In the Bay Area we have had an exceptionally rainy winter, especially compared to recent years of drought. We are grateful to have our reservoirs full, but we may have forgotten how a typical wet winter feels, let alone this seemingly daily deluge. So when spring burst forth in all its sun-drenched flower-studded green finery and the air became soft and welcoming for days on end, we breathed sighs of relief, and we celebrated.
Now the rain is back and predicted to be gray and wet for days. I don’t trust predictions, but let’s assume that’s the case. If I had not made the most of that beautiful weather and those lovely sights, sounds and smells, I would be feeling pretty grumpy about now. But I did appreciate it and made a point of making lots of room for noticing it, so even as the rain returns I have no regrets.
There is no cure for how things change except to live fully in the moment, not putting off deep appreciation of beauty for another day just because we have a long to do list. That to do list will be there, like a trusty dog who has the bad habit of nipping at our heels. Sure, there are some things that can’t be put off and we do them with our full attention, then discern what can wait and get out into nature and let the sun shine on our faces and breathe in the sweet scents abounding.
If we don’t do that, then when the rains come, we realize our opportunity was fleeting, that the rain and wind will force the blossoms off the trees and beat the flowers down, and nothing will be as it was. We will have missed it and now mourn it.
Where else in life do we experience the same feeling of having missed what mattered? Perhaps we had our eyes on the wrong prize, caught up in attending to ‘important matters’, believing that the beauty and wonder of life — of our loved ones, of our bodies health and abilities, of our own good fortune — will sit around waiting for us to take notice, to engage, to appreciate this moment and all that arises in it. Maybe we are so busy mourning the way things used to be that we aren’t able to see what’s right in front of us and find gratitude for that.
Things change. We change. No amount of wishing will change that! The only way to have no regrets is to be fully present to notice the beauty in every moment.
As I sit here writing, I look out across the wet deck at the soft gray clouds drift by. I see how the pale green leaves are filling in the empty spaces on the oak tree, and I hear loved ones — my husband of many years and an old friend visiting from a great distance — in other rooms of the house doing their healthy morning routines. I am chock full gratitude for this moment, too.
But, you may say, so much is wrong with the world and perhaps with our lives. How can we indulge ourselves in enjoying spring or anything else? After all, the same rains that filled the reservoirs and ended years of drought in California also flooded homes and businesses in some areas and caused debris flows in areas trying to recovery from devastating fires. Life is full of all manner of challenges. We do what we can to help, even at times that all we have is our good wishes for all who suffer everywhere.
I leave you with this Buddhist parable: A traveling monk encounters a tiger. He runs across a field and the tiger chases him. Coming to a precipice, he catches hold of the root of a vine and lowers himself over the edge. As the frustrated tiger sniffs and snarls above him, the monk hangs there, trembling. In the valley below, he sees another tiger pacing, waiting for him to fall. And a few inches away from him, a mouse comes out of a crevice in the rock face and starts gnawing at his vine. Just then the monk notices a ripe strawberry. He clings to the vine with one hand, and plucks the strawberry with the other. Delicious!
“The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.” – Abraham Lincoln
What noises irritate you? I was asked this question by a recent survey about ‘noise pollution’ so it brought up a lot of thoughts about our relationship with sound. In Mexico a local once told me that when you don’t have much stuff, noise is stuff. It’s free and you can make as much of it as you want. It fills you up.
Huh! I had certainly never thought about it that way, but it was a kind of invitation to open to a different way of relating to sound.
It was challenging because, especially as a meditator, I think of silence as nourishing. In my culture, personal music is enjoyable, while other people’s choices may be perceived as an intrusion. Wealth is not a bounty of noise but an ability to build a buffer from noises made by others. The richer we are, the thicker our walls, the more panes on our windows and the more acres between us and the world around us — all that traffic and other aggravating noises. So when an American university thinks up a survey, they title it ‘noise pollution’ without even considering that not everyone has a negative bias against sounds.
How we are in relationship to the sounds all around us is an important indication of how we are in relationship to all that arises in our experience. Are we making an enemy of it? And if so, how does that affect us?
In meditation, silence is something we cultivate within. It’s not useful to expect that the world around us should comply with our decision to be quiet. Outside life goes on. Noise goes on. When leading a guided meditation, I suggest allowing a sound to be experienced as pure sound, as if it’s a note or an instrument in a symphony: The Symphony of Now — this unique moment of never-to-be-repeated-in-just-this-way sounds. Can we simply be with the experience of sound instead of getting caught up in thinking about what is making the sound — someone slamming a car door, hammering, talking, barking, playing loud music, etc.? If so, we can be more at ease and less likely to tense up with displeasure. We don’t have to get caught up in thoughts about the source of the sound, who’s to blame, why are they making that sound, there ought to be a law, and how long will this go on.
Even if it’s a pleasant sound — bird song or gentle rain, for example — can we allow it to simply be sound? Can we be present without getting lost in trying to identify the type of bird, scolding ourselves for not being able to, or getting caught up in thinking about how the local cats are decimating the bird population?
In Mexico I brought my meditative attention to listening to all the sounds as I sat in the town square. At different times of day and evening so many sounds happen all at once: several Mariachi bands playing on different corners, teenagers with their own music for break dancing, hawkers calling out their wares, children yelling and laughing, lots of conversations, and the church bells ringing at the quarter hour. So much sound everywhere! But as I sat and allowed myself to really listen for fifteen minutes más o menos every day over the course of a few weeks I began to be able to hear the various sounds as if tuning into multiple channels at once, each one distinct and clear, and together a wondrous symphony. This exercise completely changed my relationship with sound. And in changing my relationship, I noticed a difference in my whole body — a release of tension and a rising of ease and contentment.
Since the people in the square don’t make an enemy of sound, it is reasonable to assume that it doesn’t cause stress in their bodies, and therefore, that noise in and of itself is not necessarily bad.
While I believe that to be true, there are situations when I am not able to be so blissful, especially if I am trying to sleep. I didn’t catch a wink in a midtown Manhattan hotel with 24 hour construction right across the street. I tossed and turned and got sucked into thoughts about who’s to blame for this and how could they be so rude? How could the hotel put us in this room? How could the city allow for this noise in the middle of the night? But then I would get moments of recognition that I was the one who was caught up in angry thoughts. I was the one who was making myself miserable. But hey, I’m not the enemy either. And my mindfulness training was insufficient to the task of overcoming a lifetime of discomfort with ‘noise pollution’ in certain situations.
The pattern of thoughts we experience when something’s bothering us happens not just about sound, but about anything that we make the enemy. Anything, anyone or any idea that causes tension, sets us on edge, and fills our thoughts with hatred, is a perceived enemy. Big or small, we all have them. Maybe they are pet peeves or maybe they are major threats to our well being. Or maybe they are convenient scapegoats for something else altogether. But whatever they are, they affect us. We internalize them. We suffer from how we are in relationship to them.
Billboard Blues In the 1980’s I worked in advertising. Some of the time the work felt like play because I got to use my writing and visual design skills, and my colleagues at the agency were fun to work with. But over time, as I became more and more skilled at developing campaigns, I began to see how insidious advertising is. What skill was I developing? The ability to use psychology and an understanding of human’s innate negativity bias to activate fear and craving, and to promote our clients’ products and services as miracle cures to assuage that fear.
I remember preparing for a presentation to a well-known manufacturer of locks. Given the nature of the product, the proposed campaign had to be rooted in fear — the fear of someone breaking into your home — otherwise why would you bother buying a lock? And even though I understand that these are needed devices and that this manufacturer is very good at making them, I felt a lot of resistance to taking the company on as a client. I did not want to be a purveyor of fear. So when we didn’t get the client, there was definitely some relief mixed in with agency-shared disappointment of not getting such a prestigious client. Then I began to see how promoting even pleasant products, was actively playing on people’s fears. Not the fear of home invasion, but the fear of not being enough, not looking good enough, not being perceived as successful, etc.
By the end of my time at the ad agency, which I had to leave because I had become physically ill with an autoimmune disease, I had written for myself an eight-page treatise on the evils of advertising. I tossed it after writing it, as if it was toxic. I just needed to get it out of me as catharsis and the beginning of my healing. But it’s easy to see and reasonable to conclude that my perception of advertising as evil, as enemy, put such stress on my body, so much tension day after day, that it was at least partially responsible for my illness. Through rest, meditation, self-discovery and a good doctor, I recovered within a year. Mine is a cautionary tale about having your work align with your core values, but also about how enemy naming and the resulting internal discord can make us sick.
It’s important to notice what happens when we make an enemy of anything. Our thoughts get locked, frozen and unyielding, whether we are defending something or finding fault with it. We lose sight of our common humanity and our shared desire to live together in peace and harmony.
In our meditation practice we are encouraged to greet all that arises with friendliness, and this applies to everything that arises, not just who or what we like or agree with. It’s skillful to notice when we have shaped an enemy, and skillful to notice the form it takes, how this enemy-making tendency needs a target. We identify a person or group of people who we deem responsible for whatever it is that we are opposed to. Tension rises up and strangles us. Our bodies react as if threatened, and over time reach a breaking point, because the enemy we have created is not fleeting but has taken up residence in our ongoing thoughts.
So then is making enemies the enemy? There’s got to be an enemy! Or does there? Can we allow for the possibility that all life is deeply interconnected and there is no ‘other’? Can we see how lashing out against a perceived enemy ends up harming ourselves even worse?
And yet there’s so much in the world that needs our attention! Can we find a way to attend it without aggravating the situation? Can we develop the ability to notice in a deeper and wider way, the way I learned to listen in that square in Mexico? Can we see the overall complexity of life ever changing, and learn to love life instead of constantly being in battle with it? If there are grievous wrongs being done, can we come forward with wise intention and wise effort, grounded in awareness and compassion, using wise speech and wise actions, to greet it?
If not, we are entangled in the thrall of blind misery, entangled in confusing thoughts that cause us terminal tension.
Close your eyes and imagine someone or something you think of as enemy, even if you might not use that word. It might be some annoyance or aggravation. It might be a person. It might be a concept. It might be people in general who do certain actions that drive you crazy.
Now do a little inquiry: When I bring this enemy to mind, how do I feel in my body? Is that feeling sustainable? Do I make wise choices from this feeling? Or do I spiral down into stronger negative emotions? Do I imagine doing harmful things? Do I become someone I would steer clear of on the street?
Notice any tension in the body and relax and release it to whatever degree you are able. If you are comfortable doing metta – lovingkindness practice, send metta to yourself and then to your perceived enemy. May I be well, etc. May you be well, etc.
When we make an enemy of someone, aren’t we just adding to the suffering that makes them behave as they do?
When we make an enemy of an idea, do we make it too scary to look at closely? It becomes locked in and casts a huge shadow in our minds. When we make an enemy of anything, aren’t we assuming we have an all-encompassing view of all times and places, that we know exactly how things will turn out. Can we make room for the possibility that all that arises has a role to play and that we don’t know for sure if what we label enemy may be what needs to happen to stir up an awakening of consciousness.
How often have you been surprised by the way things turned out? We rarely see things coming. We’re often caught off guard, even though we were so busy watching out for the enemy.
But it’s equally important to remember that our healthy desires for peace, justice, fairness and well being for all life are also part of the ongoing unfolding of life, so engage! But see if you can do it from the fullness of your heart rather than the tight knot of your fear. Perhaps together we can gently but powerfully creating a loving consciousness that is so needed right now, and always.
I leave you with an example of a very creative non-enemy-making way to shed light on something without making an enemy of it. This is not to promote this politician, but to simply share her fresh take on how to engage productively.
This YouTube video of two teenagers who have never seen a rotary phone before is fun and fascinating to watch. For those of us who grew up using rotary phones dialing is just second nature. Even if we haven’t used one in years, we know without question what to do. Kids today think of smartphones, tablets and computers in the same way, so it’s difficult for many of them to be patient with elders when they struggle to learn new technology. They don’t get what the challenge is. Now these two boys, trying to use this earlier technology, get it for sure!
Watch and enjoy!
After you’ve watched the video, here’s a question for you:
Is that rotary phone broken?
No! It works perfectly well. But there’s no operating manual for it and these young users had to figure it out on their own, naturally making lots of mistakes along the way. Sound familiar? We are not broken. We function perfectly well. But none of us came with manuals. We are all doing the best we can to figure out how to function. Hopefully we are willing to spend more than a few minutes at a stretch. Hopefully we don’t give up and decide not to bother.
If you are a parent you may remember leaving the hospital with your first child, feeling some degree panic and astonishment that the nurses allowed you to leave without your knowing how to take care of this tiny fragile bundle of vulnerable living breathing (for now!) being.
Of course there are books on child rearing and no doubt most prospective parents read them, but it just doesn’t prepare you for the real deal, does it? And advice changes from generation to generation, from ‘let them cry’ to ‘pick them up’, from benign neglect to helicopter parenting. There are also lots of relatives and people in the grocery store all too happy to give advice. But it’s all conflicting advice! And it often feels like it comes with so much judgment. Finally you just have to find your own way and do the best you can. Right?
Without that operating manual, it’s no surprise that many of us grow up befuddled with this assignment called life. We may feel unlovable, unseen and misunderstood. We may have a difficult time finding contentment, connection, meaning or even a sense of safety in our lives.
When we seek help we find advice that tells us how to fix ourselves, change ourselves, transform ourselves into some ideal version of a human being. We wonder “What’s wrong with me?” and then, to top it off, people around us may be happy to make a list!
But we are not broken and we don’t need fixing. It’s more useful to think of ourselves as a mysterious technology we’re learning how to use. We may fumble a lot, but over time, by paying attention we get little insights and we begin to have a clearer sense of how we function. There is help available from wisdom teachings, like the Buddha’s, but he’s most famous for saying something to the effect of ‘Don’t take it from me! See for yourself.’ But he taught us how to sense in and see, and to have self-compassion. And that makes all the difference.
Practicing mindfulness we start to notice how much better we feel when we meditate regularly, and we notice a falling away of that sense of equanimity when we forget to practice for a while. We are each learning our way, writing our own little operating manual, seeing what works for us and what doesn’t, what helps and what harms us.
We learn how to greet what arises with friendliness and an understanding that this too shall pass. We notice the patterns of our thoughts, thickly woven with the stories we tell ourselves about our personal histories. Instead of getting paralyzed with fear, we gently shine the light of awareness and compassion.
We are not broken. Just like that rotary phone, we work perfectly well. But we may be unclear how to dial up the connection we crave, that sense of being fully present in this moment, full of compassion for ourselves and others. Ring! Ring! This present moment calling! May we remember to come back to simply paying attention to whatever is arising with patience, curiosity and gratitude for this gift of life.
“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” – Thornton Wilder
This quote was shared in the poetry class I attend and it has stayed with me. At first I thought it was because it speaks to the treasure of being alive to feel gratitude for each moment just as it is. We always like well-worded expressions of things we agree with. So in meditation class two days later, I shared it with my students.
But upon rereading the quote, what really intrigued me is the the idea of a conscious heart. We think of consciousness as the sole province of the brain, but why can’t the heart be conscious? And what do we mean by heart in this context? Surely not the pump that keeps the blood flowing, that can be replaced by a mechanical version without any alteration, I assume, to our ability to feel deeply a sense of love, interconnection — or change the way when we suffer loss, our chest area tightens up in grief.
When we begin to meditate, our first task is to let the thinking-thinking mind take a break. In class we pictured taking our heads off and setting them respectfully to the side for our time together. (Perhaps the Queen of Hearts saying ‘Off with their heads!’ was not a cruel madwoman but a crazy wisdom sage? Hmmm.)
Dropping the center of awareness to our heart center shifts everything, doesn’t it? One of my Buddhist teachers long ago explained that bowing is not about submission or worship but allowing the heart to rise higher than the head.
That explanation made bowing possible for me. I had had some resistance, as people not raised to bow often do, especially if they spent their childhood genuflecting before an altar where objects of worship demanded singular devotion.
Years before Spirit Rock existed, I sought my meditative sense of peace and balance at gatherings of Sufi-based Dances of Universal Peace. I love to dance and sing so it was a natural for me.
It wasn’t quite a perfect fit for various reasons. The first was an altar with lovingly framed photos of Sufi masters. I was uncomfortable with any living human being put up on an altar. But friends told me it was not about worship, just gratitude and respect. Since there weren’t altars in all the different places we met over the years, it wasn’t a deal breaker in any case.
But then when I started attending Spirit Rock Meditation Center, there was a big altar with a Buddha statue (and later a matching Kwan Yin to balance out the gender energies, I think) and it replicated in a more pronounced way the set up of church altars of my childhood. I noticed that some people when they entered the room put their hands together and bowed to the altar. I didn’t. I was just getting to know this Buddha fellow, but I knew he said he was most definitely not a god.
Then I heard that lovely explanation of bowing, of dropping the head lower than the heart, and I found a way in to a practice that had more meaning to me. I am still not a big bower. Which means I’m in the right tradition, because some Buddhist schools go deeper, and I mean deeper, into bowing. Recently I learned there’s a whole reasoning behind the bow that has the five points — head, hands and knees — touching the ground, representing the Five Aggregates, the evidence of our earthly existence (form, feeling, perception, fabrications, consciousness.) In this way the person surrenders attachment to these ideas of self, none of which are real or permanent. I like this explanation as an even deeper release of the over-thinking that keeps us in a sense of isolation. But still I won’t be trying this out any time soon.
There are other practices that may be off-putting to Westerners in the various Buddhist traditions. One student in class said that she felt uncomfortable when she attended a meditation group where they began with chanting. Because I am a guest teacher at that group, I was able to share what was being chanted and why. It is a chant for taking refuge that is done at the beginning of retreats, and apparently some classes. We take refuge in the Buddha, both the inspiration of the historical Buddha, and our own buddha nature, our own inner wisdom that we are cultivating as we meditate. We take refuge in the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha as well as the insights, the truths, we find in nature and other wisdom teachings. We take refuge in the sangha, the group of people we are sitting with and the wider community of Buddhist practitioners and others who support us in our meditation practice and in living in ethical life-affirming ways.
The Three Refuges I go to the Buddha as my refuge. I go to the Dhamma – The Teachings, as my Refuge. I go to the Sangha – The Community, as my Refuge.
For the second time I go to the Buddha as my Refuge. For the second time I go to the Dhamma – The Teachings, as my Refuge. For the second time I go to the Sangha – The Community, as my Refuge.
For the third time I go to the Buddha as my Refuge. For the third time I go to the Dhamma – The Teachings, as my Refuge. For the third time I go to the Sangha – The Community, as my Refuge.
By taking refuge we are lovingly setting intention for the retreat or meeting. That explanation helped my student feel better about the chant. But she still felt uncomfortable about it being in a foreign language. Though I have chanted along on retreats and meetings, I have never committed to memory the Pali three refuge chant partly for that sense of discomfort around appropriation.
Native Americans often complain of their traditions being appropriated, so perhaps that is part of why I resist diving deep and claiming as my own words that are so deeply a part of another culture. (I seem to have no problem studying the Buddha’s teachings as they confirm my own insights, and he was just so good at organizing (all those lists!) and drawing correlations between insights. For me his teachings form an invitation to go beyond traditions and geographic or cultural boundaries.
When I was doing Sufi dancing, I sometimes felt that sense of appropriation, singing words from all the world’s spiritual traditions, some in their original languages. It was a deep unifying celebration of universal wisdom that was deeply moving and satisfying. But sometimes I was just too aware of being a girl born in Ohio and raised in California singing words of traditions not my own.
Another student said she had no problem with chanting foreign words because it took her back to her own childhood when Catholic masses were performed in Latin. She felt uplifted by setting aside the need to understand in her head and to just open her heart to a great rejoicing.
So ‘discomfort around traditions’ became a companion theme of our class this week. Students talked about their early discomfort in putting hands together, with or without a bow, when finishing meditation or with other people. Being raised to think of that as a gesture reserved for prayer made it challenging or at least unnatural to use it any other way. For most, what didn’t come naturally at first has become much easier, especially since people seem to do it much more, so it feels more natural. There’s even a hands together emoji.
One reason it is more common is because so many people take yoga, and it is explained by teachers that it means something like ‘the light in me honors the light in you’.(I had learned it meant ‘the god in me honors the god in you’ but I like the idea of light.)
One student has found that putting one hand on her heart is more deeply satisfying and truer to her own nature. The rest of us were quite taken with this. It was easy to see that if you ended a time with another person in this way it would be a lovely way to say that the interaction was meaningful, that it touched our hearts.
Another student said that she and her little grandson have their own tradition of putting their hands on their hearts and then blowing a kiss from that hand. Aw! So sweet!
When class ended, as always, I did the traditional Buddhist dedication of merit with my preferred wording of metta, lovingkindness: ‘We dedicate the merits of our practice here today for the benefit of all beings. May all beings be well, may all beings be at ease, may all beings be peaceful, may all beings be happy.’ Then we all put our hands together and bowed to each other as we do each week. And then we spontaneously put our hands on our hearts.
I bow to all of you, dear readers. Thank you for staying with me on this journey, for making it your own and for sharing it with others.