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.