Monthly Archives: June 2014

Walking through a dark valley

When I’m going through a difficult time, I try to remember to pause and notice what’s going on in my body. What sensations are present that aren’t usually here?
For example, have you ever felt an achy heaviness in the chest area? That can be a physical manifestation of loss. Next time you feel that sensation, you might pause to consider what’s going on in your life. Where might you be feeling loss?
If we can notice a physical sensation, we can hold it with tenderness. We can be the kind friend to ourselves that we try to be for others. We can be present to experience this sensation, and to be compassionate with it. This is much more powerful than trying to talk ourselves out of it.
I grew up back when ’emotional intelligence’ was not even coined as a term. My mother was a great and loving woman. I was very lucky. But even so, if I said, ‘Mom, I’m feeling sad,’ she would get very uncomfortable and tell me that I had nothing to complain about. It’s not her fault. If she were a young mother today, chances are she would know that telling someone they shouldn’t feel what they feel is not very useful.
Has anyone ever told you to stuff down your feelings or trade them in for a shinier happy version that would make everyone feel more comfortable? And if so, have you found that their voices are still in your head, still telling you it’s not okay to feel what you feel?
Most of us have stuffed-down sadness that we didn’t let ourselves feel at the time it occurred. It is still there, compressed under layers and layers of judgment. When we notice it, we rush to put on a smiley-faced band-aid and hope nobody notices.
Noticing is what our mindfulness practice is all about. We notice physical sensation first and foremost. It anchors us in the present moment which is the only one that exists. The past and future are just thoughts. We can’t change the past, though we can change how we relate to it, and any power we have over the future is contained in this present moment.
But are we willing to be present when we’re going through something difficult?
Most of us want to rush past this experience and get to a pleasant one. Maybe we’re embarrassed to be down and that adds to our discomfort. So we’re racing toward some brighter future, but we are dragging all these weighty anchors from the past. Our anger and judgments are rooted there. We’re not operating from here and now but from where we once were because we weren’t sufficiently there to notice what was going on at the time and to give ourselves the simple gift of being there. It’s complicated!
You can see how this gets us into trouble.

In Psalms 23.4 the Bible says ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’ This is identifying a human experience we all share at times. We find ourselves walking through a dark valley. We don’t have the vantage of the mountain top to see the lay of the land, so we don’t know where this valley leads. Maybe we get anxious and want very much to get past this narrowing in the inner landscape. We’re spending all our time looking for a way out.

But the valley is actually a very fertile place, and there is great value in simply being here where we are. In fact, the valley is so fertile that whatever it is we seed there will grow up before our eyes. If we are afraid of what we’ll find in the darkness, we seed fear. From the seeds of fear grow all manner of demon-like thoughts and emotions, like associated memories from youth that have lain dormant these many years that now rise up to taunt us. Loser! Loner! Unacceptable! Different! Pathetic!
But even in this dark narrow valley we are never alone. We are each of us an intrinsic part of the grand scheme of things, a natural expression of the life force. If we can sense into physical sensation we can remember this connection and the fear will soften. We can seed that same valley with love and compassion that in turn nourishes us. We are then able to follow our natural course at an easeful pace. We cease to struggle to get a mountain top vantage point but accept that we just don’t know. And that’s okay.
We expect to be in dark valleys when we have experienced a loss of any kind. We don’t expect to wake up one day and for no particular reason find we’re in a valley. But it happens, doesn’t it?
Sometimes when we do what feels like the next right thing in the natural flow of our lives, we come to a bend in the river and the shadows of the canyon walls make everything go dark. At this point we have no idea what to do. We thought we had a clear course, yet here we are in the valley of darkness! How did this happen?
As an example, I have recently embarked on a journey, having made a decision to publish some of my writing in book form, and I find myself at times in the valley. I recognize it. I have been here before. It is the place where all the taunts of my youth come up to haunt me.
I think how foolish I must have appeared when, as a new kid in school, I ran for an office because no one else was running and I thought it would be a good way to meet people. That would have probably worked out okay except that at the last minute the most popular girl in the class decided to run as well, and it was too late for me to withdraw. How awkward I felt making campaign promises standing in front of the whole student body in the expensive Pendleton plaid wool pleated skirt my mother had splurged on so I would feel confident for the occasion.
It was of course no surprise that I didn’t win, but here’s the painful part for me to remember: I stayed after school to wait for the voting results. Now why did I do that? Did I think I had a chance? That delusional hopefulness worries me.It makes me wonder if am I just as delusional now.
Of course in my mother’s view the worst thing about it was that I never wore that Pendleton skirt again. It was jinxed and had bad memories. I wanted to forget the whole experience. But clearly I haven’t, have I?
When you find yourself in a dark valley for seemingly no reason, notice what ancient taunts rise up to pull you down. What are the parallels to your current situation?
We all have these echoes within us, these events in our lives that reactivate fear when any potentially parallel situation arises. So where’s the parallel for me? In publishing these days it is supremely important to have a preexisting ‘author platform’ — an audience of people already interested in what the author has to say. Back in high school as the new kid in town I was completely lacking in any ‘platform’ at all, especially compared to that very popular girl. That’s a seemingly direct parallel. Except, as my meditation students point out, I have them, my blog readers, readers of my last book, as well as a wide circle of friends. I’m not the new kid at school. But the fear is there. 
So here I am in this dark valley at some moments when self-doubt creeps in. Just last week I was up on the proverbial mountain, leaping from peak to peak, feeling so supported by the universe. Absolutely nothing has changed from that moment to this. Students are sending me lovely expressions of praise to share with publishers. Friends say how great it is I’m doing it. Those with knowledge about publishing are particularly encouraging.
But still I find myself in the dark valley with a bunch of fourteen-year-olds from fifty years ago, who to their credit never said one mean word to me about the whole debacle. It’s all me creating this valley of darkness. And that’s important to remember.
What can I do about it? What can any of us do? We stay present with this moment and notice how it feels to be here with these physical sensations, some of them painful. We notice how it feels to stay present with these thoughts and emotions that arise in our field of awareness. Some of them are painful. We don’t try to talk ourselves out of what we are feeling. We don’t try to shame ourselves into more cheerful views. We simply stay present and acknowledge that we don’t know how long we’ll be walking in this dark valley. It may disappear in the next instant. It may last awhile. We do not know, and that’s important for us to embrace as a way of relating to our experience and life in general because it’s the truth in every moment, not just this one.
So we stay present and compassionate with ourselves, planting seeds of kindness in this fertile valley. If demons rise up from the fear-seeds we’ve planted in the past, we are compassionate with them. We don’t indulge their fears but we do acknowledge them. They are like old friends who think they are trying to protect us. We can remind ourselves that they are well-intentioned but not wise. So we appreciate their efforts but we don’t follow their advice.

With compassion and awareness, we may find that this valley is verdant. Someday we may look back and see it as the source of wonderful things that followed, how we grew in ways we could never have imagined. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s be here in the valley now, noticing physical sensation and giving ourselves time to experience it with compassion.

Great Gratitude Retreat

I just led a daylong Great Gratitude retreat that seemed to leave everyone in a state of bliss and yes gratitude, according to their end of the day sharing.



Going into silence is such a delicious thing to do, although people always think it sounds scary. ‘How can I possibly not talk for hours (and in the case of longer retreats, days) on end?” Easy! One student at the end mentioned how surprised she was at how pleasant it was to be quiet, to not have to think of something to say, and to be together as a sangha in mutual appreciation without needing to communicate orally or even by eye contact. This lovely interior experience is fully supported by the community, and that’s something people forget when they think about going into silence.


We did a traditional Vipassana Buddhist style retreat: sitting meditations alternated with outdoor walking meditations. The decks with their boards set the natural walking meditation aisles for formal walking meditation. The gardens were for less formal meandering and communing with nature. At different points throughout the day meditators would take a seat by the waterfall to do a listening meditation. One meditator kept returning to the base of an old oak. At the end of the day sharing she said it helped her feel her roots. One meditator took note of the great number of species of animals that share the garden with us, sensing community. Another noticed her comparing mind, how enjoying the garden got infiltrated by thoughts of ‘Why isn’t my garden like this?’ One meditator developed gratitude for her feet as she did walking meditation, and recognized what a gift they are, how some people don’t have the use of their feet or their feet are in pain. One meditator felt the flush of creativity that being fully present can provide.

You might say well of course it is easy to be present and grateful in a garden on a beautiful spring day, but what about being present amidst life’s difficulties? What about being present with pain and hard choices?

We practice in the garden so that we learn the way to the present moment in any situation. We learn here and apply what we have learned out in the busy world. Since so much of what we struggle with in life has little to do with conditions in the world but much to do with how the mind grasps for, clings to and turns away from whatever arises in our experience, it isn’t necessary to provide unpleasant situations to get the mind to struggle. The mind does this with everything, until we recognize it and find that we can make room for all of life experience if we simply expand our spacious open embrace.

Even in a lovely setting we can find something to bother us. As I walked on the cedar decking, I couldn’t help noticing how shabby it was, how mottled, how in need of repair. But after a few periods of seated and walking meditation, I walked the same course and found the same boards to be beautiful pieces of natural art! That’s how the mind is. It finds fault in conditions and situations, and then when it settles down — when the tuning fork of meditation has brought it into balance — it sees beauty everywhere. So if we took this retreat on the road, if we transported it to a slum in Mumbai, at first we might be overwhelmed by the squalor, but after a period of meditation we would begin to see the beauty of the people, the colors, the patterns, the sounds and the energy of life being lived. We would, as people often do, fall in love with something that we had felt such aversion for just a few hours before.

Another example: I used to go on a wonderful Buddhist women’s retreat up above the world famous Muir Woods where towering redwood trees fill a deep canyon. During each day of my retreat I would walk down the trail into the canyon and enjoy the quiet of the areas away from the tourist-trodden trails. Towards the end of the retreat, I decided to venture into the populated areas. In that state of mindfulness, my heart filled with such love for the flocks of this colorful species with their bright t-shirts and hats, each little grouping a family or fellow-travelers having its own little world of interaction. What a falling away there was for me of the attitudes, opinions and cynical judgments I carried about my species, especially in crowds. This is the gift of meditation. It doesn’t turn us into zombies. It removes the dust-trapped veils that have prevented us from seeing clearly and experiencing great gratitude for this gift of being present, wherever we are.

So what is ‘great gratitude’ and how does it differ from plain old gratitude? Plain old gratitude is counting your blessings, and that’s a lovely thing to do. What kind of unfeeling ingrates would we be not to be grateful for the good fortune we have? People who have less health, wealth, love and beautiful surroundings would say, ‘Hey, if you’re not grateful, then step aside. if I had what you have I would be soooo grateful.’ How often have we been in that position ourselves, thinking ‘if only’ we had the blessings some other person has, we would be so incredibly grateful? (That ‘if only’ is a very painful place, one that doesn’t disappear with acquisition, but sets the stage for more ‘if only’ desires.)


So we count our blessings. Of course we do. We are not automatons that don’t feel pain at the loss of these kinds of blessings. But when a loss happens, through our meditation practice, we stay present with the experience, noticing what arises. We might notice the heavy pressure in the chest that is so often associated with loss, for example. We stay present enough to hold ourselves with tender compassion. We are willing to feel what we feel and not rush to get past it. We understand that the dark valleys of our lives are where the fertile soil is. Instead of wallowing in the mud, getting stuck in our story of loss, we nurture ourselves, have patience with the process, and grow from our experiences.
One thing we learn from loss is that the blessings we can count on our fingers are conditional: our health, our wealth, our homes, our loved ones. These things we are grateful for are finite, changeable and undependable — all the things that make being attached to them a sure fire way to cause dukkha, suffering.

Is there anything that is infinite that we can be grateful for? Yes! We can feel great gratitude for this very moment just as it is, with all its joys and all its sorrows. As long as we are conscious we always have this very moment. Pleasant or unpleasant we have the experience of being present.

In moments when our conditional gratitude falters, when we want things to be different from the way they are, or we want things to stay the same and we dread change, can we open to that infinite quality of gratitude for being present simply to experience it all? And in that way can we soften our tight clinging and our fear-based belief that without these things we could not go on?

The practice (for the retreat and perhaps for you if you choose to do it) is to notice both the finite gratitude for specific blessings we can name, and then expand into infinite gratitude for this very moment just as it is. There is room for it all if we are present and compassionate.
We feel gratitude for being conscious in each moment as it reveals itself. We learn the fine art of holding it lightly and savoring it. This devout gratitude sheds light on the darkest despair, allowing us to discern the treasure buried deep within. It allows us to experience pain as a symphony of passing sensations. Deep unconditional gratitude can be a constant companion that opens our eyes and our hearts. And ultimately, at the moment when we breathe our last precious breath, we are grateful even for this.

We can simply let the great gratitude breathe us, illuminating our lives.