Category Archives: aging

Treasure beyond measure

Have you ever gone on a Scavenger Hunt? This one has a big reward, a treasure beyond measure — definitely worth doing! Most scavenger hunts have you go about town looking for things, but for this scavenger hunt we will stay seated and use our imaginations.

Scavenger Hunt Instructions
Close your eyes and think about objects right where you are or in other places in your life — whatever comes to mind. Bring one to mind. Got it? Okay, now see if it depends on anything else to exist. If so, move on to another object. You are looking for something that came into the world completely of its own accord.

When you find something that doesn’t depend on anything else —  or if you just give up — open your eyes. But really give it a try before going on. After all, there is a big reward!

Okay, did you find anything? If you did, look more closely. Ask more questions: Did anyone make this object? What material is it made of and where did that come from? What about the chemical composition of the object or even an element, in case you thought of something elemental?

If you couldn’t find anything that didn’t depend on anything else for its existence, then congratulations! You win the big reward. Your reward is a powerful realization with many benefits that I will explore here. But know that you have discovered for yourself a central point of awakening, one that the Buddha discovered for himself one time when he was staring at a leaf.

pipalla leaf sun-starsIn his contemplation of the leaf suddenly he saw within it the presence of the sun and the stars. This was not a hallucination but a realization about the nature of being. Without the sun’s light and warmth the leaf could not exist. He recognized how the leaf manifested from a myriad of causes and conditions. Without those causes and conditions, the leaf would not exist. He realized that what was true for the leaf was true for everything and everyone: This is like this because that was like that. And if there was not that, then there would not be this.

He shared his realization and called it dependent co-arising. Nothing exists alone. Everything is because something else was. Let’s just stay with that for a moment. Think of your own being and what it depends on. You are as you are because of all the natural phenomena that has formed you and sustained you physically: to start let’s acknowledge the whole ongoing coming together of legions of ancestors so that eventually here you are, the result of innumerable causes and conditions being just so at particular moments in time. Think if your mother had had a headache that night! Or one of all those string of couplings throughout all those generations never occurred because they never met, etc. etc. You get the picture: This miracle of being you is nothing to take for granted, clearly! You might say it’s a total fluke that you are here. But it’s not a fluke really. The manifestation of your existence in this form at this time is an intrinsic part of the whole ongoing process of life unfolding, the interplay of all those causes and conditions.

It’s so easy to see this once we take a moment to think about it. Just on your person in this moment are the products of all manner of plants, perhaps animals and minerals and human labor, as well as the sun, soil and rain that sustained them all! Just think about that! Your clothing, whatever you have in your pockets or your purse, maybe your eyeglasses — all of it exists because of the existence of something or someone else. So that on your person right now, the whole universe is represented.

This is not just the product of living in society, though it may be easier to see it there. But even if you lived on a mountainside in a cave, you would still be dependent on the elements and the berry bushes and the mountain stream. You would still be someone’s child, even if estranged. There is no way to cut ourselves off from all that is, because we are each inseparable parts of all that is. There is no way to exist in complete isolation for anyone. There is dependent co-arising, and there is this ongoing interdependency of all life.

Maybe think about that the next time you pride yourself on being independent. Or maybe gently mention that the next time someone claims they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps — whatever the heck that means! Recognizing our interdependence can soften harsh judgments, soften hearts and clarify thinking. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is all us, all of us, without anything that is not us from here to infinity. Knowing this to be true, we naturally become more compassionate, more generous, more loving. Understanding this, can we see more clearly the actions of other? Can we see how unskillfulness in actions and words, while not necessarily inevitable, are certainly understandable given causes and conditions?

Now thinking about that leaf that the Buddha held in his hand, we come to a second aspect to contemplate in this dependent co-arising. We can ask when was this leaf born? Most of us have at one time or another noticed a leafing forth on a plant. But none of us would ever be able to pinpoint the very moment when the leaf suddenly exists. Because the leaf was inherent in the tree, the tree inherent in the seed and its relationship with the soil, the rain, the sun, and perhaps the hand of a person who purposely planted it there or the bird who deposited it there.

Think of the leaf. Is the leaf’s death when it falls off the tree? But it still exists, doesn’t it? We know that full well if we are tasked with raking or sweeping leaves. The leaf is still involved in the cycles of cause and effect. It dries up, it disintegrates, interacting with the sun, the rain, the wind it breaks down to become a part the soil, nourishing new life. So there is no moment when the leaf dies nor a moment when it was born. It is in an ongoing interaction of elements, manifesting in different forms.

Why is this important? Because when we look at our own human lives, we typically get caught up in a very constricted idea of life. We define it with a clear beginning and ending: birth and death. And then we struggle with that finite definition, especially with death. It doesn’t sit well with us. And there’s a reason it doesn’t sit well: Because it isn’t true. There is a moment when we take our first breath. Did we not exist already in the womb? And before conception were we not inherent in the bodies of our parents, and the gleam in our father’s eye?

Birth is not the beginning. It is entwined completely with all that came before that moment.

There will be a moment when we take our last breath. At that moment do we suddenly disappear? No! That moment is not the end, neither for our bodies nor for our being and the impact we have made on all around us and continue to make even though we may no longer have form, consciousness or volition. Existence is not so cut and dried.

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of paring down, and one project that loomed large but turned out to be not a big deal, was taking all the old family home movies and videos and converting them to digital so that they would take up less space and be able to be shared with everyone, because no one in the family has an 8 mm projector, and few have DVRs. Some of these recordings I hadn’t seen since I was a child or a young mother, and they were fun to watch. But there was one I just wasn’t ready to see.

My mother died in 1989, and although of course her photos have been around and enjoyed all these years, I just had never worked up the courage to watch a videotaped interview of her that I discovered among her things. I was afraid it would just be too difficult for me to see her gestures and hear her voice so I managed to put it off for coming up on three decades. But her two beloved granddaughters were visiting, and the three of us decided we would watch it. And there she was, and there we were, her offspring still resonating, still feeling the presence of her being, while we watched her mannerisms and listened to her voice. Yes she was gone and we missed her, but we each of us had some part of her that has been with us every day in little ways, and in the fact, clearly we would not be who we are without her. Even if she never had children, nieces, nephews and friends also have been touched by her. She made a big difference in many people’s lives. So death may be the last breath, but it is not the last of any of us. We all go on and on, continuing to make an impact on all whose lives we have touched, and those whose lives they have touched, etc. etc. Rippling out and out and on and on.

Have you ever noticed on a clear blue day, maybe you’re out hiking, and suddenly a small cloud appears, as if out of nowhere? Was the cloud born? No, it existed as moisture in the atmosphere, but because of the wind or other elements, it coalesced and became visible to our eyes. But it was already there, inherent in the sky.

The cloud like everything else manifested out of transforming causes and conditions. This is like this because that was like that. Clouds are not born and they do not die. And neither do we!

We are like this because that was like that. When the Buddha recognized this he found it very freeing, this seeing our inherent ongoing nature of dependent co-arising. One student of mine said she felt much lighter. And that made me recognize that this insight does lighten the burden of being that we tend to carry, when we could be dancing with the brilliant patterns of being! See what effect this insight has on you.

For long time students of Buddhism who are familiar with the term ‘dependent co-arising’ there can be a habit of seeing this only as dogma, a dry doctrine, something to grasp philosophically, as if there’s going to be a test. But there is no test. And the Buddha was very much against anything he taught being received as some doctrine to be learned. He taught how to be joyful through mindfulness. So let go of any struggle around grasping at this dependent co-arising. There is only the joy of discovery that’s possible when we see the truth of it. Choose any object and see how it is like this because that was like that. There is no thing that exists on its own.

The next reward of recognizing dependent co-arising is realizing that it can only happen because there is impermanence. How we humans struggle with impermanence! Oh, things used to be better back in the day. Oh, look another wrinkle. But impermanence is not a necessary inconvenience that we must accept. It is imperative to life. We fear change so much, and yet it is the inherent nature that creates everything in our experience! Yay, impermanence! We would never exist without it!

And when we see this, then we see that there truly is no separate self, that we are ongoing ever evolving patterns of being, coming together, manifesting in one form or another, falling apart, transforming, always in a state of becoming, always dependent on what has been and co-creating what will be.

Why does this matter? Because, as the Buddha defined it, denying the value of impermanence and believing ourselves to be separate from all being, are the root causes of suffering. All our clinging to youth, all our fear of death, all our grasping for recognition and love and security, all come from the denial of the basis of all life: because that exists, this exists. Dependent co-arising.

This is as it is because that was as it was. Throughout this coming week, you could return to that idea, and check it out this dependent co-arising for yourself. Standing in line at the grocery line, instead of being impatient to get somewhere else, take that moment to notice how everything on the counter being scanned exists because of many other things. Include every element, every aspect and every person who contributed to that product and you will discover the sun and the stars at the checkout stand. And you won’t be hallucinating!

Understanding how nothing exists independently, how everything is interdependent, can we set the intention to co-create a world of joy, peace, love and kindness? Can we cultivate lovingkindness and compassion for ourselves, then radiate it out in ripples to all beings everywhere? This is not some grand scheme. This is a simple choice to practice meditation, self-inquiry, awareness, spaciousness and compassion. This is wise intention! And if we make a wise effort to live with loving awareness in all our interactions, we ripple out in all directions and down through generations to come. If we stay unawakened, what are we sending out? The static of fear, dense and destructive.

We have the capacity to choose how this manifestation evolves, how we can radiate the joy that is manifested in our practice for the benefit of all beings. As our understanding deepens, our ability to manifest joy grows exponentially.

Now wasn’t that rewarding?


Things fall apart and it’s not your fault


Here we sit, the mountain and I, until only the mountain remains. – Li Po

photo of mountainAs I write this I look out my window and see the mountain. Just yesterday at this time it was hidden by fog. The weather is one of the most changeable aspects of our lives. And for some of us that changeability is a source of anxiety. Our mood may hang on whether the weather suits us. It’s useful to notice our relationship with the weather, because it’s a good indicator of how we are in relationship with change in general. To what degree does our happiness hang on external causes and conditions?

I remember strolling in the garden with my one-year-old granddaughter in my arms. We paused to look more closely at the flowers. There was one pale pink rose that earned her full wide-eyed attention. Then, all of a sudden, as she watched, a petal fell to the ground. She gasped, turned away, and wept on my shoulder. For her in that moment a lovely thing had broken. It was ruined. She didn’t know it was a naturally occurring phenomenon, a part of the cycle of life, the way of things. At six she knows that now and isn’t phased by petals falling off flowers.

We all have moments where we suffer for lack of a more expansive understanding of the way of things. We cling to a belief that life is ordered in a certain way, and when that order is shaken up, we get upset. One of the greatest challenges to our sense of order is if a loved one younger than ourselves dies. This goes beyond natural mourning of a great loss in our lives. It disrupts our sense of order, how life should be. I know when my nephew died at the age of 46, it just felt wrong. How could it not? I remember I was staring out the window on a rainy morning and began to watch how the raindrops seem to chase each other down the window pane. There was no order there. Some clung longer, some raced straight to the bottom. Somehow that helped me. Not with my grief. Grief is a process that runs its own course. But it did help with my railing against the injustice of nature felling a life ‘out of order.’

As we mature, most of us recognize that change is a naturally occurring part of life. This is wisdom, or one aspect of it anyway. Understanding the inevitable nature of change or impermanence is one of the three central characteristics of awakening. In Pali it is called Anicca (pronounced ‘a-knee-cha’).

We can each look at our own relationship to change. To what degree do we fight it? To what degree do we chase it, trying to get away from the way things are in this moment? To what degree are we deluded that change is the cause of our unhappiness or the answer to our prayers?

In our class discussion we looked at how in our culture we try to hide from impermanence. While our ancestors lived closely with birth and death, over the last century we have somehow made both separate and sanitized — off to the hospital or off to the undertakers where everything’s handled under wraps — et voila, a swaddled tidy infant or a beautifully appointed closed coffin or a little box or urn of ashes. All the gritty grunt and groan of life’s natural transitions have been carefully hidden from view.

As women, impermanence can feel especially threatening because we are so often made to feel we are objects. Our culture tells us that our looks are the currency that secure our fates. Every magazine ad and every commercial reminds us of our duty to maintain the dewy glow of youth — to be always lovely, and therefore lovable. No matter how wise or intelligent we are, to some degree we succumb to the lure of products or procedures that promise to wipe away all signs of aging. We paw at our faces in mirrors wondering how others see us. A friend recently said that she only sees her own wrinkles, not her friends’. I think that’s true for most of us. It is a rare woman that isn’t harsh on herself in the mirror and doesn’t fear what time will reveal.

As one student pointed out, thanks to advances in the field of medicine, we now feel we have some control over impermanence. Our ancestors had to accept that many babies would die before reaching a year old, that many women would die in childbirth, that a cut or a broken bone could get lethally infected, and that various scourges could wipe out large portions of the population. Today we live in a world of everyday miracles. (So much so that people forget what vaccines were invented to save us from and choose not to vaccinate their children, and others overuse wonder drugs so that drug-resistant bacteria develop.) Cancers that used to be death sentences are now being cured on a regular basis. So when doctors’ procedures and drugs can’t save us or our loved ones, unlike our ancestors, we’re shocked. What went wrong?

When we think we have control over things and it turns out we don’t, we feel a sense of failure. That is how we are in relationship with impermanence at this point in time in our culture. We succeed at fending off aging and illness through diet, exercise, hygiene, medical checkups, beauty products and treatments. But ultimately we ‘fail’, because no matter how we delude ourselves to think otherwise, nature calls the shots. The deck is stacked against us. The house always wins.

Depressing? In Buddhism the very things we try to avoid — illness, aging, death — are, when faced and greeted as friends, the greatest messengers. So while we can have gratitude for modern miracles, we can still have the wisdom to see impermanence as the way of all life.

We have opportunities aplenty to practice being in a more joyful relationship with it. In most places the weather is constantly changing. We can notice if we are allowing the weather to dictate our moods. Are we only happy at the perfect temperature, or if the wind’s not blowing or if the sky is clear? Or can we enjoy the vital variations? Can we embrace each season for its particular offerings? Can we look more closely at what’s happening in this moment, registering it with all our senses, before offering up a blanket condemnation?

Take a walk in nature, always the best dharma teacher, and discover the nature of impermanence all around you. See how on the forest floor the disintegration of what was once green and vibrant is now dull and desiccated, but in that process is breaking down and fertilizing the soil to nourish new life in the ongoing cycle of being. This too is our nature. These human bodies are not separate from the flow of all life. Going to battle with impermanence is futile, and at a certain point, like a botched facelift, really really creepy.

So embrace life in all its facets. Take care of this gift of a human body. But don’t be fooled into thinking it can be sustained in its present shape forever. And that’s not your fault!


All about birthdays

Ah, my birthday. Again.
I remember when birthdays took forever to arrive. All that anticipation! One of my granddaughters recently turned five and she could barely contain herself with the anxious excitement. It seemed like her special day would never come, especially since she had to somehow survive her little sister’s birthday the week before. By the end of that day she retreated to her bed, all pouty and sad. I whispered in her ear that in a few more hours it wouldn’t be her sister’s birthday anymore. I don’t know if that was skillful, but it certainly cheered her up.

At my age birthdays seem to come around much faster, in turn making them seem more ordinary. Every day on Facebook it’s some friend’s birthday. It’s like a birthday ball bouncing around in a circle and each of us holds it for a brief moment before it passes on to someone else. In that moment it’s fun to be the center of attention, but it’s also a relief to let it go.

Some of us dread our birthdays as annoying reminders that yet another year has passed. There’s no getting around the fact that this corporal life is finite. Finding a way to be in a comfortable relationship with impermanence is a big vital challenge. We get training by our losses, each one carving out a little more understanding if we take the time to be present with our grief; or a little more frantic denial if we ignore it.

By this time in our lives it’s not the number of years we’ve accumulated but how we have lived that makes us feel old or young. Wallowing in regret, freaking out about the future, over-indulging and striving for distant goals all seem to add years. Living in the moment with whole-hearted authenticity, a sense of unity with all beings may make us seem younger, or may make us not care how old we look!

If our age doesn’t correlate with how we feel inside, like some alien label that doesn’t fit, it’s only that we have a whole set of misconceptions to what being that age looks like and means. If we can recognize that this right here is what this age feels like and looks like, then we can age with more ease.

My biggest problem with birthdays has been that I felt so naked in my ‘birthday suit’, waiting, passive and powerless, until this strange day passed. I create my life the way I want the other 364 days of the year, but on my birthday there was a sense of having to pass the baton for the day and hope that someone would carry it. Would the designated people ‘responsible’ for my birthday (close relatives and friends since our youth) remember to call or send a card? If so, phew. If not, woe is me. Fortunately I began to notice how people often take control over their own birthdays, throwing parties and creating the day they want for themselves. What a relief to have permission to do the same.

Throughout my birthday there were impromptu visits, cards, phone calls, emails, text messages and Facebook greetings. How delightful! This is the first year I have let Facebook broadcast my birthday to my friends. I realized how much I rely on it to remind me of friends’ birthdays and allow me to easily send them good wishes, so why should I be so churlish? It felt great to get greetings, and at every notification throughout the day I would immediately ‘like’ and ‘comment’. When my oldest son called and I told him I was feeling a wee bit overwhelmed, he said, “Mom, you just wait til the next day and respond to everyone with one comment, like: “Thanks everyone for all your birthday greetings. I had a great day and you helped to make it so.’ Brilliant. I’ll remember that for next year! Maybe.

There was also a year when I realized that a birthday can be simply a day to be grateful for having been born. How about a shout out to the mother who went through labor all those years ago? And to the father who played his part so well? And to the doctor who delivered us? My doctor was said to be grateful to me for coming out quick enough so that he didn’t miss his tee time at the golf course. Oh yes, I was a born people-pleaser.

Finding a way to live with this 1/365th of our life experience can be challenging. Some seem to do it so easily while others struggle. A birthday is a good day to be especially present to listen to the kind loving words of others and to notice the inner conversation that can make the day either pleasant or a living hell.

Last year I spent my birthday on retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. It fell on Day Four of the retreat, and I was so happy to feel so fully alive in silence, aware of everything. It felt like the best birthday ever.

Maybe having had that birthday ‘time out’ from social interaction and the possibility of expectation last year, allowed me to come to this birthday with a fresher, less needy way of being. In the early morning hours when I woke up to see it was going to be a really hot day, I decided what I wanted: To have a picnic lunch in a shady place, and if my kids and grand-kids were available then we’d have it in a shady playground by a creek. And in the evening maybe we could sit out in the warm night at a local French restaurant and have a dinner salad. And thus I formulated a spontaneous birthday that suited the day and suited me, and it too was the best birthday ever.

Wishing you all wonderful birthdays whenever they are and however you choose to spend them. And thanks once again to the many people who made this birthday so lovely. And oh yes, most especially, Thanks Mom! You are always in my heart, and I’ll always feel gratitude for your greatest gift to me: This very life.

Mindfulness and the Mirror

With the moment to moment practice of being fully present, anchored in physical sensation, noticing how thoughts and emotions pass through my experience, I find myself in a much kinder and healthier relationship with my body. I think of the Cat Stevens song ‘Miles to Nowhere’ when he sings, ‘Lord my body has been a good friend. But I won’t need it when I reach the end.’ It’s such a reminder of the impermanence of the body and also gives me a way to be kind to my body. It is indeed a good friend! It affords me to experience this life, all these sensations and interactions that would not be possible otherwise.

But this sense of friendliness to my body has not come easily, as any western woman understands completely. How much of my brain activity has been expended over these many years on the ‘flaws’ and ‘imperfections’? How long did I buy into the idea that to the degree that this body didn’t meet the ideal standard of the current culture, I had failed in some way? And to what degree are those ideas still embedded in my thoughts?

We had a rich discussion in class this week on our relationship to our bodies, and especially about continually coming to terms with the changes that occur as the body is affected by a combination of gravity, time, sun exposure, stress and health care. More and more the mirror belies the person we feel we are. My mother removed all the mirrors in her house except a small one on the back of the bathroom door, and she only used it to make sure nothing was stuck in her teeth. She had sailed for four years and her Anglo-Irish skin was so deeply wrinkled from sun exposure that she couldn’t handle the sight of herself! She was a lively vibrant woman, regardless of her wrinkles, but every time she got a glimpse of that ‘hag’ she was dragged down.

Have you ever had that feeling? You get a glimpse of yourself in a shop window and wonder who that is? Not you! Or have you ever been out in the evening having a wonderful time and then you excuse yourself to go to the lady’s room where the lights are harsh and you return to the party chastened by that cruel sight of yourself in the mirror? As a kindness to each other we should all make sure our bathroom lighting is soft enough to make any guest look as beautiful as she feels inside. Now that’s a good hostess!

The class seemed to be in agreement that the numbers we are awarded on our birthdays seem less and less a fit to our ideas of who we are. But why would a number match? As children the age number was a pretty predictable indicator of size and behavior of a majority of kids. But the bigger the number, the less predictable it is, because so much of how our bodies age has to do with how we treat them. My mother died at 73 of emphysema, the same age her mother died. They both smoked. My mother’s younger sister was convinced she would also die at 73, a family tradition. But she never smoked and she lives on in pretty good health and happier than ever at the age of 88 in a loving relationship with a much younger man.

This week my youngest granddaughters turn three and five, and the number is such a big deal. A friend of mine taught the older one the Barbara Streisand song ‘I’m five, I’m five, I’m a big girl now, I’m five!’ and she was thrilled to be such a big girl. But for us by now the thrill of the number is gone. The older we get the less that number means, and our attachment to it really doesn’t serve us. Let’s celebrate each birthday as the anniversary of our birth, with gratitude for the great gift of life. But let’s let go of the numbers game that is such an inaccurate a reflection of reality.

The practice of mindfulness can help us take care of our bodies in a way that supports health and strength. I’ll never forget when a doctor told me ‘as a kindness to your heart you could lose some weight.’ That was such a wonderful way to put it, and as a result I have lost a pound a month over the past eighteen months without any real effort except remembering to be kinder to my heart.

Being mindful we can notice when we are holding two contrary opinions. One student in class recognized that she was grateful for her body enabling her to experience life but at the same time unhappy with her aging body. Such skillful noticing! What contrary pairings do you notice about your body? Can you hold them up to the light of your awareness with compassion? Not making yourself wrong? Just noticing, and maybe marveling at the complexity of the human mind?

Wisdom from one student’s grandmother: ‘There are only two ages: alive and dead.’

Of course we all die, but our routes to that common destination are very different. My aunt’s belief that she would die at 73 is a good example of how we make assumptions based on what we have observed of other people’s experience. But we will have different experiences because we are in different bodies, and even if we have a similar experience we will experience it in our own unique way. If we’re raging about the unfairness of it, if we’re in denial, if we are doing everything we can to escape from it, we’ll no doubt suffer. But here we are practicing opening to whatever the present moment brings, and who knows? Maybe this practice will serve us well whatever we face in the future.

In the group there was also a collective nostalgia for the young girls we once were. But then there was a recognition that that little girl is still here, still part of who we are, still alive and well. And this reminded me of my recent intention to include all of who I am in everything I do. Leave no part of me out, not that little girl, not that young woman, and not the old woman yet to be. Her wisdom has often guided me at difficult turns, and I certainly don’t intend to deny her now that I see her appearing in the mirror.

When we are fully present, conscious of the fleeting precious gift that is this moment, we are less likely to think that having a ‘perfect’ body is going to make us more lovable. We can see how obsessing about supposed imperfections and spending time and money grasping at youth is a sure way to isolate ourselves. Through mindfulness we activate compassion, both for ourselves and others, creating true loving connection. And much more fun!

Contemplation of the Body – First Foundation of Mindfulness

We have talked about the breath and the postures. The next traditional meditation in the First Foundation of Mindfulness is a focus on the individual parts of the body, starting with hair on our head and the rest of the body and ultimately looking at the overall functioning of the body, the systems, how all the parts work together. We won’t be doing this in our class, but if interested you can check out this meditation practice on or look for a retreat on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.)

Why did the Buddha create this practice? What is the benefit? The Buddha offered practices that bring about awareness and balance. Awareness of the breath and sensation anchor us in the present moment. But what does awareness of body parts provide?

The Buddha’s students were primarily men, often young men, whose bodies were most likely a source of pride and pleasure, and full to the brim with testosterone. This made for an easily distractible mind. So the Buddha had them take a more dispassionate in-depth look at what makes up the human body, including parts they never thought about and some they only joked about such as the gas and liquids the body emits. We can imagine how a hormonally-charged group of young men — enamored of their own bodies’ prowess and easily brought to a mental state of lust by the sight of, say, a young woman walking by — could be brought into a more sober state of awareness through this practice. It brings the body into the realm of impersonal universal functionality. If sometimes these handed-down practices promote the ‘loathsomeness’ of the body, it is meant as a counterbalance to over-indulgence in bodily pleasures. The ultimate goal of the practice is to develop a more neutral relationship with the body, one that allows for moderation and balance.

The Buddha’s primary teaching was the Middle Way, tempering extremes of all kinds, so with any group of meditation practitioners, we look to the challenges of that particular group when sharing the teachings. As my students are a group of women, mostly postmenopausal, the Buddha most likely would have had a different prescription for us to help us find the Middle Way through the minefield of our relationship with the body.

Would a lengthy meditation on the parts of the body be useful to us? Maybe, but we in the 21st Century are probably much more aware of the various body parts from a workings perspective than the average person cerca 500 BC. Even if our understanding is not always accurate, we are exposed to and have access to an amazing amount of information. We even have access to a ringside seat at quasi-demonstrations of surgical procedures through medical television series, should we choose to watch them. And, though not all of us are interested in going to see it, there is that amazing and controversial exhibit of human anatomy, The Human Body Show, where preserved human bodies are skinned to reveal their inner workings.

In our group, we are of an age that we ourselves and/or close friends and family members have had surgical procedures and/or serious illnesses, so that when someone in our group shared her recent surgery, everyone in the circle seemed very knowledgeable, asked informed questions and knew others with a similar surgery. Of course this doesn’t mean we are qualified to perform surgery or diagnose an illness, but it does mean that human anatomy is not alien to us. If anything, we may be out of balance in focusing on the pathology — everything that can go wrong with this organ or that bone, tendon, muscle, etc. It is pretty standard in our techno-times for people to Google whatever symptom they have and discover a terrifying array of possible diseases. With exposure to information about micro-organisms that live within and without our bodies, we can develop germaphobia and get stuck in thought patterns regarding the body.

Clearly, our challenge today is a different one than the Buddha’s students had, and it’s not just the aches and pains. Through the same media that gives us sneak peeks into our innards, we also come up against fear-based identity issues. We are bombarded with the current ‘ideal body’ to strive for. Younger women have even more sense of need to take an already beautiful body and bring it into alignment with today’s extreme ideals, having pubic hairs removed or breasts augmented, among other currently common procedures. And young men today are far more likely to have procedures to make their bodies suit the current male ideal than their fathers and grandfathers were. We had a good laugh in our group imagining our husbands or fathers ever thinking that they needed to do anything other than shower and shave. But now it’s not just women who feel they must make their bodies objects of desire.

In the Buddha’s day there were certainly fashions and cosmetics. Women may have compared their looks to those of their sisters and friends, but they did not have images of anorexic models constantly streamed into their lives as we do. The inundation of this imagery, all geared to make us feel we are not enough as we are — not just in our body but in our lives — is incredibly intense today. Advertisers build their campaigns upon activating our fears. And it works!

So we are both more informed about the internal workings of our bodies and more traumatized in relationship to our bodies. If the Buddha were transported to this moment in time, what would he think of all this? He would most likely be astounded at the level of dissatisfaction with our bodies. Monks from Asia who come to the West today are amazed at our propensity for self-loathing and shame.

As a culture we in the West are perceived as incredibly materialistic. Why do we buy, buy, buy? To shore up our low self-esteem. Many of us live in an ‘if only’ state of mind. ‘If only I had plastic surgery.’ ‘If only I had those shoes.’ We fill the void within ourselves with stuff and self-improvements, and much of that stuff is to improve the impression we make on others. Heaven forbid they should see us as we are, because who we are is never enough. ‘If only I lost ten, twenty or thirty pounds,’ ‘if only I had the time or willpower to do the that butt lift program.’ Very few of us are completely satisfied with our bodies exactly as they are. And those that are may live in fear of losing that which they are so satisfied about.

Honestly I had thought by the time I had reached this ripe old age, I would have been able to let go a bit. I picture my beloved grandmother, all soft and round and wrinkled. She was perfect in my eyes! Did I really think that after a certain age the women of my generation would suddenly say, oh it’s time to start wearing calf-length silky dresses, sensible pumps, and not worry about our waistline? I am of a generation that strives for the perfect figure and probably always will. Bummer! But then maybe it is just my assumption that my grandmother wasn’t vain. I do remember when we shared a room on visits, we would race to see who could get dressed first, and I always won because she had to put on a girdle. She was born at a time when women still wore corsets with strings that had to be pulled, sometimes with someone’s foot on the butt to get traction. Good grief! She must have felt the girdle was easy breezy in comparison.

This is all an introduction to the opportunity to explore our own thoughts and feelings about our bodies. Questions we might ask explore:

  • What are your least favorite parts of your body? Do you ‘hate’ your hair, for example? Think of one and spend some time with it.
  • What is the basis of your dislikes and likes? Is a particular part painful, unreliable, troublesome, prone to disease, or just doesn’t meet the standards of attractiveness promoted in your culture?
  • Can you remember when this dislike started? Can you remember a scene or scenes from your earlier years when somehow it was suggested to you, either directly or indirectly, that this part of your body was not acceptable?

Think of a part of your body that you take pleasure and pride in.

  • Allow yourself to remember the ways in which it has provided you with good feelings.
  • Notice if these good feelings are due to this body part being reliable, pleasurable, healthy, or because it meets the standards of attractiveness in your culture.
  • Again, bring to mind any scenes from early years that might help to answer the question of why this body part gets such a positive review.

Now, add in the element of aging.

  • Has aging changed your feelings toward your favorite and least favorite body parts? Is a part that has been a source of reliability, pride or pleasure becoming less so? If so, explore how that has revealed itself, give yourself examples. Then notice your emotions as you think about this change. Perhaps you have come up with a phrase that you tell yourself to make this all okay, or you have ignored it. But right now allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to whatever emotions are stirred up.

We sit with what is. We acknowledge what is. We don’t pave over what is. If what is is painful, we hold this pain in an open loving embrace. We don’t push it away. Instead we open wider to make more space for all of what is there. Think of creating a spacious field of being present and you are hosting whatever thoughts and feelings arise and fall away, however strong they are, rather than being held hostage by them.

This is just an exercise. We just open and notice and acknowledge whatever arises. We let our own experience exist without judging it. If there is judgment, we compassionately notice the judgment. This is the exercise. This is the process of being fully present with the truth of our own experience.

How much energy do we expend on avoiding these feelings? If we can sit with them in a mindful open loving way, we may be surprised how they begin to relax, release, change, soften, and even sometimes disappear. Our avoidance holds them in a stasis! Our aversion constricts them in crystallized fear.

The Buddha taught that the source of our suffering is our attachment, aversion or delusion. The way we feel about our body, or any particular part of our body, is an excellent laboratory for working with these sources of suffering. If we can notice, if we can be present, if we can allow for this process to expose what we are doing with our habituated patterns of thinking, then we can lessen that sense of suffering.

Years ago I recognized that my relationship to my feet was a source of suffering for me. I hated them! They were ugly and painful. As a child, I had dry cracked feet that were the cause of much teasing from other children. I was always ashamed of them. I would hide them away as much as possible. Later I developed bunions that were painful and ugly. This compounded my dismay.

Then in a spiritually-based creativity class I took about 15 years ago, I focused on my feet, and created a mandala of photos of feet that I collaged from magazines. In the process I began to feel deep gratitude for my feet that have carried me everywhere. My mandala was ultimately a thank you note to my feet, the very feet that in my mind had been such a source of misery. That simple process of spending time with noticing feelings about my feet, transformed my relationship with them and activated a gratitude that has stayed with me all these years later.

If you have a body part that takes you to a place of shame or misery, give yourself some time to focus on this area. Maybe create a mandala or journal about your feelings. The key is to not come up with any solutions, not to force ‘positive’ emotions to replace the ‘negative’ ones, but to really be present with the feelings, to allow the process to work at its own pace and come to its own end, without the ‘should’ mind trying to make nice-nice. If you give it time, it will get to where it needs to be.

Coming to a balanced neutral state of mind in relationship to the body, where we are neither enamored, prideful nor ashamed — that is the purpose of this exercise. Next week we will expand our focus a bit and avail ourselves of more insights in our last body-focused exercises, as recommended by the Buddha.

Age — What’s in a Number?

In the last class until late February we followed up on how this idea of linear time impacts our perceptions of who we are and the nature of life.

We talked about birthdays, especially those big threshold birthdays that seem ever more daunting. I have a friend who is turning 75 and is terrified of the age. She didn’t know why until she realized that a good friend had died at the age of 75. This is one of the ways we latch on to numbers and turn them into bogeymen.

My beloved aunt was sure she would die at the age of 73. After all her mother and sister both died at that age. Therefore, she would too. It made no difference when we would mention that both of them had been lifelong smokers with emphysema and related issues and she had never smoked. No, to die at 73 was her destiny.

So my phone call to her on her 74th birthday was sweet indeed. It was as if she had been given a whole new life. She is now in her mid-80’s and happier than she was in her 60’s when she foretold her own death.

The husband of a meditator in our group is quite certain he will die this year. He says he has always known that this is the age he will die. He may well do so. Any of us might die this year. Who knows? Like my aunt, nothing anyone says can dissuade him from this belief. So I told his wife that if this was the last year of his life, perhaps he could follow Stephen Levine’s book A Year to Live: How to Live this Year as if It Were Your Last. That way whether he dies this year or not, it will have been a rich skillful experience of living fully.

If we were not so attached to this imaginary time line, if we could sense into the spaciousness and compassionate nature of simply being alive in this moment, at one with the cycles and seasons of the natural world, we would be less inclined to vest an imaginary number or date with so much significance. We would be able to release set ideas about what it is to be a certain age, stop hemming ourselves in about what we are able or not able to do, based on a number rather than our sense of being in this moment.
This is the last dharma talk until the end of February as our class is on hiatus. In the interim I encourage you to look over the topics on the right side of this blog and find ones of interest to you. Combine the reading of one post with a meditation before or after. This could be your daily practice, or you could set aside time once a week to read. There are 170 posts. Even for those of you who have read them all, you will find something new now, because you are in a different state of mind and facing different challenges than when you read it before. So explore the blog freely. And please comment at the bottom of any post you read. Just click on ‘QUESTIONS & COMMENTS.’ I would love to read what you have to share or have the opportunity to answer any questions you may have.

If you are new to meditating or feel the need of refreshment instruction, please notice that at the top of this blog there is a tab for a separate page that offers basic meditation instruction. The development of a daily practice of meditation is the greatest gift any of us can give ourselves, for through it we access wisdom, compassion and appreciation for this gift of life in all its seasons.

Mirror, mirror

‘Okay,’ I thought as I began writing this talk, ‘This will be the big one. This will be the dharma talk where I teach myself to make friends with the mirror, to make friends with the wrinkles that arise and don’t fall away.’

The First Noble Truth identifies that there is suffering in life and the Second Noble Truth identifies the cause of suffering. The original Pali term was tanhā or craving. It was translated to a word in Sanskrit that means thirst. In Tibetan the word that is used is dzinpa which means grasping or fixation. The causes were further clarified as the ‘three poisons’ of greed, aversion and delusion.

You can see that these words together begin to paint a picture of how we create dukkha, the unsatisfactory feeling that underlies so much of our existence.

So, the mirror: What a clever dukkha delivery system this is! Who thought up the idea of hanging this so prominently over my bathroom sink?

Noticing? I’m noticing aversion! I’m noticing fixation on patches of wrinkles. They are larger than life, just as the pimples of my youth were. If I read this ten years from now, assuming I’m still incarnate, I will laugh and say, Honey, you don’t know from wrinkles! But I also know that my older self will have compassion for my concerns, as I have compassion for my younger self, troubled over other mirror revelations.

It really doesn’t matter what we see in the mirror. Even if we saw the most gorgeous creature on the planet, it would still be simply our perception. It would still be relative reality and not some fundamental truth. It would still be a snapshot of a moment in time from one point of view — a lesson in the nature of impermanence.

Okay, okay, fine, I say. But how do I make friends with my wrinkles? I admit it does help to remind myself how much I love the wrinkles on other women’s faces — how the Mexican grandmothers in my adopted second home town of San Miguel de Allende, with deep crevices crinkling the landscape of their faces, are as beautiful to me as the grandchildren so often sitting on their laps.

It does help that when I look at my dry wrinkly hands with the pronounced blue veins I am reminded of my paternal grandmother’s hands. How I loved to push those veins around and watch them return to place, slowly. It is no small thing to be able to provide a grandchild with such ongoing amusement. And my hands remind me too of how much I loved the feel of my mother’s dry strong hand, holding my small one as we scurried around town, keeping me safe. There is absolutely nothing I did not love about these two women’s hands.

When I look upon these women’s faces or remember my mother’s and grandmother’s hands, it’s not just that I see beyond the ‘ugliness’ of the wrinkles to a greater beauty underneath. No, I love the wrinkles themselves, the veins and the dryness, all of it is not just acceptable to me. It is the beauty I behold.

So what is it that’s going on here? Why is another woman’s wrinkled face or hand lovely to behold and mine so abhorrent? Simply this: I am not afraid when I look at their faces and hands. But when I look at the mirror my perception is clouded with fear.

What do I fear? I fear change and all that I have to lose through these changes. I see my wrinkles as time taking its toll. Tick tock, tick tock.

So is this just a fear of death, or a fear of pains associated with aging? Well, it’s certainly that, no denying. But there’s more there. What is it? What is it really? Hmmm. When I look in the mirror, I am afraid of losing love. I am afraid of losing respect, becoming the butt of old people jokes that I have heard all my life. I am afraid of losing the power to attract my mate. I am afraid of being alone.

Is this a rational fear? It doesn’t matter! It is a fear I feel and that is enough to work with. Here is a pivotal moment in the practice. If I were to simply talk myself out of it at this point, pooh-poohing it, nothing would be accomplished. I could comfort myself with how much my husband seems to love me, and as grateful as I am for that, it really doesn’t change a thing.

When I see that word ‘change’ in the last sentence, I recognize it as a clue. I begin to see the fallacy of my attempt to make friends with my wrinkles. I have a goal and an agenda. I plan to change the way I think, come out with a brighter perspective, a new way of seeing, and a new reality. I want to smile at myself in the mirror. I want to be compassionate. I want to be wise. I want to not care. I want this sense of dissatisfaction to go away. I want to accept myself fully just as I am. I want, I want, I want. This is dukkha! I am struggling! I am battling my own thoughts, trying to prove them wrong. I am trying to talk myself out of something, because I believe that looking in the mirror without full acceptance is wrong. Apparently I believe that until I am fine with what I see, I am a flawed being, drowning in the error of my ways.

You see how this dukkha thing works? You see the tar-baby effect going on here? As many reasons as I can think up to debate with my feelings, beliefs and opinions, they just gets me more stuck in suffering.

How did this happen? I approached the challenge with all the best intentions, didn’t I? Maybe. Maybe not. Is trying to bypass suffering the way to end it? Isn’t it just a tradition of making nice-nice with whatever arises, hushing bad thoughts, begging everything and everyone to just get along so I don’t have to deal with difficulty?

This is not the way to end suffering. It is just the way to suppress it. The way to end suffering is to be with it, to notice it as it arises and falls away.

During the time I have been writing this, my feelings towards my wrinkles have fluctuated a great deal, from ‘Woe is me!’ to ‘Who cares?’ These feelings will undoubtedly continue to fluctuate for years to come. Sometimes I will look in the mirror and see ugliness and sometimes I will see a kind of beauty. Many times my thoughts will be elsewhere and I won’t even notice.

My attitude toward writing about wrinkles has fluctuated a great deal as well. Part of the time I think, why am I bothering to write about wrinkles? How ridiculous! How petty! At other times I recognize that any belief, no matter how we judge that belief, is as good as any other to work with and to illustrate the practice. It’s all suffering in one form or another. It’s all useful. Perhaps the fact that I have such judgments about it makes it even more valid a focus. And then there’s the fact of it being ‘in my face’ every day.

The way to end suffering is not to duel with judgment, opinion and beliefs, as if there was a potential victor. It is simply to notice them. This noticing on its own helps to lighten the weight of them. When I accept that I have opinions, when I see them arise in my thoughts, when I feel the associative emotions and the physical sensations, then there is more clarity, more spaciousness making more room for more revelations. What seemed so solid thins into a veil blowing in the wind — transient, impermanent, impersonal.

I could spend my days looking for a better mirror, a way of seeing this situation, that will give me something more pleasant to live with, but ultimately that’s not much help. I could complain to friends, who will jump in to tell me, “Why you look just fine! I hardly notice any wrinkles! What are you talking about?” for this is the wonderful thing we women do for each other, and don’t for a moment think I don’t appreciate that kind of loving comfort.

But really, what I need from myself is to see the nature of relative reality.

What is that? It’s the reality I’ve constructed over the course of my life based on my experiences of interacting with the world around me. It’s what I hold to be true about myself and the world. It is ‘relative’ because it is only true in a narrow context. For example I am old to a person of 20 and young to a person of 80. I am tall to anyone shorter and short to anyone taller. I am fat to anyone thinner and thin to anyone fatter. My belief about my age and weight changes to a degree as well, depending on who I am with!

My relative reality is not completely my own construct. It includes the relative reality of the culture in which I live. This discussion of wrinkles would be totally out of context if I lived in a culture where visible signs of aging are met with respect. My choice of this focus here is so totally relative a reality that it doesn’t even translate! (If this is being read by someone in such a culture, notice the judgments that have been arising around the neuroticism of ‘Westerners!’)

Culturally shared beliefs are worth noticing and questioning, too. Think of all the beliefs that were accepted as fact in our history, even very recent history, that have been held up to the light by wise people and found to be totally untrue. This is an ongoing valuable questioning we do as a community, holding up beliefs to the light of kindness, compassion, justice and common sense. And it is something each of us does, hopefully, within ourselves.

As meditators, we can use the (relatively!) spacious minds we have developed through meditation to notice whatever thoughts and emotions are arising in our experience. We can notice the associative links of these thoughts to beliefs we hold to be true. We can question the beliefs as they reveal themselves, gaining insight. Is this true? How do I know this is true?

This is part of the practice. It is a very spacious, non-goal-oriented, non-aggressive activity. We are not exterminators routing out infestations. We are simply being present for what arises with an awareness of the nature of relative reality, an acceptance that our beliefs do not define us, and can be brought into question.

The fear that arises is also to be noticed — not to be banished but to be explored. Fear is what feeds the beliefs we discover. If we notice the fear, a part of the practice is to notice where we feel that fear in our body. We can sit with that sensation, really feeling it, allowing it its full expression. And then we can ask that sensation, ‘What am I afraid of?’

Questioning In

When we ask a question we need to be prepared to notice everything that arises, all the various ways that we give ourselves vital information. Not just in words but images, memories, often in strings that paint a more complete picture of the source of this particular fear-based belief.

These might be alarming images. We might want to shut them down. But if we are practiced meditators, experienced in being present, we can stay with whatever arises, breathing compassion. These images are not offered for us to revise them or make them better. The practice is to notice them, and to recognize that they are in direct response to the question we have asked, even if time has passed since we asked the question so that we have forgotten that we even asked it!

Sometimes we ask a question and the answer appears neither in words or images but in some other way. A book jumps off the library shelf; a friend calls and says something that answers the question; or perhaps that friend represents a quality that is a part of the answer. The answer my come through dreams as well.

Finding a way to be open and receptive to whatever arises without grasping the answers that come, holding them to be truth or proof, is also part of the practice. Is this true? How do I know this is true? The Buddha was very clear that even revealed wisdom needs to be thoroughly examined, bringing all our faculties to bear.

Quantum physics shows that waves of energy, when observed, become particles. Can we feel this in ourselves? Is it possible that our collective consciousness has shifted us into seemingly separate particles, that at the same time we are naturally part of a great infinite pattern of oscillating energy? Then if we relax into our energetic nature, our connection beyond time and space, then why wouldn’t we have access to infinite wisdom, infinite resources from which to draw answers to our questions?

If you say that makes no sense at all, just try it for yourself some time, dropping your shield temporarily. Think how each atom — that building block of corporal existence — is mostly space with the tiniest speck of dense matter within it. You can let this factual knowledge help you, if needed, so you can feel safe in exploring this sensory perception of spaciousness, rather than always being totally fixated on the dense little dot with which we construct the separate objects of our lives.

Painters are taught to not just look at the central subject, but to be equally aware of the ‘background,’ the ‘negative space.’ What is this space? Is it nothing? Or is it perhaps everything, the is-ness, the energy that is more ‘us’ than the thin edges of the cells that sketch out what we hold to be solid constructs. Have we all our lives been paying exclusive attention to only the particulate aspect of being? Have we accepted as reality the relative reality, instead of the spacious energy — this throbbing wholeness, this infinite wave — that holds all the answers to every question we ever posed, spoken or unspoken?

Now there’s a question!

But back to these darn wrinkles. From a spacious point of view, this transient edge that I hold to be so solid, so real, is less real than I imagined. But it is unlikely I will hold this view for long. I am having a corporal life experience, with all the emotions, thoughts and sensations that go with it. It is a gift and I am truly grateful, even if it doesn’t seem so when I am standing in front of the mirror pulling and pawing to find that younger face, the one that wasn’t satisfactory either! There’s a good chance I may never become close personal friends with the mirror. Perhaps I will even decide to go the route my mother took, removing every damn mirror from the house except a tiny one on the back of the bathroom door to check to make sure there was nothing stuck in her teeth.

It doesn’t matter! Just my noticing this pattern of dissatisfaction, seeing it as a veil of illusion in the great scheme of things, part of what Taoists call the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows of earthly existence, is enough. It is enough for me to wear the veil more lightly, to see through it from time to time, and to stop believing it to be the fabric of my being.