Monthly Archives: October 2019

The joy of seeing clearly | Buddha’s ‘Skillful View’

When my mother was fifteen years old, she got her first pair of glasses. She was, it turned out, very near-sighted. Leaving the optometrist’s office, she walked down the street and discovered that trees had individual leaves on their branches! How exciting it was for her to suddenly see details that hadn’t been part of her world view. She hadn’t realized she wasn’t seeing well. She hadn’t been aware of all the adaptations and compensations she had to make to get along. She assumed her view was accurate. Until suddenly she could see!

That’s what we all do with the way we view the world, not just with our eyes but through our habituated lenses of perception. We tend not to question our view of things, automatically filtering out any conflicting information. We may feel attached to our view, believing it to be an intrinsic part of who we are. On top of that is the fear that softening our fierce attachment to our view might put us on the outs with the community we were born into or the one we have chosen. (We feel this way even though clear-seeing is not leaping from one set of beliefs to an opposite set, but seeing the complex web of fear-based patterns that prompt them all.) From inside a myopic world view, It feels much safer to stick rigidly and unquestioningly to the familiar discomfort of inner conflict, no matter what.

So along comes Buddha, who right out of the gate (or out from under the Bodhi tree where he attained enlightenment) challenged our view of ourselves and the world. Such nerve!

But maybe we could be inspired by my mother’s thrill of discovery as she walked down that street, seeing things anew. She didn’t toss her new glasses in the nearest trash bin and revert to the questionable comfort of the world she knew. Can we open to the possibility that we could polish up our perception and find joy in the process?

Skillful View is one aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path that helps us liberate ourselves from suffering. We explore it first, because developing the skill of clear perception — and noticing what clouds that perception — enables us to see the other seven aspects of the Eightfold Path more clearly.

Without skillful view, we become mindlessly entangled in greed, aversion and delusion, driven by the fear of not having enough, not being enough, finding fault with ourselves and/or others, having something to prove, having strong opinions about the way the world is that has no room for equivocation.

So who is the Buddha to tell us how to see? Exactly what the Buddha would encourage you to ask! He always told students not take his word for it, but to investigate for themselves.

Fortunately for us, his own deep practice and investigation provide the tools for us to explore, because his brain just worked that way. He was really good at organizing the insights he had. So when you have an insight, you can see where it fits into the overall teachings. That’s what drew me to Buddhism. When I began studying it, I had already been meditating extensively, investigating, having insights, writing them down and, when asked, sharing them. I arrived at Spirit Rock with a meditation group and felt I had come home. Home to the natural beauty of the place, home to the community’s open acceptance of me and my individual journey, wherever it might take me, and home to the wise teachings of the Buddha, who had a scientific bent.

So it’s not surprising that when we come to his teachings on ‘wise’, ‘right’ or (as I’m choosing to call it in this series ‘skillful’) view, modern science supports what the Buddha taught.

If we understand the nature of matter, then we can more easily develop a skillful view of all that arises in our experience, especially our perception of ourselves.

The Buddha identified the causes of our suffering to be the Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion. [Read previous posts for review]

The Three Poisons grow from these unskillful views:

  1. We think this being we call ‘I’ and ‘me’ is separate and alone.
    While there may be those for whom a little individuation would be healthy, for most of us what clouds our view is the belief that our bodies and minds operate in isolation. We label things ‘mine’, defend them and want more and more, in order to build and reinforce this separate self for a sense of safety and for others to admire, love or fear.
  2. We react to our current experience by either wanting this pleasant situation to stay the same, or feeling like this unpleasant situation will never end.
  3. We can’t see, or we refuse to see, the suffering we are experiencing, caused by the first two.

Skillful View #1
Here’s the simple science: All matter, whether it’s solid, liquid or gas, is made up of atoms. We might imagine matter as made up of microscopic versions of children’s plastic building blocks, because, thanks to electrons, atoms bond together into molecules, just the way the little holes and plugs of the blocks allow them to connect. What an incredible system, right?

Okay, we get it. I’m made up of atoms and over there you’re made up of atoms and that table is made up of atoms. But it doesn’t stop there because that’s only acknowledging solid matter. Don’t forget the gas state atoms — the air we breathe, for example. There is nothing we can sense that is not atoms! We’re all made up of the same stuff and it is all connected. There are no edges to being!

Skillful View #2
These atoms are not static. There are ever-changing systems and networks of life interacting. Everything is changing all the time. Imagine you construct a whole town of plastic building blocks and then play time is over and you take it all apart and put it back in the toy box. What fun would it be if once you put your town together it was stuck that way forever?

You may think you don’t like change, but you wouldn’t exist without it! The world we live in is constantly coming together and falling apart in cycles of birth, growth, death, decay that nourishes new growth.

Why are these two views skillful?
If we can see that we are not separate and that everything is in a constant state of flux, that this is the natural way of all matter, then we are liberated from the exhausting business of shoring up a permanent separate fortress of self that must constantly be defended. We are liberated from the pain of dreading change, whether in the seasons, in the culture or in ourselves. We are alive in this moment, with deep appreciation for this incredible molecular dance of life!

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The Sorting Room

In our home there is a room off the garage that I recently designated ‘The Sorting Room’. That’s a fancy name for the place where I can go through boxes I haven’t looked through in over thirty years without having to repack them quickly to make room for the evening meal. But the room has taken on a sweeter quality than its utilitarian purpose would imply. It is an inviting space so I don’t dread going there. It celebrates the process of its purpose. 

In exploring the Buddha’s teachings of the EIghtfold Path in upcoming posts, we might cultivate a kind of internal Sorting Room. After meditation, for example, is a good time to create a mental space that is welcoming and safe to notice the complex threads of thoughts and emotions and discern the interwoven repetitive patterns without getting entangled,

One friend on retreat years ago said that she was walking around Spirit Rock in that sometimes dazed, but often mindful way one does when one is doing seven sessions of sitting meditation a day, and she noticed a thought that just kept passing through her awareness. I don’t remember her exact words, maybe ‘Oh you again.’ The awareness that these are just thoughts, not who we are, is intrinsic to awakening. Her experience was much like the way Siddhartha Gautama, sitting in meditation under the Bodhi tree, recognized the patterns of illusion without claiming them as who he was or making an enemy of them, just greeting them and letting them go.

When we believe these thoughts to be who we are, we attach great significance to them. They become precious and we hold them up to be admired or deplored. In our meditation practice we begin to recognize that this is just part of the illusion. We spend time in The Sorting Room with clarity, compassion and a sense of insight, gratitude, connection and perhaps release.

In the room off the garage, I spent a little time freshening it up, making it an inviting place to be. Just so, we can cultivate a more welcoming internal sorting room by being selective and compassionate in our choice of entertainment, the company we keep and the activities we do. Consider some of the films, shows, games and books you have spent your time with recently. Are they contributing to your well being? Or are they amplifying some fear-based inner pattern that already feels like a burdensome rant? Notice how you feel after you partake of an activity or spend time with someone. If you find you feel depleted, tense or exhausted, then make note to make wiser choices.

In class, my students talked about some of the films they’ve been seeing at the Mill Valley Film Festival. One student found herself so oppressed by the cruelty of all the characters in one film that she finally walked out. We each need to be aware that we have the option to walk out, to turn off the TV or shut the book whenever we find that what we are exposing ourselves to activates fear, tension, depression, hatred, etc. This is not the same as putting blinders on to avoid seeing the world as it is. It is recognizing that taking care of ourselves so that we can be useful in the world, to ourselves and for the benefit of all beings, is a top priority. We will talk about this more when we explore the Eightfold Path aspect of Skillful Action. 

In the Sorting Room, I could easily get caught up in just making the room nicer and nicer, or just while away my time there and think that is all it’s for. I could forget that at least part of the reason we created this room was to go through our hoard of stuff so that it’s not creating unnecessary clutter, nor adding undue hardship to the grief of our heirs.

In the same way, we could develop a practice of meditation and enjoy the fruits of it without ever feeling the need to sort through anything. Perhaps we, unlike most people, haven’t accumulated patterns of thinking that are self-destructive, undermining or sabotaging. Perhaps, we are uniquely free of aversion, greed and delusion. Great! Maybe. Living in a continual bliss state may work until some situation causes a disruption, and then it would have been good to have a set of practices to rely on.

You may have seen a recent 60 Minutes segment on the research into psilocybin, the hallucinogen that can change brain patterns to such a degree that some people give up addictions easily and lose all fear. Why not just go through that experience, as fraught for many as it may be, and get instantly past this attachment to ego, this confusion of illusions? Well, first, it’s not legally available to the public. Second, it’s potentially dangerous for some. And third, you’d miss out on this amazing skillful process!

Taking the time to practice meditation, have insights and apply those insights to what shows up in the inner sorting room, is not drudgery! Done skillfully, it is fun. “Aha! What’s this?” we say, activating our inner Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew, with a little heartfelt inner Marie Kondo.

As we embark on discovering the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, it’s a perfect time to assure that we have created a welcoming space to receive it, that we are taking it on not as a hunk of knowledge to learn in case we’re ever competing in a trivia contest.

To think of this as just another piece of knowledge we can claim to know, stow away or forget about, would be doing such a disservice to ourselves when this is the Buddha’s finest gift to us. He spent six years preparing his own ‘sorting room’. He made space for the wisdom to be well received when it came to him. Maybe we can honor his efforts with gratitude and with a generosity to ourselves by cultivating a receptive space to receive it.

The Buddha’s cure for what ails us all

If the Buddha were alive today and took an aptitude test to determine a career path, he would no doubt be assessed as a research scientist. He was not a philosopher or theologian. He had no interest in how life came into being or what happens after we die or if there is a deity — he said these things are unknowable. What he cared about was discovering the causes of suffering and finding a cure. And he found it! In the first of his Four Noble Truths, the Buddha, like a good medical researcher, used his acute observation to define the disease: the dis-ease we all feel at times: dukkha

In the Second Noble Truth, he identified the direct causes of that disease: greed, aversion and delusion.

In the Third Noble Truth he pronounced that Hallelujah, there is a cure!

And in the Fourth Noble Truth, he gives a detailed prescription for us to follow in order to live a joyful and meaningful life: The Noble Eightfold Path.

I’ve often wondered why there is a third Noble Truth. Why not just cut to the chase and dive into the Eightfold Path? One possible reason is to allow that sense of celebration to settle in before proceeding to the challenge of learning how to incorporate the eight aspects of the 8FP (Eightfold Path) into our lives. Pausing to celebrate is high on my list of important life skills. For example, “Yay, I got the job!” is a different mode than that first day at work. Even the perfect job requires discipline, and so does the 8FP. But the rewards of this discipline are both immediate and ongoing.

A funny thing about discipline: Back in my thirties I was writing a novel. Every day after dropping the kids off at school and doing my exercises at Elaine Powers (:-O), I spent three hours in front of my IBM Selectric typing away, fully engaged. I loved it! But friends often asked me, “Where do you get the discipline?” Discipline? I had thought of discipline as something imposed from an external source and internalized, so a mean-spirited inner aspect would crack a whip and force me to do something. But the discipline I had then, and have had throughout the years of teaching and writing this weekly blog post, is not a whip-cracking discipline but a true labor of love. Meditation was what made that novel-writing experience turn from a state of misery into a joyful process. And the regular practice of meditation all these years helps me to be lovingly disciplined in almost everything I do.

This will be the fourth time I have taught the Eightfold Path. Each time I use a different definer for the eight aspects. Traditionally, we use ‘right’ or ‘wise’, so ‘Right View’ or ‘Wise Speech’, for example. One time I substituted the word ‘spacious’, so ‘Spacious Concentration’, for I had found that for myself and my students our mental habits were very tight and tense. Teaching the 8FP this time, I wondered what might be the most helpful word to use, and what came to me as I was leading a metta practice that I always say the same way week after week, year after year, was the sudden addition — as if out of nowhere — of May we be skillful. Skillful! Yes, there’s a word that reminds us that we are empowered to be skillful in any moment.

The 8FP is wondrous set of tools to explore and develop more skillfulness in life so that we don’t cause suffering for ourselves or others. It’s not a quick fix. It’s not a pill we can take. It’s an ongoing practice.

I’ve also wondered why it is called a path. A path indicates a starting and ending point, but the eight aspects of the 8FP work in concert, intricately interconnected and complementary. There is no destination, and focusing on one, gazing into some imagined future, takes us away from this moment just as it is. The more we discover about the 8FP, the more we discover about ourselves and our way of being in the world. We not only see the patterns of greed, aversion and delusion, but learn how to skillfully deal with them, so over time they are not constantly making us miserable.

For this prescription to work, we need a regular practice of meditation. Otherwise, we are just learning ‘about’ the Buddha’s teachings instead of living them as the prescription calls for. So if you don’t have a daily practice, this would be a great time to start one. If you think you don’t have time, you might want to investigate further, notice how you are spending your time. Perhaps there is some escapist activity you would be willing to sacrifice to discover a life that you don’t need to escape. On this website you will find lots of support, including a link to the free Insight Timer app with tens of thousands of guided meditations by outstanding teachers.

Even ten to fifteen minutes a day of stepping away from the fray to simply notice physical sensations, thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away, will signal to your inner wisdom that you are ready to pay attention, ready to learn how to live with joyous ease.

So celebrate that there is a cure! And then join me and my in-class students who are looking forward to having something to ‘really sink their teeth into’, as we explore together this skillful prescription to cure what ails us.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Come up for air!

Every swimmer comes up for air and the skillful ones have developed a method of incorporating their breathing so that it is natural and effortless

Just so, our meditation practice might be seen as coming up for air, rising above the sea of thoughts that are ‘drowning’ us. While in the insight meditation tradition, we simply focus on the breath and other sensations, sometimes it’s useful to try a little imagery to refocus our attention. Most of my students found this very helpful, but it’s not for everyone. If the metaphor of water is uncomfortable for any reason, you can dry the experience out and still have that sense of coming up for air, of rising above the world of busy thoughts.


MEDITATION
Settle in as you would for any meditation, relaxing and releasing tension and noticing sensation, Now focus on the light on your eyelids. Then, if you can, lift your gaze just a bit more. That sense of lift enables you to rise above all the thinking-thinking and to breathe clear air in.

Rest here awhile, breathing out and in.
Let the air breathe you!
Let the freshness in!

If you find yourself sinking, just begin again.
This is a lot to take in,
but you were made to swim, not wallow

Spend as long as you like meditating.


Here are the instructions for after meditation, when you are relaxed and have the time to notice thoughts as they arise in your experience. If you’ve been following these dharma posts, you’ll recognize the Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion. One of my students found it helped to remember the three with the acronym GAD. To take her thought a little further, when we find ourselves caught up in Greed/Aversion/Delusion, we are GADabouts, and when we come across one of them, we might say e-GAD! I’m all for any way to help us skillfully recognize them when they are present, and help us compassionately release them.

AFTER MEDITATION EXPLORATION

If you want to dive deeper, keep coming up for air
so it stays clear what you’re seeing down there.
You’ll find all kinds of creatures in the deep
but notice how they fall into three categories:

There are greedy gulpers, eating more than they need

There are grumpy gashers, attacking everything they see,

and the go along to get alongs can’t see up from down or right from wrong

Greed, aversion and delusion:
They are all there, and they pair down there.
They take all forms and create all kinds of drama
and once you buy into it, oh baby, you’re a goner.

See what you see but make no enemies.

When you’re running with the pack
and fear drives your every move
come up for air, come for air, come up for air!

When you’re gorging on the goodies
and you still feel unsatisfied
come up for air, come for air, come up for air!

When you’re so convinced you’re right
that you’re uncomfortable with questions
come up for air, come for air, come up for air!

The air is fresh and free and you’ll feel fine again
you were meant to breathe even while you swim


Having only had this idea a week ago, I am still experimenting, and you can too. I am finding that ‘Come up for air’ is useful instruction at any time during the day if I am caught up in thinking-thinking. It’s very clarifying.
Let me know if this is helpful to you, both the meditation and the self-exploration. Comment by clicking on ‘reply’. — Stephanie

Image by Pexels from Pixabay