Monthly Archives: December 2011

Happy Ever-New Moment!

Here we are on the eve of the year 2012, and we come up against all our concepts around time. Some years we may get ourselves a little more fraught. Remember the year 2000 and the Y2K phenomenon where some people believed the whole world would electronically shut down at the stroke of midnight due to some early programmers lack of foresight? And now here we are again on the eve of another year that at least in some circles has a hint of ‘The End’ about it. 2012 marks ‘the end’ on the Mayan calendar. Modern day Mayans say it means the end of an era not the end of the world. Of course, we just went through a year when at least one much publicized soothsayer said the end would happen in 2011, and the predicted date passed by unnoticed, not once but twice!

I looked up how many end of the world predictions there have been, and came up with over 150, a third of them in my life time. So end time predictions are as old as time itself.

But when you think about it, time isn’t all that old. Calendars indicate no more than 6000 years of marking a linear passage of days, months and years. Before that there were undoubtedly periods in civilizations where time was kept, but it was all relative to their particular culture.  It’s human nature to track sunrises and moon transitions. A person alone in a cell will mark each morning on the wall. It’s a way of orienting ourselves in the world, a particular pattern we humans are prone to. But time — the idea that it is now 11:00 AM, Thursday December 29, 2011, is not, and never has been a real thing. It is a concept that was not discovered, but invented!

Our linear clock time, where we account for hours, minutes and seconds is a much more recent invention. The minute hand was reportedly invented less than 500 years ago. Pause for a moment and imagine a world without minutes in it. Can you notice any change in the body? A release of tension? A sense of spaciousness? I do.

We need no better example of time being pure invention than the fact that Samoa is eliminating a whole day on their calendar. They are skipping Friday, December 30, 2011 all together in order to put themselves into the same time zone as Australia, their main business partner. What better proof that time is an agreement for convenience. It just wasn’t convenient to always be on a different day. It probably caused incredible confusion.

It was another business decision to avoid confusion that formalized our agreement of time’s measure. When trains came into common use, traveling from town to town, the railroad company managers recognized that it wasn’t working with each town having their own idea of what time it was. Whose time would be used to determine arrivals and departures? All those missed trains, frustrated passengers and ticket sellers made them decide to come to an agreement about time. So time is a made up agreement between people for the convenience of being able to meet, travel and conduct our business together in a workable fashion. It’s a wonderful invention! It’s made so much of what we do possible. But it’s important to remember that it truly is just an invention.

There are plenty of places even today where clock time does not dictate behavior. In small communities, especially where life is lived primarily out of doors, people don’t need a clock. They can see when everyone is congregating around the campfire. They use the sun or moon’s positions, and their own internal body clocks to decide what’s next. There’s a communal synchronicity that arises akin to how a whole flock of geese know to take off from a pond at the same moment.

For the rest of us living in urban settings, connected by technology, we may be more attuned to the universal atomic clock where the pulsating atoms held at a stable temperature keep a regular measurable beat, and visible on our cell phones. Our current technology is so precise in its ability to measure that we begin to believe this form of measuring is more than just an invented convenience for meeting, a handy tool for scientific exploration and documentation, a useful mental construct upon which to place our collective and individual memories and plans. We believe it to be real.

Time & Identity
When we get entangled in time as if it were real, it becomes very embedded in our sense of self, individually and collectively. At some point in our early childhood we become attached to the idea of being a certain age. My little granddaughter doesn’t know she is almost 22 months old. That is not a part of who she knows herself to be…yet. She takes the little clock I keep by my chair and uses it as a cell phone to chat with imaginary friends. The clock has no meaning yet.

But soon the clock will start having significance to her. The year she was born, 2010, will have meaning to her. In some as yet undetermined way it will be a part of how she perceives herself, how she defines who she is. This is one of the ways we develop a sense of identity.

Take the baby boom for example — those born between 1946 and 1964. What is really just a statistic, the marked post WWII increase in births, early on became an identity. Generations are identified not just within the family unit — great grandparents, grandparents, parents, children, etc — but whole same-age groupings are lumped together in schools and develop a unique cultural signature and identity that is sometimes stronger than their familial identity. Does being born into a generation lock us in to certain traits?

In the Chinese calendar, everyone born in the same year is said to have the same characteristics. And of course western astrology divides people into groups based on what time of year they were born. It is challenging to escape certain identity associations rooted in when we were born, if only because others react to us based upon it.

All this formalizing of time’s measure, as well as the identifying with specific dates such as the celebration of our birthdays, makes time seem very real indeed, as if it were a law of physics. But it’s still just a convenient convention created by humans, and it behooves us to remind ourselves of that. The best way to remind ourselves is to go out in nature.

In nature our linear measure of time disappears. Instead we experience a tuning in to cycles and seasons. But what about the tree that grows from a sapling, then lives hundreds maybe thousands of years? That is the passage of time, is it not? But is it on a timeline? Or is it still in the rhythm of cycles and seasons — the birth, growth, death, decay, birth cycle of regeneration, just a bigger cycle on a grander scale? The earth itself is in a constant state of rotation around the sun. There is no straight line! Only circles, cycles.

Among other species there is a season for every activity, and a role to play in relation to the season. For humans, the female menses is one aspect of our being tuned to cycles and seasons, but now even that can be engineered, if inconvenient. But if we stay present with our own bodies and our own experience, we can begin to notice the cyclical nature of our being, how we cycle between active and passive, outgoing and inward turning, working and playing, intake and output. We can attune ourselves to our own natural rhythms, if we are present to pay attention. If we are asked, “Are you hungry?” do we consult our stomachs or the clock?

Our relationship with food is a good example of how so many of us lost our sense of natural cycles and seasons. Our ancestors relied on the natural world completely, and by necessity had to be in tune with the rhythms of the wild. The advent of agriculture, and the shift to being attuned to planting and harvesting seasons made a major change in what we ate and when we ate it. For those of us who grow our own food or purchase the bulk of our foods from farmers’ markets, this is still true to varying degrees. But for most of the modern day population, especially those living in densely populated areas, eating is not a seasonal activity. Whatever is not in season here is still available at the supermarket, shipped from somewhere else in the world. And those who rely primarily on processed, frozen or factory-canned foods may feel no connection at all between food and seasons.This creates a certain sense of sameness that is out of sync with the rest of nature. It dulls our senses and makes us more reliant on the clock and the linear idea of time ‘passing.’

So we mark this passage of time with celebrations of specific dates in history when certain things occurred — the birthday of a historic or religious figure, the winning of a battle, the start of a revolution, etc. And for many people the passage into a calendar new year is high on the list of celebrations. Any excuse for a party, I say! And by the way, how cool was that on New Year’s Eve 2000 tuning in every hour on the hour to watch each time zone aglow with celebration as the new year rolled towards us here on the west coast of North America? Very cool indeed! Our little blue marble of a planet at its communal celebratory pinnacle of interactive rejoicing that the world did not shut down even though a new millennium had begun.

But aside from surviving, what are we really celebrating on New Year’s Eve? It is the penultimate moment of being perched on the edge of the ‘future’ in this strangely linear construct of time we collectively use as the primary organizing principle of our lives.

For many of us this marking of the passage of one year into the next is very powerful. We package up the year that’s passed, judge it as good or bad, and the worse it is the more ready we are to get past it. So we are often celebrating in a sense of good riddance, and a hopefulness that somehow this coming year will be different, better. We make resolutions to be different, to change a habit, and feel that we have been given a clean slate. I know this can be very powerful because I quit smoking almost 40 years ago at the stroke of midnight at the beginning of a new year, and have never smoked again.

The only problem with this is that if we falter in our resolution, and so often we do, we may feel like we have to wait for a whole year to try again! Wouldn’t it be more powerful to be attuned to our own inner rhythms and to sense when we have the strength of intention to make a change, rather than letting some collaborative concept such as New Year’s be the determinant? When I quit smoking I did it with a friend. After a few days she gave up and is smoking still. What was the difference? I had a stronger motivation because I had decided I wanted to get pregnant, and while it was very difficult for me to quit for myself, it was quite easy to give it up for my future baby. So it didn’t have all that much to do with it being New Year’s after all, and that’s something that’s important to remember.

As meditators, our practice is to stay in the moment. This moment has an eternal quality, the eternal now. We are ever and always right here right now, where everything is alive, activated by our senses, vibrant and potent. When our awareness wanders into the past or the future, we know that those are just mental constructs that do not exist. The past is a complex web of memories that is subject to interpretation, and the future is a complex web of hopes and fears that try to define as yet unlived experience. None of the senses exist in either the past or the future. And when we try to live our lives in the past or the future we are dis-empowered, for only in this moment do we have the power to co-create the world into being. As we live more fully in the moment, we recognize the value of being able to learn from the past and to plan for the future, but we also know how seductive and sometimes destructive it can be to attempt to dwell in either place that exists only in our minds.

Clock time is useful, there’s no doubt about it! But we want to see it clearly, as the convenient conceptual construct that it is, and not succumb to the belief that it is real. When we believe our lives to be on a time-line, rather than a part of the ongoing cycles of nature, we are always entering ‘the future,’ a blank slate filled with predictions, hopes and fears, and never is the future more intimidating or promising than when we are perched on the edge of a coming year.

Most of us see 2012 as an entity unto itself. It already has quite a personality, what with the diire predictions based on some ancient Mayan calendar maker’s mathematics. In the US, it’s a presidential election year, with all that that entails in the way of news, ads, mailers, speeches, conventions, discussions, volunteering, voting, celebrating or commiserating. But the year also has a personality for each of us in our own lives.  Perhaps we have planned trips or are expecting babies in the family. This gives the year a certain anticipated shape.

But it is all just plans and anticipations at this point, isn’t it? There’s no point in living it in our minds. That only leaves us with a comparing mind when the actuality occurs. We are stuck measuring the difference between what we had expected and the moment lived. And living in anticipation has a quality of using up the year before it’s even begun, especially if we have made a number of trips around the sun. The coming year can feel already spent, with little promise of spontaneity or surprises, except for feared mishaps, health challenges and deaths. How dreary! How much sweeter and richer it is to give ourselves a chance to discover each moment of our lives anew, by resting our awareness fully in the here and now, relaxing and releasing the tension that is the way our body holds the past and the future.

We can redefine our relationship with the concept of time, by recognizing it for the convenient concept it is, and not defining ourselves by it.

Putting time in proper perspective, we can live deeply, richly, fully in this moment — aware of the pivotal personal power of every moment to determine the direction we take, the decisions we make — and let the future, that pretense of linear timeline, rest lightly in our awareness.

So I wish you a Happy New Year, but even more so, I wish you ‘Happy ever-new moment!’

Happy Solstice!

Winter Solstice

The following is a poem I wrote nineteen years ago. At that time I was frustrated because every celebration of winter solstice, a natural phenomenon that has great meaning to many people, was focused on the return of the light. As a Buddhist practitioner, learning how to be present with what is here and now, I could see that was is present right now is darkness. This is the shortest day and the longest night in the northern hemisphere. (Happy Summer Solstice to you in the southern hemisphere!)
Since then this poem has been shared at many a winter solstice celebration. Feel free to share it, keeping in mind that in the spirit of taking only what is freely given we always include the poet’s name on any poem we share with others.

In Celebration of the Winter Solstice

Do not be afraid of the darkness.
Dark is the rich fertile earth
that cradles the seed, nourishing growth.
Dark is the soft night that cradles us to rest.
Only in darkness
can stars shine across the vastness of space.
Only in darkness
is the moon’s dance so clear.
There is mystery woven in the dark quiet hours,
There is magic in the darkness.  
Do not be afraid.
We are born of this magic.
It fills our dreams
that root, unravel and reweave themselves
in the shelter of the deep dark night.
The dark has its own hue,
its own resonance, its own breath.
It fills our soul,
not with despair, but with promise.
Dark is the gestation of our deep and knowing self.
Dark is the cave where we  rest and renew our soul.
We are born of the darkness,
and each night we return
to the deep moist womb of our beginnings.
Do not be afraid of the darkness,
for in the depth of that very darkness
comes a first glimpse of our own light,
the pure inner light of love and knowing.
As it glows and grows, the darkness recedes.
As we shed our light, we shed our fear,
and revel in the wonder of all that is revealed.
So, do not rush the coming of the sun.
Do not crave the lengthening of the day.
Celebrate the darkness.
Here and now. A time of richness. A time of joy.

– Stephanie Noble

This time of year the darkness provides an opportunity to slow down, but do we?
If we take a slower pace, if we give ourselves our meditation practice and then extend that sense of timeless awareness that arises from it into our experience of this season, it does indeed become merry, joyous and filled with an inner light.

The poem talks about ‘our own inner light’ — what does this mean?
We often talk in class about our inner wisdom, our Buddha nature, our most authentic self — well this inner light is the same. Our inner wisdom has the quality of light. First metta, loving-kindness, has the infinite quality of light, shedding light everywhere, not picking and choosing who is worthy of the light of our loving kindness. This kindness and it’s companion compassion (karuna) arise naturally as light and spreads without effort. So light is very much a quality of metta.

Awareness also has the quality of light. When we develop awareness we are casting light in the darkness of our habitual thoughts and patterns. This is both a floodlight of awareness, when we understand our interconnection with all that is; and a spotlight, when we are able to focus on a particular aspect of something and discern what is going on more clearly, seeing previously hidden connections and associations, seeing how assumptions we have relied on don’t hold up when we are really paying attention and noticing. We can see more clearly and more deeply with this light of awareness.

One morning this week, I awoke at 5 AM and, thinking it was later, I got up and opened the curtains so that the sunrise would lighten the room as I meditated. But what I discovered was the stars shining so brilliantly in the western sky, stars that I am not used to seeing there. I am no astronomer, but I could see that the constellations were in a very different position, and also that the sky was very far from sunrise. Even as dark as mornings are this time of year, I could tell it was very very early. But I was drawn to throw on some warm things and go outside and stand in the deep darkness with those brilliant stars. And they were so bright that even the neighbors’ bright security lights across the street could not dim their brilliance. And I really felt the truth of the poem, how ‘Only in darkness can stars shine across the vastness of space.’

This is a very special season, both a season of sharing and celebration, and a season of quiet. In this season of darkness the faintest light of awareness can be more noticeable, more amplified.

In this season the sense of joyous loving kindness can bubble forth and express itself in such good will and generosity, reminding us of our truest nature. We can find our true selves under the tree of being! The greatest gift of all.

So I wish you all a very Happy Solstice! May the awareness of your inner light bring joy to all the holidays you celebrate — Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Years Eve — and all the moments in between the celebrations, when you are a celebration unto yourself.

Releasing Tension

In last Thursday’s class we explored the tension we hold in our bodies. During meditation we practiced relaxing and releasing any tension we found, just as we normally do as we enter our meditation. But this time we purposely made note of any places we find that chronically hold tension so that it will be easy to revisit at any time, especially in a stressful moment.

We can pause when we’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed and notice how scrunched up our shoulders have become, for example. Releasing physical tension releases our grasping onto whatever fear-based thoughts or emotions are adding suffering to our experience. But the places we chronically hold tension are usually somewhat tight even in relatively relaxed moments.

Close your eyes and sense into your body to see where there is tightness — not post-exercise muscular tightness, but chronic tension. It could be in your furrowed brow, your squinting eyes, your pursed lips or clinched teeth. It could be in your locked jaw, your stiff neck or your shoulders hovering up around your ears. It could be in your fisted hands or your tumultuous stomach. What is true for you in this moment?

Having noted one or two places that are holding tension now, set the intention to check in several times during the day, especially at moments of stress, to notice the area(s) again. Developing a habit of noticing physical sensation is a key to bringing ourselves into the present moment, and noticing tension is particularly useful, because we can skillfully let go of the tension to the best of our ability. We can also use the tension as a gateway for self-discovery, which I’ll talk more about later.

Many of us feel that in order to release tension we need to eliminate those things in our lives that are causing the tension. This is skillful to the degree that we understand we have the power to change our lives, to take different turns that are more attuned to our deepest values so that we are not conflicted. That internal conflict causes stress and therefore tension. But believing that there is some external cause and some external cure for tension — a massage, a yoga class, a tropical vacation — is dis-empowering. We have the capacity to cope with the tension that arises in our bodies!

Becoming aware of the tension in our body is one of the most skillful things we can do to change up the energy, to come fully into the present moment and to develop clarity and compassion. Why? Because tension is restriction. It is a pattern of reactivity that is mirrored in our mental and emotional activity. The tight knots of tension we hold in our body are in direct correlation to the tight knots of circular, fear-based convoluted thinking that we have going on in our minds. Both are ways we hold onto thoughts and feelings about the past and the future, using them as fuel for our current decisions and activities. But this is fossil fuel! It’s very polluting! Besides, the mileage is pitiful and this fear-based fossil fuel causes frequent breakdowns. So instead we want to access our infinitely more powerful and life-affirming, joy-affirming energy to fuel our lives. Access to this energy is always here, now and relaxed.

So we take a moment to sense in to our body. This could be a moment standing in the elevator, standing in the grocery store checkout line, or waiting on hold on the phone. We don’t lack for opportune moments in this busy modern life! We just don’t recognize them as the opportunities they are!

When we recognize we are in this opportune moment, we then tune in to the overall sensation of the body. Perhaps this is a neutral or pleasant sensation of all systems fully functioning, a sense of well-being — not hyper-caffeinated nor sluggish, but healthy, perhaps even radiant with life flow. In this state it is easy to be present, easy to smile, easy to take pleasure in the smallest things we notice in our experience.

But perhaps instead, as will often happen, we notice that the energy level is more to one extreme or the other. This is important noticing. This is not a fault-finding mission. It is not a directive to get out of the grocery store line and go get an energy-boosting beverage to change the situation. Instead we focus on the inhalation of our natural breath to raise our energy, feeling the incoming air oxygenating our system; or if our energy is frenzied, we focus on the exhalation, letting the outgoing breath release the excess energy, leaving us feeling calmer and more balanced.

Then we notice any specific area(s) where we are holding tension, the way we just did in the exercise. We don’t have to close our eyes to do this if that isn’t convenient. We can simply turn our awareness inward. Again if there is no tension, just the overall sense of well being, that’s fine. We can go on about our day taking pleasure in this sense of well being. But if we notice a sensation of tightness, we can take a moment — literally a few seconds to skillfully release some or all of that tension. With practice we develop the positive habit of noticing, relaxing and releasing tension in the body.

When I lead meditation, I usually guide the group in an overall body scan, using a variety of words to encourage relaxing and releasing tension. I suggest my students notice which of these words is the most powerful and effective. For example, those of us who took Lamaze childbirth classes may still be cued to respond well the word ‘relax!’ However, we were trained to respond to our mate-coach saying the word. I am sure if my husband said that word today, I would respond with full relaxation. But it’s not skillful in our practice to depend on someone else to provide the key for our release!

Here are some of the words I use.
Relax…..Release….Let go….Soften….Melt

This last word, melt, has an image associated with it. I will sometimes tell my students, especially in the summer, to imagine the spine as a popsicle stick and the muscles as the ice cream melting on the stick.

Try these words out for yourself and see which one(s) are most effective in releasing tension. There may be others that you think of that are even more effective. Whatever you find that works for you, remember to use it! Each of us is developing our own set of valuable skills, our toolbox of meditative techniques, that through our own experience, we know serve us. The word that most effectively releases built-up tension is indeed a valuable tool.

As we quiet down through meditative practice, we can begin to notice all the sensations that compose this thing we call tension. We can find that each area of sensation is a whole series of smaller, subtler sensations that we begin to notice if we simply sit with the experience. This level of refined noticing is skillful, but even more important than the degree to which we notice is the compassion we are able to bring to our noticing.

Sometimes we may think of tension as the enemy and we just want to get rid of it. But tension is just the way our body holds unprocessed painful memories and anxious thoughts about the future. When we are doing self-inquiry, this is a gateway to insight and understanding. Compassion allows us to relax, release, soften and let go. It isn’t about pushing away or getting rid of anything.

One student brought up the challenge of being both compassionate with ourselves and still fulfill obligations, like the commitment of getting to work on time. A sense of needing to meet others’ expectations, is a common source of tension in our lives, so let’s look at it more closely.

The tension that arises is rooted in the fear that we will be judged and found wanting, and that this judgment will render us unacceptable. If we are unacceptable, we will be set out on the proverbial ice floe and left to die. That may sound like a crazy extreme, but this is what we believe in some form or another, even though we would word it very differently. That is why this area is all so dire and why we are willing to sacrifice our health and well being for the sake of meeting commitments. We are afraid of being separate. We are afraid of disappearing. Fears seem to come in all shapes and sizes but they all have that common denominator. We don’t want to be cast out. Even if ‘ve vant to be alone,’ it is on our own terms, and may to a certain degree be rooted in our discomfort with the tension we feel around others, based in this fear of being labeled unacceptable. Even if our voluntary solitude arises out of a sense of being comfortable in our own skin, a sense of connection with the natural world, or a rich inner creative life that needs solitude to work, we can get so out of the habit of being with people that we are uncomfortable with them. Or we may be used to working on our own and when we are working with people or for people, suddenly the tension comes in, even though we are doing exactly the same kind of work we were doing before. It something interesting to explore.

Through noticing and being present, it is quite possible to realize that we are inherently an intrinsic expression of all being, that we can never be separate, and that our ultimate disappearance from this form, just like all of nature, is simply energy transferring to another form. Think of a drop of water flying above a cascade. We each are that drop of water! We each believe ourselves to be separate, but in fact we are and always will be an inseparable part of being, just as the water drop is part of the river, the ocean, the clouds and the rain. We are not separate ever, so we can let go of the fear of any cause or condition making us so.

When we understand our connection to all of life, when we feel the life force flowing through us, then when we make commitments we fulfill them naturally as an infinite connected conduit of open-hearted spacious loving energy. We do not become undependable, blissed-out or flaky, so self-involved we forget our commitments! We instead fulfill our commitments out of this connected sense of infinite love, out of mutual respect and a sense of honoring the time and feelings of others with whom we are co-creating life and experience. Out of love, we arrive where we say we will be at the time we said we would be there. From that sense of connection, we honor other people’s time as we do our own, so we show up on time, and when that’s not possible we let them know as soon as we know that we won’t be able to do so. We can fulfill commitments without drudgery or dread, simply by shifting into the more authentic core of caring and compassion from which we made the commitment in the first place.

(When in class I suggested that we can fulfill our commitments compassionately, allowing our intuitive sense of connection with others to guide us, the way birds fly in unison, just at that moment a bird landed on the deck rail, and hung around as if to hear more about it!)

How do we know if we are operating from love or fear? Easy! Sense in to the body and notice if there is a tight knot of tension somewhere. That’s the first clue to operating out of fear. It is so habituated that even advanced meditators will still hold residual patterns of tension that need to be noticed and released. If we judge the tension as a sign of our unskillfulness as meditators, then we are missing the concept. Let the tension be a teacher! Instead of finding fault with it, let it be a guide to the opportunity to sense in, relax, release — or whatever word is most powerful for you — and be grateful to be so instantly ushered into the present moment, where we have the power of our intrinsic interconnection to create space for all experience to exist within our open embrace.

Developing the ability to sense into physical sensation and to notice tension is skillful not just in order to release it. We can use the tension we notice as a springboard for self-inquiry. Why? Because tension is the way our body holds painful memories and anxious thoughts of what could happen in the future. If that sounds strange, try it for yourself to see if it’s true.

If possible have something to take notes with in case you want to have a record of your experience for future reference. Now close your eyes and notice tension in your body. Once you have located tension, then continue reading. (If you don’t notice any tension, try this at another time.)

Once you’ve located an area of tension, stay aware of the tension while allowing your mind to roam freely. Notice what images, memories or other thoughts arise. Make note of them — a word, a phrase, a short sentence will do.

Your thoughts and emotions will go to the very source of your tension. Sometimes it’s very clear, especially after a period of meditation, and sometimes it’s more challenging, especially if some aspect of self is investing in this ‘woo-woo stuff’ being wrong. But if you have come this far, you are more powerful than that little nay-saying aspect, so continue to explore. (Note to inner nay-sayer: Biologically speaking, this all makes sense — ask a neurologist or brain research scientist.)

Okay, back to the exercise: You might ask yourself, ‘What fear is present in this thought or emotion?’
Notice the wording. We could say ‘What am I afraid of?’ and that’s okay, but this wording can activate identity-based concerns (‘I’m no scaredy-cat!’) that can be distracting. So we can more accurately recognize fear as a free-floating agent in our experience rather than something that is intrinsically us.

Remember that the fear might present as something that has a whole story wrapped around it. Notice the story, Maybe write down a brief note about the story for further exploration, but also be looking for that common denominator fear of disappearing that is at the root of all fears we have, no matter what our story is. The story is useful because it is full of clues about the way we have shaped that fear. We can ask questions of the story, such as “Is this true?” and “How do I know this is true?” We do this with compassion and respect. We are not pooh-poohing the story, but we are holding it up to the light and seeing it, maybe for the first time, with clarity. Most of us have never questioned our stories. We have instead built our identity around them.

For the purposes of this dharma talk, I am just showing how tension can be a teacher, giving us access to a treasure trove of tightly held answers to the questions we have about why we suffer so. There are many other dharma talks on this blog about self-inquiry and self-exploration and I encourage you to check them out from the list of labels in the column on the right.

Whether we are noticing tension to release it in order to come more fully into the present moment, or we are noticing it to do an exercise in self-inquiry, this kind of awareness practice is highly beneficial. It is only effective however when we experience it for ourselves, so I hope you haven’t just read this post, but have done the exercises, noticing your own areas of chronic tension, experimenting to find what words or images are most effective for you to release tension, and have tried out doing a little self-exploration using tension as a gateway to discovery. If not, you can right now go back and actually experience it.

These dharma talks are only adjuncts to the experiential practice of meditation and self-exploration. It is your own development of meditative skills that will make the difference in your life. To read without practice is said to be like fixating on the finger pointing at the moon rather than seeing the moon itself.

So dance in the moonlight of your own awakening! Though we all dance together in a beautiful pattern of life loving itself, no one else can dance your dance!

Inner Exploration with Awareness and Compassion

This week in class we did an experiential exercise on compassion. After meditation practice, we sat in the resulting inner peacefulness and each explored our circular thinking around the holidays or anything else that might be causing stress right now. Meditation offers a timelessness, so that we can see in ‘slow-motion’ how the thoughts spiral from statement to associative image representing a past experience perhaps to an associative emotion to an associative sensation, etc. By creating a spacious field of awareness — not pushing anything away but making an effort not to become entangled in them either — we give ourselves truly valuable information — the best gift of the season!

After the exploration reveals something of interest, we focus on holding what has been revealed in compassionate curiosity. Developing compassion and loving-kindness is the most important aspect of any self-exploration. Without it we are like bulls in the proverbial china shop. With spaciousness and compassion we can discover the ways we activate suffering in our lives and are able to hold it gently and see it clearly, from a spacious perspective that understands the universality of whatever we notice. In this way what appears is not threatening, nor is the idea of letting it go. It is simply a natural mental phenomena that arises and falls away. Even the tightest tangles, as uncomfortable as they are and as easily as we get lost in them, are still just natural mental phenomena — in most cases leftover patterns that were created out of perceived need, but that no longer serve us, and in fact now keep tripping us up. This ability to see clearly with compassion is the greatest gift of meditation for self-exploration.

In our class discussion afterwards we explored the patterned reactions to situations, people, etc. in our lives that we noticed arising. This kind of discussion is quite different from sharing the ‘story’ — the details, the ‘he said, she said’ — that we might talk about with friends or family. Here we share the universal experience of our process of exploration and discovery rather than what can amount to gossip and too much distracting personal information. In this way we are all helped to recognize the common patterns we all experience rather than getting caught up in the personal particulars that vary from person to person, that might throw us into the pattern of wanting to offer advice to ‘solve’ a problem. We are practicing the development of a practice that brings about skillful long term insights. Solving a specific problem leads us to believe in the ‘if only’s of any situation. If only I could fix this, then I would be happy. Baloney. We are not about fixing situations. Another situation will arise that seems just as problematic. The skill we are developing is how to be in skillful relationship with all the situations that might arise in life.

No particular situation or person is the cause of our suffering. The cause is the pattern of reacting and the tangled circular thinking that create sticky cobwebs in our minds that are simply universal mental phenomena. It is for the most part fear-based reactivity developed when we were young that is no longer useful, as we now have more skillful compassion-based means to resolve challenging issues and dissolve suffering. It is not who we are, so we can look at it dispassionately, without feeling threatened, accused, or fearful of losing identity.

Here we are approaching the winter holidays that for so many of us add a whole additional layer of stress and expectation to an already busy life. One student noticed that she felt she had to give a ‘command performance.’ This resonated through the group, and perhaps it resonates with some of you as well. It prompted a whole discussion of the ways in which we demand perfection from ourselves. If this does resonate, either around the holidays or simply in life, bring to mind occasions when you have had a really great time at someone else’s home. Was it because the silverware was shiny or the guest soaps and towels perfectly aligned? Of course not. Often the best times are had in homes that feel less formally prepared. Energetically there is less tension, less special effort for us as ‘guests.’ The hosts are genuinely happy to see us, are fully present to enjoy being together, and this makes us feel more welcome than any special preparations.
We can also remember that we are always, even if we are completely unaware of it, modeling behavior for others. If we demand perfection of ourselves, are we not saying that this is the standard by which we will judge them? So letting go of this ‘command performance’ demand on ourselves releases it from others as well. Now that’s a real gift!

How do we become skillful during such periods without losing the joyful social nature of the season? This is something each of us can discover through noticing what aspects bring joy, what aspects bring anxiety, and where do we over-effort to little effect. It’s skillful to make notes about what worked and what didn’t, a message to ourselves ten months into the future. And it’s skillful to keep the conversation open and in flux about what traditions are working for our ever-changing families and other groups we may celebrate with. Tradition is heart-warming but may become oppressive, the way a cozy room can, at another time, seem suffocating. Notice what’s true for you and inquire what’s true for your loved ones!

Our meditation practice creates the space to quiet down and notice what is happening in our minds and in our lives. Once we see clearly, with infinite compassion, we are empowered to shift, enlighten and illuminate every season of our lives.

Three Aspects of Mindfulness Meditation Practice

Last Thursday we spent more time than usual in class practicing, exploring and clarifying three aspects of meditation practice. (Blog readers should know that these dharma talks — over 160 now — are only one part of the class. The core of the class is experiential, the practice of meditation itself. I encourage anyone who has been finding value in reading the blog but hasn’t either developed a personal practice or joined a meditation group, to take that step now. I work with individuals and small groups to develop or refine a practice. Reading about it is not enough!!! )

The first aspect we discussed is our concentration practice, training our minds to stay focused on a specific experience, like the breath, for example. Even as beginning meditators we can follow our experience of this wise effort. We can notice when we have lost our focus and compassionately bring our attention back to the focus. If accessing a concentration point in the senses is difficult, I suggest focusing on the tongue or a foot and doing subtle movement — running the tongue around the teeth, wiggling the toes, etc. — to create a stronger sensation to focus on. Then reduce the movement and see if you can stay focused on the more subtle sensation. Then cease the movement and see if you can still notice sensation. In this way we build our ability to focus. Because the breath is for most of us a neutral, dominant and reliable sensation, it is the concentration focus most in this tradition choose for the main body of their meditation. But it is not the only one possible, and any sensation can be a focus for concentration practice.

The second aspect of the practice is a more generalized awareness of spacious infinite energy. Certain kinds of meditation practices can take us right to this ‘bliss state,’ as can various substances and activities. Vipassana meditation practice is not about attaining a state of bliss, as if it were a tropical vacation to escape from the world. Perhaps after such a ‘vacation’ the regular world feels more tolerable for a time, but then we need to escape again. Vipassana or mindfulness meditation is not about escape. It is actually the opposite. It is very useful for people whose minds are always escaping into daydreams, etc. because it is about being truly present here and now so that we find the joy in every moment of our lives. This is the wisdom of no escape. There is nothing to escape from when we discover how to be fully present with our experience, whatever it is.

So many people spend so much time finding a means to escape out of fear of being present with their experience. Younger meditation students complain that it is hard to find young people who are not drunk or stoned most of the time, meaning it is hard for them to find young people who are not afraid to face their lives sober. Those who take this route can blame the stresses of modern life, but at some point we need to remember that we are no longer children who have no control over our lives, who need to be able to escape in our minds. In fact we are very powerful. We can, through being fully present, shift the energy in the room, in an online thread, in our community and ultimately, because of the ripples even the smallest pebble makes, we can shift the energy of the world, simply by being present.

Think of how a minister, Martin Luther King Jr., shifted the energy of the civil rights movement and helped to begin a healing of a nation. Think how the man who inspired him, Mahatma Gandhi, a lawyer from South Africa, led India into a peaceful state of independence, just by his willingness to be present and compassionate. This kind of mindfulness is contagious, and we are in an amazing period of history able to see it in action as the peaceful assembly of the Occupy and 99% movement let their concerns be known with patience and consensus decision-making. We might say, well I’m no Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. Well, neither were they, in that famous powerful figure aspect, before someone helped them to shift their energy and discover the power of non-violent action. Perhaps we will never be famous, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t each of us incredibly powerful in our own way. We have the power to sour the energy, to incite anger, cat fights, nastiness, jealousy, violence. And we have the power, through anchoring into our senses and being fully present to bring peaceful collaborative exuberance, joie de vivre, a love of life, holding life not in a stranglehold of fear but in an open embrace.

Of course, if we get caught up in the goal of changing the world, then we are not living in the moment and that powerful energy is gone.

Just so, the naturally arising bliss state that may come through meditation or other means is not a goal nor an achievement. It is just another experience we hold with an open loving embrace. Whether the bliss state ever comes or whether it stays, that is not really our concern as meditators.

The bliss state does give valuable information, but even a hint or a brief experience of that timeless state can inform a lifetime. The valuable information is that all is one. There is no separate self. We are all expressions of life loving itself. We are like drops of water briefly experiencing soaring in a state of feeling separate, but in fact we are still the ocean.

For students who have never experienced this state and who feel the lack, I recommend watching science programs or reading about the current scientific understanding of reality with special attention to how much space there is, how structure, including ourselves, is mostly space. Think about skin, how we believe it to be the edge of who we are. But that is not true, is it? The more we know about biology and other sciences, the more we begin to understand the infinite nature of being. Now this kind of learning is not the same as experiencing the state of ‘knowing’ this to be true, feeling that interconnection. I wish English had two different verbs for ‘to know’ the way Spanish does, making a differentiation between something we have learned and something we have experienced.

But if we give the logical mind the opportunity to learn through watching or reading scientific information, it will help to unlock the door to the possibility of experiencing it. Then it’s just a matter of creating opportunity through meditation, chanting, retreats, being slow and silent in nature, dancing, creating or listening to inspirational music, etc. to experience abandoning the dead shell, to slough off the molting skin of these old limiting beliefs.

For the religious this experience grows the understanding and appreciation of the nature of God. You can see how God is all and everything, no part excluded from that infinite beingness, and how this consciousness can be so present in all things, able to experience all that is in each moment.

In our meditation practice we can go back and forth between a focused concentration practice and a spacious awareness state.

The third foundation makes all else possible. This is metta or loving-kindness practice. We end every class with the blessing “May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at ease. May all beings know peace.” But within each personal practice of meditation we set our intention to be compassionate with ourselves when we discover our mind has wandered. Without this kindness and compassion, we are doomed to get tangled in self-recrimination and blame. So this kindness, this compassion, is a fundamental part of our practice as well.

We always begin our practice of metta with ourselves. First, we often find ourselves to be the most difficult person to be kind to. And ultimately, because we are all one, sending true infinite loving kindness of this nature to ourselves is the same as sending it out into the world. Feeling that kindness, we express kindness in the world. We embody kindness, ease, generosity and peace. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the peace we seek.

So those are the three aspects of our practice in our class, in our personal daily practice of meditation and in each moment in our lives as we experience it, holding it in an open and loving embrace with full awareness and the resulting deep gratitude.