Monthly Archives: November 2018

Thanksgiving, a look at the tradition

t-day

Illustration by Elroy Freem, Scholastic Books

I don’t know about you, but I am feeling especially thankful this year, especially for the rain yesterday and the fresh air that is pouring in every window and door after two weeks of stale air as we holed up from the smoke in so much of California. May the rain fall gently on fire-scarred hills to put out flames and not cause debris flows. I am also especially personally grateful that our daughter and her home in the area of the Camp Fire are safe. And so much more.

I am sure you also have much to be grateful for, no matter what difficulties you may be facing. Over the years I have written quite a number of posts on gratitude, but this year I’d like to look at the American tradition of Thanksgiving.

Yesterday in poetry class at College of Marin, the assignment was to write about Thanksgiving memories, but, the teacher requested, ‘not the ‘Brady Bunch’ ones’. Few were able to comply and the poems were full of memories of the traditional table laid with the best china and polished silverware, white napkins and all the typical fare of a feast made by mothers in the pre-potluck days of singular devotional exhaustion and no doubt dysfunction, because Thanksgiving was only the beginning of the most grueling season of laborious maternal love, and living up to expectations that could never be met because sugar plums are not prone to dancing.

One poet in class did say what the rest of us had not but might have: That most everyone at the table described has since passed into the great beyond. That’s true in my case as well. But still, what great good fortune to have memories to cherish and an opportunity to share them. If sweet memories don’t make good poetry, they might be treasured by descendants, as traditions change a bit with each generation. Yet with no less love or gratitude.

The way we think about the first thanksgiving also changes. On PBS Newshour, there was a piece on how that historical event is being taught in many schools. Teachers are trying to be honest and inclusive of all perspectives of the peoples who were there. Doing so might rattle some Eurocentric Americans who prefer their hand-me-down version, even if it is myopic. Tradition for tradition’s sake is an empty tradition for those who carry it on, and a painful tradition for those who were central to the original story but whose perspective is excluded in its telling.

Why should Euro-Americans of today feel threatened by an honest exploration of our ancestors actions? Does personal identity rely on one’s ancestors being perfect? If so, good luck with that! Those early immigrants were fleeing from persecution and struggled to stay alive in a wilderness very unlike what they had left behind. Many didn’t make it. And many were helped by the inhabitants of the land that was not ‘new’, yet a new experience for the immigrants. The history of the devolution of that relationship has been and will be researched and wondered about, and enriched by looking at it from all perspectives.

In our personal meditative practice, we make room for the possibility that things we have held to be true are not necessarily so. If there is a sense of feeling threatened, then we notice that. But in time we might notice that there is freedom in accepting that we don’t know, that we don’t have everything locked down and figured out. There is joy in letting go of reliance on our ‘story’ to be who we are.

That is just as true in this case. It is our shared story, but we are expanding the narrow idea of who the ‘we’ is, making sure all voices are heard, and collectively recognizing that history does not necessarily define who we are. There is room for investigation and joy in discovering that we are not personally responsible for the deeds of our forebears or for defending or condemning them. But we are responsible for shining a light in the darkness of our own lives, our own unquestioned beliefs and our own fears. And when we do that wholeheartedly, we make room for everyone at the table.

Happy Thanksgiving – today and in every moment of your life. I am most thankful for you!

What insurmountable obstacles are shaping your experience?

wordsNazare, a quiet little fishing village in Portugal, has become a primo world surfing spot because the waves can get up to 80 feet. They reach such heights in part because of the rare undersea geography, where the ocean swells become intensified as the incoming tide passes through a deep canyon pointed at the shore rather than fanning out into the usual topography of gentle shoals.

This undersea geography reminds me how our perception is shaped by forces we might not be aware of, and prime among them is the language we use to describe our inner experience. If you’ve ever felt a huge wave of anger, frustration or anxiety rise up inside you and you wondered where it came from, consider the likelihood that it arose from the words you use to describe your inner landscape.

We often shape our inner landscapes with insurmountable obstacles: high hurdles, mountains, canyons, swamps, pits, minefields, choppy waters, to name but a few. When we try to navigate this inner world, it’s no wonder we get exhausted, give up and go for some mindless and often unhealthy distraction to keep from having to think of the hard work of being alive.

These kinds of descriptions become habituated perceptions that make it difficult to simply experience and process our thoughts and emotions.

Words matter.
Wise Speech, one of the aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path (The Buddha’s prescription for the end of suffering) is speech that it is kind, true and timely. It refers to both the words we express out loud and our inner ‘self-talk’.

In the examples above and many others that are pervasive in the way we describe our inner landscape, our speech fails to be true. There is no barrier within us that needs to be ‘gotten over.’ So how do we ‘get over’ a non-existent barrier? How do we claw our way out of a non-existent ‘pit’ — a pit that can feel very real in our inner world of complex emotion?

Setting ourselves up for tasks that cannot be accomplished is not just untrue but unkind, so again, not Wise Speech. And timely? Many of these metaphors knock us out of the present moment and focus our attention instead on something distant and basically intangible, so I’m guessing they wouldn’t be considered ‘timely’ either.

The other night as I was guest teaching Rick Hanson’s class, a student shared what he was reading in a book about enlightenment, and said that you have to get to the other side of judgment to reach enlightenment.

The other side? What sides? Judgments are not literally sitting in a pile blocking our way to enlightenment, are they? When we notice a judgment, how much more skillful it is to greet it with compassionate curiosity, instead of identifying it as one of the many enemies barricading our way to the hidden ‘destination’ of enlightenment. Simply being present for all that arises in our experience, enlightenment can also arise.

A hole is to fall into
Recently a student told me she eats mindlessly to fill the bottomless hole within her. I am familiar with that sense of there being a hole, but if we are being truthful in our self-talk, it is more skillful to sense into the emotion that is arising in our experience, and then with compassionate clarity, follow the thread back to its origin.

Instead of a hole science tells us there is a complex series of neurons and networks and systems and patterns of thought and emotion, that weave very plausible stories and solid-seeming metaphoric images. But if there is no hole, how can it ever be filled? And if it can never be filled, how does it serve us to perceive a hole? It doesn’t. The image crystallizes one of an infinite fleet of feelings made of unfulfilled cravings and unaddressed fears, and gives it a full-fledged identity. We grab onto it. We own it. It’s our hole and we’re holding onto it. If we simply stay present and explore the emotion itself, we can probably follow the thread back to a parent who was unskillful, unable to love us in the way that we needed, or some kind of early trauma that has heretofore been too difficult to face. Freeing up the inner imagery frees us up to see more clearly the emotions we’re experiencing.

A light at the end of the tunnel?
Another student used the metaphor of finally ‘seeing a light in the darkness’, and while that certainly sounds like a good thing, it implies a long blind wandering in the dark and a reliance on some external source of light to guide us. How much more satisfying to BE the light in the darkness we feel around us, to radiate out lovingkindness. This is what we do in meditation, though we may not label it ‘light’, but we are cultivating the ability to center in with compassion and radiate out that infinite light quality.

Ode to Metaphors
I write poetry, so it may seem odd that I am speaking out against metaphors. I love metaphors! I use them all the time. But because I write, I may be hyper-aware of the power metaphors wield, how they can just as easily obscure understanding as illuminate it.

Metaphor can be a very useful tool, but only if it supports us in being fully present in our experience. When I lead a guided meditation, I share a metaphor of ‘cultivating a compassionate spacious field of awareness’ where sensations, thoughts and emotions arise and fall away. We can use the paired focus of the breath to expand the space as needed to hold all that arises. In this way we’re less likely to get caught up in the tangle of the past and future.

Just plain rude!
In the practice of being mindful of all that arises, we may also notice the rude names we call ourselves, others or inanimate objects in moments of frustration.  These names are creating a very hostile environment that is bound to spill over unskillfully into all aspects of life. Noticing is the first step to gently developing a more skillful relationship with these unsettling inner judgments and opinions.

Should, shouldn’t, must, ought, et al
My interest in how language shapes perception began over forty years ago when I noticed how the word ‘should’ was making me feel a bit beaten down. I wasn’t trying to avoid responsibility for anything, just questioning whether whatever I was doing was enhanced by some inner harpy nagging me to do it. Or, I wondered, was it more fruitful to be in touch with my loving intention for doing the same thing? Whatever the project, it was always more pleasurable and had better results. So words like ‘should’ and ‘ought’ and ‘must’ stand out to me as suspicious, even when used by traditional Buddhist teachers. They feel injected as dictates from some outside source that is not to be questioned. But the Buddha said to question everything! How strong is our ethical foundation if it is grounded in fearfully pleasing some outside source? How much more powerful it is when it comes from our deepest understanding of our intrinsic interconnection with all life, as we are each unique fleeting expressions of life loving itself.

Goal?
Even positive-seeming words like ‘goal’ throw us out of balance, because once there’s a goal, all our efforts are dictated by some future-point that we imagine. So we strive toward that goal instead of living fully in this moment, allowing our wise intention and wise effort to fuel us into blooming in a way that is of benefit to ourselves, others and all beings.

I recently read Alice Waters’ book Coming to My Senses, in which she captures the essence of living in the moment, engaged in sensory awareness. I don’t think anyone could think that she — who created an amazing restaurant and changed the thinking of a whole industry and in fact how we as a culture think about food — hasn’t accomplish anything. But she didn’t define some distant goal and doggedly pursue it. The idea of a restaurant arose organically out of her passion for sharing her love of cooking, her moment to moment experience and her collaboration with others. She worked hard, yes, but not in service to some imagined future moment when all her dreams would be realized, but by being fully alive in each moment, doing what she loved wholeheartedly.

In our practice of meditation, we might get attached to the idea of a goal to become a perfect meditator, perhaps ultimately a perfectly enlightened being. Imagining some distant point to ‘get to’ makes this moment here and now kind of a sidelight, a rehearsal, a stepping stone on the way to something much more satisfying and important. That’s interesting when you stop to consider that this moment is the whole of reality. There is no other moment! They are all just thoughts: memory, planning or worry. They don’t exist! Only here and now exists. This is not some way station point on a timeline, but the all and everything of earthly existence! So let’s be alive fully in this moment, just as it is, to do whatever is meaningful for us to do.

Staying fully present to notice the way we shape our experience through the words we use, and to question their veracity in a compassionate way, we can discover a fresher livelier way to be in relationship to it all.

I am interested in your replies (a link at the top of this post) with any inner landscape descriptions you discover, as well as any other comments and questions you may have.

Disguises can sometimes help discover authenticity

Halloween has come and gone and that’s just fine with me. Except for the adorableness of little trick or treaters and the creativity of some neighbors, it’s a holiday I could do without. I don’t enjoy being scared on purpose and I’ve never been into donning costumes.

But I do remember a time when I accompanied my then teenage daughter to the wig store. She wanted a straight long hair option to her shorter naturally curly do, and I was along for the ride. Or so I thought. It was too much fun not to at least try on a few wigs. My hairstyle at the time was a cap of mousy curls, so I tried on a straight blonde bob with bangs. I looked in the mirror and thought Whoa! Whozzat?

gertaIt definitely was not me, or at least not the me I knew. Whoever she was came to life full-blown, and claimed her name was Gerta – pronounced Gair-ta. And she demanded I buy that wig. So I did.

Much to my husband’s dismay. I had always heard that husbands like a little variety to spice things up, but not mine. And certainly not this cheeky chick. Wearing my Gerta wig, I would utter things I normally wouldn’t even think, let alone say. I’d been taken over by a whole different persona, and it was kind of fun.

I was normally shy in unfamiliar situations, as if a whole swarm of butterflies lived in my stomach. But wearing that wig I remember one time arriving late at a coworker’s birthday dinner with a large group of friends I didn’t know. Instead of sneaking in and quietly finding my seat as I would normally do, I made a grand entrance down a circular staircase, and somehow had them all in stitches. Maybe at first they thought I was hired entertainment until I sat down at the table.

Another time, a group of us was asked to sing a few personalized oldies at our friend’s 40th birthday party, and while normally I would stand in the back and mouth the words, that time, with my Gerta persona in place, I belted the lyrics out and had a great time.

Though I rarely wore it, I kept that wig around for a number of years. But more importantly, having had that empowered Gerta experience showed me that my seemingly ingrained shyness was not necessarily ‘me’.

To build up my self-confidence in order to be able to do things I wanted to do, I got up the nerve to join my local Toastmasters club where week after week I stood in front of a group, making every effort to speak coherently. With practice and kind encouragement, I found my voice. Now I can speak to large groups and be completely at home — not playing a role, not taking on a persona, like that cheeky Gerta — just unafraid to be seen with all my vulnerabilities and variations.

Have you ever had that freeing experience of a costumed transformation? A Halloween costume? A role in a play? What did that persona have that you think you don’t? Did you like her or him?

In class one student shared an experience of getting together with a group of friends to create some festive craft for a member of their group who was seriously ill and in need of good cheer. That sense of love for this friend, and the support of the group, let her discover the unknown delight of letting herself enjoy being outlandishly silly.

Another student told us how she came into a leadership role, something she had been averse to all her life. Again, it was in having a strong purpose — a cause she cared about, and having the encouragement of others who shared that sense of purpose and saw the latent leadership qualities she had within her.

Both these experiences parallel my own of joining Toastmasters, where I received so much support.  But what was my purpose? What drove me to want to speak in the first place? Decades ago I had had a life-transforming experience through developing a meditation practice, and I wanted to help others, women especially, who may find themselves overwhelmed with wanting to please others, focusing exclusively on the needs of all who relied on them, and in the process losing any sense of their own needs.

So adding these three personal experiences into the mix, let me ask you again if there is any unexpressed part of you that is being kept down for lack of a sense of purpose, love or calling, and/or a lack of support and encouragement from those around you?

Another student in class who had been feeling somewhat stalled and ambivalent in her recent decision to pursue a particular career, came to tears when she realized this was exactly where she needed to put her focus: Finding that passionate sense of purpose — why and for whom was she pursuing this line of work — and connecting with those who support her in that effort.

It seems sometimes we need a little playful exploration outside our comfort zone in order to expand our understanding of our most authentic self.

Getting past perfect
We all have assumptions about who we are, who we want to be or ‘should’ be. Our practice of meditation is in part about letting go of the need to establish a polished identity to present to the world. We are present to notice the desire to remake ourselves and perhaps investigate where it comes from.

There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by other people. But it’s important to see them as the humans they are. It’s so easy to get caught up in comparing mind, lost in the painful disparity between what we judge as our messy insides and what we perceive to be their perfect polished outside. Chances are their insides are messy, too. Can we allow for that? Chances are others see us as a lot more perfectly polished than we feel. Can we make room for that likely possibility?

Even if we are content with our identity, we may feel it’s important to be clear on just what that identity is. We may feel that in order to be liked, loved, respected, etc., we need to be seen in a certain way, so we go all ‘if you like pina colada and getting caught in the rain’, trotting out our likes and dislikes, hope and dreams, accomplishments, opinions, phobias, etc., looking for the safety of being seen for who we believe ourselves to be.

But our need to establish identity based on our preferences, how we look, how we think, etc. sets us up for very shallow and limited connections. It locks us in to choices and opinions that we may have made when we were seven or seventeen or thirty-seven. It creates a tangled knot of unexamined and probably inaccurate detritus that blocks our view, and others’ view of us. It fortifies a separate seeming identity that keeps us isolated and unhappy.

How liberating to simply exist in this moment and respond to whatever arises in whatever way feels natural. We can be vulnerable and honest and fluid. This is not to hide or obscure any current preferences, etc. that we may have; it’s only to understand that they do not define us. And, as practicing meditators, we use awareness and wise effort to be kind, truthful and timely in our responses.

We can succumb to the idea that in the practice of meditation and the study of Buddhist teachings, there is a goal to ‘become’ a better, wiser, kinder person — as if this is some grand makeover we are doing here. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to build a superpower of wisdom and compassion, to become some charismatic being with the ability to withstand a gazillion traumas at a single bound.

But that’s not what we’re doing here. We’re not trying to ‘be’ anything. We’re not donning a new persona. We are not taking the wisdom teachings, and constructing, as if out of Legos, the ideal persona of an enlightened being. Instead we rest in the understanding that we are all fleeting expressions of life loving itself — a complex ever-changing stream of patterns of being. Just noticing what’s arising in our experience with curiosity and compassion, releasing assumptions as we find them, to rest in a joyful state of being. We set and reset our intention to be present in this moment just as it is, holding it in an open and loving embracing. That’s our practice. Even as we live our intention to contribute to the well being of all life, in a way that is, quite naturally, our own unique expression of that love.

In our exploration of the Seven Factors of Awakening, we have been looking at Equanimity.

As with all of the factors, any attempt to appear to ‘have equanimity’ will not be authentic. The whole of our exploration, investigation and practice are undermined when our core intention is to be seen as wise, mindful, etc. We do ourselves a great injustice when we don’t allow for all of who we are to simply be a presence in our experience, to acknowledge what is arising with as much kindness and compassion as we can.

If we have been trying these factors on like wigs at a costume shop, seeing how we can bluff our way through and do a convincing caricature of a person who has it all together, then we might be intrigued and inspired in the short run — as I was with Gerta, discovering the possibility of such a way of being within me — but in the long run the wig will get itchy and irritating, and we’ll come to understand that to truly awaken takes the regular honest challenging practice of simply being present and allowing ourselves to grow, learn from the dharma and our own insights without the need to become anything or anyone.

 

More than just coping with it all

Doesn’t it seem like just when things can’t get any worse, they do? This week in the United States has been marked by violence born out of such senseless hatred, it feels unbearable. In case you are reading this at a later date, and wonder which of the many senseless acts of violence I might be referring to, this week it is the slaughter of worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where eleven people were killed.

memorialI appreciated how PBS Newshour offered photos and insight into each person who died. Like the doctor who, even at a time when it wasn’t sure how AIDS was transmitted, saw his patients as people worthy of respect and kindness, shaking their hands without gloves and masks that many others in the medical community felt was necessary. And the brothers who looked out for each other with such sweet caring. What blessings they all were to the life of those around them. May they all rest in peace.

Getting a glimpse into who they were was such a reminder that the horrendous act that took their lives had nothing to do with them and who they were as people. It was an act of madness, a festering in a warped mind that manifested in a pattern that has taken root in our culture at this time and is all too easy to replicate. These kinds of patterns play out as impersonally as random tornadoes, the deranged perpetrator in some ways as helpless as the victims. The difference is that we as a community of citizens have no power over tornadoes, but we do have the power to change this kind of pattern, to make it more difficult to acquire the means to attack and easier to find mental health care. And yet we allow it to take the best of us, again and again.

How do we handle the onslaught of such a pattern repeating like a storm that strikes anywhere and doesn’t let up? Hopefully, with equanimity.

Equanimity? That sounds way too passive, way too ‘ho hum, another murderous rampage, what else is new?’ Are we practicing in order to take in such news like water off a duck’s back, leaving us untouched and uncaring? If that were the case, leave me out!

But equanimity is not disengagement from life. It is in some ways deep engagement, but done so with moment to moment attention, compassion and awareness. There is a Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, where meditators breathe in the pain of the world, a particular situation, person or group of people; and then breathe out loving-kindness. Through spacious compassionate awareness, the pain is diluted, cleansed and transformed into kindness, into good will for ourselves and all beings, without exception. It is a deep practice to be undertaken by those with a strong meditation practice that supports it. It is a way of responding to what arises with skillful means. It is empowering, balancing and enlightening. And it cultivates true equanimity.

But the tonglen practice is not the only response one could have, of course. In our class, as we shed tears and passed the tissues, a few shared how they were caring for themselves at this time. We always begin with ourselves. What is it that we need in order to be okay in this moment? Turn off the news and turn on some uplifting music? Take a walk in nature? Do some yoga? Meditate? Call a dear friend and have a deep sharing? These are skillful ways to return to our center. It is not running away. It is being fully present in this moment.

In our exploration of the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Awakening, we are just now coming to the last factor: Equanimity. How fortuitous. As a factor of awakening, it is both a quality we cultivate and a state of being that feels like a gift. And because it is the last on the Buddha’s list of factors, we might reasonably assume that it relies on all the previous factors. And that would be true. But also true is that the Buddha’s lists are often not linear but circular, so that all these factors are interdependent and evolve together.

Equanimity is being fully present with all that arises in any given moment, greeting it with spacious friendliness. Without equanimity, we are a jumble of reactivity, easily irritated, aggravated, hurt, worried, and tossed about in a turmoil of thoughts, entangled in knots of memories and judgments, at war with the world and with ourselves.

When we hear the horror stories in the news, it’s an opportunity to notice our own reactions. If we are paying attention, we can watch ourselves being tossed about as if on huge ocean waves with strong currents and undertows sucking us down and smashing us to the gravelly bottom of our emotional being.

We see that reactivity, in the form of grasping, clinging and aversion, not only causes suffering but is based on not pausing to notice the interconnectedness of all life and the intrinsic necessary nature of impermanence.

With the cultivation of all the factors of awakening — mindfulness (sati), investigation of the nature of reality (dhamma vicaya), energy/effort (viriya), joy (pīti), tranquility (passaddhi), concentration/clear awareness (samādhi), and equanimity (upekkha) — we are more and more able to be present, clear-seeing and compassionate.

When the loss is personal
Dealing with the news of the world is one thing, but personal loss feels very different, doesn’t it?

At moments of great loss, it can be like a huge boulder falling into a pond, causing a lot of emotional turmoil, so much so that even the wisest among us can get caught up in the waves and pulled down so they think they might drown.

But at some point, after the waves quiet down and the person is able to see the sky above and feel the lapping of the surface of the water around them, if they have been practicing being fully present and have had insights into the nature of being, equanimity even in their great loss is possible.

We can see the nature of impermanence playing out in every aspect of all of life, and this event is one expression of that nature. Since we have already discovered for ourselves that impermanence is key to life itself, we don’t fall down the rabbit hole of rueing the death, even of someone we love. We know we all die. We may not like the circumstances, or that life was cut short relative to the average lifespan, but we recognize that nothing in life is average, that given the causes and conditions that have come together in this way at this time, this loss is inevitable.

A deeper kind of well-wishing
It is a rich and important part of our practice to send metta, infinite loving kindness, to all beings. With a deeper understanding of the nature of life, we might deepen our well-wishing beyond hoping that we, our loved ones and all beings bypass difficulty, pain or loss. These are conditions of life that happen to all of us. So what we might more deeply wish for is that we, our loved ones and all beings have the skills to greet life’s challenges with equanimity and all of these Seven Factors of Awakening.