Monthly Archives: January 2018

Befriend what arises, and be the light!

If you read the last post, I hope you had a chance to notice when fear showed up within yourself during the week. When we’re really paying attention, it can be surprising how much fear in all its guises is present. We experience it as physical tension (afraid the body will fall apart if we don’t lend extra holding power?) We experience numerous fear-based emotions: anger at another driver for putting us in jeopardy, anxiety over what people might think of us when we speak up, fear of being judged and found wanting, fear of getting ill, fear of dying, or of losing a loved one, etc. etc.

In looking back on a week asking the valuable question ‘What am I afraid of here?’ one student said that the more aware she was of the fear the more she was able to be with it and acknowledge it. Yes! We’re not pushing fear away. If we were afraid of snakes or rats, spending time in a controlled environment with an individual snake or rat would help to soften the fear, wouldn’t it? So much of our fear is rooted in our distrust of the unknown, so getting to know what we fear shifts us into a different frame of mind. We might still be cautious, we might never want to have a pet snake or rat. But something has shifted. That shift dis-empowers the fear, giving a deeper understanding of the nature of things a chance to guide us more skillfully.

While fear can activate us, motivate us to do something, more often it paralyzes us and keeps us from doing things in our lives. Fear has at times paralyzed me from living the full expression of this gift of life, from taking my seat at the table of life, the seat that is reserved for each of us just by being born into this world. Boys are usually raised in such a way that they don’t question that they have a seat at the table, a right to exist, a right to seek their own destiny. But women historically have not. To the degree that is beginning to change, hallelujah!

In class we also talked about the January 20th women’s marches locally, nationally and around the world. My husband and I went to the one last year in San Francisco, but this year we babysat our granddaughters while our son and daughter-in-law went. I shared a live stream of the SF march on Facebook, but mostly enjoyed spending time with the next generation of empowered women.

womensmarchsf-1-18.jpgOne student who attended the San Francisco march said that she had asked herself who she was doing this for? (Another really good question!) Before going to the march, she had felt that since the Bay Area marches rarely got coverage beyond local media, why turn out? But once she was in the march, the most peaceful and joyful she had ever experienced, she understood that ‘we were doing this for ourselves’. Now that’s powerful! When we see the truth in that, we transition from trying to impress the powers that oppress us to being the power, to taking our seat at the table. She sent me a number of wonderful photos she had taken at the march and gave me permission to post any I wanted. I enjoyed the many creative signs that the marchers carried, but I chose to share the one that is most closely aligned with my own message in my life, my teachings and this blog: “Don’t curse the darkness, be the light!’ In fact, amidst the little Buddha statues I’ve been given over the years, there is a small lighthouse to remind me of this meditative poem I wrote that is both calming, centering and empowering. 

Lighthouse: A Meditation

I radiate light
out into the fog

Air circles up and down
my staircase

Waves lap my shore,
storms pass through.

Just by shining
I am of service.

There’s nothing
more I need to do.

I radiate light.

– Stephanie Noble

Inquiry series: Valuable question #2

What am I afraid of?

fear-hand-shadow.jpg

Fear rears its ugly head again, and again. We find ourselves saying and doing things that make matters worse. Rooted in fear, we feel tense, stressed, depressed or frantic. Fear can cause us to become violent, even if the violence is veiled and turned in on ourselves. When we feel out of control, asking ‘What am I afraid of?’ is an effective way to see the fear that has been causing us to make poor choices and miss out on joy.

At first our inner investigation will bring up a litany of stories about all that the future could manifest, given current causes and conditions. None of us knows what the future holds, but we can see from our own experience how reacting fearfully sets up a pattern of fear. In our practice we look at how we are in relationship to all that arises in our experience. Out of fear we are making enemies of everything. We spark fear in others and they then react in ways that are unskillful, causing more fear in us, and more justification for our fear. Fear creates its own proof! But that doesn’t mean it is the truth in the greater scheme of things. It only means we are powerful and need to be mindful of that.

Powerful? Yes! Beyond our wildest imagining.
Often, especially for women, this is difficult to recognize. We have historically been marginalized, patronized and dis-empowered. Those messages still run through us, no matter how liberated we may feel. I am posting this on a day that women are marching together in solidarity, supporting each other and feeling that unity of being. The true value in this is in seeing through the assumptions we all have inherited from an ever-evolving (and sometimes devolving) culture.

But this power is not dependent on external validation. Just by being alive, we are a powerful presence. For example, every being has the capacity to change the energy in an entire room. Don’t believe me? See if you can remember some gathering — family, business, friends — where everything was going swimmingly or everything was boring until someone walked in and the energy was turned upside down. The new addition, probably without even being aware of it, brought in fear-based antagonism or love-based joie de vivre that changed everything. It wasn’t that the person was in a position of hierarchical power necessarily, but they – and we – are all powerful beyond measure. So we need to take responsibility for the power we bring into the world.

If we are living in fear, we discount our power, and our actions or lack of action may be misinterpreted. I was in a situation this week where I was impressed by the skillfulness of a young woman I sat next to for an hour when I took my granddaughter to gymnastics class. The woman had a toddler to keep quietly entertained and contained while her daughter attended the class, and she managed it so beautifully — anyone would love to have a mother like that! — that I wanted to tell her. But I didn’t. I fell back into a pattern of shyness, discounting my own power. I thought that my words would be awkward and unwelcome somehow. Now I regret not saying something. We all appreciate praise, even if we don’t seem to. Why would I withhold a compliment? Out of fear.

Another fear-based pattern is how we can misinterpret the impact we make as something external that is happening to us, rather than something we are bringing into the situation. For example, the person that walks into a room of people, timid and shy, afraid of what people might think of them. They shrink and hide in such a way that people assume they want to be alone, or maybe that they are judging the group unworthy of their time. So they leave the person alone or, depending on their own level of fear, behave in a way that is a little defensive. This is interpreted by the ‘interloper’ as hostile, confirming their original supposition that they are not worthy of acknowledging. What a difference a fearless person makes in such a situation, able to step up to welcome a person, regardless of what they are projecting. But you can’t always count on finding a fearless person. It’s more skillful to simply be one!

This is a mild example. In the extreme, any person living through a filter of fear can activate fear in others, especially those who are hyper-fearful. It would seem to make sense that the two in a certain way call out to each other, a dangerous kinship of a shared scary world view. The fearful pair up to play out a painful pattern, perpetrator and victim, again and again. This is not to blame the victim for what happens to them, but to acknowledge that fear attracts fear and to encourage us to notice fear, question whether it is performing a useful function or actually causing harm.

Looking at these patterns, we might wonder how do we survive as a species with so much fear-based miscommunication? With the power of love. This is not the acquisitive desire kind of love, but the expansive love for all beings that rises out of gratitude for simply being alive in this moment, and the pleasure of sharing the joy with others who are alive with the sensate wonder of this amazing gift, just as it is.

The fear of taking a chance on ourselves
Where does fear grab you?

  • By the throat? Keeping you from speaking up?
  • By the metaphorical cojones? Keeping you from taking a chance on doing something you long to do — writing, painting, starting a business, etc.?
  • By the heart? Keeping you from expressing your feelings, risking rejection?

These fears feel valid. They each have risks. But how much risk-aversion is smart, and how much is simply crushing you? That’s an important exploration for each of us to take if this resonates.

Through the practice of being fully present to notice thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away in our experience, we can see fear for what it is. That awareness softens the tight grip that fear has held us in for so long. What a relief!

Three Poisons
The Buddha in his own inner investigation was able to identify ‘three poisons’ that cause suffering. As we look at each we can see that they are all rooted in fear.

Desire, fear’s greedy spawn
You may be surprised to see desire as rooted in fear. But think about the nature of desire. It is based in a sense of lack, of not-enough, and the assumption that something we acquire will remove that sense of lack. But desire is a mental pattern that breeds on itself. My granddaughters will never have enough of the current collectible stuffed animals. Ever. They may think there is some amount that will satisfy, but that will happen only when the focus of their desires moves on to the next toy of the moment, and way down the road maybe the next boy or pair of shoes or who knows what of the moment. Oh my. It is so much easier to see desire’s undesired effects in children than it is to see them in our own lives. But desire is there, rooted in fear, causing suffering.

Aversion, fear’s picky offspring
Fault-finding is a pattern that radiates out into the external world, but is seated in our own sense of not being good enough. Those standards we set that the world is not measuring up to? They came from our own not measuring up to the standards set by some powerful person in our childhood, who was caught up in the pattern from their own childhood sense of failing, and on and on. Getting caught up in blame is not useful. No parent or teacher has ever been perfectly skillful…well maybe the young mother at gymnastics class whom I mentioned earlier but I’m sure even she has her moments of unskillfulness at the end of a difficult day.

Delusion, fear’s wayward child
If a person is zoned out or just seems blind to the world around them, it might be reasonable to assume there is something scary that they would rather not look at too deeply. Instead, they float around in a state of foggy avoidance.

Since desire, aversion and delusion are the cause of suffering and are rooted in fear, the question ‘What am I afraid of?’ is a valuable exploration. But it might feel a little scary to pose. It may feel like having a conversation with the proverbial dragon at the gate, the one we’ve been avoiding or trying to sneak by for fear of going up in flames. But if that resonates, then this is just the conversation we need to be having. Because beyond that gate is the life we have been hiding from ourselves with our unquestioning patterns of fear.

This is not a one-off question. We can ask it, let the answer rise up, and then, instead of getting overly caught up in analysis, justification or argument, simply ask it again. And again. If you feel reluctant to go deeper in this way, remember that fear is already causing you pain. There’s a gospel song about how you have to go in through the door. These questions are a door.

Letting fear dictate our lives isn’t even helpful in addressing the surface fears. Instead it paralyzes us, making us unable to do the practical things we need to do: Create an emergency kit, build up a savings account, get a physical, etc.

What causes the paralysis? Under that fear is another fear. If this is not something you are comfortable doing on your own, find a dharma buddy to do it with. If you are terrified of such an investigation, then a therapist could help to guide you through the process.

By exploring the fear, we come to understand that we are causing ourselves and others suffering through reacting out of fear. Deep exploration and an investigation in the dharma shows us that we fear disappearing. So we panic when someone disrespects us and when things around us change, causing us to cling to the world we knew and push away new experience as threatening.

The Antidote to Fear
Just as fear is at the root of the three ways we suffer, the antidote to fear is offered in deep insight into the nature of things:

We are afraid of things changing or not changing. But insight and nature teaches us that impermanence is the way of all things. The seasons change. All beings cycle through life, death, decay and the regeneration of new life in some other form, the way fallen trees fertilize the forest floor.

We are afraid of being isolated, separate. But insight and nature teaches us that life is a complex web of patterns and networks that are not just interconnected but inherently one system of being, active, alive and non-isolatable. We forget that our being is woven into the pattern of life. Each of us can be imagined as a fleeting shining shimmer of a jewel in a complex network, radiating and reflecting all life.

We are afraid of pain and suffering. How can we not be? It is a biological imperative to fear pain so that we avoid what could harm or kill us. But insight and nature teach us that the pain of being born into a body, of illness, of aging, and of dying are intrinsic parts of the great gift of being alive to experience all the ever-present richness of each moment of awareness.
As we develop a practice of regular meditation, we come more fully into the present moment, into the senses. We can begin to look more closely at the nature of pain. We let go of the word pain, and sit with the pure sensation. We begin to see that it is not just one sensation but multiple sensations, like many instruments in an orchestra, each playing its part. We see how these smaller sensations are not in and of themselves painful. We see that they arise and fall away, and another sensation takes its place. We see the nature of impermanence in our close examination.
We see that it is our thoughts, rooted in fear, that compound pain. On top of that pure sensation we put the thought rooted in past experience: ‘Oh no, not this again! I hate when this happens.’ Then it’s not just this sensation, but a whole series of past similar pains that we are dealing with all over again. And if that were not enough we add in thoughts of the future: ‘How long will this pain go on? Will I have to miss that event I want to go to? Is this going to be a thing recurring for the rest of my life? Kill me now!’ And of course, we could toss a little comparing mind in there: ‘Why am I the only one who suffers in this way? Why me?’

By bringing ourselves fully into the present moment, not making things worse by diving into past and future thoughts, we find a fresh fearless way of being with pain. And then the pain disappears, or turns into something else. Because life is impermanent and this too shall pass.

The Buddha said not to take his word for it but to explore for yourself. Gentle compassionate investigation after the regular practice of meditation is how we gain insight. And our insights, the ones that arise out of our own experience, are the ones that spark awakening, self-compassion and a sense of wonder that is fearless.

[Read more posts about fear in this blog.]

Inquiry Series: Valuable Question #1

WiseIntention.jpgThis is the second part in a series on inquiry. The first was a look at toxic questions we habitually ask ourselves. I have added to the previous post a few more that my students noticed coming up for themselves during the week — or in some cases noticed not coming up anymore, because, one might assume, her meditation practice is working!

Now we will begin our exploration of valuable questions we can use to cultivate awareness, compassion, joy and meaning in our lives. In the insight meditation tradition, once we are ‘primed’ by our practice and the spacious compassion it creates within us, the Buddha’s teachings encourage us to do skillful inquiry. We can also do this inquiry any time during the day, especially when we are feeling overwhelmed or experiencing inner turmoil.

(NOTE: The only questions asked during meditation are meant to bring us gently bring our attention back to the moment, not to spark a deep investigation. For example, a teacher might ask ‘Where are you now?’. The question we are exploring in this part can be used both ways.)

The question is What is my intention here? If you are feeling stressed, take a mindful pause, center in, notice the breath, and then ask yourself ‘What is my intention here?’ Why am I saying/doing this or about to say or do something that is clearly unkind and unskillful. This question might save you from saying something you’ll regret!

An honest answer to this question might be ‘My intention here is to punish (insert name) for what he/she said/did.” We want only honest answers, of course, as unpleasant as they may be. An honest answer will probably not be rooted in wisdom because if it were, we wouldn’t be in such turmoil. But instead of giving ourselves a hard time about it, we can, if we have time, use it as an opportunity to investigate. If there is no time, it’s an opportunity to send metta (infinite loving-kindness) to ourselves and the other person(s) before proceeding.

When to pose the question ‘What is my intention here?’

  • When you feel exhausted from doing so much for others, you might ask this question and discover that you have been hoping to get praise, affection, gratitude, admiration, or something else from someone else.
  • When you find you can’t help but say or do something mean, you can ask this question and recognize that you have been caught up in defending your fortress of ‘self’.
  • When you feel threatened by the idea that you might not be right –and being seen as right is more important than actually finding the truth — questioning your intention helps you discover how afraid you are of not being seen, appreciated, respected or loved. Seeing that intention liberates the fear, activates your inner compassion, and allows you to live more joyfully with uncertainty.

When we question our intention in any given moment, we can save ourselves and others a lot of suffering. By cultivating a wise intention or two that supports us in all we do, we feel more at ease in the world. My two intentions for many years have been: first, to be present in this moment and second, to be compassionate with myself and others. I started these years ago as an experiment to see if just those were enough, and so far so good. They seem to cover all the bases. Feel free to try these out if you like, or find something similarly helpful.

Wise Intention is one aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path. By setting wise intentions, we can see more clearly when we are venturing into unskillfulness. Wise intentions are rooted in Wise View. Read more about Wise Intention and the Noble Eightfold Path.

The problem with ‘should’

One of the words that comes up a lot when we explore intention is ‘should’ (or ought to, must, etc.). Watch for this word in your thoughts and speech. It indicates that your intention is coming from an external source. How we are in relationship to other people is only authentic and heartfelt when we are attuned to our own inner wisdom. If we are stuck in a storm of disparate inner messages originally encoded by external sources (family and the culture we live in) about how we should be, then we can’t really relax and connect with others in a deep way.

By listening in we discover a number of inner aspects (behavioral psychologists call these ‘modules’, among other things, and we all have them, so not to worry!) that seem to have conflicting agendas, yet all intent on saving us, however unskillfully. By cultivating spaciousness through meditation, we see them more clearly and we allow each of these aspects to feel heard and respected. It’s important to remember that, although misguided, every aspect of self is working hard to protect us. So we can feel gratitude for their intention, but hold their demands up to closer scrutiny before acting upon them.

Accessing Inner Wisdom
With spacious awareness, we are able to access our own inner wisdom that has a distinctly different quality about it than these other voices. Our wise inner voice is deeply aligned with our wisest intention rooted in wise view. Unlike all other aspects, it is not rooted in fear. You can tell the difference because wisdom has no urgency, is not strident nor bossy, and is consistently peaceful and kind. It never makes demands, only offers wise counsel and only when asked. You could go through your whole life without ever hearing it if you never take the time to pause, quiet the mind and listen in! Clearly periods of mindful inquiry are valuable when seeking the counsel of an aspect of self that has all the time in the world. (If you are religious, you might prefer to name that wise inner voice God or the voice of a spiritual figure you honor. This is totally up to you. But please remember the voice is not God’s if its demanding, strident, impulsive or violent.)

If you have set wise intentions, check to see if you are aligned with them. If you haven’t yet set your wise intentions, asking yourself ‘What is my intention here?’ is still a useful way to explore how you got yourself into this pickle! What inner aspect’s agenda were you following? And what is that aspect’s intention?

Taking time for skillful inquiry can lead to a whole wondrous series of self-discoveries. In the next part of this series we will explore more valuable questions. Meanwhile, please give this a try, and if you feel like it, please share your experiences, questions or comments by clicking on ‘Reply’ in this post.

 

Are you asking yourself toxic questions?

FIRST OF A SERIES ON INQUIRY

toxic-symbol.jpgInquiry is an intrinsic part of the Insight Meditation tradition. After a meditation session, we are usually more relaxed and mindful. It can be a fruitful time to do a some self-inquiry. As we develop a regular meditation practice, the mind becomes more spacious, resilient, compassionate and wise, and the inquiry is rich and full of insights, both subtle and profound.

In upcoming posts of my weekly dharma talks we will explore some of the most powerful questions that are the tools for this kind of life-enhancing investigation. But first let’s look at the very different kind of questions we often have rattling around in our thoughts that are more like weapons than tools. We may not even be aware of them, but they cause harm to ourselves and others nonetheless.

I imagine you have at least one habitual question that trips you up and can take you down. If you can identify it congratulations! Noticing is crucial.

Once we notice a thought, or in this case a question, then we may need to remind ourselves to be in skillful relationship with it, so that we are not making an enemy of the question. Instead we can see it as a messenger. In this way even the most abusive question can be dis-empowered. (I always think that everything we tell ourselves is trying to be of service in some way, protecting us, but that many of these messages are rooted in fear that prevent us from living full and meaningful lives.)

INQUIRY INSTRUCTIONS

  1. After meditation, notice the patterns of your natural thoughts.
  2. If a question comes up, notice it’s nature.
  3. If it is an abusive question — putting you down, for example — investigate it from two angles:
    1. Is this a question you inherited? A question a parent asked of themselves or of  you? A question posed by childhood playmates, a teacher, the culture at large? This is not to place blame but to recognize that it is just a pattern, that it has passed through many and is now passing through you. You can send loving-kindness to the ‘source person’, remembering that they received it from somewhere else and may suffer from it still.
    2. What is the message in this question? Often it will be a product of the belief that you are an isolated separate being. So you will want to question the veracity of that view. (There are many posts on this blog about identity, no separate self and wise view.)
      Or perhaps your question is rooted in the belief that happiness is caused by everything being the way you want it to be. If so, you can explore posts on dukkha. Or maybe your question comes from the fear of things changing. You can find many posts on the nature of impermanence.

That’s how we explore whatever patterns we notice arising in our thoughts. Of course, after meditation is not usually when the most self-destructive questions usually show up. They are much more likely to appear when we are in a stressful situation, when we are struggling with a problem or dealing with disappointments. It is wise to practice mindfulness throughout the day, noticing not just the world around us but the pattern of our thoughts. If you hear yourself posing a question, take the time to explore it or jot it down to explore after your next meditation practice.

If you are unclear what kind of toxic questions I’m talking about, here are some examples:

‘Why me?’
Things aren’t going well. Maybe multiple difficulties happen around the same time. Who can blame us for wondering ‘why me?’ However, if this question is a persistent pattern of ‘why me?’ then there is a habit of looking through a very narrow lens focused only on how things affect us personally, without concern for how they impact others. So for example, through the family grapevine, we hear that a relative is gravely ill. A wholesome mind will register the sense of shock, worry and sadness this brings up personally. But it will also expand to focus on the people most affected: the ill person and their immediate family. Quite naturally a wholesome mind will reach out to help or send supportive words. But with a narrow-focused lens, on hearing the news, the unwholesome mind will say, ‘Why is this happening to me now? I’m under so much stress already.’
We can see how the habitual ‘why me?’ question is unskillful, but we can also recognize that it is a messenger. It tells us to spend more time cultivating awareness and compassion, bringing ourselves into balance.

‘Who’s to blame in this situation?’
In any relationship — at home, at work, in any group — things happen that weren’t intended, causing problems that need to be handled. How useful is it in that moment to point fingers and assess blame? There may be a time, later on, when all involved look together at how to avoid such problems in the future, but immediately going into blame mode is not useful.
If this is a question you ask, regular meditation and looking at your attack mode from the perspective of the whole community, whether it’s a community of two or fifty. Fault-finding may be a pattern that you have inherited that is worth noticing and reconsidering. Noticing it doesn’t make you wrong. It makes you wise. It’s the first step to letting down your defenses and appreciating being an integral part of a relationship of any kind.

“Why am I so stupid?” “Why am I such an idiot?” “What is wrong with me?”
These are the questions that class members discovered that they say to themselves (or used to say to themselves and now realize they no longer do. (Yay!) This kind of self-abuse needs to be noticed. A classic way of considering whether this is skillful is to ask yourself if you would say that to a friend. If any friend would dump you for saying such things, then why on earth is it okay to say it to yourself?

“Who am I to…”
My aunt once told me that this question is a time-honored tradition of the women in our family. We doubt our qualifications for everything we want to do and our right to do it. So we sabotage ourselves before others might take us down.
If this resonates with you, consider the possibility that we each have a seat at the table of life, by virtue of our having been born. Are you standing on the edges waiting for an invitation? Your birth certificate is your invitation. If you don’t have time to sit at the table because you are rushing around making sure everyone seated has what they need, sit down and discover that it’s not all up to you to provide for everyone else. Have a seat and enjoy the conversation, the collaboration and the co-creation of a vibrant healthy world.

“Who am I?”
This is a standard philosophical question with no judgment about self-worth, but spending a lot of time on it can put us into a tailspin. It works on the assumption of a separate self, an identity that needs to be shored up with labels, as if we are only worthy if we can be defined by our various attributes and preferences. This is a pattern of thought that can really churn up dissatisfaction, judgments about ourselves and others, and ruin relationships.
Asking ourselves ‘who am I?’ can be answered by repeating “I am me. I am me. I am me…’ over and over until something within either gets joyful or loses interest. This little mantra is one of several I did naturally as a small child. It’s like an onion being peeled, layer after layer until nothing remains. Looking back, this would seem a very Zen experience. Experiential and enlightening.
Another short but powerful practice I developed is called The Dance of the Seven Veils.
In Buddhism, the inner investigation of ‘who am I?’ is actually a look at who or what am I not? The Five Aggregates that make up who we believe ourselves to be are a rich Buddhist teaching, an important part of the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

I hope these few examples enable you to recognize your own toxic questions. I am always happy to help with any questions you have about the practice of inquiry, whether your habitual questions are toxic or valuable, or what adjustments of wording would make them more useful. After class one student shared a question that comes up for her: “What am I supposed to learn from this experience?” I suggested asking instead, “What can I learn from this experience?” Do you notice the difference in how you feel when you ask yourself those two questions? For me the first create a sense of some external pressure, as if other people or the universe or God is requiring me to learn something from this experience. When I say the second I feel enlivened, inspired to find the valuable message in a difficult situation. Slight adjustments can make a big difference!

In the next blog we will begin our exploration of the kinds of questions that are useful, even life-changing, so be sure to check back. If you are not already following this blog or getting a weekly email from me, just click on the ‘Follow Stephanie’ at the top right side of this page below my photo so you can receive the posting fresh each week in your email. If you prefer to be added to my mailing list, contact me and you will receive an email, usually on Sunday morning (PST).