Monthly Archives: July 2017

Sniff, sniff. What’s cooking?

One of the Buddha’s most handy-dandy teachings is called the Noble Eightfold Path. It’s a practical tool for sorting out what’s going on in our lives and to see exactly where we’re making ourselves unhappy. Like so many of the Buddha’s lists, it’s challenging to remember. So I developed a visual metaphor that my students agree makes it super easy to recall and therefore use when we need it.

I’ve taught the Eightfold Path so many times over the past ten years that I didn’t think there was anything new to add, but this week I thought up one more useful addition to this metaphor. But first, a review:

The Eightfold Path consists of Wise Intention, Wise Effort, Wise View, Wise Mindfulness, Wise Concentration, Wise Speech, Wise Action and Wise Livelihood.

dd2dd-cooking-pot-analogy-w-spoonAs you can see from this simple illustration, ‘intention’ is the flame or spark that gets things going. Of course all will turn out better if our intention is wise.

Then there are the logs. A laid log fire is good metaphor for ”effort’ because it needs to be balanced — not lopsided, not too much kindling, not too little, etc. Even with the best of intentions, if our effort isn’t wise, things don’t go the way we intended, do they? If we’re striving and over-doing, we exhaust ourselves and everyone around us. If we get sluggish and don’t make any effort, nothing gets done. So Wise Effort is important to notice and cultivate.

The pot sitting atop the fire is our perspective on life, our understanding of how things are, our view. If our view is cracked it doesn’t function. Wise View is created out of regular practice and the resulting clarity of insight into the nature of life. We come to understand how impermanence is central and necessary to all life. We come to understand that there is no separate self, no isolated identity that needs to be shored up and shined up to please anyone. Instead we sense into the deeper understanding of dependent co-arising — this is because that was; this is not because that was not — and the patterns of interdependence of all being. And finally we see that suffering is caused by not understanding and embracing impermanence and the oneness of all being.

So that’s the pot. But what are we cooking up inside the pot? Mindfulness! That’s what we cultivate in our meditation practice and throughout our days: awareness and compassion, being truly alive in every moment, awakened to all our senses, able to perceive passing thoughts and emotions that arise in our experience in an open friendly embrace. Now this Mindfulness we’re cooking up is not a stew we can just put on the back burner to simmer. It’s a risotto! It needs to be constantly stirred by the spoon of Concentration (the various concentration practices, like following the breath, done on a regular basis to fine tune our ability to be mindful). Because what happens when we’re not mindful? All kinds of problems, mistakes, accidents, misunderstandings and frustrations, right? Without wise mindfulness, view, effort and intention, we just think life sucks and we’re the suckers who got stuck with it. At least some of the time.

But when the spark of intention is wise and the logs of effort are balanced, the pot is wholesome, seasoned by the mindfulness it contains; and the risotto is well tended, what happens?

Steam rises from the cooking pot in the form of Wise Speech, Wise Action and Wise Livelihood. Our words and deeds are informed by these other aspects and are naturally wiser and kinder than they would be otherwise. So instead of strapping duct tape on our mouth and handcuffing ourselves in order to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing, we focus on cultivating wise intention, effort and view, stirring the risotto of mindfulness with our practice. We pay attention to our language and actions, of course, but followed in this way, it is not the struggle it once was when ‘me and my big mouth’ used to duke it out in the alley.

See how it works? Now here’s the new addition:

Even though the steam that you see arising from the pot comes last in our learning about the Eightfold Path and in our practice, the steam is the first thing we notice in life. Think about it. Something smells delicious coming from the kitchen. Yum, right? The pleasant aroma flavors our whole experience of life. We come alive in our senses and all’s right with the world. Realtors know to bake cookies in a home before an open house, or to put on a pot with some cinnamon sticks in the hot water. They know that our sense of smell activates positive memories and associations that can make a house feel more desirable.

But what about when it doesn’t smell so good? We rush to the kitchen to see what’s wrong, don’t we? We know from experience that either the recipe wasn’t any good, or wasn’t followed, or the temperature’s not right or it’s been on the flame for too long. All kinds of things could have happened to make that stench. But whatever it is, we don’t just sit around and complain of the nasty smell in our own home. We do something about it, right?

So why when we are troubled in life, when we are suffering, we often do just that? We complain about the ‘stench’ in our lives but we just keep keeping on. We don’t go check out what’s causing it. The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is a wonderful tool for investigation, and especially with this Cooking Pot Analogy, it becomes super easy to see what stinks!

The smell from the kitchen happens pretty far along in the process of cooking, after all the ingredients have been chopped, measured, mixed and heated. Yet it is the FIRST thing we notice, the first thing that tells us if it’s going to be a tasty meal or a disgusting disaster. And in the same way, in this analogy, even though our words and deeds arise like steam from our intention, effort, mindfulness and view, it is those very words and deeds that are the first thing that let’s us know whether things are cooking nicely or whether something needs attending in the kitchen.

Let’s use an example. Maybe I have an unsettled feeling, a little nagging state of discomfort in my mind. What is it? After a little meditation practice, if I can take even just a minute to check in, I notice that discomfort and do a gentle self-inquiry. It might become clear that I’m feeling badly about something I said to someone. Perhaps my words were unkind. Or perhaps it wasn’t my story to tell. Or maybe I was in a hurry and didn’t take the time to be as kind and considerate as I might have been. Just the simple act of noticing lifts me up a bit, because I am able to recognize that ‘something stinks’ and now I know what caused it, and what I can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But before I get caught up in telling myself what a rotten person I am, I can use the Eightfold Path Cooking Pot Analogy to help me understand what really happened.

Let’s say that I recognized that my words were unskillful because I was rushing. Rushing is unbalanced effort, isn’t it? And why was I rushing? What was I hoping to accomplish?What was my intention? I might see that I didn’t want people at a meeting to think poorly of me for being three minutes late. My wise intention to be present and compassionate fell by the wayside, and my unskillful intention took over. Unskillful effort followed suit, leading to unskillful speech.

Whoa! That’s a lot of useful information. But let’s not stop there. Why was my intention unskillful? Because my view in that moment became unwise. I forgot that there is no separate self that needs to be polished up to perfection and presented to others. And I wasn’t mindful. I wasn’t stirring the ‘risotto’. I forgot that it needs to be constantly stirred, even while I go about my life, so that I am always present, noticing things with all my senses, no matter what. (Which is a delightful way to live, by the way.)

Try playing with this analogy yourself. If you want to read more about it, or any aspect of the Eightfold Path, use the search field on the right. Eightfold Path and all the aspects of it are discussed extensively in many of the posts.

And if you have questions, comments or experiences that illustrate how useful working with the Eightfold Path can be, please share by clicking on ‘Reply’ at the top of the post.

 

How does happiness happen?

smiling buddhaMy granddaughters are seven and five years old. Their definition of happiness is getting what they want when they want it. If things go their way then it’s the ‘best day ever’ and if they are denied anything, then it’s the ‘worst day ever’.

There are plenty of adults who concur with this definition of happiness. They see it as some externally regulated occurrence over which they have little or no control. Their emotional lives wobble about like a yo yo being yanked on a string. This is not happiness! It’s helplessness. No amount of ice cream, stuffed animals, compliments or cute shoes can create true happiness. Which is not to say we can’t enjoy these things, but we delude ourselves if we think they will make us happy.

As part of the maturation process, most people recognize that if they want food, shelter, clothes, transportation, etc. — the basic necessities of modern life — then they will have to work for them. Maybe that motive of achieving happiness through attaining these things is helpful in its way. These things can provide some sense of security, contentment and maybe achievement. But sustainable happiness? Not so much. It still may feel random and elusive. So they may begin to blame themselves. They feel that there is something inherently wrong with them if they can’t appreciate all they have, especially if on that list, besides stuff, they also have close relationships they value, most of the time. They may feel guilty for not feeling sufficiently grateful for all they have, making them feel even more discontented.

Watching my granddaughters go through their emotional gyrations reminds me of myself as a little girl. I too knew the soaring heights of, say, Christmas morning seeing a pile of presents under the tree. Then within a matter of minutes I knew the lows of sitting amidst the litter of ribbons and torn wrapping paper, realizing it was all over.

‘Is that all?’ I would ask. Go ahead and call me a spoiled brat, but I had a hunger no amount of presents could fill. And we all do.

‘Is that all? Is this what life is? Seeking happiness through the acquisition of stuff?’ If you were a person who was made permanently happy by stuff, you would not be reading this. So let’s be honest and acknowledge together that it is not for lack of stuff that we suffer.

You may be familiar with the Buddhist word dukkha. Dukkha is suffering that is caused by greed, aversion and delusion. Dukkha is such a great word because when it comes to us English speakers, it already contains the quality of, excuse me, shittyness in its syllables: doo-doo, cah-cah. We just double-down on the word dukkha. There is an instant understanding of how dukkha feels. We’ve all had times we could easily describe as shitty. And there’s a relief in being able to acknowledge that.

Let’s look a little closer at greed, aversion and delusion:

  • Greed is a hunger that can never be sated, not just for stuff but for experiences, for novelty, for approval, for accolades and so much more. It is a bottomless wish list.
  • Aversion is an endless hit list, all the things that annoy and threaten us in one way or another, activating fear, anger and hatred.
  • Delusion is a listlessness, living in a fog, being tossed about on ocean waves, not knowing how to surf, always gulping for air.

You can see how much suffering, how much dukkha, is caused by these ways of relating to the life. But there is another word, sukha, that is the happiness that grows from our own cultivation of mindfulness rather than waiting for someone else to hand us happiness on a platter. It offers a sense of freedom from constantly craving more.

So how do we cultivate true happiness, sukha?
Wherever we are right now we pause, release whatever tension is present, come into all the senses, cultivate spaciousness to hold all the thoughts and emotions that may be entangled in tight knots. And we give ourselves some infinite lovingkindness: May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be happy. Then (and only then) we extend our well-wishing out into the community of all beings: May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be happy.

Sure, we still may feel some extra energetic zing when our ducks are all lined up in a row or we receive a nice surprise or we feel relief that some bullet has been dodged, and we might have a little happy dance or celebrate any way we choose. But at a deeper level we recognize that there is a kind of happiness that exists without the need for perfectly aligned ducks and that every moment is a cause for celebration. It is unconditional happiness or joy that is expansive enough to hold even our disgruntlement, disappointment, grief, anger and every other emotion, because it rises out of the wisdom to see every emotion as a fleeting condition, like a cloud passing through an otherwise infinitely blue sky. Even when conditions are such that there’s no blue sky to be seen at all, just gray storms and even thunder everywhere we look, we know that there is a blue sky that holds it all, even the most difficult emotions. Our happiness is not dependent on every day being sunny, every flower being in perfect bloom or our bodies being pain free and flawless. Things can be going to hell in a handbasket, as the saying goes, and yet somehow we find joy in the moment.

It isn’t like living in a bubble of immunity to pain. Pain happens. Loss happens. Bad news can still make the heart feel like it is breaking. Tears still fall. Fear in all its guises still arises at times. But it is visible. We see it just as it is. It is not an enemy to confront or hide from. It is not the boss of our experience. It is not who we are. It is just what is passing through our experience in this moment.

Think of a parent caring for a crying baby. The parent holds the baby, cuddles the baby, soothes the baby with soft words, coos and sings until the baby settles down. The parent is supportive witness to the experience, acknowledging that it is okay. We can be in relationship with our own emotions in the same way. We hold them with compassion and kindness. We are not making light of the experience. We are simply holding the space for the experience within the greater understanding of the nature of impermanence. This too shall pass.

As with all I teach, this exploration is for myself as well. If you have been following along on this blog, you may remember that my brother is dealing with a life-threatening illness. He is certainly being challenged, and all of us who love him are also challenged, to adjust to the new normal, and find a way to accept the unacceptable. And we all will, one way or another. Whether we do it by railing against the nature of impermanence, against illness and old age and death, or whether we find a more open and friendly way to be with it, whatever the ‘it’ of the moment is, that’s a journey for each of us to make in our own way. We can each only do what we can do. The more difficult the journey, the more grateful I am for my meditation practice. It doesn’t help me to escape anything. It helps me to stay fully present, to recognize the preciousness of each moment, to let go of everything but that awareness and gently hold the moment like the precious jewel it is — even seeing someone I love in a hospital bed hooked up to drips and machines. Touching his arm, hearing his voice even as he complains, I can hold the moment like a jewel, for this moment — each and every moment — is rarer than the most valuable stone ever mined. It cannot be duplicated or relived. There is only this moment. Just as it is. And living at that level of aliveness, being that present, is sukha, happiness.

What a gift to be alive, fully alive! Even as things fall apart, understanding that it is the nature of things to fall apart, and to come together, again and again and again.

We don’t need to put our lives on hold for happiness. And we don’t need to put happiness on hold while we live our lives. Seeing that true happiness is fully possible in every moment, we wake up to notice greed, aversion and delusion as they arise and pass through our experience. We don’t make enemies of them. Just by seeing them for what they are and holding them with compassion, we attain increasing clarity, until each moment is illuminated like the radiant precious jewel it truly is. With wise intention and wise effort, we cultivate happiness within ourselves and let it ripple out to all beings.

Exploring our relationship with the ‘enemy’

On especially hot days I am reminded of the summers I spent in Philadelphia when I was in my late teens. My parents had moved there from California, so when I went ‘home’ for the summer it was to this place that didn’t feel like home at all. It was a brick oven of a place, a sauna — so different from the San Francisco Bay Area where ‘nature’s air conditioner’ rolled in from the ocean most evenings. And yet there was something wonderful about a ‘hot town summer in the city’ experience, walking about Center City in the warm evening and meeting up with other young people in Rittenhouse Square. I made friends with a girl who lived around the corner and she was my guide. She taught me, for example, that how you walk across town when you are a young woman is not always a direct route. If guys are out cruising and start saying ‘Hey baby’ etc. and won’t let up, then how convenient that Philly has lots of one way streets. You just turn up the next street that goes in a direction his car can’t go. Oh yes, she taught me the ropes.

Upon returning home we’d often spend the night at each other’s homes, and finding it difficult to get to sleep in the oppressive heat, even at midnight, we’d make up lists. Our favorite list was of all the things we would get rid of if we had the power to do so. We could easily get to one hundred, taking turns naming, for example, people who do obnoxious things. We would get very specific. So, ‘boys who won’t take no for an answer’ might be on the list. Or ‘people who leave gum on the street’ or ‘girls who wear…’ whatever fashion we didn’t find becoming. I don’t remember the details of the list, just that we made one and that we were perfectly ready to wipe them off the planet for their offenses.

In retrospect, of course, this seems at the very least harsh, and at most horrifying. It was all in good fun, a shared complaint about the state of a world over which we had no power.

As a mature woman, I recognize that there is still an internal list, not as lengthy and not of people I would wipe off the face of the earth, but of things I perceive as a threat. And I know for a fact I am not alone in this regard.

At a time when so much saber rattling is going on in the world, it’s worthwhile to take a look at what we identify as ‘enemy’. We don’t have to be at war to have an enemy, do we? Throughout the day we find ourselves at odds and finding fault with all manner of people, situations and aspects of ourselves.

In the Buddhist tradition, we practice kindness, but not ‘nice-nice’ in the way of my mother and perhaps yours, who if I said I felt a certain way told me I shouldn’t feel that way. No, in this tradition we look at what is arising with as much compassionate awareness as we can. If we can look honestly at our thoughts and our fears, we can cultivate a more loving skillful relationship with all that arises in our lives, recognizing its true nature.

So if you are game, take a moment to bring to mind someone or something that you react to as an enemy. Take note of the physical/emotional reaction as your body tightens up and fear or anger arises. This enemy may be a specific person or group of people. It may be a concept. It may be something that causes you pain. Just whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t need to be just one thing. It can be a list! Feel free to write them down if you want.

Now, assuming you were able to come up with at least something that feels threatening to you, let’s look at some common traits that things we perceive as ‘the enemy’ have in common, and see if this is true for yours.

The enemy causes a visceral reaction. We can feel ourselves tensing up and/or negative emotions arising when we think about the enemy. If there’s no visceral reaction, then it’s just an opinion, not something that feels threatening.

The enemy takes up a lot of space in our thoughts and emotions. It’s not just a passing thought. It’s not just someone with whom we disagree. If you doubt it takes up a lot of space, then how did you so easily come up with one or more ‘enemies’? They were right there, readily accessible.

The enemy has power. For example, an enemy might be:

  • A leader with whom we strongly disagree feels threatening, while a past-leader now ‘ordinary citizen’ doesn’t. Yet perhaps we can remember when they felt threatening to our well being, back when they had the power.
  • Pain has power to lay us low, sometimes change our personality and even cause us to feel life is not worth living.
  • Age has power to diminish our abilities in a number of ways.
  • A boss has the power to fire us.
  • A coworker has the power to make us miserable forty hours a week.
  • A parent can feel like an enemy at times simply because when we’re in their care they have power over us. (Any power we give them after we become independent is an unexamined patterned response worth taking time to investigate.)
  • Disease in ourselves or in a loved one has the power to kill, disable and break our hearts.

What power does your ‘enemy’ have over you?

The enemy has volition. We are more inclined to perceive as ‘enemy’ someone who made a choice rather than, for example, an act of nature. There is a classic story of a man rowing his boat on a misty morning when he sees another boat heading towards him. As it comes closer and closer he gets more and more upset. Why is that person not watching where he’s going? Is that person purposely aiming for his boat? Who is it? What did I ever do to him? etc. etc. Enemy alert to the max. And then the boat bumps against his and he sees that it is empty, just a lost boat adrift in the water. All his anger vanishes. The boat is not the enemy. It is just carried on the currents. There is no enemy with whom to be angry.

Abstract concepts are not as powerful as personal experiences. We might be against violence in general, but it isn’t a palpable enemy unless it is happening to us (or did happen to us and we are still processing it), or it happens or happened to someone we love, or to someone right in front of us, whether in person or on a video or in a book. Abstracts do not activate our emotions in the same way.

Those are some things I have noticed as common traits of ‘the enemy’. What else do you notice? This is an exploration. Feel free to check it out for yourself and report back by commenting. (Click on reply at the top of this post.)

HOW TO COME INTO SKILLFUL RELATIONSHIP WITH ‘ENEMIES’

NOTE: If you are in a situation where you are in that moment being threatened, you will do whatever you feel in that moment that you need to do — your flight or flight response will likely kick in and nothing we discuss here will make a bit of difference. However, regular meditation practice will help you to be more mindful and better able to see the situation clearly, and perhaps will have cultivated some compassion that could help to ameliorate certain threatening situations. But street smarts and a call to 911 may be what’s needed. Just sayin’.

But, assuming we are talking about someone or something that is not holding a gun to our heads in this moment, but which satisfy the definition of ‘enemy’ for our purposes here, let’s proceed.

All of this ‘other’ making, this ‘me’ against the world or ‘us’ against ‘them’ thinking, takes a serious toll on our mental and physical health. It depletes our capacity for ease, joy and kindness to ourselves or anyone else. But it isn’t skillful to push these thoughts away or pretend they don’t exist. It is equally unskillful to actively antagonize an external designated enemy. This only adds to their power by fueling it with similar energy. So what are we to do?

Know your enemy
We’ve already made a first step by defining who or what we are perceiving as enemy. We have ruled out anything that’s just an opinion and anything that is abstract. Now we can focus on something that does activate a visceral reaction, that does cause us to feel threatened in some way. We get to know the enemy not to strategize how to defeat them, but in order to understand their true nature and the nature of our own mind.

Here are some ways to come into a more skillful relationship with the enemy or enemies we have named.

Expand awareness
We tend to get caught up in the story or the rant about whatever we perceive to be enemy. We probably don’t even listen to ourselves anymore, we just blather on in a habitual way. But we have a choice. Without pushing the enemy away, we can notice all else that is going on in this moment. We can come into an awareness of our senses — sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.
We can notice pleasant sensations also going on right now. The enemy may still be present, but we see that it is just one part of all that is happening in this moment, a slender thread in the whole fabric of being. We can take in all of this moment with gratitude for being alive to experience it, enemy and all.

Interview, inquire, investigate
When we feel up for it, perhaps after meditation, we can invite the enemy into our thoughts for clearer observation and investigation. We can breathe into the discomfort. We can take care of ourselves. We can remind ourselves that the enemy in this moment is just a pattern of thought and emotion. It is safe to look more closely and to do some insightful investigation.
Part of this investigation might be actual fact checking. When we perceive something or someone as ‘enemy’ we might not be able to talk ourselves out of it, but it is worthwhile to know at least whether it is as dangerous as we think. So, for example, if we have a fear of flying, the fact that it is statistically much safer than driving may be little comfort, but it is an important fact to keep handy. Other typical fears — spiders and snakes, for example — can also be aided by discovering their benign and helpful aspects, and perhaps how unlikely it is that we would encounter a dangerous variety in our area. Some things are easier to fact check than others. We need to be sure our sources are reliable, that our enemy is not the product of some random thing read online or the irrational ranting of some pundit with an ax to grind and bills to pay.  We might notice how willing we are to believe someone who reinforces our existing view, and let that be a red flag for us to make further inquiry rather than getting more entrenched in our position which is causing us, and perhaps others, such suffering.

Consider whether the enemy is a projection
We can recognize the possibility that what annoys us about another person is the very thing that we are either suppressing or judging in ourselves, especially if it’s always the same ‘type’ of person who annoys us.

Back when I was too shy to speak my own truth, I found I was often judgmental toward powerful women. ‘Who does she think she is?’ But it was just my own insecurities and my own desire to feel that freedom to speak up that was making enemies of perfectly nice people who were more worthy of admiration than condemnation.

If the ‘enemy’ that you defined is not necessarily powerful, then there’s an even stronger reason to look at the idea of projection. Perhaps you’re annoyed by people who are virtually powerless. Then what part of you feels powerless? This is not an accusatory investigation. We inquire with respect and kindness.

enemy-as-messengerRecognize the enemy as messenger
We can look at the possibility that what we have taken to be an enemy with a weapon to harm us is in fact a messenger with an offering that has the potential to heal us. The image shown here could be carrying a weapon or a scroll with an important message for us. We won’t know until we take the time to look.

Let’s take tension, for example. It is the one thing we actively work to diminish in our meditation practice. So it is easy to see it as the enemy. But in fact it is the messenger. It tells us that our thoughts are caught up in the past and/or future. When we befriend the messenger — come on in, take a load off, care for some tea? — then the tension releases to whatever degree is possible in that moment, and we can be fully present with what is arising in that moment. Noticing the tension, we recognize where our thoughts have wandered. The tension is the messenger.

Let’s look at some other ‘enemies’ we might encounter and what their message is:

If you experience any degree of impatience or even road rage, then your ‘enemies’ may be:

  • Someone driving slower than you want to drive. The message is to cultivate patience and to stay more present in the moment rather than rushing to be somewhere else.
  • Someone cutting you off, being discourteous. The message is to cultivate compassion, to recognize that everyone is carrying a burden we are unaware of.
  • Someone driving recklessly, putting you and everyone else in danger. The message is to be mindful ourselves, to be aware we have great power to do harm as we drive around at high speeds in these metal ‘killing machines’.

You get the idea. So what we’re learning is how to be present with someone or something we perceive as enemy by cultivating a spacious field of awareness to hold whatever is arising.

As we stay present with the enemy in that spacious field of awareness, we can inquire about the message it is bearing. We can ask ‘What do you want me to know?’ for example. This would be very skillful in post meditation inquiry if a challenging ‘enemy’ is present.

Practice meditation on regular basis. By doing so we become more and more attuned to recognize the infinite interconnection – all one, that there is no separate self that needs to be defended against some outside enemy. In that way we are able to see through the faulty filter of fear that has named something or someone ‘enemy’.

Feed your Demons This is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that can be very skillful in working through a difficult relationship with an aspect of self that presents as enemy.

Send Metta  A powerful practice is to send metta, infinite loving-kindness, always beginning with ourselves and always ending with sending it to all beings. In between we can send it to a difficult person. I have heard so many first-hand accounts of the power of metta practice — May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. May you be happy. — to shift a relationship and reveal that in fact the ‘enemy’ is a vulnerable suffering being, worthy of kindness and compassion.
Here’s a recording of me leading an extended metta practice.

Speak our truth to whomever is in power, whether in government or in our private lives. Once we have cultivated compassionate awareness, we are ready to use wise speech to address any concerns we have. Instead of aggravating the enemy, turning off their ability to listen to us, we touch a deeper place and inspire their own inner wisdom to look more closely at their own way of being with difficult emotions.

I hope that these suggestions help to whittle down your enemy list, and create some powerful positive changes in the process. Let me know!