Monthly Archives: June 2011

Goody-Goody!

Last week we talked about the value of doing self-exploration and inquiry when we find ourselves in a state of feeling threatened. Fear and contraction are the experiences through which the compressed hard rock of our false identity was formed. Practicing being in the present moment, which is what meditation is, develops the ability to begin to see this process of false identity creation in action, as if we have slowed down a video of complex activity and can actually see a step by step demonstration.

If we take the time to inquire within, to be patient with the process, and to release our vested interest in the outcome, then we will be able to release our tight hold on this lie we believe ourselves to be.

We live in a culture that discourages being present with what is actually arising in our experience in the moment. Instead we are encouraged to plaster over anything unpleasant with a veneer more suitable, more comfortable for everyone.

In some ways it’s better than it used to be. I’ll never forget my mother’s response when I would tell her how I felt. She would simply tell me I shouldn’t feel that way. This was not a stance unique to her and I don’t blame her for it, though it was frustrating for me. It was the way she had been raised. It was the way most everyone she knew felt one should deal with emotions. But it wasn’t the response I needed, and it was a real conversation stopper, leaving me feeling stuck with the added feeling of being judged for how I felt.

Since then there has been a collective growing awareness that emotions matter, that feelings matter, and even though we may feel we are being overloaded with too much information from other people’s stories, how much better it is for us to see that we all suffer from the same emotional states rather than to think that we are freaks of nature who suffer alone.

But there is still within us this desire to name our experience ‘a problem’ and then rush to come up with a quick fix. Society tells us, ‘Yes, meditate, do what you need to do, but come out of it upbeat and cheerful please!’ We get caught up in spiritual striving. We struggle for release from what torments us. And as long as we are running, searching and seeking solutions to the problem of us in this state then we are doomed to keep chasing our tails. Our inability to come up with a solution causes more feelings of unworthiness and failure.

We are often told to focus instead on the good bits within our identity, to see how really nice and generous and loving we are. In fact, all the positive things we have been told about ourselves can be just as problematic as the negative, especially since we are likely to cling to them all the more tightly!

This false identity may seem less like a hard rock and more like a golden nugget of goodness that will sustain us, but our relationship to it is exactly the same as to any negative view we may have of ourselves. We are naming and claiming something we perceive to be solid about ourselves, creating something we must in turn defend.

For most of us we recognize that we feel we do have something to defend and at the same time we may bristle at being told we are defensive.

As self-explorers we find ourselves often more reluctant to venture into the areas where we feel good about ourselves. If we feel good about ourselves then we figure that part is resolved, right? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! But we are not on a fix-it mission. We are on an awareness and loving-kindness mission, shedding both light and compassion wherever we go in order to loosen the tightness we hold in our bodies and in our minds. We can notice how our believing ourselves to be nice or smart or good also causes a tightening of our grasp on our perceived identity.

We do ourselves such a disservice when we embrace these labels for ourselves. Positive or negative, they are all limiting. We find we are packaging ourselves like a product instead of allowing ourselves to be the rich and wondrous process that we are, intricately woven in the infinite web of life.

As meditators we run the risk of contracting around a new identity of being wise, calm, present and compassionate. It’s very easy to simply add developing skills to the list of accomplishments that make up our sense of who we are.

Often non-meditators who know that the practice might have value for them but who can’t bring themselves to do it may be inhibited because they have met meditators who seem to be caught up in this false sense of identity. Whether it is the meditator who has fallen a little in love with this idea of themselves or the non-meditator who is projecting this on them, the effect on the non-meditator is the same. They believe that to be a meditator is to be holier than thou, full of oneself and a goodie-goodie – not someone they want to invite to their next party!

Beginning meditators may expect more advanced meditators and certainly someone who teaches meditation to be the perfection of all positive qualities, and so are aghast when it is revealed they are human and flawed. They may take on the practice and the study of Buddhism as a way to be good: A good Buddhist, a good person. If I’m on the Eightfold Path then I am good, end of story. But this approach to meditation leaves us high and dry, only noticing what we want to see, not acknowledging all of what is occurring in any moment.

So creating a gold plated rock of false identity is just as self-destructive as a negative one. Perhaps the person with the positive self-view can accomplish more in life, take more risks, look on the bright side, make lemonade out of lemons – all of the things that we praise in our culture, BUT there’s a high price on the upkeep of a gold-plated or diamond -encrusted rock. The security costs are immense and the isolation can be painful. If we must always be this paragon of perfection, we are cut off from acknowledging much of our human experience.

While virtue is its own reward, being a paragon of virtue, a poster child for virtue, which is what we become when we contract around that false identity, is hazardous. The culture we live in holds these paragons up as if they were gods, has a feeding frenzy of delight when they act out the suppressed shadow side created by that solid rock of virtue. It seems every other week the news is so full of the fall of these paragons that anything that might be of value to know is side-lined, in order to ‘give the people what they want’ and fuel the feeding frenzy.

Why do people love to see paragons of virtue fall off their pedestals? So much of it has to do with this hard rock of false identity that we protect and nurture within ourselves and project onto the people we see in the news. Something inside us yearns for balance. We feel a little righteous come-uppance for those who hold themselves too high and conversely we feel warmed by rags-to-riches stories. High brought low, low bought high.

Through awareness practice we begin to see that two extremes do not create balance, as we explored when we studied the Buddha’s Middle Way. We learn to develop a sense of connection, compassion and spaciousness that makes rooms for all beings and all the emotions we experience, even the uncomfortable ones brought up by the news we hear. We are human with human thoughts and emotions. Our ability to accept that fact gives us the opportunity to see more clearly how our emotions affect us. If we pretend to be devoid of anything negative, we are disempowered because only when we are fully present with all of what arises in our experience are we able to see connections, causes and conditions, and make wise decisions. Being present with all of it is the way to keep it in the light so we can see more clearly. We are not donning an outfit called ‘meditator’ that makes us wise and honorable. No one, not even ourselves, will benefit by it.

We can be virtuous without having to cling to a prefabricated identity. We can be smart, strong or independent without having to label ourselves or let others label us. Releasing our attachment to a particular identity allows us to fully inhabit this rich gift of life. Why limit ourselves to pre-packaged frozen dinner identities when we can live a farmers’ market life, discovering new things about ourselves and life in every season, and we can create a fresh meal, a fresh life experience in every moment? Then whatever we make of our lives will be truly nourishing.

The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth says that it is our grasping and clinging that causes our suffering. Our grasping and clinging has created that hard rock of negative and positive beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. But through the practice we begin to notice that the rock we have compressed through our grasping and clinging is only a small part of our experience. We can notice the rich soil of life that is there to support us.

Think of the earth. Think how receptive it is. We can feel whatever arises, we can be present with every experience, and the supportive earth will receive it all without judgment like rain water. We think there are parts of who we are that would poison the earth, but these toxic emotions are only poisonous when compressed and turned on ourselves and others. Of themselves, they are simply human emotion and can be noticed, questioned and released in a natural way, and the earth will receive them like rain water.

All of life – the earth, the sun, the rain – nourishes our well being and speaks to our deep interconnection. We can rest in the infinite web of life into which we are intrinsically woven. We can celebrate the sweetness of being alive with all its joys and sorrows, and savor every moment of this amazing gift in all its variety.

At the Push of a Button

When someone pushes our buttons and we react in our habitual ways, it’s uncomfortable and disconcerting perhaps, but it’s also an opportunity for an adventure in self-discovery.

A few weeks ago in the lesson titled ‘Taking Refuge, Taking Root’ I used the analogy of a plant rooting, and I talked about how we might contract around a hard rock, believing it to be solid ground and how we need to let our roots flourish and expand in the rich soil in order to ensure healthy growth for the plant of our being.

So what is the rock in this analogy? What is this hard thing that we contract around, that we cling to, believing it to be the ground that will support us? It is our identity, our solid separate sense of self that we hold onto as if it is the source of life, without which we would disappear.

We will not disappear if we loosen our tight hold on this rock of identity. But when we begin to see that it is just a rock and not the ground itself, we can release our grip on that hard contracted sense of self, that collection of ideas about who we are. This awareness that there is a rock, that there is a holding tight, a contracting around our sense of identity is in itself a hard truth to grasp. If we are not our thoughts, our beliefs, our personality, our way of being in the world, our skills, our traits, our strengths and our weaknesses – all these things we have learned about ourselves over the years – then who the heck are we?

With our tight grasp around the rock of identity, we are too contracted to consider the possibility that we are not who we believe ourselves to be. It’s just too scary. It’s just another threat that makes us feel we will disappear.

We all know these perceived threats that seem to be the cause of all our pain by making us contract even further. We are familiar with them, whether we acknowledge them or not. I’ve come upon a collection of early poems from my twenties, and in between all the love poems there are poems that clearly speak to an awareness of these threats.

POEM: At the Door

Let them all come in
Open the door gently
so they won’t fall on their faces
but let them all come in
Careful now, don’t crush the hand
that seeps under the door sill
Don’t stab too hard
the key into the hole
through which an eye’s been
watching waiting
Yes, let them all come in
I’m just too tired to listen
to their scratching and their whining
I want to see their faces
and be done with them

– Stephanie Noble, Fall 1976

In this poem I am clearly in a state of exhaustion from fighting with these threats and I just want to get it over with, to stop locking the door against whatever it is that so desperately wants in. Sometimes we arrive at the door of our awakening with just that state of exhaustion after all other avenues of escape have been tried. Other times we rush to open the door because wherever we are is so excruciatingly painful that we finally have no choice but to see what’s behind the door of the unknown we had previously resisted.

In the second poem, written soon after the first, you can see it is in fact two poems in one. Read through the whole poem first, then reread only the words in bold. Because at the time I only had a typewriter to work with, I used a colored pencil to highlight the words of the poem inside the poem. (In the printed version the poem is justified into a block of type but I couldn’t achieve that here.)

POEM: Calling Card

I recognize its calling card
but shut the door I know
its voice but not its name
I say I am not yet ready for
the peace pipe pale light
waiting & shut the door. It
calls out wanting compromise
& Trust when I know if I let it
in for tea it would steal
me away. Even as we chat
it would pocket my tongue
leaving me there with
no way to call for help No
that door must not Be opened
though There is no end to its
knocking, though I must Live
always with Knowing that the
day no doubt will come when
the door shall come unhinged
and all my choices are gone

– Stephanie Noble, Fall 1976

In this second poem there is still the sense of the perceived threat but there is also the full awareness that what is waiting outside the door is not just the rambunctious scratching aspects of perceived identity that need to be faced, but also the patient inner wisdom that is always there ready to be heard when we are ready to listen.

When we open to the creative process, we often find a way of exploring concepts that might otherwise be threatening. So whatever utensils for creativity call to you – a paint brush, a pen, a pair of scissors and a stack of magazines, remembering and recording dreams or any other creative means, allow yourself to pick it up and use it as a means of self-exploration. Let go of any idea that it needs to be ‘good.’ We are not talking about products to be marketed but about the means to allow our inner wisdom to communicate with us.

Clearly, these two poems are both ways for my inner wisdom to tell me it was time to open to whatever was on the other side of that door, and I began meditating not too longer after these were written. I’m glad that I wrote the poems down, and even collected them and kept them, though I just recently found this notebook of collected early poetry, long buried.

We all have ways in which our inner wisdom speaks to us, but we don’t always listen, and if we hear it we don’t always believe it. Even if we believe it we might not remember it when we most need it. Making note through the creative process in whatever form it takes is a way of formalizing our relationship with our inner wisdom. We might not know what it is telling us but we are heeding its call, and we then have a way of living with the record, letting ourselves wonder about it, letting it inspire us to further exploration.

Unless of course we get all caught up in turning our art into currency to make us feel safe in the world, thinking it represents us. It doesn’t! Our inner wisdom speaks through us in this way, and we are free to share our art with others because it is universal in nature. But it is very easy to contract around our art and compress it further into the rock of our identity, so that instead of allowing it to have its relationship with others, to reach them if they are open to it, we believe our art to be our face in the world, and we suffer in our sense of self if people don’t respond to it in the way we hope they will. Sometimes artists contract around their art identity and lose touch with the inner wisdom that sparked its creation originally. Instead of listening to their inner wisdom, they listen to ‘the market.’ This is a loss for the artist and the viewer, reader or listener because there is no deep connection, only an uncomfortable agreement to stay on the surface of things, ignoring the loud knocking and scratching sounds coming from ‘the door.’

Do you have a felt sense of what or who threatens your tightly held perception of personal identity? For most of us it is made much clearer at the moments when someone or something ‘pushes our buttons’ by making us feel unsafe — unloved, invisible, disrespected or unworthy, even if that was not their intention. As painful as they are, these moments are potentially gifts for inner exploration. As we develop the ability to be present with experiences and the emotions they evoke, we can begin to use skillful inquiry and insightful noticing. Buddhist meditative practice invites us to be present with what is, and sometimes purposely evoking strong emotion in order to bring up the strong sense of the false identity, the illusion of a separate self.

Our body is our greatest instructor in this. We can feel intense emotions in our body. In the way it holds tension, pain and illness our bodies can give us insights into what residue from the past we are compressing into that rock of false identity.

Sitting in meditation or simply in a quiet moment, we can access a specific bodily sensation. Resting our attention there, we first let go of any desire to change it, to make it better, to make it go away. This is an opportunity to learn something. Why would we rush past it, even if it’s painful? We sit with our pain because it holds the key to our ability to awaken and grow to the fullness of our being.

First we can simply be with the emotion, noticing where we feel it in our body, then we focus on the physical sensation, noticing what images and emotions arise through this open curious attention. We might ask a question, “Why do I feel this way?” We may hear the words of a parent or teacher scolding us. We may see a scene from our youth. These are actually associated with the pain. They are the clues to how we learned to identify ourselves in this way.

These are moments in our young lives where we believed what someone else told us about ourselves or about the world without taking into account their own human frailties, fallibilities and fears. Now as adults who don’t believe everything we hear from every source, we can be present with them again and we can see them more clearly. We can see how an exhausted and perhaps frustrated young mother gave us messages that spoke more of her feelings about herself than about us. We can see how a young lover’s betrayal tattooed us with a sense of being unlovable or unattractive when he or she was simply steeped in misery that had nothing to do with us. Seeing this, we don’t need to turn on ourselves for having been gullible. We were young! We were learning about the world and ourselves from every source available. We had no way to discern whether a source was valid, whether what we heard was true or not. Horrible things are said in moments of anger, in moments of intoxication that were false but felt true to us at the time, and we took these things in and we fabricated our identity around them and now it is the rock that we cling to full of both the things we like to believe about ourselves and the things we are ashamed of. We all have this! And, as was mentioned by one of the students in class, it is really valuable to realize that horrible things, untrue but hurtful and believed to be true at the time things, have been said to us all. And while part of what we can do is to be conscious enough to not say such things to others, especially to children who will take it so to heart, the other part is to become conscious enough to see how much of what we hold to be us is really just this rock we are clinging to, believing it to be us.

These insights may give us great ‘aha’ moments where we begin to understand how we contracted around that hard rock of identity. The story revealed may be very compelling. We may fall a bit in love with it and we run the risk of wrapping our roots tight around it as well, recognizing all the ways we have been wronged, and getting into an orgy of naming and blaming rather than moving through the story to the clarity of the message that ‘We are not this.’ Having found we are not this, we may simply fall into the belief that “We are that.’ still seeing the identity thus created as solid. Sometimes we just apply whitewash through positive thinking. We tell ourselves we are good when we had thought ourselves bad. Thus we are still stuck clinging to the rock.

So we need to be aware that these discoveries are not the end of the exploration. We take these new found associative images and insights and pursue a form of inquiry. We take the horrible thing that was said to us, that we have held tight within us all these years, and we ask, ‘Is this true?’ and ‘How do I know this is true?’ No matter how much power we vested it with at the time, we now see that the source of our belief about who we are has nothing to do with us. The source, whether a parent, teacher or playmate, was unreliable. He or she was operating without true knowledge or understanding, with no clairvoyance and certainly only temporal power over us. We have the power to reparent ourselves, not to weave a new tale of who we are, but to hold ourselves with great compassion and strength to be present with all of these stories and see them for what they are.

This is a huge breakthrough! Because we have just begun to see the contraction and the clinging roots as unnecessary. Now we have the opportunity to release into the rich soil of being and grow in ways we have never allowed ourselves to do before.

So when in a relationship someone pushes our buttons and we sense our habituated patterns of reactivity arising, we have a choice. We can follow our habituated patterns mindlessly, letting them take us on a wild painful ride — lashing out in anger or retreating in self-pity, for example — or we can say ‘Thank you for providing such a rich dharma lesson!’ Well we don’t have to say it out loud, but we could! And then we can give ourselves some time to be present with the pain, to feel it in the body, to notice associative images and emotional memories, and to do exploratory inquiry.

This is the opportunity that we are offered again and again, at the push of a button.

Just a Minute

Last week we experimented with meditating for exactly one minute. Hopefully some of you tried it during the week as well. If so, what was your experience?

I notice that I feel much more relaxed, alert and present than I would have expected from just one minute of meditation. It made me realize that when we know we have 30 – 40 minutes we may take our sweet time getting into it, especially if we are on our own, without the introductory guidance of a teacher. In fact, meditation retreats are similar in that way. Whether we are attending a day long, a weekend retreat, a week-long or longer, there’s an arc that includes a ‘settling in’ period, a ‘sweet spot’ of varying duration, and then the either ‘eager for or dreading the end’ period. When we only have one minute we don’t have time to mess around. Experienced meditators can, if needed, drop right into that sweet spot. And that’s a sweet thing to know!

I am going to present this one minute mini-meditation to a group of non-meditators and it will be interesting to hear their experience of it. I have done this before to very positive effect. We discussed in class how parents and schools are routinely giving ‘time outs’ to children. I’d be curious to know if there is any instruction given with this time out that would make it a more beneficial meditative experience rather than simply a cooling off of raging emotional states. Instead of ‘Little Johnny seems less angry now” or “Sally seems truly sorry for what she did,” how about “Johnny and Sally seem more able to interact with the other children without resorting to violence, and they are paying more attention in class. They seem more grounded and happy.”

Even a minute of meditation helps us to be more present, relaxed and alert, like tuning a violin when it gets off key. Maybe we were a little out of tune with the moment — all tensed up, too tightly strung, or too loosely strung, tired and unable to focus, and now, after the minute of inward focus, we feel more in tune.

‘Taking a minute’ has always been an acceptable coping skill. Watching my granddaughter, I see that it is an inborn skill. When she first started becoming mobile she naturally found herself in awkward physical situations that were new for her. She would pause in place and become very still. She seemed to be sensing in to these new sensations for a bit before deciding how to proceed. She still needs a minute now and again just to transition and regroup, as do we all, whether we realize it or not.

As regular meditators, doing this tuning-in minute at any time during the day when it feels necessary serves to weave our meditation practice fully into the fabric of our lives so that we aren’t deluded into thinking that meditation is some isolated event in our day that we can forget about when we stop and return to habituated behaviors.

It can also aid our understanding of meditation, reminding us to be present, aware, not lost in dreamy fantasy. When a group of meditators sit in a circle in silence there are many different ways to experience meditation. Here is a poem I wrote about eleven years ago that illustrates the variety of experience meditators have, one from the other but also within any given meditation.

The Running Child Meditation

In the foyer of the meditation hall
a small child runs back & forth
back and forth, feet plopping & rising
& pausing & turning again.

Inside the sitting room a meditator
feels irritation rising up within her.
“What could that parent be thinking?
Why don’t they take that child outside?”

Another meditator is drawn
into a memory of her own children, now grown,
and the sweetness of the footfalls in the foyer.

Another notes in awe the boundless energy
of youth and feels her own lethargy.
“I am old,” she sighs.

Yet another is caught in the aching emptiness
of the old dream of the child she never had.
She hadn’t expected it to find her here
and feels a victim of its intrusion.

Another doesn’t notice the sound very much,
so loud are her own thoughts, planning, planning.

Another doesn’t hear the sound at all.
She is almost asleep in a fog and nodding,
catching her head each time it drops.

Another hears the sound as simple sound,
unattached to any image –
a rhythmic cadence, soft and round.

Another composes a poem in her head, titled
The Running Child Meditation.

And all of these meditators are me.

– Stephanie Noble, Spirit Rock, 2000

So the one minute attunement puts us in an instant state of being present with our experience. We don’t have time to settle in, to finish our thoughts or lollygag. I am reminded of Margaret Atwood telling our poetry class at UC Berkeley many years ago that when she was single she had all sorts of time-wasting rituals she would do before writing, including sharpening all her pencils to perfect points. Then she had a baby, and suddenly she had to decide between these rituals or really writing. So she just got right to the writing whenever the opportunity arose because there was no time for messing around. That has stayed with me and helps remind me to cut to the chase of whatever I am doing.

In our Vipassana or Insight meditation practice we have our intention to be present and to be compassionate to keep us anchored into our physical senses. We focus on one sensation such as the breath or we rest in an open field of awareness to receive and be present with whatever sensations arise and fall away. We may alternate between a concentrated focus and an open receptive awareness.

Meditators from different traditions have other ways of focusing such as inner mantras (sacred word silently repeated) or chanting. All forms have the ability to bring us fully present into a state of heightened awareness.

Daily meditation practice when anchored in intention has the potential to keep us present during our day. But if we think of meditation as separate from our ‘real’ lives, then we check it off our to-do list, or chalk it off as a pleasant respite and forget about it. This happens even after extended retreats where we have had amazing experiences and insights. We want it to last but most of us toss ourselves right back into the bubbling cauldron of daily life where our habitual patterns take hold pretty darn quick. We are advised to think of the last day of a retreat as the middle day, and to take as many days to gently reintroduce ourselves into our lives as we spent on retreat. For longer retreats the recommendation is for a day for each week of the retreat. But really, it’s an opportune time to reevaluate how much of our habitual lives we must reclaim? Do we really want to watch television instead of the sunset and the stars? Do we really need to tell everyone everything all the time? This transition out of retreat can be a sweet time of rich noticing and clear choosing, if we take the time to allow for that.

The addition of this minute attunement could serve to remind us that meditation is a practice to bring awareness into every moment of our lives.

Now some of us might wonder if this one minute tuning in is all we need. Maybe we don’t need a sitting practice at all. Each of us would have to answer that for ourselves. Immediately after a one minute attunement we might feel the wonderful relaxation and centeredness we feel after a longer sitting practice. But how long do we feel that way? How often do we have to have these minutes in order to feel the sense of connection, aliveness and joy we experience with a regular daily practice? This would be an interesting experiment for those who want to try it.

I know from many decades of personal experience that daily practice replenishes my sense of connection and going on a long retreat deepens that sense immeasurably. It has truly transformed my default life view. I realized this recently when I came upon a collection of poems I wrote in my 20’s. I am struck by their dark, defeatist and sometimes suicidal sounding bent. Anyone who knows me now might be very surprised to hear that. Was I really like that? Yes! I remember being in a state of discontent most of the time. My feathers were easily ruffled, my feelings easily hurt, and my hopes easily dashed.

Now the causes and conditions of my life have not changed substantially since I wrote those poems. I am still married to the same man, still live in the same county. But Will and I are both much happier than we were back then. He has mellowed through the daily practice of Chi Gung and Tai Chi, and I have mellowed through meditation. In the first decade of our marriage we often waded deep into muddy misunderstandings and got stuck in our positions of opposition. At one point it even looked like there was no sense in going on and we talked about breaking up. Today we are truly happily married and we are kinder people than we were back then. Our mindfulness practices have made a huge difference in both our lives.

So the minute of attunement is a wonderful way to shift energy, to put the pause button on the rapid-fire life we are living, and thus is of great benefit and a great addition to our meditation toolbox of techniques. But just as a pit stop is not the same as a full service for a car, meditation is more than just a sense of relaxed centeredness. The pit stop makes it possible to go on in the short run, but in the long run a car needs more than new tires, and we need more than a minute to come to a deeper sense of connection that leads to inquiry, reflection, insight and awakening.