Monthly Archives: August 2018

When things fall apart

hurricane“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
– W. B. Yeats, ‘Second Coming’

Even when our personal lives are satisfactory, many of us are deeply stressed by the current state of the world. If this is your experience, you may find it challenging to be tranquil in the midst of it all. And perhaps you don’t feel it’s right to cultivate tranquility when so much in the world is so wrong. You believe times like these call for action, not ‘navel gazing’.

But where does wise action come from? If things are falling apart and the center cannot hold, doesn’t it make sense to center ourselves?  Cultivating tranquility assures a better chance to be wiser and kinder in our choices, actions and words.

From that tranquil center arises gratitude for being alive to do even the hardest work. It provides clarity to see our purpose, where we can help and where we can remember that ‘it’s not all up to me.’ We can find true forgiveness for our own failings as well as for the misguided words and behaviors of others. We may discover a sense of deep connection to all beings of all species of all eras. That connection can provide additional support and meaning to our efforts. When tranquility is discovered and nourished through sitting in silence, then loving-kindness for ourselves and all beings blossoms forth into wise and skillful interaction.

And we are much less likely to succumb to despair.
My mother was a lifelong peace-worker, and on occasion she would fall into despair, especially in her later years when she could look back on all her efforts and judge them a failure, as it seemed the world was no closer to peace than it had ever been. It was hard to scrape herself off the floor and begin again. She had great strength but it was borne of pure will. She would give herself a good talking to and began again. She had the grit we Americans admire, but grit can only take us so far, and it rubs us raw in the process. Knowing how things ‘should’ be, and feeling we ‘should’ be able to solve every problem, entangles us in a deepening misery of fault-finding. This wasn’t commonly understood when she was alive. Meditation wasn’t a common practice and the phrase ‘emotional intelligence’ had not come into common parlance.

I believe if she had lived long enough to learn about and try the skillful techniques to cultivate an inner strength that doesn’t rely on teeth-clenching determination to sustain her noble commitment, she would have been less likely to fall into despair.

When she died on ‘March Forth’ 1989, I had a year of magical thinking, a gift of the unbearable grief I experienced. In my mind, my mother, once freed from the limits of embodiment – get this! – single-handedly tore down the Berlin Wall, ended apartheid in South Africa, inspired over a million Chinese to demonstrate for democracy in Tienanmen Square, ended heavy-handed communist rule in various eastern European countries, etc. etc.

But even with that great post-life work, she might have despaired. After all, if she was doing all that, couldn’t she have stopped the earthquake that devastated her beloved Bay Area? Couldn’t she, with her love of oceans and marine life, have taken a moment to prevent the Exxon Valdez oil spill? That sense of despair, familiar to us all at times, comes from the belief that perfection is possible, and that anything in life can be permanent. J. R. R. Tolkien is quoted as saying, “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.

This is such an important thing to remember. We don’t know! Tranquility is possible if we can acknowledge that simple fact. Our inherent negativity bias makes us more inclined to think the worst is coming, and it’s enforced by the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ mentality of the news. But the news only shares the events that stand out because they are unusual. That means that most of everything that is going on in the daily life of most people is at least tolerable, and likely to contain moments of laughter and contentment.

Even when it seems that politicians are up to their gills in debt to interests not aligned with the public good and are only skilled at lying, we discover newer faces on the scene, with clearer kinder vision and a way of bridging the great divides between us.

There’s a Buddhist expression ‘No mud, no lotus.’ In the context of the current political shenanigans, we might open to the possibility that out of this period of mud-slinging, goodness is also arising. These newcomer candidates would likely not have been inspired to run if they thought everything was going along just fine without them. And if we were satisfied with the status quo, would we be so inspired to support them, to volunteer to get out the vote and spread the word? Probably not.

With so much we don’t know, one thing we can be sure of is that change is the only constant. Can we center ourselves and open our arms to embrace the ever-changing nature of life? It is possible to experience tranquility even in the midst of tumultuous events, seasons, power, politics, cultural favor, etc. The Eight Worldly Winds are always blowing: Gain and Loss, Pleasure and Pain, Praise and Blame, Fame and Censure. As long as we are alive, the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows are the gift and the challenge of earthly life. Why rail against it? Why make an enemy of it? Why add to the suffering? If we cultivate tranquility at the center of our being and operate from that place of calm inner strength, we can not only nourish ourselves but all life. We can be a light in the darkness, joining together with a whole world of others who are centered in tranquility and cultivating wisdom.

 

Tranquility is one of the Seven Factors of Awakening, and spending time with it has been a very rich experience for me. A few posts back we looked at ‘grudges, pet peeves and other mental knots’. Since then I have continued to notice my grudges when they come up, and I’m finding an unexpected increase in my capacity for compassion, forgiveness and letting go. It’s as if I’m a snake in molting season. Letting go, letting go, letting go. What a great unburdening!

Yesterday I was in the grocery store parking lot and saw the car of the tech who many many years ago ‘fixed’ my computer, and in the process made it unusable, leading to a whole slew of painfully expensive solutions. For the past twenty years whenever I saw that car, my mind would get caught up in that tangled knot of blame. Grrrr. This time I felt the rise of that knot again, so I paused and sat with the grudge for a moment. Just then the ‘fixer’ came out of the grocery store and got in the car. Oh my, how that person had aged. I felt compassion. And in that feeling compassion, the knot untangled more and dissolved. How could I hold a grudge against someone for so long? Someone who was, after all, just trying to help, even if it turned out not to be very helpful? Have I never made mistakes? Ha! Of course I have. Plenty of them! As have we all, even though we do our best not to. What a lovely release I experienced. And I expect there will be many more.

Who in your life entangles you in knots? Is there room for forgiveness? Not forcing anything, but just making room for the possibility? Are there some assumptions you’ve been clinging to that are in need of questioning – Is this true? How do I know this is true?

Tranquility arises from compassion, forgiveness and letting go. The tranquility, in turn, births skillful words and actions. Even, or perhaps especially, when it seems things are falling apart.

Listen up! A recorded dharma talk

George-Stef-Phila-1965

My dad and I, circa 1965

Many who read my weekly blog posts have not heard me give a dharma talk, but here’s an opportunity to do so, thanks to Marin Sangha, where I recently gave this talk.

I’ve been invited to be a regular guest teacher for this group. Marin Sangha and San Rafael Meditation Group (where I’ve been guest teaching for several years now), are the largest insight meditation groups in Marin outside of Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I am honored to be included on both their rosters of guest teachers.

This talk was given on Father’s Day and starts by thanking all fathers present, and then looks at our relationships or lack of relationships with our fathers. But it extends well beyond that into relationships in general. I can’t imagine anyone who will not relate to this talk in some way.

Listen to my June 17th dharma talk at Marin Sangha

(You can listen here, or go to Marin Sangha and download it. Don’t be alarmed by the length, as the last part is Q&A.)

I offer this recorded talk in lieu of a written dharma post this week, and I hope you will listen and hopefully comment. I appreciate your feedback. It was very well received by Marin Sangha (thus the invitation to be a regular!) and I hope you find it valuable too.

Tranquility? What is that?

lake-clouds-500In our investigation of the Seven Factors of Awakening, we arrive at Tranquility. Ahhhh. The word has such a sense of relief/release/relaxation, doesn’t it? It’s as if you’re sitting by the edge of a peaceful lake, enjoying sun gently warming your skin and being lulled by the sound of softly lapping water.

Taking this imaginary experience a little further, perhaps you swim in a leisurely way to the middle of the lake and lie on your back. Feel the buoyant support of the water as it ripples. Gaze up at the sky and rest in the beauty of the clouds drifting by.

Ahhhh. This is a lovely imagination meditation to remind ourselves of what’s possible in our experience. But if we think the only way to experience tranquility is to go on a vacation, either physically or in our imagination, then we are chasing after peace and calm, and making an enemy of all else that arises in our experience. Chasing after such tranquility is actually a hindrance to awakening and a cause of suffering. Bummer, because I really liked just relaxing on the lake. Didn’t you? 

Fortunately, we can still relax on the lake any time we want and consider it a valuable experience. It trains us to notice the qualities of tranquility that we can cultivate in our lives.

When we were on that lake, remember that sense of buoyancy? At any moment in our lives, regardless of what is going on, there is that same buoyant quality of support. We’re often just too entangled in thought to notice it. We can experience it if we have cultivated awareness, compassion, energy and joy. We don’t need to tense up to hold everything in our lives together. Whether this sense of buoyancy comes naturally or not, we can let go of any habit of scolding ourselves for not seeing it, or blaming the world for not providing it.

Science supports our exploration
The regular practice of meditation cultivates a spaciousness that allows for a deepening understanding of the permeability of all matter. Our habit of mind is to experience objects as solid. But are they? In fact they are not. Tell that to my toe that just stubbed itself on a stone, right? But we know that all existence is made up of molecules and that every molecule is mostly space. Why does this matter?

Even though in practical ways, we experience matter as solid — very important so that we take responsibility when, for example, we are driving a heavy vehicle around fragile pedestrians — at a more intuitive level, we can also recognize the impermanent, fleeting and ultimately permeable nature of being.

Making room for both of these ways of seeing is important. Life is not either/or. It is both/and. Yes, objects are solid. And yet they are not. This is a challenging mental leap if we were raised in an either/or world, which most of us were. When we were born, that solid seeming world was the knowledge we lacked, and we needed to learn it to get around. It would be careless to raise a child without that understanding. But can we leave room also for the more permeable perceptions? Can we release into the all-one-ness of being?

Thus begins our exploration of tranquility which we will continue in the next dharma post. For now, see if you can pay attention especially to tranquil moments during the week. Then, instead of grasping and clinging to them, notice the qualities of those moments. What do they feel like? Is it just the absence of aggravation? Or is there something there? What is that quality? What is this tranquility? How does it feel?

In your meditation, when thoughts arise, you might recognize them as permeable, transparent, mist. I find those three words help me to understand the nature of thoughts and emotions that arise in my experience, and this noting allows them to dissipate and disappear.

Leaving the gently lapping shores of tranquility in their wake.

Grudges, pet peeves and other tangled mental knots

 

San Anselmo Creek detail

Detail of San Anselmo Creek, watercolor by Will Noble

One of the greatest benefits of meditation for me has been to be able to see thoughts and emotions as threads passing through my spacious field of experience rather than as aspects of myself that define and confine me. The thoughts may be shaped by a series of life events, just as the flow of water is determined by the shape of the landscape. But the landscape is also shaped by the water, constantly being carved. Neither is completely solid, and neither are my thoughts nor the patterns of behavior they may shape within my experience of being alive at this moment in time.

Imagine in this ever-changing stream there are little eddies, whirlpools where twigs and leaves get tangled and stuck. This is a good metaphor for the tightly-knotted mental formations that in the past I either didn’t notice or just accepted as unavoidable parts of my inner landscape. I now see them too as transient. Just because they’ve been hanging out there for decades doesn’t mean they are solid and impenetrable.

But those knots of thought and emotion do entangle us, don’t they? We might not even realize it as we go about our busy lives, maybe a bit mindless because who has the time to be mindful? Out of seemingly nowhere and for no reason we can explain, maybe we find ourselves caught up in painful thinking. Was it something someone said? That will likely send us off into a whirlpool of anger or hurt feelings. It could have been something someone said a long time ago that we replay again and again. It could even be something we imagine someone saying to us that they would never do! We have the capacity to hurt our own feelings! Amazing.

If we don’t bring ourselves into the present moment and develop a practice that helps us notice these recurring thoughts and emotions, then we can get stuck in a painful pattern.

It’s a bit like if your home was full of poorly arranged furniture. Maybe there’s a couch that sticks out into the hallway that keeps banging your shin or stubbing your toe as you walk by. Maybe you rail against the pain but don’t notice what caused it. You’re so used to that unpleasant sensation that you think this is just how it is. And then maybe you start paying a bit more attention, and you learn how to navigate the space mindfully, rerouting yourself around that sticking out couch. And then one day you recognize that the couch is not locked down in place. So it is with these mental formations. Avoiding them is a stopgap measure. Investigating them is at the heart of our practice. Investigation is one of the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Awakening.

Investigating with compassion and clarity, we may be able to see what’s causing us pain, and then with time and continued practice to see the permeable and impermanent nature of all things, including mental knots.

You know that first line of the AA serenity prayer? “May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” We’re cultivating that kind of wisdom with our practice and our willingness to investigate in a way that brings insight. (Not all that surprisingly, mindfulness meditation is becoming part of the AA experience in many meetings as a useful tool to do the important work of freeing oneself from addiction.)

My little grudge fest
A grudge is definitely a mental knot, whirling clump in the stream of my mind activity. Lately I’ve been noticing when a grudge arises. It keeps surprising me how many grudges I have and how long I can hold them. Decades! A lifetime! Oh my. That’s not very compassionate, I tell myself. Shouldn’t I have forgiven that person long ago and forgotten whatever they did to offend me so?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Forgiveness, it is often said, is not about the other person, but about our own tight holding onto bad feelings. Forgiving is letting go of those feelings and embracing the here and now. All good. But it’s possible that forgetting may not be as wise. Let’s investigate.

Recently I was reading a regular column about relationships in our local Pacific Sun weekly. A man was asking how he could get over the girl friend who had dumped him when he loved her so much. Amy Alkon, the ‘Advice Goddess’, cited some research that said it is useful to purposely remember all the negative things about the past love that you can conjure up, as a counterbalance to the idealized version you have been conjuring up.

Interesting. In the past I had a friend who I enjoyed so much, but who, time and time again, ended up verbally attacking me. Clearly, in the parlance of Buddhism, that friend was not a part of my sangha — the community of people that support me in my meditation practice and wish me well. Looking back, I can see that maybe in order to get over that friendship and not be sucked back into it, always with the same painful result, somehow I knew to develop a strong mental formation of all the harmful things that person had done to me. So there it is: That tight knot of strong opinions that have protected me well all the years since. A grudge that serves a purpose.

Sounds good. But let me not be too quick to tie that knot in a bow. An important part of my process has always been, even as I seem to have developed this grudge for my own well being, to send that person metta, loving-kindness, whenever she comes to mind. And I believe that makes all the difference in any relationship and in any mental formation. Otherwise, it can be a knot of anger straining to explode.

So it looks like my grudge served a purpose, but I can investigate further and ask myself if it still serves a purpose. Is it still necessary to remember her ill-will and vicious words in order to keep clear of her? It’s been decades and I have no idea where lives or even if she is still alive. But here’s the thing: If she were to show up at my door, I might very well still need that grudge, that purposeful reminder, to stave off the desire to engage in the fun we had together, and maybe I would convince myself that she has changed so much that we could be friends again. So even now, that grudge needs to be there, sorry to say. May she be well. May she be happy.

Perhaps this brings to mind for you a past relationship that you know you are well out of. Maybe it was more than just a casual friendship, but a life-partner relationship. Perhaps you have a mix of memories, some wonderful, some painful. What is of value for you here and now to remember? Are your negative memories serving a purpose to protect you? If so, is it possible to see them in that way rather than a torrent of torment that throws you into a dark place even now? Is it possible, even though you never want to see them again (or at least the wisest part of you doesn’t!) to wish them well. May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be peaceful. May you be happy. We wish this for all beings, without exception. And when we cultivate loving-kindness as an ongoing practice, feeling it wholeheartedly for ourselves first and then extending out into the greater community of beings, we also create a path of return from getting lost in the past or the future. We send loving-kindness to whomever we were thinking about, and we return to this moment, just as it is.

I will keep noticing my grudges as they arise, and I’ll check them out to see if they are serving me in some way or if they are just causing me unnecessary pain. Such investigation is useful and powerful!

What about you? Are you having a little grudge-fest too?


Pet Peeves
I notice my pet peeves popping up from time to time, those irrational irritations that I have a hard time overcoming. The other night I was at a poetry reading and there was a poet sitting a few seats away from me, waiting for her turn to step up to the mike. Instead of being attentive to the beautiful reading by the poet at the microphone, she kept rustling through her papers in preparation for her time up. That really bugged me. It was so disrespectful. It was so self-centered. It was so not in the moment. Oh, I could go on. But here I am, a meditator and meditation teacher who says in my guided intro, ‘Let all sounds arising in this moment be part of the symphony of now’, (I kid you not! I do say that, and it makes sense in context.) So why do I find so much irritation around this particular sound. Why was this woman’s rustling of papers not part of my ‘symphony of now’?

Every sound we hear can affect us, registering as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The rustling sound was not unpleasant in and of itself, but it was a distraction, making it even harder to hear the reading over an aging muddled sound system.

Noting the sound isn’t all that goes on when we register an unpleasant sound or other sensation, is it? We could stop there, and that’s part of the practice of meditation, to notice that pleasant-unpleasant-neutral experience, and then return to the breath. We do that practice because that feeling tone, especially an unpleasant one, acts like a diving board into the vast sea of thoughts that drown us in waves from other times and other places, adding buoyancy to our harsh judgments and anchored opinions.

In the case of the rustling papers, to me it seemed disrespectful to the current speaker and to the rest of us, so my mind felt the pull of the sea of remembering other occasions where I may have felt disrespected, and that lent an out-of-proportion reaction to the situation.

Sound familiar? Out of proportion reactions, either within ourselves or in others, operate in just this way. They take a current irritation, bolster it up with past examples, and boom! Scary stuff in some cases, right? Not all people curb their impulses arising from such irritation, do they? Lucky for that poet, and for me, I didn’t act out my pet peeve. 😉

Instead, when someone annoys me, I try to muster some understanding of what their experience is and how it might adversely affect their current behavior. As a poet myself, I can relate to a poet who is next up on the reading roster wanting to be ready. But why had she waited until now to organize her writing? I always know what I’ll be reading in advance. Well, goodie for me. Maybe she has a lot going on in her life, and this was her first chance to prepare. Maybe she’s holding down two jobs, taking care of a dying parent and… Okay, okay. Bless her heart. May she be well. May she be at ease. May she be happy. May I let my annoyances go.

Noticing pet peeves, it’s useful to see what other experiences may be compounding our irritation. We’ve looked at the supporting cast of memories that act like a little cheer-leading team, egging us on. But our irritation is also exacerbated by our mood, having had a rough day, experiencing physical pain and other factors. For me in that moment, I had pain in my hip and sitting in a hard chair was difficult. Without that would I have even noticed the rustling? Hard to say.

Another important contributor to our annoyance is if we think the perpetrator is doing it on purpose to annoy us or for any other reason. A student in class this week noted that we get in the habit of taking bad behavior by others quite personally. Someone cuts us off in traffic. Can we remember it’s not about us? Yes they put us in harm’s way, but that wasn’t their intention. Yes, they should have been more skillful, but are we going to let the fear they brought up spark a rant that will no doubt make us less mindful of our own driving?

Here’s a Buddhist story that fits in well here.
A man is sitting in a rowboat fishing on a foggy morning, when he notices another boat coming toward him. In the mist he can’t see the person steering the boat, but it’s clear the boat is going to hit his, so he calls out. But the boat keeps coming at him. So he calls out louder, this time more aggressively, fueled by his fear that the boat might hit him and the dread of the harm and hassle that might entail. But the boat keeps coming! Now he’s really angry. This other boater is clearly ignoring him and is purposely attacking him. So he yells curses and uses his oar, not just to fend off the approaching boat to keep himself safe, but to clobber the stupid expletive deleted at the helm.

Only then is he able to see that the other boat is empty. Suddenly all his feelings change. He has no hard feelings about a boat floating aimlessly. It had just come loose from its mooring. He doesn’t think it is out to attack him. He just pushes it away and checks his fishing line.

You are not your knots
We all have pet peeves and grudges to one degree or another. These preferences are worth noticing and exploring. What isn’t useful is taking them on as identity, seeing them as who we are: ‘I’m the kind of person who…’ This need to identify with the free-floating patterns of mind and to use them to shore up a sense of separate self, comes from fear of not being seen, loved or respected. The fear can activate unskillful and even dangerous behavior. So it’s definitely something to notice.

Next time you find yourself caught up in a mental knot, see if you can recognize it as permeable, impermanent. Maybe it’s there to serve a purpose, maybe not. Either way, it’s worth exploring. And if you explore, practice kindness. Your grudges and pet peeves are not enemies nor badges of shame. Greet them as holders of useful information they are oh so ready to share. Are you ready to pay attention?