Category Archives: aversion

Grudges, pet peeves and other tangled mental knots

 

San Anselmo Creek detail

Detail of San Anselmo Creek, watercolor by Will Noble

One of the greatest benefits of meditation for me has been to be able to see thoughts and emotions as threads passing through my spacious field of experience rather than as aspects of myself that define and confine me. The thoughts may be shaped by a series of life events, just as the flow of water is determined by the shape of the landscape. But the landscape is also shaped by the water, constantly being carved. Neither is completely solid, and neither are my thoughts nor the patterns of behavior they may shape within my experience of being alive at this moment in time.

Imagine in this ever-changing stream there are little eddies, whirlpools where twigs and leaves get tangled and stuck. This is a good metaphor for the tightly-knotted mental formations that in the past I either didn’t notice or just accepted as unavoidable parts of my inner landscape. I now see them too as transient. Just because they’ve been hanging out there for decades doesn’t mean they are solid and impenetrable.

But those knots of thought and emotion do entangle us, don’t they? We might not even realize it as we go about our busy lives, maybe a bit mindless because who has the time to be mindful? Out of seemingly nowhere and for no reason we can explain, maybe we find ourselves caught up in painful thinking. Was it something someone said? That will likely send us off into a whirlpool of anger or hurt feelings. It could have been something someone said a long time ago that we replay again and again. It could even be something we imagine someone saying to us that they would never do! We have the capacity to hurt our own feelings! Amazing.

If we don’t bring ourselves into the present moment and develop a practice that helps us notice these recurring thoughts and emotions, then we can get stuck in a painful pattern.

It’s a bit like if your home was full of poorly arranged furniture. Maybe there’s a couch that sticks out into the hallway that keeps banging your shin or stubbing your toe as you walk by. Maybe you rail against the pain but don’t notice what caused it. You’re so used to that unpleasant sensation that you think this is just how it is. And then maybe you start paying a bit more attention, and you learn how to navigate the space mindfully, rerouting yourself around that sticking out couch. And then one day you recognize that the couch is not locked down in place. So it is with these mental formations. Avoiding them is a stopgap measure. Investigating them is at the heart of our practice. Investigation is one of the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Awakening.

Investigating with compassion and clarity, we may be able to see what’s causing us pain, and then with time and continued practice to see the permeable and impermanent nature of all things, including mental knots.

You know that first line of the AA serenity prayer? “May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” We’re cultivating that kind of wisdom with our practice and our willingness to investigate in a way that brings insight. (Not all that surprisingly, mindfulness meditation is becoming part of the AA experience in many meetings as a useful tool to do the important work of freeing oneself from addiction.)

My little grudge fest
A grudge is definitely a mental knot, whirling clump in the stream of my mind activity. Lately I’ve been noticing when a grudge arises. It keeps surprising me how many grudges I have and how long I can hold them. Decades! A lifetime! Oh my. That’s not very compassionate, I tell myself. Shouldn’t I have forgiven that person long ago and forgotten whatever they did to offend me so?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Forgiveness, it is often said, is not about the other person, but about our own tight holding onto bad feelings. Forgiving is letting go of those feelings and embracing the here and now. All good. But it’s possible that forgetting may not be as wise. Let’s investigate.

Recently I was reading a regular column about relationships in our local Pacific Sun weekly. A man was asking how he could get over the girl friend who had dumped him when he loved her so much. Amy Alkon, the ‘Advice Goddess’, cited some research that said it is useful to purposely remember all the negative things about the past love that you can conjure up, as a counterbalance to the idealized version you have been conjuring up.

Interesting. In the past I had a friend who I enjoyed so much, but who, time and time again, ended up verbally attacking me. Clearly, in the parlance of Buddhism, that friend was not a part of my sangha — the community of people that support me in my meditation practice and wish me well. Looking back, I can see that maybe in order to get over that friendship and not be sucked back into it, always with the same painful result, somehow I knew to develop a strong mental formation of all the harmful things that person had done to me. So there it is: That tight knot of strong opinions that have protected me well all the years since. A grudge that serves a purpose.

Sounds good. But let me not be too quick to tie that knot in a bow. An important part of my process has always been, even as I seem to have developed this grudge for my own well being, to send that person metta, loving-kindness, whenever she comes to mind. And I believe that makes all the difference in any relationship and in any mental formation. Otherwise, it can be a knot of anger straining to explode.

So it looks like my grudge served a purpose, but I can investigate further and ask myself if it still serves a purpose. Is it still necessary to remember her ill-will and vicious words in order to keep clear of her? It’s been decades and I have no idea where lives or even if she is still alive. But here’s the thing: If she were to show up at my door, I might very well still need that grudge, that purposeful reminder, to stave off the desire to engage in the fun we had together, and maybe I would convince myself that she has changed so much that we could be friends again. So even now, that grudge needs to be there, sorry to say. May she be well. May she be happy.

Perhaps this brings to mind for you a past relationship that you know you are well out of. Maybe it was more than just a casual friendship, but a life-partner relationship. Perhaps you have a mix of memories, some wonderful, some painful. What is of value for you here and now to remember? Are your negative memories serving a purpose to protect you? If so, is it possible to see them in that way rather than a torrent of torment that throws you into a dark place even now? Is it possible, even though you never want to see them again (or at least the wisest part of you doesn’t!) to wish them well. May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be peaceful. May you be happy. We wish this for all beings, without exception. And when we cultivate loving-kindness as an ongoing practice, feeling it wholeheartedly for ourselves first and then extending out into the greater community of beings, we also create a path of return from getting lost in the past or the future. We send loving-kindness to whomever we were thinking about, and we return to this moment, just as it is.

I will keep noticing my grudges as they arise, and I’ll check them out to see if they are serving me in some way or if they are just causing me unnecessary pain. Such investigation is useful and powerful!

What about you? Are you having a little grudge-fest too?


Pet Peeves
I notice my pet peeves popping up from time to time, those irrational irritations that I have a hard time overcoming. The other night I was at a poetry reading and there was a poet sitting a few seats away from me, waiting for her turn to step up to the mike. Instead of being attentive to the beautiful reading by the poet at the microphone, she kept rustling through her papers in preparation for her time up. That really bugged me. It was so disrespectful. It was so self-centered. It was so not in the moment. Oh, I could go on. But here I am, a meditator and meditation teacher who says in my guided intro, ‘Let all sounds arising in this moment be part of the symphony of now’, (I kid you not! I do say that, and it makes sense in context.) So why do I find so much irritation around this particular sound. Why was this woman’s rustling of papers not part of my ‘symphony of now’?

Every sound we hear can affect us, registering as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The rustling sound was not unpleasant in and of itself, but it was a distraction, making it even harder to hear the reading over an aging muddled sound system.

Noting the sound isn’t all that goes on when we register an unpleasant sound or other sensation, is it? We could stop there, and that’s part of the practice of meditation, to notice that pleasant-unpleasant-neutral experience, and then return to the breath. We do that practice because that feeling tone, especially an unpleasant one, acts like a diving board into the vast sea of thoughts that drown us in waves from other times and other places, adding buoyancy to our harsh judgments and anchored opinions.

In the case of the rustling papers, to me it seemed disrespectful to the current speaker and to the rest of us, so my mind felt the pull of the sea of remembering other occasions where I may have felt disrespected, and that lent an out-of-proportion reaction to the situation.

Sound familiar? Out of proportion reactions, either within ourselves or in others, operate in just this way. They take a current irritation, bolster it up with past examples, and boom! Scary stuff in some cases, right? Not all people curb their impulses arising from such irritation, do they? Lucky for that poet, and for me, I didn’t act out my pet peeve. 😉

Instead, when someone annoys me, I try to muster some understanding of what their experience is and how it might adversely affect their current behavior. As a poet myself, I can relate to a poet who is next up on the reading roster wanting to be ready. But why had she waited until now to organize her writing? I always know what I’ll be reading in advance. Well, goodie for me. Maybe she has a lot going on in her life, and this was her first chance to prepare. Maybe she’s holding down two jobs, taking care of a dying parent and… Okay, okay. Bless her heart. May she be well. May she be at ease. May she be happy. May I let my annoyances go.

Noticing pet peeves, it’s useful to see what other experiences may be compounding our irritation. We’ve looked at the supporting cast of memories that act like a little cheer-leading team, egging us on. But our irritation is also exacerbated by our mood, having had a rough day, experiencing physical pain and other factors. For me in that moment, I had pain in my hip and sitting in a hard chair was difficult. Without that would I have even noticed the rustling? Hard to say.

Another important contributor to our annoyance is if we think the perpetrator is doing it on purpose to annoy us or for any other reason. A student in class this week noted that we get in the habit of taking bad behavior by others quite personally. Someone cuts us off in traffic. Can we remember it’s not about us? Yes they put us in harm’s way, but that wasn’t their intention. Yes, they should have been more skillful, but are we going to let the fear they brought up spark a rant that will no doubt make us less mindful of our own driving?

Here’s a Buddhist story that fits in well here.
A man is sitting in a rowboat fishing on a foggy morning, when he notices another boat coming toward him. In the mist he can’t see the person steering the boat, but it’s clear the boat is going to hit his, so he calls out. But the boat keeps coming at him. So he calls out louder, this time more aggressively, fueled by his fear that the boat might hit him and the dread of the harm and hassle that might entail. But the boat keeps coming! Now he’s really angry. This other boater is clearly ignoring him and is purposely attacking him. So he yells curses and uses his oar, not just to fend off the approaching boat to keep himself safe, but to clobber the stupid expletive deleted at the helm.

Only then is he able to see that the other boat is empty. Suddenly all his feelings change. He has no hard feelings about a boat floating aimlessly. It had just come loose from its mooring. He doesn’t think it is out to attack him. He just pushes it away and checks his fishing line.

You are not your knots
We all have pet peeves and grudges to one degree or another. These preferences are worth noticing and exploring. What isn’t useful is taking them on as identity, seeing them as who we are: ‘I’m the kind of person who…’ This need to identify with the free-floating patterns of mind and to use them to shore up a sense of separate self, comes from fear of not being seen, loved or respected. The fear can activate unskillful and even dangerous behavior. So it’s definitely something to notice.

Next time you find yourself caught up in a mental knot, see if you can recognize it as permeable, impermanent. Maybe it’s there to serve a purpose, maybe not. Either way, it’s worth exploring. And if you explore, practice kindness. Your grudges and pet peeves are not enemies nor badges of shame. Greet them as holders of useful information they are oh so ready to share. Are you ready to pay attention?

Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness – The Five Hindrances

If you have been practicing the first three Foundations — being mindful of physical sensation and our relationship to the body; noting feeling tones of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral; and noting mental phenomena (thoughts and emotions) as they arise and fall away — then you are ready to incorporate the Fourth Foundation, the dhammas, into your practice. The dhammas are described as ‘categories of phenomena which highlight how the different elements of the mind are functioning.’

If you haven’t had a chance to practice, then the following is just information to have available. The Buddha taught these four Foundations in a particular order for a reason. But the teachings are of value no matter what door you enter, and it’s possible that something in this exploration will inspire you to investigate the previous foundations and begin your practice in earnest.

The first of the dhammas is called the Five Hindrances. A hindrance is an obstacle to mindfulness. What gets in our way of seeing clearly, of being fully present?

The Buddha offers one analogy that fits very nicely with our jungle/garden theme from last week’s talk. He talks about a bowl of water, but we can just as easily see it as a pond we come upon in the garden of our mind — a reflection pool that, when mind-garden conditions are calm, is pure and clear. In this state, all is visible: The fish swimming in the pond, the rocks at the bottom of the pond, the reflections of the trees. It is like my husband Will Noble’s painting Reflection, where everything is visible. Look at the painting and see if you see all of what is going on. For more detailed view where you can scroll around, click here. (This won’t work on Apple products.) The painting makes an excellent focus of meditation. Not surprising since it came out of a meditative experience and was drawn and painted with meditative attention over a period of eight months.

Reflection, a watercolor painting by Will Noble


Now the Buddha has us imagine what if into this pond a dye was poured. It would color our view of what is happening, shifting our understanding of current reality. This is how the Buddha described what happens when the first hindrance of sensual desire is present.

Sensual desire might be sexual in nature, but it could be any craving for something we experience with our senses. For example, our eyes might have a sense desire to be surrounded by only the most beautiful things. Our sense of taste might be addicted to sweet, salt or fatty foods. Our sense of touch might want every creature comfort, to be cushioned and cozy and warm. Our ears might crave only the most delightful sounds and be distressed at sounds that seem discordant to our ears.

When noticing sensual desire in ourselves, in whatever form it takes, we might recognize a quality of mindlessness, as if we are being led by something so powerful we forget ourselves. We disempower ourselves through our desires, because we are so limited in what we can tolerate. The ultimate effect is that we enjoy so little of this experience of life!

Stop now and think of a sense desire that is a challenge for you. Find some recent instance of experiencing that sense desire. If nothing comes to mind, delve into the past and remember what it felt like to crave something so strongly. Oh come on, there was at least that overwhelming teenage crush! And remember how the thought of ‘him’ or ‘her’ colored everything in your experience? The desire is usually more painful than pleasurable when the wanting gets so powerful. Everything is interpreted through whether it fulfills our craving or not. All else falls away and we get out of balance. Life has a driven quality, shot through with desperation, helplessness, and sometimes self-loathing.

It is said that much of literature is based on this hindrance. Think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, for example. Here’s a wonderful quote from that tale of runaway desire:  “Vronsky meanwhile, inspite of the complete realization of what he had so long desired, was not perfectly happy. He soon felt that the realization of his desires gave him no more than a grain of sand of the mountain of happiness he had expected.”

“No more than a grain of sand of the mountain of happiness he had expected.” Whoa! Now that’s a cautionary tale — one that we have all told ourselves over and over again in our own lives after each experience of craving, consuming and then sitting with the resulting emotions and thoughts. Being mindful, being present to savor each moment as it is, helps us to actually learn it!

For the second hindrance the Buddha has us imagine the pool boiling. This bubbling boiling quality represents aversion, often experienced as anger or hatred. You can physically feel the boiling quality of being really angry.

In this mind state, when the water is boiling, can we see anything else but the bubbles?  No. We can’t see the rocks, the fish, or the reflections that are present in the calm pool. We are just focused on the bubbles, the aversion, the anger, the hatred. It is all consuming. It is the only thing that exists.

For the third hindrance the Buddha has us imagine the pool filled with algae, stagnant and without movement. This hindrance is sloth and torpor. What great words to describe a sluggish mental state, but the experience of them is debilitating. If we spend long enough on the couch, the easy chair or the bed, there will be insufficient oxygenation to be healthy. Our mind and body shuts down. Life is too much bother. Nothing excites us. The Buddha would no doubt ascribe this state to anyone suffering from depression.

For the fourth hindrance the Buddha has us imagine wind on the water, creating a lot of ripples and obscuring whatever is beneath and making it impossible to see any reflection. This is the hindrance of restlessness and worry. When we feel restless or worried we can’t be mindful of the present moment. We are glued to the future time of our imagination, eager or dreading.

For the fifth hindrance the Buddha asks us to imagine the water being muddy, obscuring our view. This represents doubt. We stir up the silt of the pond with our doubt. In relation to the practice of meditation, we might doubt our ability to do this. Everyone else seems so into it, but our mind is all over the place. Or we might doubt the teacher’s ability to teach or the teachings themselves. This is not just healthy questioning and exploration, but a habituated state of doubt, muddying up our minds. We might also see where in our life we are stymied by doubting our self-worth or our ability to do something that everyone else has told us we are quite qualified to do.

In our analogy of the jungle-garden, we can ponder this pond. As we do we might recognize one or more of the Five Hindrances that keep us from being fully present in the moment, fully mindful. When we become mindful for even a moment, we can check in and notice our mind state. We can think of the quality of that mind state and recognize how it is obscuring our view of things.

We might notice the one, or ones, that come up most often for us: Sensual desire, Aversion, Sloth and Torpor, Restlessness and Worry, or Doubt. This is not to label ourselves or get attached to yet another aspect of identity. It is a way to help us to recognize tendencies so that we can see them as they arise. Just as we learn where in our body we have a tendency to carry tension so that we can go there and release it as needed.

If we recognize these mind states, we are being mindful. That’s cause for celebration, not for judging ourselves for having a mind state that is universally experienced by all of us at one time or another, to one degree or another. Mindfulness is that radiant light that has the capacity to dissolve obstructions.


A silent retreat is ideal for creating the opportunity to notice all of what goes on in the mind with few distractions and responsibilities. If we set the intention to be present, anchored by physical sensation, and the paired intention to be compassionate with ourselves and others, then we create conditions to notice these hindrances. At that point we do not try to banish the hindrance, because that just creates more turmoil in the pond of our mind. Instead we just note it, simply recognize it.

Recognition without judgment is key. When the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree, he was able to deflect the tempter Mara by saying with compassionate awareness, “I see you, Mara. I know you.’ We too are able to see and know these hindrances for what they are. We can say, ‘Ah desire, I know you.’ or ‘Ah aversion, I know you.’ or ‘Ah sloth and torpor, I know you.’ or ‘Ah restlessness and worry, I know you.’ or ‘Ah, doubt, I know you.’ That recognition is mindfulness in action! It is the bright light of awareness that is all that is required to dissolve all suffering and nurture all joy.

Naming Our Poisons

The Buddha taught of the three poisons, the mental states that manifest in unskillful action and cause us and those around us to suffer. They are greed, aversion and delusion. As our minds become clearer through the practice of meditation, we begin to see these three states as they arise within us. We can notice how our actions are rooted in and fed by one or the other of these states.

Right now, for example, I am sitting here feeling greedy for the dharma as I write, hungering to learn more, and the desire to share it in the clearest way possible so that my students may benefit from knowing it. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, and it isn’t. Especially noticing it as it arises is a good thing. But noticing also brings an awareness of a tinge of energetic urgency, panic and fear that are also present in this hunger. Fear of it not being enough, of me not being enough, of my being an imperfect vessel for this information.

At the same time I am noticing a strong aversion to a phone call I am expecting from someone I have never talked with before but who appears to have anger issues as shown in his email. He is not a direct client of mine but is someone my client has to deal with. Suddenly I am ‘having to deal with’ him too. I don’t want to! I’m afraid! I feel the tension in my body rising up. I have held this tension since yesterday when we made this appointment for him to call me. And to top it off, he is already 47 minutes late in calling, which leaves me in this purgatorial state of dread.

Noticing these states, there may be a tendency to work with them, as in ‘fix’ them. That is just another form of aversion arising. I feel aversion for this state of aversion. How does that help? It really doesn’t.

So instead I breathe. Admittedly the breath started out as a sigh, but that reminded me to breathe! I send myself a little compassion. Compassion releases some of the tightness, infusing a sense of expansiveness that allows me to see more clearly. Already my shoulders have dropped an inch. However, I notice my jaw is tight. The buzz in my body is present.

I look out the window, the green and grey morning is calming. The tree outside my window doesn’t see my challenge and yet lives in this world. I don’t want to be the tree, but I am not unlike the tree. I don’t know what the tree experiences, but I can be pretty sure it is not currently dreading a phone call.

The tree is rooted in the earth. I sense my rootedness in the earth. The tree relies on its roots to weather high winds and powerful storms. I am anticipating some high wind this morning, so I sink into my roots, my connection. Thanks tree! Good advice!

The phone call went very well, by the way. A friendly constructive exchange with full agreement and goals achieved all around. Was that just a fluke? Or did my grounding myself help me to remember the humanness of the caller?

Having had a positive experience when anticipating a negative one is something I try to notice, adding it to my learned experiences. I am surprised that with attention, I actually do find I can reason with myself, saying, “Chances are, based on past experience, this will be fine. I will see how I wasted my time dreading an experience that much more often than not is a positive one.”

Noticing when we are operating out of greed or aversion is easier than noticing when we are operating out of delusion. What is delusion anyway? It’s like walking around in a fog and being constantly surprised when things happen. It can be operating as if we are an object being acted upon rather than the subject of our own lives, able to make decisions.

If we are in a state of delusion, how can we notice it? We can’t! At the moment of delusion the mind is enveloped in a cloud or fog, drifting, lost and unaware. But if we have set our intention to be present, then we can notice when it clears a bit. Just noticing that begins the development of awareness of delusion, and that awareness thins the fog. When the fog is thin, we have more options. We can drift or we can stay present. We can notice when the clarity begins to fade and we can take that as a reminder to reset our intention to be present with compassion, to notice the cloud of delusion as it comes and goes. Delusion has a very different felt sense than aversion or greed, but all three take practice to notice.

How do we work with these Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion? I remember when I first started studying Buddhism at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, there was a good deal of talk about how we are generally more inclined to one or the other of these mental states. People would say things like, “I am a greedy personality.” For me this seemed like just another way to label ourselves. We are often attracted to self-labeling, even if it’s an unattractive label.

Defining who we are seems to give us a place in the world, but it locks us in to a false sense of self. While we each do physically fill a finite place in this earthly life, defining it with limiting labels does not satisfy the deeper longing for a sense of understanding our infinite connection, the true nature of our existence.
We have talked before about the shift from the finite to the infinite view. For purposes of convenience in functioning in the world, we see ourselves as finite, singular and separate. But we discover through meditation, or perhaps through spontaneous insight, the infinite view that is always available to us, wherein we recognize that we are not separate at all, that we are a vibrant expression of life loving itself, like a drop of water flying through the sky knowing that it is a part of the sea-evaporation-cloud-rain-river-sea cycle of being which is a part of an even larger circle of life, and that all is one. With this infinite view, more fully discussed in previous discussions in the Eightfold Path, we are able to live more fully and joyfully in the world, even while being able to maintain our seemingly finite path with its various responsibilities, relationships and choices.

In the past few weeks, when discussing our clinging to the rock with our roots believing it to be our identity instead of releasing into the rich nourishing soil and allowing ourselves to grow to the fullness of our being, what we are talking about is letting go of the finite and releasing into the infinite. That shift from finite to infinite comes with our ability to be present and relaxed, releasing the tension that is our body’s way of holding the past and the future. This present moment fully experienced is the portal to understanding our interconnection, our being a part of and being supported by the infinite web of life.

While it may be tempting to label ourselves, it is more skillful to notice greed, aversion and delusion arising in our experience, and not get tangled up in saying, ‘I am an aversive personality type.’ Observing and judging ourselves to be more inclined to one of these three states may seem like it helps but it runs the risk of blinding us to the arising of the other two poisons, for we are tuning ourselves to notice the one above the others. All of us have all three poisons, even if not in equal measure.

The habit of self-labeling can make us passive, as if we have been indelibly stamped with this tendency and there’s nothing we can do. In truth, there’s nothing we NEED to do except be present and compassionate with all that arises in our experience, but that’s very different from a sense of helplessness that there’s nothing to be done about it, as if we are stuck. We are not stuck, we simply perceive ourselves to be stuck. In fact we are quite free, but we choose to pick out new wallpaper for our prison cell, remaking ourselves, rather than simply be present and watch the bars dissolve. We explored the whole concept of freedom in dharma talks quite a while ago. If that word resonates, perhaps you’ll want to read them. If freedom scares you, then that’s important to notice as well. Question in: “What am I afraid of?”

We can fall a little bit in love with even negative labels for at least they give us a sense of definition to cling to. But clinging to the hard rock of who we believe ourselves to be is the essence of what keeps us from opening to our true nature.

In a talk last year on ‘Holding the World in an Open Embrace’ I presented greed and aversion in the form of photos of two little girls, one holding tight to all her toys representing greed; the other with crossed arms and a pouty face representing aversion.

My sixteen month old granddaughter Lucy for the first time in my presence yesterday crossed her arms and pouted! Ah, aversion! This is the first manifestation in this form, though of course she has shown her preferences and dissatisfactions in a myriad of ways. But to actually see her cross her tiny chubby arms and pout with her little cupid bow mouth was quite something!

Where did she learn this particular manifestation? Lucy is my current teacher. I have been learning what is inherently human. When she wakes she does a natural yogi full body stretch, and she has done this since she was just a few months old. Now I try to remember to do that when I wake too. Where did I lose my natural inclination to do so?

And now seeing her pouting and crossing her arms I have to wonder how she developed this classic aversion pose? She doesn’t watch television, and has no older sibling to imitate. Where does she get this little Shirley Temple imitation? It’s a wonder. And it’s adorable and yes a little frightening. Aversion arises in Lucy and displays itself. We could easily go uh-oh and label her an aversive personality and be afraid, very afraid, of what the future holds with this crossed-armed pouty force to be reckoned with. But all that does is fuel our fear, lock her in a box of our labels, a box she will either stay in or break out of unless she can wear these labels lightly, knowing they do not define her true self.

In the past few weeks we have been discussing the inner aspects, what in psychological terms are also called sub-personalities, especially those we keep most hidden from our awareness that make up the shadow. When we are having a skillful inner conversation with an aspect, we might benefit from noticing whether it seems to be fueled by greed, aversion or delusion. I had mentioned Striver and Underminer, two aspects that have resurfaced in my awareness. Clearly Striver operates more from greed and Underminer from aversion, and both are delusional. (As some people might think I am to name inner aspects!! But it is a valuable exercise for the orderly exploration of a very complex lacy-patterned infrastructure of thoughts, emotions and beliefs that form a part of our experience that most influence, and sometime sabotage, our ability to live with awareness and a love of life.)

As a tool for self-exploration, knowledge of the three poisons of greed, aversion and delusion provide insight and clarity. We can use them as clues to see the fear at the root of the aspect we are exploring. These fears — the fear of separation, of exclusion, of not being acceptable, of disappearing, of being overwhelmed and washed away, of being judged, or of failing — are just a few of the ways we forget our connection to all that is and the universal oneness of being.

Holding Your Life in an Open Embrace

This was a speech with visual aids. I will try to get permission to use the photos I shared in person, but until I do, imagine:

(A black & white photo of a little girl holding on tight to her three dolls, with a distrustful scowl on her face.)

Here’s a photo of a little girl with her dolls. What a lucky little girl to have three dolls! She should be happy. But when I look at her, I don’t see happiness, I see fear. Maybe she’s afraid someone will take her dolls away. Look how tight she’s holding them. She is planning on defending them.

Of course, holding them this tight she can’t really enjoy her dolls, can she? Enjoying her dolls would be holding them in front of her, looking in their faces, talking to them, singing to them, feeding them, dressing them…maybe having a tea party and inviting other children over with their dolls to play.

But she can’t do any of that because she has to hold on tight to these dolls for fear of losing them.

We can all recognize ourselves in this little girl. We all cling to something, afraid of losing it. Whether it’s our possessions, our money, our relationships, our career, our beliefs, the way we see ourselves, the way we see the world – we hold on tight because we don’t know who we would be without them, and we are afraid to find out.

But just as this girl can’t play with her dolls when she holds them so tightly, we can’t really enjoy our lives and all the wonderful things in it when we hold them in such a tight grip.

What happens when we hold on so tight in a relationship for example? When we clamp down on the one we love, begging them to spend more time with us, pay more attention to us, tell us they love us. What happens? Usually we suffocate the love we hold so dear, we strangle it, we squish it. It turns to nothing in our hands.

So this tendency to grasp and cling to what we care about isn’t really a very effective strategy. At best we can’t enjoy it, and at worst we might actually cause it to disappear.

(A black and white photo of another little girl.)

Now here’s another little girl. She’s not happy either. She’s got her pouty face on and her arms folded. But instead of holding on to something she loves, she’s focused on something that hasn’t measured up to her standards, her expectations, her desires. Maybe her mother said she couldn’t have ice cream before dinner, and she’s determined to be miserable about it for a good long while. Or maybe she’s just arrived at a party. Maybe she’s been fantasizing about this party ever since she got the invitation three weeks ago. She imagined the entertainment, the cake, the friends who would be there, how much fun she would have. And here she is and something is not right. It may be the most fun party in the world, but she is stuck on the one thing that’s lacking, the one way in which it doesn’t measure up. So she can’t enjoy herself.

I’m sure we can all recognize ourselves in this little girl too. We’ve all had experiences that didn’t measure up to our expectations. We’ve all at times let that disappointment ruin the whole experience. We’ve all had trouble enjoying this moment because we’re still caught up in what happened last week, last month, last year, and we’re letting it color our whole experience.

The Buddha defined these two ways of being – this grasping and clinging and this aversion as the primary causes of suffering. He acknowledged that there is unavoidable pain in this life, but that most of the suffering we experience is optional, actually caused by these two tendencies.

But it’s not our fault that we’re like this. Like all animals we are programmed to go after what is pleasurable and avoid what is unpleasant. This is the basis of our survival instinct. We are attracted to bright colors and nature made the brightest color vegetables the most nutritious. We are attracted to the mates that will best help us procreate for the survival of the species. We are programmed to avoid the big sharp-toothed roaring bear who might maul us to death.

Our human brain is a little different however. With our highly developed cortex, we can dwell in the past, remembering in incredible detail all that has happened to us. And we can imagine infinite futures, so we can spend a good portion of our time in a state of planning and daydreaming. Now this is an amazing skill to have! Without it we would not have literature, history, inventions, technology, ever evolving architecture, design and the arts.

But we’ve been given this gift without a user manual, without a warning notice that spending too much time in the past or the future instead of staying in the present moment is hazardous to our health and our happiness.

But the brain is still evolving, still developing, and part of this development is tuning in to awareness, consciousness, rediscovering our ability to be in the present moment.

The primary purpose of meditation is to create this ability to be present, to come into balance, to open ourselves to what is arising in this moment and be able to savor it without grasping and clinging.

(A full color photo of a little girl holding a frog in her cup hands in such a way that she can see the frog in front of her. She has a look of curiosity and a smile on her face.)

In this final picture is a little girl who is living in the moment. You’ll notice that this photo, unlike the other two, is in full color. That’s because she is in the present, the only place that is real. The past and future are just thoughts.

She is holding a frog in her hand and she is holding it in open cupped palms, what I call and open embrace. She is able to fully enjoy the frog. She knows that the frog could jump out of her palm at any moment, but she knows that she will still be okay. The frog is not the source of her happiness. Her ability to be with whatever arises is the source of her happiness.

So this is what I hope for all of us: That we take responsibility for our own happiness, by learning how to be present with our experience, how to hold life in an open compassionate embrace.

Second Noble Truth: Insight

With the First Noble Truth we recognize the fact that there is suffering in life. Though it sounds harsh, this recognition to a degree relieves us of the anxiety about why we aren’t always perfectly happy. Once we have this recognition, once we sit with it awhile and mull it over in our minds, we may come to the Second Noble Truth.

The Second Noble Truth is an insight into the cause of our suffering. The Buddha had this insight when he sat under the Bodhi tree. He saw how there is pain that is a natural part of earthly existence, but that we create suffering on top of the pain. How do we do that?
The Buddha saw how we cause suffering by clinging to what we like and pushing away or denying what we don’t like.

He recognized a trait that has since been identified as part of the make up of all multi-celled creatures. These chemically-driven states of desire for pleasure and fear of pain are produced by our brains in order to help us survive.

So why would we want to get rid of these traits? First, we are not focusing on getting rid of anything. Instead we open to everything that arises in our experience, holding it in an open embrace of awareness.

As we become aware of these traits in our own nature and when we see them in others, we may see that often times we are not using them just for survival. We are grasping, clinging and pushing away or denying everything in our lives, not just things that are necessary for our survival or threaten it. These inherent traits of all animals have in humans turned into hyper-activated habituated tendencies.

Why is this so? Perhaps with our more developed frontal cortex — the part of the brain that enables us to imagine infinite possible outcomes — we are constantly activating physical and chemical reactions to imagined situations. Our overactive imaginations in our constantly thinking minds with all the re-runs, re-dos, application of acquired knowledge and sheer fabrications, have put us into mental over-drive. The result is an almost constant state of fear. This is not the fear of something we are actually facing in this moment, the way a deer will run away from anyone that comes too close. This is an ongoing state of mind that, lacking any current threat, will create imagined ones to fill the void.

What does fear do to us physically? If you’ve ever noticed a spider shrink into itself when it feels threatened, you know that that is what we do as well. A baby at four months is suddenly a little more wary of strangers, and her first response is to shrink a little into herself for a moment while she assesses the situation.

We adults do this too, but we easily end up staying there, tightened up into knots of tension, where we get stuck in a state of perpetual sense of alarm and isolation. We can’t sense our connection because we are locked into a hard separate stance. When we discover a connection with some particular person, situation or object, we are so relieved that we cling to them, and can’t bear to let this moment pass where we feel some relief from our ongoing sense of isolation. So we go from Teflon to Velcro with no place in between, with no way to inhabit our bodies and our being that is truly comfortable and easy.

Over the past weeks of exploring the First Noble Truth, I have been asking you to really notice how you cause suffering in your life. And what you have mentioned are the very tendencies the Buddha saw in his insight about how we create suffering in our lives: greed, aversion and delusion. Most of us fall more heavily into one of these tendencies, but all of us have some of each. So let’s take them one at a time.

Greed
When we experience pleasure and get attached to it, want it to continue, don’t want to let it go, begin to identify with it, start to need it like an addictive fix, go unconscious around it – a bit of a brain bypass that has a quality of time-out relief to it – this is the grasping, clinging, clamping down upon nature of the greedy mind.

Aversion
The tendency toward aversion brings up critical thoughts, judgments about people, behaviors, environments, aesthetics, conditions and situations. Nothing is every quite right. Even the most delightful situation could be improved upon, if only….

Delusion
This tendency is the head in the sand, or a certain grogginess that can be easily swayed and confused. If it takes a stand, it’s a stand of denial, not wanting to face facts.

Now all these traits have some positive aspects: Greed can be experienced as a zest for life. Aversion can be creative, transformational and problem solving. The delusive trait can see all sides of an issue and may pave agreement among disparate ideologies. But all can cause suffering.

These three tendencies – this grasping, clinging, pushing away and denying – are simply things to notice as they arise in our experience. Recognizing them is useful. Using the labels of greedy, aversive or delusive is not useful. We have more than enough labels already, thank you very much!

Seeing a tendency in ourselves is cause for celebration, not shame. It’s not our fault that these tendencies exist. Nature programmed us this way to keep us alive.

Our impressively developed brains continue to make an increasingly complex system of technological developments. When we steep ourselves in this hive of activity constantly, when we keep pace with the rapid-fire nature of modern life in our culture, we quite naturally succumb to one or more of these traits that cause suffering. Needing a retreat from the hubbub, we may choose unskillful means to numb ourselves with drugs, intoxicants, gambling, shopping, mindless eating, and other addictive behaviors. These are the answers readily provided by advertisers, so they are usually the first recourse.

Yet it is not just in this advanced technological age that humans cause themselves suffering. The Buddha didn’t have a cell phone or a computer, nor was he a jet-lagged jet-setter. In fact he spent his whole life within a very small mostly rural area, living amidst nature. Yet he knew suffering, and he saw it manifest in all the humans he knew as well.

Sometimes people get misty-eyed about some more quiet ‘simpler’ time, thinking that happiness was much easier to come by in the old days. ‘Simple for whom?’ is what I always wonder, because when I look back I see intolerance, enslavement and injustice. I am so grateful to be living now!

Not to exonerate the era we are in from these same forms of blindness. We continue to disrespect and trash the earth and, because of our vastly greater numbers, the impact is much greater. We trash our own bodies with faux food, and our governments wage war against each other over access to resources. And we live at a pace that is unsustainable and cannot be compensated by a week on the beach every summer.

But we are also, to a much greater degree than in past centuries, recognizing ourselves in each other, recognizing our connection to all of the inhabitants of this small blue planet. There are many movements afoot — not just in spiritual communities — that are slowing down the pace of life, acknowledging the value of this moment, of staying present.

Regardless of what era we live in, the development of the human brain has created this potential for creating misery, for getting out of balance. And the further refinement of it, through the insights of the Buddha and many other awakened beings, offers us skillful means to end, or at least cope with, our suffering.

The first step on this path is being able to recognize these traits of grasping, clinging, pushing away and denying as they arise in our experience. This is a great step to awakening! Don’t shut down now just because it feels uncomfortable to acknowledge something that seems to reflect badly on you. It doesn’t! Relax! We’re all in the same boat here.

So now as we explore for ourselves the Second Noble Truth, the challenge is to stay open. Yes, I know, this feels so personal, but it’s universal. And if we can gently but firmly be present to notice these tendencies in ourselves, we can begin to experience more spaciousness.

The key to sitting with the Second Noble Truth is to tap into compassion. We approach it with a great deal of metta, loving-kindness so that we won’t be swallowed up by the aversiveness that might be prompted by this inner discovery. Agh! I don’t want to be like that! Or I’m not like that!

No one said this work is easy, but there are ways to make it easier. I had a wonderful teaching a few months ago, watching my newborn granddaughter sleeping peacefully in her bassinette. Then suddenly she started rooting and struggling, waving her fists and poking her tongue in and out, wanting, wanting, wanting something, anything to stick in her mouth. How strongly I related to that! I recognized myself, the way I will sometimes roam the kitchen, looking in the refrigerator and the cupboards looking for a little something to stick in my mouth.

What an awakening it was for me to see that this is something born in me. My granddaughter was two weeks old! I didn’t invent this craving, I don’t have to feel shame for it! Of course, it’s not a free pass to eat everything in sight, but it is a deep acceptance of my own nature.

And then she gave me another insight, one that reined me in from forging my way to the kitchen. I noticed that after 30 seconds or so, her wanting, wanting, wanting passed, and she slipped into deeper sleep. She let it go. It passed. And if I pay attention, if I don’t rush to fulfill my wanting, if I sit with it a bit, I notice that yes indeed, she’s right: the wanting does pass.

So working with the Second Noble Truth is both humbling and enlightening. We are not trying to see how bad we are. We are accepting that we are human and finding some peace in that awareness. And perhaps we can hold it lightly, take ourselves less seriously, and feel less as if we have some fortress to defend.

Acknowledging and noticing is a continual process of creating spaciousness and awakening. It is made more painful if we see ourselves as isolated individuals up on a stage with judges about to call us out. If we can let view go, let ourselves be held in loving-kindness, if we can see ourselves as the small children we once were and hold ourselves with parental love, then we can begin to see each of these traits as clues to suffering, rather than one more reason to beat ourselves up.

So I hope during the week you will allow this level of noticing to bring about insights. And I hope that you receive the insights with great compassion.

This is the practice.

The Second Noble Truth & Coming into Skillful Relationship with Desire


In previous posts we explored the First Noble Truth: That there is suffering in life. The Second Noble Truth says there is a cause of this suffering, and that cause is our grasping, clinging and pushing away of the objects, ideas, experiences and people that we either want or don’t want in our lives.

Wanting. We all know about wanting! Given a blank page we could each sit down and write a comprehensive list of desires, those things we want more of, those ways we want to change ourselves, our situation and the world.

Desire is a naturally arising phenomenon. Getting rid of it is not the goal. That would just be a desire to be free of desire. Instead we want to develop a skillful relationship with our desires. For many of us our current relationship is that our desires control us, dictating our behavior. That’s suffering!

The first step to come into skillful relationship with our desires is to notice a desire as it arises. And then, before we rush to fulfill the desire, we pause. We pause and just experience the desire fully. (See the exercise below.)

Pausing to just be with a desire can be challenging when instant gratification is so easy. With credit cards, stores open around the clock and overnight shipping from anywhere in the world, if our desire is for a particular taste or a particular possession, we can almost skip over the whole experience of wanting and go right to fulfillment.

Do you remember wanting something as a child? The waiting, the longing? We became intimate with our desire. We lived with it for long periods (that seemed even longer!) We could describe the experience of desire as a bodily burden that was almost insupportable. Many of these desires passed. Some didn’t. Some were fulfilled. Some weren’t. Some were given as gifts, treats or rewards. Some we were told to save for. Some we were told weren’t good for us and we wouldn’t be allowed to have ever. Some were for things that couldn’t be purchased.

While none of us want to return the power to our parents to decide whether our desires will be fulfilled, we can recreate a bit of that state of delayed gratification. Not as torture but as a way to come into relationship with our desires and to be more skillful in our response to them.
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Exercise
Stop for a moment now and see what comes up when you say, “I want…..” Whatever desire arises is fine. It doesn’t have to be anything special for you to work with it.

Now, close your eyes and sense in to your body, saying the statement again. Does the statement bring on any physical sensation? Does it bring up any emotion? Does it bring up any images beyond the visualization of the desire itself, perhaps a memory?

This is an interesting self-exploration that you can do with many different desire statements (both “I want….” and “I don’t want…”). For it to be most useful, write down the statements and any accompanying sensations, emotions or images.
When the desire arises of its own accord (not from the prompting in this exercise) you can also notice what, if any, thoughts preceded it and see if there is a causal relationship. You can notice what thoughts accompany the desire that energize or enable the wanting. And you can notice what thoughts follow the desire — judging yourself for the desire perhaps?

It is also interesting to notice any external causes and conditions that may have brought on the desire. For example, you’re walking down the street, perfectly content, when you see a luxury car driving down the street or something in a shop window and suddenly you feel wanting.
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Look at the last sentense of that exercise: “…and suddenly you feel wanting.” Wanting as in lacking in something. As if you are somehow incomplete. Suddenly you are not enough because you don’t have (fill in the blank). Amazing, isn’t it? What an opportunity to notice how we so readily attach our identity to objects of desire, and often even to the desire itself.

By pausing before fulfilling our desire, we give ourselves the opportunity to be fully present with it, to recognize it as a recurring pattern, and to come into awareness – through bodily sensation and evoked emotions and memories that flit through like faint traces of dream.

We may notice that many of our desires, if not instantly fulfilled, simply pass away. An itch that doesn’t get scratched often subsides.

By paying attention to what else arises with the desire, we may recognize that the thing we think we desire is just a mask for some deeper desire that we were not willing to look at, but can now.

These unmasked desires may be for things that can never be fulfilled, like a return to a seemingly safer time, the return of a loved one who has died, or a chance to undo past mistakes. But by allowing ourselves to be fully present with them in a compassionate and spacious way, these desires benefit by being given a voice. Once acknowledged they may shift, but even if they don’t, they enrich our understanding, thus reducing our sense of suffering.

In this compassionate non-judgmental spaciousness, we can also allow ourselves to acknowledge an addictive desire, when we realize that the desire is controlling our behavior and that no matter how often we rush to fulfill it, it never satisfies the gnawing desire that fills us. And if through this process we are not able to skillfully explore this addiction, we can finally seek the help we need to do so.

Desire is not a dictate that we must mindlessly obey, but simply a natural phenomenon coming into our experience of this moment. By pausing before rushing to fulfill desires that arise, we have a rich opportunity to fully experience this utterly human trait as something in and of itself. We can be in a spacious relationship with our desires, neither clinging, grasping or pushing them away. We simply hold them in an open embrace.