Monthly Archives: February 2015

Where Do You Go Mindless?

Have you ever realized when you arrived somewhere that you don’t remember anything about the ride? Have you ever finished a meal and realized you didn’t taste a single bite? Have you ever blurted out something you wish you could take back?

We all have times when we go mindless and function as if we’re on automatic pilot. As we develop mindfulness through the regular practice of meditation, we begin to see where this happens in our lives and why.

You know how when things go into slow motion actions reveal themselves that you totally missed at normal speed? It’s the same with meditation, especially on a silent retreat when you have no where else to be and nothing else to do but meditate and practice being mindful. In that slow motion state, thoughts are still there but they dance in a more spacious field of awareness. We can see the dance steps, how one thought leads to another by process of association.

We become present enough to see how thoughts arise, one dependent on another. And if we can see what thought stream kicks us into mindlessness, we can look more closely to see where we are falling into habituated patterns that don’t serve us and where we might be avoiding something that makes us uncomfortable.

Some people are terrified of the idea of meditating for that very reason. They don’t WANT to be mindful, because it might reveal something they have very forcefully kept stuffed down. Instead of giving themselves quiet time alone, they fill their lives with as much noise and busyness as they possibly can to stifle whatever it is in there that seems so threatening.

But developing awareness awakens compassion. Meditation is not some boot camp with a tough drill sergeant bent on making us suffer. Just the opposite! It’s a homecoming! A liberation! A savoring of this gift of being alive in this moment. The thing we thought was scary or shameful is not lying in wait to harm us. Instead it is waiting for us to soften the tight chains that bind it to us, and through compassionate dialog to release it and allow the process to teach us.

So, tell me, where do you go mindless?

Mindfulness and the Mirror

With the moment to moment practice of being fully present, anchored in physical sensation, noticing how thoughts and emotions pass through my experience, I find myself in a much kinder and healthier relationship with my body. I think of the Cat Stevens song ‘Miles to Nowhere’ when he sings, ‘Lord my body has been a good friend. But I won’t need it when I reach the end.’ It’s such a reminder of the impermanence of the body and also gives me a way to be kind to my body. It is indeed a good friend! It affords me to experience this life, all these sensations and interactions that would not be possible otherwise.

But this sense of friendliness to my body has not come easily, as any western woman understands completely. How much of my brain activity has been expended over these many years on the ‘flaws’ and ‘imperfections’? How long did I buy into the idea that to the degree that this body didn’t meet the ideal standard of the current culture, I had failed in some way? And to what degree are those ideas still embedded in my thoughts?

We had a rich discussion in class this week on our relationship to our bodies, and especially about continually coming to terms with the changes that occur as the body is affected by a combination of gravity, time, sun exposure, stress and health care. More and more the mirror belies the person we feel we are. My mother removed all the mirrors in her house except a small one on the back of the bathroom door, and she only used it to make sure nothing was stuck in her teeth. She had sailed for four years and her Anglo-Irish skin was so deeply wrinkled from sun exposure that she couldn’t handle the sight of herself! She was a lively vibrant woman, regardless of her wrinkles, but every time she got a glimpse of that ‘hag’ she was dragged down.

Have you ever had that feeling? You get a glimpse of yourself in a shop window and wonder who that is? Not you! Or have you ever been out in the evening having a wonderful time and then you excuse yourself to go to the lady’s room where the lights are harsh and you return to the party chastened by that cruel sight of yourself in the mirror? As a kindness to each other we should all make sure our bathroom lighting is soft enough to make any guest look as beautiful as she feels inside. Now that’s a good hostess!

The class seemed to be in agreement that the numbers we are awarded on our birthdays seem less and less a fit to our ideas of who we are. But why would a number match? As children the age number was a pretty predictable indicator of size and behavior of a majority of kids. But the bigger the number, the less predictable it is, because so much of how our bodies age has to do with how we treat them. My mother died at 73 of emphysema, the same age her mother died. They both smoked. My mother’s younger sister was convinced she would also die at 73, a family tradition. But she never smoked and she lives on in pretty good health and happier than ever at the age of 88 in a loving relationship with a much younger man.

This week my youngest granddaughters turn three and five, and the number is such a big deal. A friend of mine taught the older one the Barbara Streisand song ‘I’m five, I’m five, I’m a big girl now, I’m five!’ and she was thrilled to be such a big girl. But for us by now the thrill of the number is gone. The older we get the less that number means, and our attachment to it really doesn’t serve us. Let’s celebrate each birthday as the anniversary of our birth, with gratitude for the great gift of life. But let’s let go of the numbers game that is such an inaccurate a reflection of reality.

The practice of mindfulness can help us take care of our bodies in a way that supports health and strength. I’ll never forget when a doctor told me ‘as a kindness to your heart you could lose some weight.’ That was such a wonderful way to put it, and as a result I have lost a pound a month over the past eighteen months without any real effort except remembering to be kinder to my heart.

Being mindful we can notice when we are holding two contrary opinions. One student in class recognized that she was grateful for her body enabling her to experience life but at the same time unhappy with her aging body. Such skillful noticing! What contrary pairings do you notice about your body? Can you hold them up to the light of your awareness with compassion? Not making yourself wrong? Just noticing, and maybe marveling at the complexity of the human mind?

Wisdom from one student’s grandmother: ‘There are only two ages: alive and dead.’

Of course we all die, but our routes to that common destination are very different. My aunt’s belief that she would die at 73 is a good example of how we make assumptions based on what we have observed of other people’s experience. But we will have different experiences because we are in different bodies, and even if we have a similar experience we will experience it in our own unique way. If we’re raging about the unfairness of it, if we’re in denial, if we are doing everything we can to escape from it, we’ll no doubt suffer. But here we are practicing opening to whatever the present moment brings, and who knows? Maybe this practice will serve us well whatever we face in the future.

In the group there was also a collective nostalgia for the young girls we once were. But then there was a recognition that that little girl is still here, still part of who we are, still alive and well. And this reminded me of my recent intention to include all of who I am in everything I do. Leave no part of me out, not that little girl, not that young woman, and not the old woman yet to be. Her wisdom has often guided me at difficult turns, and I certainly don’t intend to deny her now that I see her appearing in the mirror.

When we are fully present, conscious of the fleeting precious gift that is this moment, we are less likely to think that having a ‘perfect’ body is going to make us more lovable. We can see how obsessing about supposed imperfections and spending time and money grasping at youth is a sure way to isolate ourselves. Through mindfulness we activate compassion, both for ourselves and others, creating true loving connection. And much more fun!

Wise Mindfulness, the Gift of Meditation

When I really began to have a regular practice of meditation, I noticed a shift in my awareness as I started to sense more deeply my surroundings and perceive the nature of my thoughts and emotions. While driving, I saw how I would get frustrated by the lack of manners or even common sense of fellow drivers, how easily I would get unsettled, letting their action throw me into a mental tizzy. My regular drive to and from home went by a hospital, and it seemed there were even more unskillful drivers there. One day it dawned on me that the person who had just cut me off in their big hurry was probably rushing to the hospital because his wife was giving birth or his father was dying. This recognition created a sense of compassion within me that had not been there before. I had both given birth at that hospital and had sat at my mother’s deathbed there. I knew how mindless I can be, especially when distraught. (In retrospect I am shocked that I even got behind the wheel, but we tend to see our cars as extensions of our bodies, not as the potentially fatal metal projectiles we so casually hurl through space.)

That recognition shifted something within me. It didn’t take long before I understood that drivers anywhere could be going through anything. I remember thinking that someone could be driving extra slowly because they have a wedding cake in the backseat. I began to allow for the possibility that there was a lot going on in the lives of other drivers. So instead of getting upset with them, their unskillfulness activated a sense of compassion and a desire to send them metta, loving-kindness.

Mindfulness and Meditation
In the past decade the word ‘mindfulness’ has become associated with Jon Kabat Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, and to a degree ‘mindfulness’ has been used instead of ‘meditation.’ But the two words are not interchangeable. Meditation is a practice done in all spiritual traditions in one form or another. Jon Kabat Zinn studied in the Vipassana Buddhist tradition, so it’s not surprising that his program teaches a similar form: with eyes closed, sitting, focused on the physical sensation of the breath.

So then why didn’t he just call it meditation? At the time the word was too associated with religious practice for those in the scientific and medical communities he was working with to feel comfortable, so he called it mindfulness and proved its value to the point that it is taught in hospitals, schools and prisons. Since then the word ‘meditation’ has been better understood, that it is not inherently religious and can certainly include secular practice, so you might hear or read a news story about meditation being taught in schools (with a resulting ‘15% increase in math test scores’ I just read in one article) and there is no concern that people will think religion is being taught in school. It is a simple practice anyone can do at any age.

Mindfulness is what arises out of the regular practice of meditation: an ability to be present, noticing with what American poet Mary Oliver calls ‘convivial’ attention. She is describing her attention as she is out in nature opening her creative mind to write, but it perfectly applies to mindfulness because it is alert, non-judgmental, friendly but not sticky.

The regular practice of meditation leads to mindfulness, and mindfulness has so many benefits that we continue to meditate regularly. On the rare occasion when I have gone a few weeks without meditating, I see how mindfulness begins to slip away, and with it creativity, compassion, peace of mind, skillfulness in relationships and a sense of gratitude for being alive. So meditation is a lifelong practice for me, the first thing I do every morning. I teach it to share the value of it, but also to remind myself to keep meditating. How easy it is to forget that it is definitely worth putting in the regular time training the mind to return to the present moment again and again with great compassion.

Meditation is the practice that naturally brings about mindfulness, but we can also ‘practice’ mindfulness throughout the day, whatever we are doing. When we are driving and we come to a stop light, we can think of it as a reminder to pause our thinking-planning-worrying and focus on the experience of driving, feeling our hands on the wheel, being alert. One student in class said that she is currently taking a California state online refresher driving course and that the main focus of the course is on being mindful, present and focused on the task at hand. Makes sense!

In line at the grocery store, instead of being impatient to get done and on our way, we can practice being mindful, not just noticing what is going on but noticing with compassion. We can question our assumption that we are in a hurry, that we don’t have time to ‘wait’ — oh, how we hate that word! So let’s not ‘wait’! Instead let’s be present and mindful and enjoy this moment of humanity. Here are a few other creative ways to be present in that line:

  • If you enjoy looking at paintings, see the painting before you — the bright colors, the figures, the contrasts and values.
  • If you read novels, in this situation there are a whole cast of characters, each with enough life experience to fill many novels, people just like you with all their worries and concerns. You don’t need to make up stories about them, only to understand that there are stories there, each one creating the causes and conditions which influence their actions, just as yours do.
  • Sense gratitude as you stand there with your basket full of bounty you are able to afford.

There are SO many ways we can experience any moment. Why choose the one that has us irritated and complaining? Why not take the opportunity to be kind, to smile, to wish someone well? Isn’t that the world you’d rather live in? Well it’s not some other place. It’s right here if you choose to notice it and participate with loving-kindness.

This moment, just as it is, is the one and only gift we are given. How we relate to it, what we do with it, sets the pattern of our lives.

In class we discussed some of the practical benefits of mindfulness:

  • We are more skillful and less prone to accidents because accidents tend to happen when we aren’t paying attention.
  • We are much better able to listen to other people and to hear what they say without the filters of defensiveness. We are really listening, hearing the nuances. We are not busy formulating what we plan to say next to further push our own agenda or make points.
  • We eat with more appreciation and the ability to notice when we are full; and to recognize when our desire to eat something doesn’t spring from hunger. As an example, when I am being mindful I can notice that my sweet tooth is aptly named because the sensation is focused in my mouth. Since it is not my stomach that is egging me on to eat that piece of candy, I can find a way to sweeten the taste in my mouth, like sucking on a breath mint or brushing my teeth. Eating is the area where I have the greatest challenge to be mindful, so I celebrate even small mindful miracles.

We’ll continue the discussion next week, because there are so many benefits to being mindful and recognizing them helps us to be consistent in our practice of meditation. So stay tuned, and meditate!

How to Find Wise View

Continuing with the aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path called Wise View, we have established that it has value but how do we find it?

Wise View is not something we can track down. Instead we make ourselves available to it. We walk the path where Wise View is known to inhabit and trust that we will encounter it. The harder we seek it, the shyer it seems.

So why bother walking the path? If we aren’t on the path we can be sure we will never encounter Wise View. So we walk the Buddha’s Eightfold Path with our intention to be present and compassionate, and with effort that is easeful, natural and balanced. On the path we practice mindfulness, strengthening our ability to be present and compassionate, and we do concentration practices that help us to maintain mindfulness. We tread the path with mindfulness in our words, our actions and our livelihood.

None of this guarantees we will encounter Wise View, yet we stay on the path because it is pleasing in and of itself. We find that even when we encounter difficulty, we are better able to meet it without falling apart, better able to see what is necessary in the moment, and we have a more balanced perspective on things. In fact, in those moments of greatest difficulty Wise View often hovers very near, lending us strength, even if we don’t see it.

We are not hunters seeking Wise View. We carry no firearms to kill it or cages to capture it, so we know that any encounter will be fleeting. Some of us may believe Wise View is folklore, as unlikely to exist as the Loch Ness monster, Big Foot, a unicorn or a dragon. This assumption makes Wise View difficult to recognize when it appears.

If we are treading the path, finding joy in the moment and deepening our capacity for compassion for ourselves and all beings, even those who may have seemed undeserving; then we are cultivating the very environment in which Wise View lives. And perhaps it is alive and well within us, but we imagined it would look different, or didn’t believe it existed at all.

To create a conducive and inviting habitat for Wise View, take walks in nature in silence, sit with nature and honor it as your teacher. Go on longer retreats where silence is celebrated and the sangha supports you in your development of of all aspects of the Eightfold Path. Delve back into the First Foundation of Mindfulness to consider the nature of the body, of death, of the ephemeral quality of life, this energetic commingling and unfolding, this pattern of processes and systems, that we interpret as solid for purposes of having sufficient traction to develop volition and evolve consciousness. Look to the insights, the dhammas of the Buddha, especially the Five Aggregates that helps us see that we are not this body, this set of preferences, these thoughts and emotions; that we are not our volition, our will or our consciousness.

When we spend time considering all of this, we are definitely in the territory of Wise View. Don’t get too excited, but a sighting is increasingly likely.

What does Wise View do for you?

In our review of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path we come to Wise View.

You might fairly ask, ‘What is this ‘wise’ view and what makes it wise? Am I expected to be lock-step in line with some prefabricated view of things?’

Not at all. Wise View arises out of our own experience when we practice being present and compassionate as we go about our lives. The insight that arises quite naturally is just what we need at the time and is framed in just the way that really speaks to us, because it draws from the pantry of our own life experiences.

Of course, we can have a moment of recognition and clarity while reading or listening to a teacher or a poet. Their words may spark awareness and allow us to more ably identify the nature of the wisdom that is already within us, waiting to be noticed. But in a matter of minutes, hours or days we will most likely forget what the teacher or writer said.

When you have your own insights on a retreat, they stay with you. At the end of the retreat, you might want to take the time to write down the exact wording that can at some point in the future help you in a moment of confusion. But you will be very unlikely to ever forget the experience itself. These moments are like shining jewels, rare, unexpected and treasured.

Insights arise when we give ourselves time to quiet down, center in, preferably in a supportive environment where everyone shares the same intention or out in nature. But even though the insights are shaped in the way we best understand them, offered up from our own still voice within at exactly the time we need it, they unfailing fall into one of three universal understandings. Here’s a typical insight most meditators have on retreat:

Observing the mind at work, we see how thoughts, emotions and sensations pass through our experience, arising and falling away, often the same ones recurring again and again. We see that they are impermanent. Pleasant or unpleasant, misery or euphoria, this too shall pass. Aha!

Observing the impermanent and unreliable nature of these thoughts, emotions and sensations, we begin to understand that they are not us, that they are just what happens at the conflux of chemistry and conditions to the human mind. Just as water passes through river beds and ocean floors and clouds, so too do these mental formations and physical sensations arise and fall away. (Of course the river beds, ocean floors and clouds are also ‘just passing through’.) Aha!

Observing how we relate to our thoughts, emotions and sensations, how we cling to them or push them away, we see how we make ourselves unhappy, disappointed, miserable. Aha!

Can you see the three universal truths within those three insights? In the first we learned about the nature of impermanence, anicca. In the second we got a glimpse of the nature of no separate self, anatta. And in the third we came face to face with dukkha, how we cause suffering. As we have insights, it can be useful to recognize how they fall into these three truths. It provides a comforting confirmation that our practice is indeed fruitful, helping us to maintain wise effort.

So this is why we meditate, why we attend classes and retreats, why we create sangha, that wonderful community of practitioners and others who support us in our practice of meditation. We are not striving for better health or any of the things that turn out to be proven benefits of the practice, though we appreciate them. We give ourselves the gift of being present with compassion, so that we can see more clearly and have the vantage point of what the Buddha called Wise View.