Monthly Archives: May 2016

Things fall apart and it’s not your fault


Here we sit, the mountain and I, until only the mountain remains. – Li Po

photo of mountainAs I write this I look out my window and see the mountain. Just yesterday at this time it was hidden by fog. The weather is one of the most changeable aspects of our lives. And for some of us that changeability is a source of anxiety. Our mood may hang on whether the weather suits us. It’s useful to notice our relationship with the weather, because it’s a good indicator of how we are in relationship with change in general. To what degree does our happiness hang on external causes and conditions?

I remember strolling in the garden with my one-year-old granddaughter in my arms. We paused to look more closely at the flowers. There was one pale pink rose that earned her full wide-eyed attention. Then, all of a sudden, as she watched, a petal fell to the ground. She gasped, turned away, and wept on my shoulder. For her in that moment a lovely thing had broken. It was ruined. She didn’t know it was a naturally occurring phenomenon, a part of the cycle of life, the way of things. At six she knows that now and isn’t phased by petals falling off flowers.

We all have moments where we suffer for lack of a more expansive understanding of the way of things. We cling to a belief that life is ordered in a certain way, and when that order is shaken up, we get upset. One of the greatest challenges to our sense of order is if a loved one younger than ourselves dies. This goes beyond natural mourning of a great loss in our lives. It disrupts our sense of order, how life should be. I know when my nephew died at the age of 46, it just felt wrong. How could it not? I remember I was staring out the window on a rainy morning and began to watch how the raindrops seem to chase each other down the window pane. There was no order there. Some clung longer, some raced straight to the bottom. Somehow that helped me. Not with my grief. Grief is a process that runs its own course. But it did help with my railing against the injustice of nature felling a life ‘out of order.’

As we mature, most of us recognize that change is a naturally occurring part of life. This is wisdom, or one aspect of it anyway. Understanding the inevitable nature of change or impermanence is one of the three central characteristics of awakening. In Pali it is called Anicca (pronounced ‘a-knee-cha’).

We can each look at our own relationship to change. To what degree do we fight it? To what degree do we chase it, trying to get away from the way things are in this moment? To what degree are we deluded that change is the cause of our unhappiness or the answer to our prayers?

In our class discussion we looked at how in our culture we try to hide from impermanence. While our ancestors lived closely with birth and death, over the last century we have somehow made both separate and sanitized — off to the hospital or off to the undertakers where everything’s handled under wraps — et voila, a swaddled tidy infant or a beautifully appointed closed coffin or a little box or urn of ashes. All the gritty grunt and groan of life’s natural transitions have been carefully hidden from view.

As women, impermanence can feel especially threatening because we are so often made to feel we are objects. Our culture tells us that our looks are the currency that secure our fates. Every magazine ad and every commercial reminds us of our duty to maintain the dewy glow of youth — to be always lovely, and therefore lovable. No matter how wise or intelligent we are, to some degree we succumb to the lure of products or procedures that promise to wipe away all signs of aging. We paw at our faces in mirrors wondering how others see us. A friend recently said that she only sees her own wrinkles, not her friends’. I think that’s true for most of us. It is a rare woman that isn’t harsh on herself in the mirror and doesn’t fear what time will reveal.

As one student pointed out, thanks to advances in the field of medicine, we now feel we have some control over impermanence. Our ancestors had to accept that many babies would die before reaching a year old, that many women would die in childbirth, that a cut or a broken bone could get lethally infected, and that various scourges could wipe out large portions of the population. Today we live in a world of everyday miracles. (So much so that people forget what vaccines were invented to save us from and choose not to vaccinate their children, and others overuse wonder drugs so that drug-resistant bacteria develop.) Cancers that used to be death sentences are now being cured on a regular basis. So when doctors’ procedures and drugs can’t save us or our loved ones, unlike our ancestors, we’re shocked. What went wrong?

When we think we have control over things and it turns out we don’t, we feel a sense of failure. That is how we are in relationship with impermanence at this point in time in our culture. We succeed at fending off aging and illness through diet, exercise, hygiene, medical checkups, beauty products and treatments. But ultimately we ‘fail’, because no matter how we delude ourselves to think otherwise, nature calls the shots. The deck is stacked against us. The house always wins.

Depressing? In Buddhism the very things we try to avoid — illness, aging, death — are, when faced and greeted as friends, the greatest messengers. So while we can have gratitude for modern miracles, we can still have the wisdom to see impermanence as the way of all life.

We have opportunities aplenty to practice being in a more joyful relationship with it. In most places the weather is constantly changing. We can notice if we are allowing the weather to dictate our moods. Are we only happy at the perfect temperature, or if the wind’s not blowing or if the sky is clear? Or can we enjoy the vital variations? Can we embrace each season for its particular offerings? Can we look more closely at what’s happening in this moment, registering it with all our senses, before offering up a blanket condemnation?

Take a walk in nature, always the best dharma teacher, and discover the nature of impermanence all around you. See how on the forest floor the disintegration of what was once green and vibrant is now dull and desiccated, but in that process is breaking down and fertilizing the soil to nourish new life in the ongoing cycle of being. This too is our nature. These human bodies are not separate from the flow of all life. Going to battle with impermanence is futile, and at a certain point, like a botched facelift, really really creepy.

So embrace life in all its facets. Take care of this gift of a human body. But don’t be fooled into thinking it can be sustained in its present shape forever. And that’s not your fault!


What’s Wisdom? I don’t know. Yay!

We have been exploring the third Paramita*: Letting Go, learning how to hold whatever arises in our experience lightly. This naturally leads to the fourth Paramita, Wisdom. At the center of the beautifully-crafted structure of Buddhist concepts are the three universal characteristics of awakening. When looking at wisdom from a Buddhist perspective, these three essential concepts are key. Each deepens our understanding and softens our need to grasp, cling or make enemies of what arises in our experience. We will be exploring them over the coming weeks.

But first, what is wisdom anyway? It seems easier to say what it is not: It is not something we can acquire. It is not a body of knowledge that if we just study hard enough we get to claim as an accomplishment. There is no test to take, no grade to achieve, no Masters of Wisdom degree to be awarded, and nothing to put on the resume.

laos buddha-curt firestone

Buddha statue in Laos. Photo by Curt Firestone


Nor is wisdom a personality trait we are born with. Admittedly some babies look like ancient sages and some children have more common sense than others. A few seem in touch with the mysteries, but then that umbilicus to the unknown dries up and falls away, as they focus on learning the many skills needed to navigate this earthly life.

When we develop a regular practice of meditation, we find that we become more present, more alert, more relaxed and more compassionate with ourselves and others. The tight tangle of our thoughts that held us captive now has more space, so we can see the process of the thoughts arising and falling away. It is certainly easier to hold whatever arises in our experience lightly when we are not so enthralled with the tangle of life.

Especially if we go on long silent retreats, we may experience letting go enough to experience ourselves and everyone around us less as solid separate objects, and become more aware of the fluid motion of patterns, energy, vibration, light. (Caveat: If we go in expecting to find this, we won’t. Expectation and striving are just more barriers to let go of!)

This may sound like a spacy way to live, but perhaps we could say that one aspect of wisdom is finding the balance, the ‘both/and’ of living in a way that we can skillfully function in this corporal existence while having that more expansive understanding that informs our intentions and actions.

In our practice we are not looking to escape this life but to embrace it lightly, with greater understanding of the true nature of being. We can understand this nature based on our scientific knowledge of the make up of atoms — how every solid-seeming object is actually mostly space at the atomic level. And we might sense it in a spiritual way, feeling at one with God, nature, all that is — however we name that experience for ourselves.

It helps to let go of the need to have everything locked down, categorized and figured out. This frees us to embrace the mystery, the not knowing. We let go of fear and the crushing need to define ourselves and our world, and to constantly be shoring up that separate-seeming identity and belief. We can still pursue whatever knowledge draws us, but we do it out of the joy of exploration rather than the fear of not knowing or the need to accumulate knowledge.

One of the most liberating statements we can ever make is ‘I don’t know.’ It is not an admission of failure, but a celebration of sorts. I had a joyful time one afternoon on a silent retreat walking around recognizing all the things I don’t know and can never know by direct experience, from what lies behind the bark of the tree or where the roots are underground to who laid the patio I was walking on. I even left a note on the message board for my teacher with the scribble ‘I don’t know!!!’ and she posted a message back. ‘Good!!!!’

The kind of meditation I teach is called ‘insight meditation’. In this tradition, insights are a common part of the meditator’s experience, especially the retreat experience. Sometimes they happen. Sometimes they don’t. It’s important to do the practice and set the stage for them, but also to accept that they show up when we are ready for them. We only need to do the practice and trust the pace. When insights arise, they may feel very subtle or absolutely amazing. Holding them lightly, lovingly and respectfully,  we can savor them and allow them to open us up in surprising ways.

Insights may reveal to us flashes of sensing our infinite nature and connectedness. Sitting beside a waterfall or staring at a pane of glass on a rainy day can remind us how we are like drops of water: ultimately not separate. We are just having a briefly individuated experience, a separate-seeming ‘moment’ in time.

So we can perceive there is a ‘both/and’ truth: We can operate on a daily basis inhabiting this body and life as if we are separate beings in order to get around, do our errands, etc., but we are also suffused with knowing that what we hold to be ‘me’ is simply a brief expression of the overall oneness of being. And we find that we are much more joyful and compassionate when we live from the awareness of that oneness. We don’t have to choose one perspective over another. We allow our awareness to expand to hold both. That is one aspect of wisdom. In Buddhism it is called Anatta, no separate self, and it is one of three characteristics of awakening.

If that resonates with you, then you have probably had moments of deep understanding. If it doesn’t, if it sounds strange or even scary, then just know that it is something that is available through your practice. Don’t strive to understand it. Don’t struggle with it. Don’t judge yourself as lacking. Let it go. And for all of us, it is skillful to focus on acts of generosity and ethical conduct that help us feel connected with others. Practice letting go and holding whatever is going on lightly. In this way, the first three Paramitas help to pave the way toward insights and wisdom.


*The ten paramitas, aka paramis and perfections of the heart, are qualities of being that end suffering and activate joy.