Monthly Archives: July 2011

Powerful Beyond Measure

Many of us, especially women, are very uncomfortable with power. When we think of power, it is usually other people’s power. When we think of having power, we may think it’s an unattractive or unacceptable force that we must suppress, for it isn’t what we want, and it isn’t the way we want to be in the world, bullying others to get our way. Perhaps our life experience has taught us that power is brutal and dangerous. We want to be kind and compassionate.

That’s why we practice meditation, isn’t it? We want peace, tranquility, ease and kindness. So it may be surprising to learn that in Tibetan Buddhism there are three central deities that represent the desirable qualities of wisdom, compassion and power.

Power?

Yes, power. Even if we are too afraid or self-conscious to acknowledge our power, it is there. When we don’t acknowledge the power within us, it becomes subverted, perverted and unskillful. We stuff it down in the dungeon or try to kill it off, thus forcing it to become sneaky, underhanded and manipulative. We may develop passive-aggressive tendencies to get our needs met or become depressed, depleted from all the energy we are putting into tamping down and containing our innate power.

We are all experienced observers of human nature. We see how passive people get their needs met in convoluted ways, leaving them and all around them feeling worse. Think of someone you know who seems passive, perhaps even sweet, but whose life is a misery in one form or another – a constant whirlwind of problems, a bottomless pit of complaints or a fog of fading away, dependent on others to draw them out. We can notice how their behavior rises from past wounds. Their history is always present in the room when you are with them. They feel they have no power and are victims, but in fact they have the world cowed and suffering. Everyone who comes close gets sucked into the miasma of their misery or struggles to resist it. That is certainly a kind of power, to be able to make everyone suffer! But it’s not a beneficial power, to say the least.

This kind of power is shallow-rooted, based in fear. In relationship a person operating from such a fear-based shallow-rooted place, we do well to stay grounded in our own sense of presence and compassion, noticing our own emotions that arise in their presence.

If this description sounds like you, be compassionate without enabling these shallow-rooted habituated patterns. See if you can see the truth of the behavior that I’m talking about without feeling attacked as if this is who you are. This is not who you are! But neither are you a victim. Instead you are simply unaware of who you truly are. Your highest priority – no matter what is going on in your life and how pressing it seems — needs to be to anchor yourself into the present moment through the body so that you can safely explore the inner conversation that validates your misuse of power. Guides on your journey in the form of therapists are available when needed and there is no shame in needing their help.

All of us at times see glimpses of our power, but when its in a compressed dungeon-esque state it isn’t something we want to have anything to do with, so we add yet another lock and pretend it isn’t there, creating a deeper denser shadow. (Remember from our discussion last week that the shadow is that part of ourselves that we find unacceptable so ignore or pretend it doesn’t exist.)

We align ourselves with the softer gentler side of life, choosing to notice nature’s sweet offerings of cute puppies, babies and bowers of flowers, while avoiding nature’s offerings of fiery volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes. We feel we are aligning with life with these choices, but nature shows us life in its full cycle of birth, growth, aging, death, decay and renewal. We are afraid of the power of these naturally occurring events because we see the damage — the cities flattened, the lives lost, the pain and grief of survivors and the challenge of getting back to normal. Where is the upside in all this? We see none, so we judge nature’s power as ruthless. If we personify God, we ask why he would allow such things to happen. And when we thrill at the sight of nature’s power, it may be accompanied by a sense of guilt or shame, knowing that for someone somewhere this awesome event is causing pain. This is just something to notice: How thoughts, judgments, fears come into our experience. We might also begin to notice that these thoughts, judgments and fears arise when we feel our own power wanting to be expressed, and how our fear rises up to push down the power, denying it expression.

When we push down the power, we create a compressed, dense and toxic power that is now dangerous in a way that our natural power, our unsuppressed power, is not. ‘Evil’ is not a word I use, and it’s not a word used in the Buddhist teachings I have studied. But since evil is a concept so intrinsically a part of our western culture and world view, it needs to be addressed. This suppressed power, compressed in fear that creates this inner rotten stink that has the capacity to act in convoluted destructive ways is certainly an accurate definition of evil.

We can see that by this definition, battling against evil is simply aligning ourselves with it, as our suppressed fear-based power gets tuned in and activated by coming into contact with the fear-based eruption of toxicity from others. Throughout history we see the misery that this has caused, more than any naturally occurring show of power in nature.

So, as alien and odd-feeling as it may seem, this toxic compressed fear, this ‘evil,’ needs to be met with awareness and compassion. Only the light of awareness and compassion can safely expose and release the tight fear-based core and dissipate its dense toxicity.

The Power of the Present Moment

When we can come fully into the present moment, the power that we feel is pure presence. This is the power that is the third admirable quality when added to awareness and compassion, and it is only through awareness and compassion that we can discover this power and acknowledge that it flows through us. It is universal energy that surges through all open channels equally. When we see we are intrinsically a part of all that is, then we can accept our natural place in the world, including our natural ability to be conductors of this bright loving energetic power that arises naturally through our intention to be present and compassionate.

Being present is the only access point to our natural power. This moment right here and now is the only point of power possible. We can’t affect the past. It’s history. We can rewrite it in our mind, but we can’t go back and change things. The future is a dream, a hope or a fear and, while what we do now will impact the present moment we experience later, the only real power we have is here and now in this place and time.

Be present and feel your power! We are always and forever in the exact right pivotal spot in life to make powerful choices. This very moment is full of doors leading in all directions, and in every moment we choose one door. Being fully present and aware of this powerful pivotal point, we are no longer mindlessly wandering about but actively choosing the door that opens us to wisdom, compassion and presence.

You chose that door this morning when you came to class, or when you decided to read this post. You listened to your most deeply-rooted powerful nature, your Buddha nature, and made this choice. You could have listened to more shallowly-rooted voices begging to stay a little longer in bed, a little longer over breakfast, or the one that says you have too many things to do today to fit meditation class or a quiet time of reading dharma into your schedule. At any point along the road to get here, you could have chosen to ignore your own inner wisdom. But you didn’t and you are here. You are powerful and acting from that power.

Now maybe you are thinking, ‘Well actually, I came because I knew I should. I don’t feel powerful at all.’ But that’s just your own discomfort with power speaking. If you are here, your inner wisdom brought you. Allow for the possibility that this is true. All the shallow-rooted thoughts habituated to denying power out of fear from having witnessed its abuse may be present and we make room for them in our awareness. But they are like wisps of fog that have been covering the mountain this morning off and on. The mountain is still there. And so is our inner wisdom, powerful beyond measure. This calls to mind the Marianne Williamson quote that is so inspiring that Nelson Mandela used it in his first inaugural speech. She says,

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

When Marianne Williamson talks about letting our own light shine, that brings to my mind one of my favorite songs: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” which speaks to allowing the power of our true nature, our Buddha nature, to shine through us. If this song speaks to you too, let it be the tune in your head that reminds you to let your light, your own access to power, shine through and express itself in creative ways.

Feeling fully present, sensing our connection to all that is, we feel empowered. The power is fresh and full of life-force. It is illuminated by clear-seeing of being present and aware. It is fueled by compassion. It is the nature of life actively loving itself.

We have over the past weeks been using the metaphor of the plant with its roots clinging tight around a rock instead of spreading deep in the rich nourishing soil. Here we are again, seeing how clinging to that rock of false identity, believing ourselves to be victims and powerless, constricts us and subverts our ability to be fully alive. When we root deeply in the nourishing soil of being, we can feel the power of aliveness. We don’t have to exhaust ourselves repressing our power, being afraid of our power or being ashamed of our power. We don’t have to see power as belonging to someone else and our role to be the victim or the compliant one that always acquiesces to the wishes of others, who never says no to any request because to do so would seem unkind. We can say no respectfully but without apology, and our ability to say no with such kindness and clarity can inspire others. The limited convoluted idea of who we are in the scheme of things no longer fits, not when we have discovered our sense of presence and connection. Yes, we align with life, with ALL of life – the puppies and the volcanoes!

Now we begin to see that how in our misinterpretation of what it is to be a kind, caring and compassionate human in the world, we may have denied the value of acknowledging power. In our experiences of witnessing misused power, we may have a fear-based view of the nature of power. So we have been tamping it down when it arises within us, calling it nasty names and subverting it so that it becomes shadow-power, that dense toxicity that causes harm to everyone who encounters it, thus reinforcing our fear of it.

Now it is time to own up to the power that is inherent in our nature! It’s time to accept and celebrate our access to this universal energy that expresses itself through us and empowers us to be fully ourselves, open-hearted, strong and alive.

Naming Our Poisons

The Buddha taught of the three poisons, the mental states that manifest in unskillful action and cause us and those around us to suffer. They are greed, aversion and delusion. As our minds become clearer through the practice of meditation, we begin to see these three states as they arise within us. We can notice how our actions are rooted in and fed by one or the other of these states.

Right now, for example, I am sitting here feeling greedy for the dharma as I write, hungering to learn more, and the desire to share it in the clearest way possible so that my students may benefit from knowing it. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, and it isn’t. Especially noticing it as it arises is a good thing. But noticing also brings an awareness of a tinge of energetic urgency, panic and fear that are also present in this hunger. Fear of it not being enough, of me not being enough, of my being an imperfect vessel for this information.

At the same time I am noticing a strong aversion to a phone call I am expecting from someone I have never talked with before but who appears to have anger issues as shown in his email. He is not a direct client of mine but is someone my client has to deal with. Suddenly I am ‘having to deal with’ him too. I don’t want to! I’m afraid! I feel the tension in my body rising up. I have held this tension since yesterday when we made this appointment for him to call me. And to top it off, he is already 47 minutes late in calling, which leaves me in this purgatorial state of dread.

Noticing these states, there may be a tendency to work with them, as in ‘fix’ them. That is just another form of aversion arising. I feel aversion for this state of aversion. How does that help? It really doesn’t.

So instead I breathe. Admittedly the breath started out as a sigh, but that reminded me to breathe! I send myself a little compassion. Compassion releases some of the tightness, infusing a sense of expansiveness that allows me to see more clearly. Already my shoulders have dropped an inch. However, I notice my jaw is tight. The buzz in my body is present.

I look out the window, the green and grey morning is calming. The tree outside my window doesn’t see my challenge and yet lives in this world. I don’t want to be the tree, but I am not unlike the tree. I don’t know what the tree experiences, but I can be pretty sure it is not currently dreading a phone call.

The tree is rooted in the earth. I sense my rootedness in the earth. The tree relies on its roots to weather high winds and powerful storms. I am anticipating some high wind this morning, so I sink into my roots, my connection. Thanks tree! Good advice!

The phone call went very well, by the way. A friendly constructive exchange with full agreement and goals achieved all around. Was that just a fluke? Or did my grounding myself help me to remember the humanness of the caller?

Having had a positive experience when anticipating a negative one is something I try to notice, adding it to my learned experiences. I am surprised that with attention, I actually do find I can reason with myself, saying, “Chances are, based on past experience, this will be fine. I will see how I wasted my time dreading an experience that much more often than not is a positive one.”

Noticing when we are operating out of greed or aversion is easier than noticing when we are operating out of delusion. What is delusion anyway? It’s like walking around in a fog and being constantly surprised when things happen. It can be operating as if we are an object being acted upon rather than the subject of our own lives, able to make decisions.

If we are in a state of delusion, how can we notice it? We can’t! At the moment of delusion the mind is enveloped in a cloud or fog, drifting, lost and unaware. But if we have set our intention to be present, then we can notice when it clears a bit. Just noticing that begins the development of awareness of delusion, and that awareness thins the fog. When the fog is thin, we have more options. We can drift or we can stay present. We can notice when the clarity begins to fade and we can take that as a reminder to reset our intention to be present with compassion, to notice the cloud of delusion as it comes and goes. Delusion has a very different felt sense than aversion or greed, but all three take practice to notice.

How do we work with these Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion? I remember when I first started studying Buddhism at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, there was a good deal of talk about how we are generally more inclined to one or the other of these mental states. People would say things like, “I am a greedy personality.” For me this seemed like just another way to label ourselves. We are often attracted to self-labeling, even if it’s an unattractive label.

Defining who we are seems to give us a place in the world, but it locks us in to a false sense of self. While we each do physically fill a finite place in this earthly life, defining it with limiting labels does not satisfy the deeper longing for a sense of understanding our infinite connection, the true nature of our existence.
We have talked before about the shift from the finite to the infinite view. For purposes of convenience in functioning in the world, we see ourselves as finite, singular and separate. But we discover through meditation, or perhaps through spontaneous insight, the infinite view that is always available to us, wherein we recognize that we are not separate at all, that we are a vibrant expression of life loving itself, like a drop of water flying through the sky knowing that it is a part of the sea-evaporation-cloud-rain-river-sea cycle of being which is a part of an even larger circle of life, and that all is one. With this infinite view, more fully discussed in previous discussions in the Eightfold Path, we are able to live more fully and joyfully in the world, even while being able to maintain our seemingly finite path with its various responsibilities, relationships and choices.

In the past few weeks, when discussing our clinging to the rock with our roots believing it to be our identity instead of releasing into the rich nourishing soil and allowing ourselves to grow to the fullness of our being, what we are talking about is letting go of the finite and releasing into the infinite. That shift from finite to infinite comes with our ability to be present and relaxed, releasing the tension that is our body’s way of holding the past and the future. This present moment fully experienced is the portal to understanding our interconnection, our being a part of and being supported by the infinite web of life.

While it may be tempting to label ourselves, it is more skillful to notice greed, aversion and delusion arising in our experience, and not get tangled up in saying, ‘I am an aversive personality type.’ Observing and judging ourselves to be more inclined to one of these three states may seem like it helps but it runs the risk of blinding us to the arising of the other two poisons, for we are tuning ourselves to notice the one above the others. All of us have all three poisons, even if not in equal measure.

The habit of self-labeling can make us passive, as if we have been indelibly stamped with this tendency and there’s nothing we can do. In truth, there’s nothing we NEED to do except be present and compassionate with all that arises in our experience, but that’s very different from a sense of helplessness that there’s nothing to be done about it, as if we are stuck. We are not stuck, we simply perceive ourselves to be stuck. In fact we are quite free, but we choose to pick out new wallpaper for our prison cell, remaking ourselves, rather than simply be present and watch the bars dissolve. We explored the whole concept of freedom in dharma talks quite a while ago. If that word resonates, perhaps you’ll want to read them. If freedom scares you, then that’s important to notice as well. Question in: “What am I afraid of?”

We can fall a little bit in love with even negative labels for at least they give us a sense of definition to cling to. But clinging to the hard rock of who we believe ourselves to be is the essence of what keeps us from opening to our true nature.

In a talk last year on ‘Holding the World in an Open Embrace’ I presented greed and aversion in the form of photos of two little girls, one holding tight to all her toys representing greed; the other with crossed arms and a pouty face representing aversion.

My sixteen month old granddaughter Lucy for the first time in my presence yesterday crossed her arms and pouted! Ah, aversion! This is the first manifestation in this form, though of course she has shown her preferences and dissatisfactions in a myriad of ways. But to actually see her cross her tiny chubby arms and pout with her little cupid bow mouth was quite something!

Where did she learn this particular manifestation? Lucy is my current teacher. I have been learning what is inherently human. When she wakes she does a natural yogi full body stretch, and she has done this since she was just a few months old. Now I try to remember to do that when I wake too. Where did I lose my natural inclination to do so?

And now seeing her pouting and crossing her arms I have to wonder how she developed this classic aversion pose? She doesn’t watch television, and has no older sibling to imitate. Where does she get this little Shirley Temple imitation? It’s a wonder. And it’s adorable and yes a little frightening. Aversion arises in Lucy and displays itself. We could easily go uh-oh and label her an aversive personality and be afraid, very afraid, of what the future holds with this crossed-armed pouty force to be reckoned with. But all that does is fuel our fear, lock her in a box of our labels, a box she will either stay in or break out of unless she can wear these labels lightly, knowing they do not define her true self.

In the past few weeks we have been discussing the inner aspects, what in psychological terms are also called sub-personalities, especially those we keep most hidden from our awareness that make up the shadow. When we are having a skillful inner conversation with an aspect, we might benefit from noticing whether it seems to be fueled by greed, aversion or delusion. I had mentioned Striver and Underminer, two aspects that have resurfaced in my awareness. Clearly Striver operates more from greed and Underminer from aversion, and both are delusional. (As some people might think I am to name inner aspects!! But it is a valuable exercise for the orderly exploration of a very complex lacy-patterned infrastructure of thoughts, emotions and beliefs that form a part of our experience that most influence, and sometime sabotage, our ability to live with awareness and a love of life.)

As a tool for self-exploration, knowledge of the three poisons of greed, aversion and delusion provide insight and clarity. We can use them as clues to see the fear at the root of the aspect we are exploring. These fears — the fear of separation, of exclusion, of not being acceptable, of disappearing, of being overwhelmed and washed away, of being judged, or of failing — are just a few of the ways we forget our connection to all that is and the universal oneness of being.

Discovering the Shadow & the Inner Light

We’ve been talking about this inner cast of negatively-charged emotions that each of us has within us. This is really just another way to talk about what Jung called the shadow. The shadow is the part of our nature that we deny. It is unacceptable to us and must be hidden from others. We hide the shadow so well that we are usually unaware of it, but we may have an uneasy sense of its presence lurking somewhere. This intentional unawareness combined with unease causes us to contract in fear and fuels the subversive behavior of the shadowy aspects within. We do things we are then ashamed of, unable to explain what came over us, because we don’t see the shadowy aspects with their fear-based hidden agendas and secret intentions.

Then through the practice of meditation in a supportive atmosphere we are encouraged to notice our thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away. Especially if we spend an extended period of time doing so, as on a silent retreat, we begin to see what we had been hiding from view. This can be scary and it can be thrilling. It is scary to the shadow aspects that feel threatened with discovery. And it is thrilling to the deepest part of our nature, our Buddha nature, to illuminate the darkness and thus dissipate the shadow.

Now here’s a very interesting thing about shadow: Think about a physical shadow caused by our standing in the light of the sun. If we rely on the cast light of another being, whether a particular human, a deity or a set of cultural norms, then that light will cast a shadow. There will be a part of us that must be hidden as unacceptable because it doesn’t meet the other’s expectations, or what we speculate to be the expectations of the other. We revolve around this external light and like the moon, always carry a dark side, that unacceptable side that doesn’t meet external expectation.

Feeling the density of the shadow like a weight, a person might turn away from the light altogether. They may feel the darkness is more honest and comfortable. They feel safer in the darkness because it seems to accept all of who they are. Think of the muted and almost blind camaraderie of the all-forgiving bar, opium den, casino or bordello, whether actual places or just the dark unwholesome places within our mind that can feel safer, relieved of having to try to be so good. In this place goodness looks very shallow and ineffectual, full of itself, self-righteous, hypocritical, treacle-y sweet and unsatisfying.

From the darkness external light is often suspect and accusatory, like a searchlight tracking us down to drag us off for questioning. Thus the darkness dweller turns away further and further from the externally cast light.

From the darkness the shadows of others, who are trying to live up to the light cast by external sources, are very easy to see, exposing the falseness of their endless efforts to be good. This further justifies the darkness dwellers belief that darkness is the only honest place, and they become further entrenched in darkness.

But at its core a yearning to succumb to darkness is truly a yearning for gestation, for rebirth. When someone wandering in the darkness undertakes to awaken through setting the intention to be fully present with what is, they experience a ‘dark night of the soul’ of wrenching proportions but if they stay with it, can find that being in the darkness has enhanced their ability to recognize their own inner light. We all know how in the middle of the night all the little electronic lights in the house suddenly glow brightly when during the day they weren’t even noticeable.

This is not to recommend hanging out in the unwholesome and unsavory nooks and crannies of shadow to find the inner light, for awareness is required and awareness is hugely lacking in the dark shadows of our existence. That’s how it got so damn dark! Most darkness dwellers prefer to stay trapped where they are, feeling they don’t deserve better and they see no value in self-exploration or meditative practices.

But for anyone who has been wandering in the darkness and has begun to see glimpses of an inner glow, this is a strong reminder to encourage that inner light to glow and grow. It will shed light on the darkness, bring understanding and illuminate life, no matter who we are, where we have been or what we have done or not done.

If we are not wandering in the darkness, we may not be noticing that inner light because there is so much other light around and nothing in our upbringing or culture has encouraged us to look for it. We see light as external and we long to stand in it as long as we can, treating it like a much-needed vacation. The practice of meditation is often treated this way, as a getaway. If this is how it feels for you, remember that our practice is to develop awareness in every moment, awareness of the gift of life, awareness of the light that is ever present, radiating from within.

Jesus said, ‘Be a lamp unto yourself.’ He recognized that we each have access to the source of light, not by standing in the light cast by others but by being aware of our own light nature, our connection to the infinite light of being.

We can honor the cast light of others as a celebration of life. But we need to also recognize the shadow cast when we stand only in that cast light. This is the danger of submitting to the will of a master or powerful teacher, who is casting false light and false hopes while dwelling in the darkness and trying to suck the inner light out of their followers. With insight through meditation we begin to understand that we are each expressions of infinite light that is the interconnected web of life. If we use the name of God for this infinite light, then feel God as beingness itself, world without end, not some finite external being that picks and chooses who is worthy of its love and light. Feel the joy of being an expression of God’s infinite love and light.

And think: When we are radiating light, when we are an expression of the infinite light of being, we cast no shadow.

Since we are humans living in a human society with all that entails, it’s all too easy to get lost, to forget we are lamps unto ourselves, to forget that we have access to inner wisdom, so our practice to deepen and maintain that awareness is ongoing. We set our intention to be present with our experience, to notice our thoughts, our judgments, our tendencies to grasp and cling to the past and the future; to anchor awareness in physical sensation to keep us present and to notice and release habituated tension in the body, noticing associative memories, images, thoughts and emotions that the tension is holding. This noticing sets the stage for noticing the shadow. And when the shadow is seen and not further banished, then it begins to dissipate. As we identify more and more with the radiant light within us, knowing ourselves to be a part of the infinite expression of life, we can become much less defensive for we have nothing to defend against. As we begin to see the shadow we cast when standing in the bright externalized light, we recognize that shadow is just fear, compressed and hidden in darkness. Releasing tension, shedding our inner light of awareness on the fear-based emotions, we are able to gently and steadily awaken.

This process of shedding light and acknowledging the shadow, or the negatively-charged aspects we have suppressed so long that they have become dense and toxic, is part of our ongoing exploration through awareness or insight meditation. In the process of letting go of the belief that we are the emotions and thoughts that pass through our experience, we are more able to hold ourselves in an open loving embrace. We see the shadowy aspects for what they are. We align with the infinite light of our being to unravel the tight fearful tangle, shedding loving light, metta, upon all that we find. Noticing the judgments, noticing the expectations, and even sending metta to those fearful aspects that must criticize lest someone criticize them, to the ones that find fault with the way things are, comparing them to the way they were or the way we had hoped they would be, we make room for all of these expressions in the spaciousness of our being. And by making room for them to be seen, we loosen their tight hold on us, and are no longer blindly vulnerable to their subversion of our intentions to be kind and compassionate. Our willingness to acknowledge that at times we experience thoughts, urges and emotions that would be harmful if acted upon, frees us from the need to act upon them! We can simply acknowledge them, or if they are urgent, we can take the time to sit with them and explore what their need is, and respectfully negotiate a truce as discussed in previous posts.

To the degree that we access and align with the infinite light of being, this deep understanding of our interconnection and the infinite nature of being, then the more joyful we are able to be. We needn’t be afraid of our shadow! But if we are aware of it we can recognize that we need to spend some time looking in to see that inner light glowing in the darkness.

We can even sing to ourselves that wonderful tune: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine….Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!”

Asking in = Wising Up, How to Discover our Buddha Nature

Last week we talked about difficult emotions and how we often suppress them, turning ourselves into jailers. I read my article Emotions as Honored Guests that gives us a way to cope with uncomfortable emotions, reminding us that we are in charge but we need to be good hosts.

The key to all of this is noticing. That’s the basis of insight meditation, this learning to become aware of our emotions, as well as the nature of our thoughts and of our physical sensations.

A strong emotion is rich with clues that we don’t want to waste. Experiencing a strong emotion, we are encouraged to pause and take a meditative moment to notice all that is going on. For example: Where in our body do we feel that strong emotion? What associative images or memories come to mind? We can look to see what triggered the strong emotion. Perhaps it was an odor, sight or sound that on its own seems neutral, but fueled by our associative memory, becomes powerful and disturbing. This is not a time to turn away and tell ourselves ‘Don’t be silly!’ or any other dismissive phrase.

As I suggested in the article, and as the poet Rumi suggested so long ago, we can be the welcoming host of any emotion that arrives at our door. But our main goal is to find out what the emotion has to tell us. So we are kind, caring and compassionate but we are also inquisitive.

The other day here at our house we had a visit from a Sherpa mountain guide! And I’ll tell you, we were welcoming but also intensely curious about Pasan, his life in Nepal, why he came here and how he’s finding it, etc. What an exciting surprise to have a visitor from a whole other world come in the form of a plumber! As we talked we were following the other plumber who was training Pasan on his new job and educating us about how to flush our tankless water heater. We didn’t expect such a memorable experience from a plumbing appointment, just as we don’t expect anything of real value to come from a run-in with a strong emotion. We think of it as one of life’s things to be gotten through.

Now usually I don’t ask personal questions of people who come to our house as part of their jobs, but Pasan offered up the first information, giving us the clue that he was quite willing to talk. That’s true with our strong emotions as well. In fact they are ‘talking’ already. But we need to listen, and to then ask questions that give us answers we can use. But many times the emotion stirs up other emotions of embarrassment or shame that try to shut that emotion up before it has a chance to tell us anything of value.

So how do you have a fruitful conversation with a strong emotion? The most important thing is to speak from your wisest inner self, your Buddha nature, and not from some other needy, demanding aspect that is perfectly happy to get into a shouting match, judging and condemning.

That’s why inquiry is best done after meditation to assure that we have given ourselves a chance to find that calm, loving voice within. Now if this sends you into a panic because you feel you haven’t found that voice, then let’s explore how to discern that wise inner voice from the rest of our cast of inner characters.

Our wise inner voice has certain distinctive qualities that you can notice if you are really paying attention. First, it is patient. It never makes demands, never uses the words ‘should’ or ‘must.’ It comes from a sense of timelessness, so there is no urgency. Its ease is somewhat disarming, putting all those things we thought were so important into perspective. It is the voice of life itself, aware of its intrinsic connection to all that is. From this vantage point we relax because we are aware we are life, not separate from it. There is nothing we could do or say that would expel us from the is-ness of being. But there is plenty we can do that can make us unaware of our connection, and through that lack of awareness we can do things that are incredibly unskillful, causing pain to ourselves, to those we come in contact with, and the earth itself.

But this wise inner voice, this Buddha nature, has no agenda except to remind us of our connection. So if we ask it, ‘What do you want me to know?’ it will first and foremost say, “I love you, I have always loved you, I will always love you.” Well, that’s a lot to know! Suddenly we don’t feel so needy. How much of what we fear and what we try to accomplish is in response to a feeling of being unloved and unlovable? How often are we simply trying to prove that we are deserving of a love that it turns out is already ours, without our having to do a thing?

Does this mean the wise inner voice is saying “Don’t bother!” about everything we are doing in our lives? Not necessarily. It depends on our intention. If we are trying to gain love and respect, then yes, don’t bother. If we are tapping into our innate capacity to love life in all its myriad expressions, then our inner wisdom heartily concurs.

Another question that is useful to ask is, ‘Why do I feel this way? Why do I feel so tense? Why do I feel threatened? Why do I feel so bad about myself?’ These kinds of questions may bring answers from fear-based aspects, but with patience and careful listening, we will also hear that quiet still voice within answering our question either in words or images. Once in my 20’s I asked a ‘why’ question about an area of my life that felt especially dysfunctional, just out of despair, not knowing anything about this wise inner voice and not about to have a conversation with God as we hadn’t been on speaking terms in quite a while. And although no words arose, within the next few minutes as I sat there three powerful image memories rose up, and I sat and waited until I understood what those combined three memories were telling me. And they gave me a powerful answer to my question that I had assumed was unanswerable. The answer that came up changed my life and empowered me in a way that I could never have imagined. That was my first experience with understanding the power we have to inquire within and receive transformative answers.

This inner wisdom, this Buddha Nature, is not an aspect of us, the way all the other voices that create our thoughts and emotions are. We could instead think of ourselves as an aspect of it, as the temporal earthly life-experiencing sensors of this infinite wise loving energy. This is such a wonderful way to think of our interaction with life. Feeling this to be our role in life, we can easily access ‘Beginner’s Mind.’ Every sensation, every experience whether we judge it good or bad is still in this sense a gift of earthly life. When we come from that sense of wonder, that sense of oneness and connection, we are truly expressions of life loving itself. Whatever we do for each other from that place will be truly generous and kind.

If you have never noticed this inner wisdom, you might find inquiry to be your gateway as I did. You can also simply practice relaxing and being present, anchoring into all the senses that give us the opportunity to experience this gift of life.

Sometimes we only listen to wisdom that comes from outside ourselves because we don’t trust anything that comes from within. We may have very low self-esteem, and/or we may have been taught that to think that the answers come from within is turning ourselves into a god; that God is to be honored and set apart from our lowly selves and this mundane life. (Of course, if God created us doesn’t that make us and all of life sacred? Isn’t the profanity the unwillingness to recognize the sacredness of all God’s creation, even the tight and twisted terrified places that most need awareness of God’s infinite love? When we see ourselves as connected to God, as expressions of God, we are seeing God in all that is, not setting ourselves above. The personification of God as something apart from ourselves is a so pervasive that I have long since given up using the term, even though as you see, I can easily describe my understanding of God. I am not at odds with God. God and I are good. And Buddhist meditation and concepts are not at odds with God either. Believers from all faiths find that meditation and the study of Buddhist concepts enhance their understanding of their religion and deepens their faith.)

But whether we call this inner wisdom God or we call it the infinite energy of life loving itself, our resistance to trusting it comes from thinking that we could be the source of true wisdom. We still separate ourselves out, we still see ourselves as this amalgam of these whiny voices, our thoughts and emotions. But even if we hold that to be who we are, we can still access this inner wisdom. This inner access is like a well, but the well is not the source if the water, is it? The well is an access point to the water that travels under the ground. Through meditation and self-exploration we are bringing our attention to the existence of this well, this inner access to universal wisdom. Eventually we may see that the well is also a part of the infinite beingness of life, not separate, neither less nor more sacred.

When we deny the existence of inner access to wisdom, we are more receptive to it when offered up through outer sources: counselors, teachers, leaders, books, movies, magazines. So notice when something you see, hear or read resonates with its authenticity, clarity, compassion and feeling of calm. That’s your inner wisdom saying ‘Yes!’

If when you are watching or reading something, it’s activating the emotional inner aspects that are saying things like, “Yeah! The bastard deserved it!” or some such emotionally charged response, then by your viewing and reading habits you are giving your rowdier inner aspects confirmation that their world view is justified. The Buddha taught the importance of inclining the mind toward what is wholesome, so if you are activating anger, shame, revenge, etc. by your choice of entertainment, you are choosing to align with the rowdy aspects within, the ones that feed on fear and promote unskillful choices. But even in this setting, the wise inner voice is not the one that’s saying, “This is terrible! This is bad for me! I’ve got to get out of here!” That’s just another fear-based aspect.

When you sit quietly, listening in, noticing the various vociferous emotions spouting this thought and that, pay close attention to the quality of the voice. Is it urgent, demanding or caffeinated? Is it cynical, judgmental or hateful? Then it’s an aspect with a fear-based agenda that you will want to have a respectful inquiring conversation with. But if it is quiet, calm, loving, and offers love and when asked sincerely gives valuable guidance, without any sense of urgency, then you know that this is your deepest connected access. Whenever possible keep listening, keep asking in. You have found your teacher and your guiding light. Practice aligning with that wisdom, letting go of any sense of duality.

When you align with this inner wisdom you can then be the welcoming host to whatever guest emotion arrives at your door. Otherwise it is just a shouting match between two urgent aspects that both need to be heard and neither want to listen. Our inner wisdom is a great listener because it is the love of life itself.

So how does such a conversation with an inner aspect begin?
First we recognize an emotion that has come up. Naming it helps us to recognize it more quickly the next time it arises, and giving it a pet name not only locks it into our awareness but reminds us to be kind and respectful.

Once we have given it a name, we can greet this emotion as we would any guest who arrives at our door. Our emotions are so rarely acknowledged that this alone can meet needs.

What do we do next with any guest? We ask them to come in and sit down. This indicates that we want them to feel comfortable, and also that we have time for them. When it comes to a visiting emotion, our willingness to be present and to spend whatever amount of time is required needs to be clearly indicated. We physically sit down if we are not already seated. We turn off our cell phones and other distractions. We give this conversation whatever time is needed. This is another reason it is good to have these conversations following meditation where we have already set up a quiet zone for ourselves.

Then we can ask questions of our guest.
These questions need to be compassionate not accusatory. And the questions are better if they go deep to the achy source rather than encourage the emotion to get caught up in story. When I say story, I am talking about the experiential examples that such a voice will use to justify their existence. ‘I’m angry because she said this about that, or he did this and he’s evil, etc.’ This is all story and is just masking the core of this voice’s true concerns. Without being disrespectful, we can cut to the chase. Each time we are offered story, we can go deeper, we can take charge and the aspect will be grateful to surrender their suffering up.

‘What are you afraid of?’ is one of the most powerful questions we can ask. At the core of every negative emotion is fear. And the intention of every negative emotion is self-protection. We can see that their means of protecting us are unskillful and even unnecessary. Often they are trying to protect us from another part of ourselves that seems hell-bent on putting us in danger. For example we may have an aspect of self that seek external approval so doggedly that another aspect of self arises to undermine its efforts.

This has happened to me many times in my life, so I can see the pattern of it and when it arises I at some point recognize it and can go deeper into conversation. One of my patterns goes something like this: I am enjoying the process of some creative effort, then the aspect I’ve named Striver gets worried that I will be judged on the product of my creative effort, so that aspect takes charge to make sure that everything is perfect. Striver takes most of the fun out of the project and I begin to feel stressed. Even if there is no deadline for the project, Striver will create one. Then just when the product of Striver’s efforts is about to go out into the world, another aspect begins to make itself heard, one I’ve named Underminer. It too is terrified of public judgment, but it doesn’t trust perfection to be a solution, as it is judged just even more harshly than imperfection, so Underminer chooses instead to sabotage the whole enterprise. ‘A completed novel? Toss it in the drawer! Don’t put it out there in the world to be judged! Are you crazy?’

I don’t know why I was surprised recently to see that Striver and Underminer can still be activated if I’m not paying attention. In fact it was only upon rereading a section of my book Tapping the Wisdom Within in order to clarify the process of self-inquiry for this dharma talk that I came upon them and recognized how the past few weeks I have been increasingly stressed about producing an audio CD of my poems to have available at the poetry reading this Tuesday. Striver is frantically trying to produce perfection, when this is my first ever attempt to create a recording, and Underminer at the last minute jumped in and said, ‘Why bother? Just tell people you can’t do it.’

But my feelers have been tuned to tales of self-sabotage lately as it has come up in books and in conversations with family and friends. At every turn I get the message not to succumb to a life-long pattern of giving up at this critical stage, and also not to be so terrified that the product may not be perfect.

Also during this period I recognized how valuable an encouraging word from someone can be. I received several words of encouragement from friends and family that came at a moment where I was ready to abandon all hope that the project would get done. Those few words resonated with my own inner wisdom, ignored of late in the flurry of over-zealous activity, and also helped me get in touch with the negative aspects that were sabotaging me.

So since they are so present and available to hold up as examples of inner negative fear-based aspects, let’s use Striver and Underminer as the basis of our discussion. They are saying they are afraid of my being judged by others and found wanting. They have two different ways of dealing with that fear, both unskillful. So what do I do? I acknowledge their fear. I thank them for bringing that fear to my attention. I send metta to them and to myself. I rekindle my sense of connection with all that is. I remind myself that being human it is quite natural that these emotions will arise within me, that fear of disapproval is fear of separation, but that I can never truly be separate from the oneness of life. And in fact, awareness and acceptance of the existence of these emotions carves out more compassion within me for myself and for others, who also act out their fear of separation through unskillful means.

I also remind myself of that little note of insight I pinned on my bulletin board: I have nothing to prove, I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear, I have something to give. Certainly the CD of me reading my poetry is something I have to give, something that has been requested even. All the negative judgments about ‘Who am I to..’ do something are acknowledged but not fed. Instead I attune to my interconnection. Let me be a conduit for life loving itself, not a tight shut down place in the flow of energy.

If there is a way to meet the guest emotion’s needs without succumbing to their fears, then we do what we can. I have talked before about the deal I made with my inner aspect named Slug who doesn’t want to exercise but just wants to stay in bed because he misses his mommy and bed is a big mommy hug. I found a yoga teacher that tucks her students under blankets at the end of class for the final resting pose. Slug was in heaven and I was able to become more and more active.

When the inner conversation seems to be at an end, it’s important to remember to say thank you to the guest emotion, to make sure it knows that its concerns have been heard and will be incorporated into the greater awareness. It needs to know that we, the welcoming, patient and compassionate host, are in charge of our households and our lives, aligned with our Buddha nature, our access to universal inner wisdom.

One final caveat: In aligning with infinite inner wisdom, there will be a fear-based aspect that gets very attached to this idea of being wise and will cling to that image of self. This aspect can be more challenging to recognize than the rowdier ones, but it is just as destructive. What helps is to continually relax, stay anchored in the senses and send metta (loving kindness) even to this needy aspect that so longs for approval. When we find it, we may feel shame, sending it down to dungeon. But that’s not necessary. Simply recognizing its hunger for love and approval reminds us to be compassionate. Refining our ability to distinguish between the infinite wisdom that flows throughout all and the finite ‘see how wise I am?’ hungering for the respect of others, is just another part of the practice of inquiry and deepening awareness.

The Dungeon of Difficult Emotions

We’ve seen how holding tight to our established identity creates contraction as we grasp and cling to that hard rock of who we believe ourselves to be. This contraction can also be an aversion to who we believe ourselves to be. We’ve talked about how when we let go of that contracted state by relaxing, releasing, letting go in a mindful way, we create the space to see things more clearly and compassionately, including our emotions.

The emotions themselves are free agents. None of us can claim emotions as our identity though we often try to do so. Emotions float through our present experience like the weather, as natural as fog, rain, snow, heat, clouds, storms and rainbows. Emotions simply exist. Understanding this frees us from believing that we are the emotions we experience or that the emotions reflect on us. We can simply notice them as they pass through our experience with compassionate curiosity.

We are certainly responsible for how we behave in response or reaction to the emotions we experience. We all have habituated ways of dealing with them. We may feel the helpless victim of emotions, letting them dictate our behavior. We may feel ashamed of certain emotions and shield them from sight, sometimes so effectively that we shield them from ourselves.

It’s very likely we were taught to put forth acceptable emotions and hide, deny or push down unacceptable ones. Our parents and teachers may have been uncomfortable with their own negative emotions, and so were unwilling to acknowledge ours. In my case if I said, “I feel (a particular emotion), I was told “Well, you shouldn’t.” At other times my fears were dismissed. “Don’t be silly,” was a phrase that came up a lot in my upbringing. I’m sure this or some variation on it was pretty much the norm for mid-twentieth century. But it leaves us as adults with a habit of suppressing these ‘unacceptable’ emotions. So how does that fit with the weather analogy, where all kinds of emotions simply pass through our experience? Well, it’s as if we’ve been corralling thunderbolts and locking them up in an airtight vacuum packed dungeon somewhere inside ourselves.

I remember when I first started meditating I had some fear that what I would find in this process of self-discovery would be that my true self, my true nature, would be hideous and unacceptable. There was this sense of bottled up toxicity that I was terrified of unlocking. Now I can recognize that I was not completely wrong, that there was indeed a bottled up toxicity within me, but it wasn’t my ‘true nature’ but simply the imprisoned storms of many years of habituated emotional suppression.

This process of pushing down or suppressing seems to successfully contain the emotion. It can no longer just pass through, but is locked up and it’s sitting in a cell deep in the dungeon of our subconscious, plotting revenge, digging tunnels and rattling the bars from time to time to remind us it is still there. We are all emotional jailers to some degree, and it’s not a role we really relish. Even if we get into the whole jangling keys, gun toting, star on our chest swagger of it, in truth there are so many other things we’d rather be doing than minding the jail that contains our suppressed emotions. And the perception of ourselves as toxic at the core, when we believe those suppressed emotions to be our true selves, is a great cause of suffering that affects us and those around us day in and day out.

When it comes to jailing emotions, anger is the easiest target to round up and toss in the clinker because it makes such a ruckus. We know if we don’t lock it up it will smash everything in its path. So anger is easy to spot and uncomfortable to be around — not an emotion we want to find in our personal experience. It doesn’t suit our sense of who we are, this anger, and its existence can make us angrier, so that we find we are the kind of jailer that roughs up the inmate on the way to tossing it in its cell. We are embarrassed by this anger, so we keep jailing it up every time we come across it and hope that nobody notices.

In our weather analogy anger is not the town trouble-maker but a thunder storm passing through. We would never think of locking up a thunderstorm. We know how to behave responsibly around it. What’s the difference between a real thunderstorm and anger? We think anger is a reflection on us, so we compound its intensity by fueling it with other emotions like shame. When we react to anger with fear of exposure and try to suppress it, we are compressing the anger into something densely toxic that begins to poison our life and the lives around us.

Suppression of emotion is a dangerous, even deadly game. It plays havoc on all aspects of our lives, including our physical health. These suppressed emotions feed on challenging situations, difficult personalities, scary events and high pressure deadlines, so that we may find ourselves addicted to disaster in our lives. We can get hooked on horrendous news, terrifying movies and drama in our own lives to feed those suppressed emotions.

Conversely we might feel unable to deal with any exposure to news, violence in movies or drama in our lives, feeling sapped by them, and afraid of their power to harm us. We see ourselves as weak and vulnerable, prone to illness.

The Buddha taught his followers to incline the mind toward what is wholesome, because that supports our ability to walk the Eightfold Path that frees us from suffering. But he was not suggesting that we are somehow so weak and vulnerable that we can’t face any difficulty that comes along. We are to be present and notice its qualities and our reactions to it all with an open spaciousness of compassionate mind. Our fear of what is unwholesome throws us in its path, for unwholesomeness feeds on fear.

Addiction to or aversion of anything are really two sides of the same coin. Both provide valuable clues to our relationship with the emotional weather that has been passing through our lives. If we learned to suppress emotion as children, then we may feel we are betraying our parents or family by going down in the dungeon and unlocking the cells. But if our parents taught us how to suppress, it’s only because they didn’t know any better. They did the best they could with what they had available. They taught what they knew to be true from their perception of themselves and the world around them. As unskillful as it may have been, they did what they felt would best protect us in the world. And for their intention we can be grateful. But we don’t honor them by staying true to the false beliefs they thought at the time to be true.

When we finally go down into the dungeon, we find that the emotions we have needed to muster in order to keep the old ones jailed are more dangerous than the prisoner-emotions themselves. When we are able to look at them with an open spacious mind we can see that the prisoners are in fact weak and helpless. How can this be? Because when we are willing to look and be present with them, we have stopped fueling them with our fear. We have stopped empowering them. We see them clearly and recognize, as the Buddha recognized when repeatedly confronted by Mara the tempter as he sat under the Bodhi tree with the intention to awaken, that they are illusions created by the interaction of our fears, our aversions and our overwhelming desires, with the emotional weather that is part of the experience of being human.

Meditation provides us with a sense of dispassionate self-acceptance that makes it safe to visit the dungeon of our suppressed emotions. If we don’t feel it is safe, we can seek the help of a therapist to walk beside us as descend into the dungeon.

Why is it so important to visit these emotional prisoners? Doing so liberates not just them but us. As long as we are suppressing emotion, we are constricted in a way that inhibits our ability to love ourselves and others, to find a way to be joyful and useful, and to be healthy.

We hear about how meditation benefits physical health, and we can easily demonstrate the direct connection between the mind and the rest of the body by doing this simple experiment: Close your eyes and bring to mind something that upsets you, some person, situation, event, deadline, etc. that irks you, gets your goat, angers you, or scares you. Then when that thought is fixed in the mind, notice where in they body you have contracted. Check out the brow, the jaw, the temples, the neck, the shoulders, the chest, the hands, and the gut. Notice it, then let the thought go, and relax, release and shake out any accumulated tension.

If you noticed tension in any area of the body, then the mind-body connection is made perfectly clear. Here we were, perfectly comfortable, and then an emotionally charged thought is brought up, and our body contracts in some habituated way. If anyone ever doubts the truth of the mind-body connection, that’s the simplest way to demonstrate it.

If you didn’t notice it, try it some time when you are upset about something and really pay attention to sensations in the body.

Dr. John Sarno, orthopedic surgeon and author of a number of books about the mind-body connection, is an excellent resource to check out if you have any physical ailments, especially chronic ones or ones that the doctor can’t explain. Reading one of his books has made a great difference in the lives of many, including my own, I’m happy to say.

Just seeing the mind-body connection for ourselves and understanding some of how it works can free us of pain, whether we are meditators or not. But a Vipassana meditator trained to be present and compassionate with the arising and falling away of phenomena, including emotion and physical sensation, is more readily noticing what’s going on in both the body and the mind.

But being a meditator doesn’t make us clairvoyant. Like anyone else we can be blind to what’s right in front of us if some aspect of ourselves feels too threatened by it. As meditators when we do discover it, we have the training to deal with it in a way that is effective. Facing what scares us most is an important part of meditation practice.
Instead of feeling failure at such a discovery about ourselves and acquiescing to the urge to push our discovery down into a deeper dungeon, we are more likely to feel like investigators having found an important clue. We approach the discovery with curiosity and maybe even excitement. Aha! We feel we are at the beginning of a rich journey.

So this is the process, this making space and then noticing. If it feels self-indulgent, then it is probably a clue to habituated suppression. We discount and discard feelings that make us uncomfortable. We tell ourselves we’re being silly, that we should bucker up, grin and bear it, have a stiff upper lip, etc. But this is just our discomfort talking, our fear of what we’ll find if we visit the dungeon. But when we use our keys – our meditative tools of self-discovery – to liberate those suppressed emotions, we find we have liberated ourselves from suffering.

I ended this week’s class by reading an article I wrote many years ago, titled Emotions as Honored Guests. It was published in The Emotional Intelligence Newsletter, and I still on occasion get requests for its excerption or reproduction, so it clearly resonates with people. It is always available on openembracemeditations.com along with other downloads of useful information about meditation. Some of you may recognize similarities in concept between this piece and a poem by Rumi. I wrote it before I ever read Rumi so I was surprised, delighted and a little unsettled by discovering his poem. The coincidence shows that while each of us may draw our understanding from different wells, the wells tap into a deep river of universal wisdom. Our goal in meditation-based self-discovery is to keep dipping in the well.