Monthly Archives: October 2011

Buddha’s River Analogy cont’d: Poetry & an Exercise

In our exploration of the Buddha’s river analogy to talk about the Middle Way, we are looking and questioning what’s true for us, what is our experience of the shores, the boat and the river itself. Because we are so often lost on one shore or the other, it’s useful to see how we keep ending up over-indulging or adopting strict systems of self-denial.

Here are two poems to illustrate the two different shores. First, one about wanting run amok:

No End to Wanting
If truth be known, you want to be idolized,
to be set apart from the flock of ordinary beings
to be seen as separate and special.
You want a whole room of your mansion
for your many awards in specially lit glass cases
and the soundtrack of Rocky playing upon entrance.
You want your ghost-written biography
to fill a whole table at Borders with a
giant cardboard cutout of you and
a line round the block waiting since dawn
for you to sign your autograph and for them
tell you how much they love you.
You want to have a huge yacht with a crew
spiffy-clad in white shirts and shorts
lined up to greet you in exotic ports of call.
You want a small sleek jet done to your
taste by the world’s leading decorator
who answers your endless 2 am calls
happy to implement your latest desire
for say a chaise lounge in the loggia of
your villa on the shores of Lake Como
or your beachhouse in Bali, or perhaps
the estate in Provence or the penthouse in Paris —
each one of them staffed and stocked 24/7
in case you feel like a change of venue.
You want an entourage of sleek beauties or
hunks lounging at poolside, pouring you drinks,
laughing at your jokes, every steamy glance
 telling you how much they long to touch you,
to say they have touched you,
to be enhanced by your magical powers.
You want every celebrity in the world to be thrilled
at an invitation to drop in at a moment’s notice
because whatever else they had planned for a
Saturday night pales in comparison to the chance
to dine at your table and bask in your reflected glow.
You want your name to be a household word
said with a shiver of awe and a shared hint of desire.
You want your face to be as familiar as the one
people see in the mirror every morning
when they take stock and wish they were you.
You want people diving into your dumpster
to have even the most disgusting indigestible
parts of you to put on display
or be sold for thousands of dollars on eBay.
You want to walk down the street
and be mobbed by paparazzi who push you
back so they can get a better shot of you
because you are the most valuable prize
of their pathetic little lives and you know it.
You want to stroll into a showroom of
luxury cars and drive out with whatever
suits your fancy the way you used to
go out for an ice cream cone on a Sunday
afternoon when life was simple
and the sun on your back and the taste
of the ice cream and the laughter of a friend
was enough to make you happy.
When happiness was enough.
– Stephanie Noble

And to illustrate the other shore:

The Desert of Just Desserts
This scorched sand, this unrelenting sun:
No more than I deserve. 
Thick oozing lava pools and
a stack of buckets with instructions:
‘Fill and carry, don’t stop, don’t drop, don’t drink. Toxic.’
All around me others are loading up buckets, whispering,
‘This time I’ll do it, this time I’ll get it right.’
‘Please don’t let me fail again, please don’t let me fail.’
They don’t look up, so I drop my gaze, and set to the task at hand:
To carry these buckets across the vast arid sands,
to ignore those along the way whose
writhing bodies speak in tongues,
to set my sights, to keep my eyes on the horizon,
on the oasis shimmering golden in this hellish heat.

Oh, to be worthy of the illusive prize
to be worthy to set my lips upon the chalice
that holds that righteous sip
of sweet

– Stephanie Noble
To finish with our poetry sharing, here’s one by Mary Oliver. It is perhaps her most beloved poem for the way it gives us permission to see the truth about this ‘desert of just desserts.’ It is titled Wild Geese. Because I don’t have permission to publish Mary Oliver’s poem, here is a Youtube video of the poet reading three poems, including Wild Geese, which she reads because she says,‘Sometimes people get mad when I don’t.’ Watch it now or later, but come back to this post because we’ll be doing a valuable self-exploration exercise.

It’s important to recognize the quality of the river itself: Notice how it flows naturally, how it is connected in a great cycle of watery wholeness and life itself. Perhaps the image of a river feels claustrophobic. Imagine a wider river! Perhaps it seems boring. Imagine a livelier river, gurgling joyously! This is your experience of river. Let the river be an expression of freedom and life. Let the shores be less interesting than the river itself, so that your do not turn being on the river into another form of self-denial. And of course you don’t have to use the river analogy at all! It’s just an analogy and we have used many others that might better serve you. But it is one of the ways the Buddha made his teachings real to students, and so we have been exploring it thoroughly.

We did an exercise last week where we defined for ourselves what was luring us off the river of the Middle Way and onto the shore of over-indulgence or self-denial. I hope you had a chance to play with this, and that some lures came up.

Our exercise today is finding a lure on each shore that relates to one on other. These two lures are connected in some way. I will use a personal but pretty universal example to illustrate how this exercise works. Okay, so there is a hot fudge sundae sitting on the shore. No, wait, let me be more specific. There is a hot fudge BROWNIE sundae sitting on the shore. On the opposite shore there is a sign saying, ‘You’re a pig.’ Those two definitely have a relationship. I feel that if I eat the sundae, then I am a pig. And if I see that sign, I resonate with it and am reminded of the sundae I either ate or long to eat.

So now, find your two related lures. First, choose the thing that is sticky, that gets you caught up in craving, that makes you go mindless and sparks a lot of circular thinking and despair of ever being ‘good enough.’ The lure on the over-indulgence shore is not the occasional innocent treat. This is a mine field for you. It doesn’t have to be food, of course. It could be a craving for praise, fame, wealth, beauty, sex, security, or excitement.

If you have a lure on the over-indulgence shore that is ripe for exploring, there will definitely be some related lure on the opposite shore. It will chime in with some snide comment and draw your attention. The self-denial shore is full of rudeness, rules and regulations that don’t arise out of a sense of natural virtue and good will that comes from our feeling connected to all beings. Instead it is a set of whips and chains to use on ourselves and sometimes others when we project our issues on them. This shore is full of harsh judgments that don’t just deny us pleasure. They deny us our very right to be who we are.

Once you have found your two related lures, sit with the indulgence lure.
So I sit with the sundae. What does it offer me? What does it promise? A few minutes of pleasure, sweet taste, cool and creamy with hot and gooey, yum! A reward to myself. A sense of happiness. Oblivion, release.

Exploring further, what is the fear that drives the urge? What is the lure’s underlying fear-based message?

(Maybe you are saying, ‘Hey, why does there have to be fear? Why can’t it just be a hot fudge sundae. Well for some it would be, but I’ve got that ‘You’re a pig’ sign on the other shore, and a feeling that I would eat every hot fudge sundae if given the chance. So there is a fear message there. And if you’ve found lures that are equally or even more seductive, there is most definitely a fear-based message there. What is it?) 
The message I hear is, ‘Life is short. What if I get to the end of my life and feel I missed out on enjoying indulgent simple pleasures?” So I fear the regret that I didn’t live fully and embrace all that life has to offer.

We then check the statements that have come up for veracity. We ask, ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’ for each of the statements we have made.

When that exploration feels done for now, we turn to the related lure on the other shore, in my case the sign saying “You’re a pig!”

Explore what this lure offers. In my case I’m noticing guilt, self-loathing and shame. I’m also noticing a call to exercise discipline and will power. I’m hearing a promise of a reward of good health and a slender figure to provide me with a protective shield of ‘attractiveness’ that may make me more acceptable.

Now we ask ‘What is the fear that drives this urge?’ When put into words sometimes the fear sounds outrageous, but that’s okay. Outrageous as it is, it feels real enough, so write it down. You aren’t sharing this with anyone. It’s your own exploration just for you.
For me what comes up are fears that I will eat all the hot fudge sundaes in the world given half the chance, that I will become grossly obese instead of what I hope is seen as ‘pleasantly plump,’ that people will be repulsed by me, that I will be whispered about behind my back.

Again, we check some of these things for veracity, asking, ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’ for each of the statements we have made. This could be a long or short conversation. This is your exercise, your exploration, your experience. Give it as much time as you need.

Having fully explored both these lures on the banks of the river, can we find the Middle Way between the two? Yes, the Middle Way begins with awareness, so our exercise in shining a light on what lures us onto the shores of over-indulgence or self-denial helps us to stay present. When we are present fully with our experience, we are on the river. 

We’ve talked about the river as being awareness and compassion. Compassion is vital in this exercise and in life. Without discounting, negating or denying any of the feelings we have brought up, we notice them, acknowledge them, and then question them. Compassion allows us to return to the river. Without it we judge ourselves, our situation or the people we feel caused the situation, and thereby get stuck deeper and deeper in the muck and mire, the dark humid tangle of vines that choke us, or the quicksand of our thoughts and emotions.

So from our boat on the river we look at the two shores, thus reminding ourselves that this is the vantage point we choose, again and again, by setting the intention to be present and compassionate. Retraining our vantage point is part of the practice of meditation. With Wise Effort we are able to find this Wise View, this vantage point. We return again and again to the breath, whether we see it as simply the breath or as the river that runs through the center of our being.

If you are new to the practice, perhaps ‘the river’  is as illusive as the oasis or the golden mountain that looms deep inland on each shore, the horizon that never gets any closer. You may say,‘What river? I want the river! Where the heck is this river? Is it over that mountain? Maybe I better strive harder. Maybe I’m not worthy of the river.’

Don’t worry, the river is within you. The river is as close as the rising and falling of your breath. Only your ability to notice it is illusive, and it is that ability that we develop through meditation practice. So create for yourself a regular practice — begin with five minutes and work up to 30 or 40; or, if you prefer, do two 20 minute meditations a day. Set the intention to stay present with whatever you experience. And set the intention to be compassionate with yourself when your mind wanders, as it will, as it was designed to do. Just this will be enough. Let go of all else as you sit. Anchor in sensation, whether focused on the breath, on sound, or on an openness to all sensation; or choose a simple word or phrase that brings you present like ‘here, now, relaxed’ or ‘om.’ For more information on getting started in meditation, see the Meditation Basics page.

Buddha’s River Analogy continued: Why We Crave the Shores

In a previous talk, I shared the Buddha’s analogy of a river to explore The Middle Way. We have looked ar various aspects of it, and today you will have the opportunity to explore for yourself what is on the shores of your own river and why it draws you.

Both the banks of the river, though they look so different — one a lush jungle of opulence and indulgence, the other an arid desert of strict self-denial — are really quite similar. They both lure us deeper and deeper inland with promises that if we just go a little further, we will find ultimate happiness. Whether it’s through acquisition or austerity, the message is still the same: Wherever we are right now is not okay. Change is necessary. The here and now is flawed. We are flawed and in need of changing.

Perhaps you say that message is not a bad one because none of us is perfect. We are each flawed, and therefore in need of changing. And then you add that the world we live in is not perfect and in need of fixing. Maybe yes, maybe no, as the farmer in the Taoist teaching story says. If you are not familiar with this story, it goes something like this:

A farmer had a plough horse to help him tend his fields. One day the horse ran away. His neighbors told him how sorry they were for him. How would he till his field? What a terrible misfortune had been laid upon him, and he didn’t deserve it, he was such a good man, such a hard worker. But the farmer surprised them when he said, ‘Maybe it’s a misfortune, maybe it’s not. Who knows?’

The next day the horse returned, and along with him came some other horses. Now the neighbors exclaimed, “What great fortune for you! You are the luckiest man! You deserve this good luck.” But the farmer surprised them again when he said, “Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows?”

The next day the farmer’s son rode one of the new horses and fell off, breaking his leg. The neighbors said, “Oh my, this is a terrible stroke of bad luck!” And the farmer surprised them again when he said, “Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows?”

The next day conscription officers came to the area to draft all able-bodied young men into the army. Since the farmer’s son’s leg was broken, he was allowed to stay home with his family. The neighbors, some of whom had tearfully seen their sons trudge off to war, exclaimed at the uncanny good fortune of the farmer. And this time they were not surprised when the farmer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows?”

As you can see this story could go on and on. It’s useful to think of this story the next time we notice ourselves reacting as the neighbors did. We can pause and question the truth of our assumptions about a situation. We could withhold judgment and open to possibilities within any situation.

Nostalgic amnesia
It seems to be in our nature to see the world as it is right now as more flawed than it was in the past. People ask, ‘What period would you go back to if you could time travel?” as if there was some idyllic time when all was right in the world. This nostalgic amnesia really gets in our way of being present with what is. I just saw an interview on The Colbert Report with the author Stephen Pinker about his book, ‘The Better Angels of our Nature: A History of Violence.’ In it, he points out the statistical fact that we are living in the most peaceful time in history. Now of course this is per capita and there are way more people now, but even so this may seem contrary to our own sense of the way things are. This is nostalgic amnesia.

In class I brought up a decade that many people wax poetic about, a decade remembered as all soda fountains, felt poodle skirts, bobby socks, etc. But they choose to forget that the 1950’s and early 60’s was a time of ongoing degradation based on skin color, gender and sexual orientation. I remember children with downs syndrome either being hidden away in secret back rooms of homes or institutionalized, held in huge rooms naked. I saw this room with my own eyes when our school choir went to sing up at ‘Napa,’ the mental hospital for the San Francisco Bay Area. It was a decade full of fear of nuclear war. Many of us never expected to make it to adulthood, envisioned being evaporated en masse or dying slow painful radiation deaths. Some built fall out shelters to save themselves and their families and to keep out the hoards of neighbors who would want food. It was a time of paranoia, people seeing ‘a red under every bed.’ I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It’s a both/and situation. Yes, there were wonderful things about that decade too, but no era has ever been or will ever be perfect.

One student pointed out after class that things may seem worse now because we are more informed about everything that is going on around the world. She said that her experience of the 1950’s was very protected, not exposed to the things I mentioned above, but now she feels bombarded with a 24 hour a day influx of information. It’s challenging to know at what level to adjust our filters for all this input!

The technological advances of our age are a wonderful example of the ‘maybe yes/maybe no’ quality. On the one hand these technologies bring amazing abilities to stay connected over distances with family and friends. On the other, we can easily manage to never know our neighbors, as we come and go in cars, pushing a button to open our garage doors and closing ourselves into our contained spaces. Thus, we feel isolated and disconnected, even though we are carrying on text, twitter, email and phone conversations all day long. Of course we can easily remedy that situation by making a concerted effort to know our neighbors, to create real community, to participate in local government and organizations instead of only focusing on national and international situations. These technologies bring the ability to co-create a leaderless revolution. They bring the possibility of identity theft, of governmental invasion of privacy, of those with fear-based motives reaching our children with messages they are not able to defend against, of fear-based advertisements invading our homes and our minds before we realize we have been seduced or inducted.

This could well be the reason meditation has become so sought after now. It is needed so we can each find a way to be skillful in dealing with these challenges.

So the wise person doesn’t put on blinders but is able to hold all of what is occurring, recognizing the yin/yang quality of being, finding a state of equilibrium, understanding that these are and always will be ‘the best of times and the worst of times.’ Dickens claimed that in his opening line of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ about the French revolution.

‘May you live in interesting times.’ Is that a Chinese blessing or curse? Both! And we certainly do live in interesting times. How grateful I am to be alive to witness and participate in this fascinating period.

The recognition that nothing is perfect and was never meant to be perfect is very liberating. The astro-physicist Stephen Hawking says the universe was created from two forces: gravity and imperfection. Watch the first few minutes of this program to see his explanation.

With only gravity there would be a static unchanging uniformity, but imperfection provokes gravity into a dance so that the planets orbit and cycles occur that would not otherwise have been necessary. So imperfection has been getting an awfully bad rap, considering its importance in the creation of life itself!

I belong to Toastmasters, an international club to help people overcome their fear of public speaking and develop leadership skills. For the past few years I have been able to see incredible transformations in people in the club. Almost every member joined in order to change, in order to improve ourselves and our skills. Our motivations were anchored in this discomfort with who we felt ourselves to be in relation to the world.

But the transformations that have occurred are not from the elimination of imperfections but from the release of the fear of letting those imperfections show. The speakers who are most enjoyable to watch, most able to convey their message and connect with the audience, have learned how to relax into their shared humanity. They are completely themselves at the podium. And because they are relaxed and sharing openly of their own experience and knowledge, their audience can relax and take in what the speakers are saying.

The more we hold back, the more we protect who we hold ourselves to be, the harder we try to be perfect, the less successful we are. True transformation is a process of relaxing, noticing and releasing tension (which when in front of an audience exhibits itself in a variety of distracting ways,) making eye contact with others that reminds of of our connection, realizing that this is a practice and failure is simply a way we learn, and then staying in the present moment as much as possible with what we have to share.

If this sounds a little bit like how we begin meditation, then that really isn’t very surprising.  Coming home to ourselves, our true selves, is the key to letting go of the discomfort with who we feel ourselves to be in the world.

In Toastmasters, the most engaging and enjoyable speakers have in a way polished up their imperfections. The other day a club member talked about how unhandy he is in such an engaging and entertaining way that he won the spontaneous speaking award (Table Topics ribbon) that day. If he were to become handy around the house, maybe his wife would be happier because she wouldn’t have to hire someone to do those tasks my fellow Toastmaster cannot do, but the world would be poorer in a way I can’t explain, but I think you understand.

Think of someone you love who died. Isn’t it often the very quirks that drove you most crazy that you miss about them after a while? Isn’t it those very imperfections that make you smile?

There are Toastmasters who get caught up in a state of paralysis, afraid to get up and speak because they have not reached their goal of being perfect speakers and don’t want to embarrass themselves. Sometimes this paralysis keeps them from coming to meetings, even though they keep paying their dues because the intention is still there. But if they just keep showing up for meetings and taking roles that require them to speak in very non-threatening way (explaining their role at the beginning of the meeting and following up with a little report at the end of the meeting), and occasionally getting up for two minutes to answer a posed question, slowly but surely their confidence grows.

This is true in so many aspects of our lives, isn’t it? We don’t have to be Toastmasters to recognize the pattern we get into when we get inspired to improve ourselves in some area. Perhaps we join a gym to give ourselves the opportunity to get in better shape. The same pattern happens. If we go, we realize it’s a supportive atmosphere (hopefully!) and that we feel better for having done it, but if we don’t attend, we get stuck in that place where we feel disappointed in ourselves and stuck. We want that perfect muscle tone, that slimmer body now! We don’t want to have to see ourselves in the gym mirrors or compare ourselves to others who seem perfect. They’re not, of course. But some part of ourselves plays that game in our heads and we stay away, defeated and uncomfortable with how we perceive ourselves to appear in the world.
In the grueling ongoing effort to become more beings, are we hoping to trade in under-valued traits and attributes for ones that are more in demand? Or do we really just want to be more at home in our own skin?

It’s also true in developing a regular meditation practice. I honor my students for taking time out of their busy lives to come to class with such dedicated regularity. If they are in town, they are here. They carve this space out of their week and arrange their lives around it. Many of them have also managed to carve a half hour out of their day for a daily practice of meditation, as I hope all readers of this blog do. And just like the speech club and the gym, meditation practice is primarily a matter of showing up. What happens after we have set that intention to practice, that intention to be present and compassionate with ourselves, arises naturally. We don’t have to worry about the outcome. It is enough to be here.

For real transformation to occur, we need to be fully present and fully aware of what is occurring in this moment. Only then, anchored into sensation, can we recognize the mindlessness of habitual patterns that drag us ashore into jungles of desire or deserts of self-negation. Only then can we see that it is not our lack of uniformity that is causing us misery, but habit of striving for some distant vision of happiness where we or the world are different.

The river analogy applies to all of us, but each of us sees the banks differently. At times my indulgence bank is lined with hot fudge sundaes. Knowing this helps me to recognize it as the seductive jungle that it is. I am not clear what the sweet treat promises, what the allure is. That’s something I could explore and it would be very beneficial in order to be able to return the Middle Way river and not sink the boat with my over-indulgence! But would I only be comfortable in my skin if there was less of it? That’s another area for me to explore.

What line your shores? What inner aspects are jumping up and down, waving signs and calling out to you? Notice the expressions they use, how disrespectful they are, how they call you names to demean you.

What is so alluring on the banks of the river for you.  What is the promised goal as you trudge through the jungle of over-indulgence or the desert of self-denial? There will be a tangible fear that draws you to each shore. Can you name the fear? At core all our fears are the fear of separation, the fear of isolation, of encapsulation, of rejection. But on the surface they have many different names and appearances.

In class we did an exercise of exploring our own experience of being on the river, first looking at one shore, then making notes or drawing what was there; then looking at the other bank and doing the same. We also made any notations or sketches about the boat, the river and what we saw ahead of us. This might be a self-exploration exercise you would like to do for yourself after meditation practice, when you are feeling calm and spacious.

You might picture the images that draw you as cardboard cutouts set up as a lure with nothing of substance behind them. See if that helps to remind you that there is no fulfillment possible on either shore.

When we are fully present on the river, this river that runs through the center of our being, this river of presence and compassion, we feel fully enlivened and at one with the universe, this universe formed by imperfection.

Or = Oar Along the Middle Way

In the last post I shared an embellished version of the Buddha’s analogy of the Middle Way being our course as we boat on the river of life, steering clear of the seductions of either bank that represent overindulgence and self-denial. You can read that post if you have forgotten or didn’t see it.

In the analogy, we focused on both banks but didn’t really spend much time exploring the river or the boat. For example, how do we keep our boat in the middle of the river and not stuck on either side?

That’s right, we need an oar. This is a very powerful oar, and it’s spelled O-R. Or: Perhaps the most powerful word in the English language. Powerful enough to steer our vessel along the Middle Way. How?

At any moment, inserted into a sentence, the word ‘or’ creates a pivot point, full of possibility.
Whatever we are doing, however close we are coming to either shore of over-indulgence or extreme self-denial, we can use ‘or’ to remind ourselves that we have other options.

This has worked well for me when I’m on the way into the kitchen to look for a treat. My inner sweetie is all excited by the prospect of some tasty treat even though I’m not hungry, and then, if I’m paying attention, I can hear the strong, clear, calm wisdom of the word OR rising up: “OR I could go out to the garden,” “OR I could go for a hike,” “OR I could wash the dishes,” “OR I could call a friend I haven’t talked to in a while,” “OR I could sit and enjoy being in this moment.”

This same OR rises up in other situations as well:

  • I’m walking by a store that has something I want but can’t afford. I simply offer myself the word OR – as in ‘OR I could walk on by.’
  • ‘I could keep channel surfing mindlessly, OR I could turn off the TV and do something more fun.’  
  • ‘I could keep stuffing food in my mouth even though I’m full, OR I could push away from the table.’

This word ‘or’ is very empowering. It gives us choice. Sometimes we have made a commitment to do something, and so our choices may seem gone. We’re in a committed relationship. ‘Or’ doesn’t give us the option to go home to someone different tonight! But even then we have the choice of how we approach our commitment, what attitude we take. ‘I could complain about this situation, or I could whole-heartedly take it on, remembering why I committed to it in the first place.’

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that are not of our choosing. We find that we or someone we love has had an accident, is seriously ill or is dying. The ‘or’ is not a means of escape from the situation, but a means of finding a new relationship with it, finding how to be present with causes and conditions of life with compassionate attention rather than getting lost in the mire of regret or fear of the future. ‘Or’ is not an escape route out of a sticky situation. It’s an awakening to consciousness, a reminder to be alive and alert to the reality of the present moment.

In class a student mentioned that the oar is also used for getting unstuck, so it has a quality of mobility. True! That’s an important aspect to bring into the mix. The word ‘or’ creates options for any moment.

But again it’s important for us to use our ‘or’ skillfully. The skillful, wise ‘or’ always brings us back to the river, back to awareness, back to compassion. An unskillful ‘or’ would have us paddling back and forth from one shore to the other, trying to find balance by going to both extremes. An example would be gorging ourselves and then going on a strict minimal intake diet. Another example would be the person who works beyond the point of exhaustion all year long and has a flat on the back on the beach vacation to make up for it. This isn’t skillful paddling! This is taking the oar and paddling ourselves with it! The Middle Way is being fully present and compassionate, not going from one state of extreme mindlessness to another and believing we have found balance.

In French the word or means gold, but what fool would choose gold over the infinite possibilities of the English ‘or’ or the French ‘ou.’

In Spanish or translates into ‘o’ – How that sunny perfect circle captures the essence of the infinite rays of choice, all those potential pivotal turning points available in any given moment.

So next time you find yourself doing something mindless, see if you can empower yourself with the word OR.

We have talked about accessing our Buddha nature, our wise inner voice that is our access to universal wisdom. This word ‘or’ radiating options, keeping the world spacious and open, keeping us conscious, is a simple way to access that inner wisdom. Listen for it!

The word ‘or’ can also be used unskillfully to divide up the world, as in: ‘It’s either you or me, us or them, your way or my way, and it better be my way.’ The word ‘or’ can be very divisive. When we are wandering on either shore, away from the river, an oar is no longer a useful tool but a useless appendage, or worse a weapon. So notice how you are using the word ‘or’ to recognize if you are stuck on one of the shores or in the flow of the river, embarked on the Middle Way.

Something else we didn’t discuss about the Buddha’s Middle Way analogy of a river is the river itself. What is the river? What is this that runs through the center of our being to which we return? This is the river of awareness and compassion. We return to it from states of unconscious habitual patterns that don’t serve us or the world.

Where does the river go? Is there some place we are getting to on this river?

Where does any river go? Yes, to the sea. And then what happens to the water in the sea? It evaporates and becomes clouds, which become rain, which eventually makes its way back to the river. This natural cycle of water, how it turns from liquid to gas (and sometimes to solid) is the easiest example we have to understand the nature of things, the nature of life and of our own part in it. For it isn’t just water that cycles through in infinite transformation, but all of life, including ourselves.

Once while attending a mountain camping retreat, I had the experience of observing a cascade with the drops of water flying above the creek, each drop fleetingly solitary. And I saw how that was true for each of us as well: This sense of solitary existence, of being in an isolated encapsulated body is indeed temporary and illusory. The drop of water is part of the ongoing cycle of life. It will momentarily return to the creek and then to the sea and then evaporate into a cloud, then rain in an ongoing cycle — as will our fleeting moment of seemingly solitary existence that we call ‘life.’

The drop of water is held separate by surface tension. Interesting to think that we hold ourselves separate by tension as well. When through meditation we release bodily tension, we access our awareness of being an integral part of the whole, not an isolated drop. How refreshing! How much easier it becomes to live in this world when we feel our connection to all that is. How much easier it is to be compassionate when we understand the unitive nature of life. There is no ‘us or them,’ but the interconnected cycles of life and this wondrous gift of awareness.

The Middle Way: Buddha’s River Analogy, Embellished

The Buddha sometimes taught that the Middle Way is like boating on a river. I sat with it and wrote this embellished version:

From our boat on the river we can see both banks, the whole sky and the great expanse of water. One bank of the river is luxurious, dense with riches, a veritable jungle of eye candy and every sensory delight, comfort, entertainment, distraction, assurance of safety, financial security, recognition, fame, success and power. When our boat gets into the shallows by this bank, the siren sound draws us out of the boat and onto the shore, then into a jungle of opulence and indulgence. Luxuriant flowering vines wrap themselves around our limbs, and though they weigh us down we think we would feel naked without their beauty. A golden pyramid shimmers in the distance. The path leading to it is paved in glistening diamonds, and all along the way are champagne fountains and endless buffets of every sweet and savory taste we could ever want. Yet the pyramid never gets closer, the champagne never slacks our thirst and the food never fills our bellies. Instead we feel increasingly afraid of losing our way, losing the safety of the luxury we’ve come to depend on. How could we survive without all this? So we step carefully on the diamond path, hypnotized by the dazzling light that goes on and on, as the thirst and hunger become increasingly painful.

If we are lucky, we remember the river, the cool clear water, the nourishment and the clear expansive view the river gives us of life.

On the opposite bank of the river is a desert, a desolate landscape, arid, harsh, hot, and unyielding. When our boat gets into the shallows by this bank, we find ourselves stuck in the sand and have to disembark. We are grateful for all the clear instructive signs telling us the way to a distant oasis that glistens on the horizon. But as we travel this route, we see demands for more and more sacrifice. ‘Take off your shoes to better feel the burning sand,’ says one sign. ‘Take off your shirt to better feel the sun blistering your skin and the cold night air shivering you rigid and aching.’ Wherever there is food, there is also a sign saying ‘Don’t eat this.’ Wherever there is drink, there’s a sign saying ‘Poison.’ We are directed onto paths that are treacherous, layered with smoldering coals to toughen us up and test our resolve. We are directed to sleep, if sleep we must, on beds of nails. We are told to deny every urge, especially the urge to turn around, to give up our difficult journey to the oasis that never seems any closer. Along the way we see skeletons half buried in the sand. Other wanderers, some crawling with a crazed look in their eyes, challenge us to keep going. But, if we are lucky, we remember the river.

If we are lucky, we feel the pull of the open water, the easeful travel in a boat that supports our journey, and we turn around.

The Buddha says the Middle Way is the course of the river. He taught the importance of noticing when we are getting too close to either shore. Both shores can be seductive. Both shores promise fulfillment, one through having it all and one through denying it all. The Buddha lived the first two-plus decades of his life on one bank and then six years on the other before, at the age of 29, he realized there was a river running through the very center of his being, the very center of being itself.

This is the key message the Buddha felt compelled to share upon awakening: At any moment if we find ourselves stuck on one shore or the other, if we can just remember the river, then we find ourselves on the river again. For the river is within us. Our practice is being present enough to recognize the river and to chart our course along the Middle Way.