Category Archives: annata

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!

Annata — No Separate Self

Last week we came to the fifth of the Five Aggregates and what did we find? That not one of these aggregates is us. Each is impermanent and insubstantial. None of them is governable. We looked straight into the jaws of the scary beast: ‘No Self’, Annata.

But just as we were about to succumb to a hollow sense of loss, we clarified our understanding of this concept by adding the word ‘separate’. There is no separate self, and the addition of that word ‘separate’ changes everything, doesnt it? Suddenly instead of a being the lone subject of a disappearing act we are invited to celebratory reunion!


The Buddha taught that there is no separate self that we need to defend or prove worthy of praise. We begin to see how we build up this separate self —  the way male birds frigatebirds inflate their pouches or the way male turkeys fan their wings. All very fine for an avian mating dance, but for humans hoping to be seen, respected, loved or appreciated, self-inflation is a very unskillful and ineffectual ploy. Instead of drawing people in, we put people off. No deep connection can be made when we are focused on the impression we make.

What is it we really want and what’s a skillful way to get it?

At the core of our being we want connection, We want to feel we are a part of something larger than we are. We want acceptance, We want communion. We want safety so we can fall apart when we have to and not be kicked while we are down. We want to hear someone say things like, ‘I’m with you. I am here for you. We’re in this together. We’re a team. We’re soul-mates.’

Do you recognize that core hunger? It’s at the heart of each of us. Our tendency is to put this core hunger down and despise what we see as pathetic neediness. We might not even acknowledge that such a hunger exists because we have masked it with other goals and purposes. But if we can see the hunger as simply a human condition using unskillful means to get basic needs met, we might find that we can be kind, not just to ourselves but to others we deem as pathetic. Our intolerance is just a projection of our own internal discomfort with who we believe ourselves to be.

Mindfulness practice teaches us is to see clearly, to stay present with it and to not turn away. With compassion we acknowledge the hunger and befriend it. Not to make any resulting unskillful behaviors okay — ‘That’s just the way I am — deal with it!’ Not at all. This is a practice of investigation, kindness and discernment. When we get into the Noble Eightfold Path we will have more opportunity to explore what constitute skillful means to have our needs met while playing well with others and maintaining high standards of integrity. But for now we are learning to see the causes and conditions of the unskillfulness of our words and actions.

By seeing clearly and responding with compassion, our behavior is more skillful. It comes from an understanding our deep interconnection, not from a reactionary chain of ‘should’ commands that are inauthentic, short-lived and ineffective.

The Banquet Table
Through mindfulness practice, we see more clearly how our hunger is the hunger of a blind person starving in front of a banquet table.

A banquet table? Yes! Because we already are intrinsically connected to all that is and the only thing that keeps us from recognizing it is the very activity of pumping ourselves up into something separate to be admired, instead of allowing ourselves our full humanity and ease of connection.

When we can see our efforts to shore up a separate identity for what they are, we can let them go. When they arise, we can acknowledge them, own up to them, and see them as leftover from a habituated pattern we are consciously releasing.

These habituated patterns are not ours alone. We often can see them in others more easily than we see them in ourselves. Typically, the very things that irritate us most about others are projections of the things we ourselves do.

Striving to be seen, to be hailed as special and unique takes us away from connection. The achievement of such goals can leave us feeling even more separate and alone than we already felt.

Once we recognize the striving for what it is, we can release that hunger, that driving desire, and allow our natural expression of connection serve us and our community. We can bloom into full expressions of the qualities, skills, and talents we are given and develop.

We can stop operating from the idea we have something to prove, or something to hide, or something to fear, and recognize that we have something to give, something to share.

If you cling to the idea of being unique and special, then be unique and special as a snowflake. Snowflakes have more in common than what minor variations set them apart, and ultimately they land on the ground and become one field of snow. Then the snow melts — ah can you feel the joy of the thaw! The warming of the ground! — and what was snow becomes a flow of water returning to the sea. That’s us too. In this experience of being alive, we have taken this form of human. The conditions vary, just as do snowstorms. But we are alive in this moment to experience whatever it is, and we are not alone.

The Uniquely Unworthy Self
Sometimes we hold ourselves apart not to prove how special we are, but because we believe our ‘separate’ self to be unworthy. We attribute our being with a set of what we believe to be uniquely damning and shameful qualities.

Again, this is not the true nature of our existence. If this resonates, there is a lovely phrase that’s worth repeating to yourself like a mantra: The ocean refuses no river. In the Dances of Universal Peace it is a song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ggA-G0wOtg
We sang this together in class and it created a spacious way to hold all that we were experiencing with a gentle compassionate kindness that is so important if we are to ever discover the deep connection to this and every moment, to each other, to all beings, to all the elements, to all that is.

The Danger of Longing to Belong
When we feel this hunger to be special and to belong to something greater than ourselves, and don’t recognize it for what it is, we may feel honored, maybe even thrilled, to be welcomed into groups that accept us but don’t accept others. How effectively this feeds our dual desires to be both special and connected! In creating this club-y quality, we turn that hunger into a weapon for dividing all that is into ‘us against them.’ Throughout human history and in the current headlines there is that drive to divide and conquer. That is what we see played out again and again.

But our true hunger is not to be part of something contrived and divisive, but to be able to feel our connection with all that is. To sense our being as an expression of the great isness, called by many names, including God. When people claim the name of God for their club alone, they cripple the very God they worship by such limitation.

Personifying God is also limiting. How? We have just established that the Five Aggregates that make up body and personality are impermanent, so why would we ever attribute such traits to that that we hold to be an all-encompassing and infinite power?

It’s always a fine place and time to awaken
Our meditation practice is developing the muscle of consciousness with the intention of mindfulness, and sometimes we are gifted with resulting bare awareness of the infinite nature of being, of life in the moment as illuminated expression of isness. It doesn’t matter where we are. There are no perfect settings for awakening. Why do we think we need to go somewhere else or wait for some other time to find it? It’s right here in every moment, if only we are here, anchored in physical sensation and nurturing kindness and compassion.

In that illuminated moment, fleeting as it might be, insight pierces the illusion of linear time and an infinite unity of being is felt and seen. Ah! Once we have been infused with even the briefest experience of the infinite, it informs our being forever.

I encourage you to be available for those insights, but not to aggressively seek them out. There’s a quality of relaxing into the oneness that cannot be achieved or accomplished. It is a receptive quality. We are simply present, easeful and open, noticing the arising and falling away of experience, without expectation of what will arise or what will fall away. We sit with a relaxed alertness that creates a spacious stillness, and let that be enough.

If you can’t fathom how to do this, think about how you get a baby to settle down to sleep. Do you chase the baby around the house? Or do you quiet down in your own being, and share that sense of quiet with the baby. Reading Goodnight Moon and singing lullabies. You hold the baby, using a soothing voice, rocking gently, walking back and forth as we do in walking meditation. Just so we prepare our mind to quiet down — not to sleep, but to awaken!

The Core of the Teachings
Annata, no separate self, is at the very core of the Buddha’s teachings. It sits with the two other Marks or Characteristics: Dukkha and Anicca. Anicca we have been exploring continuously as we look at the nature of impermanence. Dukkha we will become more familiar with when we come to the Four Noble Truths. Dukkha is the sense of unsatisfactoriness that permeates life, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, caused by how we relate to the nature of impermanence.

Our exploration continues! Please allow these words to sift through your awareness. Take in whatever resonates and let the rest go. There is no test! Instead there is the ongoing opportunity to contemplate the way we relate to our experience of life.

This is an experiential practice. Give yourself periods of silence when there is nothing but this moment to notice. If you think there is no time for such non-action, you are thinking way too much.

May we hold whatever we notice with awareness and compassion.

Consciousness, The Fifth Aggregate

As we look at each of the Five Aggregates that constitute the ways we experience being and what we hold to be ‘self’, we discover if we slow down and see each aggregate as it arises and falls away, we can hold it in a spacious way.

The fifth of the Five Aggregates is consciousness. With this aggregate we see the four others. We’re conscious of this body and all material form. We are conscious of feeling tones, whether something in our current experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We are conscious of cognition, how we interpret the experience based on acquired knowledge and past experience. And we are conscious of volition, the urges, impulses and intentions to change or extend the experience.


In class there were questions about semantics: What is the difference between consciousness, awareness and mindfulness?


  1. Because English is a conglomeration of other languages, we often have several words that mean the same thing, and to some degree these three words are used interchangeably. But I’ll try to make some distinction between them.
  2. There have been multiple translations from Pali and Sanskrit to English, so word usage varies.
  3. The Buddhist teachings, recorded in the Pali Canon after being handed down as an oral tradition kept alive by generations of monks, also use the same word to mean multiple things, depending on the context. For example in Pali the dhammas (The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness we are currently studying) is different from The Dhamma, the overall term for the teachings of the Buddha, aka natural laws. In this same way ‘consciousness’ is used in a more general way throughout the teachings, but is assigned a specific role here in the Five Aggregates.

For our purposes here, let’s say that:

Consciousness is what we and all beings experience when we are awake. “The patient has regained consciousness.” This doesn’t mean we are in top form and ready to focus necessarily. Perhaps we could think of it as the weak muscle we are working when we take on the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a practice with intention: To be fully present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation; and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. We are studying The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, so it is a skill we develop through practice and study. With mindfulness practice, we exercise consciousness, turning it into a stronger ‘muscle.’

Awareness, as in ‘bare awareness’ is a spacious, alert but relaxed mind-state arrived at through meditation practice.

To continue, the role of consciousness is to provide a perceived continuum by weaving together a pattern out of a huge but intricate network of micro-impulse events, thus creating this experience we call reality. Think of the way a piece of film travels through a projector so that small individual image come to life on a huge screen. The Buddha called consciousness the magician, working in illusion. Consciousness creates patterns that help us to navigate in the world, assembling them into the collective agreement of a solid world that we experience. This is a big job and a useful one.

Because consciousness sees all of the other aggregates, we might feel that it is who we are. At every aggregate we grasp at the straw of identity, only to discover it won’t support that assumption. And here we are again. For something to be a solid separate self it needs to be consistent, permanent and governable. Does consciousness meet any of these criteria?

Consciousness sees erratically, doesn’t it? Sometimes we realize we have been on autopilot, going about doing habituated things, lost in thoughts and daydreams. Are we conscious when we fall asleep? Are we conscious when we are under anesthesia while having surgery? No. So consciousness is impermanent, and unreliable.

Even when consciousness is on the job, it is no more in charge than any other aggregate. It sees what’s going on, but it doesn’t oversee it in the sense of directing the others. It is pretty typical for us to think of consciousness as sitting inside the brain like the driver up in the cab of a monster earthmover truck, pushing the buttons and pulling the levers to make things happen. But consciousness is in the role of bystander to our experience, just a witness, not the driver at all. And anyway part of the time it’s asleep at the wheel!

At this point one student pointed out that we have now gone through all five aggregates, and not one of them is permanent, governable or in control. ‘So is there no self?’ she asked weakly, fearful of hearing the answer.

“There is no separate self.’ That is different from saying there is no self, isn’t it? No separate self means we are not isolated and alone, but intrinsically connected to all that is. This is great news!

This great news is called Annata. Coming to a place of understanding Annata, even if only briefly, can transform the way we experience life completely. Instead of grasping and clinging to a false sense of separate self with all the suffering that activity entails, we can instead rejoice in the moment-to-moment experience of being awakened to life.