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
pure
water.

– 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.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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