Monthly Archives: September 2019

If you’re struggling, this will be music to your ears

In the last post we looked at the Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion the Buddha identified as the source of dukkha (suffering). I offered some questions to help you investigate these three in your own experience. You may have had some aversion to this task, and I imagine many turned away. If you took the time to do it, perhaps you made an enemy of what you found, activating feelings of regret, remorse, shame or anger.

Maybe this additional teaching from the Buddha will help put things into perspective:

Having lived his life at both extremes — the lap of luxury and near starvation — Siddhartha Gautama knew them both to be empty of insight. So after six years of self-deprivation he gave up the ascetic path. After accepting some nourishment (to the horror of his fellow ascetics), he sat down with renewed intention and meditated under a ficus tree for many hours. Mara (illusion) tried hard to distract him by activating greed, aversion and delusion: all manner of delights and frights. As they appeared, he found that he could dissolve these lures by simply seeing them for what they were, illusions, and by acknowledging them without rancor. “Mara, I see you. Mara, I know you.”

We do know the delights and frights in our own lives that distract us and push our buttons. (You might think of those buttons as having labels on them: GREED | AVERSION | DELUSION.) That simple act of noticing is key to our practice. When we get caught up in a fantasy, can we just recognize it instead of shaming ourselves? Can we simply say “Greed, I see you.”? It’s just greed. It’s just aversion. It’s just delusion — lifelong companions we are growing weary of entertaining and tangling with. Then we come back to the fresh aliveness of the present moment, just as it is, anchoring our awareness in the breath and other physical sensations that arise and fall away.

When the lures of Mara finally faded away because Siddhartha was firmly present in the moment, he got up from the base of the tree.
In this awakened state, he listened to a woman playing a lute. This prompted an insight that made all the difference in the way he would practice and what he would teach. He noticed that the strings on the instrument were neither too tight nor too loose, in order to play sweet music.
Just so, he thought, when we strive too hard or don’t bother trying, we suffer. Denying ourselves creature comforts or over-indulging in them both cause us to suffer. Being mindful in the moment we can sense when we are attuned to life. We and those around us benefit when we are not living ‘off key’, when we are not so stressed out that we’re ‘breaking the strings’ or so lethargic that there’s no music.

It would be very easy to take the teachings of the Three Poisons and over-react or turn away in discomfort. Instead we can find what the Buddha came to call The Middle Way. We notice greed, aversion and delusion in our lives without falling into the blame and shame game. This teaching enables us to investigate without causing additional pain. Keep the lute in mind as you explore the thoughts and emotions that arise in your experience.

The Three Poisons combine in toxic ways
Identifying a specific poison may be difficult. For example, in class one student noticed she was experiencing comparing mind but she couldn’t assign it to one of the poisons. This is because all three poisons are present. Greed shows up in envying someone else’s life, looks, accomplishments, etc. Aversion shows up in the negative opinions we have about ourselves by comparison. And delusion shows up because we are deluded in believing that someone else’s life is somehow perfect and that they don’t suffer as we do.

As you give yourself the opportunity after meditation to notice thoughts and emotions arising, look for those Three Poisons in their infinite combinations. No need to make an enemy of them. Just recognizing them is enough — just as the Siddhartha recognized illusion, greeting it by name.

Why does it hurt?

Here’s a photo of a little girl with her dolls. What a lucky girl to have three dolls! She must be so be happy! But when I look at her, I don’t see happiness, do you? Maybe she’s afraid someone will take her dolls away. Look how tightly she’s holding them. She is planning on defending them. And maybe she’s looking at some other child who has some dolls and she wants to add them to her collection, too.
Of course, holding them this tight she can’t really enjoy her dolls, can she? She can’t look at their faces, talking to them, singing to them, feeding them, dressing them…maybe having a tea party and inviting other children over with their dolls to play. She can’t do any of that because she has to hold on tight to these dolls for fear of losing them.
We can all recognize ourselves in this little girl. We have all had the experience of clinging to something, afraid of losing it. Whether it’s our possessions, our money, how are relationships, our career, our beliefs, the way we see ourselves, or the way we see our world; we hold on tight because we don’t know who we would be without these cherished things and we are afraid to find out.
But just as this little girl can’t play with her dolls when she holds them so tightly, we can’t really enjoy our lives and all the wonders in it when we hold them in such a tight grip.
What happens when we hold on so tight in a relationship? What happens when we cling tight to someone we love, begging them to spend more time with us, pay more attention to us tell us they love us? We suffocate the love and it turns to nothing in our hands.
So this tendency to grasp and cling to what we care about isn’t an effective strategy, is it? At best we can enjoy it and at worst we might cause it to disappear.

Now here’s another little girl. She’s not happy either, but instead of holding onto something she loves she’s focused on something that hasn’t measured up to her standards, her expectations, or her desires. Maybe her mother said she couldn’t have ice cream before dinner and she’s determined to be miserable about it for a good long while. Something in her life is not right. So she can’t enjoy herself either.I’m sure we can all recognize ourselves in this little girl, too. We’ve all had experiences that didn’t measure up to our expectations. We’ve all had times when that disappointment ruined the whole experience. We’ve all had trouble enjoying this moment because we’re still caught up and what happened last week, last month, last year and we’re letting it color our whole experience.

Here’s a third picture of a little guy with his hat pulled down in front of his face. He can’t see what’s going on all around him. We probably have a harder time seeing ourselves in this image because we’re blind to it. But we might get a sense that we’d rather not look too deeply into things. We’d rather gloss over the surface and assume our understanding is the reality of any situation.

And finally, here’s a photo of a girl who is delighting in a frog resting on her open palms. Notice that this photo is in full color while the rest are in black and white. Why? Because she’s the only one who is living fully in the present moment.
Notice that she is not clinging to the frog. The frog can hop off her palm at any time, and she understands that. And notice that she doesn’t seem to be judging the frog, finding fault in its size, color or any other aspect. She accepts the frog as it is.

Can we find this kind of joy in the moment? Can we notice when we’re grasping and clinging, when we’re pushing things away or assessing things as lacking? Can we see clearly what is arising in our experience in this moment and hold it in a gentle open embrace?

For most of us these moments of pure open enjoyment are rare. If we have them, we may get so excited that we try to grab hold of them and that makes the moment fall apart. Maybe we ask ourselves why it can’t always be like this? And so we activate the sense of dissatisfaction in our lives.

Is it possible to be in this kind of relationship with life all the time? The Buddha found that it was and he shares his discovery in the Four Noble Truths. In a recent post we looked at the First Noble Truth, that there is dukkha in life.
These four photos are visual aids to help us recognize the Second Noble Truth, the causes of dukkha, the suffering we all experience in life: The first three photos represent Greed, Aversion and Delusion. The last photo represents what life can be if we liberate ourselves from these ‘Three Poisons’.

How do you know when you are experiencing the Three Poisons?
Here’s a little questionnaire:

Greed
Does your suffering feel tight, grasping, stressed out and striving? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the future, daydreaming about acquiring dwellings, clothes, vacations, events, achievements, awards, complements, sexual conquests, etc? Well, greed is present. It’s not a very nice word, but then this isn’t a very nice feeling, is it? If you prefer, you can use ‘passion’, but the results are the same: dukkha, suffering.

Aversion
Does life not meet your expectations? Do you find many things irritating? Do you spend the present moment thinking about how it might be better, or comparing it to what you thought it would be? Is nothing quite right?
Or do you spend a lot of brain power finding who’s to blame for whatever is arising? Does your blood boil? Do you have a lot of grudges?
Then aversion is present. It shows up as anger, disappointment, angst and  intolerance. 

Delusion
Whatever is causing suffering, would you rather not think about it, definitely not talk about it? Do you think you have all the answers? Do you avoid looking too deeply into anything? Do you shut down conversations that get uncomfortable? Do you feel powerless?

Then delusion is present. It’s a hard one to name because how can you name something you can’t bring yourself to look at? And it gets entangled with greed and aversion.

If you recognized these kinds of patterns in your life, or didn’t but you know that you are not truly happy, then the Buddha offers guidance in how to notice them and how to work with them in a way to lessen their impact and even liberate yourself from them.

And that’s what we will be doing over the coming series of posts. I hope you will join me in this valuable exploration.

Reflections on the Climate Crisis Summit at Spirit Rock

No Time to Lose: A Dharma Response to Climate Change
In the beautiful community hall of Spirit Rock Meditation Center over four hundred people gathered on Sunday, September 15, 2019, joined by many more live streaming. Led by Buddhist teacher and author James Baraz, the event was filled with the big names of insight meditation, including Buddhist teacher/authors Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach and Joanna Macy, who has for decades actively advocated for environmental responsibility.

The Great Hall at Spirit Rock Meditation Center holding our beloved planet

The event was a fundraiser for OneEarthSangha, a key player in the emergence of a Buddhist response to climate change, providing a hub for information, connection and organizing. Founded five years ago by a graduate of the dharma leadership program and a burned out executive from World Wildlife Fund who found sustenance and strength to renew his dedication to the environment through Buddhist practice, the 10,000 member organization offers EcoSattva training to anyone, or any group, interested in deepening their understanding of environmental issues and finding a way to help. They work in partnership with other Buddhist environmental organizations such as Earth Holder, Buddhist Climate Action Network and Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective.

A few environmental organizations had tables in the lobby to help attendees find other direct ways to get involved: Citizens Climate Lobby, Sustainable Fairfax, Marin350, and Pachmama Alliance.

There were in person presentations by James Baraz, Joanna Macy, Belvie Rooks, and others, as well as video-conferences with the co-founders of OneEarth Sangha and Tara Brach. There was a recorded interview with the revered Buddhist monk and scholar Analayo, a dharma talk by Jack Kornfield and a sharing of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunburg’s talk to the United Nations.

We were offered several opportunities to actively participate. Canadian musician and environmental songwriter Jennifer Berezan and her group had us standing, singing and swaying with ‘Praises for the world’. The hall has amazing acoustics (funny for a room where a majority of time is spent in silence!) so when we were all standing and singing and swaying the words “praises for the world” was powerful.

We were offered the opportunity to write down on a piece of paper our personal intentions of how to use our gifts for the benefit of the earth. We were asked to make a copy for ourselves and put the other one in a basket. All the gathered intentions will be put into the dharma wheel at the entrance to the retreat area.

The effect of offering heartbreaking information, uplifting music, insights and the opportunity to express our own hopes and fears, made for an emotional roller coaster of an experience. We were allowed to crack open and encouraged to feel our sadness, but we were also given means to take care of ourselves and to use whatever gifts we have to help.

The key takeaways from the event are these:

This is no time to play small, asking ‘who am I to….’ make a difference.

Action absorbs anxiety.

“We’re like children playing with their toys in the attic while the house is burning down.” – Buddha

“Climate change is the most important topic for the dharma hall.” – Analayo

The dharma holds the key to sustainability.

Let go of the need to know how it will turn out. Just do what you are doing wholeheartedly.

The harm that has been and is being done to the earth is done out of ignorance and confusion. If we can understand that, we can let go of the anger and come from a more empowered place that can truly make a difference. Anger, even righteous anger, is poisonous and will not bring the desired results. It is a toxic fuel.

“You have no moral authority over those who can feel your underlying contempt.” – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Othering (us against them, seeing people with different understanding as the ‘enemy’) is the primary disease of the world. Hatred ceases by love alone.

Greed, anger and delusion (which the Buddha called the Three Poisons) are the challenges we all face. We can see the greed embraced by our culture and inherent to our economic system. Joanna Macy said ‘The Industrial Growth Society’ thrives on these three poisons. You can see the greedy, ‘I’ve got mine and I want more’ mentality on which the whole system is built.

Delusion keeps people blind to what’s happening and the causes and effects of their actions and inactions. Resignation is also a part of delusion. The majority of us live in delusion about climate crisis, but we are waking up.

Part of the resistance to waking up to what is going on is the uncomfortable feeling of ‘I’m responsible’. It is far better to say ‘I am taking responsibility to change the situation.’

‘Just fall in love with what is.’ – Joanna Macy
Can we love the earth just as it is right now, wounds and all? Can we love the earth as it burns? We can never return to what was, but we can craft a life-sustaining society through the collapse by learning how to take care of each other.

Then Joanna led us in a dyad exercise where we took turns finishing the sentences:
“As the current world order collapses, I am grateful for___________________”
“As the current world order collapses, I fear ___________________________”
“As the current world order collapses, I want to remember _______________”

She said that the current order keeps power by pathologizing our disobedience and grief. Big Pharma has a pill for that, and others industries offer distractions from our grief. We need to allow ourselves to be sad!

She talked about the Great Unraveling. Since she was talking to a Buddhist group she didn’t need to educate us about the nature of impermanence, how things fall apart. This is the way of all life. Then she talked about the Great Turning, the welling up of consciousness to meet the challenges we face together to build a sustainable community of all beings.

Belvie Rooks’ presentation was profoundly touching as she shared her poetry and her personal process of grieving the loss of her husband. She is a cofounder of Growing a Global Heart.  She shared something her grandmother told her: “But for such a time as this that you were born.”

There was such a powerful sense that yes, we were born for this time. And it is not by accident that so many of us are waking up from the numbness of going along to get along, of reacting with greed, hatred and delusion to life; of feeling separate and lost. But for such a time as this that we were born. If a woman who was born into slavery could recognize her own purpose and power, then surely we can stop making excuses for our self-absorption and inaction. Yes, we need to take care of ourselves, and recognizing the Three Poisons active in us is an important part of that. Can we see greed, hatred and delusion at work in ourselves and in our world? And can we see ourselves as intrinsic and vital to what the earth and all life needs now?

Where does it hurt?

Once I told my mother I was feeling down. She said ‘Well, you shouldn’t.’ I knew she was right. It didn’t add up. I had all the prerequisites for happiness. Okay, but then what do I do with this feeling? (Don’t judge her. She was a woman of her time, before emotional intelligence was even a thing. She was of a generation that took pride in soldiering through any emotional turmoil.)

But the Buddha knew what I was talking about. He recognized this ongoing sense of angst and not-enoughness and called it dukkha, which has been translated as suffering, unsatisfactoriness and discontent. There’s no perfect word in the English language for dukkha, and besides the original Pali word is so perfect for us English-speakers because it marries two common words we may use for feces: doo-doo and caca. Doo-cah. Dukkha. Yup, that works to describe feeling poopy. We don’t need a specific reason to feel that way, do we? Sometimes we just do. We might say ‘I woke up on the wrong side of the bed’ which makes no sense at all but we feel the need to ascribe this feeling to something.

Sometimes the conditions of our lives do activate unhappy emotions, but often what we find to blame for this ooky feeling didn’t bother us yesterday. Yesterday we didn’t find someone’s habits annoying, but today for some reason we do. It has to be the fault of someone or something, doesn’t it?

No! According to the Buddha, it doesn’t. Dukkha exists. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to deal with it. The Buddha provides a brilliant set of solutions that we will be exploring in upcoming posts. But it’s important to first notice the existence of dukkha in our lives, and to notice that blame is not useful. Making an enemy of anything is not useful.

The Ill-fitting Axle Hole
In Pali dukkha literally means ‘ill-fitting axle hole’. Such a great metaphor for how dukkha feels in our lives. Imagine riding along in a cart with a wheel that is wobbly or otherwise dysfunctional. It makes a continuous ker-thump. Some of the time the beautiful scenery or the delightful conversation distracts us from the ongoing ker-thumping, but it’s there. Sometimes we can’t sense anything else because the constant irritation of the rough ride makes enjoying anything impossible. And that’s just like dukkha. It’s an underlying irritant that creates discontent even in otherwise pleasant circumstances.

This recognition of dukkha’s existence, even in the lives of those who seem to ‘have it all’ was the starting point of Siddhartha Gautama’s quest to end suffering for himself and all beings circa 600 BCE in northern India. He was born into wealth and destined to rule. Yet as a young man he felt a sense of unsatisfactoriness. No one is immune to dukkha. Because he was born into wealth, he knew that luxury can be a source of pleasure but not of true happiness. This saved him a lot of time that many of us spend striving and seeking material success, fame, admiration, etc. thinking it will wipe out the dukkha we are experiencing. Can we take his word for that? If not, we can look around at the rich and famous in our own culture and recognize that whatever true happiness they experience is not a product of their wealth or position, and whatever sadness they experience cannot be cured by another villa, island or fancy car. (Many recent studies show that beyond an income that assures sufficient food, shelter and health, wealth is no indicator of happiness.)

(Not familiar with the Buddha’s life story? Take this four post pilgrimage.

The First Noble Truth that the Buddha taught when he, after years of meditative practice, became enlightened was the importance of acknowledging the existence of dukkha in our lives. Our lifelong patterns of trying to ignore it make this a challenge, but the regular practice and the exploration of the teachings with a group of others, our sangha, who share the wholesome desire to understand and to cultivate awakening, make it possible.

In the Four Noble Truths, his first teaching after awakening, the Buddha named the problem we face as human beings. Then he identified the causes of the problem, identified the solution, and shared the necessary steps to implement that solution. Seeing the truth of his words, his small group of fellow seekers became his first followers. Over the decades of his life, his followers grew, and they took it far and wide. His teachings have been passed down over millennia and they are as alive today — as we explore them, investigating their veracity — as they were in his day in the forests with his followers.

During the week, see if you can notice dukkha’s presence in your own life, from minor discomforts to overpowering mental and physical pain. Over the coming posts we’ll discover what causes dukkha and how to liberate ourselves from it.

That is the heart of the Buddha’s offering.

Image by Matthias Böckel from Pixabay

Our new garden altar

Our new garden altar created by Will Noble

This week my students and I had a ceremony to consecrate the beautiful wooden altar at the end of the garden crafted by my husband Will. When we gathered in front of the altar I told them about its inception and construction, how it didn’t suddenly appear in its seemingly perfect state, but was a process full of unexpected problems. The altar is the result of skillful effort, patience and a willingness to try again when things don’t go right. It’s useful for us to remember, especially when it seems everyone else’s life is easy and ours is uniquely problematic, to live whatever process we are in with self-compassion and clarity. The end result may be different from what we envisioned, but it, like this altar, will be perfect. Or, as we say in our family, ‘perfect enough.’

The intention for this altar is to be a place where anyone walking in the garden can go to have a private moment of refuge, reflection, contemplation, inspiration and insight into the way of things, and perhaps the way forward in their lives. After a brief dedication ceremony, each student in turn took their private time with the altar. Their later shared experiences made me know that it is indeed a special place for healing and revealing.

Usually during class, Will goes on hikes or bike rides, but just before he was leaving, we couldn’t find his phone anywhere, and we both agreed it would be better if he just stayed home for the 90 minutes of class. So he retired to our room to read, but then after everyone had spent time at the altar, I realized how synchronistic it was that he ‘lost’ his phone that morning. Because he was home, after our consecration ceremony, I brought him out so that everyone could thank him in person. It was so good for him to see how something he had made had such a powerful effect. Everyone was full of tears and hugs, glad to be able to thank the artist. Aw. And immediately after that he found his phone!

In fact, there was a palpable sense of synchronicity to the whole morning. Though the Buddhist tradition I practice and teach is the most secular, creating and consecrating an altar seemed to have sparked something much more than we could have imagined. May it continue to be a place of solace and inspiration to all who visit it.

In the photos you can see various Buddhist bells, gifts from students, friends and a teacher over the years. But the two Buddhas inside, one mounted on the back wall and one seated on a rock I found in the garden, were purchases from Routes Gallery in San Anselmo, CA. I had no idea what a special place it is! Much more than a store, it’s a whole contemplative experience. What a treat! I plan to arrange a field trip there. Join us! Or at least visit on your own if you’re in the area.

The ceremony for the altar was a simple recitation of taking refuge. Last week I talked about the hand-sewing done in American Zen communities, but I didn’t mention that while they make their stitches, they chant the Japanese Zen words of taking refuge.

Taking Refuge

All Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

The Buddha is not just the historical Buddha whose teachings we explore and apply to our own lives. Buddha means awakened one. So we take refuge in our own Buddha nature, our own potential for awakening. That seed of awakening is within each of us, waiting to be acknowledged, nurtured and cultivated.

The Dharma is the body of Buddhist teachings. Students are not to accept these teachings blindly, but are encouraged to investigate for ourselves what is true. So the dharma is not stale rigid dogma, but a living experience of awakening in this moment whenever we are fully present to access insight.
Nature is the greatest dharma teacher, always sharing lessons on impermanence and the interconnectedness of all life. We suffer when we rail against the truth of nature’s lessons. And we find joy in being alive when we stop making an enemy of whatever is arising in our experience.

The Sangha is the community of practitioners who support each other in meditation practice and explore the dharma together. A member of our sangha might also be someone who doesn’t themselves practice, but supports us fully in our practice, who doesn’t sabotage our wise intentions and effort.
When beginning to take on a meditation and mindfulness practice, it is wise to be very discerning when choosing who to spend time with, as it is easy to become dispirited and distracted by old habits when those around us are engaged in them.
But as we strengthen and deepen in our practice and our understanding, we begin to recognize the sangha of all beings. When our practice is strong and our insights guide our lives, we can see that even those who would discourage us only strengthen our resolve, and their unskillfulness is a reminder to live more skillfully in our own lives.