying on this cobbled together transport instead of taking the time to investigate what it is that’s creating the rough ride. For some of us, this investigation might be therapy because what is coming up is too difficult to deal with alone, or because a more formal relationship is useful to keep us on track with our investigation. But even then, meditation is a great aid to the process. Learning how to meditate every day and set the intention to be present and compassionate with whatever arises can be the process or can aid the process. In either case the Eightfold Path supports us by offering the means to discover the source or sources of our misery through spacious inquiry and noticing our patterns of thinking, our patterns of behavior and our beliefs about ourselves and the world as expressed through our thoughts, emotions and sensations.

Lena Horne is quoted as saying, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” This is exactly what the dharma tells us. It is not our mother-in-law or spouse or child or job that is the problem. It is the vehicle of our beliefs, this cobbled together contraption of dispirit malfunctioning parts that causes pain every time we carry our load along. And when we hit a bump or a pothole in the road, an especially challenging time in life, then it makes the load feel even more difficult to carry.

So do we need a mechanic? Maybe! Like a good mechanic we need a keen ability to listen and notice where there is discord in the functioning of these patterns of thinking and behavior.
The literal translation of the word dukkha (suffering) is ‘ill-fitting axle hole,’ so this vehicle analogy has deep roots in the dharma.

In Jack Kornfield’s book called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry he reminds us that meditation is not an escape from life, that it is not about going off and having mind-altering experiences, the ultimate legal high. Yes, in meditation we lay our load down, but after meditation, or after our silent retreat, we pick it up again. If we are grumpy that we still have a load to bear, if we are sad to have our meditative experience over and ‘real life’ back to deal with, if we are thinking ahead to the next time we can get away to the cushion, the retreat center, the walk in the woods or the tropical beach, then we are missing a crucial aspect of the dharma: “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”

I am not a backpacker, mainly because I backpacked across Europe when I was nineteen and it was painful in every possible way so I have had no inclination to replicate any portion of that experience. But I see how backpacks today are designed of lighter materials and designed to carry the load differently, taking into account laws of physics and human anatomy, so that even if carrying the same amount of stuff, the load is lighter. So that’s what we are doing with our spaciously imbued Eightfold Path. We are giving ourselves the means to investigate how we are carrying our load so that we can pick it up again and carry it more joyfully.

Spacious Action

As we continue on our second exploration of the Eightfold Path together (see early 2009 posts for first exploration,) we are experimenting with inserting the word ‘spacious’ instead of ‘right’ or ‘wise’ before each of the eight aspects to see how it affects our understanding, fully understanding that this is just an exploration, not a rewriting of the traditional teachings.

What does spaciousness affect our understanding of right action? Is there a difference between right or wise action and spacious action?

For me ‘spacious action’ feels like there is time to act skillfully and from the source. There’s no need to hurry when we have the time to act in a way that honors our intention to be present and compassionate in all we do.

Spacious action arises out of the sense of interconnection with all that is, fully aware of the supportive nature of the web of being, giving us time to consider the rightness of our action, to be sure that it is kind, conscious, caring, timely and true.

Have you had the experience of walking fully embodied, fully sensing in to the sensation of foot meeting ground, arms swinging through air, the texture of clothes shifting on thighs, the sights, sounds and smells that we encounter as we walk? Our first instruction in meditation is to sense in to the body, to become aware of the breath and other sensations in order to be fully present in this moment. So likewise our first action would follow the same course, sensing in to the body and all its sensations, grounding ourselves in the full awareness of this present moment.

I remember having dinner one night at Il Fornaio and on the way back to the table from the restroom, I practiced being fully present, walking at a normal pace – not slowed down as I usually am in a walking meditation – and feeling fully ensconced in life in that moment. The destination existed in my consciousness as a slender thread of thought rather than a dominating goal. I was able to fully savor all aspects of that rich experience – walking in the soft light of a restaurant filled with people dining and talking and enjoying themselves, and feeling very much at one with the whole of the experience, with the whole of life.

This is spacious action, this being fully present in this moment. So fully in the moment that it is quite unlikely I would have bumped into anyone, causing a disruption or accident. It felt like a beautiful dance, as if I was awake to appreciate a particularly lovely sequence in an ongoing dream.

Let’s contrast this to my usual experience of returning from a restaurant restroom where my mind is already back at the table, and my body is hurrying to catch up, so eager am I to not miss any of the conversation. What poverty there is in an action that perceives only two points on the path – the bathroom to meet a physical need and the return to the table to meet a social need. The point of spacious action is to have a full awareness of the whole experience, not just the two end points.

Now if on the way back to the table, I got so caught up in the goings on that I lost sight of my final destination then that would be spacey action, not spacious action. Spacious action seeks a balance between our sensory ability to savor the moment and fulfilling whatever we set out to accomplish.

Any advanced practitioner of Tai Chi, Chi Gung or other ways of working with the body to align with the universal energy (called Chi or Qi in these traditions, but has many other names in other traditions,) would probably find Spacious Action to be a familiar way of being in the world. The instructor teaches the right way to do something, but until the action is aligned with that universal energy, arising out of a sense of connection, the student is only trying to replicate what he or she sees the teacher doing. At some point there may be a subtle shift into Spacious Action, and the teacher will recognize that the student ‘gets it.’ The student then tries to get it again, and may get caught in a struggle of over-efforting, but eventually is able to recognize that subtle shift, that releasing into a sense of being held and interconnected instead of an isolated bag of bones and muscles that must slog through the world on will power alone, doing battle against all comers.

Now of course it’s one thing to feel spacious while relaxed in a restaurant or engaged in doing Tai Chi, but what about in all those other more challenging situations that we find ourselves in on a daily basis? And what about when some extra challenge arrives in the form of a loss or a threat? Where’s our spacious action then?

This is why we have the practice, returning again and again to our intention to be present and compassionate. In this way our minds become spacious, our hearts become spacious and our lives, in turn, become more spacious.

In this and coming weeks we will explore what Spacious Action means in the various areas of our lives. We will share teaching stories that reveal the universal patterns of behavior that either cause suffering from a sense of isolation or joy from a sense of interconnection.

As we explore, we may begin to notice that it is always in relationship that actions take place. In relationship to our bodies, our families, our homes, our friends, our co-workers, the earth and all inhabitants of all species, our work, our play, and our way of being in the world. It is not our body, our family or anyone else that is the cause of our problems. It is how we relate to them, our habituated patterns of behavior, and often our tight fearful un-spacious action.

Spacious Action then is really Spacious Interaction, acknowledging that it is all in the relationships, the connections, and whether we feel connected, supported and supportive.

Because we begin meditation practice by sensing in to the body, it seemed appropriate to start our exploration with our relationship to our body and how we hold this aspect of our being in awareness. This is an area many of us struggle with. I do. I observe my struggle, am sometimes a bit bemused by it, but it is certainly an area where Spacious Action is often lacking in my life.

Why? Well, it shifts over time, but currently I’m noticing a dialog, sometimes an argument, between a voice that wants me to be as healthy and able-bodied as possible and a voice that waxes poetic about how grandmas get to be round, roly-poly and cozy, and certainly don’t have to deny themselves sweets or anything else wonderful. In fact they should be producing delicious baked goods for all their loved ones, even if it kills them!

Just being aware of the players in an inner dialog is enough to start a rich journey of noticing. So I won’t put on a little play here with my cast of characters. Instead I ask you to notice your own cast of characters. You can begin by identifying at least one major player in your life right now in the area of your body or your health. This might bring up issues about aging, the natural changes that happen to the body that bring up other issues perhaps. Just be noticing the voices and sort them out a bit.

Although I began doing inner dialogs on my own before I became a student of Buddhism, I was delighted to later discover that it is a time-honored Buddhist practice as well. It is a skillful way to recognize the variety of thoughts going on in our minds and to explore the sources and associative images that come forth in attitudes, beliefs and expressions that more often than not are harsh and abusive. I teach it in the way that I practice it, and that has been useful to me. I don’t know if it strays from traditional teachings, but I do know that it is a valuable and effective tool for self-discovery.

You may be saying ‘Wait a minute! What voices in my head?’ This practice is for meditators who have sufficient experience to recognize that their thoughts are not pure expressions of self, but more a river of mostly unconscious patterns that pass through our awareness, that could just as easily be anyone else’s thoughts. This is not to say that we do not have a certain amount of unique expression as these thoughts travel through the patterns of filters created by our inherited tendencies and acquired experiences. But through meditation and the development of mindfulness, we see with growing clarity that these thoughts do not define us.

This understanding liberates us to feel free to explore them and learn from them. We do not bar the doors or evict them, as that technique doesn’t work and has long term negative repercussions. Instead we bring our compassionate respectful attention to discover what it is that these inner aspects are afraid of and then we respectfully negotiate a reasonable way to address these fears without letting the aspect/voice dictate our actions.

So first we notice a thought going through our mind, some generally negative statement that we recognize as ongoing or recurring, a belief about ourselves or the world and our relationship to it. Recognizing the general tone and area of focus of this thought helps us to see it more clearly, and is further enhanced if we give it an affectionate descriptive nickname, so that we will recognize it each time it arises. I remember at one point having a full cast of characters, one named Lumpy because he was kind of a lump on a log, not wanting to do anything. Another was named Striver because he had such over-efforting exhausting ambition. And I’ve talked in the past about Slug, who hated exercise and just wanted to stay in bed because it was like a big mommy hug and he missed his mommy.

Hmmm, why are all these inner voices male? That’s something to explore for me.

Once we notice and name an aspect, we are ready to have a dialog. We can develop a set of questions to help us understand them better, and the first and foremost question to ask of any negatively charged voice within our thoughts is “What are you afraid of?” This question is not a challenge. It is not calling the aspect a scared-y-cat, which would just shut down any possibility of fruitful inner dialog. If this happens we need to pause and access our deepest most compassionate awareness to call forth and be respectful of the truth of each aspect’s fear-based view of the world.

It isn’t very helpful to have two fear-based aspects carrying on a dialog. Therefore, the dialog process is only useful once we have begun to experience Spacious Mindfulness. From that clarity, we can be skillful in our inquiry. If we are unable to access that compassionate clear inner voice, the one that has no agenda but to hold all life in an open embrace, then we will want to focus on our meditation practice and just practice noticing and simply questioning the veracity of our harsh judgments. ‘Is that true? How do I know that’s true?’

So I hope you will find time during the week, perhaps after meditation or after a walk in nature, to record an inner conversation with an aspect that has the strongest opinions about your body. Making a record in a journal or in whatever form is comfortable for you, helps to stay on track, making a distinction between a formal dialog and a meandering train of thought.

This working with our relationship to our bodies is probably one of the most personal areas we will be exploring, and we won’t be discussing our discoveries in next week’s class. This homework is for ourselves alone. Bring as much spaciousness to the inner exploration as possible.

In coming weeks we will be looking at different areas where spacious interaction would bring about joy rather than suffering.

Spacious Mindfulness & Inquiry

Continuing our discussion of the mindfulness aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, using the word ‘spacious’ instead of ‘right’ or ‘wise’ to explore how that affects our understanding…

Spacious Mindfulness is opening into the fullness of this moment, fueled by our spacious intention to be present and compassionate, supported by our balanced spacious effort, and held by our spacious view that perceives the interconnectivity of all that is, and stirred by our practice of spacious concentration. Out of the opaque or murky miasma of our consciousness comes clarity. Through the skillful practice of meditation we develop the clarity to see our thoughts as they pass through the mind, to see our emotions as they pass like waves through our consciousness, and to begin to see associations between the thoughts, emotions, tension or other sensations we may feel in our body, images that arise unbidden, glimpses of dreams, and long-held beliefs and assumptions never before noticed or examined.

This clarified consciousness, this mindfulness, can hold whatever arises with compassion, understanding and the curiosity that come with beginners’ mind. With beginners’ mind we experience all our sensations fresh, without labels, boundaries and judgments. We are simply present with what is, noticing.

Yesterday, something mentioned in a conversation among sangha members before the beginning of class brought up some anxiety in one of the meditators. That something haunted her meditation, but she had the mindfulness to recognize the cause of the anxiety she felt and to watch how the thought impacted her physically, emotionally and mentally. She recognized a recurring pattern of reaction in her life. She felt gratitude for having the opportunity to witness this pattern in action, as it unfolded. Later during discussion, she shared this experience and thanked the student whose words had stirred up the anxiety for this teaching.

This kind of clarity is the result of a regular meditative practice. We might have glimpses of clarity in our lives that arise spontaneously, and some people are just naturally more present than others, but the practice of meditation develops a more dependable state of mindfulness. In general this clarity is commensurate with the skillfulness and dedication to practice. But of course it varies a great deal, and expectation will sabotage the whole process!

As we notice the workings of our mind, we will quite naturally exercise our curiosity. We will see a pattern and wonder about it. ‘Why do I feel that way?’ ‘Why do I believe that’s true?’ It is our basic human nature to wonder and to explore. And we have had questions rattling around in our minds forever, but perhaps we weren’t aware of them, or didn’t recognize them as questions.

Without clarity, compassion and awareness these questions may feel more like statements we perceive as truth about ourselves rather than questions that might have answers. Do any of these sound familiar: “Who am I to do such and such?” or “Why bother trying, I’ll only mess it up as usual?” or “Why me?”

When we begin to recognize these kinds of phrases we can begin to explore their roots. So many self-doubting questions are rooted in the unkind fear-based words of someone in our past, our childhood most likely, who loved us the best they could, but was operating from their own murky consciousness and splattered us with the mess of it. We can’t go back and do an un-do, and there’s no reason to try. Through clarity we can see the causes and conditions of these negative questions, and knowing this, their power over us is lessened to a great degree. Once exposed to the light of day and our compassionate common sense we are released from their relentless grip.

This doesn’t mean they will automatically disappear. But it does mean that as long as we have an awareness practice, we have the ability to explore, discover and recognize them. As Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree on the dawn of his awakening, he was repeatedly taunted by Mara – all that tempts and taunts us – and each time he would say ‘Oh Mara, I know you.’ It is this recognition that frees us. He did not go into battle with Mara. We do not need to go into battle with these patterns of mind. Recognition itself will begin the de-tangling process, so that we are not being strangled by them.

As we develop clarity and a sense of being present in the moment, we begin to see the associative patterns of our thoughts, emotions, memories that rise up unbidden, and we will have questions. A well-formulated question may illuminate patterns of powerful but foundationless beliefs and assumptions.

Just such a question was posed to me by Mark Coleman in a class at Spirit Rock about eight years ago. He asked us, “What is it that is holding you in bondage?”
Read more about the journey toward freedom that question began in me.

In the archive you will find a number of postings on questioning and inquiry. If you are curious, check them out!

Spacious Mindfulness is the clarity that arises out of our dedicated practice of meditation. It is a sense of presence, of being in the moment, of noticing and then getting curious, posing a well-formulated question and being fully present for the answer when it comes.

Meditation Creates Spacious Mindfulness

(We have been exploring the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, choosing to use the word ‘spacious’ instead of the common translation of ‘right’ or ‘wise’ to see how it affects our understanding.)

Ah, mindfulness! Now here’s a word that doesn’t create an oxymoron when you add ‘spacious’ to it. It’s a natural! It just feels like mindfulness would be spacious. But what do we mean by mindfulness? How is it different from View or Concentration?

Last week I drew an illustration of the cooking pot analogy, and said that Spacious Mindfulness is like the simple syrup you create by heating up sugar and water until what was once opaque becomes clear, stirred by the spoon of Spacious Concentration practice.

Mindfulness is the nature of consciousness when it becomes clear and spacious, alert, attentive, present and relaxed. It is the collected consciousness held by Spacious View, the deep understanding that we are not isolated but integral to the cohesive web of being.
Thus we are aware that what we say and do impacts our experience and the experience of all around us and beyond through a rippling effect, as unconscious unskillfulness has the capacity to multiply exponentially in all interactions.

This awareness doesn’t make us afraid to speak or act, but it makes us present with the experience. Our speech and actions arise as skillful form out of spaciousness. When we speak or act unskillfully we can see it and see the associative fear-based patterns that cause suffering to us and others. We accept what arises, even the pain that arises, as passing phenomena.

Since this state of awareness is not the cultural norm, we meditate to develop the awareness and the skills to stay present, to feel that interconnection, and to cultivate loving kindness for all beings, including ourselves.

So mindfulness is central to what we are about in our practice and in our lives. Spacious mindfulness can be a spontaneous state of grace or it can be cultivated by meditation practitioners. The Eightfold Path guides us and grounds us in wisdom, concentration and virtue practices so that we may cultivate this awareness in our lives and live mindfully, able to deal skillfully with all that arises in our experience.

What is this skillfulness? We’ll discuss it in more detail when we explore Spacious Action, Speech and Livelihood, but since the word could be used in other ways, I want to take a moment to define it in the context of our practice.

An attorney, for example, might think of skillfulness as the ability to win a trial. This would be a different kind of skillfulness than we are talking about. Skillful in the Buddhist sense is not cunning or clever. It is not skillful to ‘get away with something,’ or ‘get the upper hand’ or even ‘win.’

But apparently attorneys are also beginning to recognize that these are not necessarily the most useful skills with which to represent their clients. In the California Bar Journal, January 2011, Diane Curtis writes: “[Charles] Halpern says one of the skills that meditation can provide lawyers — ‘which I view as a crucial professional skill’ — is the capacity to listen. ‘So many lawyers, by training, are always thinking ahead, specifically thinking about what they’re going to say. As lawyers we’re trained to do that, questioning a witness, interviewing a client. I think that’s a very important skill—thinking ahead—but it’s also an important skill to listen fully, be present.’ ”

It seems we are as a species just beginning to get loose of that vestigial fear I talked about a few weeks back, the one left over from when we had predators, before we took that fear and turned it on each other. Or at least we are beginning to be able to see it for what it is, and that is a huge leap in consciousness, even if we are still caught up in the fear that keeps us seeing ourselves as isolated beings bent on survival of the fittest. This is a world view that has truly outlived its usefulness. Together we are making the shift into a more spacious world view. And much of this transition is thanks to meditation, now being practiced in all kinds of unlikely places, like an Alabama prison where full blown intensive meditation retreats create the very real possibility that the incarcerated are much less likely to commit crimes when they get out of confinement. Meditation benefits us all in ways we didn’t even realize!

Without the clarifying benefits of meditation, most of us see survival of the fittest as the only view that makes any sense. We see the world, we see how it’s set up, we see how the game is played, and we know for a fact that there is the enemy and he is not us. From our tense fearful stance that takes the natural flow of the universe – the wave, as described in quantum physics – and sees only the particles, the separation instead of the union. Through meditation we see both the particle and the wave. We can shift from the finite to the infinite view at will, and we benefit by our ability to do so.

Spacious Mindfulness is held in Spacious View, the infinite understanding of the universe as one pulsing being instead of a hodgepodge collection of solid parts jumbled together in some cosmic tumble dryer, banging and clashing against each other.

How is mindfulness different from view? Spacious View shapes our perception of our experience. Mindfulness is the clarifying of our murky consciousness. Held in Spacious View, stirred by the focus of Spacious Concentration, consciousness is able to collect and cultivate awareness. As we meditate we begin to see our own thoughts and emotions, recognize and release the belief that they define us, question and soften previously unquestioned judgments and assumptions about ourselves and the world around us. This clarification process expands our ability to feel compassion because it melts the assumed barriers between peoples. When we see someone in difficulty, instead of thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I,” we think “There go I,” for we know that person is not separate from us in Spacious View.

How is mindfulness different from concentration? Concentration is the practice of centering. In our cooking pot analogy it is the spoon that stirs our consciousness, creating a vortex that creates space for focusing our attention. All our cares and concerns can whirl around us, still present but a blur that we cannot lock into as we sit in the still point of center.

Mindfulness is clarity. With that clarity comes a release of any sense of urgency or impatience. We have time to notice all of what is arising in our experience. And in that noticing we may hear in our thoughts a question or a multiplicity of questions, that may have been rattling around in our thoughts for ever so long, but now we actually hear them. I have been giving a speech lately called ‘For the Asking’ about how the world is awash in a sea of answers, but we need to make space to notice our naturally arising questions. We might assume they are rhetorical, but if we really notice them and then give sufficient attention, we discover they aren’t rhetorical at all, that the answers are there when our mind clears sufficiently to see them. This is the Buddhist tradition of inquiry, also a part of Spacious Mindfulness. In the speech I talk about the question that teacher Mark Coleman posed to our class at Spirit Rock years ago: “What is it that’s holding you in bondage?” and the huge life-enhancing journey that was launched for me because of that question. Read the post on this exploration.

If we have a question rattling around in our brains but we think of it more as an ongoing state of things rather than a question – all the ‘why me’s’ and the ‘who am I to think I could do such and such’ and the ‘how did I get myself into this mess?’ – then these questions become abrasive bits that wear us down. But really they are questions! When we make space for them, we begin to hear them with fresh ears. We see them and all their associative memories, the ground from which they arise, and we can attend to them with compassion and using our natural curiosity and our new-found patience and focus we investigate the answers.

The answers do come. With our receptors fully open, we will hear them. Without expectation of what form the answers will take, we open to them. And we discover things we’d never imagined, as if we were delving into trunks in the basement: old assumptions and beliefs about the way things are, that when held up to the light of day and our own common sense crumble to dust and free us.

If we have been crying ‘Why me?’ perhaps the answer arises in the form of noticing causes and conditions that led to the circumstance in question. Or with spaciousness of mind we see that when we look around with compassion we begin to notice that everyone has some load to bear, that it’s not just us.

If we have been asking, “Who am I to do such and such?” we see the history of the question, perhaps handed down from generation to generation, and we imagine handing it down to the next generation, this sense that we are not enough, this chopping ourselves down before someone else does it for us, and perhaps this clarity provides an answer that frees us from this bondage of believing that we have less right than others to pursue our dreams. So we notice the questions and allow for the answers to arise in the stillness, answers that resonate and are not readymade ways to shush the questions and shut down the process.

So Spacious Mindfulness begins with clarifying the mind, and inquiry is the skillful form that arises from that spacious clarity.

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