Monthly Archives: February 2016

Can’t get no satisfaction?

chocolate cake thoughtSometimes right in the middle of a meal, I remember about dessert. Suddenly I can’t taste what I’m eating. My whole focus shifts to desire and the anticipation of something sweet. This may happen even though the meal is tasty and I had been looking forward to it! Sad, huh? But instead of judging it, let’s see what’s going on here, because this is an example of what we all experience to one degree or another in some area of our lives. Why can’t we enjoy what’s right in front of us? Why does the mind leap into the future or into the past?

Whether it’s a craving for sweets or some other sensory experience, desire for something else clouds our ability to be present. Sense desire is the first of the Five Hindrances, those obstacles to mindfulness. All of the Hindrances pull us away from present experience: We crave something or are annoyed by something; we are too restless, worried, spaced out or sluggish to notice what’s going on in this moment; or we are in a constant state of doubt. Whatever muddles the mind, clouding clarity and compassion, hinders us from feeling fully alive and well.

In our exploration of the Ten Paramitas, Perfections of the Heart, we now come to the third Paramita, Renunciation. What is that? All the synonyms for ‘renounce’ sound equally unpleasant: ‘abdicate, abstain, cancel, deny, disavow, eschew, forego, give up, let go, rebuff, refuse, relinquish, abandon, repeal, repudiate, sacrifice, spurn, surrender, veto, waiver, yield.’ Yuck! If you feel resistance to them, you are not alone. Even the Buddha said that at first his ‘heart did not leap up at renunciation, seeing it as peace.’ But later he did recognize the inner peace that renunciation creates within, once it is truly understood and acted upon.

In Buddhist practice, renunciation is not denial, nor is it punitive. Instead it is recognizing where our happiness is. If we believe that happiness comes from the objects of pleasure in our lives, then we are constantly seeking out these things and experiences, caught up in a state of longing. Then, once we attain the object of desire, after a brief jubilation, we find it difficult to fully enjoy because, like all things, it is fleeting. We want it to last forever, but that is not possible. So there is clinging that arises in our experience. We either plot how we can hold onto it, or we have discovered it isn’t all that great and plot how to get the next object of pleasure in our lives. Perhaps you can pause and think of some situation in your life that illustrates this.

Once we understand the nature of impermanence we see that it is not the objects of pleasure that provide happiness. It is, instead, our ability to be present. We can enjoy even ordinary moments, even challenging ones, if we are fully present in all our senses. Through our meditation practice, we create a spacious ease to hold all that arises in our experience, and we discover the joy available in every moment.

When we believe that happiness is attaining a particular sense object — I used chocolate as an example, but it could be anything that we long for and hate to see end — then we get caught up in the throes of misery of our own making. So I don’t have to renounce chocolate. (Yay!) I simply need to notice how the Hindrance of sense desire is activated within me, and how it causes me to suffer. That awareness, fully realized, disempowers the Hindrance. This is skillful renunciation — a kind of catch and release of the mind states. These Hindrances are universal in nature and we will come upon them again and again in our lives. Each time is an opportunity to notice, to celebrate and be grateful for the noticing, to observe and be curious about the way the Hindrance is impacting our experience, and to compassionately detangle and eventually release it, with a reminder to keep an eye out for it because it will appear again.

Renunciation is the third of ten Paramitas, right after Generosity and Ethics. All these Perfections of the Heart work together, but there is a traditional order and a reasoning for this order: As we develop a sense of generosity, deepening our connection to others, we naturally develop a sense of non-harming. So the Paramita of Generosity begets the Paramita of Ethics. Our exploration of Ethics took us to review the Five Precepts or vows of non-harming that are traditional in Buddhist practice. Each of the Precepts uses the word ‘refrain’, as in ‘I will refrain from taking what is not freely given.’ Notice how the word ‘refrain’ naturally leads us to Renunciation. We refrain from, we renounce, we let go of ways that we harm ourselves or others. And in all three of these Paramitas, the Hindrances have played a major role in our investigation.

A word came to me as I prepared to teach about Renunciation and I think it has a place in this discussion. I thought of ‘cleave’ as in cleave unto each other in our marriage vows. What if we ‘cleave unto this moment’, holding this moment above all others? In our mindfulness practice we are in effect vowing to ‘marry’ this moment, letting go of our longing for other moments, for the past or the future. There is a devotional quality to this wording that I think captures the sense of renunciation that we’re going for. It’s making an intentional choice to be here and now.

Buddha said, “I removed the fever of sense pleasures and dwell without thirst with a mind inwardly at peace.”

A few posts ago, I told the story of my nineteen-year-old self’s experience of being high and having a vision of a mountain with people earnestly climbing it. When I saw that although I was at the same level as the top of the mountain, I was in a hot air balloon and it was losing altitude. I recognized that I needed to ‘go to the mountain’ and climb one of those paths. Looking back, I can see that it was a moment of renunciation. It became clear that no drug could provide what I was seeking. So renunciation is not denial of the pleasures of life, but a way of recognizing what is truly beneficial and what is causing us harm.

A final quote from the Buddha: “When we understand the nature of desire, it falls away by itself.” A look at the Hindrances with a vow to release them with mindfulness and compassion allows true happiness to arise in our hearts.

Why is it so hard to be good?

sketch of face by stephanie nobleAs a world community, we have well-established rules of non-harming, most of which conform to some version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Yet we just can’t seem to help ourselves from causing harm to ourselves and others, knowingly or unknowingly.


Once again, as we did when exploring Generosity, we can use the Five Hindrances (in bold face below) to discover why we stumble when it comes to behaving in an ethical manner, as laid out in the Five Precepts, the Buddhist rules of non-harming we discussed in the previous post. (Quick Review of 5P’s: Don’t kill or maim, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t miuse your sexuality and don’t get intoxicated.)

Sensory desire, the first of the Five Hindrances, can trip us up in all of the Five Precepts.

When we lust after something we may become single-minded in our pursuit of it. We might mindlessly or ruthlessly harm someone, especially if they look delicious, or are keeping us from the object of our desire.

In that state of desire we might take what is not freely given. And we might lie to get it.

Lust obviously can lead to misuse our sexuality. In that moment, the hormones are all fired up and the voice of reason is like a whisper in the background, easily ignored.

Intoxication is sensory. If we like how it makes us feel, we will have a sensory desire to get high.

Aversion and hatred could cause us to feel justified in killing, harming, stealing, lying, misusing sexuality, and to treating that difficult feeling with drugs or alcohol.

Restlessness and worry prompt harmful behavior in different ways. But both of them cause a distortion in our thinking that might lead to harmful behavior.

Feeling restless might push us to seek out risky behavior that puts ourselves and others in harm’s way. Worry might prompt us to lash out in fear at one extreme, or just drive those around us crazy and cause ourselves ill health.

Worry about finances could lead to lying to ourselves that it’s okay to cheat on taxes, take from a ‘faceless’ corporation or even steal from an employer or family member who trust us with their finances.

That would certainly lead to lying to others to cover up our misdeeds. Restlessness could take to lying just for the fun of fabricating alternate realities. If not identified as creative story-telling, then it’s just lying.

Restlessness could lead to using our sexuality in a careless casual way that is harmful to others and ultimately ourselves.

Both restlessness and worry could cause us to seek intoxication, to settle ourselves or forget our concerns.

Sloth and torpor are states that make any action unlikely, ethical or unethical. But the states themselves are harmful to our well being and that of people who live or rely on us.

In the fog of those states it would be difficult to discern ethical action. It would be easy to make false excuses to cover up our behavior, and perhaps alluring to further lose oneself through drugs or alcohol.

Doubt might make us question whether these principles of non-harming are worth following.

Or we might doubt whether we have the fortitude to follow them or whether we are are intrinsically unethical, given our past actions.

Doubt sabotages our intention and commitment, so it sets us up for unethical behavior of all kinds.


Using the Hindrances to look at areas of behavior, we can become clearer on where we need to develop stronger intention around non-harming. We can learn from our mistakes. For example, if you are driving and you feel aggrevated by the traffic or some other driver’s behavior, notice how aversion arises. Notice how that aversion might cause you to do something potentially harmful, purposely not letting them into your lane or tailgating at a dangerous distance. Have you ever been in a heated argument and felt so angry that you jumped in your car to get away? Yes these Hindrances can really cause us to use incredibly poor judgment and put ourselves and others in harm’s way. We can so easily forget that we are at the helm of a heavy duty killing machine.

If you don’t notice dangerous driving in yourself, I am quite sure you’ve noticed others driving irresponsibly. Next time you might wonder if that person driving too fast is restless, worried they’ll be late or lusting after the sense of speed and power? Going too slow? Sloth, torpor, worry, aversion, doubt? Can you develop some compassion for them? They could be going through something very difficult in their lives right now. Send them metta, infinite loving-kindness, and steer clear of them, of course.

Remember that the Hindrances are not personality traits. They are obstacles to mindfulness that arise in our experience and cloud our judgment. Don’t get attached to any of them. Don’t claim them as your own. They descend on us all from time to time, some more than others maybe, but they are just a part of being human. Even if a parent or teacher described you as ‘lazy’ or your spouse calls you ‘a worry wort’, these are not who you are.

Knowing this makes it easier to see the Hindrance when it is present. Then give yourself some loving-kindness and set an intention to cultivate spaciousness to see the obstacle in perspective. We’re not pushing anything away. We are learning how to see and hold all that arises in our experience with clarity and compassion. Through the regular practice of meditation, your ability to see clearly and compassionately will strengthen. It won’t make the Hindrances disappear. But when you can see them at play, that clarity reduces their impact. Mindful in every moment, the wise intention to do no harm can more easily become wise action.

Beyond ‘Should’ | The Joy of Virtue

such a good girl art by Stephanie NoblePoet Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese’ tells us ‘You do not have to be good’. What a relief! But then we come to the Buddhist Parami of Virtue/Ethics. How do we juggle our innate desire to be good, our relief at being told we don’t have to be, and the call to practice vows of non-harming?

When we go on a meditation retreat, the first evening as we enter into silence, we take a vow to follow the Five Precepts. We promise to refrain from harming ourselves and others in any way. At first this basic list, which we’ll go into in more detail, may feel like a bunch of shoulds or commandments. But after a few days of meditating, something shifts. Being in silence with no eye contact, we develop a deeper felt connection. We move around the halls, dining room, dormitories and grounds in a spacious way, without bumping into each other. (Which is good because we can’t say ‘Excuse me’ or ‘Sorry’.) But there’s no sense of avoidance, just a companionable ease and natural courtesy. At times it’s almost the way birds move together in the sky — a murmuration. Through the extended practice of quieting, slowing down, centering and simply being, all these people who were strangers — who are still strangers in the normal sense of not necessarily knowing each other’s names or stories — have become a community of beings with a shared trust, understanding and intention. We call this a sangha. We are all of us supporting each other’s practice.

This deep sense of connection has a naturally arising ethical component. First because the everyday feeling of being an isolated fortress of individuation, and the fear, mistrust and sometimes harmful behavior that comes with it, falls away. And, second, the mindfulness that naturally arises in an unrushed and undemanding setting, makes it less likely to cause harm through being distracted or thoughtless. On retreat we naturally come to the true sense of the state or quality of this Paramita of Ethics.

But because we are not necessarily all that mindful or awakened as we embark on the retreat, we take these vows, these Five Precepts. We bring them front and center to our awareness. We may rely on them quite heavily to guide our behavior. And they may weigh on us like a yoke if we have some harmful habits in place. But we can trust that the weight will lighten, that the feeling of walking on eggshells to avoid doing harm will be transformed into gentle guidance — if not on this retreat, then the next, or the next.

As with all the Paramitas, or any of these Buddhist teachings, we are not on a fault-finding mission. We are not making ourselves over, getting rid of the ‘bad’. We are not force-feeding ourselves goodness or applying it like makeup, hoping for others to admire our virtue. This kind of activity is self-destructive. It makes enemies of all that arises. Instead it is simply noticing what’s true in this moment, and resetting our intention. It is a practice.

So let’s look at these Five Precepts. (Monks and nuns have more precepts to deal with for their lives in the monasteries, but we laypeople focus on these five.) With each of them, look at your own feelings. You might find quandaries and conflicting opinions. You can find peace in aligning your actions with your core beliefs. But if your beliefs are unclear, you may find a kind of peace in the ‘I don’t know’ mind, embracing uncertainty. In our 21st century westernized culture, it’s not unusual to feel there is a lot of gray area around some of these precepts. Or maybe not for you. Check it out! But whatever you find to be true, let it be your own personal attunement, and check the need to prosylitize and gain converts.

The Five Precepts

  1. Refrain from killing or injuring — We don’t want to cause harm to any being. For some, it means not knowingly killing or injuring another person or the family pet. For others it means not partaking in the killing of any being by eating them, the killing having been done on our behalf. And then, what about the killings done on our behalf in war? It might extend to giving spiders and insects an ‘escort service’ to the great outdoors. It might extend to not killing any being, even unknowingly. There is a story about a woman with a little broom who walked everywhere sweeping the space before her to assure that she didn’t step on any being. Just noticing how this vow sits with you.
  2. Refrain from taking what is not freely given — Don’t steal. Pretty simple, right? But there are many ways to steal, and some may not feel like stealing until more closely examined. For example, notice if you are taking up someone’s time without asking whether they are offering it willingly. This can happen a lot in conversations. Notice if you are assuming someone is willing to provide services. Perhaps you feel a family member owes it to you to take on a particular chore. This vow steps up our awareness of how much we might be taking for granted, especially from those we love. It might step up our heartfelt expressions of gratitude and our own generosity. This vow extends beyond individuals. Sometimes people who would never take anything from a person feel free to steal from faceless institutions, the government, large corporations. How does this impact us all in cost and security hassles?
  3. Refrain from misusing our sexuality — This is using our sexuality in a way that is harmful to ourselves or others. Of course, any forced interaction is a clear misuse. If you were ever violated sexually, then you know all too well the importance of this vow. But there are other lesser but still harmful ways of misusing our sexuality, such as using it as currency to gain power. Engaging in sexual activity casually has a long-lasting damaging effect of devaluing ourselves, feeling as if our bodies are objects for the fleeting pleasure of others. Think of a time when you may have misused your sexuality and the harm that it caused. If you are no longer using it in that way, see if you can develop enough compassion to let go of residual shame. Lesson learned. Often as we age, our hormones are no longer calling the shots. If they still are, then setting strong intention is paramount to overcome destructive urges.
  4. Refrain from lying — We may think lying is at times a kindness, but it clouds the clarity of our minds with the detritus of our unskillfulness. How to keep track of what we told people! Wise speech is truthful, kind and timely. If it is not all three of those things, it is better to be silent. We may lie by exxagerating to prove a point or pump ourselves up, creating a persona for others to admire. We may lie to gain some advantage. It’s valuable to remember that every lie has long term impact inside us as it disrupts inner calm. Fess up and live free! But do no harm in the process.
  5. Refrain from intoxication — When we get mindless from drinking or drugs, we lose our ability to distinguish what might be harmful to ourselves and others. And unfortunately we are usually not the best judges of how much we can handle. If you partake regularly, ask a family member or close friend to assess. What they tell you may not be pleasant, but it may be what you need to hear. If you have an addiction that is out of control, get the help you need now. That should be your top priority.

These Five Precepts are the core of Buddhist ethics and are intrinsic to any exploration of this Paramita. As you look them over and ponder them in your own life, notice how choices to act in an ethical manner set the wheels in motion to create ease, generosity and happiness.

As we continue to explore the Paramitas we will see how they work together and influence each other. But already we can see how Generosity affects Ethics, and vice versa. Deciding to be as ethical as possible is a generous act, isn’t it? If we refrain from harming in all these ways, everyone we encounter would have reason to be very grateful. And living ethically prompts a more naturally generous nature.