Author Archives: Stephanie Noble

About Stephanie Noble

Stephanie Noble is an insight meditation teacher in San Rafael, California. She is a board 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.

Urges, impulses & intentions – oh my!

Have you ever regretted something you said or did? Of course. We all have. But what made us say or do it? Maybe it’s just the way we are. We’re just impulsive. Hmm, is that true?
Through the regular practice of meditation, mindfulness grows and we become less subject to urges and more likely to check in with the nature of our intentions. We can still have fun — lots of it! — but we don’t have to wreak havoc, leaving hurt feelings and regrets in our wake. And if we do absentmindedly say or do something unskillful, we are ready and able to do what we need to do to make things better instead of sitting around moaning, “Oh, I’m such a bad person.”

(To those of you who find sweet treats hard to resist, my apologies for this photo I took at my local market. Generally I try not to look at it, though it’s right by the main entrance. I’m sharing it here not to torment you but to illustrate a little mind trick I developed when I was caught up in a pattern of heavy-duty craving: I’d imagine a banquet of desserts of all kinds. I would name them all, and by the time I got to the seventh or eight dessert, I’d feel as bloated and disinterested as if I’d actually eaten them. If you’re craving sweets, just look at this photo and imagine eating each and every one of these pastries. That ought to do it!)

With regular meditation practice, we notice the way these urges and impulses arise, seemingly out of nowhere. If we act on them, we see how they cause disruption, chaos and misery. And we see an opportunity that we may never have noticed before: The ability to pause to consider our choice of words and actions. 

This isn’t just developing will power to override the impulses. It’s a spacious compassionate pause where suddenly we are not on autopilot or caught up in the thrall of them. In clock time this pause may be just a second, but internally it feels beyond the confines of time, the clarity slows everything down and brings in all past and future thought patterns that come into play. All the senses come alive so that if, for example, we are craving something, we can simply stay present with the physical sensations of that urge to fulfill the craving. In that moment we have time to consider our options and make a choice that is beneficial and wholesome, for ourselves and all life.

This pause, one of the many gifts of meditation, is so different from the mental patterns we may have been using in the past: judging, accusing, finagling our way into someone’s heart or out of a tough spot. We all have done the best we can with what we were given to deal with, but now we have been given a more skillful means. We can stop compiling evidence of wrongdoing, either our own or others, and begin fresh in each moment.

Many years ago, when my daughter was in her late teens, we were in the kitchen arguing about something. Our words became heated and hurtful. It was not an unusual pattern for us, or for many mothers and daughters. But that day, suddenly my perspective shifted. I saw myself standing there ranting, and I paused, astonished at the absurd gesticulating caricature I saw. I started laughing. It was so senseless that argument, whatever it was about. I love my daughter and, though we’ve had our differences as all people do, we would do anything for each other out of that deep bond. Reader, that was nearly 25 years ago, and we have never fought in that overheated way again. We discuss our different opinions with respect and caring.

(This brings up a question: If I changed, then was I the one that was causing these arguments? Maybe, Or maybe it shows that one person in a relationship can bring about a big difference just by shifting the energy. If you are in a relationship and want change but think the other person won’t budge, just send them loving-kindness every time you think of them and see what effect it has on your relationship. And be kind to yourself as well. How we treat ourselves determines how we treat others.)

In this series of posts, we have been looking at what constitutes wise or skillful View, the first of the eight aspects of the Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s prescription to cure suffering. This view is informed by seeing impermanence as the natural way of all life, and by coming home to the realization that we are intrinsically woven into all being. 

Since in our culture we most likely have been taught to see divisions and individualism, we have a particularly difficult time seeing ourselves as interwoven in the fabric of life. So we are spending some time looking at the Five Aggregates that the Buddha identified as the ways we hold ourselves separate and thus cause suffering. Feel free to look back to see the first three: Body, Preferences, Thoughts and emotions.

Volition
In this post, we are looking at the urges, impulses, intentions that occur right before we speak or act. As one of the Five Aggregates they are grouped together and called ‘volition’. And now, just as we did with the first three aggregates, we ask whether volition is who we are. Let’s investigate.

Someone says something and you take it the ‘wrong way’ and you snap back. What’s going on there? You feel under attack. But what is being attacked? A sense of self created out of a lot of fear-based reactivity? Or maybe you don’t snap back because you agree with the low opinion and use it to further demean yourself. Or you don’t speak up but then spend hours, days, months, years, thinking up various perfect snappy comebacks.

Wow, that’s a lot of misery, isn’t it? There’s all that ill-will toward the other person, who has either forgotten about it because they thought it was benign, or feels terrible about it and is eaten up with regret, or any of a number of other variations that happen when people act on urges, impulses and poorly thought out intentions.

Thinking back, most of us can identify occasions when we wish we had paused to consider the wisdom of speaking or acting out.  With mindfulness practice, we learn to take that pause, see the urge and notice if it is coming from a place of kindness and connection or if is arising out of fear in a hunger for approval or the need to defend our sense of separate self.

In that pause we are not censoring ourselves. Nor are we imagining some external authority dictating our behavior. It’s not the calculating “If I do that I’ll get in trouble” or the fretful “I will be seen as bad”. It is the wholesome clear-seeing recognition of causes and consequences: “If I do that there will be ongoing suffering.”
As we practice meditation and cultivate mindfulness, we deepen our understanding of the interconnection of all life. We cease feeling we have to shore up our separate identity in some convoluted attempt to get people to care about us. Instead, we relax into the feeling of being an intrinsic part of the web of life, and enjoy the sense of kindness and compassion such an understanding naturally brings.

What are these urges and impulses?
Consider how much they have to do with chemical activity in the brain. Testosterone, dopamine and adrenaline activate all kinds of impulsive behavior. Are we those chemicals? And hormonal levels change all the time. Are we defining ourselves as ‘stable’ and then losing all sense of ourselves when the chemicals change? Think of all the ways we define ourselves and others: Oh, he’s an angry guy. Is he? Or is he currently experiencing a lot of testosterone in combination with certain causes and conditions and lack of training in how to cope with them? What a difference it makes to see people without labeling them in that limiting way. Of course, you don’t have to hang out with anyone who’s being destructive, but it’s certainly skillful to silently send loving-kindness, seeing fellow beings as intrinsically connected.

How freeing to let go of labels — for others and for ourselves! With a label attached we may feel helpless to deal with impulsive habituated behavior. But let the label go and develop a regular practice of meditation, and things shift.

Just like the other aggregates, we discover volition is insubstantial and impermanent, no matter how urgent it seems at the time. Unheeded, it dissolves into nothingness, sooner or later.

Volition is also ungovernable. We didn’t make up this itch. It happens in the field of our experience. We will either be mindless and act upon it, or mindful and discern whether the action it calls for is skillful.

Clearly this insubstantial, impermanent and ungovernable volition is not who we are, but it is a valuable place to rest our awareness because it is the place we have the opportunity to be skillful, creating ease and happiness instead of suffering.

In investigating the nature of Volition, all we have to do is be present in this moment, and see what comes up. We can notice an impulse, urge or decision to do something; and skillfully pause to see the ‘strings attached’ to this volition. We might ask ourselves:
– What thoughts or emotions preceded the urge?
– What cause or condition sparked it?
We might find some memory of a similar situation that may or may not be helpful.
We might recognize that we are reacting to some long ago distress that we haven’t faced and just use as a mindless basis to keep making poor choices.

Insight Meditation helps us to see through the maze of patterned responses that seem to dictate our lives, the ones we have identified as ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’. This examination is non-judgmental, patient and kind but clear-seeing, so that the pattern of excuses are seen as well. We create a safe space to be honest. Knowing that none of this is who we are and that we don’t have to shore up and protect our identity, we can acknowledge when we are speaking or behaving unskillfully and set the intention to be more skillful by noticing the urge to act or speak and pause there.

Developing the ability to be compassionate with ourselves and others, we are seeding our present and future with kindness, compassion and joy in being alive in this moment just as it is.


Gratitude for this moment, just as it is

If you live in the US, Happy Thanksgiving! No matter where you live, gratitude is joyful to cultivate even without a harvest feast.
Maybe you can make a long list of all that you are grateful for. My list includes my favorite seasonal fruits shown here: easy-to-peel satsuma mandarin oranges and crunchy fuyu persimmons. Delicious! Yet how easy it would be to turn this simple pleasure into suffering. I could long for these fruits the rest of the year and dread when their short season ends. Training my mind to appreciate each fruit in its season didn’t come easily. I had to notice my impatience, my craving and my sadness when the season passed. Obviously I’m not just talking about persimmons and tangerines. This practice applies to all life.
Maybe finding things to be grateful for isn’t easy for you right now. Maybe it feels like a chicken scratching in the dust, and nothing’s coming up. Stop scratching! You won’t find anything nourishing. Instead, try this:

CULTIVATING GRATITUDE FOR THIS MOMENT

Pause to rest in the spaciousness of this moment just as it is.
You will probably find some tension in the body. To release the tension, tighten everything up first:
Inhale and tighten your muscles, squenching up your face, tightening your jaw. Bring your shoulders up toward your ears. Tighten your arms to your sides. Clench your fist, your belly, your buttocks, your thighs, your calves and your feet — tight, tight, tight — and then when you can’t hold it anymore, release. Release your breath, release your muscles, let everything go. Ahhhhhh.

Let yourself rest in this more relaxed state. Just discovering how much tension you may have been holding and how easily it is released is cause for at least some gratitude, right? But wait, there’s more:

Notice sounds — whether you find them pleasant or unpleasant, just let them be sound, the unique symphony of now, never to be repeated in just this way. A symphony just for you and all you have to do is be present to listen. Whether the symphony is subtle or noisy, sense into whatever you notice: the rhythms, the volume, the tones, the pitch, the pulsing, the beat, the variety, the layering.

Open your eyes and let them rest on whatever is here, without naming the objects or judging what you see. Just notice light and shadow, color, texture, distance, shapes and the molecular interaction of all of these including the molecules of the air that surrounds the solid objects. 

Now close your eyes and sense in to the pressure where body meets whatever is supporting it. Feel the texture of whatever clothing or furniture comes in contact with skin. Feel free to trace the fabric with your fingers to activate more awareness of texture.

Feel the temperature of the air, and the stillness or movement of it. Feel whatever is going on in the body — pain, tension, energy, pleasant sensations and numbness. Wiggle the toes to activate awareness in the furthest reaches of the body. Taste the inside of the mouth. 

Breath in softly and smell the air. Notice the breath, rising and falling. 

Do this for as long as you like.


When we are able to release fully into this moment, savoring each sensation with fresh attention, we can notice how the very moment we thought was so ordinary, is in fact extraordinary because we are alive to notice it. 

And what we notice may surprise us. We might discover a deep sense of gratitude. This isn’t a gratitude conditioned on whether what we find is the way we wanted it to be. No little sensory exercise is going to change the facts of a situation. If we have suffered a loss, we still grieve. This life does not come without pain. But when we pay close attention, we can see the ways we exacerbate the pain, and conversely the way we can hold all that is arising in our experience in a more compassionate way. We have access to a less critical noticing. 

We may feel gratitude for simply being alive in this moment, understanding that this moment is the only one that is real. All other moments are just memory thoughts, planning thoughts and worry thoughts. When we find ourselves dwelling in them to the point that it blinds us to the beauty of this moment, we suffer unnecessarily. 

This moment, fully relaxed, filled with compassion for ourselves and all beings, is the gateway to sensing the infinite interconnection of life. We discover we don’t need a list of reasons to be grateful. Gratitude is ingrained in the sense of being fully alive in this moment just as it is.

New to the practice?
If you are new to the practice and this access to the moment sounds like a pipe dream, be with the pipe dream, see it for what it is. Let it inform your experience of this moment. Keep practicing being present with whatever is. Stay focused on the senses, noticing. Notice everything. Notice the judgments, notice the emotions, notice the thoughts. Just notice. Maybe it feels like a big tangle, a tight knot, inaccessible. Be with that! Notice and notice again.

Meditation is like any new skill. At first paying attention to the present moment feels like trying to balance on the head of a pin. The moment we realize we’re on it, we fall off. But with patience, intention, compassion and consistent practice, we begin to notice the head of the pin getting larger until we feel present for longer and longer periods, and it becomes the foundation of our lives.

There’s no hurry. There’s just the practice. Wanting to get ‘there’ only seals the door and locks us out of the possibility of accessing awareness. For there is no ‘there,’ only ‘here.’ Just this experience. Can you feel gratitude for the rise and fall of your breath? Can you feel gratitude for the moment you discover your mind has wandered into thoughts (as minds often do!!) and you are able to refocus on the senses? Can you let go of any need to ‘put on a happy face’ or ‘look on the bright side’? This is not about becoming a new improved you. This is simply becoming present, acknowledging that there are kinder ways to be with our experience that are more honest and true.

Thanksgiving
When we relax into simple awareness of this moment, we fully inhabit our bodies and minds in a way that enables us to live an authentic, heartfelt generous and meaningful life. Accessing the infinite wisdom of simple presence, simple awareness, brings clarity and gratitude.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Apparently 3000 years ago Greeks would think you were delusional if you claimed the thoughts in your head were your own. Thoughts were the voices of the gods. Today if you claim the thoughts in your head are the voice of God, you would be deemed delusional. That’s just one of many examples of how thoughts, individually and collectively, change all the time.
In today’s western culture most people believe their thoughts are their own AND that they reflect who they are. This belief goes pretty much unquestioned, but if we pause our assumptions for a moment and take a look, we can see where this kind of thinking could lead to trouble: I have a bad thought; therefore, I am a bad person. My bad thoughts make me unworthy of happiness. I deserve to suffer.
Laid out so plainly, we might balk at that line of thinking, but when we notice the pattern of our own thinking, we might discover thoughts seasoned with just such unhelpful reasoning in one form or another.
In coming to Wise View (the first of the eight aspects of the Eightfold Path that the Buddha prescribed to end suffering), it helps to unload the erroneous belief that we are what we think. Taking our thoughts to be who we are traps us in a hoarder’s house, constantly tripping over the clutter. No wonder we get depressed.

What are thoughts anyway? 
Thoughts are electro-chemical reactions from neurons interconnected by synapses, a cognitive process of receiving input from all the senses, assessing, categorizing, then retrieving similar experiences from the inner data bank for review and evaluation. Very cool tool, right? But can we claim the process or the output of them to be uniquely ‘me’?

As we observe thoughts arising and falling away — painful or pleasurable, creative or destructive, organized or chaotic, insightful or deceitful. We can see how they recur and how they can get entangled like twigs and leaves in a stream, stuck in a swirling vortex, sucked down and then spring up later or decay and get flushed downstream. Thoughts (and emotions) are the results of biological activity reacting to past and present causes and conditions.

Whose thought is this thought?
Someone else could have the very thoughts you are having right now, given the same causes and conditions. This is especially true if there’s something going on that activates pleasure or fear — watching a movie together, the members of the audience will experience very much the same thoughts and emotions. In general people thrive on that collective experience, but then walk out of the theater and reclaim individual ownership of their reactions.

Even without being part of an audience or other collective experience, thoughts are pretty predictable. If you were visiting briefly in a neighbors brain, how surprised would you really be to find they have dreams, fears, anxiety and curiosity just as you do?

While you may feel blessed or victimized by the causes and conditions of your life, and they do tend to shape your view, they are not the stuff to make a solid object called ‘I’ or ‘me’. This may come as a great relief, because thoughts are often contradictory, stubbornly opinionated, flighty, gullible, infatuated with infallibility, sometimes cruel, sometimes incurably romantic. Who would really want to lay claim to all that?

Contemporary literature often focuses on personal identity and self-discovery, exploring ancestry, misunderstandings and family secrets. But — spoiler alert!! — the resolution comes when the characters are liberated from the captivity of the very chains of belief they are exploring. They discover that what they were looking for was there all along. Think of Dorothy on her search for answers from the Wizard of Oz when it turns out she only needed to click her heels three times to come home to herself. This is not to negate the enjoyment of a grand adventure and the riches there are to savor in the process. It just lets us hold it all more lightly, appreciating each moment as it arises, appreciating the rainbow itself rather than seeking the illusory pot of gold hinted to be at the end of it.

The Buddha taught: You are not your thoughts or emotions, and if you spend a little time paying attention you will undoubtedly find that is true. Thoughts and emotions are impermanent, insubstantial, transitory, unreliable and uncontrollable. You might remind yourself of that the next time you notice you are entangled in them.

Thoughts are useful, of course. Thinking is a part of the human experience. All the categorizing and filing is efficient but it is not infallible. We need time out from active thinking for the brain activity to catch up with itself. Without that we can expect malfunctions and hampered judgment. Sleep, relaxation and meditation are all important ways to help the brain function optimally.

“You don’t know me”
In class students commented on how limiting it feels when people tell them who they are from their observations. I’m sure you’ve had that experience: Someone sees you do something and forevermore labels you a something-doer. It’s just the way the human brain functions – categorizing, labeling, filing away for future use. Registering how it feels to be labeled is a good reminder to notice when we are using that kind of shorthand labeling on others. It takes skillful effort to countermand the autopilot nature of that process and leave room for people to remain unlabeled. When we resist categorizing people, we keep our relationships more vibrant, loving and unlimited.

We can offer ourselves that same generosity of un-labeling. If we are not defined by our body, our preferences or our thoughts, how free we are to be alive in this moment just as it is! 

“But I like my labels”
If you feel threatened by the idea of becoming untethered from the labels you believe define you, that’s useful noticing and an invitation for more inner exploration. 

Liberating ourselves from the belief that we are our thoughts comes naturally when we give ourselves the gift of a regular practice of meditation — a little time out from the busy thinking-thinking, but also the ability to be more present in all moments of our lives. We begin to see the patterns of thoughts arising and falling away, and we understand that they are not unique. The person next to us could easily be having that same thought, given similar causes and conditions. When we experience a trauma we are drawn to others who have experienced it as well, feeling the bond of shared experience and a sense of being understood. There is real value in that. But there is also the potential to define ourselves solely by that experience, labeling ourselves, clinging to an identity that is no longer offering a complete sense of who we are. Staying present in this moment allows us the fullness of being alive however that presents itself right now.

All of us can notice that the thoughts we have today are often very different from the thoughts we had when we were young. Those thoughts don’t define us. To the degree that we allow them to define us, they confine us. Can we let them go?

What thoughts did you used to have that you don’t have anymore? If you are your thoughts, then changing your mind on anything would be threatening. I am the kind of person who believes ‘x’. Without that thought, who would I be? But if you are not your thoughts, then you are free to explore the wondrous world of thought. Often we adopt the thoughts of others whom we want to befriend or model ourselves after. When thoughts change, we may resist their natural flow for fear of losing connection with others. But if there is no room for inner growth and change, then that’s not a true friendship. And while role models might give us ideas of valuable qualities we might aspire to, no one is infallible. The Buddha himself said, “Don’t take my word for it. Find out for yourself.”

“I can’t afford to be wrong”
One of the most rewarding discoveries is the freedom from needing to be right. This one insight really helped me in my relationships. Making room for human fallibility in ourselves frees us from the drudgery of constantly having to shore up the miserable and isolating fortress of ‘self’ that we have built. Suddenly we can see how that fortress was just causing suffering. Without needing to build a fortress, we are free to be a natural expression of life loving itself into being. The ‘I don’t know’ mind is a wondrous way to live.

“Nothing to fear, nothing to hide, nothing to prove”
When you go on retreat at a meditation center, insights naturally arise as you sit and walk in silence. Each insight is valuable with potentially lifelong lasting benefits if we can keep them alive. On one retreat I suddenly realized I had nothing to fear, nothing to hide and nothing to prove — but I did have something to give.

The beauty of insights is that they are universal, so I can confidently share with you that you can bloom right where you are planted knowing you have nothing to fear, nothing to hide, nothing to prove, and something to give.

What is that gift you quite naturally share when you’re not afraid, not hiding and not trying to prove anything? It helps to discover that it is not something that defines you but something that makes you happy to wake up in the morning, ready to engage for the benefit of all beings. This sounds like a big thing, but skillful things we do just for ourselves or for one other person are for the benefit of all beings. Don’t think quantitatively. Remember how things ripple out from each thought, each word and each act from each of us.

Can we let go of our clinging to a solid and certain-seeming identity, and in the process awaken to awe, discovering this moment just as it is?

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Are you defined by your yum, yuck or yawn?

(NOTE: We are exploring the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, a handy set of tools that help us recognize and end suffering in any situation. The first of the eight ‘tools’ or aspects that we’ve been looking at is Skillful View. Our view of existence is off-kilter if we think that everything can or should stay the same, and if we believe we are isolated instead of an integral part of the fabric of being. Because impermanence is so obvious in the changing of the seasons and in the mirror, I only ask that you look around and at least accept if not celebrate the ever-changing wonder if life.
Understanding the concept of ‘no separate self’ is more challenging, because everywhere we look we find cultural reinforcement of the belief that we are separate and in need of identity fortification. So to help us, I’ve brought in the Buddha’s Five Aggregates to delve deeper.)

In the last post we considered whether the answer to ‘Who am I?’ is this body we care for, enjoy, abuse and suffer. We saw how the body grows, ages, dies, and is subject to illness and injury. We recognized that on a cellular level the body is inseparable from the rest of the physical world. And we observed that, for the most part the body is beyond our control, as we had no say in most of its dimensions, coloration and distinctive features, and it operates independently of our will for the majority of its functions. Impermanent, not separate, and beyond our control in many ways.

These are what make us understand that the body doesn’t define us: changeable, inseparable and beyond our control. We apply this same kind of inquiry around these filters to the four other aggregates. All these teachings shine a light for you to look and see for yourself. Please don’t take my word for it, or even the Buddha’s. Discover for yourself if this is true.

Yum, yuck and yawn
Now we continue to the Second Aggregate that keeps us clinging to the painful belief that we are separate: Feeling tones, the way we experience things as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, what I like to call yum! yuck! or yawn.

We all have things we like and don’t like. Where we get in trouble is when we lock in those preferences and believe they define us. What a depletion of enjoyment it would be to narrow down life’s experiences to only a predefined set of preferences that relies on our not being fully present to our senses in each moment.

Let’s use chocolate as an example. Look at the difference between tasting a piece of chocolate with a fresh palate, really experiencing the flavors, and claiming “I’m a chocolate lover (or a chocoholic) so I love this.” Caught up in assumptions and beliefs, we activate the craving and maybe gobble it up without tasting it at all. Do we even like chocolate in this moment? How would we know? All our thoughts and emotions are abuzz and entangled in ideas of identity.
As a person who has long identified with being a ‘chocoholic’ and bonding with friends over that belief, I can attest to the fact that, if I am truly in the moment tasting in a meditative way, the sensations of eating chocolate are not as satisfying as I believe them to be. Oh no, who am I without my chocolate? There’s almost a sense of betrayal to my tribe of chocolate lovers.

Now let’s expand our exploration into other preferences and how we define ourselves by them. How about a sports team? Our local basketball team is almost all new players and one of the team’s shining stars has an injury so won’t be able to play this season. Yet fans will continue to follow and root for their team, wear their jerseys and wave their banners. Why? Because that team brand is part of how they identify themselves as part of a particular tribe. Automatic acceptance and connection.

Then there’s political affiliation. This is not simply a logically thought out set of ideas and then finding politicians to go carry them out, is it? No, this is deeply rooted loyalty. When I was in elementary school, enjoying the easy camaraderie of my classmates, I suddenly felt isolated because it was presidential election season and all the kids sang “I like Ike!” while my mother was devotedly working for Adlai Stevenson. My sense of self was more strongly defined by family and there was no way I would ever betray that by putting on an Ike button to fit in with my friends. I was too young to have any clue what either of the candidates planned to do if elected, yet my perceived identity forced me to take sides. Notice how much other-making comes out of preferences. It can be pretty toxic stuff!

RIght about now, you might be feeling like the Buddha’s asking you to chuck your choices in life, and that is not the case. All that is being asked is to be fully alive in this moment to recognize that our preferences are not who we are. In doing so we might actually be able to enjoy them more or engage in a more meaningful way. Because all we’ve been doing is narrowing our options for savoring life in the fear that without labels we will be lost.

When in fact we will be found! We find ourselves fully alive in this moment, able to appreciate all that arises, able to send lovingkindness to all beings without regard to their tribal affiliations. We can root for a team for the fun of the game, yet still care if a player on another team is hurt. We can seek solutions to challenges without making enemies of those who out of fear resist the changes we seek, or don’t see things as we do. In not making enemies we open to the possibility of real conversations and beneficial means.

I remember arriving late to my 20th high school reunion. My classmates were already seated at big round dinner tables, and the only seats left for us were with people I didn’t know. It turns out in high school they were kids I kept clear of — the ‘greasers’ with their hot rods, the girls with beehive hairdos and heavy makeup. Oh no! But guess what? Twenty years later they were just ordinary people like us, and we had a very pleasant time with them.

Defining ourselves by our preferences, we may feel loved when someone gives us what we like — they’ve been paying attention! – and conversely feel invisible if they give us something we would never choose for ourselves — OMG, they have no clue who we are. But maybe we’re the ones who haven’t been paying attention. After all, our preferences change throughout our lives, depending on what we are exposed to, what experiences we have had with them. There was a time our granddaughter was so excited to see broccoli on her plate she would sing a song about it. An ode to Bahkalee. Now she turns up her nose at it. Tastes change. 

One day in the mid 1970’s I was walking down the street wearing my favorite mini-skirt, when suddenly I felt naked! I could not take a step further. I had to go back home and change. One minute the fashion I had been wearing happily for a number of years was fine, and the next minute it was a total embarrassment!

For those who don’t change with industry-promoted fashions, there might be a certain smugness to having a personal sense of style. But this too can become a ‘taking ourselves to be our preference.’ That style so much defines us that we can’t let it go. There is nothing wrong with our preferences. We only get in trouble when we believe that our preferences define us.

How much trouble can a preference cause? My mother smoked for most of her life. Certainly she was addicted, but she once told me that if it were just a physical addiction she could have kicked the habit years before. What she couldn’t kick was her idea of herself as a smoker — how sophisticated she believed herself to be. If she quit smoking would she be as intellectual and cool? Well, she finally did quit and she was as cool and smart as she’d ever been. Unfortunately it was too late to save her from the emphysema that killed her. She paid a huge price, and all of us who loved her paid a huge price, for her belief that smoking defined her.

Our choice of cars is a powerful preference that for most of us has to correlate with our belief about who we are. I drive an electric car. Enough said! I am automatically putting out a statement about my core values. My daughter is making her statement with a monster truck you can hear coming from two blocks away. She wouldn’t be caught dead driving my car. I wouldn’t be caught dead driving her truck! These hunks of metal are very much tied into who we believe ourselves to be. Next time you see an ad for a car, notice how the message is geared toward your identity, or the identity of someone you perceive to be very different from you.

Which brings up whether our preferences are all that distinct and individual. In fact my mother’s belief that she was cool when smoking was suggested to her by those 1930’s black and white movies where smoking was almost a fine art. Our choice of fashions, cars, homes, etc. are only ever in part our own. We share them with the rest of our culture, or certain groups within our culture with whom we identify. So they are not uniquely us.

When we are so caught up in the belief that we are this preference, we suffer. If, for example, we are assigned a rental car that doesn’t match our personality, we might experience discomfort being seen in something that so ill suits us.

Because these preferences are impermanent, changeable, sometimes even fickle, how can they define us? Beyond that they are ungovernable, out of our control. Don’t believe me? Just try to be sexually attracted to someone you’re not. Just try to eat a food you find disgusting. Some of our preferences seem to be hardwired. Even though they may change, they seem to change on their own, not because we mandated the change. And when they change, we might feel uncomfortable, as if we’ve lost a bit of who we are. But if it is not within our control, how can a preference be who we are?

We have preferences galore, enough to keep all kinds of industries in business for many years to come. But is this the self we are seeking?
Impermanent, insubstantial and out of our control — hmm, probably not.

There is a great simile from the Buddha’s teachings of the Five Aggregates of a dog tied to a post. The post represents the Five Aggregates we take ourselves to be. When the dog walks, it can only walk circles around the post. We can’t wander beyond the edges of who we believe ourselves to be. We are chained to these beliefs just as that dog is tied to the post.

The Pali Canon, the recorded teachings of the Buddha, quotes him as saying that to define yourself in any way is to limit yourself, and that the question, “What am I?” is best ignored.

Notice for yourself over the coming week the degree to which you believe your preferences define you. To the degree that they define you, they confine you! We are not trying to erase preferences. We just let go of the idea that they are us.

Come fully into the moment; be present with the fleeting nature of whatever is happening. With awareness, you might free yourself from the tight leash of the belief that you are your body or your preferences. How does that feel?

Image by Jill Wellington

Who are you?

“As I look more deeply, I can see that in a former life I was a cloud. And I was a rock. This is not poetry: It is science. This is not a question of belief in reincarnation. This is the history of life on earth.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

As we explore the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, we will take it at a leisurely pace, giving ourselves the opportunity to understand each aspect. Within each aspect, there may be a need to review and reflect on other teachings of the Buddha that help us become skillful in that aspect. We might not do this with every aspect, but certainly in this first one, Skillful View, we will. Because how can we become skillful in how we look at things if we haven’t had the opportunity to really look at things? That’s exactly what the Buddha challenges us to do.

We begin by looking at the very heart of his teachings, the Three Marks or Characteristics of Existence to see where we cling to unfounded habituated patterns of thought, causing us to have skewed views of the world we inhabit and ourselves.

THREE MARKS or CHARACTERISTICS

  • All things are impermanent.
  • There is no separate self.
  • Not understanding those two causes suffering.

Okay, let’s take them one at a time:
Impermanence: We may be in the habit of railing against it yet it’s not all that difficult to see that it is the nature of things. Right now in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s autumn: leaves fall off the trees, there’s a chill in the air. Further evidence of impermanence: On my calendar is a memorial service for an old friend, and in my inbox is an email of the latest school photo of our nine-year-old granddaughter that gives a strong indication of her teenage face. It seems just yesterday I was holding her in my arms, whispering welcome to the world. How easy it would be to rail at the passage of time and the impermanence of life. But it doesn’t make my life easier, does it? And it doesn’t make time stop. In fact, it makes my life much more difficult when I either cling to the past or wish away a challenging present in the rush toward a possibly more promising future. Noting and accepting impermanence can lead to appreciating it, finding the wonder of this moment just as it is. Over and over again.

Where in your life might you be wrestling with the nature of impermanence? Can you be compassionate with yourself as you explore the veracity of any untenable position? After all, if no one died, no one would be born. The amazing cyclical natural system would be broken. If nothing changed, there would be no cause for awe and wonder. And without the nature of impermanence and the cycles of nature, we would all starve. You get the idea. It’s not an alien concept.

The third Mark, how we suffer, is not all that hard to see in our lives and the lives of others if we pause to pay attention. Since I wrote about it recently, I won’t go into in-depth here but you are welcome to review.

No Separate Self can be more challenging to understand. But it’s also the one with the greatest sense of reward. Pure joy arises from that deep understanding. So hang in there.

Our habit of mind is to view this body-mind, this thinking-feeling-skin-sac we call ‘I’ and ‘me’ as a singular being. But is it? For practical purposes of managing our lives and our responsibilities in modern life, this way of thinking has its uses. No one is suggesting you toss out your passport, drivers’ license, etc. and erase this identity built up around your name, date of birth, etc. The system’s all set up to support it. It’s a convenience. But that doesn’t mean we have to vest our identity into it hook, line and sinker. It’s much better if we don’t! If we can hold it all more lightly, with appreciation for its benefits, we can access a deeper understanding of the true nature of being.

A couple of posts ago, I offered this scientific explanation of ‘no separate self’:

“All matter, whether it’s solid, liquid or gas, is made up of atoms. We might imagine matter as made up of microscopic versions of children’s plastic building blocks, because, thanks to electrons, atoms bond together into molecules, just the way the little holes and plugs of the blocks allow them to connect. So I’m made up of atoms, as is the air I breathe, the solid, liquid and gas all around me, and every being of every species. All atoms all the time, all interconnected, all coming together and falling apart, in an ever-changing state of being. So there are no edges to being. There is fundamentally no separate self.”

Understanding the science doesn’t automatically make us feel that it is true. Our habit of mind is strongly in favor of the separate-self version of being. But how is that working for us? Look around! We humans are incessantly ‘other-making’ in our relationships with each other, the earth and all life. We get stuck in an alienated mode of misery that doesn’t serve us, angry and hurting.

To help us understand ‘no separate self’ on a deeper level, we practice quieting down and being fully present, softening our habitual need to fortify our identity as ‘me’ and ‘I’. The Buddha knew this part is challenging, but he also knew that these teachings lead to the end of suffering, so he persevered. And we will too, as we look at the Five Aggregates that help us understand the idea of ‘no separate self’, and thus, in incremental doses, help us cultivate Wise View. 

The first of the Five Aggregates: Body

We ask the simple question, a child’s question really, but also the question that forms the foundation of many philosophical discussions throughout the ages: Who am I?

Pause for a moment, close your eyes, sense into physical sensation, and ask it again, as if for the first time. ‘Who am I?’ You might say it over and over like a mantra that goes deeper and deeper.

Where is this solid, dependable sense of self that you call ‘I’ and ‘me’?

The first thing that might suggest itself is this physical body, this material form. This is me. This is who I am, or at least it is part of who I am.

Is this true? What are the edges of the self-defined by this body? Is it the skin that is so porous, letting in and out moisture all day long? That very skin sheds itself constantly. Is it still ‘me’ when it’s dust being vacuumed up off the floor and carpet?

What about the breath? Is it ‘me’ when it is in my lungs, but then no longer ‘me’ when it has been exhaled?

The cells in the body are totally different than the ones that were here seven years ago. This seemingly permanent body is neither solid nor separate from the rest of life.

The Buddha said, “This body is not mine or anyone else’s. It has arisen from past causes and conditions…” This body we see as so separate and so intrinsic to our identity is an intrinsic part of the pattern of life ever-changing and evolving. So getting caught up in labeling it and claiming it, feeling pride or shame in it is just another habituated pattern that entangles us. How liberating it can be to recognize that this body in whatever shape or shade it is, is simply the fleeting opportunity to experience life in human form. Can we appreciate the benefits of being embodied — mobility, sensations, etc. — without attachment? Can we take good care of this wondrous temporal vessel of being without wishing it to be other than it is?

Spend some time noticing your own experience of being embodied. After meditating, do some self-inquiry around the body and the way you think of it. Pay attention throughout the day for clues in your thoughts, words and deeds that reveal your perceptions. Ask “Is this true?” Let the automatic answers arise and be acknowledged, but leave room for the quiet wisdom with nothing to fear and nothing to prove also have a say.

Artwork by Gordon Onslow Ford, Lunar Wind, 1962, Parles paint on canvas (Gordon was a friend of my parents and I sure wish I still had the beautiful piece they had of his!)



Where were you when the lights went out?

Everywhere in the world it seems we are increasingly challenged to cope with emergency situations. And many of us don’t prepare for that likelihood, maybe because we don’t want to think about it, or we just get busy, or we can’t imagine it.  So we put off valuable preparations that make all the difference when the alert goes off on our phones and we have to spring into action.

Skillful Action is one of the eight aspects of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. How we prepare and cope with emergencies falls into that area. Because my students and I had just experienced a three-day county-wide power outage*, I jumped ahead in our curriculum to that aspect. We’ll go back to our ‘regular programming’ — the order I had planned to teach the Eightfold Path in — after this brief but valuable opportunity to apply what we’ve learned to preparing for future events.

Here are a series of questions I posed my students. If you also experienced the power outage, please take this opportunity to answer them for yourself and make notes for an action plan. If you weren’t part of this California fire season event, please use this opportunity to explore these questions in regard to emergency situations in your own area. Perhaps you can reflect back to the last flood, hurricane, storm, earthquake, tornado or fire that you experienced. No one is immune! (For more comprehensive suggestions, go to ready.gov.)

PREPAREDNESS QUESTIONNAIRE

If you experienced this power outage or other emergency situation recently, take a moment to reflect and note down what worked well and what didn’t. This questionnaire was geared toward my students, all of whom were able to stay in their homes but had no power. In neighboring counties many people were evacuated due to fire, threat of fire and smoke. For those kinds of emergencies, having out-of-area family or friends you could call to stay with, and of course having a ‘go’ kit ready with your medications, cash, etc. is vital.

Some areas to consider: 

Communications – Were you able to stay in touch? Use your phone? Read your emails? Text? Keep your cell phone charged? Use your landline if you have one? Who is your service provider? Were others with different providers better equipped? Some elderly people don’t have cell phones, so were quite out of touch, and loved ones were unable to contact them to assure they were safe. Is it time to get an inexpensive emergency cellphone for just such occasions?

Charging – Keeping your phone charged is easy if you have a little solar backup charger. Our community also offered charging at various community centers, but not right away. Most vehicles are set up to charge, but you have to keep the car running. The more options you have the better, so be sure to have a back up charger fully charged in your emergency kit.

Community – Do you know your neighbors? Was there a system in place to look out for each other? Did your town provide services, and if so, did you know about them? Is there someone locally who made sure that you were okay, or would have if you were in an emergency situation? (If not, consider setting up a ‘buddy system’ with another local person in the same situation. Independent living is great but in emergencies, we fall back on the networking skills of yore, and that means neighbors. There are many rewards to establishing strong bonds with neighbors even in non-emergency situations!

Food — Did you have sufficient food on hand to last? Were you able to cook? If you like coffee, be sure to keep plenty in stock. If you wouldn’t be able to make it, consider having a few canned coffee drinks on hand.
During this power outage those who had gas stoves were able to cook, but in another kind of emergency that might not be available, so what preparations would you need to make for that?
Usually power outages are localized, so you can just go to a different part of town or a neighboring town and go to a cafe, grocery store or restaurant. But this one affected all businesses in our county. Being prepared for that possibility is important.

Refrigeration — Again, in a small scale power outage, you can get ice, but since no stores had power, there was no ice to be had. If this happens again, I would put everything in the freezer compartment because it is smaller, or use an ice chest. Even with a number of ice packs and extra ice in plastic bins, the refrigerator warmed up faster than I expected.

Without refrigeration, canned or dried food is the go to. I find it difficult to make myself stock up on canned foods I would never eat, only to toss them when they expire. But we always have nuts on hand, and we used up salad makings, etc.

Cooking — If you are able to stay in your home but you can’t use your stove, it’s good to have a barbecue with a burner, or a camp stove (only use outside!!!!) Be sure to keep sufficient fuel canisters on hand.

Cash — When the power’s out even stores willing to stay open may need to be paid in cash, so be sure you have an emergency fund handy. Store cash in dry plastic bags. Ours was stored in a money belt in our car and the money got a little mottled. FYI Banks aren’t allowed to take moldy or disfigured currency.

Heat — If you have a gas furnace, is it the kind that runs when the electricity is off? Ours isn’t. But we do have a gas insert fireplace in one room in the house. Research best heating solutions for your situation.

Transportation — Keeping your car fully ready to get away is important. Our electric car was charged and our hybrid was charged and had a full tank of gas. All gas stations in our county were closed, and those in neighboring counties had long lines. Best to just stay put or get around on foot! Because traffic lights were out, there was a period of adjustment as people learned to treat such intersections as if they had stop signs. For the most part people were careful and courteous, and most stayed home to avoid getting in the way of mass evacuations.

Medical supplies — If you rely on equipment that needs electricity, or medicines that need to be refrigerated, you might want to get a generator of some kind. At the very least, make sure your neighbors know that you are particularly vulnerable. As a general rule, be sure to order your prescriptions enough in advance that you won’t run out during an emergency.

Light
Were you in the dark or did you have useful solutions?
Our Petzl Tikkina coal miner headlamps made all the difference — perfect for reading and cooking in the dark. They use AAA batteries, so we stocked up on them for next time.
Little battery-operated votive candles all over the living areas gave a festive feeling and provided enough light for getting around. Besides our cellphone flashlights, we have a number of regular flashlights, and extra batteries, but we didn’t use them.

Air Quality
Although our air quality was okay, surroundings areas were affected by the smoke from the fire to the north. Do you have an N95 mask for each member of the household? To freshen the indoor air, consider adding more houseplants. Back in the 1970’s we had 22 houseplants in our tiny apartment! Not up for that? Me neither. But even a few scattered about the house might make a difference.

Entertainment
Sitting in meditation is a perfect activity under such circumstances. As is inner investigation — such a perfect opportunity to notice our thoughts and emotions! But most of us also want to have some other kinds of fun. In the daytime we had plenty of light so no problem doing chores, reading, writing with pen and paper, and because the weather was nice, and the air quality was not too bad we were able to do gardening. Had the smoke been intense or if it had been stormy, we would have been stuck inside.

Hiking trails were all closed due to fire danger so little walks around were best. Students reported meeting many neighbors and fellow citizens as they go around on foot.

If charging the phone is not a problem, and data is not an issue, of course there are many games, podcasts, music, etc, but why do things you can do any time? What a perfect opportunity to be completely unplugged!

The candlelight is ideal for deep conversation, making music, playing games and, um, other pleasures. And outside with the power out all over, the stargazing was wonderful.

I wanted to have a POPL party – Power Outage Potluck Party. When we had a home in Mexico, and there was an unusually long and heavy rain storm, we invited all our neighbors over for a potluck feast of whatever was in our refrigerators. It was a great festive gathering amidst the gloom.

What made life without power easier, safer, more fun for you?
Is there anything you might keep doing, even though the power’s back on? Just because you can switch on your lights and various technologies doesn’t mean you have to! Maybe establish a lights out night a week to rekindle the fun you discovered.

What do you wish you had thought to do beforehand?
While not everything was under your control, there were some things you no doubt could have done differently. While those are still fresh in your mind, make a note and then take action! This is probably the only time that you can really give it the energy, time and attention it requires. Make the most of it!

How were you in relationship to the experience?
Maybe you were afraid, depressed, lonely, impatient for it to be over, angry at someone in power, frustrated with your own lack of preparedness. This is important noticing! No need to beat yourself up about it. At the same time, it is an opportunity to discover your own capacity for patience, compassion, equanimity and other qualities that we are cultivating in our practice.

Did you have any insights?
Sometimes being out of the habituated patterns of our lives helps us to see things more clearly. It’s a kind of unexpected retreat, if we allow ourselves to be fully present for it.

A final reminder:

  • Restock whatever you used (batteries, cash, food, etc.)
  • Research solutions to any problems you encountered.
  • Retain any delight or insight you had from the experience.

Please share your experiences, suggestions and discoveries here, whether you experienced this recent event or another. Together we can assure wiser, more skillful action for all.

* The power was out in over 800,000 homes and businesses in California, not just our county. But this was the only time in my memory that our whole county was out of power.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Three Poisons grow from these unskillful views:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay