Monthly Archives: July 2015

Fire! Fear and Meditation

Image result for california fires 2015

Last night a swirl of smoke moved in from the east where forest fires are burning uncontained in multiple areas here in Northern California. The brown cloud covered the sun, turning it bright red. My mind filled with scenes of tinderbox forests and golden hillsides in towering flames as valiant firefighters work endless hours to protect whatever they can. I send them metta, loving- kindness: May they be well. May they be free from harm. I feel a welling up of gratitude for their efforts. Then I look out at the forest where we Iive and feel the fear I always feel in this dry season, but especially now after years of drought. I don’t want to think about the devastation that could happen before my eyes, taking away our home, our neighborhood, the glorious little eco-system on this hill, the restful green beauty that soothes me, but every time I hear sirens, I feel tension in my body as fear leaps into the foreground of my awareness.

What is the benefit of the regular practice of meditation, you might reasonably ask, if you still experience this kind of fear and worry? Shouldn’t I, a long-time practitioner and a teacher of meditation, be all blissed out? I remember Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman and his goofy grin saying ‘What me worry?’ I think of Janis Joplin singing ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’ This is why theoretically monks have a better chance at a bliss state: They have given up all material incumbrances. But the human mind is funny. It quite naturally builds ‘something’ even out of what some might call nothing. And then it protects that something fiercely. Remember the Tassajara fire where Buddhist monks risked their lives to defend the monastery? Brave. Foolish. Those two words are so often entwined.

People who have lost their homes to tornados always thank God that the family survived. Their house and all those mementos now destroyed and scattered for miles will be missed, of course, but that force of nature that tore through the neighborhood left behind a harsh but valuable lesson on what really matters.

Whatever we lose we can always imagine something worse. That is the nature of the human mind. And when that worse thing happens — because we do lose family members, don’t we? — we amazingly find some way to live with that. 

It is the nature of the human mind to care, and I for one appreciate that. We care deeply! Meditation practice doesn’t cause us not to care. It is not a drug to bring a state of oblivion. Instead it creates a compassionate spacious ease where we can see more clearly the activity of the mind and how we are in relationship to all aspects of our lives and the world around us. We can see how we cause ourselves and others suffering through grasping, clinging and pushing away.

Meditation can’t stop the fires, of course. But the awareness that arises in meditation allows me to notice the tension in my body and the fear that causes it. I can pause and breathe into the tension, relaxing and releasing it to whatever degree is possible in this moment. I can see how my childhood fears of fire are easily activated. I see that little girl I was being terrified by a TV movie about children trapped in an elevator with the orphanage on fire, and how my mother, knowing how fearful I was, always made sure my bedroom in all the homes we lived in had a fire escape. And how that fear also made me the most qualified candidate in my elementary school to be Fire Chief. I used to get to decide when we would have a fire drill, and I and my four (boy) deputies would stay in the building to monitor the drill and then go around and give reports to all the classrooms. All of these memories live inside me and contribute to what is happening here and now. I don’t need to get lost in them, but mindfulness practice helps me see not just what’s going on but its source as well.

As long as I know our emergency evacuation plan, I have no reason to live in future thoughts. I can practice being present in this moment with all that is happening here and now — the cool air coming in the screen door, the sunlight on the mountain, the sounds of birds, traffic, my husband doing Tai Chi on the deck, the feel of being supported by my seat, my fingers on the keyboard, my breath rising and falling. For many years  I have been training my mind to come home to this moment. This moment fully sensed can hold all my fears and worries, acknowledged with compassion. This mindfulness practice is so spacious that the worries are like little threads traveling through. They haven’t disappeared, but I see them in context. I am not tangled up in them. They are not choking me. Quieting down and cultivating compassion and ease allows me to live with the vagaries of life and still fully experience the sweet gift of this moment.

Feeling a little tense, are you?

Sometimes I find myself all tense and worried about a current situation, and I fall into the belief that once this is over I can really relax. And then it is over and I’m glad, but my body is still tense! What’s up with that?

The body has a strong preference for the here and now, so when the mind has cast a net into the future, the body tightens up, creates discomfort and even pain as a reminder to release the net and come back to this, just this.

The body so wants me to be here now that even as I’m writing this I can feel my body purring like a cat!

Oil painting by Stephanie Noble

If you feel tense, pause to sense into your body. What do you notice? Where exactly do you feel tension? We all have places we chronically hold tension and it’s useful to know where they are so in a moment of crisis we can gently focus on that area, softening its grip.

Once you have identified the area(s) of tension, spend some time relaxing and releasing the tension in whatever way works best for you. Maybe send it the message ‘Relax’ or ‘Release’ or another word or phrase that soothes you like ‘Let go’. Maybe imagine breathing into that area, softening it with the warmth of your breath.

Now notice other sensations in the body, places where there is no tension. Find a pleasant or neutral sensation and it will remind you that there is more going on in your body and in your life than just this situation that is causing you tension.

Use all your senses. Listen to the various sounds around you without getting caught up in attaching them to preferences or references that draw you into the past or future. It’s just a symphony of sounds. Look around you and notice all the light and dark contrasts, the colors, patterns, shadows and reflections. See if you can smell anything. If not, you might go find something to smell – the cinnamon in the spice cabinet or the flowers on the table. (Smelling things was a big part of our childhoods but we often don’t use it now except to notice something unpleasant. My little granddaughters sometimes generously share their blankies, offering them up to be smelled. All the comfort they derive from these little soft squares of fuzzy fabric is in that cozy scent.)

There are so many sensations available to us in any given moment: texture, temperature, the dampness inside our mouths, the breath that rises and falls in our chest, the feel of the earth supporting us. The more we are able to access sensation, the more present we are in this moment. The more present we are in this moment, the more we are able to live fully with clarity and compassion.

So come to your senses, release whatever tension you can and see if it doesn’t make you purr!

Freedom is the American Way

I have never felt prouder to be an American than I do today. Most Independence Days I enjoy the parades and fireworks but am conflicted about this beloved country, how it has come to be the bully on the world’s playground. I have sometimes chosen to call this day ‘Interdependence Day’ instead, rooting for us to play well with other countries and also treat our own citizens with fairness and respect.

But this past week I have felt such joy at the progress we have made as a nation, thanks to several Supreme Court decisions that assure patients the right to  medical treatment and same-sex couples the right to marry in all states and have that marriage recognized by the Federal government.

For those for whom this is not great news, please spend some time with your fears. Inquire within instead of just falling back on unexamined opinions. For example, some say that gay marriage threatens heterosexual marriages. In what way could this be true? When I saw all those couples lined up around the San Francisco Civic Center waiting all day to be wed in that first brief window of opportunity, I was reminded that marriage is indeed valued, a privilege, something worth cherishing. Those couples willingness to wait all day to be married (because they had been waiting for years for the right to be married!) naturally increased my appreciation for my own marriage, reminding me how fortunate I am.

What threatens marriage in our culture is not those couples who want it for themselves, who have committed relationships, who have created families, who contribute to the community with their dedication to make this a better world for their children. No, what threatens marriage is those who devalue it, like the heterosexual couple who gets drunk in Las Vegas and wakes up the next morning with more than a hangover, and then needs an annulment. What threatens marriage is people of any sexual orientation who take their vows casually, without consideration of the seriousness of this commitment.

I remember in the 1970’s it was very hard to be married because for a marriage to thrive it needs to be supported by the community, by parents and friends, but also by the culture. My husband and I were fortunate to have the support of both sets of parents. But when I met new people, coworkers or friends of friends, and they took note of my wedding ring, it wasn’t unusual to hear the question ‘Why are you married?’ So many people were getting divorced. The single life was supreme. Our local Fourth of July parade which today is full of family-oriented floats, was back then a long series of bands playing on flatbed trucks, each one sponsored by a singles bar wanting to promote its venue. Standing curbside for that parade with our children could be at times a little iffy, as the floats were floating on more than gas and goodwill, and the writhing dancers on them sometimes lacked good judgment. All in fun, but a very adult brand of fun.

Heterosexuals are sometimes squeamish imagining gay sex. The ew factor. I suppose that goes both ways. So don’t imagine it! It’s private! Not our business! But it IS our business as fellow human beings when others are being shamed and funneled into a world of casual encounters for their basic human needs. And that’s what the denial of the right to marry really has meant historically. The back alley bar and bathhouse activities that may have been viewed as ‘gay’ were really the result of the cultural and legal denial of normal channels of meeting, dating and marrying. Imagine if you and your mate had such restrictions? It wasn’t that long ago that just being gay could get you arrested and imprisoned. What if you and your true love had no rights and no future, and you had to keep that most treasured part of your life an absolute secret and live a lie. In my parents’ youth they only realized a friend was homosexual after he committed suicide. No one was out of the closet. And that was bad for everyone! It was bad for me back when I was a single woman dating. On occasion I dated men who confused me by claiming to want me but seemed conflicted. My ‘gaydar’ was not very sensitive, but my feelings were, and I had them hurt when a man played the part but could not honestly reciprocate because, though he so wanted it to be otherwise, he was only attracted to men. Society told him to keep trying to be straight and that was very trying for me and other single women. I imagine there were also men who were baffled by the inability of their girl friends to work up any enthusiasm for romance. I remember a guy I knew in college who I dated only briefly because he was so scarred by his last girlfriend who finally confessed she was a lesbian. With me he had to keep doublechecking, ‘Could you imagine me being a girl?’ and other weird questions. Poor guy. How much better it is today when we can love who we love and not mislead anyone else out of a desperate desire to conform. And a desperate desire to not be arrested, fired from our job and ostracized by our community.

This supreme court decision is a victory for all of us, not just gays. We aspire to be the land of liberty. We pride ourselves on the freedoms our country provides. Sometimes it takes us a while to see that the traditions of the past have not always been clear-seeing in this regard. It took a while for many to see that slavery was wrong, and a hard fought war created an untenable rift in our American family that is still being felt today as some cling to the flag of rebellion. It took a while for many to see that women are people and should have equal rights. It took a while to see that this land was made for you and me, not just white men. And it will still take a while for some to see that gay people have been denied a most basic freedom, the freedom to marry. Now a gay person is assured the right to marry the person they want to make a life with, the person who will be there through sickness and health, the person who will be a helpmate and equally responsible for raising their children, the person who will raise them up when they are feeling down, the person who will be by their side when they are dying. They will have the property rights that hetero couples take for granted. And their children will have the security and respect they deserve. How can anyone who has taken the marriage vow, who has enjoyed the many benefits of marriage feel justified in denying it to anyone else?

A great injustice has been righted this week. And my appreciation of my marriage and my country has deepened because of it. Happy Fourth of July! We have a lot to celebrate.