Monthly Archives: December 2016

The Future’s Not Ours to See

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The approach of a new year always reminds me of December 1959, the eve of my first conscious experience of transitioning not just from one year to the next, but of one decade to the next. 1960 loomed large in my twelve-year-old imagination. It felt like embarking on totally new territory, a new continent of time.

Midnight came. The clock struck twelve. Nothing changed. I went to bed and woke up to…just another day. Was I relieved or disappointed? Maybe a little of both.

Change, it turns out, is a continuous stream that has all to do with cycles and seasons, and little to do with our desire to measure it and put it on a timeline, making it seem linear rather than cyclical.

That New Year’s Eve at the dawn of the 1960’s, I was fortunate not to have any inkling what the future would bring. Had I had an advance glimpse of the headlines from that decade, I would have been terrified: A beloved president, his brother, and Martin Luther King Jr. all assassinated. A war in a small country in southeast Asia that would kill, maim and cause a lifetime of suffering to the people there and many of the boys of my generation.

And what would my very prudish, judgmental twelve-year-old self have thought of the nineteen-year-old I became, living in the Haight Ashbury District of San Francisco, ingesting whatever hallucinogen anyone passed me without serious thought to the consequences? Would I have wanted to wake up the next morning to the decade of the 60’s?

Maybe not. But fortunately we don’t know the future. This is a blessing! Because everything sounds worse in anticipation, doesn’t it? And there’s something important that takes us so long to learn and we tend to forget: We have an incredible capacity to live through volatile times and not just survive but thrive.

Even if we could ‘know’ the future, we would not know it fully in the experiential way we actually live it. When I was nineteen, a fortune teller gave me a reading. She said, and I quote, ‘In the end your friends will all turn against you.’ Oh my! What a prophecy to live with! I imagined dying alone, having been abandoned by everyone I ever loved. Who knows if that will ever come to pass, but within six weeks of that reading, I had an experience that fulfilled that prophecy. I had moved back across the country, and was hanging out mostly with my closest friend and my high school boyfriend. He and I had casually taken up where we had left off. The three of us had been a tight little circle for a short period of time as I found my way in a new situation. So they were in that moment ‘all my friends’. And then they fell in love and became an couple, hiding it from me until they could figure a way to tell me. Of course at first it felt like a betrayal, as if they had turned against me. But that wasn’t the full truth of that experience. I recovered quickly, our friendships remained in tact. When I recognized that the prophecy was true, but in a much different way than I imagined, it was a life lesson: We just don’t know what life will bring and cannot predict how we will experience it.

See the truth of this for yourself: Think of a year where the headlines were horrendous. (Pick any year. Headlines are always horrendous!) Then think of your own life. Like most people you can probably list some triumphs and traumas. But how much of your ongoing state of mind has to do with the headlines? None of us live our lives in the headlines, even though they affect us at some level. Even if we are part of the news, it can’t capture the fullness of the experience. I remember the 1989 earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area. It certainly affected us! But the national news distorted it beyond recognition. The news thrives on our tendency toward what neuroscientists call a ‘negativity bias’. We tend to focus on the negatives of any given situation first and foremost. It’s something useful to notice in ourselves, and good to try to bring into balance by observing what positive or pleasant things are also going on. It’s not to push the negative away, but simply to expand our awareness to the fullness of experience.

Good news does exist, it’s just harder to find in the news as it’s hidden away behind all the negative news that grabs our attention more readily. Here are just some of the many good news stories of the past year.

Imagine how we bring this negativity bias into the future. Dread arises! It’s not accurate because not only are we projecting our fears, but we do not know and do not have the ability to imagine all that is possible. The future may be better or worse than we imagine, but it will not be the way we imagine it. Of that much we can be sure.

Headlines do not write the story of our lives. And as Doris Day sang in ‘Que Sera, Sera’, the future’s not ours to see. Our focus is on how we are relating to the experience of being alive in this moment, whether we are being mindlessly reactive or mindfully responsive? Are we tightly wound in fear and striking out? Or are we cultivating our capacity for spacious awareness, compassion, integrity and wisdom? In this way, whatever the future brings we will thrive, not just survive, and not just for ourselves but for all beings.

I appreciate your comments and questions.

Wishing you all a very happy new year, whatever comes!

Rituals for the Winter Solstice

Yesterday was the solstice and because we have a western view, it is always the sunset that captures the sense of change, how the sun is as far south as it is ever going to set, and from here on until mid-June it will set further and further north.

Our next door neighbor has creatively captured these changes by drilling holes for small stakes to sit that mark the solstices and the equinoxes. For the past couple of years, we have come together to celebrate, but also to drill (which isn’t all that festive, but needed to be done.) But yesterday, no drill was needed. The holes were there, and there was something amazingly comforting in seeing that indeed, the shadow of the peg in the hole drilled last winter solstice still aligns perfectly with the anchor peg’s shadow.

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I brought various bells over, gifts of teachers and students over the years, and we each had a bell to ring out the sun as it set behind the mountain.

Then we toasted the solstice with wine homemade by my neighbor’s mother. And then, without the sun to warm us, we went back inside. A lovely joyous ritual.

This morning, I led my meditation class in a series of rituals to celebrate the solstice.

Beginning with our regular meditation, focused on the breath, I suggested noticing the empty breath, not to extend it or alter it, but to notice and honor it. We recognize it as part of a cycle — how there is: The inhale, the full breath, the exhale and the emptied breath. Noting each part of the cycle as it happens offers us a sense of awareness that we can apply to all that arises in our experience. We can notice details with more clarity when we give each our full attention as it comes into our field of experience. And like the breath, we can see how it is just as it is, unique unto this moment, but also how it is part of a cycle. Like all life!

Before class I had set up a center tray with:

  • A circle of unlit candles, one for each student, around a lit central candle.
  • A bowl
  • A bell
  • Natural things I found outside that are part of the season including a bare branch and some crumpled raggedy leaves (enough so each student can have one).

On hand I had some pens and bits of paper, and books for writing surfaces.

After our regular meditation session, I gave each student a crumpled leaf to contemplate and experience.

These leaves offer plenty of opportunity for the mind to state its preferences for a new supple green leaf, an autumnal festively colored leaf — almost anything but this sad looking specimen. But finding the subtle beauty in this too, as an artist would do, is part of our practice. And because we are a group of women ‘of a certain age’, finding beauty in what is faded, wrinkled and ‘past its prime’ is helpful. The Japanese term wabi sabi captures this ability to see beauty in such things.

Next, I pointed out the bare branch, and asked them to consider its ability to year after year release and renew. Then I passed out the papers, pens and books and asked the students to allow themselves to think of something within their own hearts and minds that is ready to be released, as easily as a leaf from a tree in late autumn. They wrote these down on their bits of paper and silently put them in the bowl. Then I set fire to the small pile of paper, and we watched the beauty of the flames, the paper darkening and curling, red glowing on the edges, and the curl of smoke arising, noting also its the sweet acrid odor suddenly there in the room. (If you had a large group this might be a bit of a bonfire, but our group was intimate enough that it was not a problem and didn’t set the smoke alarm off!)

Then I asked them each to take a moment to contemplate what quality they wanted to cultivate in themselves and in the world now. Then I lit a small candle from the larger one and said ‘I light this candle for….’ the quality that had come up for me. Then I rang a bell. When the bell went silent, each student, when moved to do so, lit her candle, stated her intention, and rang the bell.

Circled around our candles, we chanted to Om Mani Padme Hung chant. Although chanting is not central to the tradition I teach, this particular sangha has expressed the desire to incorporate some chanting into our sessions together, and I am happy to do so.

The Om Mani Padme Hung is said to express all the teachings of the Buddha in one expression.

Because we have just recently finished exploring the Paramitas, I found this teaching from Gen Rinpoche most interesting:

The six syllables perfect the Six Paramitas of the Bodhisattvas.

When you say the first syllable Om it is blessed to help you achieve perfection in the
practice of generosity.

Ma helps perfect the practice of pure ethics,
Ni helps achieve perfection in the practice of tolerance and patience.

Päd, the fourth syllable, helps to achieve perfection of perseverance,

Me helps achieve perfection in the practice of concentration,

and the final sixth syllable Hum helps achieve perfection in the practice of wisdom.

“So in this way recitation of the mantra helps achieve perfection in the six practices from generosity to wisdom.”

After we finished a lovely period of chanting we sat in silence for a few minutes, feeling the resonance of the chant, as if we were bells that had just been rung.

After that, I read my winter solstice poem in its original form (written in 1994, and this season adapted to Youtube video.)

And then, because this was a morning class on a bright sunny day, and it is the day after the actual solstice, I invited the students to go outside and stand facing the sun, closing their eyes and letting all the senses deepen in the experience of the warmth on the skin, the orange glow on the eyelids and any other sensations. After a couple of minutes we stepped into the shade, where we paid attention to the sudden coolness of the air, and then back into the room where the temperature felt warm by comparison.

Attuning ourselves to what is rather than wishing it away is central to Buddhist practice. What better opportunity than in the darkest time of the year when many of us struggle with our relationship to darkness, wishing for the light. But light is not absent. It is revealed. The stars shine brighter. We light a candle or a fire. And when we give ourselves the gift of really quieting down, our inner light shines.

We observe nature that greatest of all dharma teachers, and we see that letting go is a natural part of life. We too can release what is ready to be released.

We set our intention as to cultivate a beneficial quality, both in our own inner experience and in the way we relate to the world, making optimum use of whatever gifts we have to offer.

We give ourselves the gift of full attention as we circle deeper and deeper within through meditation and mindfulness practices. We chant in a way that deepens attention.

And we recognize that life is ever and always in flux. Can we dance in celebration of the ever-changing experience of being alive?

Wishing you every good blessing and joy in however you choose to celebrate the season.

Celebrating Winter Solstice – My Illustrated Poem Now on YouTube!

Whether you enjoy this dark season or hate it, you’ll find comfort in this short video. I wrote the poem 25 years ago. Since then it has become part of winter solstice celebrations around the world. Twenty years ago, I illustrated the poem, cutting out black white and gray shapes. Recently I came upon the illustrations and realized that now there is Youtube, so, with a little help from a family member, I put it together and posted it.
It had it’s debut on the ‘big screen’ in this week’s Poetic Pilgrimage class at College of Marin. I hope you will view it on something larger than your phone! Be sure to turn the volume up. So many people struggle this time of year, so please SHARE IT widely!

Background
I wrote this poem originally because it seemed to me that everything about the winter solstice was celebrating the return of the light. That is just another way to lean into the future rather than noticing what is present and finding something in this moment to celebrate.

It is not saying darkness is preferable to light! It is only saying to notice all that is happening in our current experience with at least some level of gratitude. Let’s stop wishing life away in favor of some ‘perfect’ day. When it’s raining let’s listen to the symphony of raindrops and the gratitude of the plants and, if you live in a part of the world prone to drought as I do, gratitude for the filling of the reservoirs. Every season has its gifts and its challenges. We humans tend to have a negativity bias and see the hassles and challenges more readily than the gifts. This poem offers us a little balance.

What is Winter Solstice?
Some people are still unclear about what the winter solstice is, thinking it’s something religious. While it can inspire spirituality, it’s actually when the earth tilts furthest away from the sun, making it the shortest day and longest night. The summer solstice is when the earth tilts towards the sun, making it the longest day and shortest night. The northern and southern hemispheres have exact opposite solstices.

equinox

Beyond Meditation: Inquiry & Insight

ahaIf you meditate on a regular basis, you have probably found many rewards. But there are more rewards to be discovered in the minutes following your practice that you may not be aware of if you immediately plunge into your busy day.  If you sit just a little longer or take a walk, get dressed or do some simple household chore, then the mindful momentum you have created will sustain a period of inner exploration that will provide valuable personal insights. Especially if you are going through challenges in your life, this is just the extra gift you need.

You can also do this anytime throughout the day after you deepen into awareness of physical sensation for a few minutes in a mini-meditation.

Here’s how the investigation works:

If you stay seated after meditation, try opening your eyes if they have been closed, because you might be well-trained in not thinking, and you want to open to thoughts now.

If you are walking, tidying up or whatever, do it mindfully, purely as an activity, not with an end-goal. (You may be surprised how much more pleasant and satisfying mindful activity is than the goal-oriented variety!) Now notice thoughts as they arise with open curiosity. In meditation, we note thoughts but let them pass through. In this investigation period, we encourage a thought to reveal itself more fully.

Naturally there will be practical thoughts that involve daily planning, making lists, etc. But there may also be recurring thoughts of, for example, self-doubt, judgment, anger, hopelessness, etc. These might be the very thoughts you want to ignore, they are the ones that are fertile ground for exploration. Not because they are true, but because they aren’t true and yet you have been buying into them!

Before you judge a thought or yourself for having it, allow the spaciousness you have nurtured in your meditation to be present to hold the thought in an open embrace of compassionate questioning. Right after meditation is the best time to do this kind of inner work because you’ve created the spaciousness and kindness you need.

What kind of questions do you ask?  Not all questioning is skillful, but in that post-meditative state often our natural questions are quite insightful. We might say, ‘Whoa, where’d that come from?’ and then, instead of judging it or pushing it away, actually await the answer. Our deeper buddha nature that we have been cultivating may give us some clues. Another naturally arising question is ‘Why do I feel that way?’ Then open to the various images from the past that rise up to support an erroneous belief.

How can a belief be erroneous if past experience supports it? Maybe the experience was in your childhood, adolescence or early adulthood and your understanding of life and the world was limited as was your power to handle situations. So you came up with the best way to think about things that you could at the time.
And remember, we were also under the influence of people vested with greater power — parents, siblings, teachers, the cool kids, etc. Since then we’ve been busy with life and we haven’t bothered to reexamine our thinking. Why would we? Without inner examination, we hold these thoughts to be true. And even more than true, we hold them to be a part of our identity. Without them, who would we be? And that’s another great question.

Byron Katie is a wise teacher known for this kind of inner exploration using skillful questions: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Who would I be without this thought, belief, idea?

Notice if a thought activates emotion and/or a physical sensation (tightness or enervation, for example). That’s a thought worth exploring. Stay present with it, priming it with skillful non-judgmental questions. Allow it to unravel, revealing clues in the form of memory images that have a thematic thread. Sometimes the answer to your question can be very straightforward in the form of a statement or another question. Allowing yourself to be receptive rather than directive, you open to the possibility of accessing wisdom.

When a thought makes you uncomfortable you know that it is definitely worth exploring. If it makes you so uncomfortable that you can’t look at it on your own, seek the help of a qualified therapist, preferably one with training in or sympathy with Buddhist psychology.

Be patient in this process. Sometimes your questions are answered later in the day or later in the week. A friend says something, words from a book jump out at you or you overhear a conversation, and you have a little aha! moment.

Notice without over-investing what you notice with great significance. We have wisdom but we also have fanciful imaginations and the desire to elaborate. Keep it simple. Stay open. Don’t project. Don’t get all tangled up in your insight. Let it rest lightly in your awareness.

It can be helpful to name what you are discovering, in order to remember it, but be careful not to claim it. Identify it but don’t calcify that noticing into personal identity. So for example, on observing a mental pattern you might say, ‘Ah, there is fear playing out in this particular way.’ This is useful. It’s not useful to then say ‘Oh, okay, so I’m a scaredy-cat. Gotta add that to my long list of personal foibles and failings.’

Noticing a pattern is useful if we recognize it as one of many possible patterns the mind (any mind) can create. Unnoticed these patterns can gain power and cause us to make mindless, often unskillful choices and decisions. But when noticed, we see through them. We see not just the thought but the fear that underlies the thought. If we are practiced in mindfulness, this will activate compassion. Awareness and compassion dissipate the power of any fear-based unskillful pattern that may have been holding court. We don’t have to go to battle, in fact that would cause more problematic patterns. All we need to do is be present and compassionate.

When we allow ourselves this kind of attentive compassionate exploration time after meditation, our journey of self-discovery has rich rewards, for ourselves and for everyone we come in contact with. Awareness and compassion ripple out into the world in rich and wondrous ways.

We give ourselves time to relax and release tension and notice thoughts and emotions, and voila, we find we are softening in some ways, strengthening in others and enlivening our sense of being awake in the world.

Taking Refuge in Stormy Times

Threee refuges“In these challenging times we need this refuge, these ripples of kindness, now more than ever. We are all interconnected. We are all tender-hearted humans who want to experience peace and ease in our daily lives.” – Jack Kornfield

These words were in a recent community email I received from Spirit Rock, just after I wrote out my dharma talk for this last week’s class. A perfect addition, especially about being tender-hearted. May we remain tender-hearted even as we cultivate the inner strength to do what must be done.

The word ‘refuge’ is central to Buddhism. Traditionally, we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Sometimes the idea of refuge has an especially strong appeal. We want to retreat, to nestle, to protect ourselves, and to lick our wounds perhaps. And the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha create a safe place to shelter from the storm.

But the storms of the world are also within us, so we find that we have not so much shut the door on them but created a safe space to be with them. We don’t push away our thoughts or make enemies of them. Instead we allow them to exist within compassionate spaciousness so that they release and eventually dissolve, at their own time and in their own way.

Let’s take the Three Refuges one by one:

The Buddha is not just the historical Buddha whose teachings we explore. The word buddha means awakened one. So we are actually taking refuge in our own Buddha nature, our own potential for awakening. That seed of awakening is within each of us, waiting to be noticed, nurtured and cultivated.

The Dharma is the teachings we learn through Buddhist teachers, but also the truth of being, so that we recognize the value of insights that arise from our own experiences when we are open to seeing clearly and compassionately. And we recognize that nature is the greatest dharma teacher of all, always offering lessons on impermanence and the interconnectedness of all being. We can see how we suffer when we rail against the truth of nature’s lessons. We find joy in being alive when we accept and celebrate it.

The Sangha is the community of practitioners who support each other in meditation practice and exploration of the teachings. A member of our sangha might also be someone who doesn’t themselves practice, but supports us fully in our practice, who doesn’t sabotage our wise intentions and effort.

These are the three traditional refuges. We can take great comfort in them. As we do, we can recognize the many ways we can provide refuge for ourselves in daily life:

  • Be fully present with the beauty all around us, letting go of the veil of harsh judgments and preferences in order to see more clearly what is right before our eyes.

  • Turn off the constant clamor of media frenzy. Be discerning in how we receive news, question its veracity (especially if it confirms what we already believe to be true!) and know when enough is enough.

  • Provide warmth, tenderness, quiet, laughter, kindness in our conversation.

  • Cultivate a regular meditation practice.

  • Create meditative moments throughout the day, opportunities to be fully present with our senses. We might notice the warmth of a cup of tea or the sun on our skin, for example, and feel gratitude and a greater sense of ease in that moment.

  • Cultivate compassion by actively sending metta (infinite unconditional loving-kindness) to anyone or any situation that is causing discomfort. This might not be all we can do, but it is a valuable practice that has surprising effects.
  • Find what you care about and ways you can contribute, then join with others to be the change you would like to see in the world.

Think of ways that in your life you create refuge for yourself and perhaps for others. Have any fallen by the wayside? Rediscover them! Share them here to inspire others.