Monthly Archives: November 2014

Please Don’t Call It ‘Turkey Day’!

In class this week, we discussed what deep gratitude means to us. I suggested that it is a ballast in our being. The way a sailboat has ballast that keeps it from turning over though it leans in the wind, when we are deeply grateful for this present moment, whatever is occurring, rather than being only grateful for the blessings we can list, then we stay afloat in the sea of life.

Here is a collection of past posts on gratitude to draw from if you are needing inspiration.

Meanwhile, let’s talk turkey. Or, let’s not! We are so fortunate that our national holiday is focused on something so deeply satisfying as contemplating gratitude, whether it is deep gratitude for being alive or for the wonderful blessings and people we have or have had in our lives.

When we switch the focus to the food we put on the table and think of it as just feast and football, it’s such a downgrade of the holiday. It also leaves out vegans and vegetarians, making them feel as if they are not experiencing the real deal. In fact, one of the most delicious Thanksgiving feasts I ever ate was while on retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center a few years back. It was a vegetarian’s delight of seasonal delicacies, and not a turkey in sight. (Really! Not even outdoors where wild turkeys abound except for that week before Thanksgiving where they suddenly just go into hiding. The day after Thanksgiving they return! Public opinion to the contrary, apparently turkeys aren’t all that stupid.) Being on retreat, we were all in silence. Teja Bell played music for us as we entered the dining hall, and the meal was served by Spirit Rock teachers and their families. How dear to be dished up squash by Jack Kornfield, and how especially touching it was to have Skye, the young son of teacher and author Anne Cushman, dole out a roll. I hadn’t seen him since he was an infant teaching our class how to do a proper up-dog pose in Friday AM meditation and yoga class.

Whether you eat turkey or not, why not give the meaning of the day its due? If you eat turkey, you might try to choose one that had the chance for a good life. If you don’t eat turkey, thanks, but try not to be too self-righteous. Plants are also sensate beings that we eat to survive. But in all cases, let’s take some time to acknowledge with gratitude the bounty before us, the beauty around us and the life-buddies beside us, no matter how flawed we may consider them to be.

Not feeling so grateful? That’s okay too. Just focus on the myriad of physical sensations of being here in this moment. Notice that mound of woes and worries as something that’s just a part of your experience, not the whole thing. Just for now. You are alive and life is full of options, even in this very moment. Gratitude for even the littlest thing can open a world of joy.

What Can We Learn From Water?

On a rare rainy day in these parts these days, we do a meditation on water. Coming in from the moist air we settle in to notice the dampness of our eyes, mouth and palms, as well as the fluids that flow within us.

The human body is 67% water, but how often do we ponder that as we go through our day, feeling very solid, not fluid at all? The Buddha taught this meditation in the First Foundation of Mindfulness. Why?

painting of water by Will Noble
Love Falls, Pacific Crest Trail,
watercolor by Will Noble

We tend to think of our skin as a barrier that demarcates the edge of who we believe ourselves to be. But this simple exercise of a water meditation allows us to understand the truth: Skin is permeable with millions of pores. We drink water, we pass water, we sweat (Okay, ‘glow’). We are an intrinsic part of the cycle of water and its interaction with other elements. Water evaporates on our skin just as it does on the ocean and the earth. All the water that evaporates become mist, fog and clouds that eventually returns to earth in the form of rain or snow, and then it flows in streams and rivers — not unlike the ‘streams’ and ‘rivers’ within us that carry our blood and other bodily fluids — to replenish the lakes and oceans of this watery blue planet.

The composition of seawater is the same as the composition of tears. Hmmm. Water within, water without. Truly there are no barriers, no borders. How does this affect how we relate to the world and to ourselves?

The Buddha encouraged his students to learn from contemplating the elements. What can we learn from noticing the nature of water?

One thing we might notice is that water carries whatever it is given. All boats float on the water, regardless of size, purpose or beauty. Can we learn from water to hold the world in this way, to hold whatever arises in our experience with a buoyancy of compassion?

There is a wonderful phrase that comes to mind that was so important to me when I found myself to be most particularly unacceptable, uniquely unqualified to inhabit this earth:

The ocean refuses no river.

The ocean refuses no river. If this phrase strikes a chord within you, say it over and over again until it sinks in that you are a natural expression of life and a valuable part of this community of beings. The ocean refuses no river.

I’ll end with a couple of poems of mine on the theme of our watery nature.

Listening to the Rain Meditation
I am cloud scudding gently floating free
Sky sponge absorbing rising mists
darkening deepening steely blue releasing…
I am rain dancing in the dust
hammering rooftops playing moist music
seaping into earth quenching dry roots
quivering dull leaves shining forests…
I am stream bounding forth
polishing rocks cavorting fish
transporting twigs, leaves, water skates…
I am waterfall in rapid descent
plunging down rock face, dissembling into pattern
pounding on pond drum, roaring through canyon…
I am lake, cupped in earth chalice
cool still reflecting tree cloud sky…
I am mighty river flowing gently
rushing rapids carving stone channel
rising, seeping, bursting levees
stretching flat fingers across flood plains…
I am tidal inlet
ebbing, flowing, receding
salty flood revealing silty marsh…
I am ocean, vast, replete, world within world,
Pounding waves, drawing boundaries
pulling tides, undertow…
I am deep spring, bubbling font of life
lacy network of unseen channels…
I am tear, swelling, cheekrolling,
burning salt hard sobbing deep cleansing letting go,
making room for laughter…
I am water.
Stephanie Noble
Wet January 1993

Creek Bed Meditation
Friday mornings at Spirit Rock, I walk the land.
I have chaperoned butterflies dancing,
sat with water skates playing in ponds,
listened to the earth symphony of birds, frogs, crickets
and water trickling in the creek.
Each week I note the subtle shifting of the seasons
as they seed, grow, ripen and fade before my eyes.
Winter-dampened fog-shrouded hills,
tree bark and boulders gilded with emerald moss,
bounding water gushing forth — all give way:
wet to dry, green to yellow, cold to hot.
Now in mid-summer, the morning air is dry and still,
the hills are golden, the frogs are quiet.
I enter the dappled shelter of a laurel grove,
and descend into the rocky creek bed.
Its deep banks rise around me,
swallowing me whole.
Night chill held in the rocks
along with the vague memory of water
rises to cool my skin.
Beneath my feet leaves crunch and crackle
in the hush of morning.
The shaggy yellowed tree moss
hangs loose and dusty.
Gnarled roots dangle over the dry creek, searching.
I duck under fallen logs
following the cavernous twists and turns
the underpinnings that shape
winter’s waterfalls and spring’s deep pools.
Not even a puddle remains.
It seems I am the only water here.
The air tingles with a dowsing awareness
of my wet presence in the midst of dry longing.
I feel the flow of myself as I move downstream.
Stephanie Noble
Summer 1997

Are You Living Your Life at Someone Else’s Pace?

My husband and I recently went on a tour of Morocco, and over the coming weeks I’m sure that experience will work its way into my dharma talks, as it has already done in my poetry. But the first thing I notice coming off such a structured experience is what a relief to be back on my own schedule, living at what feels like a more natural pace. It makes me realize how fortunate I am to live at my own pace most of the time when so many of us live our lives to some degree at a pace someone else has set. The younger we are, the more likely that is to be true. We are rudely awoken out of a delightful dream in the cold dark of morning and made to go off to school where we may end up watching the wall clock, just waiting for it to be over.
The majority of adults wake up at a time that will get us to work when our employers require us to be there. We eat lunch at the time we’re allotted, whether we are hungry or not, and no matter how we are feeling throughout the day, we hang in there until quitting time. Because that is the way life is. And generally we adapt to it reasonably well, although some part of us is longing for the weekend or daydreaming about our upcoming vacation. Oh yes, I remember it well. But age has its benefits. Most of my students are retired now, and even those that aren’t have the luxury of setting their own schedules to a much greater degree than when they were younger. Even so, are we truly living our lives at our own pace? If not, why not? Why does it matter? And finally, what could we do to become more attuned to the natural pace of our body-mind? On a tour, this living at someone else’s pace is a short-term sacrifice, one we make willingly in exchange for unique experiences we would not have had otherwise. My husband and I would never have traveled all over Morocco on our own, or had access to the interiors of private homes and one on one conversations with the locals over mint tea and tagine. Getting our luggage out in front of our hotel room door at a too-early hour is just part of the deal. At home we choose to live one day a week at the pace set by our son and daughter-in-law’s employers as we take care of our granddaughters, who are the delight of our lives. Worth every exhausting minute! Thank goodness they still take afternoon naps, as do we when we’re with them. What are some choices you make to extend yourself beyond your natural inclination because it is worth it to you? By recognizing the value we receive, we can become more conscious, more grateful and less resentful of any sacrifice. At the same time, we can look a little closer and question whether the sacrifice to our own pace is actually required here. Maybe that meeting could be rescheduled. Maybe we don’t have to take the first appointment the doctor’s office suggests. Maybe we can limit ourselves to one or two commitments a day rather than packing our calendar. How often do we sacrifice our natural pace and inner body clock needlessly? Can we make it a more conscious choice? I used to teach meditation at four o’clock in the afternoon. What was I thinking? That’s the time of day when my body clock has wound down to its lowest point.  As a child if I were ill, that’s when my fever would spike. So what was I doing trying to formulate a dharma talk or lead a discussion when I knew I would be at my lowest ebb? It didn’t make sense. For other reasons I needed to change the day and time of our meeting. I lost some students in the process, which made me sad. But others were now able to attend at the new time of 10 AM, when I am awake, alert and energized. I’ve learned to try to not schedule anything in the late afternoon, and give myself permission to watch my favorite DIY or cooking show if I feel like it. Domestic transformation or culinary finesse soothe me when I’m just not up for anything else. Sure I could meditate again, and that would probably be wise, but hey. We all find our own ways and that’s one of mine.Are you regularly taking on some activity at the wrong time of day for you? If so, is there another option? This is a valuable investigation. One student loves her exercise class but getting to it requires waking much earlier than she otherwise would two days a week. Only she can know if there is something about that particular class that makes it worth the sacrifice. And maybe there is some value in creating some flexibility in our schedule. Who knows? Again, we just want to be conscious of what we are doing and how we are making our choices. One student had an aha moment when she realized that whenever she finds herself tired during the day she gives herself a good talking to about the importance of soldiering on. She suddenly sees that this is hardly compassionate. Another student said she takes a 20 minute nap every day at three in the afternoon. Little things like that can make a huge difference if it’s what the body needs at that time. Noticing what the body needs is a skillful way to stay present, sensing in. It counteracts our nature to be overly habitual, eating when we’re not hungry, resting when we’re not tired, just because the clock tells us it’s time. Developing good habits is important, lest we forget to brush our teeth, etc., but going unconscious is not skillful. So brush those teeth but really be present for the experience of the gums being stimulated! We often have a hard time being compassionate with ourselves. It might help to realize that we do no service to others when we push beyond our body-mind’s ability to function. If we drive when we’re tired, for example, it’s not just ourselves that we are putting in harm’s way. Let’s remember that our actions have ripple effects and pushing ourselves to the point of mindlessness is unkind and sometimes dangerous to everyone in our community because that is when accidents happen. It’s also important to be aware of  what we are going through. Part of these ‘golden years’ we are in is learning to live with loss: the loss of loved ones, the loss of health, the loss of access or abilities. Loss takes us on journeys we need to be present and compassionate to traverse. Can we learn to sense into what the body-mind needs right now? Even though perhaps we have always been able to get a lot done in a short time, right now, in this state, can we let go of our rigid expectations, our striving and our longing for accomplishment? Can we let go of comparing ourselves to the 20 year old we once were? How fully can we allow ourselves to experience our lives as they are now without constantly dragging up the past or dreading the future? If this ‘soldiering on’ in spite of what your body-mind needs sounds familiar, there are lots of valuable questions you can ask yourself. You might explore the roots of this whip-cracking aspect of self. Perhaps its just a part of the cultural norms we live with, but perhaps there is something in your personal history, some voice from the past telling you not to be lazy, for example. This word ‘lazy’ is an interesting one. It takes us into the Buddhist  Five Hindrances that include sloth and torpor. But remember that restlessness is a Hindrances too.  And all of the Hindrances arise out of a misunderstanding of the nature of being. When we are truly present and compassionate, we do not lounge our life away. We are naturally active at a sustainable pace. We enjoy using the full range of our energy in ways that express our aliveness, even if that range is less than it once was. We do this without pushing, cracking a whip or nagging ourselves. If we really notice and are very honest with ourselves, we can tell when we are resting because our body-mind truly needs to rest, and when we are vegging out because we are bored, depressed or frustrated. If the latter, then that’s an opportunity to question in. As we take up the regular practice of meditation, we naturally begin to create a spaciousness of mind that allows us to see more clearly what is really going on here. The tight knots of previously unexamined patterns of thought and activity are now visible. We can see them from more angles as they become disentangled, disengaged and potentially released. We can view them with compassion. We can let go of the stranglehold of claiming them as our identity. When we think of living life at our own pace, we might be afraid that we will fall out of step with the rest of the world. But in fact there is a lot more room in life, and especially in retirement, for living with greater ease. Old patterns can be noticed and released when they don’t serve us. An important question to ask ourselves is ‘how am I in relationship with…’ whatever is coming up in our awareness. Am I being present, compassionate and responsive? Or am I judging, making assumptions on automatic pilot and being hyper-reactive? Such an inner exploration can help us to live more honestly, compassionately and vibrantly. If any of this rings bells, as you go through your day, see who is calling the shots, who is setting the pace in your life. Sense into the body. Notice the present energy level and ability. If you find yourself rushing, slow down. Notice the adrenaline and the mindlessness of hurry. Pause to notice at least two senses — the sounds around you, the feel of air on your skin, perhaps. When you have a chance, decide where you might create ease next time this happens. If you procrastinate so that you feel rushed at the last minute, where did that pattern come from? What thoughts are going through your head as you resist getting started earlier. Are you not wanting to do this thing? Is it necessary to do it? There’s lots of room for self-exploration and discovery here. Start noticing, savoring, being fully alive. See to what degree you can live life at your own pace.