Monthly Archives: February 2019

When things trigger painful memories

When I’m studying French on the Duolingo app, sometimes I find myself thinking about a restaurant where we recently met up with family members. Why? I was early and used the time to finish up my lesson while we waited for them, and now the restaurant and Duolingo are linked in some mental thought thread in my head.

Why am I telling you this? Because we all have lingering thoughts in our minds that come up in certain situations, and it’s skillful to notice what they are and if they are upsetting, which this example was not, to find a way to process them.

You are probably familiar with Marie Kondo and her books and Netflix series about tidying up. She is different from typical organizers because her emphasis is on paying attention to the thoughts that come up when you hold an object — a piece of clothing, for example. She has her readers and viewers ask themselves, ‘Does this spark joy?’

For many the concept of sparking joy is difficult to grasp. A friend of mine said that she couldn’t get it until she discovered ‘a back door’ to understanding it. She was holding an old T-shirt she never wore but couldn’t think of a logical reason to get rid of since it was in good shape and fit. Then she realized that it reminded her of a very negative experience in her distant past. Spark joy? Quite the opposite! But it revealed the strong relationship between seemingly benign objects and complex mental processes.

Neuroscientists say we have a negativity bias, so it’s not surprising that it was easier for her to notice a bad feeling arising than a good one. But either way, once we see that connection, we are more attuned to noticing thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that crop up in reaction to certain stimuli. It’s not a big leap to purposefully pay attention and note if those feelings are positive or negative.

If negative, Marie Kondo says to thank the object and put it in a pile to give away. I like this respectful relationship with objects. Would it be as skillful to take that T-shirt and project all the unhappiness it reminds her of, and banish it from her sight? It’s more skillful to see that while the T-shirt has bad memories for her, it might provide a positive experience for someone else. Giving it away as an act of generosity and good will is a more empowering and pleasurable than banishment.

Noticing the connection between objects and mental formations is powerful. We can better understand how PTSD gets triggered, too. We are prone to thinking of post traumatic stress as something only soldiers in combat suffer. Certainly, their experiences are often overwhelming compared to what most of us go through. While we may experience severe trauma, it is unlikely we will experience it again and again, unless we are being repeatedly victimized and have no means of escape.

But many of us have experienced moments of fear, physical pain or other trauma. Long after these incidents have passed, we may relive the trauma when we are where it happened, in a similar situation or exposed to sensory triggers. But we may not even be fully aware that that is what is happening. We just suddenly feel fearful, sad, depressed, tense. Maybe it’s like the sun has just gone behind a cloud and everything is a little duller.

One personal example: Twenty or so years ago we had a power outage and the garage door had to be opened manually. My husband and daughter were leaving and I was staying home for the day. After they pulled out of the garage, I manually lowered the door from inside. Somehow in the process my finger got caught between two horizontal panels that interlock. The pain was excruciating. I screamed as loud as I could. I had to get immediate help. But would anyone hear me? My husband and daughter were inside a vehicle with the motor running and heading out. Our only near neighbor was gone for the day. In that instant I imagined spending eight hours stuck in pain, standing there helpless.

Fortunately, my daughter has amazing hearing, and they were able to rescue me. My finger wasn’t permanently damaged and we installed interior handles on garage door (and now plan to look into the backup batteries they have for them!) But every time I am around that garage door, that memory, that woozie feeling, that fear, are all present with me.

What about you? Have you ever been in a situation that was physically and/or emotionally painful? If so, have you noticed that whenever you are where it happened, memories arise with associated physical sensations? And if so, are these memories of a different quality than memories of benign events or pleasurable ones? Perhaps your experience doesn’t qualify as trauma to you, but regardless of its severity, the mind works the same way, and even though your experience doesn’t require therapy, it does benefit from noticing.

I have noticed that shining a light on that garage door experience of mine has somewhat neutralized my reactivity to being around the door. Simply noticing and registering how these mental connections happen can be of great benefit.

I am no expert in trauma, but as an insight meditation teacher trained to observe patterns of mental processes, here’s what I’ve noticed:

Trauma is an overwhelming experience that is challenging to release because it is a compressed period of intense senses and emotions. Therefore, we need to give ourselves more quiet time to process it all. We don’t necessarily have to sit still. We can walk, row, hike, do physical chores, etc. — but the mind has to have time to disengage from busy life and distractions.

Meditation enables us to cultivate a compassionate field of awareness where we can safely be present with even the most difficult emotional content. After periods of meditation, we are better able to see thoughts as threads passing through our current experience. We can see these mental formations as passing products of ongoing processes. They are not who we are. They do not define us. And they are not permanent if we are paying attention.

The more aware I am of my emotional reactivity to the garage door, the less it causes an emotional reaction. I am not trying to get rid of my feelings or change anything. Awareness is powerful. Add in some metta (lovingkindness) for ourselves and for the trigger location and for anyone else involved, and there will be even deeper healing.

In the case of severe trauma, there will likely be some self-protective fear that sabotages awareness, and makes us unwilling to go there — in Buddhism this is called the Dragon at the Gate. If you find yourself paralyzed at the gate of deep investigation that will free you to be fully alive in every moment, then consider finding a skilled therapist to act as a guide.

Noticing the pattern of our thoughts is one of the great benefits of meditation, and especially going on a silent meditation retreat. Befriending the dragon at the gate of awareness, we gain insight and the freedom to be fully alive in this moment.

GYR-8! The Gyroscope and the Buddha’s Eight Worldly Winds


Last spring we looked at the Eight Worldly Winds: pleasure & pain, gain & loss, praise & censure, status & disgrace. Each of us is always in some relationship with these ‘winds’. If we are not experiencing them, perhaps we are chasing after them or running away from them.

You can notice this for yourself.  Consider each pairing in regard to your current state.

EXERCISE

Sense into your body to notice any pain you might be feeling, and then notice if there is any place that feels pleasant. Is there any pleasure your craving, maybe looking forward to a meal or an outing? Is there any pain you’re perhaps concerned might recur?

Looking at loss, perhaps you have lost a loved one. Looking at gain, perhaps there’s a new member of the family to love. Perhaps you have lost an ability, like your hearing or sight or physical stamina. Perhaps you have gained a new one, maybe from studying and practicing a new language or musical instrument. Perhaps the stock market has taken you on a ride, your bank account is dwindling or you have lost all your worldly goods in a disaster. Or perhaps you have received a financial windfall.

Looking at praise & censure, think about something nice someone said about you that made you feel good, something unkind that made you feel badly. Think about who you may be trying to please. Think about who you fear judging you. Take note of your own inner censor and how harshly it judges you.

Looking at status and disgrace, consider your ‘standing’ or reputation in your community — within your family, your group of friends, your profession, or the world, if you have ‘made a name for yourself.’ At this moment are you held in high regard? Do you actively build your reputation, polishing up your life on social media, perhaps? Or have you fallen into disgrace? Has your reputation taken a hit? Do you have a negative reputation that haunts you?  Is there a sense of people talking about you behind your back? And in either case how does it make you feel? Before saying or doing anything, do you take into consideration how it will affect your reputation?

If you did this exercise, it probably provided a lot to think about. If you don’t have time now to do it, bookmark this page for when you have more time.

Our relationship with these Eight Worldly Winds best illustrate how we cause ourselves suffering through craving and aversion. We tend to crave pleasure, praise, fame and gain. We tend to have an aversion to pain, blame, disgrace and loss. We’re programmed that way! And to a certain extent these instincts keep us from doing harmful things. But not doing something harmful because we are afraid of being blamed or getting a bad reputation is not as skillful or wise as not doing something because we care about all life. And it takes a lot more mental activity to keep gauging the external effects every time we do or say something than it does to cultivate compassion for ourselves and all beings.

The Eight Worldly Winds are the vicissitudes of earthly life. We can’t make them go away, but we can develop a skillful way to be present with them. Consider the gyroscope that I proposed in the last post as a simile for how we can maintain a balanced ethical way of being in the world. It is also a good way to think about how we can balance ourselves as these Eight Worldly Winds blow through.
The inner circle of the gyroscope, when spinning, keeps the gyroscope balanced regardless of what is happening in our lives. And how do we keep that inner circle spinning? Through the regular practice of meditation and quiet time for self-reflection.

READ MORE about the gyroscope simile

READ MORE about the Eight Worldly Winds

Happy Valentine’s Day!

In Mexico it is the day of love and friendship. In elementary school we give valentines to everyone. It’s only when hormones kick in that it becomes a special greeting to a heartthrob.

If you have a heartthrob, may you enjoy a sweet celebration of romantic love. If you don’t have a heartthrob, let this day not be one of lack, but one of love in a much broader sense! A day of loving your neighbor as yourself, a day of smiles for all you meet, a day of remembering that we are all tender souls who need kindness.

Feliz dia del amor y amistad a todos.

How to develop a moral compass…or a gyroscope

In the last post, I wrote about codes of ethics that guide us with a reliable set of rules to keep us out of trouble. As helpful as this code is, it takes an on-the-spot thought process that isn’t always convenient: First, we feel an impulse to do or say something; then we just do or say it, OR we pause and consider the ethical implications using our code of ethics. (This is where it helps to have a brief memorable code!) Then we either go ahead and do or say what we wanted, feeling assured it’s the right thing; or we back away, aware it was an ill-conceived impulse that would cause harm if indulged.

As beneficial as this process may be, in reality we are unlikely to pause to consider the ethical implications in every situation, given emotions, hormones, split-second demands, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and such. But the code of ethics is still there. Maybe we’ve stuffed it down so we won’t have to think about it, or maybe it’s grown larger, scolding us with its giant wagging finger. On some level we are aware of how we erred by ignoring our code of ethics. Now we feel badly, or at least some part of us does, and that starts an inner battle that makes us less and less happy. Guilt, regret, worry. You know the drill. If we’re lucky, it’s as simple as that, and we can seek to make things right through apology, restitution, etc. But often instead of seeing things clearly, we try to cover our tracks and justify our actions in all sorts of complex ways that further entangle us in shame, self-hatred, vilification of others, etc.

Oh my! What a help a reliable inner moral compass would be! It would save us the hassle of figuring all this out and referring to a list we left in the pocket of our pants when they went through the laundry, so now the ink is so blurry we can barely read it anyway. With an inner moral compass, we’d just know. Right? But is this something some people or born with and others are not? Do we all have the capability to develop such an inner sense?

The Buddhist code of ethics, the Five Precepts, enumerated in the previous post, is easy to remember, but that’s no guarantee, is it? Relying on any list as our sole guidance is going to produce random results. So Buddhism doesn’t just lay down the law. It provides a means of developing an inner moral compass.

The daily practice of mindful meditation and the practice of metta (universal loving-kindness), while not a panacea, strengthens our ability to develop an inner moral compass. If you have a regular practice, perhaps you have noticed that yourself. Just being more aware of physical sensation can help us notice the body’s strong hints that we’re entering questionable territory, or the way our thoughts begin to waver and weave stories, and the way our emotions get overwrought.

Even more profound a shift may be a growing sense of interconnectedness that naturally interferes with tendencies to gossip, lie, cheat, steal, etc. How clearly we can sense that any harm we do is to the whole fabric of life. Why would we despoil the web of our being?

But is what we develop through meditation really like a compass? There is another device that seems to me to be a better simile and that is the gyroscope.

A compass points to the magnetic north (which apparently is shifting!), but a gyroscope stays centered and upright in any situation. A compass is a tool to help us get somewhere else, while a gyroscope helps us to be here and now, able to handle any set of circumstances.

A gyroscope — used in aircraft to help keep them upright — on its own is just a set of metal circles with an axis. It’s only when the center circle (in this image, the solid gold one) is set to spinning that the gyroscope is suddenly able to right itself in even the most precarious circumstances.

It takes some action to set the gyroscope spinning, either a string that we wind and pull or some other mechanical means. In this simile, that ‘setting into motion’ is our regular practice of meditation. Of course the activity of meditation is calming and quieting, but something is being set into motion as well: awareness, compassion, clarity, concentration, kindness, a sense of interconnection and peace.

When we maintain a daily practice of meditation, we are better able to stay balanced regardless of external circumstances, just like the gyroscope.

So a code of ethics informs our wise intention and provides guidance, but it works best when paired with meditation practice, so that we can respond to what arises wisely instead of reacting impulsively. You might think of it as learning to dance with life instead of going into battle with it.

I would love to read your comments, your own experiences and any questions. – Stephanie

What code of ethics do you follow?

I recently saw the Japanese film Shoplifters and recommend it. I mention it here because it has an example of how we develop a code of ethics. The boy in the movie is taught that until an item is purchased it doesn’t belong to anyone, so it’s okay to take it. With this moral guidance in place, he feels fine about shoplifting for the family. But then he sees his foster father checking out cars with the clear intent to do a smash and grab. The boy says, “Hey, wait, don’t these cars belong to people?” This new facet of the family business doesn’t fit into the code of ethics he’d been taught. His world tilts on its axis as he begins to see things differently.

We each live by some code of ethics. The code our parents and culture teach us is likely more skillful than what the boy was taught. Perhaps we learned the Ten Commandments, perhaps the Golden Rule, or perhaps more along the lines of ‘What will the neighbors think?’ or ‘Don’t be a loser.’ It’s worth noticing our ethical underpinnings and how they play out in our daily decisions.

The other day I saw a driver pause at a red light, then make a left turn against the light when the traffic was clear. Did he figure that since no police were present to ticket him, he could disregard the law? These laws are, for the most part, an agreement we make as a community, so that, without having the benefit of being able to look each other in the eye or talk, we can fairly predict what another driver will do.

When someone does something that to me seems so blatantly wrong, I have to wonder if he is drugged or drunk or mentally unstable. Is there some rare circumstance that makes him think that it’s okay just in this instance? Is he rushing to someone’s aid, for example? How is he justifying his behavior to himself? Is this just the way he operates in the world, measuring risk against reward and taking chances? Does he not see the risk? Does he not care? Does he think the rules don’t apply to him?

I’ll never know, but it brings up an interesting exploration into ethical decision making. What rules do we follow, what ones do we ignore, and what if any justification do we give ourselves for doing so? If there are unjust laws, do we as citizens work to get them changed? Or do we just accept them or ignore them?

This kind of inner investigation is useful for anyone to do. If you have been doing the regular practice of meditation, you probably have a better ability to slow down and observe the pattern of thoughts as they arise, and to see the source of the particular pattern that gives or denies permission to do something. Is there a code, either obvious or implied, at the core of the choices you make or the justifications you offer up to explain it to yourself? If there is a code of ethics there, are you living by it? And if not, are you punishing yourself, judging yourself, feeling ashamed, or offering excuses to override your code? Such questioning is valuable in uncovering delusion and seeing how you may be creating inner discordance and unnecessary suffering.

Buddhism has a very clear ethical code. Among other teachings, there are the Precepts. These are vows taken at the beginning of a retreat. They are very simple and reasonable, and they help to assure the retreat runs smoothly. They are easy to remember and refer to throughout our lives: We agree to not harm any living being, to not take what isn’t freely given, to not lie or gossip, to not misuse our sexuality, and to not ingest anything that would affect clarity of mind. A very good set of ethical standards to live by all the time! The exact wording varies, but the Precepts are guiding principles of value.

Some of these Precepts may be easier to follow than others. ‘Do no harm’ precept may seem the easiest, because we have good hearts and aren’t killers; but upon further investigation this precept reveals itself to be quite challenging since we are constantly making choices of what we eat, purchase and do, and all these choices may adversely affect the lives of others or the planet. Setting the intention and making wise effort to live by a precept is in and of itself valuable. Any investigation into what it might mean can most effectively be done with loving-kindness instead of shame, fear and guilt. No one is perfect. We do not need to erase our footprint on the sands of life. But joy is more available to experience if we live in a way that causes the least possible harm to ourselves and all beings.

Following the Buddhist Precepts or any other code of ethics we consciously choose, informs the choices we make in every moment and how we are in relation to everything we do and everyone we meet. It is definitely worth discovering what code we are living by, whether it is working well for us, or if we are at odds with it and, if so how that affects our lives and the lives of those around us.

If this feels like a timely investigation for you, I hope you will share any insights or questions that come up.