The impact of our words and actions cause a ripple effect beyond our immediate circle of family, friends, neighbors, associates and brief encounters with strangers. Each impact affects them and in turn everyone in their circles, rippling out further and further until no being is untouched. This is true for each one of us. We are all powerful. Our words and actions truly matter.
Even the expression on our face at any given moment can set something into motion, perhaps something we never intended. This was driven home to me when, after the absence of many weeks, a fellow Toastmaster showed up at a meeting. I was happy to see her and mentioned how much I enjoyed her last speech. ‘You did?’ she replied, clearly amazed.
‘Oh yes, very much so!’ I assured her. She then told me that she had been taking time out to lick her wounds after feeling she had given a terrible speech, and one of the indicators to her that it hadn’t been good was the expression of concern she saw on my face while she was speaking.
Oh dear! I don’t remember being concerned. Maybe my mind had wandered for a moment? Maybe I had gas? Who knows? It was so long ago. It never crossed my mind that I could have that much impact just in the way the muscles of my face configure themselves.
She had given me too much power and I had been oblivious to the power I had. It seems that many women in particular do both these things quite readily. We seek approval from outside ourselves, and doubt that anything we say or do could really make an impact on someone else. But it turns out that the people we vest with power are unreliable resources; and conversely, without even knowing it we have encouraged and discouraged those around us at a time when they were unsure of their course and looking for external cues.
Think of a time when you gave up on something you wanted to do because you got discouraged. What discouraged you? What disheartened you? What caused you to lose your enthusiasm for what you were doing?
Was it something someone said, or didn’t say? Was it a look on someone’s face when you talked about it? Or the way they changed the subject or looked away, as if to avoid saying what they thought about it? Or was it your own assumption about what they would say, based on your past observations? It is so very easy to be turned away from a course we were enthusiastic about just the day before. I know this all too well!
At those moments it pays to notice whose opinion we are hearing in our head. What are the words we are hearing? And then to follow the source, question the source and be aware of how we are giving away so much power to a source that perhaps isn’t giving that message at all.
In this kind of inner exploration, the more particular we can get the more effective the process will be. The more clearly we can expose the exact time and place and people in these crystallized message-memories, by describing them in detail, even write them down, the better we will be able to recognize them when they rise up again to sabotage our efforts. Here’s an example from my life:
Circa 1959, in our family home in San Francisco; over after-work cocktails, my parents are having their daily sharings of their days. I was the innocuous eavesdropper sitting in their midst, always amazed at their ability to remember what people said and did with such exactitude. Yet more than 50 years later I perfectly remember their words as that particular evening they belittled a neighbor woman who ‘sits at her typewriter all day long writing a “novel” (air quotes), for God’s sake. Who does she think she is?’
Apparently it doesn’t matter to our tender vulnerable psyches whether we are the subject of the disparaging remarks. I was twelve years old and already writing stories, though not sharing them. Their scoffing laughter at this neighbor made the world feel like an unsafe place for creative pursuits. People would talk behind my back if I dared to think I could write. (I still imagine they do, come to think of it.) My enthusiasm for writing dried up a bit that evening. Being a writer was clearly a foolish activity.
So that’s a very specific memory from my life. Now think of a powerful message-memory from your own life that gives you pause when you think of undertaking something for which you have some enthusiasm. The one that rises up to shoot you down. Flush it out with details, and see yourself and the person or persons in that long ago moment very clearly from this present vantage point of being an adult. This will give you a clearer and more compassionate view.
The purpose of this exercise is not to place blame. Were my parents alive today there would be no benefit in confronting them with it. Their words inadvertently may have set something in motion, but I am the one who keeps those words alive. I am the one who uses the memory as a tool of sabotage, albeit unconsciously.
I have the power of compassion for my parents in their own fear-based unskillfulness, probably not even registering I was witness to this conversation or that it would matter to me.
I have the power of compassion for my child self who made their words into a monument of memory.
I have the power to understand that as an adult I have many other resources and experiences to draw from to help balance out the effects of that moment.
And I have the power to see that no one in the world is so all-knowing that their opinion on my life should prevail.
This sense of empowerment builds resilience that aids me when I feel under attack. I used to be so defensive. Ask my brother! Ask my husband! I might sulk or I might lash out at the ‘attacker’. Fortunately, through mindfulness practice, I have mellowed. I am not impervious to the pain, but I see more clearly how the process unfolds, how the slight may not have been intended, and if it was intended, the person is lashing out in response to feeling attacked by someone else and is probably projecting it on me. There’s a lot more room for questioning and a lot less need to be right.
I remind myself that ‘I have nothing to prove. I have nothing to defend. I have nothing to hide. I have something to give.’ This phrase that came to me while on a silent retreat years ago supports me still.
The process of recognizing an embedded memory that sabotages or deflates us in order to bring it into the light of our awareness is a most valuable one. As we come upon thought-memories traveling through our field of awareness, we don’t have to shy away from them, feel shame and determine blame. We can hold them in an open loving embrace and let their presence remind us that we are each of us powerful beyond our wildest imagining.
I notice too how with the wind blowing so hard, everything else going on in my thoughts and emotions is tinged with my distressed reaction. Something that wouldn’t normally bother me now causes aggravation because I am already a little on edge.
This clear noticing of what is really happening in my experience is not to whine about the wind, or to judge myself for making a mountain out of a molehill, but to compassionately notice how the mind takes me on an unskillful journey away from this moment, how it spreads misery in its wake and compounds the potential for suffering. The noticing and compassion are skillful, and as I focus I feel the tension in my body releasing. This is the practice of mindfulness.
The Buddha created a whole set of teachings based on the changeable nature of wind. The Eight Worldly Winds* is a set of eight paired experiences — pleasure & pain; gain & loss; praise & blame; fame & disgrace. Like the wind they arise and fall away, then arise again and fall away again. All of life experience is like this.
Now let’s look at them one by one.
We recognize that while we may have the power to capture the butterfly and keep it, if we did so the butterfly would no longer be what it is, would no longer be able to give us the pleasure of seeing it flit and fly from flower to flower. To keep it, we would have to kill it. If we did so, we could still admire the colors, shapes and details of the wings, but the essence of what makes it a butterfly is gone.
In this same way we can notice how pleasure disappears if we hold on too tight, wishing it would go on and on.
‘I’m afraid a bee will sting me.’
‘And if a bee did sting you, then what would happen?’
‘It would hurt.’
‘Have you ever been hurt before?’
‘And what happened when you were hurt?’
‘And then what happened?’
‘The hurt stopped after a little bit and I stop crying.’
‘And then what did you do?’
‘I went and played.’
If we live mindfully, aware of our connection with all life, aware of the impact our choices have on ourselves, those around us and the world, while we will not be impervious to failure or error, we will be more likely to have the wisdom to know how to make amends and assure we don’t make that particular mistake again. We can recognize the universal nature of this and all the Eight Worldly Winds.
A farmer’s horse got loose from the corral and disappeared. The farmer’s neighbor said, ‘What a calamity! How will you plow your fields without your horse?’ A few days later the horse returned with six wild horses in tow. Wow! Now the neighbor said, ‘That’s fantastic! What great luck!’Then the farmer’s son fell off the horse while trying to tame it, and he broke his leg. ‘How terrible!’ the neighbor sympathized. The next week the army came and took all able-bodied young men, but not the son hobbling around on crutches. The neighbor could not believe the farmer’s good fortune. At every turn the neighbor reacted as if tossed around on the winds of fortune. But each time, whether the neighbor commiserated or congratulated, the farmer simply said he didn’t know whether this was good or bad fortune. Maybe yes, maybe no. He couldn’t say.
The farmer was wise. He recognized that none of us know the outcome of any given event, that all things and all experiences are insubstantial, impermanent, and beyond our control. He recognized the nature of the Eight Worldly Winds.
How could we not go every year to such a spectacular place? Well it is a long drive, but the real reason we don’t is that one visit many years ago was so special, so magical that for at least a few years after that I didn’t want to go again, lest I dilute that perfect memory of that previous experience.
Have you ever had the fear of losing an experience by trying to repeat it? My students did. One said she feels like she can never go back to Venice, because it was so exquisite. I totally understand this. We don’t want to mess with that perfect memory, diminish it by imposing new memories on the same place.
But are we then just collectors of memories? What does this say about who we believe ourselves to be?
Remember when we explored the Five Aggregates. One of the Aggregates was cognition, how our thinking brain perceives the world and the knowledge base we accumulate. We enjoy adding a new lovely memory, like a jewel to add to the crown of remembered experience we hold to be an important part of who we are. What a Deluxe Dukkha* Delivery System that is!
Even if we are able to retain memories our whole life, if we enshrine them, they lure us into the past, away from this moment. We pull them out and admire them when we don’t want to face what is. But life is not enriched by living elsewhere in our minds, in other times or places. We cause suffering for ourselves and for those around us, who may feel they are not enough to hold our attention, or whose concerns cannot be met because we are in a state of avoidance. (This is not to diminish the richness of sharing stories with loved ones who ask to hear them. But if the need is strong to live in the past, then it becomes clear this is an escape from something in the present.)
Beyond the fear of polluting a perfect memory, there are other reasons a repeated experience pales by comparison with the first time. Any brand new experience tends to get our full attention, doesn’t it? We are more likely to be present with whatever is going on, to notice the light, the texture and other sensory details of that moment.
The next time we go to the same place or eat the same meal, it’s just harder to pay the same level of attention. What was new before is no longer new, just a part of our ongoing experience of being in the world. Not memorable. Give us a daily dose, like a commute, and most of us will stop noticing large portions of our experience altogether. We might remember something noticeably different from usual, but the rest is just wallpaper to our day. To create that sense of aliveness, we feel we must keep traveling to different places we’ve never been, try new restaurants, new dishes, new forms of entertainment, new adventures, new outfits, or new decor.
The body of precious memory we carry — That magical carpet of wildflowers! That gondola ride! — acts as a powerful obscuring filter through which we see (or don’t see!) the current moment. We cannot recreate the first time we encountered something new. It is gone. But we hold it tight and get caught up in comparing mind.
Between not paying attention to what is and looking through the filter of what was, how is it possible to engage in this second experience with the same rapt attention?
The other day when we got out to Chimney Rock, there was a perfectly horizontal stripe of light mist in Drake’s Bay that made it appear to be a modernist landscape. As we headed down the path toward the point we encountered a female tule elk that kept running around and squatting. Given her bulky middle section she might have been giving birth.
We saw a little mole peeking out of his hole — exciting in the wild, less so in the garden. And then the wildflowers started revealing themselves, plenty of variety, lots of beauty. Okay, maybe it’s not a solid carpet of flowers like that one magical time, but this would not be a bust.
Then we saw our first whale. Phew! Comparing mind was beginning to relax. But then it became a comparing numbers game. How many whales would we see? That one magical time we saw a pod of whales, mothers and babies, and we followed them all around the point. It had been such a still day we could even hear their calls.
This time while out at the point having a picnic, we met two retired women from the East Bay who said they come every year to Chimney Rock. We enjoyed watching the whales with them, five all together, and there was a peregrine falcon sitting nearby on the cliff’s edge for an exhilarating few seconds before he flew off. Okay! This was it’s very own quite spectacular day.
But what if this trip was a bust? If nothing had met our expectations? One time
How much of this disappointment is the environment and how much is our minds? Being relieved that the environment supplied sufficient beauty and diversity is not the same as coming to ‘beginner’s mind’ where whatever the experience, we are at home in our breath, present in the moment, alive.
When we meditate we might compare this meditation to one we did before. Perhaps we had experienced a state of bliss. Had we only known we would turn around and use this exquisite experience as an instrument of torture in every subsequent meditation, it would not have been so blissful!
So what can we do?
First we can notice our comparing mind and smile at its capacity to get itself caught up in a tangle, like a little kitten in a ball of yarn. “Oh sweetheart, look at you, caught up in the tangle again,” and then we can bring our attention back to the present.
When we are present there isn’t much room for comparing mind. And when it crops up we recognize it for what it is — the desire to replicate joy. That’s not such a bad motivation, but as we see it in action we see that it causes us, and sometimes those around us, to suffer. Oh it’s not a terrible suffering, but it tends to suck the joy right out of our experience, and often out of the experience of those around us. It becomes a habit of mind, a chronic state that does a disservice to the moment we are in, the only moment that exists, the only moment we have to savor.
What makes a magical moment anyway? if we are truly present, fully anchored in awareness of physical sensation, of the sights, sounds, aromas, tastes and texture of this moment, we discover our full capacity to be alive, and that is joyful, whatever is going on.
Spend a few minutes right now, wherever you are, just noticing what’s going on in this moment.
For example, as I write this: The last light is on the trees waving in the breeze (pleasant), which is also rustling some paper by the open window (mildly unpleasant). There are bird sounds (pleasant twittering and mildly unpleasant squawks) and a distant hum of commute traffic. The air, so hot all day, is cooling. My stomach is feeling the urge to get some dinner cooking. I notice both the desire to finish this writing and the urge to get up. (At odds, but not totally unpleasant while just observing it.)
I could go on, but tell me, what is this precious moment like for you?
*Dukkha is the Sanskrit word for suffering.