Monthly Archives: October 2016

Coping with what life gives us

The tenth Paramita* is Equanimity, the ability to hold all that is going on in our lives in an easeful way. In the past I have used the analogy of being like the sky, holding fluffy white clouds, rainbows, storms and lightning bolts all at once.

Many years ago a woman in our sangha out at Spirit Rock asked how was it possible for her to attend her daughter’s wedding with true joyousness of spirit when her dearest friend was dying in the hospital. This question has always stayed with me as an example of what is asked of us in life, and how equanimity serves us. The answer to the question is to stay as present in the moment as we can and to be compassionate with ourselves when we find that our awareness of joy is shot through with a thread of sorrow. So we can be fully where we are (at the daughter’s wedding) and be fully who we are (a caring friend and mother). One does not negate the other.

In fact, these kinds of contrasts are often the richest moments in our lives. I remember at the memorial we gave for my father in his home on his birthday the week after he died. I remember the beauty of the cherry blossoms that completely surrounded his deck and how much he loved them, and how sorry he felt that his beloved wife was no longer there to enjoy them. And I remember how I came upon my son changing the diapers of his month-old daughter on my father’s bed where just the week before, Dad and I had watched Wheel of Fortune and I had begged him to let me spend the night on the couch, sensing the end was near. One week apart, two sets of fathers and daughters: one set at the end of life, the other set at the beginning. To be able to hold the beauty of that is a great gift of equanimity.

There are other ways to describe equanimity. One is to find your center of gravity, that way of being in your body and in your life that you are sufficiently grounded that nothing throws you. Recently I heard a zen teacher from Nova Scotia talking about equanimity. He shared how his teacher had demonstrated it. He stood up and held his body rigid and told two men to try to knock him over. It was easy. Then he changed his stance, relaxing, going limp, being rooted in place with the release of tension. And when the men tried to move him, they couldn’t do it.
oaks
My students, all female, did not feel very inspired by this image. Is the real goal in life to be unmoved?  But they responded with more enthusiasm when I suggested that trees are grounded in this way.

Here’s a poem I recently wrote that captures some of that feeling:

Oak Sisters

Three oaks entwine on the hillside:
Minoan snake goddesses with burl breasts.

I, with the good fortune to sit below them,
rarely bow in gratitude,

while they bow to the wind, the rain,
the sun and the moon.

I am footloose, but rarely dance,
while they, despite earthly constraints,

sway together in ecstasy.
I imagine underground a mirror dance

of roots rollicking round rock,
deeper and deeper into the soil of being.

 

Of course, California live oaks are beautiful trees but not necessarily the best example to aspire to when we want to remain upright come what may. In a severe storm or even in the middle of a drought, an oak will occasionally crack and fall to the forest floor. We might choose instead a more supple tree for our role model! But you get the idea.

So now we have two ways of seeing equanimity:

  • Being spacious like the sky to hold whatever arises
  • Being like a supple tree, rooted and able to dance in the winds of life, resilient

Both of those views are helpful. Some others less so. For example, when we think of balancing, we might picture a tightrope walker on a highwire. Life might feel like that at times, but it’s a worldview that is bound to create fear and tension. If you find yourself in that position, let go! Discover that life will support you.

Another image that comes up is the art of balancing stones. Perhaps you’ve seen the results, or have watched in fascination as the artist gives his or her full attention to setting the stones, and perhaps you have even tried it yourself. At Spirit Rock on retreat I have walked up the hill to an area that was full of stones that were fun to stack. They weren’t the more challenging rounded stones the artists use, but the process still required my full attention. It’s a lovely meditative process.

That view of equanimity reminds us to be fully present, to sink into full awareness and a sense of connection with whatever we are doing. But the image could backfire if we are attached to the stones staying stacked! It could easily bring out perfectionist tendencies and the fear of things falling apart and personal failure.

In my ‘Oak Sisters’ poem there was a quality of dancing, and I am reminded of how for many years I did Nia, a dance exercise class that develops a supple grace in the body. I had no idea how stiff and ungraceful I was until I started that class! But over time I softened in my movements and gained greater balance. I felt centered and joyous. We worked from our core, just as you do in Pilates or yoga, and were trained to not overextend our limbs. What a good lesson for life that is! Where in life are you feeling overextended?

Part of the reason we overextend is that we are trying to please or impress someone else. So we are seeing ourselves from the outside, the way we think others see us. This is ‘object mode’. This is a good way to get way off balance! We need to be the subject of our own lives, the center of our own universe. This is not selfish. This is growing where we were planted. Remember that when we send metta (lovingkindness) we always begin with ourselves before sending it out to others and ultimately to all beings. Because we can’t give what we don’t have.

In meditation we find that when we go rigid we get easily distracted, and getting caught up in thinking and emotion will cause tension in the body. But when we relax our muscles and find a balanced posture, we are able to sustain a seated practice for quite sometime. And as our mind relaxes that spacious quality of sky is able to arise and fill the whole of our awareness.

And then when we go about our lives, perhaps we can develop a greater sense of ease and natural grace, able to carry whatever challenges life has given us. We may even find that what we have held as burdens will gently reveal their gifts.

May we be dancers on this earth, sensing into the music of life.

So these are all ways of looking at equanimity. What resonates with you? What questions does it bring up? What is your experience of equanimity? Please comment below.

*Paramita or parami is a state of quality of Buddha mind that we are cultivating. Equanimity (Upekkha) is the last of the ten paramitas we have been studying. See the rest in earlier posts. You can type ‘paramita’ in the search bar in the right-hand column.

Metta :: Lovingkindness

copper-heart-smallThe ninth Paramita is Metta or lovingkindness. This is a quality we are very familiar with in class because I end each meditation with a metta practice, sending it first to ourselves, then to some person, a group or a situation in particular need of metta right now. And then to all beings: May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

This is such a wonderful practice. In the middle of a difficult meditation, when the mind is glued to solving some life problem, it is hugely helpful to send metta to that problem or person, and then return to the breath. The practice is all we can do, and the best we can do, in that moment.

Since my paired intentions in life for a number of years have been to be present in this moment and to be compassionate with myself and others, metta practice is very much a part of how I am able to live my resolve. My students have also found it to be a very useful practice.

This week, focusing on metta itself, I led a full metta practice. So I include a recording of that practice here in case you want to try it. It attunes you to the true nature of metta. This particular practice is very helpful if you have difficulty being kind to yourself and for any reason feel you don’t deserve lovingkindness. It is includes the ‘difficult person’ component of the practice, and that is super helpful if you are struggling with someone in your life who pushes your buttons.

METTA PRACTICE (10 minute audio recording)

 

As mentioned in the audio recording, you can send metta from any distance. Sometimes you have a person in your life who is very draining, who activates difficult volatile emotions in you, and you aren’t feeling strong enough to be with them. That reminded me of this poem I wrote twenty years ago when I was recovering from a long illness:

Dirt Bag Dharma

I don’t know how long I had been ill…
Long enough to see myself as
fragile, wan, weak, in need of protection
from violent images and emotion
that could suck the life right out of me.

But I needed soil for my garden
and the young worker assigned to shovel
ten bags of dirt for me was apparently
way overdue for a break, and no doubt
had other grievances fueling his anger.

I backed off — to give him space, I thought,
but really more to give me space,
as I retreated to the cocoon of my car to wait.

Feeling guilty, I began to send him metta:
May you be well, may you feel ease.
At first the words had a begging quality
like the prayers of a small child, cowering
in a corner, terrified of the boogey man.

But the words became an invocation
And suddenly I saw myself more clearly:
how knotted in fear I seemed,
as knotted as the worker out there
both of us suffering our grievances.

The metta repeated became a shaft of light
breathing into me, releasing me
from my victim stance, revealing instead
my capacity to be a conduit
of compassionate healing energy.

Across the muddy yard, I saw him too.
still shoveling dirt into bags,
still bent, still angry, still suffering.
So I returned to his side and soon
we were chatting — who knows about what,
it didn’t matter, because — all the while
I breathed in his suffering and out that radiant light.

Soon his shoulders softened,
his voice lost its edge. I heard a low
chuckle at something I said,
and when his boss yelled another order,
he didn’t bark or bristle as he’d done before.
Instead he smiled at me, rolled his eyes as if to say,
‘Maybe it’s not much, but it’s mine and I can handle it.’

In that moment, standing amidst in the mud,
amidst my ten bags full of dirt,
it dawned on me that I am well.

I have taught and written so much about metta over the past decade of teaching that I’m just going to supply links to previous posts.

Anxiety about the election?
This is from another political season, where we explore sending lovingkindness to the candidate we are voting against. Now there’s a challenge that brings up the true meaning of metta and adds clarity to our understanding. 

Trouble with a relationship?
This post includes examples from my students about the difference sending metta has made in their relationships. 

People you think don’t deserve lovingkindness?
This is an exploration with good stories and examples of the infinite quality of metta and the trouble with trying to withhold it from the ‘undeserving’. 

Metta is also the first of the Four Brahmaviharas, or ‘heavenly abodes’, another set of Buddhist teachings. These are beneficial states that are both practices and experiences of being: Metta or lovingkindness; Karuna, compassion; Mudita, empathetic joy; and Uppekka, equanimity. We spend most time focusing on metta, because that practice leads quite naturally to the other three.

May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. May you be happy.

Peace empowers intention, but what is peace?

I’d like to start off this continued exploration of the Paramita of Resolve with a guided exploration. It’s just two minutes, but it’s easier to talk it through rather than have you try to do it while reading.

EXERCISE (two minute audio recording)

(If for some reason you are not able to play the recording: Think about an intention that you have or a resolution that you have made either now or in the past. It doesn’t have to be your highest or most meaningful intention, just whatever comes up when I say that.
Now sense into your body and see how that intention sits. Where do you feel it? Does it stir up anxiety? Does it feel tight anywhere? Or does it make you feel more open and spacious, more clear and focused?)

Having done that little exercise, if you noticed tension come up in your body after stating your intention or resolution, then that intention is rooted in fear and confusion rather than compassion and clarity.

Let’s look at a common intention: ‘I want to lose weight.’ Why is it so difficult to follow through on that intention or sustain it? I don’t know about you, but when I say that intention, I tense up at the thought of people judging me for being overweight; of my jeans not zipping up, of having to buy a bigger size, and feeling some shame in my lack of control around certain foods.

How does that intention feel in my body? Heavy! Weighted down with shame, remorse, self-loathing, and a sense of hopelessness that has me giving up before I even get started. Well, how is that intention going to work for me?

Not very well, I can assure you. But then I had a little confab with a cardiologist who said to me, ‘As a kindness to your heart you could lose a little weight.’ Suddenly my intention was restated in a way that really spoke to me. Kindness was something I could get behind! So I reset my intention to be rooted not in fear or shame but in loving-kindness. In my body, instead of feeling tension and heaviness, I felt an upwelling of love and gratitude for my dear reliable heart that just pumps away all day and night for all these years. I have been able more often to come up with some kindness at the refrigerator door when my inner sweet tooth or just plain boredom has me lingering there. It’s also helped when I’m preparing a meal, when I’m sitting at the table, and when I’m shopping. I can put more love into the whole experience of eating, and more awareness into noticing when I am full or when I am eating mindlessly.

If you found tension or some other challenging sensation as you stated your intention in the exercise, how might you reword it to be rooted in love, gratitude and joyful celebration of life?

This experiential exercise might help you to rewrite your intention or it might erase an intention that doesn’t resonate with qualities we are cultivating here. There are fear-based intentions that activate desire, striving, and other qualities that drag us out of this moment. They are like glaring roadside billboards trying to make us believe some other moment is better than this one. This is a root cause of suffering: pushing away this experience in favor of some imagined past or future experience; and clinging to this fleeting experience hoping it will last forever.

A wise intention is not a distant goal that clogs up this present experience. It is a companion, a guide, deepening our resolve to be present and compassionate. It helps us to be more skillful in our interactions.

We can see from this experiential exercise that our bodies are the best indicators we have to discern whether our intention is wise. If it’s not wise, our body will tell us loud and clear: by tensing up or being painful in some way. When we pay attention to our thoughts — all those judgments and opinions — we can tell if we are going to be able to stay with our intention. If there’s a cacophony of voices fighting it out in there, it’s unlikely. But if our body and mind remains peaceful, and even gets a little tingle of expansive connectedness going on, then we know that we have named our intention in a way that we can follow through. Because there is inner peace.

Peace is the fourth way we are asked to look at the Paramita of Resolve, after discernment, truthfulness and relinquishment. But what if there’s not inner peace? Then we need to create more inner spaciousness, so the various thoughts can have their say but aren’t in constant conflict with each other. As we get to know the various patterns of our thoughts, we can respectfully discover what drives them.

We can create some inner peace if we are willing to pay attention. These various urges, drives, etc. all have well-meaning intentions: to help us survive. It’s just that those intentions are rooted in fear, and so the results are often ineffective and sometimes harmful. As we listen to them, we can use metta, lovingkindness, to allow them to exist as part of our experience without giving them everything they demand. We can create peace by creating spaciousness within ourselves so that it isn’t an tense tangle, but a vast field where all manner of thoughts and emotions can arise and fall away without creating conflict.

Maybe you would think it would be peaceful if everyone was in agreement, whether our internal voices or everyone in the world community. But we are not a mono-mind species either individually or collectively. We have different opinions, and two different opinions can seem equally valid, true, well-thought out, loving, etc. This is how it is to be human, isn’t it? So how can there be peace, ever?

Here’s how I see it: Peace is not the same note played by every instrument in the orchestra. Peace is the harmony that comes from each instrument playing its part so the resulting concert is beautiful. So then do we need a conductor? Not in my experience. With our young toy instrumentsgranddaughters we have a tradition of making music with the various toy instruments we have at hand. We march in a parade around the house with great exuberance banging and drumming and blowing on wooden flutes. From the outside it probably sounds horrendous, but for us it is a joyful celebration.

Every moment that I attend with awareness and compassion reveals its beauty. The challenge is always whether I can pay attention. With my dedicated daily meditation practice, I find that often I can. When I don’t pay attention to this moment, it can sound like a cacophony. But when I listen with spacious awareness and compassion, the beauty is revealed.

With that definition of peace, there is peace possible in every moment. It is not the peace of the dead or the dreamless sleep. It is the peace of life being lived in concert.