Monthly Archives: July 2019

Who are you letting shape your reality?

One day Ron Finley put two and two together. He realized that while his home was in a food desert in South Central Los Angeles, he could plant vegetables in the parking strip to benefit the whole neighborhood. Neighbors started pitching in and the project expanded.

Imagine what a difference that must have made, not just in the physical health of all who now had access to fresh produce, but to their mental health, the feeling of community, and being empowered to create a more self-directed and meaningful life. What an inspiration he must be to all who saw what he had done, and how much of a difference one person with a simple idea can make in the world!

What did it take for Ron Finley to do what he did? What would it take for any of us to make a positive impact on our community? It takes wise view, wise intention and wise effort, and Ron Finley clearly had all three.

What is this wise view?
At one point a friend asked Ron if he wasn’t worried about people stealing what he’d grown, and he replied, “That’s why it’s in the street! I want them to take it!”
The two men clearly had different views of life. The friend, like so many of us, saw the world as a dangerous place where we must protect ourselves and our stuff from others who want to take what we have. But Ron Finley saw a community and an opportunity to bring health and joy. He says, “I manufacture my own reality.”

Most of us accept the reality manufactured for us. We are endlessly subjected to the self-limiting perception of the need to name and claim instead of expanding our sense of who we are — intrinsic interconnected aspects of life in a state of continuous flux. Everything we experience informs our understanding of reality, so our sense of reality is in a state of flux as well. That can feel unnerving if what we crave is something solid and unchanging. So we shut down, lock the doors and isolate ourselves in a protective shell. But this doesn’t protect us. It exacerbates our sense of emptiness, and the habit of craving, grasping and clinging — the very definition of suffering.

If we take a break from craving, grasping and clinging, we discover that we can find joy and share it in any situation. It takes a shift of view, but that shift is ours for the taking.

Our innate ability to make the best of whatever arises in life is not what most industries want for their potential customers. They are bent on making their products seem like the answer to our prayers. If only we had this new (fill in the blank) it would assuage our sense of emptiness and satisfy our cravings. Sure, sometimes a product makes life easier, but believing that it will meet our deepest needs is delusional. Believing that a different outfit, a new house, a different job, a perfect wedding, a different mate, a more ideal body — a different anything! — will fill the emptiness of our lives is accepting a manufactured reality that is inconsistent with the nature of joy.

Mine
The word ‘mine’ is one of the most undermining words in the English language. It creates barriers, tension, withholding, and misperception of the reality of our situation. It’s challenging because for most of us who live in developed countries, that may seem like the natural order: I, me, my, mine, and ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’. Caught up in the pattern of desire, there are never enough toys, and other people’s toys always manage to look shinier.

Wow, what a set up, right?  Look at what we as a culture have collectively created: A system that activates fear, craving, grasping and clinging, advertising that makes insidious use of psychology to activate fear, making people feel like they aren’t enough just as they are and that this product will make that feeling of emptiness go away.

Emptiness
Many of us at times experience a sense of ‘feeling empty inside’. Paired with depression or despair, emptiness doesn’t feel good. But what would happen if we embraced the emptiness? In Buddhism ’emptiness’ is not a painful vacuum, a sense of something missing from our lives. It is seeing clearly all that arises in our experience as ever-changing. Nothing is permanent. Nothing exists in isolation. Everything is made of all that went before and continues in an intricate relationship with all that exists in this moment in an ongoing dance of molecules interacting, coming together and falling apart and reconfiguring. There is no solidity.

Let me repeat: Nothing is solid here. This is the nature of life. Look around! If you’re thinking that the leaves falling off trees and the seasons changing don’t apply to you, then here are a few assignments: 

  • Look through your family album and observe all the changes, the new additions, the growth and the faces of loved ones no longer alive. 
  • When you vacuum, contemplate what you are vacuuming up. A lot of it is the detritus of your body — hair, particles of skin, etc.
  • When you clean out the lint filter of the dryer, consider that even your clothes are in a constant state of change, leaving a little fabric behind with each washing.

I could go on but you get the idea. If you are uncomfortable with these reminders of the transitory nature of life, then you are causing yourself unnecessary suffering. And yet you believe that you are avoiding suffering! You want things to stay the same, or you want a set of changes that you craft to match a perfect future you envision. If that future is shiny and you see yourself enshrined, it probably arises out of craving. If you achieve it you will be disappointed and set your sights on yet another shiny future, because that is the forward-leaning pattern you have created for yourself.

Wise view cultivates the kind of present that organically grows into a fulfilling future. If you are collaboratively creating a world full of respect, patience, kindness, compassion and joy, then you can relax about the future. It’s got good roots!

If however you can see that you are stuck in a world view manufactured to keep you craving and clinging, then congratulations on recognizing the pattern. Keep noticing for yourself how this cycle of suffering plays out, how the pattern of craving, grasping and clinging causes a sense of suffering. Know that you are not alone. And know that we didn’t invent the pattern. We inherited it and we are encouraged to keep suffering from it, while calling it the pursuit of happiness. But we can release it and discover how much more joyful it is to open to the beauty of the fluidity of all life.

This is much more fun than struggling to build a safe and impressive fortress of being in the shape of this person we so call ‘I’ and ‘me’ full of things we call ‘mine’. Why claim a little patch of life and call it ‘mine’ when in truth we are welcome to experience the whole garden?

Which brings us back to Ron Finley who planting vegetables in his parking strip, and to his friend who was stuck in a world of ‘mine’ and found Ron’s more expansive view alarming, worried that people would steal his vegetables. Here’s Ron’s TED Talk for you to enjoy:

Ron says, “I manufacture my own reality.” We can ask ourselves whose view of reality we are accepting unquestioned? If that view of reality is making us feel miserable, isolated and depressed, it’s not one that serves us very well, is it? We can wake up and live fully in each moment, alive, ever-changing and deeply interconnected.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? I’d love to hear them. And if this speaks to you, please share!

A wacky way into wordless wonder

Thoughts are formed by words that prompt images of places and times that pull our attention away from here and now, the only moment that actually exists. (All others are memories or imagined futures. Only in this moment are we alive and empowered to set intention, make choices, speak and take action.)

In Vipassana meditation practice, we stay in the present moment by focusing our attention on physical senses, most likely the breath, to release our tight hold on the mental formations that take us far away from this moment.

In many other traditions, Buddhist or not, the mind attains clarity by the repetition of sacred phrases, thus replacing the ongoing thinking-thinking words with ones formulated to create a sense of tranquility, awe, transcendence and even ecstasy. 

These repeated phrases may feel even more powerful when they are in a foreign language. Consider how when the Catholic Church decided to conduct services in everyday language rather than Latin, many worshipers felt a great loss. What was that loss if not for the sense of wonder and mystery from stepping out of the ordinary language used to negotiate everyday life?

Of course, everyday words can form imagery and ideas that expand our understanding and sense of awakening. Think of a wise teaching or a poem that has spoken to you, how it caused an internal shift — an insight that shook up the status quo and sparked empathy, a sense of connection and perhaps a glimpse into oneness that resonates inside you. But breaking out of the patterns of word-thoughts altogether can free our brains to open to this expanded state in a more direct and spontaneous way. You might think of it as the difference between being inspired by a photo of a sunset and experiencing the sunset itself, with all the senses engaged.

Sacred chants from any tradition are powerful for those so inclined. But what if you feel uncomfortable chanting or even silently repeating spiritual words? Perhaps saying them feels false to your sense of self, or feels like appropriation of another culture, or maybe you feel it could be some magical incantation and you don’t know what you’re accidentally conjuring up. Whatever the reason, if it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing. But what if you want to meditate but you find focusing on physical sensation doesn’t calm your busy thinking mind?

If you have tried various concentration practices that help you focus on the breath but you still feel like your drowning in your thoughts, you might try this and see if it works for you:

Replace those thought-laden daily pattern of words endlessly churning in your brain
with nonsense phrases that don’t activate any concerns.

Settle in to meditate, take a breath or two, releasing any tension, and
then repeat these words in your mind: Mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook.

Mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook? Good grief! What nonsense is this?

Exactly. It’s so silly it works! It’s an effective replacement for all the words that stream through the mind, weaving images, memories, worries and plans. Mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook — or any nonsense words you choose — are not entangling. No guarantee of ecstasy, but at least you may find a temporary release from the daily grind of regretting, wishing, calculating, puzzling, etc. that cause more anxiety, stress and tension in the body. And that’s no small benefit! The health effects of meditating have been long proven, and you can feel it for yourself.

This silly phrase is also a non-judgmental way to bring your attention back to the breath when you’re mind has wandered and you discover you’re entangled. Mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook may feel like an accurate description of all that thinking, and it’s a lighthearted labeling that can then transport you back to your focus on the breath without self-recrimination.

If you struggle to meditate or you have never meditated because you ‘think too much’, then maybe this is just wacky enough to work for you. Worth a try!

Feeling stuck?

For years we’ve had two patio tables that serve no purpose in our garden. I would occasionally think I needed to get rid of them, but there they sat, year in and year out, unused and unappreciated.

Then — who knows why — yesterday morning I got on my rubber gloves, grabbed some rags, soap and water and went out to scrub down the tables. Ten minutes later they were clean enough to give away. I grabbed my phone, took photos and posted them on the Nextdoor app. That’s fifteen minutes that hardly made a dent in my day, and done! Within twenty minutes a neighbor replied, and an hour later she came and picked them up, saying how they would fit perfectly in her little garden. Now instead of sitting out with no purpose, they are being transformed into appreciated items in someone else’s life.

That’s a small example, but often our lives are filled with small things that can add up to an overwhelming feeling of being stuck. It’s a reminder that it often doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to get unstuck. In this case it took intention and minimal effort. Obviously intention alone doesn’t work, because I intended to get rid of those two tables for years. But I had overestimated the amount of effort it would take to fulfill my intention, so I kept putting it off.

We may overestimate the amount of effort
it would take to accomplish our intention.

Here are three important things to notice about being stuck:

  1. The weight of dread from repeatedly thinking about doing something is more burdensome and time-consuming than actually doing it. In the above example, the time I spent reminding myself to get rid of those tables every time I noticed them was much more time than it took to do it. Many things we put off doing are more time consuming than this example, but for me, regardless of the size of the project, the ratio of dread to the actual doing remains the same.
  2. For bigger projects than cleaning tables, it’s a matter of breaking the project down into a series of smaller tasks. I used to take on a big project with intense determination not to quit until I was done. No wonder I would put the project off! it was exhausting! Now I approach large projects in incremental doses, doing them mindfully like my daily yogi job on a meditation retreat. I found out the hard way that there is no benefit in driving myself to exhaustion. In many cases the quality of the work will suffer, but more importantly, we suffer.
  3. When we think of the big project awaiting us, if we don’t break it down into doable daily bits, we don’t do it at all. Is that not the truth? And so there we are with the dread of doing it at all, and a feeling of being stuck.

These are very practical household examples of liberating ourselves from a sense of being stuck, but of course life offers many ways we might feel stuck — in our work, in our relationships, in our practice, in our sense of coming home to our most authentic self.

Where are you feeling stuck?

Where in your life do dreaded chores, research, outreach or decisions weigh heavily on you? 
Take a moment to write down anything that comes up: Things you know you need to do but keep putting off. Maybe you’ve been putting off making an appointment with your doctor, dentist or financial advisor. Perhaps you keep putting off getting in touch with a loved one. Explore the feelings that get in your way: What am I afraid of?

Explore your intention. In my little example the intention would be: ‘To get rid of those two tables!’ With that intention, a quick ride to the dump would have been an easy solution. But the deeper intention, the more wholesome intention, included ‘to enhance someone else’s life as well as my own by finding the tables a home where they can be appreciated.’ So, ask yourself what is your intention, and then see if there’s a wiser intention there. Sometimes without making room for the wise intention to be voiced, we get more stuck. We’re not seeing the bigger picture.

Explore your dread, the fear that paralyzes you from moving ahead with your intention. What is it you think will happen? There may be some dread of what the doctor will find, what the finances will reveal, what the conversation with a loved one might bring up. But the truth is that you don’t know what the doctor or the dental x-rays or the loved one will say, but in general these things don’t improve with time. Holding off from an action out of fear for what will be revealed generally exacerbates the problem. Haven’t you found that to be true? Is there any time in your life when postponing the inevitable paid off? Maybe. But how often did it create bigger problems? Check in with your wiser intention, the intention to be well and to maintain a healthy body, mind and relationships.

Once you have identified where you feel stuck and what’s holding you there in that stuck place, and you’ve set a wiser intention, ask yourself what wise effort would be in this case. Often it’s just ‘make the call’ or scrub the table. But larger challenges may benefit by making a few notes on the various steps that need to be taken, in the order that makes the most sense, and how much time per day will you give the project. (Also, if you have the means to do so, consider hiring someone to do the project or help you manage it. You will be contributing to their well being and giving yourself time to focus on something that has more meaning for you.)

Sometimes the dread has to do with misgivings about our abilities or whether we deserve what we intend to pursue. Dread of a dream come true is a real thing, and if that is what’s happening for you, take time to examine your fears, your opinions about your own self-worth, your patterns of comparing yourself to others and coming up short, or, conversely, thinking the path should be easier for you than it has been for others. Every path begins with one step, as the saying goes, and the path may be uneven and full of challenges. Being on the path is its own reward, if its the path you chose with wise intention. Living wise effort is living in the moment, letting the doing be spacious, pleasurable and sensate. Wise effort is not focused on imagined outcomes, fearful that things won’t turn out the way we hoped.

Living in fear is punitive, and delaying doing something is a way of compounding whatever problem we are afraid of. This is how we get stuck. How we get unstuck is to notice that we are stuck, to really examine the nature of that sense of ‘stuckness’ in a non-judgmental way, to see how uncomfortable it is, how much time it takes to think about, how many ways, often unskillful ways, we go about avoiding thinking about it or doing anything about it. Then we can see that we are creating this feeling of stuckness and that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Wishing won’t change it, but looking at our intention, making sure it is wise, and then acting on that intention with wise effort, causes a shift for the better.

Image by suju from Pixabay

What is the sound of many cell phones ringing?

The sweetest thing in the world — besides a baby of any species — is a sangha in silence on a meditation retreat. The quiet is delicious, like fine wine mellowing as it ages. Each day of the retreat the sangha (community of meditators) becomes more synchronized and sensate. Slowing down in the silence, there’s presence, awareness and a loving sense of mutual support.

Silence is golden and a sangha in silence is magical. So it was surprising to hear from a student about her husband’s experience at a meditation led by Mark Epstein where attendees were asked to keep their phone ringers on.

Whaa? Phones ON? Anyone who’s ever attended a meditation class or retreat (or a yoga class or pretty much any kind of civilized gathering) knows to at least turn their phones off and preferably abandon them altogether. It has become increasingly difficult to do as these phones have become extensions of ourselves, either in hand or close at hand, the part of ourselves that is connected to the wider world. To silence that connection may cause FOMO (fear of missing out). But meditators have learned to do this, especially in community, respectful of the silence we are co-creating. So to hear that a meditation teacher requested everyone keep their phones on was surprising. 

Well, not really. After all what we are practicing is how to cultivate calm in the middle of a busy world. So learning how to be with the sounds of cell phones going off randomly throughout a meditation is a worthy practice. We are cultivating internal silence, not expecting the world around us to cease making noise. If we can meditate in a room full of cell phones ringing, beeping and buzzing, we can meditate in an airport lounge or anywhere else. And this is a great gift!

We can notice how we create enemies of sound, as well as anyone responsible for a sound we don’t like. We can see how we pick and choose between pleasant sounds (maybe birds chirping, water flowing, rain, etc.) and unpleasant sounds (maybe leaf blowers, jack hammers, traffic and the errant cell phone accidentally left on by a fellow meditator). 

At the moment we notice that we are reacting to a sound, identifying it as pleasant or unpleasant, we have the opportunity to recognize that this reactivity is a jumping off point into thoughts that will take us on a journey far away from ‘here and now’. It all happens so fast we may not even realize how we ended up twenty years ago or a thousand miles away to a place or time that the sound triggered in our brains. Fortunately, once we notice it, it only takes an instant of awareness to gently bring our attention back to the moment. This moment, just as it is. Sounds and all.

Here’s a poem I wrote back in 2006 about an experience on a retreat at Spirit Rock:

Breakfast, Day Four

The dining hall clatter becomes symphonic.
The ecstasy of scraping chairs and utensils!
I have never heard anything so beautiful
as the sound of a sangha in silence
earnestly clearing their plates.

Sound can remind us to be present, and to cultivate a pattern of receptivity, kindness, compassion and equanimity, returning again and again to the calm rising and falling of the breath, letting whatever sounds arise to be simply sounds, part of the Symphony of Now, never to be repeated in just this way. How precious is this unique moment in every way. And phhp! It’s gone and now this one, oh so precious, and phhp! Can we gently greet and release all that arises in our spacious field of experience?

On another retreat I attended, teacher Howie Cohn brought all the bells from the Spirit Rock store into the meditation hall and rang them in a random pattern throughout the meditation. It was both pleasurable and helpful in bringing me back again and again from wherever my mind would wander, back to the sensory moment here and now. 

A cell phone symphony might be like that. Still, I hope it was a one-off experiment and not a trend. Because truly there is almost nothing as sweet as the sound of a sangha in silence.

Image above digitally created using an image by Gordon Johnson and an image by David Schwarzenberg, both from Pixabay