Monthly Archives: May 2011

Things Fall Apart

We develop a practice of meditation, finding the ways that work best for us: The perfect place, the perfect time, the perfect intention and the perfect way to bring ourselves into a state of spaciousness and ease.

And then causes and conditions change. The ‘seas’ that we talked about last week as a metaphor for the causes and conditions of life become rough. As sailors we learn quickly how to make course corrections, alter speed, trim the sails, or take out the bucket and start bailing. As meditators we need to develop that kind of readiness and flexibility as well.

Occasionally during meditation instruction I have talked about the importance of having a variety of meditation tools in our toolbox. But as life goes along smoothly, we can easily get complacent, relying on the one tool, the one meditation technique that seems to be most effective for us. Where else in life has that ever been a good idea? We eat a varied diet to assure not just balanced nourishment but the ability to draw nourishment from multiple sources. When we plant just one variety of potatoes and that variety succombs to a disease, we starve! When we must go on thinning ice, say to rescue someone, we lie down to spread the weight so we don’t rely too heavily on any one point. We prepare for emergencies by having multiple options, depending on circumstances. We develop a network of friends and family relationships in part so that we can all support each other when times get difficult. We see what happens when someone we know has relied too heavily on only one person for their needs. We are communal creatures and developing community is a basic skill of our survival in a world of impermanence. We acknowledge this when we create sangha, our community of meditation practitioners.

When we experience things falling apart, our meditation practice may feel like it is falling apart, too. “Just when we need it most!” we say, feeling bereft. But at these times if we pause, we can recognize that we are prepared for this, that we have multiple tools in our toolbox. And we also have the support of the sangha to remind us if we forget.

When things fall apart in a riveting way, as when we are suddenly launched into a heightened state of emotion due to startling circumstances, if we have been doing a regular practice of meditation, we may find that we are very much present with all that is going on, that this is in fact what we have been practicing for.

So the practice has not abandoned us at all. It is serving us in this moment, keeping us present, allowing us to notice our emotions and bring a full measure of compassion to ourselves and others. We might notice that things have fallen apart, but in fact we haven’t fallen apart, or at least not to the degree we might have done without the practice.

During this intense period we might not be able to practice meditation in the usual sense, but just as soon as things get a little more stable, we need to resume the practice, because without the natural inner replenishment of the practice we are running the risk of depletion. And then we do feel as if we are falling apart.

But the practice we have relied on most, the one that has been such a nurturing source, might suddenly seem difficult or uncomfortable. Why? Because we know it and we expect it to be as it was, so we get stuck in comparing mind. We may feel we have lost our ability to practice in addition to whatever other loses we may be experiencing, and this sense of loss underscores and amplifies the grief we may already be feeling. Perhaps there’s also a sense of betrayal, because we thought this practice was supposed to be our support, but it’s not there to support us when we most need it. This can set off a chain of memory-laden emotions that echo that sense of betrayal and things seem to unravel more and more. Maybe we become depressed and give up the practice all together.

But the practice is still there! The ability to practice is still within us. We simply need to correct our course, trim our sails or start bailing! What does this mean in meditation terms?

First we need to look at what happens when we try to meditate. Are we not able to release tension and relax? Are we not able to focus? Are we caught up in thoughts and can’t find inner silence?

Compassion is our best companion at these times. Instead of making demands that we meditate in a certain way, we can sense the support of the web of life holding us. Perhaps we experience that support as God, feeling ourselves cradled in his arms or resting in his heart.

Of course experiencing this loving-kindness and compassion is challenging if we are railing at God for creating the causes and conditions that are making us so miserable. This is the exact moment that people of faith are severely tested. By seeing God as separate instead of the whole of which we are a part, we can get into a blame game that exacerbates our misery and sense of isolation.

Feeling ourselves to be integral to the fabric of life both releases our sense of separation and empowers us to be the compassion we wish to receive. We do not have to sit around and wait for it, beg for it or look for it from any other source. We are by our very nature a conduit of universal compassion. We take a deep breath, sense in, let go of all the accumulated tension and release into our natural state of being. We are both held in a compassionate open embrace and we hold the world in a compassionate open embrace. We shift our awareness back and forth between those two focuses and we begin to really understand our role in the nature of things.

When I was a very small child I had a little mantra I would do when I was by myself. I don’t know how I came up with it, who might have taught it to me, but it felt very much my own discovery. I would say, “I am in God and God is in me, and I am in God and God is in me” over and over until that oxymoron made sense to me, at which point I would dissolve into delicious giggles and roll on the ground. As an adult, the word and concept of God are too culturally laden with all the personification and implied separateness that gets in my way of deep understanding. And now that we can see, through the use of lenses and through the research and insights of science, how we are embedded in the fabric of life, all of us made of the same stuff, the illusion of separateness is easier and easier for me to see through.

But for those of us who have a more straightforward relationship with God, who can experience union with God, who weren’t raised by what I affectionately call a ‘raving atheist’ and a ‘closet worshiper of Mother Nature,’ then Hallelujah! Rejoice in that sense of being supported and aspire to be the fullest expression of God’s love.

If the problem with trying to meditate when things are falling apart is a lack of focus, we can do more embodiment work such as mindful inner-directed yoga, slow walking meditation or active breath work. These are all forms of meditation, all valid for keeping us connected to our experience of the present moment. The senses are our anchor to the present moment, so whatever we can do to draw our awareness to sensation is useful. In any given moment we can simply rub our fingers together, or rub our hands on a piece of fabric, noting the texture. This brings us into the present moment.

If sensing in is alien for us, we might give ourselves more opportunities to be fully in the body. For example, we can have a massage but request silence instead of chatting with the massage therapist so that we can really experience the fullness of sensation.

If when we meditate we cannot seem to get free of words, we might visualize them growing, letting the words themselves get very large, so large they lose all meaning, until we can swim between the spaces in our large lettered universe. This is a creative way of being with what is arising in the moment.

If we have a whirlwind of things going on in our life, we can imagine that tornado whirling even faster, so fast all the individual aspects, all the worries and concerns, are a singular blur, as we sit in the calm center, the eye of the storm, at peace.

If we are fraught with worry for another person, we send them loving kindness. As with all metta meditations, we begin with sending metta to ourselves for we need to receive loving-kindness before we can share it, sense in to its infinite nature to be a conduit for its transmission.

Maybe we find we just don’t have the heart for meditation right now, as if it’s a selfish thing to simply sit when there are so many practical things that have to be done. We just don’t have the time!

Let’s remember that Gandhi is quoted as saying, “Today is going to be a particularly busy day, so I will meditate two hours instead of one.” Wait a minute! How can that make any sense? Taking two hours out of an already busy day is no way to get things done. Gandhi was clearly no efficiency expert. But since he accomplished more with his life than almost any other human in recent history by gaining Indian independence from the British Empire without loss of life, and further inspired other non-violent movements including the Civil Rights movement in the United States fifty years ago, and since he continues to be an inspiration to us today, perhaps we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he knew what he was talking about!

But how could giving more time to meditation make us more efficient? First we have to make sure we are doing mindfulness meditation, practicing being fully present, not escaping into a dream state. When we are practiced at being fully present, we are more efficient because we are seeing more clearly, we are more in touch with the flow and we are noticing when we are getting in our own way. We can prioritize, we can come to agreement with others, and we can let go of things that will resolve themselves without our involvement. We can recognize that very few things in our life are truly urgent, yet we habitually act as if they are and drive ourselves and perhaps others accordingly. We can see when those around us are caught up in circular thinking and we can choose not to waste our energy trying to guide a tornado onto a different course.

This is the kind of clarity that streamlines our ability to accomplish what needs accomplishing without wasting time on what doesn’t. Without meditation practice we can be undiscerning, become easily distracted and waste time focusing on things that won’t resolve the problem at hand. Our emotional aspects may run amok, setting a questionable agenda because we haven’t taken the time to access our inner wisdom, our Buddha nature. Without being fully present, we rely more heavily on our habitual nature, so that we keep doing the same thing in the same way, hoping for a different outcome.

Our habitual nature can also infect our meditation practice. When things fall apart we want the tried and true to pull us through. But when the tried and true falls through we are called upon to find another way. If we cannot find 30 to 40 minutes in our suddenly fallen apart day, we might experiment with a series of much shorter meditations throughout our day.

What? Didn’t I just say that Gandhi said two hours of meditation is better than one? Yes, and one minute of quality meditation is good as well if it means we will meditate rather than not meditate at all. In this as in so many areas of life we are not dealing with either/or but both/and. There are many ways to deal with a challenge. Discovering that we can actually change our experience, energy level, and our physical and emotional sense of well being quite dramatically by one minute of truly being present in meditation reminds us to do it, not to put it off. It makes us see that our statement that we don’t have time is clearly a lie. One minute? We all have one minute at many times during the day. One minute while we are put on hold, while we are waiting for a computer download, while we are on the toilet, while we are waiting for water to boil to cook pasta or make tea. One minute? This is never too much to ask! How liberating! But how can this be?

Well, let’s try it. Let’s set a timer for exactly one minute and then see how it affects us to meditate for that minute. We sense into our bodies, release tension, notice the breath rising and falling, and expand into spaciousness, finding a still point of center. We rest here or we continually cycle through this process, whatever works for us at this time.

Now how do you feel? Has there been a shift of energy? What do you notice? Is there perhaps a sense of replenishment? One minute well spent in meditation is a gift we can give ourselves at various times throughout our day. It helps us understand that meditation is not some separate experience, but a natural part of life, like the brief pause at the bottom of a released breath.

Why does the one minute meditation work? I think it is like the last couple of minutes in meditation when I say “In these last moments, really savor what is arising in this moment.” Knowing it will end so soon, we are suddenly able to really pay attention. It’s our deadline mentality! It’s based on the same principle as Stephen Levine’s teaching of A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last. With the thought that the end is so near, we stop squandering our time, we start noticing the beauty and the preciousness of life. When we think we have a lot of time, we feel free to waste it! Whether it’s a lifetime or forty minutes of just sitting, we perceive it as a lot of time, so we may go about it in a circuitous ramble instead of being clear in our intention to be present and compassionate.

The question for me is not how I feel after a minute of focused inner awareness, but how long do I feel that way? How often would I have to have these minutes in order to feel the sense of connection, aliveness and joy I experience as a result of a regular daily practice?

But when things are difficult and a regular practice feels out of reach, accessing these meditation minutes can help to keep our meditation practice alive.

So we can see that we have many means in our toolbox, a great variety of techniques at our service, to deal with whatever comes up. Yes, it is wonderful to have a good steady practice, but it is important to remember that we have much more than that. We can be flexible, creative, alive and resourceful, ready and fully equipped to sail upon the sea of causes and conditions, whatever they may bring.

Taking Refuge, Taking Responsibility

Two weeks ago we talked about taking refuge and how refuge is not a place to escape to but a relationship, a way of being supported by the inspiration of the Buddha and the discovery of our own Buddha nature; supported by the dharma, both the teachings and the wisdom we find in nature; and supported by the sangha, the community of meditation practitioners who too are taking refuge in this way.

Last week in class I was asked to talk more about what the sangha is. Simply put it is the group of people who share the intention to be present and compassionate. A sangha is not like a group of friends. If someone cries the sangha holds the space for that person to fully experience their feelings without anyone rushing in to comfort them, make it better or make it go away. Instead the person feels the sangha’s complete acceptance of their tears. They really get it that there is room for all of who they are and all of what they feel in the web of support the sangha provides. On a retreat after a few days of sitting in silence you might begin to hear sobbing. This is not because the retreatant is having a miserable time but because they feel the emotional release of sitting in silence and they feel the support of the sangha to help them face whatever they are dealing with in their thoughts and emotions. They can spend time safely coming face to face with the thing that all the distractions in their lives have kept them from facing. It is a very rich sharing when someone breaks down and cries, especially when a man does, as that is so discouraged in our culture. The sangha honors and supports the deep practice of each member, so when we take refuge in it, we feel held but not coddled, interconnected but not necessarily interactive.

When we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, if we recognize that it is a relationship instead of an escape then we understand that, like any relationship, there is not just refuge but responsibility, if that relationship is going to thrive.

So, we take responsibility for our relationship with our Buddha nature, vowing to nurture and honor it.

We take responsibility for our relationship with the Dharma, vowing to honor the teachings and not manipulate them for our own agenda. And we take responsibility for holding all dharma up to the light of inquiry, not accepting everything we hear or what we have come to believe without question.

We take responsibility for our relationship with the Sangha, vowing to support our sangha sibling in their practice and to honor their privacy by not sharing what they have disclosed in our circle with others. Thus we develop a practice of trustworthiness that is valuable in all our relationships.

Let’s explore this word ‘responsibility’ a little more. Taking responsibility in life sounds straightforward, but it’s amazing how quickly we get out of balance, taking too much responsibility or taking too little and not knowing how we got so turned around.
First we need to let go of the idea that all the responsibility lies elsewhere, that we are hapless flotsam being tossed about on a sea of causes and conditions. We need to recognize that on this sea of causes and conditions we have a boat and we have a sail, oars, a motor, a rudder, a bucket, a compass and more. These are not things that can fall overboard, but they are things we may not realize we have on board. So part of our practice is to recognize all the means we have to cope with whatever causes and conditions arise. This recognition helps us to take responsibility for our own happiness and our own well being.

Circumstances exist. It’s no use to pretend they don’t. Yes, we have a boat but nothing on the boat will change the weather. We have the means to change our relationship to the weather, to the storm, to the choppy waves, to whatever arises.

We are born into a life with certain circumstances, rarely ideal, and even when ideal, we learn that life can change on a dime. Plans we made may no longer be viable due a change in conditions. Taking responsibility includes acknowledging the truth of the situation and the ramifications that arise, just as the sea goes from calm to full of white caps to a raging storm. Then the storm quiets down and the sun comes out and we’re still here.

What if the circumstances in our life seem to preclude the possibility of our living the life we want to live? We have the means to explore this assumption. We have inquiry: Is this true? How do I know this is true?

We have noticing: We see not just the circumstances but our own set of skills, connections, strength and patience. Taking responsibility for our own life experience doesn’t mean forging ahead without regard to conditions. It means working with all that is arising in this moment. Being able to release our attachment to the way we planned to go. Exploring work-arounds to see what really is possible is one way of taking responsibility. So is letting go of our addiction to living in the future, some distant destination always beyond the horizon, and finding joy right here, right now.

We have self awareness: If we feel like a big ship, weighted down with a lot of freight, what’s that about? If making a decision to deal with changing conditions is wrought with difficulty, perhaps we are carrying around too much weight in the form of stories we tell ourselves about our place in the world. Can we develop the flexibility of a small boat?

And we have compassion: Our boat can rock, but we can experience it as a cradle, being held in the supportive web of life. And we can see that we are not alone on these seas, and we can share compassion and feel compassion from others in our midst.

Through the practice of compassion, self-awareness, noticing and inquiry we create for ourselves a small sea-worthy vessel. We are able to navigate our way through causes and conditions. Our practice of meditation gives us the clarity to see through the fog and the storms.

If it doesn’t feel that way, if that sounds like wishful thinking, let’s explore why. Are we at the helm of our vessel? Or do we imagine someone else in charge? And if so who? Why do we believe that to be true? The actions of others do have an impact on us, but if they are crashing into us, then that action is just another cause and condition to be weathered.

Here’s a traditional boat story that is appropriate here:

A man is rowing his own boat, minding his own business, and he sees another boat coming toward him. It’s foggy and he can’t see the person steering the boat, but it’s clear the boat is going to hit his, so he calls out. But the boat keeps coming at him. So he calls out louder, this time more aggressively, fueled by his fear that the boat might hit him and his future thinking of all the harm and hassle that might entail. But the boat keeps coming! Well now he’s really angry! This other boater is clearly ignoring him and is purposely attacking him. So he yells curses and uses his oar not just to fend off the approaching boat to keep himself safe but to clobber the stupid expletive deleted at the helm.

Only then is he able to see that the other boat is empty. Suddenly all his feelings change. He has no hard feelings about a boat floating aimlessly. He doesn’t think it is out to attack him. He just pushes it away and sets back to rowing his boat.

So what does that story tell us? Why do we respond so differently to causes and conditions when we think another person’s volition is involved? Why do we let the actions of another so throw us off course? We can see how we do this in our lives. How angry we get at other drivers on the road if we think we have been disrespected. If we realize that these unskillful actions we see on the road and elsewhere in life are the result of mindlessness – that the person is absent from this moment, their mind somewhere else – then how is that really different from an empty boat? Scary to think about how many empty boats are floating about, but when we understand that to be the case, we can take responsibility to be really present and mindful, to be able to navigate these added conditions.

Now, back to who is at the helm of our own vessel. If we see someone else at the helm, then we are not in touch with our own Buddha nature. We are perhaps reacting out of emotional longing for safety, but it actually makes us less safe. Putting someone else at the helm of our own boat is making ourselves captive rather than captain. Coming into the relationship with our Buddha nature allows us to take the helm of our own lives. Our Buddha nature is our refuge and it’s our responsibility to awaken and cultivate our relationship with this deep, connected inner wisdom that is our birth right.

If our vessel feels unstable, as if it will turn over in a big wave, then we need to add ballast in the form of meditation practice. If we are already doing a regular practice, perhaps a refinement in our understanding of what meditation practice means is in order. Perhaps our practice is taking us off into dreamland or spacy-ness instead of into a deep and abiding awareness of the present moment. This ability to stay with physical sensation – the breath, for example – is not a journey to lofty heights of forgetting where we are, but a door into the fullness of each moment, replete with gratitude for this gift of life in all its variations, the ability to feel connection to all of life as it is. This adds ballast that keeps our vessel steady. Fantasy is lovely but has no staying power. And we can’t navigate our vessel from up in the clouds.

We set our intention to be present and compassionate and we let that intention guide us like a rudder through the challenging waters of our meditation and our life. That is taking responsibility.

Sometimes we may find we are trying to navigate someone else’s vessel. As parents our children’s smaller vessels are tied to ours. The other day we were walking along the shore in Tiburon and saw a motor boat pulling nine little dinghies in a row. It was like a mother duck being followed by her ducklings. A great image! But at some point our children are ready to take charge of their own vessels, and we rejoice in their independence.

As adults with no dependent children, we need to acknowledge that we have responsibility for only one vessel: our own. Whether we are married or not, our vessel is our vessel, no one else’s. And our spouse’s is not ours to steer, no matter how closely we travel together. So this is a very important thing to notice about how we are taking responsibility in our lives. Where are we out of balance? It’s quite common to take too little responsibility for our own vessel, possibly not even recognizing that we have a vessel, and/or too much responsibility for steering the vessels of others.

This vessel analogy has some similarity with the analogy of accepting our seat at the table and having table manners. Work with whichever one feels most compelling for you.

We might say this is a boundaries issue, and it certainly is. But notice that when we talk about vessels, it becomes quite clear where the boundaries are. We don’t want to fall into the water as we lean over to steer another’s boat!

But what if someone we care about is steering their vessel into harm’s way? Are they going the ‘wrong’ way or just not our way? That’s an important question to ask ourselves. Most times we see they are headed for stormy or choppy waters and we want to keep them in calm seas. But learning to navigate in all conditions is part of developing a sea worthy vessel in life. Certainly sailor to sailor conversations are useful, but there are strict rules at sea about asking permission to come aboard. Remember that the only ones that board another’s ship without permission are pirates! Is that the role we want to play in the lives of those we care about? Of course not! And while we’re on board, who’s minding the tiller of our own vessel?

So we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and we take responsibility for our relationship with these three refuges as well. Whether we feel adrift, becalmed or about to be engulfed in a big wave, we have the means to navigate all the causes and conditions of our lives.

Taking Refuge, Taking Root

At the beginning of a silent Buddhist retreat we ‘take refuge.’ This is a moment of deepening and clarifying our intention, one that we can take any time, whether on retreat or not. The word refuge means sanctuary, safe haven and sheltered harbor. But the refuge we are talking about is not a physical place. It is not the retreat center. The retreat center provides an ideal situation with which to become familiar with our own refuge: our awakening awareness, spaciousness and luminosity, through which our relationship with the world is transformed. So a refuge is not a getaway, not an escape into numbness or zoning out. It is a refuge of finding the space within each moment. Each atom of existence is mostly space. Even the most solid objects are mostly space. Our bodies at the cellular level are mostly space. If we can attune our awareness to the spaciousness of being, we give ourselves room to breathe even in the most challenging situations.

A retreat is not a getaway. There are many challenges on a retreat: Sitting for many hours a day (multiple periods – not all at once!) being in silence, being with our own thoughts all the time, being away from our own entrenched patterns of living including all the distractions we take for granted. And taking refuge is not an escape route, but a way into being fully present with whatever arises.

Traditionally we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

Buddha means awakened.
The historical Buddha, the great enlightened teacher who developed a way to help us understand the path to awakening, is an inspiration to us. We take refuge in his example of how cultivating a dedicated meditation practice with intention, patience, perseverance and a willingness to be present with whatever arises leads to awakening fully into the present moment.

Dharma is the teachings or the truth.
There is the dharma passed down over the past 2500 years of Buddhist teachings, and there is the dharma of inquiry and insight from our own experience in life. There is dharma in nature when we stay present with it instead of racing through it. We take refuge in the cultivated and natural wisdom of the dharma to guide us on our path.

Sangha is the community of practitioners.
On a retreat the sangha is the group of fellow retreatants and teachers with whom we silently sit, eat and walk. The sensed support of so many people on a shared personal quest of mindful self-discovery is palpable in the shared silence of the retreat.

We do not have to be on a retreat to take refuge. We can begin our daily meditation practice with this vow. ‘I take refuge in the Buddha…. I take refuge in the Dharma…. I take refuge in the Sangha.’ After saying each part of this vow, really sense in to the meaning of what you are saying. I have added visual pauses to remind you to do so. Although it would be grammatically correct to shorten the three sentences into one, saying ‘I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha,’ it would undermine the fullness of intention.

Taking refuge is a skillful way to center in and establish the space for our intention to be present and compassionate. It’s like setting the table for dinner, clearing away the newspapers or the children’s homework and dedicating the table for the purpose of a meal, giving the meal our full and present attention.

Taking refuge is not hiding out from life, but acknowledging our need for centering and balance in order to be fully present for whatever arises. Think of the word refuge and see what comes to mind for you.

In my life there have been times when taking refuge was snuggling up in bed with a favorite comfort food and a stack of novels in which to lose myself. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a novel, being cozy, or eating a favorite food, but believing ‘losing myself’ is the antidote for whatever overwhelming causes and conditions there are in my life is flawed thinking and unskillful. Overwork is not balanced by over-indulgence. Mindfulness brings about skillfulness and balance so that we don’t push ourselves beyond what is possible. We can claim rest as a natural part of our skillful work experience. We can recognize our physical and emotional needs as they arise and assure that we are not pushing ourselves to the point of exhaustion or the need to hide out and get away from the world.

If we are very out of balance and unaware of our connection to all that is, we can misunderstand taking refuge. Like a plant trying to root in rocky soil, we can mistake a rock for solid ground. We can wrap our roots around the rock, holding on tight, believing ourselves to be stable.

When we take refuge in the Buddha in this unskillful way:
We might mistake the historical Buddha for a god and dedicate ourselves to holding him up to the light so that we are in the shadow of this Buddha figure we have created and thus receive no direct light ourselves. We cannot flourish and grow to the fullness of being with no light and such a shallow anchor. We are in a state of disconnection and duality, where the Buddha is a god and we are nothing. However much this confirms our core beliefs and however much it resonates, we must explore our need to separate ourselves from the flow of life, to hold ourselves in the shadow instead of the light, to cling to a rock instead of rooting in the rich soil of life.

When we take refuge in the Dharma in this unskillful way:
We can get stuck in the words delivered. We can become fundamentalist in our protection of them, turning them into dogma without experiencing them for ourselves, questioning and testing the truth in our own lives as the Buddha instructed. The teachings remind us again and again that they are the finger pointing at the moon, and that we must not get fixated on the finger but look to the moon itself.

I recently had a practitioner (not a student of mine) bristle at my exploration of the Eightfold Path using the word ‘spacious’ to see how it enhanced our understanding of the concepts presented. She went to her teacher to see if this was all right. He said that although it was not the literal translation, he could see that the word ‘spacious’ could help to alleviate over-efforting which is a real problem with many meditation students. But she could not see it. She felt threatened by it. She felt it was crucially important to adhere exactly to the words as they have been handed down and translated. I assured her that in my first go round I taught the Eightfold Path in the regular way, but that this was another exploration with advanced students.

She brought up how important adherence to the rules is in the practice of the piano or dance. I was so glad she brought those up because at some point after you have done the necessary exercises to learn these skills, you need to open to the flow of the music and connect in a deeper way, allowing yourself to be a full expression of the instrument you have created through your dedicated practice. She totally disagreed with this. She stayed entrenched in her view and nothing I could say or her teacher could say, would shake her tight hold on her understanding.

We all have places where we get tight and it’s good to notice and to explore why it is so important to us, why we feel so threatened. Clues to holding tight are when we shake with emotion or our voice becomes strident. There may be a shift from authentic expression to rote proselytizing that turns off those we address. We can’t listen to words from those whose views differ from ours without fuming with anger. What an opportunity to see the volcanoes in our own inner landscape! When we find ourselves erupting, what an opportunity to center in, to be present, to question and to notice the associative images, memories and fears that arise with the lava of our emotions. This is not to talk ourselves out of anything, it is simply to notice the workings of the human mind, in this case our mind. Fascinating! And potentially enlightening. This exploration is like sending new roots down into the rich soil that is ever available to us. Doing so allows us to find the richness of the dharma rather than the tightness of dogma.

And finally, when we take refuge in the Sangha in this shallowly-rooted unskillful way:
We believe that the small group of people with whom we sit is the key to any success we have with meditation. We think of the sangha as a particular set of people, and when there is a change in the group we experience it as a loss or intrusion.

When I used to do the Dances of Universal Peace, I was always amazed at how at the beginning of the dancing, when we would stand in a circle and hold hands, I would always end up next to the person I felt most uncomfortable with, the person I might have even dreaded because their personality felt so abrasive or discordant in some way. Over the years of dancing I began to expect this to happen, and to know that by the end of the dances somehow that apprehension or distaste would completely dissolve, as we all settled in to our deeper truer selves where we are all one, beyond the seeming differences in our personalities. I noticed that often the very person who I dreaded turned out to be the one that somehow brought the greatest gift to my experience.

The Dances of Universal Peace are associated with Sufism. In Buddhism this experience might be called an example of the dragon at the gate. When we come upon a strong aversion that blocks the way to fully engaging in a life-enhancing experience, we can see it as the dragon at the gate of our spiritual temple. Are we put off by its fire-breathing roar? Do we run away defeated? Do we keep our eyes on the door and ignore the dragon? Do we get in a battle with the dragon? Or do we recognize the dragon for what it is, as Buddha recognized all of Mara’s taunts and temptations as kindred illusion, known and non-threatening.

And so it is in the sangha. At first we are relating only to personalities, dredging up associative memories that validate our judgments about someone we don’t know or have barely begun to know. This can easily happen on a retreat. With so much time on our hands, it is easy to observe a particular person or group of persons and have a running commentary of judgments. Perhaps they are not fully partaking in the retreat, sleeping in instead of meditating, for example. They take on significance for us and we can’t help but somehow feel threatened by their unwillingness to take the retreat as seriously as we are. So we can get fundamentalist about what it means to be a sangha and see how people are falling down on the job. Conversely we can underestimate the power of the sangha and not take it seriously enough, not understand that our behavior, our honoring the vows we have taken may result in behavior that can undermine and even unravel the well being of the sangha.

So, continuing with this plant analogy, when we root in nourishing soil where our roots are free to grow as needed, and we don’t mistake a rock as solid ground, we flourish and we are stable in our understanding. Like plants whose root systems are nourished and unimpeded, we can grow to the fullness of our nature.

When we take refuge in the Buddha we honor the historical Buddha for his teachings and his great inspiration that reminds us again and again to open to our own Buddha nature, our own capacity for awakening in any moment.

When we take refuge in the Dharma, we value the concepts we study for the structure and insight they provide us. We see the wisdom and we learn from our own experience, from our observations of nature and from the rich sharing of others.

When we take refuge in the Sangha, we value to community of practitioners for our shared commitment, but our awareness of the sangha-nature of all beings grows through our practice.

So taking refuge is a deepening on all levels. It is not an escape route but an intention to live from our Buddha nature. It is not a vow to believe whatever we are taught but to open to the dharma through the wisdom teachings, through observing nature and through direct experience and insight, always with curiosity and willingness to question our own truths and those presented. And it is not a vow to dwell in peaceful delight with a particular group of people, but to recognize and honor the deep abiding buddha nature in all beings.

Spacious Livelihood

Upon rereading Right Livelihood from April 2009, I find it still stands without restating, so I encourage you to read it. Of course the word ‘spacious’ can be added to enhance awareness of the moments when we are at a decision-making crossroads. That spacious pause might make all the difference as to how we interact in the marketplace in making a living, spending and investing money. Our choices shape the world we live in, so this is a powerful moment, a moment worthy of becoming centered, grounded and spacious.

In class we discussed how meditation increases our ability to notice our thoughts and emotions enough to see where we are in conflict in this realm. Say, for example, one thought-stream has the intention to be a thoughtful world citizen and another really wants that fruit from 3000 mile away or that cute shirt made inexpensive by the exploitation of workers. With spacious awareness we can pause to sense our interconnection with all beings and we can see more clearly the effects of our actions and calculate more accurately the true cost of our purchases.

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So that brings us to the end of the Eightfold Path, the Fourth of the Four Noble Truths. I hope you have found it a fruitful exploration. In this tradition we are encouraged to return again and again to the teachings, to revisit these Four Noble Truths. The first visit our eyes and ears take in the concepts but they are outside our experience. The second time around, we begin to recognize these truths in our lives and begin to incorporate them into our experience. The third time perhaps they have worked their way into our very bones. They can become the conceptual structure upon which we live our lives.

I encourage you to discover more about the Four Noble Truths from other sources and from your own experience through meditation and living in awareness. With each of the Truths, you can ask questions. For example:

The Buddha says that there is suffering in life. Is this true? How do I know it is true? Am I living with that understanding? How does that understanding manifest in my life?

The Buddha says that the cause of most of our suffering is grasping, clinging and pushing away the various aspects of life that attract or repel us. Is this true? Ho do I know it is true? How does that truth manifest in my own life?

The Buddha says that the end of suffering is possible. Is this true? Am I willing to practice in a way that I can discover for myself the truth of this statement?

The Buddha says that the way to end suffering is through the Eightfold Path: Wise Intention, Wise View, Wise Effort, Wise Concentration, Wise Mindfulness, Wise Speech, Wise Action and Wise Livelihood. Is this true? Am I willing to practice in a way that I can discover for myself the truth of this statement?