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.

The skin-deep divide

brownbodywhitesangha

Illustration by Loveis Wise

I read an article in Tricycle, titled ‘Brown Body, White Sangha’ by Atia Sattar, a woman of color who found it difficult to be part of an otherwise all white sangha. This was not because people were unfriendly, but because it didn’t address her deepest concerns.

She gave the example of being led through the first aspect of the Buddha’s First Foundation of Mindfulness where the instruction is to look at 32 body parts and recognize that they are basically nothing special. She had no problem with that. But when it came to skin, she discovered all sorts of negative emotions arising around the color of her skin, compounded by memories of experiences with white people who reacted to her skin color in one way or another. When the teacher had the students move along to the next body part, she found herself unable to do so. Something had opened in her that needed more exploration.

Often in our inner explorations we discover things that call for a deeper look, beyond what the teacher is offering. The teacher has given a spark that can quicken into individual discoveries of great value. But sometimes in that exploration we feel the need of a community of people who have experienced what we are going through to help us. In her case, she felt quite alone among the other students for whom skin was ‘just skin’.

Or not. For me skin was never just skin because it’s an organ that for the first few decades of my life was in a state of torment. At one point, I was almost hospitalized because my skin was an open wound from head to toe. The other kids would say ‘Ew, that’s disgusting’. I never wore sandals, and wore knuckle-length sleeves and gloves whenever possible. In adulthood the skin calmed down, and through meditative practice, I found ways to befriend even the body parts that most bothered me. We all have them, and mostly we suffer alone. Even our closest friends might not be aware of the shame we feel around some body part. I remember a friend confessing the embarrassment she felt because of her sweaty palms, and how she dreaded having to shake hands with anyone. I had no idea. It expanded my compassion not just for her, but for all of us who live with such a sense of isolation in our shame.

Buddhist teachings do give us a way to come into skillful relationship with what we are feeling. Sending lovingkindness, for example, is very skillful. I remember one time I did a gratitude mandala for my feet, which I had always hated. It freed me from a great burden. The meditative practice of thanking body parts for all that they do for us is very helpful.

But feeling ashamed of a body part, and feeling isolated because of it, is not the same as feeling institutionally and socially excluded, called out or even threatened because of an aspect of our physical appearance. It’s not the same as having dreams limited by the fear-based prejudices of those who hold the keys to education, employment and housing opportunities. As a world community of human beings, we need to recognize prejudice in ourselves and our cultures, and work to assure that there is equal access regardless of pigmentation or any other factor.

Another challenge for the article’s author is that some people in the sangha welcomed her, not just as a person, but as a representative of her ‘race’. I have noticed the eagerness with which the predominantly white community of practitioners in the Western Buddhist community greets people of color. In fact, when I first started attending a regular weekly class at Spirit Rock in the early 1990’s, at one point the teacher asked to talk to me after class. My thoughts became a jumble of questions. Was there some offense I had committed for which she would scold me? Or some positive thing I had done for which she would praise me? But none of those thoughts prepared me for the actual conversation: She said she heard I was married to a black man and asked if there any way I could get him to attend class? So her interest in me wasn’t even about me at all. I was just a means to expand the ethnic makeup of her class and Spirit Rock.

More recently I have noticed that in the weekly women’s group I teach, when much younger women attend, members of the group may excitedly treat them not just as fellow humans but as representatives of their age group. This can be very off-putting and make the person feel they don’t belong there, even when they are greeted with such warmth. I have gently brought this to their attention and they recognized right away the truth of it. 

Does this ring any bells for you? Have you approached a person of a different age or ethnicity as if they were an ambassador from another world rather than as a complex person you might like to get to know just for themselves? Do you expect a person of a different gender or sexual orientation to speak for a larger group? It’s interesting to notice our assumptions, and instead of beating ourselves up, to set the intention to be more aware in the future of that pattern.

Even as the author is discomforted by being singled out for her skin color, she also complains of white people being ‘color blind’. Now that might be confusing. But the core of it is the request for all of who we are to be included and seen. Can we welcome all of a person without either denying or singling out any aspect? Can we notice our own filters and assumptions? This is an interesting area to explore.

I have on many occasions been the only Euro-American person at large African-American family gatherings. Those that know me, know my place in the family, love me as me, and have never once made reference to my pale complexion. (If they make comments about my body, it usually has to do with whether I’ve lost or gained weight! Ugh!)

At the occasional larger gathering like a funeral or a milestone birthday celebration, I have felt guests beyond the family looking askance at me, as if I am some unnatural intruder on the sanctity of their communal experience. If I had been a coworker attending an occasion as just part of the crowd, I might be ignored but not given the once-over. But because I seemed to be an intrinsic part of the family clearly made some people uncomfortable. ‘What’s that white woman doing sitting up in the front row by the casket?’

While I have certainly never been called out or threatened, I have felt at least initial discomfort. Over the years, in younger generations, the family has incorporated a few other pale spouses. I have met them but confess I haven’t gotten to know them. Time is so short at these events and I value catching up with the family members I’ve known and loved for the past fifty years, and the children who’ve grown up with me as their auntie. I feel quite blessed.

So when the author writes of white people being ‘color blind’ naturally I have to think a little deeper, because I appreciate it when my family doesn’t make a point of noticing my pale skin. But there’s more to the color-blindness she’s talking about. Perhaps the color-blindness is not trusted as true. People of color do not want to be seen as white! As if that’s a big gift of acceptance rather than an erasure of a valued ethnic heritage and inherent beauty. But none of us wants one aspect of ourselves to be the only thing people see, the thing they react to, rather than embracing the wholeness of who we are.

The author brings up how, in explorations of racism in Buddhist classes she has attended, it was taught as if all attending students were white. All the information was about developing awareness of white privilege. While this is important learning for many, it wasn’t what she needed. She needed help dealing with all the inner torment of her accumulated experiences and tangled patterns of thought and emotion. So she found a sangha where the people looked more like her, and where the teachers of color actively dealt with the kinds of challenges she was facing.

This is the kind of self-segregation that happens in the American Buddhist community because we are dealing with such deep discoveries within ourselves, and we need guidance that recognizes it.

I teach a women’s group. When I guest teach in mixed-gender groups, I am always asked by male students why I don’t accept men in the group. ‘That’s sexist’, they say. I explain that when the group started out it was open to all, but only women showed up, and the women kept asking me to make it ‘women-only’. After a few years, I finally began to see the value of taking the Buddha’s teachings and directing them to the specific challenges we as women face. I also noticed that women among men feel less free to share their deepest concerns, and at times defer to men who may dominate the group.

When I first started attending retreats, I could only bring myself to attend ones for women only. But eventually I was able to attend mixed retreats without problem, and in fact came to appreciate having males present at their deepest and most vulnerable.

Retreats designed for self-defining groups of people are a way to address the specific challenges that come with a particular identity. But I hope that all who attend and who develop a regular and ongoing practice of meditation, will eventually feel safe, heard and a part of the larger sangha of all practitioners, both on retreats and in classes. If not, I fear for all of our futures, divided and subdivided to a point of total separation — in our sanghas and in the world.

From a scientific and Buddhist perspective all these differences are minimal in the grand scheme of things. All life is an ever arising and falling away of patterns of being in a glorious array of amalgamations of wondrous nature. Can we celebrate the beauty of all life instead of entangling ourselves in the miasma of misery our fears stir up, churned by powers that want to divide and conquer? Let’s try!

The pursuit of enlightenment: One more thing to let go of

tree-sitOne of my students said that the least interesting thing to her in the study of Buddhism is enlightenment. ‘That’s funny,’ I said, ‘because that’s exactly what I planned to talk about today.’ But maybe not the enlightenment she was imagining. If we think of enlightenment as some goal of miraculous transformation, I agree with her, because focusing on ‘achieving enlightenment’ sabotages our practice. A practice that enlightens us!

In class and in these blog posts we’ve been exploring the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Awakening or Enlightenment. The factors are Mindfulness, Investigation, Energy/effort, Joy, Concentration, Tranquility and Equanimity. Each factor is full of potential for rich inner discovery. Speaking of enlightenment, I feel lighter for having explored them. In the process there’s been a lot of letting go, Ahh! And in the lightening up, there has been a lot of gratitude. I hope if you have been following along and doing a regular meditation practice that you have found some benefits as well.

What does ‘awakening’ or ‘enlightenment’ actually mean?
For many it is seen as a means of escaping the difficulties of life, the ‘rat race’, ‘emotional roller coaster’ or however we want to describe the suffering we experience. But is enlightenment just another version of a beach hut on Bora Bora with a Mai Tai? There are plenty of shows you can watch that let you tag along as people, mostly overworked but highly paid executives, pursue just such a getaway. There’s even one where you can buy a whole island, just for you. Given global warming, these multi-million dollar purchases seem like a poor bet. But an equally poor bet is believing that escaping is the way to happiness. Because once the initial euphoria wears off, our patterns resurface and we’re back where we started, just thousands of miles away from what we thought was the source of our suffering. Hopefully we realize that, just like Jon Kabat Zinn’s book title, Wherever You Go, There You Are.

As uncomfortable as it may be to recognize that suffering travels with us, it’s enlightening to see that we are the ones who are cultivating suffering. We’re not helpless and there’s nothing wrong with us. We’ve just been barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. This recognition empowers us to try out new more wholesome ways of being in relationship to all that arises in our experience. That’s the heart of our practice.

Another book title, Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape, reminds us that it is skillful to stop thinking this (whatever ‘this’ is for each of us) is something we have to get away from. Of course, there are certain situations — abusive relationships, for example — where it is skillful to leave and to notice the patterns of excuses we make that deter us from doing so. But if we are beating ourselves up about, say, not having the funds, the smarts, the talent, the luck, etc. to buy an island or our dream home, or a perfect job, body, family, life, etc. — or we blame the world, our parents, the system, etc. and let that pattern of blaming sabotage us into inaction — then coming home to this moment, just as it is, and finding compassion for ourselves and all beings is the absolute best thing we can do.

With wise intention and wise effort and the help of the wisdom teachings we can gently cultivate awakening, which the Buddha defined as the end of the three causes of suffering: greed, aversion and delusion (which I think of as Yum! Yuck! and Huh?)

Since greed, aversion and delusion are the ways we habitually react to our experience, this is indeed a challenge. But being present to notice what’s arising, not running away from it, but allowing ourselves to be curious, aware and compassionate, is a more wholesome way of relating to all that arises. Daily practice for even ten to twenty minutes can make a world of difference to our whole lives. Add in a weekly class and an occasional retreat, and you’ll be amazed at how much clearer, kinder and lighter you feel!

Spirit Rock Meditation Center co-founder and author Jack Kornfield in an article titled ‘Enlightenments’ (in the Fall 2010 issue of Inquiring Mind, recently republished by Tricycle’s ‘Trike Daily’) suggested that there is more than one kind of enlightenment. Under his teachers Ajahn Chah in Thailand and Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma, he was given two very different means of awakening. With Sayadaw he was taught complete ongoing immersion into the retreat experience of sensory moment-to-moment awareness. When after a year he returned to study again with Ajahn Chah, he shared all the wondrous meditative experiences he had. Ajahn Chah nodded and appreciated all he had shared, and then said ‘Just one more thing to let go of.’

Ajahn Chah taught simply notice all that arises moment to moment in this daily life just as it is. Both of these ways are in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, and we have the opportunity to do both practices, as one supports the other. But attaching too much importance to going on retreat in order to experience the factors of awakening can undermine our understanding that awakening is available in every moment. There’s no place we have to go to ‘get’ it.

That said, given the opportunity to go on retreat, take it! It’s much easier to practice when that’s all that is asked of you and you are completely supported by all around you. Certainly some of the deepest insights that stay with me came to me when I was on retreat, and I am so grateful to have had those opportunities. It is relatively recently that we in the West have had retreats to go on, and it’s important to value and support the centers that provide them. That said, the most awake I ever felt and the deepest insights I ever had came from a period of dedicated meditation on my own, when, due to illness, I had a choice of going mindless watching endless television or taking a weekly meditation class and doing the practice extensively on my own. This was back when classes were rare and retreat centers unavailable.

Whether on retreat or in daily meditation practice, we set the intention to be fully present and compassionate with all that arises in every moment of our lives. That seed of intention planted firmly blooms into wise effort and mindfulness throughout the rest of our lives.

With that intention and effort, the Seven Factors of Awakening bloom within us. They are qualities we cultivate and states we experience more and more through our practice. Each Factor supports and enhances the others. There is a dependent co-arising of awakening.

Since we have recently looked at how language shapes our inner landscape, we might look at the traditional translations of the teachings of the definition of enlightenment: ‘extinguishing’ or ‘getting rid of’ greed, aversion and delusion. Do these verbs put us in a combative relationship with greed, aversion and delusion? Another word that is often used is ‘cessation’ that seems less combative, and then there’s the very simple word ‘end’ that for me seems relatively neutral. The overall term for greed, aversion and delusion is the Three Poisons. I think that’s a good description because dealing skillfully with poison is first a matter of noticing it, being aware of its toxicity, and then not swallowing it! The process of recognizing that these are indeed poisons could take some time. But noticing that they exist and then noticing how they cause suffering in our lives is central to our practice. If we are really looking, we can see how the endless desires and cravings make us unhappy. We can look at our judgments, annoyances and anger and see how they make us miserable. It’s harder to look at delusion, but we can often see it after the fact and we can let that awareness be a reminder of the likelihood of its presence in our lives.

Here is a practice that cultivates light:

Exercise

  • Notice greed, aversion and delusion as they arise in your experience.
  • Sense how they feel in the body, how tightness and tension arises.
  • Breathe more spaciousness to be able to stay present with the greed, aversion or delusion.
  • Cultivate compassion and clarity to dissipate fear and bring understanding.
  • Investigate instead of judging whatever arises; see the pattern and maybe the source.
  • Release with lovingkindness and loving intention whatever is passing away.
  • Notice whatever arises now with a sense of friendliness and gentle curiosity.
  • Let go of the goal of enlightenment, and let the light in. Let it fill you to overflowing.
  • Radiate infinite light!

I look forward to your thoughts on this topic. Click on ‘leave a reply’ above the post.

Thanksgiving, a look at the tradition

t-day

Illustration by Elroy Freem, Scholastic Books

I don’t know about you, but I am feeling especially thankful this year, especially for the rain yesterday and the fresh air that is pouring in every window and door after two weeks of stale air as we holed up from the smoke in so much of California. May the rain fall gently on fire-scarred hills to put out flames and not cause debris flows. I am also especially personally grateful that our daughter and her home in the area of the Camp Fire are safe. And so much more.

I am sure you also have much to be grateful for, no matter what difficulties you may be facing. Over the years I have written quite a number of posts on gratitude, but this year I’d like to look at the American tradition of Thanksgiving.

Yesterday in poetry class at College of Marin, the assignment was to write about Thanksgiving memories, but, the teacher requested, ‘not the ‘Brady Bunch’ ones’. Few were able to comply and the poems were full of memories of the traditional table laid with the best china and polished silverware, white napkins and all the typical fare of a feast made by mothers in the pre-potluck days of singular devotional exhaustion and no doubt dysfunction, because Thanksgiving was only the beginning of the most grueling season of laborious maternal love, and living up to expectations that could never be met because sugar plums are not prone to dancing.

One poet in class did say what the rest of us had not but might have: That most everyone at the table described has since passed into the great beyond. That’s true in my case as well. But still, what great good fortune to have memories to cherish and an opportunity to share them. If sweet memories don’t make good poetry, they might be treasured by descendants, as traditions change a bit with each generation. Yet with no less love or gratitude.

The way we think about the first thanksgiving also changes. On PBS Newshour, there was a piece on how that historical event is being taught in many schools. Teachers are trying to be honest and inclusive of all perspectives of the peoples who were there. Doing so might rattle some Eurocentric Americans who prefer their hand-me-down version, even if it is myopic. Tradition for tradition’s sake is an empty tradition for those who carry it on, and a painful tradition for those who were central to the original story but whose perspective is excluded in its telling.

Why should Euro-Americans of today feel threatened by an honest exploration of our ancestors actions? Does personal identity rely on one’s ancestors being perfect? If so, good luck with that! Those early immigrants were fleeing from persecution and struggled to stay alive in a wilderness very unlike what they had left behind. Many didn’t make it. And many were helped by the inhabitants of the land that was not ‘new’, yet a new experience for the immigrants. The history of the devolution of that relationship has been and will be researched and wondered about, and enriched by looking at it from all perspectives.

In our personal meditative practice, we make room for the possibility that things we have held to be true are not necessarily so. If there is a sense of feeling threatened, then we notice that. But in time we might notice that there is freedom in accepting that we don’t know, that we don’t have everything locked down and figured out. There is joy in letting go of reliance on our ‘story’ to be who we are.

That is just as true in this case. It is our shared story, but we are expanding the narrow idea of who the ‘we’ is, making sure all voices are heard, and collectively recognizing that history does not necessarily define who we are. There is room for investigation and joy in discovering that we are not personally responsible for the deeds of our forebears or for defending or condemning them. But we are responsible for shining a light in the darkness of our own lives, our own unquestioned beliefs and our own fears. And when we do that wholeheartedly, we make room for everyone at the table.

Happy Thanksgiving – today and in every moment of your life. I am most thankful for you!

What insurmountable obstacles are shaping your experience?

wordsNazare, a quiet little fishing village in Portugal, has become a primo world surfing spot because the waves can get up to 80 feet. They reach such heights in part because of the rare undersea geography, where the ocean swells become intensified as the incoming tide passes through a deep canyon pointed at the shore rather than fanning out into the usual topography of gentle shoals.

This undersea geography reminds me how our perception is shaped by forces we might not be aware of, and prime among them is the language we use to describe our inner experience. If you’ve ever felt a huge wave of anger, frustration or anxiety rise up inside you and you wondered where it came from, consider the likelihood that it arose from the words you use to describe your inner landscape.

We often shape our inner landscapes with insurmountable obstacles: high hurdles, mountains, canyons, swamps, pits, minefields, choppy waters, to name but a few. When we try to navigate this inner world, it’s no wonder we get exhausted, give up and go for some mindless and often unhealthy distraction to keep from having to think of the hard work of being alive.

These kinds of descriptions become habituated perceptions that make it difficult to simply experience and process our thoughts and emotions.

Words matter.
Wise Speech, one of the aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path (The Buddha’s prescription for the end of suffering) is speech that it is kind, true and timely. It refers to both the words we express out loud and our inner ‘self-talk’.

In the examples above and many others that are pervasive in the way we describe our inner landscape, our speech fails to be true. There is no barrier within us that needs to be ‘gotten over.’ So how do we ‘get over’ a non-existent barrier? How do we claw our way out of a non-existent ‘pit’ — a pit that can feel very real in our inner world of complex emotion?

Setting ourselves up for tasks that cannot be accomplished is not just untrue but unkind, so again, not Wise Speech. And timely? Many of these metaphors knock us out of the present moment and focus our attention instead on something distant and basically intangible, so I’m guessing they wouldn’t be considered ‘timely’ either.

The other night as I was guest teaching Rick Hanson’s class, a student shared what he was reading in a book about enlightenment, and said that you have to get to the other side of judgment to reach enlightenment.

The other side? What sides? Judgments are not literally sitting in a pile blocking our way to enlightenment, are they? When we notice a judgment, how much more skillful it is to greet it with compassionate curiosity, instead of identifying it as one of the many enemies barricading our way to the hidden ‘destination’ of enlightenment. Simply being present for all that arises in our experience, enlightenment can also arise.

A hole is to fall into
Recently a student told me she eats mindlessly to fill the bottomless hole within her. I am familiar with that sense of there being a hole, but if we are being truthful in our self-talk, it is more skillful to sense into the emotion that is arising in our experience, and then with compassionate clarity, follow the thread back to its origin.

Instead of a hole science tells us there is a complex series of neurons and networks and systems and patterns of thought and emotion, that weave very plausible stories and solid-seeming metaphoric images. But if there is no hole, how can it ever be filled? And if it can never be filled, how does it serve us to perceive a hole? It doesn’t. The image crystallizes one of an infinite fleet of feelings made of unfulfilled cravings and unaddressed fears, and gives it a full-fledged identity. We grab onto it. We own it. It’s our hole and we’re holding onto it. If we simply stay present and explore the emotion itself, we can probably follow the thread back to a parent who was unskillful, unable to love us in the way that we needed, or some kind of early trauma that has heretofore been too difficult to face. Freeing up the inner imagery frees us up to see more clearly the emotions we’re experiencing.

A light at the end of the tunnel?
Another student used the metaphor of finally ‘seeing a light in the darkness’, and while that certainly sounds like a good thing, it implies a long blind wandering in the dark and a reliance on some external source of light to guide us. How much more satisfying to BE the light in the darkness we feel around us, to radiate out lovingkindness. This is what we do in meditation, though we may not label it ‘light’, but we are cultivating the ability to center in with compassion and radiate out that infinite light quality.

Ode to Metaphors
I write poetry, so it may seem odd that I am speaking out against metaphors. I love metaphors! I use them all the time. But because I write, I may be hyper-aware of the power metaphors wield, how they can just as easily obscure understanding as illuminate it.

Metaphor can be a very useful tool, but only if it supports us in being fully present in our experience. When I lead a guided meditation, I share a metaphor of ‘cultivating a compassionate spacious field of awareness’ where sensations, thoughts and emotions arise and fall away. We can use the paired focus of the breath to expand the space as needed to hold all that arises. In this way we’re less likely to get caught up in the tangle of the past and future.

Just plain rude!
In the practice of being mindful of all that arises, we may also notice the rude names we call ourselves, others or inanimate objects in moments of frustration.  These names are creating a very hostile environment that is bound to spill over unskillfully into all aspects of life. Noticing is the first step to gently developing a more skillful relationship with these unsettling inner judgments and opinions.

Should, shouldn’t, must, ought, et al
My interest in how language shapes perception began over forty years ago when I noticed how the word ‘should’ was making me feel a bit beaten down. I wasn’t trying to avoid responsibility for anything, just questioning whether whatever I was doing was enhanced by some inner harpy nagging me to do it. Or, I wondered, was it more fruitful to be in touch with my loving intention for doing the same thing? Whatever the project, it was always more pleasurable and had better results. So words like ‘should’ and ‘ought’ and ‘must’ stand out to me as suspicious, even when used by traditional Buddhist teachers. They feel injected as dictates from some outside source that is not to be questioned. But the Buddha said to question everything! How strong is our ethical foundation if it is grounded in fearfully pleasing some outside source? How much more powerful it is when it comes from our deepest understanding of our intrinsic interconnection with all life, as we are each unique fleeting expressions of life loving itself.

Goal?
Even positive-seeming words like ‘goal’ throw us out of balance, because once there’s a goal, all our efforts are dictated by some future-point that we imagine. So we strive toward that goal instead of living fully in this moment, allowing our wise intention and wise effort to fuel us into blooming in a way that is of benefit to ourselves, others and all beings.

I recently read Alice Waters’ book Coming to My Senses, in which she captures the essence of living in the moment, engaged in sensory awareness. I don’t think anyone could think that she — who created an amazing restaurant and changed the thinking of a whole industry and in fact how we as a culture think about food — hasn’t accomplish anything. But she didn’t define some distant goal and doggedly pursue it. The idea of a restaurant arose organically out of her passion for sharing her love of cooking, her moment to moment experience and her collaboration with others. She worked hard, yes, but not in service to some imagined future moment when all her dreams would be realized, but by being fully alive in each moment, doing what she loved wholeheartedly.

In our practice of meditation, we might get attached to the idea of a goal to become a perfect meditator, perhaps ultimately a perfectly enlightened being. Imagining some distant point to ‘get to’ makes this moment here and now kind of a sidelight, a rehearsal, a stepping stone on the way to something much more satisfying and important. That’s interesting when you stop to consider that this moment is the whole of reality. There is no other moment! They are all just thoughts: memory, planning or worry. They don’t exist! Only here and now exists. This is not some way station point on a timeline, but the all and everything of earthly existence! So let’s be alive fully in this moment, just as it is, to do whatever is meaningful for us to do.

Staying fully present to notice the way we shape our experience through the words we use, and to question their veracity in a compassionate way, we can discover a fresher livelier way to be in relationship to it all.

I am interested in your replies (a link at the top of this post) with any inner landscape descriptions you discover, as well as any other comments and questions you may have.

Disguises can sometimes help discover authenticity

Halloween has come and gone and that’s just fine with me. Except for the adorableness of little trick or treaters and the creativity of some neighbors, it’s a holiday I could do without. I don’t enjoy being scared on purpose and I’ve never been into donning costumes.

But I do remember a time when I accompanied my then teenage daughter to the wig store. She wanted a straight long hair option to her shorter naturally curly do, and I was along for the ride. Or so I thought. It was too much fun not to at least try on a few wigs. My hairstyle at the time was a cap of mousy curls, so I tried on a straight blonde bob with bangs. I looked in the mirror and thought Whoa! Whozzat?

gertaIt definitely was not me, or at least not the me I knew. Whoever she was came to life full-blown, and claimed her name was Gerta – pronounced Gair-ta. And she demanded I buy that wig. So I did.

Much to my husband’s dismay. I had always heard that husbands like a little variety to spice things up, but not mine. And certainly not this cheeky chick. Wearing my Gerta wig, I would utter things I normally wouldn’t even think, let alone say. I’d been taken over by a whole different persona, and it was kind of fun.

I was normally shy in unfamiliar situations, as if a whole swarm of butterflies lived in my stomach. But wearing that wig I remember one time arriving late at a coworker’s birthday dinner with a large group of friends I didn’t know. Instead of sneaking in and quietly finding my seat as I would normally do, I made a grand entrance down a circular staircase, and somehow had them all in stitches. Maybe at first they thought I was hired entertainment until I sat down at the table.

Another time, a group of us was asked to sing a few personalized oldies at our friend’s 40th birthday party, and while normally I would stand in the back and mouth the words, that time, with my Gerta persona in place, I belted the lyrics out and had a great time.

Though I rarely wore it, I kept that wig around for a number of years. But more importantly, having had that empowered Gerta experience showed me that my seemingly ingrained shyness was not necessarily ‘me’.

To build up my self-confidence in order to be able to do things I wanted to do, I got up the nerve to join my local Toastmasters club where week after week I stood in front of a group, making every effort to speak coherently. With practice and kind encouragement, I found my voice. Now I can speak to large groups and be completely at home — not playing a role, not taking on a persona, like that cheeky Gerta — just unafraid to be seen with all my vulnerabilities and variations.

Have you ever had that freeing experience of a costumed transformation? A Halloween costume? A role in a play? What did that persona have that you think you don’t? Did you like her or him?

In class one student shared an experience of getting together with a group of friends to create some festive craft for a member of their group who was seriously ill and in need of good cheer. That sense of love for this friend, and the support of the group, let her discover the unknown delight of letting herself enjoy being outlandishly silly.

Another student told us how she came into a leadership role, something she had been averse to all her life. Again, it was in having a strong purpose — a cause she cared about, and having the encouragement of others who shared that sense of purpose and saw the latent leadership qualities she had within her.

Both these experiences parallel my own of joining Toastmasters, where I received so much support.  But what was my purpose? What drove me to want to speak in the first place? Decades ago I had had a life-transforming experience through developing a meditation practice, and I wanted to help others, women especially, who may find themselves overwhelmed with wanting to please others, focusing exclusively on the needs of all who relied on them, and in the process losing any sense of their own needs.

So adding these three personal experiences into the mix, let me ask you again if there is any unexpressed part of you that is being kept down for lack of a sense of purpose, love or calling, and/or a lack of support and encouragement from those around you?

Another student in class who had been feeling somewhat stalled and ambivalent in her recent decision to pursue a particular career, came to tears when she realized this was exactly where she needed to put her focus: Finding that passionate sense of purpose — why and for whom was she pursuing this line of work — and connecting with those who support her in that effort.

It seems sometimes we need a little playful exploration outside our comfort zone in order to expand our understanding of our most authentic self.

Getting past perfect
We all have assumptions about who we are, who we want to be or ‘should’ be. Our practice of meditation is in part about letting go of the need to establish a polished identity to present to the world. We are present to notice the desire to remake ourselves and perhaps investigate where it comes from.

There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by other people. But it’s important to see them as the humans they are. It’s so easy to get caught up in comparing mind, lost in the painful disparity between what we judge as our messy insides and what we perceive to be their perfect polished outside. Chances are their insides are messy, too. Can we allow for that? Chances are others see us as a lot more perfectly polished than we feel. Can we make room for that likely possibility?

Even if we are content with our identity, we may feel it’s important to be clear on just what that identity is. We may feel that in order to be liked, loved, respected, etc., we need to be seen in a certain way, so we go all ‘if you like pina colada and getting caught in the rain’, trotting out our likes and dislikes, hope and dreams, accomplishments, opinions, phobias, etc., looking for the safety of being seen for who we believe ourselves to be.

But our need to establish identity based on our preferences, how we look, how we think, etc. sets us up for very shallow and limited connections. It locks us in to choices and opinions that we may have made when we were seven or seventeen or thirty-seven. It creates a tangled knot of unexamined and probably inaccurate detritus that blocks our view, and others’ view of us. It fortifies a separate seeming identity that keeps us isolated and unhappy.

How liberating to simply exist in this moment and respond to whatever arises in whatever way feels natural. We can be vulnerable and honest and fluid. This is not to hide or obscure any current preferences, etc. that we may have; it’s only to understand that they do not define us. And, as practicing meditators, we use awareness and wise effort to be kind, truthful and timely in our responses.

We can succumb to the idea that in the practice of meditation and the study of Buddhist teachings, there is a goal to ‘become’ a better, wiser, kinder person — as if this is some grand makeover we are doing here. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to build a superpower of wisdom and compassion, to become some charismatic being with the ability to withstand a gazillion traumas at a single bound.

But that’s not what we’re doing here. We’re not trying to ‘be’ anything. We’re not donning a new persona. We are not taking the wisdom teachings, and constructing, as if out of Legos, the ideal persona of an enlightened being. Instead we rest in the understanding that we are all fleeting expressions of life loving itself — a complex ever-changing stream of patterns of being. Just noticing what’s arising in our experience with curiosity and compassion, releasing assumptions as we find them, to rest in a joyful state of being. We set and reset our intention to be present in this moment just as it is, holding it in an open and loving embracing. That’s our practice. Even as we live our intention to contribute to the well being of all life, in a way that is, quite naturally, our own unique expression of that love.

In our exploration of the Seven Factors of Awakening, we have been looking at Equanimity.

As with all of the factors, any attempt to appear to ‘have equanimity’ will not be authentic. The whole of our exploration, investigation and practice are undermined when our core intention is to be seen as wise, mindful, etc. We do ourselves a great injustice when we don’t allow for all of who we are to simply be a presence in our experience, to acknowledge what is arising with as much kindness and compassion as we can.

If we have been trying these factors on like wigs at a costume shop, seeing how we can bluff our way through and do a convincing caricature of a person who has it all together, then we might be intrigued and inspired in the short run — as I was with Gerta, discovering the possibility of such a way of being within me — but in the long run the wig will get itchy and irritating, and we’ll come to understand that to truly awaken takes the regular honest challenging practice of simply being present and allowing ourselves to grow, learn from the dharma and our own insights without the need to become anything or anyone.

 

More than just coping with it all

Doesn’t it seem like just when things can’t get any worse, they do? This week in the United States has been marked by violence born out of such senseless hatred, it feels unbearable. In case you are reading this at a later date, and wonder which of the many senseless acts of violence I might be referring to, this week it is the slaughter of worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where eleven people were killed.

memorialI appreciated how PBS Newshour offered photos and insight into each person who died. Like the doctor who, even at a time when it wasn’t sure how AIDS was transmitted, saw his patients as people worthy of respect and kindness, shaking their hands without gloves and masks that many others in the medical community felt was necessary. And the brothers who looked out for each other with such sweet caring. What blessings they all were to the life of those around them. May they all rest in peace.

Getting a glimpse into who they were was such a reminder that the horrendous act that took their lives had nothing to do with them and who they were as people. It was an act of madness, a festering in a warped mind that manifested in a pattern that has taken root in our culture at this time and is all too easy to replicate. These kinds of patterns play out as impersonally as random tornadoes, the deranged perpetrator in some ways as helpless as the victims. The difference is that we as a community of citizens have no power over tornadoes, but we do have the power to change this kind of pattern, to make it more difficult to acquire the means to attack and easier to find mental health care. And yet we allow it to take the best of us, again and again.

How do we handle the onslaught of such a pattern repeating like a storm that strikes anywhere and doesn’t let up? Hopefully, with equanimity.

Equanimity? That sounds way too passive, way too ‘ho hum, another murderous rampage, what else is new?’ Are we practicing in order to take in such news like water off a duck’s back, leaving us untouched and uncaring? If that were the case, leave me out!

But equanimity is not disengagement from life. It is in some ways deep engagement, but done so with moment to moment attention, compassion and awareness. There is a Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, where meditators breathe in the pain of the world, a particular situation, person or group of people; and then breathe out loving-kindness. Through spacious compassionate awareness, the pain is diluted, cleansed and transformed into kindness, into good will for ourselves and all beings, without exception. It is a deep practice to be undertaken by those with a strong meditation practice that supports it. It is a way of responding to what arises with skillful means. It is empowering, balancing and enlightening. And it cultivates true equanimity.

But the tonglen practice is not the only response one could have, of course. In our class, as we shed tears and passed the tissues, a few shared how they were caring for themselves at this time. We always begin with ourselves. What is it that we need in order to be okay in this moment? Turn off the news and turn on some uplifting music? Take a walk in nature? Do some yoga? Meditate? Call a dear friend and have a deep sharing? These are skillful ways to return to our center. It is not running away. It is being fully present in this moment.

In our exploration of the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Awakening, we are just now coming to the last factor: Equanimity. How fortuitous. As a factor of awakening, it is both a quality we cultivate and a state of being that feels like a gift. And because it is the last on the Buddha’s list of factors, we might reasonably assume that it relies on all the previous factors. And that would be true. But also true is that the Buddha’s lists are often not linear but circular, so that all these factors are interdependent and evolve together.

Equanimity is being fully present with all that arises in any given moment, greeting it with spacious friendliness. Without equanimity, we are a jumble of reactivity, easily irritated, aggravated, hurt, worried, and tossed about in a turmoil of thoughts, entangled in knots of memories and judgments, at war with the world and with ourselves.

When we hear the horror stories in the news, it’s an opportunity to notice our own reactions. If we are paying attention, we can watch ourselves being tossed about as if on huge ocean waves with strong currents and undertows sucking us down and smashing us to the gravelly bottom of our emotional being.

We see that reactivity, in the form of grasping, clinging and aversion, not only causes suffering but is based on not pausing to notice the interconnectedness of all life and the intrinsic necessary nature of impermanence.

With the cultivation of all the factors of awakening — mindfulness (sati), investigation of the nature of reality (dhamma vicaya), energy/effort (viriya), joy (pīti), tranquility (passaddhi), concentration/clear awareness (samādhi), and equanimity (upekkha) — we are more and more able to be present, clear-seeing and compassionate.

When the loss is personal
Dealing with the news of the world is one thing, but personal loss feels very different, doesn’t it?

At moments of great loss, it can be like a huge boulder falling into a pond, causing a lot of emotional turmoil, so much so that even the wisest among us can get caught up in the waves and pulled down so they think they might drown.

But at some point, after the waves quiet down and the person is able to see the sky above and feel the lapping of the surface of the water around them, if they have been practicing being fully present and have had insights into the nature of being, equanimity even in their great loss is possible.

We can see the nature of impermanence playing out in every aspect of all of life, and this event is one expression of that nature. Since we have already discovered for ourselves that impermanence is key to life itself, we don’t fall down the rabbit hole of rueing the death, even of someone we love. We know we all die. We may not like the circumstances, or that life was cut short relative to the average lifespan, but we recognize that nothing in life is average, that given the causes and conditions that have come together in this way at this time, this loss is inevitable.

A deeper kind of well-wishing
It is a rich and important part of our practice to send metta, infinite loving kindness, to all beings. With a deeper understanding of the nature of life, we might deepen our well-wishing beyond hoping that we, our loved ones and all beings bypass difficulty, pain or loss. These are conditions of life that happen to all of us. So what we might more deeply wish for is that we, our loved ones and all beings have the skills to greet life’s challenges with equanimity and all of these Seven Factors of Awakening.

There Go I

Seventeen days out from my hip replacement surgery, I am feeling very grateful — for my husband of 49 years and his devoted caregiving; for the support of my family and friends; for the skilled and kind hospital and home care team at Kaiser Terra Linda; for living at a time when this surgery is so well developed that, as one relative put it, it’s just like being dropped off at the dry cleaners — in at 7, out at 5. What great good fortune to have the end of my long pain be such a run-of-the-mill fix!

woodyThis awareness of my good fortune came into even sharper focus yesterday, when I saw a man outside our local Staples, a ringer for Woody Harrelson, limping in pain. Such a presence in my life has walking pain been, I could feel it as I watched him hobble along. Although his pain was clearly so long-term that his whole body was thrown out of whack by how he had to accommodate it while getting on with the challenging business of getting by. I thought about how that pain affects his whole life, his relationships and his ability to do things. I could almost see the shattering ripple effect of it. Because no pain can be contained. None of us live in isolation.

After he passed by, I couldn’t help but be aware of the contrast: There I sat in the car feeling positively coddled by my excellent health care, including an expensive surgery that cost me next to nothing. While he, if my hasty assumptions about him and his condition are correct, may have to live with severe pain for the rest of his life, and all the ramifications of the lack of options available to him.

So, nestled in my field of gratitude blossomed forth a sense of outrage that he and so many others must suffer because of the unnecessary inequities that exist in our system here in the US. How can anyone justify it?

It is justified by people who think not only that another person’s problems are not their own, but that those problems are the result of some personal failure, and are therefore deserved. Meanwhile they’ve got theirs, so where’s the problem?

They’re the problem. Not them per se, but their myopic take on the nature of being that gives them a sense of deserving what they have because of all they have done to get it. They lack the ability to see how anyone else contributed to their good fortune. They don’t credit the taxes and labor that built and maintains the infrastructure that carries them and their business. They discount and would happily be rid of those hardworking people who assure that everything they eat and drink is safe, as well as the air they breathe. They scoff at any value from those who educate them and their children so they have sufficient understanding and skills to make their way in the world. And they are blind to the easy pass they may get because of their ethnicity, gender, zip code or inheritance. It’s much more satisfying to say they did it all themselves. Because self-sufficiency is the admired American way.

We are told we live in a land of ‘rugged individualism’ where people ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’, ‘the early bird gets the worm’, where ‘might makes right’ in a ‘dog eat dog world’. I’m sure you can think of many more of these sayings. Please ‘reply’ with them. It would be great to have a whole collection to look at. It’s so important to pay attention to how our words shape our perspective.

As we become — through science and our own experience — increasingly aware of the interconnection, the interdependence of all life, those who are trapped in this isolated mindset become more fearful. No one likes to have their heretofore clear understanding upended, even if it promises to bring relief from suffering, a suffering they don’t dare acknowledge. Isn’t it easier to make fun of others, blame others, and doubt the science? Isn’t it more satisfying to have their fears reinforced wholeheartedly by the powers that be and to come together only to fight, defeat and conquer the ‘other’ they prefer to blame? Depending on their mental stability, doesn’t it feel justifiable and even heroic to take that sense of feeling threatened and follow through with rash acts of violence?

It’s quite possible that the man I saw for whom I felt so much compassion, is trapped in this sense of isolation and anger. Perhaps he even supports the politicians who actively deny him access to the healthcare he deserves, just for being alive. But that doesn’t make me want that access for him any less. He is of this world. He is not his situation, his behavior, his condition nor his beliefs. He is the same stardust expression of life loving itself as am I, and you are. There’s an old expression ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ There’s merit in that recognition that any one of us could be in such a position at any time. But doesn’t that just make me go phew! I’m glad that it’s not me in his shoes? How much deeper and truer is the understanding ‘There go I.’

The outrage I feel doesn’t undermine my gratitude for the wonderful care I have received. But it does make me more determined to vote, to be a fully-engaged citizen in this country and the world, so that all of us have the opportunities that I have.