Author Archives: Stephanie Noble

About Stephanie Noble

Stephanie Noble is an insight meditation teacher in San Rafael, California. She is a member of the Buddhist Insight Network, teaches a weekly group and guest teaches for Rick Hanson PhD. She is a published poet and author of 'Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.' Read Stephanie's OPEN EMBRACE MEDITATIONS blog.  Over 300 talks on meditation, mindfulness, Buddhism and how to live a joyful life in the midst of ever-changing causes and conditions. Please FOLLOW to receive the latest post. Visit her Mindfulness Facebook page for inspiring and entertaining shares on life from a Buddhist perspective. Attend her meditation class for women on Thursday mornings in San Rafael, CA. Request a private consultation in person, by phone or Skype / Google Hangouts; or to set up a presentation or workshop on mindfulness and related topics.

Bare attention, interconnection and the artist Will Noble

In a recent article in Tricycle magazine, Cynthia Thatcher looked at George Seurat’s neo-impressionist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, as an example of the nature of our interconnection. In her rich exploration, she said that her meditation teacher, Achan Sobin Namto, once wrote, “If we could focus precisely on the present moment…the eye would not be able to identify objects coming into the area of perception.”

If that flies right over your head, you are not alone. But let’s look closer. Her sharing of her experience with Seurat’s dots reminded me of the art of my painter husband Will Noble, whose works are almost all made up of little dots or circles. He draws and then paints each circle over a period of many months — a meditation in itself. But instead of getting caught up in the whys and hows of his process, I’d like to focus on the finished painting.

Phoenix-Will-Noble-ptg

Phoenix, oil painting by Will Noble

In class I had my students take a few minutes to choose one of Will’s paintings (our home is also his studio/gallery) and really look at the painting, first from a distance and then up close. They seemed to enjoy the exercise.

From a distance, people often mistake Will’s paintings for photographs. They note its subject matter, composition and colors, and have whatever response they have to what is represented — usually an intimate waterscape.

But if they take a moment to step closer, they have a surprise in store.

will-noble-circles-closeupThe landscape dissolves into patterns of circles, each circle less than a quarter inch in diameter, unique yet similar to its neighbors. The closer the viewer gets, the more abstract the painting becomes.  The overall image – the initially recognizable subject matter – disappears. Then the viewer steps back, further and further, until the image reassembles itself, coming back into a recognizable pattern that can be labeled as ‘cascade’ or ‘pond’. If the viewer is really paying attention, they may never look at the world the same way again.

When we look at anything, there is a nano-second of bare attention before the mind labels what we are looking at. In that brief but potentially expansive mental space we are just looking. For example, I just glanced out the window, and automatically registered ‘mountain’. All the things I know about mountains in general and that mountain in particular — all the memories of times I have walked it, camped on it, scattered my mother’s ashes on it — are all activated almost instantly. Almost. If I really pay attention, before registering ‘mountain’ I might allow myself to notice colors, shapes, textures, values, light and shadow — all primary concerns of a painter. The artist Chester Arnold once said that he painted in order to be able to see in that way. “If I could see that way all the time, I wouldn’t need to paint.” I don’t totally believe him, because there are many reasons why a painter paints, but it was a very insightful comment. Can the rest of us see that way? Can we give a little space to seeing, hearing, etc. before needing to label and file away all the sensory phenomena that comes our way?

But wait, isn’t seeing color, shape and texture just another way of labeling? ‘Green, round, rough.’ These are all observations based on learned labels for experiencing the world around us. Is that really as bare as our attention can get? In Will’s paintings composed of little molecular shapes, we are seeing even deeper. We are reminded that elementally we are all composed of tiny infinitesimal bits of life coming together in a seemingly infinite ways to shape what we believe ourselves and the world around us to be.

In the last post, I shared the story of the Buddha meditating under the bodhi tree, and his second insight upon awakening: that anyone can awaken. But what was his first insight? Everything is interconnected. There is no separation anywhere.

Today’s science completely supports this fact, but we tend to forget it. We are caught up in the illusion of separation, and  although it can be useful for practical matters in our lives, not being able to see its illusory nature causes us and those around us all manner of suffering.

If we practice this kind of real seeing we will arrive at real understanding — how there is no ‘other’. When we notice a habituated pattern of other-making in our thoughts, we can challenge it. We can step a little closer and practice bare attention. We can step back and see the amazing patterns of life that we had previously interpreted as solid separate objects. How liberating, how wondrous, how comforting to recognize the intrinsic nature of all being.

And if you are in the Bay Area and would like to see Will’s paintings for yourself, contact him.

You can focus like Siddhartha under the ficus

ficus-buddhasTwenty-six hundred years ago, under a tree, a seeker named Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation, determined not to stop meditating until he awakened.

In his meditation he was taunted, terrorized and tempted by all manner of thoughts and emotions that came in such convincing guises that it was a challenge to not believe they were solid and true.

Instead  of engaging, chasing after or battling them, he recognized them for the passing illusions they were, and each time he greeted them in a friendly way with the words ‘I know you.’ Because of the deity-rich culture and times he lived in, he saw the hand of Maara (aka Mara, Maya), the tempter. Maara manifested thoughts of self-doubt, of the hopelessness of awakening and even of his right to try to do so. Maara also tried to activate desires and cravings, and to scare him into giving up his seat under that tree.

Again and again Siddhartha reset his intention, stayed grounded, and, thanks to six years of practice, he was able to stay fully present and see through these manifestations to their fleeting and illusory nature.  His awareness of the nature of impermanence and interconnectedness grew so strong within him that Maara couldn’t gain a foothold. And Siddhartha awakened. He became a buddha, which simply means awakened one. On occasion, throughout his long life, Maara tried again to seduce him to give up struggles, even for life itself when he was in a physically weakened state. Maara advised him to keep the wisdom he had learned to himself rather than sharing it. And, of course, Maara seized any opportunity to bring doubt into the Buddha’s mind that he was truly awakened.

The Buddha was a human being, with all of the struggles and suffering we all have at times. We honor the Buddha not as a god — he was the first to refute such an honorific — but as an inspiration to us to practice meditation as he did under that tree, with gratitude for his ability to see through Maara’s taunts, and share his teachings over many decades, so we benefit from them all these centuries later.

In class, I passed around little Buddha statues (gifts from students over the years) for class members to hold or to put in front of them while we did a few minutes of meditation with the image of Siddhartha sitting under that tree, his intention so strong, his concentration so clear. Perhaps you have such a statue that could at times be incorporated into your home practice. One student said it was easier to stay focused with the statue in front of her, reminding her of her purpose.

‘Now I understand why people have altars,’ she said. I teach what I call a ‘portable practice’ that can be done anywhere without drawing attention to oneself. But that practice doesn’t preclude having an altar at home for daily practice. It just means not becoming reliant on it, so that when it’s not there you can’t practice. Even traveling, one can bring to mind that young man so long ago with all the temptations we ourselves face, sitting under that tree with such skillful effort.

When he completed his marathon meditation and awakened, one of the first things he said was that all beings are endowed with the nature of awakening. This is important for us to remember, because our thoughts and emotions will likely try to convince us otherwise, that somehow we are uniquely incapable of awakening.

If Siddhartha can wake up, you can too. 

Dharma, dharma everywhere — even in my just published short story!

birdlandjournalbirdsYay! My short story The Homecoming  is in the Fall 2018 issue of the Birdland Journal, an online publication that celebrates the voices of Northern California.

Why do I mention this in a blog about meditation and Buddhist teachings? Because, while a work of fiction is very different from a dharma talk or post, we can always discover the dharma if we’re looking.

In this story, a minor fact about the main character is that she has a regular meditation practice, but while out of town on business, she has not had the chance to do so. Non-meditators might not even notice that mention. But meditators will recognize and probably relate. When we travel our schedules change and often our time is not our own. How do we deal with that challenge? Hopefully better than this character. Not that she becomes a serial killer or anything. She’s just a woman leading a busy life, but it’s interesting to consider how if she had kept up her practice, she might have been in a better frame of mind to cope with all that arises in her experience when she arrives home. Just sayin’.

Even under challenges circumstances, most of us can find at least a few minutes here and there to meditate. When we think our practice has to be ‘just so’ and a specific length, we can lose out on opportunities to at least bring our attention to physical sensation, relax and release tension, and center ourselves. While this doesn’t replace regular practice, it certainly helps! The kind of meditation I teach I consider a ‘portable practice’ that can be done anywhere, even in public places like the waiting area of an airport, without props, special poses or anything that would draw attention. Just sitting.

Dharma or no dharma, I hope you will take a few minutes to read this short story! I had fun writing it and I hope you’ll have fun reading it. I’d love to read your comments.

𝅘𝅥𝅯A tick a tick a tick a good timing𝅘𝅥𝅯 and why being in the moment makes us happy

sunrays1000
Because last week we did an exercise, using the little emojis to represent the Five Hindrances, this week in class I checked in with my students to see how the experience of exploring in that way and working with what they found. If you tried out working with them, I’d love to hear from you!

One student said that in the middle of a difficult conversation she tried to categorize what was coming up for her as one of the Hindrances. It didn’t help.

No, it wouldn’t. This is an exercise to do when we are alone, just noticing thoughts and emotions arising in our experience. It’s good to do after meditation and especially good to do on retreat where periods in between sitting meditation, walking meditation, eating meditation, yogi work meditation and sleeping — when the mind is free to wander, but it is also much more present in the moment. Useful insights can come during these periods of simple noticing because we’ve quieted down enough to allow our own inner wisdom to be heard.

When we are interacting with others, it is important to listen to them. It is challenging enough to not get caught up in planning what we will say next, let alone analyze and categorize thoughts that arise.

Our practice of being in the present moment supports us in conversations with others. If it is a difficult conversation, we might notice the urge to say something unskillful. In that instant, it is skillful to pause and ask ourselves ‘What is my intention here?’  If the intention comes from fear in one of its many forms, rather than loving-kindness, then we know that our words will not be skillful.

But we don’t stop and categorize our thoughts and emotions at that moment. We save that for another time. Instead we silently send metta to ourselves and to other person – May I be well. May you be well. – and go from there.

Talk of being in the present moment prompted another student to ask, “How does being in the moment make us happy?’ Over the past year of meditation practice and attending classes, she has found increasing clarity, peace of mind and, yes, happiness. But she wondered what is it about being in the moment that makes us feel happier? How does it work?

I suggested that it is primarily because the moment is the only place we really live, the only moment that exists with all the senses to experience. All other perceived moments are memory and imaginings, lacking in the fullness of sensory awareness.

Also being in the present moment we are able to see more clearly how threads of thought and emotion that make us unhappy are rooted in the past. Seeing their source, we can more easily question their veracity and gently let them go. The more we let go, the more we are able to stay present and the more joyful the present becomes.

Of course at times there is pain in the moment. But the pain is compounded by dredging up memories of this same or a similar pain, and then pain becomes misery. Pain is exacerbated by getting stuck in the future, thinking the pain will go on forever, or wondering when it will stop. Staying in the present moment with pain shows us the multi-faceted nature of the pain itself, and also all the other things that are going on in this moment that are not painful. Learning how to be present with pain — not making it worse — makes us happier.

Full awareness of this moment fills us with gratitude for being alive, frees us from all the nagging thoughts that find fault in the way things are or want to keep it just so forever. It releases tension and fear-based emotions. It ‘gets us out of our heads’ and into the felt experience of life.

There is an integrity in being fully in the moment, a wholeness to our body-mind experience, that feels like a homecoming. And that makes us happy!

Are there other reasons being in the present moments causes happiness? Please comment!

A fun way to learn to focus

When we sit in meditation, the untrained mind naturally runs amok. No fault there. We live in a culture of constant distraction and short attention span. The mind, even in silence, gets caught up in thinking or gets lost in a fog. Cultivating inner calm, ease and balance, we become better able to focus on one object, like the breath rising and falling. We create a spaciousness that lets us befriend what arises without engaging with it.following-thoughts-bench

Imagine sitting on a park bench on a pleasant spring day. All manner of people pass by and you not

ice them, maybe smile at them, but you don’t rush up to them and have a conversation, do you? That’s a skillful way to be with all the sensations, thoughts and emotions that pass through your inner ‘park’, that compassionate field of awareness in your meditation practice. How nice!
But, because, being human, we have lots of opinions and preferences, we may find certain people passing by our park bench grab our attention in various ways:

  • Perhaps there’s an attractive person we’d like to get to know. Or we see an ice cream vendor and suddenly we’re salivating, even though we weren’t the least bit hungry. Maybe we find this moment so extraordinarily pleasant that we never want it to change, We think, ‘Why can’t it be like this all the time?’
  • Perhaps someone walks by smoking and now the air is full of a foul smell. Or someone looks evil and we imagine horrible things they may have done. Or someone’s wearing an outfit that just doesn’t work – ‘What were they thinking?’ Or we wish the park bench was better positioned so we could see both the pond and the rose garden. If only that tree was a little to the left, then it would be SO much better.
  • Perhaps, even with all that’s going on around us, we get lost in a fog, and only after an unknown period of time do we notice again where we are and what’s going on. But then we’re lost in the fog again.
  • Perhaps a band of pranksters come along and lure us away from the bench entirely. We get swept up in their big to do, and it all seems so much more interesting than sitting on that boring old bench. They can magically travel into the past and the future! Why wouldn’t we hang out with them? But finding ourselves swept away, there’s also a sense of feeling lost and worried. Where is that park bench? Where is the park? Where the heck are we?
  • Perhaps we’re concerned because we’re not sure if we’re allowed to sit on this bench. Is this a private park? Do we need an invitation? Are people looking at us as if we don’t belong? And if we are allowed, is this really a good thing to do?

What I have just described in that park scenario are the Buddha’s Five Hindrances: craving, aversion, torpor, restlessness and doubt. What are they hindering? They hinder our capacity to focus, to concentrate and to awaken. Let’s look at them one by one. These emojis I created for an exercise we did in class to help recognize and remember these Hindrances. craving-green

Craving

Whether we crave sweets, sex, adventure, love, power or something else, that grip of craving throws us off-balance. We’re leaning into longing, missing what’s here and now.
Craving can be a specific physical addiction, but it is more universal than that. It’s like a dangling fishing lure that we keep leaping after, only to discover the pain of the hook. Even when we enjoy getting what we had craved, there’s an edge to that enjoyment because now we fear losing it. Clinging and craving go hand in hand. Even if we feel we have come to terms with the nature of impermanence, we hope against all reason that the rules don’t apply to us.

aversion-red

Aversion
Hatred is the most virulent form of aversion, and the one that causes mental blindness. This ‘blind rage’ sabotages any possibility of happiness. The mental knots of grudges and pet peeves we’ve been exploring recently, that entangle our thoughts and emotions in misery of our own making, are also aversion. As is the habit of fault-finding. How often have you been enjoying an experience but found some way in which it would be even better?torpor-face

Torpor

This is a kind of mental malaise, a state of fogginess, a ‘huh?’ quality, as if we’re just floating along mindlessly, not really living. There could be a physical component to this, when there’s a sluggishness in the body that is not just needing to rest after being active but an ongoing state of lethargy.restlessness

Restlessness

The restless mind has difficulty settling down and focusing on this moment. It is always leaping to the next thing on the calendar or to do list, or solving a problem or planning an event or a creative project. Worry and anxiety can arise here as well. The restless mind is everywhere but here and now.doubt

Doubt

This is not the healthy questioning that is an intrinsic part of our insight meditation practice where we ask ‘Is this true?’ This is a sneaky self-sabotaging doubt: Doubting that we can meditate or do whatever task we set ourselves. It’s also the doubt that our wise effort will be rewarded. Doubt may arise about the value of the practice and teachings, even though we have experienced their benefits. It’s the belief that somehow we are uniquely unqualified to awaken.

In class we did a practice of sitting as we would in regular meditation, but instead of just sitting on our metaphorical park bench and feeling friendly toward all that passes by, we made a point of identifying them as one or another of these Hindrances. I gave each student a sheet of Five Hindrance emojis in a pie chart, and every time a thought or emotion arose they were to make a mark in the section of the Hindrance where it best fit.
Contact me if you would like to get a downloadable PDF of this exercise sheet.
Please note that we are not categorizing or labeling ourselves. We are looking at thoughts passing through and categorizing them. If we find that most of our marks are in one area, say ‘aversion’, it would be counterproductive to label ourselves an ‘aversive personality’. In the Buddhist tradition, we are letting go of as many labels as we can, not adding more. So, watch for the all-too pervasive mental habit of labeling yourself, and resist!
Coming into Skillful Relationship with the Hindrances
Noticing these five hindrances as they arise in our experience is the first step, but how do we disengage from them? First and foremost, we don’t make enemies of them. That’s just aversion, one of the hindrances! Instead, we recognize their intention to improve things for us. They are patterns developed to ‘save us from ourselves’ in some way. But because they are based in fear and are myopic and misguided, we lovingly and respectfully cultivate enough space for them to exist without feeling we need to adhere to their plans for us, many of which are cockamamie schemes. We remind ourselves that they are not the bosses of us! As we practice, our own quiet inner wisdom can be heard and appreciated. We develop the ability to see the Hindrances for what they are and see that we have the choice not to succumb or engage in them.

We can develop some phrase to use in that moment of recognition that will bring us back to the moment in a skillful way. Your own inner wisdom will have the best phrase, but here are some ideas to get you started. Just be sure they are wise speech: kind, true, timely and not scolding.
Craving: This moment is enough.
Notice all that is arising in this moment to fully engage all the senses. Take sensory pleasure in the feel of your tongue in your mouth, the air on your skin, the light on your eyelids, etc. It was only ever not enough because you weren’t paying full attention.
Aversion: This too shall pass.
Remembering the nature of impermanence helps to ameliorate momentary annoyances. But a deeper practice of coming fully into the senses and thinking of whatever arises as part of this unique moment’s ‘symphony of now.’
For aversion that wants to makeover everything, the study of wabi sabi, where we are encouraged to find the beauty in all phases of life, not just some ‘perfect’ moment, like a flower at the peak of its bloom. How much richer life is when we expand our appreciation to include the beauty of wrinkles! Once you understand the concept, you can answer aversive thoughts with a whisper of ‘wabi sabi’.
Restlessness: This moment matters.
Gently and repeatedly bring the mind back to the here and now from wherever it wanders. In class I found myself almost in tears in defense of this moment, so often ignored. Poor little thing. It doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Especially when you consider that it’s the only moment that exists! All other moments are memory or imagining.

If worry is involved, you might bring out your inner Doris Day and remember ‘Que sera, sera – what will be will be.’
If anxiety is present, one student mentioned the skillfulness of switching out the word ‘anxiety’ for ‘energy’ and then asking, ‘How is this energy benefiting me?’ and other skillful inquiries. And again, letting go of the habit of labeling yourself ‘an anxious person.’
Doubt
I can do this.
I am worthy.
I have a seat at the table of life guaranteed by having been born.
You are not uniquely deficient in whatever qualities are needed to meditate or undertake other activities. And you deserve this! If you think you don’t you might use the phrase ‘The ocean refuses no river.’ as a chant. It can release any sense of feeling unacceptable. Also, make a habit of sending yourself infinite loving kindness — May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be peaceful. May I be happy. — or other supportive loving phrases.
If you are doubting the value of the practice or the teachings, find examples in your own life, or if you’re very new to the practice, in the lives of people you know, where meditation and the dharma have been of value. If you feel you haven’t achieved enough, let go of any sense of a time frame or progress chart. That’s just more self-sabotage.
Torpor
Here and now. Wake up! This moment is worthy of my attention.
To keep your attention present, you might give yourself extra sensory stimuli: Wiggle your toes, rub your fingers together, or some other small but effective way to maintain present attention. Encourage the mind to be curious about all that is arising in this moment in the field of sensation. Question your desire to escape.
With this look at the Five Hindrances, we have launched our exploration of Concentration, the next Factor of Awakening. I hope you have found this an interesting way to look at your busy thoughts. I appreciate your comments.

Blindspotting, Leave No Trace, Pachinko and Less

blindspottingA brief break in my teaching schedule gives me an opportunity to write about something I’ve become aware of in the movies and books I’ve seen and read recently. While I watch and read for enjoyment with hopefully no agenda, upon reflection I may notice a common thread being explored, and wisdom being shared.

First, let me say how fortunate we are that even in the summer, traditionally reserved for movies full of car chases, monsters, aliens, zombies and assorted ‘bad guys’, there are brilliant films like Blindspotting and Leave No Trace. (And these aren’t the only quality films out right now!)

As for reading, I just finished Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and have started reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer. (I promised myself I would give bestsellers a chance, so have been requesting them at the library.)

What is the common thread? All of these works provide insight into the life and culture of people who are living in fear. The father in Leave No Trace is dealing with PTSD, needing to take care of himself and his daughter as best he can. The daughter is fearful for her father, afraid of losing him, and at the same time afraid of being kept from the natural venturing forth into the world that is part of coming of age. It’s impossible not to feel great compassion for both these characters and to want the best for them. But what is best? Given his inability to stay indoors or lead a life that would allow her what she needs, there is no easy answer.

In Blindspotting, the fear is palpable as we enter the life of a young Oakland man, who has turned his life around and is days from being done with probation, if he can just steer clear of trouble. Because he is so personable, I found myself tense and anxious, as his very ordinary working life seemed full of perils. I was invested in his not just staying free but staying alive, as the fear of police — a fear made reasonable by an incident he witnesses at close hand early in the film, as well as so many police shootings that we’re all aware of — becomes a presence throughout the film. Remaining free and alive is especially challenging when his oldest closest friend seems to stir up trouble wherever he goes. The mother in me wanted to shout ‘Steer clear of this guy! He’s trouble!’ With the pale skin of the dominant culture, the friend is unencumbered by the fear of police profiling, and seems oblivious to the danger he puts his friend in with his behavior. But he feels he has something to prove. Having grown up in a predominately African-American neighborhood, he has adapted by adopting, to absurd extremes, the trappings of the culture of the ‘hood. Without that identity, who would he be? Would he disappear? That’s a core fear for many of us who feel we need to promote a ‘self’ to be seen, respected and loved.

In the multi-generational novel
Pachinko, the characters are mostly Koreans who live in Japan where being Korean is socially and legally challenging. They fear being sent back to Korea, not being accepted in Japan, and not being able to make a decent life through the fruits of their labor. The descendants of Korean immigrants, though born in Japan, are not Japanese citizens. Instead, on their fourteenth birthdays, they are required to get fingerprinted and apply to stay in the country for three more years. A naturalization process is possible, though difficult, but the discrimination is still a huge issue. There are a lot of explorations of identity as well, and the intrinsic fear causes much heartache.

In the novel Less, about an aging gay author embarking on a trip around the world, I am only a few chapters in, but on page 45 I find this:

“Name a day, name an hour, in which Arthur Less was not afraid. Of ordering a cocktail, taking a taxi, teaching a class, writing a book. Afraid of these and almost everything else in the world.”

What a gift these films and novels provide! We can recognize the universality of humanity. If any of us were in any of these situations, given all the causes and conditions these characters experienced, we would fear what they fear and very likely react as they do.
Whether it’s a veteran father with PTSD, a daughter who wants to be with her father but also wants to live a normal life, a young black man trying to get his life back on track, a young white man grappling with his identity, a gay author feeling like he’s failing, or anyone living as a minority in a culture that belittles and excludes them, there is so much room for us to deepen our own understanding and compassion.

We might ask ourselves:

  • Where do I feel fear arising?

  • How is that fear playing out in my life?

  • Where might I be causing those feelings in others?

  • Can I be compassionate with myself, while gently relaxing and releasing fear?


And we might encourage filmmakers and writers to continue making movies and novels that both entertain and challenge us! Hooray!

Beyond meditation :: Doors to tranquility

 

marita-king-swans

Photo by my friend Marita King who says this is where she finds tranquility.

 

In our ongoing exploration of the Seven Factors of Awakening, we’ve been looking at the factor of Tranquility, which sounds heavenly but can be elusive. In this post I will share a list of  easy ways we can access tranquility.

How we think about tranquility can get in the way of experiencing it. For example, tranquility is not about having everything under control. It is more like being able to rest at ease in a sea of uncertainty. That’s quite a shift of mindset! When we think everything has to be ‘just so’ in order to ‘get to’ tranquility, we never get there. In the first place, life’s not like that, is it? But also, our belief that tranquility is a place to get to or something to achieve sabotages us. We get stuck in an ‘if only’ state of mind, wishing for a fantasy idea of a tropical vacation that’s going to deliver us ready-made peace of mind. Tranquility is cultivated in life just the way it is, as we soften the way we are in relationship to all that arises.

We have been exploring those mental knots that continually cause us trouble, like long-held grudges and pet peeves. One of my students just sent me a fascinating article on the science of grudges, with a focus on revenge and resulting feud mentality. Revenge? Feuds? Yikes! I had not even thought about that. But ultimately, the article says, it’s best to just get over the grudge. So that leads us back to where we are in our practice, noticing when grudges exist, questioning if they still have any basis in fact or serve us in any way, and then gently releasing them, as possible.

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you may notice that I often put concepts into visual metaphors — the idea of grudges as a type of ‘tangled knot’, for example. But then the metaphors can expand and shift for me. So now in our inner mental landscapes, these tight knots can feel so solid that they form the land itself. This is distinctly different from the storms of thoughts that pass through our mind as we cope with current challenges — event planning, problem solving, etc.

Though these passing storms are not knots that need to be untangled, we might notice how the inner landscape of accumulated knots shapes the storms, perhaps making them more frequent or intense. So as you notice and gently release the tight tangle of long-held angry feelings, you may discover that passing inner storms fall less heavily upon you. Causes and conditions have not changed. But you have softened the lay of your inner landscape.

Have you been noticing your pet peeves and grudges? I continue to be surprised at my own. Some are easy to assess and release just by thinking about them and seeing that, though I was upset at first, on reflection things turned out for the best. If we don’t notice and question our grudges, how would we realize when that’s true?

It seems that when we make a point of practicing anything, the subconscious offers up clues, perhaps in our dreams. For example, this week I had a dream about my maternal grandmother who died over fifty years ago. I’ll spare you the details, but the memorable feature was her face looking at me with the warmest loving smile, her eyes twinkling. This was particularly memorable because it’s not at all how I remember her. And thinking of her, I realized I have a huge old grudge against her!

You be the judge of the grudge: One time when I was fourteen I was drawing and she took my art without asking, erased parts and ‘corrected’ it. I’ve held that grudge for most of my life! Good grief.

Clearly, although she was a talented artist, she was not a particularly skillful arts educator. So what? The very thought that any of my grandchildren would hold a grudge against me for one of my unskillful moments breaks my heart. So I will see if I can attach that warm twinkling-eyed smile to my memory of her, and let the grudge go. Again, I’m not making light of it or pushing it away; just acknowledging and looking at all sides of it with as much compassion as possible.

 

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Doors to Tranquility
Now onto sharing some of the many ways we can bring tranquility into our lives beyond our regular meditation practice. A little caveat: Any of these could be done with a frenzied aggressive mind and would not result in tranquility. So clearly something is required of us. The expression ‘you can take the horse to water but you can’t make him drink’ applies. We can provide ourselves with the nourishment of tranquility, but our mind needs to open to it, receive it and welcome it in a gentle way. If we pursue it ambitiously to accomplish something, or if we rush through it in order to get to the rest of our day, then we are like horses who gallop through the river rather than drink from it.

I am referring to these ways of accessing tranquility as ‘doors’. And if they are doors, then the universal key to all of them is through the senses. We learn how to attend the senses through meditation. None of these doors replace our regular practice, but they offer other opportunities to weave tranquility into our lives.

The Nature Door
Being in nature, unplugged, fully present and engaged with all the senses. This can be a walk in a forest, sitting on the beach listening to the waves, looking out the window at a bird, lizard or squirrel, or even a spider on the wall.

Let go of all thoughts, plans and goals of getting anywhere or accomplishing anything, like learning the names we have applied to what you are seeing. The deeper you go in nature, especially if you don’t get cell phone reception and no one expects anything of you, the more engaged you will probably be. Can you discover that you are nature too? There’s a great release in that, when we recognize that nature is not everything except us, but us too.

If this is a door that appeals to you, I highly recommend the teachings of Mark Coleman, an insight meditation teacher who wrote a wonderful book Awake in the Wild: Mindfulness in Nature as a Path of Self-Discovery.

If you like to hike in a group, consider agreeing to do at least a section of the hike in solo silence. Years ago a small group of us formed what we called a Spirit Hike, where we would walk and talk for awhile, and then when we got to the deepest part of nature, the appointed leader would have us stop and space ourselves at least thirty feet apart to proceed walking in silence for at least twenty minutes, each of us having our own private communion with nature. Then we would gather and begin to talk again, but the quality and rhythm of that conversation was so different, so much deeper, so much more connected, and tranquil.

The Mindful Movement Door
Many people exercise with the goal of becoming more fit. Nothing wrong with that, but there’s a missed opportunity to develop mindfulness and cultivate tranquility in the process. Any exercise can be done in a meditative sensory-aware way, letting go of extraneous thoughts and goals; but certain movement traditions are based in mindfulness, like yoga, tai chi, chi gong and many others.

The Arts Door
Any of the arts can be an entry point to tranquility, again depending on how you go about it. Listening to music that is soothing, of course, can attune our minds to tranquility. I imagine playing an instrument, if you are not caught up in demanding perfection but just being with the experience, could cultivate tranquility. Singing in a group or solo could bring tranquility. There’s something so nourishing for the soul to join a choir, for example.

Creating visual art without trying to achieve anything would do the same. And dancing, where it’s just your body responding to the music, can certainly be soothing. And then there’s creative writing, especially poetry. Writing can be a very left brain activity, reporting factual information, but when the right brain gets activated, a sense of tranquility can result.

Entering a museum or gallery space can shift the mind into a spacious receptive state. Many people find that while it’s pleasant to view art with others, it’s especially rich to give yourself the time and space to go at your own pace, lingering at any piece that draws you.

The Ritual Door
Personal ritual, where you, for example, brew and sip a cup of tea with mindfulness, is a way to cultivate tranquility. You can do this with any aspect of your life: Bathing, dressing, cleaning the house, organizing, reading inspirational words, playing with or reading to a child. The list is endless because anything can become a ritual, not because it is repeated but because it is done with mindfulness and loving-kindness, given whatever time it takes to do it.

The Chore Door
If you life is full to the brim with commitments and appointments, then it may seem all very nice but near impossible to find tranquility. But begin where you are. Take that next commitment or appointment and be fully present for it. Be fully present as you go wherever you need to go, not plotting and planning but just driving or walking in a mindful way. This will prepare you for wherever you are going because it will help develop the habit of being present.

The Ethics Door
It’s near to impossible to be tranquil if you are in a state of regret for unskillful words and behavior, or are unclear what is and what isn’t skillful. In Buddhism, there are the precepts of non-harming that make choices clearer, as well as the Noble Eightfold Path which offers insight into where the quandary might have arisen. When we live in a way that is kind to ourselves and all beings, tranquility follows.

As you can see, there are a lot of ways to enter into tranquility. But the most important part is to incorporate it into your life in every moment rather than thinking of it as an escape from a frenzied reality.

Doors to Ignore
As mentioned in the beginning of this list, the key to all the doors to tranquility is the senses. When you pay attention to physical sensation, not only does it center you to be receptive to tranquility-producing experiences, it also helps you to recognize when you have opened a door that will take you far from tranquility. This might be entertainment full of violence and horror, scaring you senseless or making blood and gore seem normal. When you notice extreme tension, an adrenaline rush, your heart leaping, you can remind yourself that this is pulling you away from any possibility of cultivating tranquility. And, if you’re really paying attention, you might notice the rippling effects of exposing yourself to such things.

This is not to put up a wall between ourselves and the world we live in or turn a blind eye to what goes on. It is to question the value of finding entertainment there, so that our hearts are more able to be compassionate and recognize the nature of suffering.

Are there are doors you have found to tranquility? Perhaps stroking the fur of your beloved pet? Whatever door you find, keep it as a presence in your life, not some distant destination, always on the horizon, that you’ll get to when you’ve got the time.

Make the time right now. Open the door!