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.

Is it true?

Byron Katie is a popular author and teacher beloved by the Buddhist community for her wise way of challenging delusion, one of the ‘three poisons’ (The other two are greed and aversion). While she has written many books and given lots of workshops for adults, it is the children’s book, Tiger Tiger, Is It True? I bought for my granddaughters that for me most clearly illustrates how the things we tell ourselves are making us unhappy.

tiger-tigerIn the introductory note to parents, Katie says that people always want to change the world so they can be happy. But they have it backward. She recommends changing the projector – the mind – rather than trying to change what’s projected. She uses the example of a piece of lint on the lens of a film projector. Nothing you can do on the screen will remedy that. Imagine someone at the front of the theater using all kinds of cleaners to scrub the screen clean — how frustrating! The projector just keeps on projecting the shadows of the lint on the lens onto the screen.
When the mind is projecting shadows, we function in a state of delusion, relying on this misinformation we are projecting. So it’s important to look closely at the nature of our thoughts and to question whether what we assume about everything is actually true.
A few weeks ago we looked at other people’s delusions as an entry point into noticing our own. As we think about a family member, friend, person in the news or character in a novel; does it become easier to recognize some false idea they are clinging to? Some assumption they are operating under that keeps landing them in unpleasant circumstances? If you find yourself thinking, ‘Yeah, keep telling yourself that.’ then you know you are looking at an example of delusion.
After looking at other people’s delusions, hopefully we are better able to develop a compassionate way of seeing them. Then we can turn the light of that understanding onto our own patterns of thought and emotion as they arise. We can begin to notice and investigate what we accept as true without question.
It may feel threatening to question our own long-held beliefs. Why? Because we have built solid-seeming identities out of these beliefs. It may be difficult to imagine who we would be without these beliefs. When I say ‘beliefs’ I am not necessarily talking about ideas, philosophies or religion. Many of our deepest beliefs are simply about ourselves, how fundamentally flawed we are in a variety of ways. We may believe ourselves to be incapable of certain things — speaking in front of a crowd, for example; or bad at things, say sports, or good at things, like maybe cooking. We may get into comparing mind around these things and feel all kinds of uncomfortable emotions. Who would we be without defining ourselves in this way? These are just mental formations. They are not who we are! How would life be without that persistent pattern of thinking that keeps making us miserable?
Being able to recognize delusion is a vital skill, enabling us to awaken.

mkondoSpeaking of wise women who share their gifts with the world, Marie Kondo now has a series on Netflix called ‘Tidying Up’. I wrote about her book almost three years ago, and have been following her recommendations ever since. Now with this series we can see her in person and delight in her very meditative and compassionate way of coming into skillful relationship with our stuff. Whether you’re already a fan or just need help organizing in a way that is compatible with your practice, tune in to her series or read her book.

Clock Time :: Both convenience and delusion

clock-new-yearsWe are beginning our exploration of Delusion, one of The Three Poisons that keep us from awakening. (The other two are Greed and Aversion.) As we count down to midnight on New Year’s Eve, the concept of calendar and clock time seems a perfect place to start our investigation — not because we are beginning a new topic, but because calendar/clock time is a kind of delusion! Wha??? Why? Consider that time is a convenient agreement we made as a human community, an agreement we rely on. How would we have meetings and travel on planes and trains without it? But it is just an agreement. When we take it to be absolute reality, that’s a powerful delusion that doesn’t serve us.

The natural world of which we are an intrinsic part is all rhythms, cycles, seasons, circular patterns of arising and falling away — all of which, if we pay attention, teach us about the nature of impermanence and the interconnectedness of all life. This deep understanding is key to awakening.

But in our culture we distract ourselves with a made up system of linear time. Instead of appreciating it for the convenience it provides, we perceive it as a solid reality, as if we are all on this timeline that stretches into the distant past and distant future. Does it run left to right? right to left? up or down? Stop and think for a moment how you perceive your own timeline and world history.

Calendar and clock time were never meant to supersede nature’s rhythms. But it has done just that for so many of us, fostering a forgetfulness of our intrinsic nature. We have come to see ourselves as separate from the rest of nature, operating on a totally different wavelength. Of course this varies to a great degree, person to person and culture to culture. But for most of us it takes effort to stay connected, doesn’t it? It takes a conscious choice to give ourselves the gift of our own natural rhythms that our ancestors took for granted. Otherwise we succumb to the easy effortless drone of the distinctly human construct of the clock and calendar time world we have co-created. Can we appreciate the great gift of what we have created without falling for the delusion that it is reality?

If we can’t see through that delusion, we set ourselves up to be shocked when the natural way of things makes itself known to us. How resistant we are to the rhythms of nature, whether it’s the seasons coming and going or our own very natural mortality.

Clever as we are, we create workarounds like electric lighting to extend daylight into the night, reinforcing our feeling of being apart from and impervious to nature. Our scientists work to extend our lives because we can’t face the thought of aging and dying, making room for generations to come.

So as we approach the ‘New Year’, if we believe it is real, we vest it with almost magical powers. Resolutions are only for the New Year. Say you make a resolution to start eating healthier or exercising more in the coming year. Doesn’t that set you up for gobbling up the chocolate cake and being a couch potato up until the stroke of midnight on December 31st?

And if on January 2nd or 3rd you find that the habit of gobbling and lounging is harder to break than you thought, do you feel like you’ve blown it? Maybe next year, you say.

I was thinking how many years ago I was able to give up smoking on New Year’s. So I have believed that, whether a real thing or not, the concept of turning over a new year and turning over a new leaf are intertwined. But the friend I quit with didn’t manage to do so for more than a few days, may she rest in peace.

So what was the difference? The main difference is that my motivation was to get my body into healthy hospitable baby-making mode. I wanted to get pregnant. It was that deep biological intention that sustained me and kept me from ever smoking again. New Year’s was a mere convenient starting point.

Understanding that calendar/clock time is a convenience and not a reality helps us to recognize our own delusion when we, for example, ‘can’t wait for this awful year to be over’. We throw away whole days, weeks and months when we say things like ‘I’m having a bad week.’ Or ‘I got up on the wrong side of the bed and now this day is shot.’

We can see how firmly we believe in it when we ask the clock instead of our stomach whether it is time to eat. It’s skillful to notice all the ways we put this made-up system in charge of our lives instead of staying in tune with nature’s rhythms, cycles and seasons. How much more skillful it is to stay present in this moment, resetting wise intentions again and again, instead of waiting around until the clock or calendar dictates your efforts.

Notice if this collective useful agreement about the clock and calendar takes on the semblance of absolute reality in your life. See if there’s any room for acknowledging nature’s cyclical seasonal arising and falling away. If so, see if that helps you to embrace the nature of impermanence and your intrinsic interconnectedness with all life.

And, oh yes, Happy New Year!!!

Happy Winter Solstice!

I hope you in the Northern Hemisphere are enjoying this dark period. The further north you live, the more intimate you are with darkness. And it might be depressing. Because of that, many people celebrate Winter Solstice as a returning of the light. Which is true: It will get lighter every day from here on until Summer Solstice in June. But right now it is dark. Very dark. And this is the moment we are in.

In our practice, we come into skillful compassionate relationship with all that arises, not making an enemy of anything. So why make an enemy of early sundowns and late sunrises when it is a powerful presence in our current experience?

Back in the early 1990’s I was so tired of people chasing the coming lightening of the days instead of being fully present here and now, that I wrote what I guess could be called a love poem to darkness. I’ve shared it every Winter Solstice since in one form or another, and it has become a tradition in solstice gatherings around the world. Feel free to share, but include attribution.

In Celebration of the Winter Solstice

Do not be afraid of the darkness.
Dark is the rich fertile earth
that cradles the seed, nourishing growth.
Dark is the soft night that cradles us to rest.

Only in darkness
can stars shine across the vastness of space.

Only in darkness
is the moon’s dance so clear.

There is mystery woven in the dark quiet hours.
There is magic in the darkness.

Do not be afraid.
We are born of this magic.

It fills our dreams
that root, unravel and reweave themselves
in the shelter of the deep dark night.

The dark has its own hue,
its own resonance, its own breath.

It fills our soul,
not with despair, but with promise.

Dark is the gestation of our deep and knowing self.
Dark is the cave where we rest and renew our soul.

We are born of the darkness,
and each night we return
to the deep moist womb of our beginnings.

Do not be afraid of the darkness,
for in the depth of that very darkness
comes a first glimpse of our own light,
the pure inner light of love and knowing.

As it glows and grows, the darkness recedes.
As we shed our light, we shed our fear,
and revel in the wonder of all that is revealed.

So, do not rush the coming of the sun.
Do not crave the lengthening of the day.
Celebrate the darkness.
Here and now. A time of richness. A time of joy.

– Stephanie Noble

            copyright Stephanie Noble 1992

I also offer an illustrated narrated version on Youtube.

 

Wishing you and yours every joy of the season! – Stephanie

It’s so easy to see other people’s delusions!

delusionThe definition of awakening (or enlightenment) is ending greed, aversion and delusion — The Three Poisons.

It’s pretty easy to recognize greed: ‘If I just had fill in the blank I would be happy.’

It’s even easier to recognize aversion, finding fault and making an enemy of people, things, situations and aspects of ourselves.

But, at least for me and maybe for you, delusion is more challenging to see because if it’s a delusion, how can we recognize it as such? Probably because of the difficulty of being able to see it and truly understand it, I have over the past decade of teaching barely mentioned the subject of delusion. Hmmm. What have I been avoiding?

When I shared with students in class a chart titled A Wheel of Buddhist Terms, how all the topics interconnect, we noticed how the hub of the wheel, the core of the teachings — understanding the nature of impermanence, no separate self and suffering — is encircled with what we might call a ‘noose’ of greed, aversion and delusion. These are what gets in the way of deep wisdom. Obviously they are crucial to recognize, understand and release if we are to awaken. 

So, how interesting then that I have not explored the subject of delusion for myself or with the class to any real degree. What I was taught early on about delusion was that it’s a bit like walking around in a fog, a state of clueless distractedness, and that’s pretty much what I share when the topic comes up. But not surprisingly there’s much more to it than that.

We were looking at that Buddhist chart because, as we come to the end of our exploration of the Seven Factors of Awakening, I wanted to show how it fit into the panoply of Buddhist teachings, and also to ask my students if there was any other topic on the chart that resonated, anything they would particularly like to delve into next.

One student asked if it wouldn’t be logical to start at the center and work out. Maybe. But every aspect on the Wheel is a door to all of the teachings. That’s why you can walk into any Buddhist meditation group at any time, go on any retreat, listen or read any teacher, and receive immediate insight and connection to all the rest of the teachings. So when someone asks ‘Where should I begin?’ the answer is ‘Begin where you are.’

That’s why I like to teach in response to where my students are in their lives, what challenges they are facing, and what aspect of the teachings would be of most benefit in this moment. Like most dharma teachers in this tradition, I also teach from where I am in my own life. Otherwise the dharma is just dogma instead of a rich living exploration.

After I rolled up the chart, I ‘wrapped up’ my months-long exploration of the Seven Factors of Awakening with a brief talk about delusion, almost a nod to its existence, before pressing on to the next big thing.

Not so fast. Haha! It turns out delusion is exactly what the students want to explore. So that’s what we will do. High time, it looks like! But since seeing delusion within ourselves is so challenging to recognize, I suggest we begin by seeing if we can identify it in others. We do this with as much compassion as we can muster, and we certainly don’t call people out on it. But for our own edification we begin to notice delusion as it arises in the news, in characters in novels and in those around us. In this way we might get a clearer idea of what delusion is, and begin to recognize its patterns.

In a recent article on denial, Jack Kornfield tells a story about a man who is driving down the highway when he hears a safety alert on the radio: “Anyone driving north on Interstate 187 should use great caution! There is a car driving on the wrong side of the divided highway.”
The man glares through his windshield and mutters, “There’s not just one car driving the wrong way. There are hundreds of them.”

Obviously, it’s much easier to see someone else’s state of delusion than it is to see our own, isn’t it? So let’s start with what is easy as an entry point to the subject. Again, it’s super important to remember that this is not to point a finger at anyone but to see how universal delusion is, and then to open to the likelihood that we are not uniquely exempt.

Unless you feel ready to explore your own delusions with infinite lovingkindness but not indulgence, let’s stay with other people for awhile. As we begin to see the nature of delusion in others, we can practice the kind of compassion that will enable us to then recognize our own delusions without freaking out and making an enemy of them.

I am excited about taking on this challenge my students have presented to me. I hope you will join us in this rich exploration that we’ll begin in January. Until then I have a couple of traditional Winter Solstice and New Year’s things I like to do with my class and with you. So stay tuned for those deep and inspirational annual offerings.

But meanwhile, look around using your lens focused to notice delusion. At this particular moment in history, we have an abundance of delusional behavior you might notice. But try to go beyond the obvious. Jot down examples and make a real investigation. Report back!

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!