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.

Whoa! 50,000 Stitches?

In the documentary States of Grace (which I saw on Kanopy, the public library’s free streaming service) I was intrigued by the mention of 50,000 stitches being required to be ordained as a Zen priest. What an amazing concentration practice! If each stitch was mindfully done, certainly after 50,000 to make a robe, you would be a very present practitioner.

Since I know nothing about what is required for Zen Buddhist ordination, I did some research and came upon a Tricycle article about Tomoe Katagiri and the history of hand-sewing in the US Zen communities. Apparently it is an ancient practice, though these days in Japan robes are purchased instead of handmade. But Tomoe Katagiri has been teaching hand-sewing in the U.S. since 1971, and so it has become a part of the American Zen experience.

But this is not a post about Zen. It is a post about one sentence in the article that captured my attention. When a woman was coming to her final stitch of the robe for her ordination as a Soto Zen priest, she asked Tomoe if there was anything to be said for the final stitch. Tomoe answered, “The last stitch is the same as the first.”

“The last stitch is the same as the first.”
We could apply that to all aspects of life, couldn’t we? If we are doing something with full attention, then each moment receives that same quality of attention, not distracted but fully sensed.

One area we might apply this is eating. For most of us that first bite is special. We savor it, we really taste it. But a few bites in, caught up in conversation, reading, listening or just thinking, the hand and mouth may go on autopilot. When I am on retreat my whole attention stays with the bites I am taking, the chewing, the swallowing because there is absolutely nothing else to do, and my mind is focused on savoring not just flavors but the whole experience of being on retreat. Every time, I promise myself that when I get home I will be done with a lifetime’s habit of inattention and will attend every bite with full mindfulness. Well, you know how that turns out. A few days later, I’m back in the habituated groove of shoveling it in and then wondering where it went. Ah me!

Reading “The last stitch is the same as the first” made me want to challenge myself in my daily life to have a meal with that level of steady attention, each bite fully appreciated. If I can do it on retreat, why can’t I do it at home? Why do I accept my excuses? It is simply a matter of setting wise intention and following through with wise effort. So yesterday and so far today I did just that for each meal, and the last bite was as delicious as the first. And I noticed that I put more attention to making a nice meal, to choosing wholesome tasty foods, to taking my time in the kitchen with each chore fully attended, the last cut of a vegetable as mindful as the first. It is all of a piece, this being present, isn’t it?

How about a walk where the last step is done with the same level of attention and appreciation as the first? I tried that this morning too. It was a lovely day for a favorite hike on the shady side of Lake Bon Tempe. Staying present I saw so many things I might not otherwise have noticed, like the two tiny butterflies flitting in close pairing among the yellow wildflowers. Attending the sensations of my body in motion, I walked further than I habitually do. I spent some time focusing on my thigh muscles, letting them do the work that my knees might otherwise take on. I don’t know if that’s physically a thing, but it felt right for me. What I didn’t do was talk politics, wonder what to make for lunch, or plot the rest of the day’s activities. I just walked and looked and listened.

How often in life do our thoughts fly off craving the next thing? Wondering ‘when will I be done with this?’ even when it’s something we very much wanted to do?

The last stitch is the same as the first. Wow. Think of other areas in your life where this advice might be useful. In class we ended up talking about chores, errands and projects that seem to consume time in a mindless way. We’ll explore more of that in a future dharma post when we look at what constitutes wise effort.

We all go mindless at times. The practice of meditation is in part about learning how to simply be present, attentive to all that is arising and falling away in the field of sensation. The other part is learning to be compassionate with ourselves but not indulgent — an important distinction that we’ll look at in a future dharma post about wise concentration.

(If you are seeing a theme developing with these future dharma posts, you may recognize two aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: Wise Effort and Wise Concentration. Those and the other six will be our fall focus. I have taught this invaluable life guidance three times over the past decade or so, and my current students have asked me to teach it again. I am happy to do so, and this time with a beautiful new illustration by my husband of the analogy I developed for understanding and remembering the various aspects!) Every time I teach it I discover so many new things I hadn’t noticed before, and I hope you will too!)

But meanwhile, you might make a point of noticing as you go through your day where you go mindless, what falls apart when that happens, and how it feels when you muddle through life lost in distraction, as most of us do at least some of the time.

“The last stitch is the same as the first.” There’s so much we can learn from that one sentence! May we live our lives attentively and compassionately, savoring each moment as it arises, then letting it go, so that our last breath is the same as the first.

Photo above uncredited, but click on it to go to another article about Zen hand-sewing.

Who’s your tribe?

A prime motivator of the human species, right up there with safety, is comfort. Over millennia we have developed creative ways to provide ourselves shelter from weather extremes, food at our fingertips, soft places to sleep and sit, and ways to travel great distances with ease. Ah, comfort! 

Conformity is comfort, too. We feel safer if we make the same choices as people we respect.  We may define ourselves by our choices of brands of clothing and technology, for example. We are drawn to people with shared interests or outlooks, for both the stimulating exchanges and the sense of being at ease with shared viewpoints. In this way we have a sense of tribe.

We are tribal by nature, so when our ancestors migrated around the globe in search of food, safety and freedom from persecution, each generation had to expand its understanding of tribe. Nations arose not just to define physical boundaries but for a sense of belonging to a tribe. A tribe might have shared physical attributes, but as our sense of tribe grows, it is more dependent on a sense of shared experience, regardless of whether we look alike. For example, the shared experience of surviving a war, a famine, a drought, a depression or the assassination of a leader, will bind people together in a sense of a tribe. 

Each of us longs to be part of a ‘we’, however that ‘we’ is defined. Think about the word tribe for a moment and see how you feel it in your own experience. You might start with your family, then your friends, perhaps your coworkers, the people in your community, the citizens of your country, people with shared beliefs or practices around the world, etc. See where this exercise takes you and take your time with it.

When we look at the past century in the U.S., it’s easy to see the patterns of comfort-seeking conformity. Mass media set the standards of what was ‘in’ and all anyone had to do was dress the part. When I was an adolescent we read magazines like Seventeen and Glamour and followed their cues like maps to happiness, not just what to wear, or how to style our hair, but how to be in the world and in relationships, how to find true love and meaning. The boys read Sports Illustrated, Popular Mechanics, MAD magazine and Playboy, finding comfort in shared interests and opinions.

But some didn’t find mass market media comforting at all and felt alienated from it, so revolted against it and appeared to be non-conforming. 

If it is our nature to seek conformity, how can we explain the non-conformists? They are still seeking comfort. They just have a different tribe, a tribe that seeks itself out. Look at all the gatherings, festivals and conferences that draw like-minded people together.

Recently I saw the PBS documentary Woodstock. (It is not the original Woodstock movie, which was also great but was focused more on the music. This one focuses more on how the festival came about, how it was received by the locals (the kind and generous townspeople of Bethel, NY and environs) and how 400,000 managed to be fed, etc.. Fascinating.)

Festival attendees from all over the country and the world were so elated to find their tribe, a tribe they couldn’t be sure existed beyond their own immediate experience since they only had a few newspapers like the Village Voice and Berkeley Barb. They looked bizarre to the majority of society, but together they looked much the same, their hair and clothes an expression of their desire to be free from the predefined conformity of their parents’ generation. They conformed to their own tribe.

The beatniks before them also found their tribe. I remember how happy I was when hippies happened because the beatniks that some of my school friends aspired to imitate in the early 60’s were just too dreary and depressing for me.

There have always been non-conforming tribes. I recently read Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel, about the tribe of artists in New York in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, with Lee Krasner, Elaine DeKooning, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. at the center of it all. They painted all day in studios that often failed to provide even the minimum of comforts, some lacking heat or electricity. Their diets were so minimal that some struggling artists died of starvation. They would rather die than give up their art! I was fascinated in part because my father was one of them in the late 1930’s and I remember him saying that he and his friend figured out that a diet of dates and peanut butter was the cheapest and most nutritious way to survive. I wish I had asked him more about his time in New York back then.

According to the book, what kept the group of artists going, were the late night co-mingling with their tribe of artists and poets while nursing cups of coffee that had to last all night at the cheapest cafeteria in their down and out neighborhood. That is the strength of tribe and the powerful comfort of conformity, even when the tribe seems from the outside to be non-conforming, even when all creature comforts are sacrificed for the greater comfort of self-expression and the community of likeminded people.

What has described tribe in our massive culture is often generational, defined by the music we listen to, the entertainment we enjoy, the clothes we wear, the way we groom our hair, and what we are upset about — the Vietnam War, gun violence, student loan debt, climate crisis, etc.

Adults choose communities, a particular style of home, kinds of food, the online communities to join, but whatever we are doing, we are always seeking the comfort of our tribe.

With the advent of the internet, geography has ceased to play a role in this tribalism. Every morning after I meditate, I am greeted with ‘Thank you for meditating with me’ notes from all around the globe on the Insight Timer app. Reviews on my guided meditations also remind me that this is a worldwide community. How comforting! How supported I feel in my personal practice!

At its best, the internet has provided the possibility to be a true world community, to overcome fears and perceived barriers, to celebrate the wonder of being alive on this beautiful planet. At its worst, it has made it easy to self-define tribes of fear-based hatred, emboldening incivility and violence. If we succumb to the negativity, perceive our tribe as under siege and in need of protection, then we have tribal warfare that destroys us all.

So what we are doing in meditation is making internal peace, recognizing the fear, listening with respect, and then giving comfort, kindness, compassion to all aspects of our inner world. In this way we allow a spaciousness of mind that can hold all of what arises in ourselves and in the world in an open and loving embrace.

And what our practice leads to is an awakening to a deep understanding that we are intrinsically interconnected with all life, that our sense of ‘tribe’ does not have to be limited to just those whose opinions match our own or those who look like us. All the world’s great religions lead to the same place of deep understanding that there is no ‘other’. We are unique expressions of all that is in its infinite loving variety. We are not alone. We are all one. Our tribe is here and now and infinite, interconnected and inseparable.

Image by Speedy McVroom from Pixabay

What I learned on my summer vacation

Family vacations are wonderful times to learn a lot about ourselves and our way of being in community and in the world. I remember one extended family vacation that my mother put together in a beautiful spot with perfect weather. Though everything went well, she was mostly tense and dictatorial and I was often grumpy and defensive. My main job as I saw it was to assure the safety and well-being of my two year old son and to pitch in cooperatively to keep the shared household running smoothly. But she saw me as her personal assistant and servant to assure the happiness of my brothers and their families whom she saw as the ‘guests’.

Because in the U.S., most of us don’t live in multi-generational family situations year-round, when we live for brief periods with our family of origin, a lot of old patterns resurface, and a lot of reactivity that replicates our childhood coping mechanisms shows up as well. We might be surprised, even horrified, to discover that those emotional cesspools are still within us when we felt we had become ‘better’ people.

It helps to see the pattern unfolding, even if it’s difficult to stop it from playing out. Just noticing it makes a big difference, helping us to understand its origins and its fleeting nature. We can rest assured that when the gathering is over, we will return home to our ‘normal’ adult ways. Being able to see these patterns arise gives us the chance to pause, send metta (lovingkindness) to ourselves and the rest of the family, so that we reconnect with our core intentions.

Because I had had negative experiences on family-gathering vacations my mother had hosted, I didn’t try to host one myself after I became a family matriarch. But a few years ago we happened to stay as overnight guests at a vacation home with our son and his family, and I discovered what I had been missing. Yes, extended time together can be stressful, but it can also be incredibly rich, sweet, funny and insightful. So I’ve started hosting simple little three-night summer mountain getaways, and I’m so glad I did.

We just returned from a mountain lake that has a rustic family resort vibe. It was a perfect choice for the age our youngest grandchildren are right now. We had a great time relaxing together, doing whatever anyone was in the mood to do, free of any agenda. As well as the fun of our group conversations, I had time alone with each family member — sweet moments I especially cherish.

My morning meditation got short shrift, as our grandchildren visited us when they woke up while their parents slept in, and I was too busy whispering and laughing. But my longtime practice helped me to stay grounded and present to enjoy it all and to hold the experience lightly. It would be so easy to get caught up in grasping and clinging, wanting to hold onto this special time and place forever. But impermanence is our nature. All we can do is savor the current experience and let it go, without regret or anticipation of the next great thing.

I didn’t completely master the advanced art of the zipped lip that all parents of adult children must learn if life is to be enjoyable, but I think I did pretty well, considering. I find the key is when judgy words are about to burst forth to ask myself, ‘What is my intention here?” and also “What is most important in this situation?” As a compulsive tidier and responsible tenant of vacation rentals (Oh, the pride I take in our AirBnB rating!) my first answer to what’s important defaults to making sure everything is just so, but with even a moment’s reflection I see that my relationship with my family is infinitely more important. And after all, it’s only for a few nights.

We are fortunate to not have reason to get into heated arguments, but decades ago I had that experience with other family members. I learned then to go to bed before alcohol consumption fueled wee hour dysfunctional disagreements. And again, to question my intention in needing to be right. Ah, the ‘I don’t know’ mind really comes in handy! Cultivating spaciousness for all voices to be heard without getting into battle. And if we let go of the need to convince someone of our view, we have the opportunity to learn more about what fears motivate their views, and that’s valuable information for us all.

All my past lessons helped me enjoy the gathering, but there’s always more to learn, and here are several I came away with this time:

#1 Explore off the beaten path
On the last day, after packing up, we took a little walk and decided to head away from the lake instead of toward it. (It’s understandable that we would always be drawn to the lake, but curiosity finally took us in another direction.) We discovered that right behind our cabin there was a beautiful wooded walking path to the grocery store, that was not only a short cut but a much safer way to walk with two children than on the street.

It makes me wonder what obvious/autopilot ways I have been taking in my life, ignoring beautiful and possibly even more direct routes.

Using this lesson, on the drive home down the mountain, we stopped in Jamestown, an old gold mining town off the beaten path. A passerby gave us the peace sign, a relic of a bygone era for sure. It’s main street is about two blocks long and it has all the requisite architectural features of the old West circa 1856, with raised wooden sidewalks under overhanging balconies. It had the requisite number of antique shops for any small California town before it becomes too popular for shopkeepers to sell some old bottles for a dollar each for our grandchild’s Harry Potter magic potion collection and then carefully wrap them in a gift bag.

We also chose a more scenic if less speedy way into the Bay Area, and arrived home refreshed. A perfect ending to a lovely getaway.

#2 Vacation food is not offset by exercise
Well, to be honest, I wasn’t doing that much exercise. We walked around quite a bit but also did a lot of lounging on the beach enjoying the sight of our kids and grand-kids playing in the water, and all the various families with children and elders of all ages having a great time together. I have never heard the word ‘grandma’ spoken from so many different young mouths.

I used to see vacation as an opportunity to over-indulge, but since I’ve found a way to eat in a balanced and satisfying way, my treats were tasty but sporadic and my reward was that I felt good. If my scale on returning home begged to differ, that’s its problem!

#3 Having better cell phone coverage is not always a blessing
Some in the family had AT&T and were blissfully free from knowing whether anyone was trying to reach them. We have Verizon, whose infinitely better coverage in remote areas is much appreciated in almost all circumstances. Except this one. Eventually, I had to just turn it off and put it in a drawer. We were surprised to discover that even though we couldn’t text each other our whereabouts or make plans, we kept finding each other quite naturally, just like we all did before cell phones were invented. 😉

#4 Put away the camera most of the time
With my phone in a drawer, I was without a camera. But I have found that ‘capturing’ the moment as a future memory is sometimes really losing the moment because I’m focused on framing and adjusting and not paying attention with all my senses. A camera cannot capture the experience anyway — the feel and smell of mountain air, the textures of sand, water and sun-warmed skin — and while a video camera gets the sounds as well, it imposes itself into the situation, altering behavior. Our grandchildren hate having their photos taken anyway.

#5 Always bring seat cushions
We just happened to toss in some outdoor seat cushions as we were packing for the trip, and boy did they come in handy! The cabin kitchen table had a hard bench banquette that was much improved by the cushions, and they were easy to transfer out to the picnic table on the deck where fast and furious games of Yahtzee taught the grandchildren a lot of math skills. Our kids took the cushions to outdoor movie night and said they wouldn’t have survived without them.

So let’s consider this: Where in life might we add a little extra cush? It doesn’t have to be a physical cushion. Our language, for example, has cushions that make conversations more comfortable like  ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘maybe you’re right.’ Hugs, pats, holding hands — small gestures convey a lot of love and soften the sometimes rough edges of life’s interactions.

#6 Apply practical lessons to inner life
We are all learning things every day. These are usually new facts, practical solutions, etc., but it can be helpful to see how they could apply to other areas of our lives, including our inner lives.

So, what have you learned lately?

What role does ritual play in your life?


Ritual is an inherently human activity. Rituals are created, repeated and relied on, as are habits. Yet rituals are almost the opposite of habits! Instead of making life conveniently manageable as habits tend to do, rituals bring full attention to the moment and the occasion, seeming to slow down time so that what is being experienced can be fully processed in a way that makes a deep and lasting impression.

When I was a teenager, all the formal rituals of life I saw around me seemed inauthentic, just empty gestures. I felt everything should be questioned, and all actions should be done with a freshness of thought and creativity, certainly not by rote. There was a lot I didn’t understand. The rituals I observed seemed dictated by an authority like the church, and I assumed people were just going along out of fear of going to hell. Perhaps some were, but for most there was deep comfort in the rituals they had probably been doing all their lives. I didn’t yet understand the value in that.

Especially at times of overwhelming emotion — at the death of a loved one, for example — long-established formal rituals provide valuable guidance, steps to follow through the maze of grief. Our family didn’t have that when my mother died. We stumbled around the empty space and muddled through somehow.

When it came to such things, we lived in the long shadow of my father’s rebellion against the church where his father had been a minister, and where Dad as an adolescent had to teach Sunday school for seven years. He became what we affectionately called a ‘raving’ atheist’ — probably one of the few who could quote scripture. 

He refused to allow us to put together any kind of memorial gathering for Mom. But he couldn’t refuse her one request she left with me (she didn’t trust Dad to remember!): to scatter her ashes in the wild azalea glen she loved. So I organized the immediate family, including my reluctant father, and we walked the trail to the bridge over a creek where the azaleas bloomed most densely. My brother and I clambered up off the trail and together scattered her ashes. In that moment, time stood still. There was awe and wonder. My nephew said, “Grandma would have been thrilled to death!”

I craved more ritual on that outing. I wanted words from all present, spoken from the heart of that moment. I wanted a picnic afterwards to just be together with our shared emotions and memories. But what we had was a father in not great health in a deep state of mourning saying, ‘Okay, that’s done. Let’s get the hell out of here!’ So we did.

When he died five years later, we had a memorial for them both, in their home surrounded by masses of plum trees in perfect bloom.

Death and marriage have become major industries, monetizing the rituals to extreme degrees. But regardless of how much one spends on a funeral or a wedding, every coming together to release or unite loved ones has that moment of ritualized acknowledgment of what is really happening here. And that is what lives on and sustains us.

Birth too brings celebration in one form or another, though the main participants are often too exhausted to appreciate it. They are living in a world of new tiny rituals that have not yet become habits: nursing, burping, changing diapers, singing lullabies, and gazing deeply into their uniquely amazing child’s eyes.

But what about daily or weekly rituals? What role do they play in our lives? They may provide something seemingly permanent and reliable in a whirl of a constantly changing world. Perhaps it is a place to rest, to renew, to feel connection and to feel supported. Coming together every week in community to meditate, pause, ponder, reflect and share is a valuable ritual to me and my students.

Are there any rituals in your life? Maybe there are but you don’t see them as such? Here are some things to consider:

How would your primary relationship(s) be different if you instilled a little more ritual. My hair stylist said that over the past few months she and her husband had instituted a new tradition of having one glass of wine before dinner and sitting together to talk. Their relationship has improved because they are unplugging from habitual activities and taking that time to practice a little ritual that celebrates themselves as a couple. (Note the only one glass, and of course, the wine could be replaced with something else, as suits your situation.)

Friendships can also have rituals, even if they are just things you enjoy doing together. Making them more regular and giving them your full attention will sweeten the experience. Longtime friendships often have shared language, stories and jokes that are rituals too in their way, even if no one else would consider them so.

If you, like me, struggle with being mindful while eating, take a tip from one of my students who started treating her meals as rituals, from the gathering of simple quality ingredients, taking time to prepare the food, pausing before eating to thank all who shared in this offering to your well being. Then doing a tasting, chewing, swallowing ritual that lets all the flavors and textures come fully alive, pausing to put the fork down and appreciate your surroundings, sensing in to your body to know when you have had enough. Ah, life!

And, ah, death! You might give some thought to how you would like to be commemorated, and make notes. Had my mother made a few more notes, I’m sure she would have added in a picnic. And then we would have had to have one, regardless. So be thorough, but be considerate. This is for those who love you, not for you.

Ritual slows us down, clear our minds, and capture a sense of exaltation, infinite beauty and mystery. One of my students has a ritual of blessing her house, especially when she has been away from it. We could ritualize our daily chores, blessing the floor we are sweeping and the dishes we are washing. Ritualize self-care! Imagine a brushing and flossing ritual that attends every nook and crannie with full attention and lovingkindness, not just out of fear of the dentist.

Fully present, life can be a series of rituals instead of chores to be gotten through in a habituated mindless way. Bringing mindfulness and compassion to everything we do, we stay attuned to the infinite sense of life loving itself.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Open your channel of creativity

When I began a daily practice of meditation in my early thirties, I was frustrated creatively. I had a novel in my head but I would write the same first twenty pages over and over again. My inner critics were bearing down on me with such vigilance that it felt impossible to get a word in edgewise.

After a couple of weeks of incorporating meditation into my life, I woke up one morning with a vivid dream that gave me my novel full blown. All I had to do was sit down and write it. And reader, I did! The inner critics must have been overwhelmed by the flow and were flushed away! Hooray! Six weeks later I had over three hundred pages of my first draft. For two hours every morning in my bedroom while my children were in nursery school I typed out two more drafts on my IBM Selectric that had replaced my dear old Underwood, and within nine months I had a novel. (That remains in ‘the drawer’ to this very day but that’s another story!)

I felt like my meditation practice cleared a wide column in the center of my being, allowing creative expression to rise up without blockage.

Why does meditation open the creative channel?
I can only speak to my own experience in writing and painting. But it makes sense when you think about how through the regular practice of meditation we begin to notice the harsh inner critics that rattle around in our thoughts constantly spouting cruel opinions about us. How likely are we to subject ourselves to such bad feelings by doing something creative? Why not avoid the whole thing? And yet there is this flicker of an eternal flame inside each of us that is ready to radiate, if only it were given even a little oxygen, a little kindness, a little encouragement. The creative impulse takes many different forms, not just in the arts. It’s where we feel truly alive and engaged in the process of creation, whether it’s an equation, a poem or a mural.

Without meditation to reveal what’s going on, we may assume that we are afraid of what other people might think. But it’s the inner critics that keep us from doing creative things. If we spend time with them in a compassionate way, we may begin to see where they come from. We might recognize what person who had a great deal of influence on us when we were young has been internalized and given power to keep us from living a full and meaningful life.

If you have a meditation practice, in the few minutes after you finish and your mind is clearer and kinder, throw out a question like “Why am I so resistant to ____________ (fill in your creative pursuit)?” (If you don’t have a practice, try it anyway after a quiet time with no distractions.)

Relax, look around, maybe yawn and rest — eyes open or shut, it doesn’t matter. Don’t search for answers. Just be open and easy. By asking the question, you are activating your own inner wisdom which has just been waiting to be asked. So notice answers as they arise. They come in many forms: visual or aural memories, some object you never noticed before, a book jumping off the shelf, the impulse to talk to a certain friend or family member.

I just happened to pose a question years ago around a problem I had, asking “Why am I so screwed up about ______?” I did not expect an answer, I was just in that state of quandary, and it may have been commentary, but I did pose it as a question. Then I just happen to lie there doing nothing, those last few precious moments before I make myself get out of bed, and much to my surprise within five minutes three different images came up for me out of the blue. Images of people and places I’d almost forgotten, words said to me that were cruel by people whose opinions mattered to me. At the time. And those three long-forgotten comments had been shaping my relationship to what I was ‘so screwed up about’! Wow! I had not thought about those people, and certainly not those words, in decades, but deep inside they were as fresh and wounding as if they were still being said.

And they were. Because I had internalized them. Those words were the daggers I used to make myself miserable. Exposed to the light of day by a simple question years later, I could see what had happened and how I had given away my power. And I said to myself “Why would I give those people so much power? They were clueless, troubled and unskillful. They didn’t know what they were doing, and even if they did, it had nothing to do with me.”

A big shift happen in my relationship to what I had been pondering. I managed to defang the viper that had sabotaged my ability to enjoy that part of my life! This is the power of insight meditation. It is not an escape from the daily grind, though it can be very pleasant. It empowers us to see clearly and to have compassion, to come into more skillful relationship with all that arises in our experience, even the ones so deeply hidden we hadn’t even known they were there. And it works especially well in relationship to creativity because, let’s face it, there were so many people when we were young — parents, teachers, classmates, the culture at large — telling us we couldn’t do it, that we weren’t doing it right, or asking who did we think we were to even try?

Suggestions for opening your creative channel

  • If your creative impulses get thwarted by inner scoffing and ridicule, up your meditation game. Meditate every morning to open the wide wondrous channel of your own creative expression.
  • Find your creative sangha. I bet you can find courses at a local community college or adult ed program where you will meet like-minded people with whom you can share the joy of creativity. It can feel silly on your own to buy art supplies and set up an easel in your home, but joining a class is empowering, and finding the friendship and encouragement of others who are also trying something new is very comforting. (I have a painting group I continue to meet with even though I haven’t painted in fifteen years. We meet every few months, share our creative efforts (I share my poetry) and enjoy each other’s company. For writing poetry, I belong to an ongoing poetry group where we are challenged but also feel safe in writing and sharing.)
  • Just before beginning writing or painting or whatever creative project you are working on, give yourself a moment of meditation focus, grounding, centering, letting go of the hyper-critical self-doubt and scolding that hampers the free flow of your imagination.
  • When you are not actively creating, stay alert to thought-threads and wisps of dreams that arise that might want to be expressed. Carry, and keep by your bedside, something to jot notes or sketches.
  • Focus on the process, not the product. Creativity is process. The product is a byproduct of that process and focusing on that byproduct is counterproductive. It is infinitely more joyful to activate a creative field of expansive celebratory exploration, rather than keeping your eye on the supposed prize. There is no prize but this very experience right here and now. Focusing on the end result sabotages the end result because it limits the possibilities, disturbs the flow and sets you up for disappointment when what you had imagined and what you have created don’t match, leaving you unhappy, but also blind to what is actually there.
  • Stay attuned to the creative flow and notice when it’s not ‘sparking joy’. Pause, walk away, refresh, renew, and then revisit when you feel ready.
  • Remember that you are in collaboration with some synergistic serendipitous field of energy. Sounds woo woo until you’re in it, and synchronicity provides exactly what you need when you need it. That’s being in the flow, whether you’re working on a creative project or just living.
  • The project is done when it satisfies some sense of wholeness, some intrinsic ‘yes!’ Not because you think it’s what the market wants or your teacher or friends like it, but because it satisfies something in you.

In my experience there are four clearly delineated stages of creativity that suffer when they overlap. I will use writing as my creative example, but it could just as well be used in other kinds of creative endeavors.

THE FOUR STAGES OF CREATIVITY

  • Stage 1: Open
    You have a thought, a dream, a phrase, an impulse — the stirrings of creativity arising. You might jot down a little something or keep toying with the words in your head, or it may arrive full blown and you can write it out. But if you sit down to write before the stirrings have inspired something, it may take a while to get to the heart of the matter, or you might never get there because the writing process without the stirrings can be laden with complicated self-talk.
  • Stage 2: Write
    When you are ready simply pour the words onto the page. Don’t hold back, don’t overthink, don’t edit. Just breathe life into the experience with the senses and specifics. If something needs researching, just make a note in the margin “RESEARCH:______________” Don’t look anything up right now or your attention will be stolen by the internet gremlins.
  • Stage 3: Edit
    Editing use a very different set of tools than writing. Trying to use them both at the same time stops the flow and gums up the works. Give your piece a little cooling off period before revisiting with an eye to where it comes alive, what contributes and what dulls it down. Then edit with fresh eyes. You might hang the piece somewhere you will see it often, and it will stay alive and reveal what may need to happen.
  • Stage 4: Share 
    Showing your work to others is a completely separate stage. Thinking about sharing it during the other stages will thwart the process. Sharing the work out loud or in print with others is both illuminating for the writer and the listener/reader. But the writer is not obligated to share, and except for reading well and providing a satisfying print environment for the piece, the writer’s work is done. The reader’s creative engagement and what they do with it is their own experience.

So there are a few ideas to use to stir up your inner creative impulse. Enjoy! But remember it all starts with a daily practice of meditation so the channel of creativity can open fully.

Who are you letting shape your reality?

One day Ron Finley put two and two together. He realized that while his home was in a food desert in South Central Los Angeles, he could plant vegetables in the parking strip to benefit the whole neighborhood. Neighbors started pitching in and the project expanded.

Imagine what a difference that must have made, not just in the physical health of all who now had access to fresh produce, but to their mental health, the feeling of community, and being empowered to create a more self-directed and meaningful life. What an inspiration he must be to all who saw what he had done, and how much of a difference one person with a simple idea can make in the world!

What did it take for Ron Finley to do what he did? What would it take for any of us to make a positive impact on our community? It takes wise view, wise intention and wise effort, and Ron Finley clearly had all three.

What is this wise view?
At one point a friend asked Ron if he wasn’t worried about people stealing what he’d grown, and he replied, “That’s why it’s in the street! I want them to take it!”
The two men clearly had different views of life. The friend, like so many of us, saw the world as a dangerous place where we must protect ourselves and our stuff from others who want to take what we have. But Ron Finley saw a community and an opportunity to bring health and joy. He says, “I manufacture my own reality.”

Most of us accept the reality manufactured for us. We are endlessly subjected to the self-limiting perception of the need to name and claim instead of expanding our sense of who we are — intrinsic interconnected aspects of life in a state of continuous flux. Everything we experience informs our understanding of reality, so our sense of reality is in a state of flux as well. That can feel unnerving if what we crave is something solid and unchanging. So we shut down, lock the doors and isolate ourselves in a protective shell. But this doesn’t protect us. It exacerbates our sense of emptiness, and the habit of craving, grasping and clinging — the very definition of suffering.

If we take a break from craving, grasping and clinging, we discover that we can find joy and share it in any situation. It takes a shift of view, but that shift is ours for the taking.

Our innate ability to make the best of whatever arises in life is not what most industries want for their potential customers. They are bent on making their products seem like the answer to our prayers. If only we had this new (fill in the blank) it would assuage our sense of emptiness and satisfy our cravings. Sure, sometimes a product makes life easier, but believing that it will meet our deepest needs is delusional. Believing that a different outfit, a new house, a different job, a perfect wedding, a different mate, a more ideal body — a different anything! — will fill the emptiness of our lives is accepting a manufactured reality that is inconsistent with the nature of joy.

Mine
The word ‘mine’ is one of the most undermining words in the English language. It creates barriers, tension, withholding, and misperception of the reality of our situation. It’s challenging because for most of us who live in developed countries, that may seem like the natural order: I, me, my, mine, and ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’. Caught up in the pattern of desire, there are never enough toys, and other people’s toys always manage to look shinier.

Wow, what a set up, right?  Look at what we as a culture have collectively created: A system that activates fear, craving, grasping and clinging, advertising that makes insidious use of psychology to activate fear, making people feel like they aren’t enough just as they are and that this product will make that feeling of emptiness go away.

Emptiness
Many of us at times experience a sense of ‘feeling empty inside’. Paired with depression or despair, emptiness doesn’t feel good. But what would happen if we embraced the emptiness? In Buddhism ’emptiness’ is not a painful vacuum, a sense of something missing from our lives. It is seeing clearly all that arises in our experience as ever-changing. Nothing is permanent. Nothing exists in isolation. Everything is made of all that went before and continues in an intricate relationship with all that exists in this moment in an ongoing dance of molecules interacting, coming together and falling apart and reconfiguring. There is no solidity.

Let me repeat: Nothing is solid here. This is the nature of life. Look around! If you’re thinking that the leaves falling off trees and the seasons changing don’t apply to you, then here are a few assignments: 

  • Look through your family album and observe all the changes, the new additions, the growth and the faces of loved ones no longer alive. 
  • When you vacuum, contemplate what you are vacuuming up. A lot of it is the detritus of your body — hair, particles of skin, etc.
  • When you clean out the lint filter of the dryer, consider that even your clothes are in a constant state of change, leaving a little fabric behind with each washing.

I could go on but you get the idea. If you are uncomfortable with these reminders of the transitory nature of life, then you are causing yourself unnecessary suffering. And yet you believe that you are avoiding suffering! You want things to stay the same, or you want a set of changes that you craft to match a perfect future you envision. If that future is shiny and you see yourself enshrined, it probably arises out of craving. If you achieve it you will be disappointed and set your sights on yet another shiny future, because that is the forward-leaning pattern you have created for yourself.

Wise view cultivates the kind of present that organically grows into a fulfilling future. If you are collaboratively creating a world full of respect, patience, kindness, compassion and joy, then you can relax about the future. It’s got good roots!

If however you can see that you are stuck in a world view manufactured to keep you craving and clinging, then congratulations on recognizing the pattern. Keep noticing for yourself how this cycle of suffering plays out, how the pattern of craving, grasping and clinging causes a sense of suffering. Know that you are not alone. And know that we didn’t invent the pattern. We inherited it and we are encouraged to keep suffering from it, while calling it the pursuit of happiness. But we can release it and discover how much more joyful it is to open to the beauty of the fluidity of all life.

This is much more fun than struggling to build a safe and impressive fortress of being in the shape of this person we so call ‘I’ and ‘me’ full of things we call ‘mine’. Why claim a little patch of life and call it ‘mine’ when in truth we are welcome to experience the whole garden?

Which brings us back to Ron Finley who planting vegetables in his parking strip, and to his friend who was stuck in a world of ‘mine’ and found Ron’s more expansive view alarming, worried that people would steal his vegetables. Here’s Ron’s TED Talk for you to enjoy:

Ron says, “I manufacture my own reality.” We can ask ourselves whose view of reality we are accepting unquestioned? If that view of reality is making us feel miserable, isolated and depressed, it’s not one that serves us very well, is it? We can wake up and live fully in each moment, alive, ever-changing and deeply interconnected.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? I’d love to hear them. And if this speaks to you, please share!

A wacky way into wordless wonder

Thoughts are formed by words that prompt images of places and times that pull our attention away from here and now, the only moment that actually exists. (All others are memories or imagined futures. Only in this moment are we alive and empowered to set intention, make choices, speak and take action.)

In Vipassana meditation practice, we stay in the present moment by focusing our attention on physical senses, most likely the breath, to release our tight hold on the mental formations that take us far away from this moment.

In many other traditions, Buddhist or not, the mind attains clarity by the repetition of sacred phrases, thus replacing the ongoing thinking-thinking words with ones formulated to create a sense of tranquility, awe, transcendence and even ecstasy. 

These repeated phrases may feel even more powerful when they are in a foreign language. Consider how when the Catholic Church decided to conduct services in everyday language rather than Latin, many worshipers felt a great loss. What was that loss if not for the sense of wonder and mystery from stepping out of the ordinary language used to negotiate everyday life?

Of course, everyday words can form imagery and ideas that expand our understanding and sense of awakening. Think of a wise teaching or a poem that has spoken to you, how it caused an internal shift — an insight that shook up the status quo and sparked empathy, a sense of connection and perhaps a glimpse into oneness that resonates inside you. But breaking out of the patterns of word-thoughts altogether can free our brains to open to this expanded state in a more direct and spontaneous way. You might think of it as the difference between being inspired by a photo of a sunset and experiencing the sunset itself, with all the senses engaged.

Sacred chants from any tradition are powerful for those so inclined. But what if you feel uncomfortable chanting or even silently repeating spiritual words? Perhaps saying them feels false to your sense of self, or feels like appropriation of another culture, or maybe you feel it could be some magical incantation and you don’t know what you’re accidentally conjuring up. Whatever the reason, if it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing. But what if you want to meditate but you find focusing on physical sensation doesn’t calm your busy thinking mind?

If you have tried various concentration practices that help you focus on the breath but you still feel like your drowning in your thoughts, you might try this and see if it works for you:

Replace those thought-laden daily pattern of words endlessly churning in your brain
with nonsense phrases that don’t activate any concerns.

Settle in to meditate, take a breath or two, releasing any tension, and
then repeat these words in your mind: Mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook.

Mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook? Good grief! What nonsense is this?

Exactly. It’s so silly it works! It’s an effective replacement for all the words that stream through the mind, weaving images, memories, worries and plans. Mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook — or any nonsense words you choose — are not entangling. No guarantee of ecstasy, but at least you may find a temporary release from the daily grind of regretting, wishing, calculating, puzzling, etc. that cause more anxiety, stress and tension in the body. And that’s no small benefit! The health effects of meditating have been long proven, and you can feel it for yourself.

This silly phrase is also a non-judgmental way to bring your attention back to the breath when you’re mind has wandered and you discover you’re entangled. Mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook may feel like an accurate description of all that thinking, and it’s a lighthearted labeling that can then transport you back to your focus on the breath without self-recrimination.

If you struggle to meditate or you have never meditated because you ‘think too much’, then maybe this is just wacky enough to work for you. Worth a try!