In Buddha’s Brain, Rick introduced to the general public all the newest neurological information about how our brains function. He writes so clearly that it made it possible for a non-science-minded person like me to grasp at least some of what he was saying, but it was all very new and challenging.
Linda’s Bouncing Back is an easier read for me. Her explanations of the science are equally clear but I am more ready to absorb it, having been prepped by previous reading and teachings. But brain physiology is only a part of her focus in this book. She offers many stories, drawn from her own life and her patients’ experiences, and she provides all kinds of exercises as well.
I was surprised to see that one of these exercises was to cultivate a relationship with our Wiser Self. Her recommendation of how to come into contact with that wiser self was just like the meditation practice I was taught many years ago, in which I came into contact with a woman wearing white silk pajamas dancing in a bubble of light, looking so radiant and joyful that I definitely wanted what she was having!
My book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living , published in 1994, is a record of my conversations with that wiser self who helped me recover from a debilitating illness and awaken to the joy of being present in every moment.
Over the past two decades of study, practice and teaching of Buddhism, that earlier experience and the book have been somewhat sidelined by me.
On a recent silent retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center I had a strong insight — reinforced by the woven quality of the golden grassy California hills — that it is important to weave all of who I am into the fabric of my being. Since then I have noticed when some part of who I am has been shunned or hidden, and when that happens I see what I can do to weave it back into my present life. For example, I noticed, for example, that on my LinkedIn education profile, I had somehow forgotten to include the year I spent at Temple University. I added it in with a story about my experience:
First semester had a graduate school boyfriend whose idea of a great date was an evening at the library. Got lots of A’s. But wanted time out from school. Mom said ‘No, honey, you’re doing so well, hang in there.’ Second semester was my first East Coast spring spent lolling around on campus with friends and attending their classes if they sounded more interesting than mine. I got all F’s and an A in modern dance. Mom looked at my report card and said, ‘Wow, you sure showed me.’ Oops. It wasn’t going on HER permanent record, now was it? I grew up a bit in that moment.
Telling that story leaves me feeling a bit lighter. By weaving in the truth of a past situation, I can let go of all the tightness it takes to keep it hidden. I now really understand that when we don’t acknowledge parts of ourselves, we carry the burden of the negative feelings we have about them. Those feelings block the light of joy that is possible in any moment.
While I can’t say that my book and my experience were hidden, as they appear prominently on my websites, in fact I rarely discuss them. I know they are from the same infinite wisdom source of Buddhism, but I didn’t want to confuse my students by bringing in non-Buddha-based material (even though Sylvia Boorstein did call my book ‘jargon-free dharma’ after reading it many years ago when I was in her class.)
So having somewhat sidelined my dear Wiser Self and the book that came out of those inner conversations, what a treat it was for me to come upon Linda Graham’s suggestion to do the very kind of meditation exercise I was doing when I first met my wiser self, dancing in a bubble of light, radiant with joy.
In class the students wanted to try opening to that inner wisdom, so I guided them in a brief meditation like the one I was taught so many years ago at College of Marin. Here it is:
If at any time a person or animal enters into your space, ask ‘What information do you have for me?’ Then open to the answer.
By relaxing the mind, opening to all of what is possible in our experience, not just the tight patterns of every-day thinking, we have access to the answers we need in that moment.
The students liked this exercise. One said she didn’t want it to stop. So why don’t we do this kind of meditation all the time? Well, we certainly could. But let’s discuss the differences between meditation where we simply practice staying present, anchored in physical sensation, and this kind of imagination relaxation-exploration meditation.
What we are doing in the first is training the muscle of mind to find the here and now even more interesting than the past and future, and more fruitful, because the here and now is the only place we can actually do something about anything. We are learning how to be in relationship with whatever causes and conditions arise. We can greet whatever arises with compassion when we create enough space to receive it.
The imagination exercise is valuable for self-exploration and calming the mind. But what are we saying about the present moment if we always rush off to our ‘happy place’ when the going gets difficult? We are saying that we are not able to cope with being present, that when we are uncomfortable with what is going on we need an escape hatch. This makes an enemy out of causes and conditions of our lives, which in turn sets us up to be in battle mode. How can we find joy and equanimity when we are labeling parts of our experience unacceptable?
Now that I think about it, this is similar to the ‘weave all of who you are in the fabric of your experience’ message. When we can allow all of what is happening to be present in our experience, not turning away, not hiding from it, not pushing or stuffing down some parts of it, then we are practicing a skillful compassionate spaciousness that can hold it all, whatever it is.
Of course, sometimes the present moment is challenging or uncomfortable. We can think of a thousand things we’d rather be doing or thinking about. But when we open to all that is going on, we see that the discomfort is never all that is going on, is it? In any given moment there may be pain but there is also something neutral and probably something pleasurable. We are not avoiding one and promoting the other. Instead we are saying, for example, ‘My knee hurts AND the sky is blue.’ ‘Anger is present in my experience. I feel it in my jaw (or fist or chest) AND, at the very same time, I notice that my thigh feels neutral.’ This person is being obnoxious AND I feel healthy. Notice that we use the conjunction ‘and’ instead of ‘but.’ We are not replacing one experience with another. We are simply opening our aperture a little wider to take in all of what is going on in this moment.
In this way, we are able to see things in perspective and create a sense of equanimity, where we can balance all the causes and conditions of our lives. And by being present we can see what if anything needs to be done, something impossible to do if we are off in our place of escape.
Both these kinds of meditation practices have their uses. As an occasional exercise or an intense inner-exploration, accessing the Wiser Self and asking for answers is a valuable technique. Give it a try!