Monthly Archives: April 2016

Living Lightly

166760main_s114e7138The other day when I picked up my granddaughter from kindergarten, she told me that her teacher had taught them about ‘a powerful force that holds us to the earth.’ Her eyes were wide with Newtonian excitement. ‘You mean gravity?’ I asked. ‘Yes!’ she answered, delighted to share this wondrous secret.

That night I had a dream of living without gravity, everyone floating around, dancing in space.  But then there was the ‘stuff’. In this dream world, to have stuff you had to wear a harness with strings attached so your stuff wouldn’t float away. The more stuff you had, the more strings were attached and the longer they had to be. So, although they didn’t weigh you down per se, they made it more difficult to get around because you’d get all tangled up in the string and spend your time struggling to untangle it. And if you were surrounded by all your stuff floating tethered to your harness, it was difficult if not impossible to get close to anyone else. All the joy of weightlessness was lost. Forget about doing fancy flips and loop de loops!

Back on Earth I deeply appreciate how our bodies adapt so well to the level of gravity our beloved planet offers in support. Yet when we are tethered to a lot of stuff, it can easily get in the way of authentic joy. And it’s not just physical posessions that entangle us and create baffles and buffers against connection and interaction. It is also our accumulated and often unexamined judgments, assumptions, beliefs, addictions, distractions, desires and fears. We each wear the harness of an identity. All the precious-seeming ideas we have about who we are as unique individuals keep us from being as free and authentic as we might otherwise be.

Our exploration of letting go and our dedicated practice of meditation show us how to cultivate spaciousness. We might think of this as a gravity-free zone where sensations, thoughts and emotions float through, each one arising and passing away of its own accord. In this spacious field of awareness we greet whatever arises with friendliness and compassion but without the need to succomb to whatever lure it might hold. (Remember the story of Buddha under the Bodhi tree greeting Mara, the temptor taking many forms to lure the Buddha away from his wise intention to awaken to the present moment. He would simply say, ‘Ah Mara, I know you.’ And Mara’s guise would evaporate.) Our greatest fear can be met in this way. Without pushing it away, hiding it or denying it, we can simply allow whatever arises to drift away of its own accord. If it is persistent, we can ask ‘What do you have to tell me?’ Our willingness to pay kind attention (without getting caught up in its story) will often be enough to gain a valuable insight. — Aha! and thank you. — Then what was hanging out is often able to soften, release, dissolve or just float away. But even if it doesn’t depart, our more open and skillful way of being in relationship with it means that we can live our lives more lightly.

Meditation is not a luxury item!

I just can’t seem to let go of Letting Go! This Paramita, the third on the list, seems so crucial and so central to everything. I think about moving on to the next Paramita, ‘Wisdom’, but see how Letting Go is a at the heart of wisdom.

After all, letting go is what we do as we meditate — We let go of tension, let go of thoughts as they arise, let go of grasping and clinging. We make a strong distinction between letting go and pushing away. Very clearly letting go is a friendly act — an opening, a gentle holding in a spacious way and even delighting in whatever arises in that spaciousness before it drifts away.

As women, we often let go of what is nourishing us. Why? Do we feel we don’t deserve it? Are we so used to putting the needs of others first that our needs fall through the cracks? Many of us see meditation as a self-indulgent treat that we will get to when everything we do for others is taken care of. A little reward for good behavior.

But meditation is not a reward. It’s more in line with necessary basic activities like brushing our teeth. Definitely not something we want to put off. But if you haven’t meditated before you haven’t experienced the benefits yet, so how can you know? Longtime meditators sometimes forget how much they depend on their practice to bring balance, compassion and joy into their lives. One time when I was on a two-month trip abroad, I struggled to find time to meditate, and eventually gave up. I thought that maybe while traveling I was living so much in the moment, with everything new and interesting, that I didn’t need my practice. It was a real opportunity for me to see exactly how much my daily practice supports me. The longer I didn’t meditate, the crankier I got, the less creative I got, and the more out of whack I felt. It was a good lesson. I haven’t missed a day since then. I may have occasionally done shorter meditations, but I’ve never gone without it entirely.

If we let go of meditation, thinking we are doing it for others, who will thank us for that sacrifice? No one! Because when we sacrifice our own well being — our balance, our resilience, our creativity, our sense of fun and perspective, our joy — it is not at all generous to anyone. Giving up something that feels selfish because it is personal ‘down’ time, may feel generous at the time, but in fact it is quite the opposite. Maybe we’re striving to prove how ‘good’ we are and how deserving of love. We may think we’re earning points that will ultimately ensure fidelity forever. But is that the kind of love we want? Tit for tat? ‘You owe me, bigtime. Look what I did for you.’ That’s bound to backfire. No one likes to be in debt.  

We may secretly want someone to know what we need and give it to us. I know years ago I kept working at a high stress job when I was very ill, hoping my husband would say ‘Honey, quit!’ But my husband saw me as a mature adult with the good sense to take care of myself. (How wrong can a man be!) Ultimately my doctor told me I had to stop working in order to heal. Only then was I able to do so. Looking back I wonder why I felt I had to wait for permission? (Looking back I also see that if I had carved time out in my day to meditate and time out in my week to meditate in a group, I probably would not have gotten ill in the first place as I could have better handled the stress of the work.)

We may not value what we simply claim for ourselves in the same way we value what a loved one or someone we respect gives us — whether it’s acknowledgement, permission or something else we yearn for. This may be a secret even from ourselves and takes some deep noticing to see how ingrained in our upbringing this kind of thinking can be. It’s why men are so often baffled by women.

— What do women want?

— If you have to ask, I can’t tell you!

Agh! The need to be known in such a deep way that one’s most hidden desires are anticipated is highly unreasonable, of course. And it causes misery all around.

As a teacher of a women’s meditation group, I have seen how difficult it can be for women to claim the time and space to meditate. Early on in my own practice, it took a lot of gumption to tell my husband to close the bedroom door behind him when he got up in the morning and don’t come back in until it was open. Early mornings are my time for meditation and writing. When I did make my request, he was happy to accommodate me. It was not a problem. It was not selfish. He loves me. He doesn’t need me to be at his beck and call every moment. That is not the foundation of our 47 year relationship! Mutual support, shared core values, physical attraction, respect, humor and wanting the best for each other — that’s what keeps us together.

Virginia Woolf’s famous encouragement for women to have a room of their own has resonated for many women. The current trend has taken it to another level: the She Shed! Beautiful outbuildings, garden dwellings, just the right size to hold one woman and an occasional invited guest. Whether it’s set up as a studio, a meditation spot or a nest to read and daydream, it is a claimed space, away from the ongoing uproar of family life and the questions of ‘What’s for dinner?’ or ‘Where’s my baseball bat?’ Even when the main living space no longer holds chaos and clamor, it still holds distracting technology, habituated patterns and a sense of demand to be maintained. Claiming some personal space within it is wise, but a she shed! Oh my! Now we’re talking.

Carving out a regular time in the day to meditate and in the week to attend a meditation group means claiming space on the calendar and making it a priority. If other things are being scheduled, a woman may have difficulty claiming that space. If the receptionist at the doctor’s office suggests an appointment time, unless it’s somehing urgent, we don’t have to take the first one offered if it conflicts with our commitment to practice! We can protect that precious dedicated time instead of making it a default thing we do when nothing else demands our attention. If a mate has scheduled something, expecting us to be available, it is surprisingly difficult for many women to say ‘that time doesn’t work for me.’ This can be true in any personal or professional relationship that takes priority over taking care of ourselves. Men generally assume that we, like they, will speak up for ourselves and claim what we need.

If we have the inner message that our time for meditation is a treat, and selfish at that, then we are ready to sacrifice it at the least provocation because we weren’t sure we ‘deserved it’ in the first place. It’s only when we begin to see that our regular practice of meditation benefits not just ourselves but all those around us that we gain the strength to claim the time we need to practice, to attend classes and be with our supportive sangha.

When we give ourselves what we need through the daily practice of meditation, especially with the addition of metta practice, accessing infinite loving kindness, we find a source of non-depletable energy that inspires us to collaboratively and lightly create joy in the giving.

So you can see that we want to be discerning and wise in what we choose to let go of. Let go of things that deplete you, drain you, or leave you feeling lost and befuddled. Hold in a loving embrace all that nourishes and inspires you. Do this and you’ll fall in love with life, as well as your family and friends, all over again.

Fear, Metta and the Long Goodbye

Letting Go of Fear
At the heart of every difficulty of letting go of anything we find fear, nestled like a snake, always ready to strike or strangle. Whatever object, habit or hindrance we set the intention to release is held tight by our fears.

While fear serves us well in certain situations, alerting us to imminent danger, it can very easily take over. It becomes fear on overdrive, a hyper-fear that doesn’t serve us. We develop tight patterns of fear that lock us into escalating tension and potentially illness as the body struggles to cope with being ever on high alert.

In class last week I led an exploration exercise that the participants said had a profound effect on them, and prompted some valuable insights. Unfortunately, I can’t replicate it here. Perhaps it is something I can lead in a workshop if there is interest. Let me know!

Sharon Salzberg at Spirit Rock
On Saturday I attended a Sharon Salzberg day long at Spirit Rock. She is a gifted teacher and very funny. She has many books, podcasts, etc. so you can get the benefit of her teachings if you are interested. Her primary focus has always been metta, lovingkindness, and that was the theme of the day. Metta practice is a natural antidote to fear, so it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to spend a day with the ‘queen of metta.’ She, along with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, founded Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, taking over an old building that had been a Christian monastery. She told the story of how it came to pass that there is a ‘Metta’ sign above the door of the main building. Originally the letters read something like Brothers of the Testament. They asked if maybe the letters could be rearranged to say something about them in their new retreat venture. And voila! 

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The Long Goodbye
Sharon had been told she would be among the first teachers to teach in the new beautiful community hall at Spirit Rock. But that was not to be as it is still under construction in its final final final stages.

I trust this was the final class I will ever attend in the old hall. The opening date keeps being moved forward so that I have now attended a number of classes that I assumed were the last class I would spend in that sweet old dilapidated temporary structure that has been standing some thirty years, but is now truly looking like it will dismantle itself at any moment. Each time I say a fond farewell and thanks for the memories over the past twenty-two years of spending rich hours there doing meditation, yoga, listening to dharma talks, participating in discussions and on occasion teaching. This time it was like ‘Goodbye, already!’ Is that because I’ve been practicing letting go of late? Ha! Really just sensory desire rising up to experience sitting in that beautiful new building. But still, once again, and for the very last time, let me say thank you to the old hall that has undoubtedly ushered in more awakening than any other prefab structure in America.