Monthly Archives: January 2015

Wise Effort & the Elements

The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is an excellent tool to investigate what’s up in your life at this moment. ‘Why does my neck hurt?’ ‘Why am I foraging in the refrigerator again?’ ‘Why am I so annoyed at my husband or a coworker?’


Whenever something is up with you, pause and give yourself some time to settle in, meditate, come into the moment and feel some sense of compassion for yourself. Then, when you are ready, see what aspect of the path is out of balance. Check in with your intention, your effort, your view. Note if you are being mindful, if you are doing regular concentration practices. See if what has you discomforted has to do with something you said, did or the way you are making your living or spending your money.


Once you have identified the aspect where you feel out of balance and unskillful, you can enrich your investigation by bringing in some other aspects of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. For example,if you realize that you are striving or slouching, then you look at Wise Effort. Instead of giving yourself a hard time about not exerting Wise Effort, simply look at the nature of your effort with a compassionate but clear-eyed examination. To make this a deeper and more meaningful investigation, you might want to include a look at the Elements.


Wise Effort & The Elements


Fire is naturally involved in any effort. Effort requires energy which is calories being burned. Effort requires mental energy and the electrical charges of our brains. Effort is helped by a passion of purpose which is fired by our Wise Intention. So you can see how fire would empower you to effort, but you need to be sure that this is balanced effort, that you are not on overdrive and powering through, or else you will burn out.


Water gives fluidity in your effort that makes what you do feel almost effortless. But if you are swimming upstream or against a current, then your over-efforting can exhaust you and you feel like you are drowning. Being aware of the water component helps to assess whether effort feels wise.


Earth lends strength to effort. You can draw from your earthy elemental nature and rely on it. But you can also beat yourself over the head with the metal pipe! Notice what is true for you.


Air is the breath that keeps you present, and it clears things so you can see whether your effort is skillful. Air is also the voice you give to your effort.Listen to how you speak about effort. If you hear ‘I will try or I am trying’ — that’s an opportunity to see where the wind resistance is, and how might you find the currents of air within you to glide with the natural ease of wise effort


Every aspect of the Eightfold Path can be enhanced by looking at the Elements. And every teaching in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness — the Five Aggregates, the Five Hindrances, etc. — can help to look at each aspect of the Eightfold Path with even greater clarity and understanding.
An ongoing exploration of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, combined with daily meditation practice, a weekly meditation group for practice and discussion, and at least one retreat annually, will open you to all the joy that is possible in this, or any, moment.

Mainstream Media Discovers Meditation

Wow! Over the past few months the major American media outlets have really started noticing what a huge difference meditation makes in the lives of those who practice it regularly.


In the past months there has been a Time Magazine cover article, a 60 Minutes television segment, then a NBC news story on the difference meditation makes in elementary school classrooms, then a personal story by an ABC newsman Dan Harris, who found Buddhist style meditation works to keep him cool, calm and off drugs. He wrote a book, 10% Happier that will speak to a whole different audience than usually reach. It might make a great gift for more skeptical family or friends. (Though let’s not proselytize! The best way to promote meditation is to simply do it yourself, and let those around you reap the benefits of your calmer, kinder interactions.)  I loved one thing he mentioned in the interview in this link, about giving that busy mind voice in the head a Reaganesque ‘There you go again.’ Now you don’t often hear Reagan references in meditation circles. This means the circle is definitely widening! And more people are considering meditation something they might actually incorporate into their lives.


But the capper for me was this past Sunday when Parade Magazine named meditation the number one thing to do for your health for 2015! Now Parade is a relatively conservative newspaper insert syndicated in most major papers throughout the country. I’ve never known it to embrace anything that isn’t total Americana. It offers up celebrity interviews, seasonal recipes for such things as tailgate parties and 4th of July picnics, and lots of inspirational stories about hometown heroes. Now it embraces meditation. I can only conclude that meditation is finally a truly red, white & blue American activity. Since the act of meditation is a simple activity that needn’t have any dogmatic affiliations, there’s never been a valid reason for it to be scorned.


A couple of the stories focus on the wonderful work of Jon Kabat Zinn in bringing science-based mindfulness practice to hospitals and to the world at large. But a subtle but profound shift has happened because in all the other stories they call it ‘meditation.’ That word that Zinn found so toxic to his colleagues that he substituted ‘mindfulness’ for it is apparently no longer seen as something foreign and threatening. People, this is huge!


Also huge is the fact that most of the stories are not apologizing to readers in advance for giving them this information. Most are straight out reporting in a reasonable and even positive way the many benefits of this simple practice. Dan Harris did say he used to think it was flaky, but since his own experience with it, and the research he did, he now says that meditation is ‘simple, secular and scientifically validated.’


Good enough for me. Think I’ll try it! How about you?


I know fads come and go. No doubt soon meditation’s stardom may dim.  The media that has been offering inspiring meditation articles all along may have ruffled feathers that it’s no longer their private purview and find fault with the mainstream’s reporting. Chances are good that somehow someone will find newsworthy backlash stories, anomalous news to counter the results reported, or ways in which previous reports were overblown. But even so, the practice of meditation is now an accepted part of a normal life, seen as no weirder than going to the gym. It has broken through the resistance, the fears and the foolishness. Meditation can now, without a lot of hullabaloo or rigamarole, provide anyone anywhere with a means to create well being, compassion and understanding.

All we ever needed was for people to be willing to give it an honest try just to see if it’s right for them. Once they try it, like all those reporters, they’ll discover why it’s such a valuable practice, simple as it is.

We’re All Fired Up!

In the First Foundation of Mindfulness the Buddha taught about the elements — earth, air, fire, water — in a way that helped his students understand their own nature.


It is said that he gave a whole lesson about the elements to his son Rahula when he sensed that the young man was being a little too proud of his finely formed body and how much it was like his father’s. Speaking to his son, he went through each element one at a time, saying something like, ‘If you develop meditation that is like the earth (fire, air, water), arisen agreeable and disagreeable contacts will not invade your mind and remain. Just as earth receives clean things and dirty things — excrement, urine, spittle, puss and blood — and the earth is not horrified, humiliated or disgusted by this, develop meditation that is like earth for when you develop meditation that is like the earth (fire, air, water), arisen agreeable and disagreeable contacts will not invade your mind and remain.“ Wow, was Rahula a remarkable son to patiently listen and actually learn from what his father was saying as he went through each of these elements using the same words over and over again? I don’t know about your kids, but mine would find some way early on to get out of that awkward situation of their parent talking about excrement, urine, spittle, puss and blood. Gross. I can hear mine saying, ‘I get it, Mom. Gotta go. Love ya.’ Ah well. Different times and after all, he was the Buddha. Like Rahula, we may be proud and vain about some aspect of our physical body. Like most women of our day, we have dissatisfaction about other aspects of our body, resulting in feelings of self-loathing, shame or envy of the bodily attributes of others. When we allow ourselves to simply rest in the awareness of the elemental nature of the body, how it is composed of earth, fire, air and water, we relax into a deeper understanding and acceptance of the true nature of being. This body is made up of all the elements that make up the rest of the world we live in. It is not separate. It is a natural intrinsic part of all that is. Now that’s relaxing, isn’t it? Sure we need to take good care of our bodies with good health care, nutrition, exercise, hygiene and grooming, but we can let go of any idea that this body is who we are, that it is a cause of either pride or shame. It is simply a physical manifestation, like a tree or a raindrop, made up of the same elements and from the same source. Given the cold of winter here in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s a perfect time to do a meditation on the element of fire. We experience fire most often as something outside ourselves. We enjoy the warmth and beauty of flames on a log fire or atop a candle. We use fire to heat our food. We enjoy fireworks exploding in the sky. We have a healthy respect for fire and like to keep it safely contained. Here in California we have a season of fire storms that consume forests and communities. When the first of the winter rains come, there is a visceral sense of relief in my body. That threat is lessened and I’m always surprised to feel how much I had been bracing myself against it until I felt safe again. But perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. Fear of fire is a natural animal instinct. No other creature but humans puts fire to work instead of shying away of from it. Imagine with what what trepidation early humans began to tame fire for heating and cooking. Do you remember learning to tame fire? I remember a few fiascos: trying to light an oven and getting my eyebrows singed, for example. Some of us have frightening memories of fire out of control. Some of us have been burned and may have visible scars to show for our interaction with fire. I was happy to hear that all students who were in class this week had very pleasant associations with fire — campfires, roasting marshmallows, candlelight dinners. I have those too, but also scary ones. What about you? Pause to ponder your relationship with fire. Allow memories to arise and fall away. Notice any emotional component and any physical sensation that arises with these memories and emotions. If some strong memory with physical/emotional impact comes up, take a moment to write it down. Respect whatever comes up, give it time to formulate and inform you. Is there anything in this memory that answers questions for you? It doesn’t have to be a direct memory. One student mentioned the movie Bambi as something that came up when thinking about early associations with fire. That forest fire! Poor little fawn! As young children we were very impressionable and empathetic. We ‘experienced’ in a visceral way whatever we saw happen. For example, my first real understanding of the power and danger of fire came from watching a movie about children trapped in an elevator with the orphanage on fire. I only have that image: the metal gate, the screaming children, the smoke. I have no idea what film it was or what was the outcome. But it has stayed with me and informed me at every turn. Throughout my whole childhood I was obsessed with safety from fire. My mother bought fire escape ladders for my bedroom in every house we lived in. She didn’t buy one for my brother. ‘He can jump,’ she said. This was not proof that she loved me more than him, just that she wanted to assuage my fear and let me sleep at night. She wasn’t worried that the house would burn down in the night, but she knew I did worry, and she wanted me to be able to sleep. I was so hyper-aware of the dangers of fire that I passed a fire safety test at school with 100% and became the school fire chief, in charge of four deputies (all boys!) and I was empowered to decide when we should have fire drills. I would go to the principal and tell him ‘Tuesday at 1:10’ And on Tuesday at 1:10 everyone left the building when the alarm went off. — everyone except the janitor in the basement by the alarm bell and my deputies and me in the hallways observing how the drill went and timing it. Then we would confer and divide up to go around to all the classrooms giving reports on how we did. That experience empowered me, as if I was taking charge of my fear of fire by helping to assure that the students could get out of the school in a timely fashion, away from the fire. What are your stories about fire? How did they or do they still affect you? But fire is not just an external thing. We carry fire within us. Food as fuel, burned as calories, units of energy, effort expended in fiery activity. Our brains are firing up all the time with electrical charges. Inner fire may seem harder to access in a meditation on elements. We can focus on the warmth of the body, the warmth on our skin, the warmth inside. The body generates heat constantly. Notice right now this heat, in the body. It is what indicates we are alive, this heat. Without life, the body is cold. Systems shut down and the body stops producing heat. So can we feel a deep appreciation for the fire within as we sit here, just noticing? In youth we had to learn how to strike matches, build campfires and roast marshmallows without burning them to a crisp. But hopefully we were also learning how to tame our inner fire. All that excess of youthful energy, all those raging hormones like volcanic eruptions, lightning strikes and wildfires. Sometimes they just got totally out of control, didn’t they? How often did these inner fires, in ourselves or in other kids we were with, lead to some kind of disaster? Fire and all the other elements are known for their ability to purify. Think about fire and purification, how it consumes and turns all to ash. Think of all the religious and cultural significance of fire. Ash Wednesday for Christians, for example. One of my students brought up several literary references, including the ring of fire in the Magic Flute. As we begin to recognize the fire within us, we develop ways to cope with it, some skillful, some not. An important part of our practice of meditation, explored more thoroughly in the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, is learning skillful means to tame and give purpose to the fire of our nature without dousing out the flames. We may discover the way this inner fire becomes like a radiant inner light that helps us see more clearly and helps us connect with others in real and meaningful ways. Exercise
As you sit with this fire element, notice what arises. As you go about your day, feel the energy within you as you move. Feel the force of your aliveness creating an energetic chain reaction within yourself and out into the warm community of all beings.