Category Archives: awareness

Awakening to Choice

In the previous post we looked at finding magical moments of mindfulness in the middle of everything. I offered examples of how to come fully into whatever moment you’re in and the joys to be found there.

But there’s even more magic in being fully present. In each moment of mindfulness we can recognize that this is a pivotal point in our lives. This puts us in a position of personal power because we can see that we have a choice. We are not stuck in a rut or being dragged along by the currents of life. We are here and now, awake, alive, aware.

Not all our choices are beneficial. In each moment we can, for example:

  • let craving drive us in a habitual direction of unskillfulness that promises happiness but causes misery
  • let aversion judge ourselves or others harshly so that we feel angry and beaten down and cause others to feel the same

OR

See that pivot point there, that >>>>>OR<<<<< ?

It’s the little word of wisdom that offers us options to our habituated and often destructive behavior. It reminds us that we can choose to be fully present in this moment just as it is and greet the arising of the next moment with wise intention.

The first time I noticed that ‘or’ I was trodding a well-worn path to my refrigerator, that altar of delights for my taste buds and solace for whatever was ailing me. I was on a mindless habituated trek when I heard the word ‘or’. My inner wisdom was offering me an option to this pattern of mindlessness and self-destructive behavior. It said, ‘Or…I could take a walk in the garden.’ ‘Or…I could call a friend.’ ‘Or…’

You get the idea. There were so many choices that I could make if I paused to notice that I wasn’t hungry, just bored or sad or who knows what in that moment. My go-to answer was to follow a craving. In that moment I was suddenly present.  Being present, a world of choices opened to me.

Where in your life do you typically go mindless and end up following the lure of a craving or being caught up in aversion, stewing over something or someone? Are there any instances when you suddenly saw that you had other options?

We are all mindless at times. As we practice being more present in the moment, we discover how easy it is to slip into mindlessness again. The opportunities are all there: the cravings, the emotions, the judgments. But as we stay present we can see there are other opportunities offering themselves to us: to notice and follow our wisest intention to be present, aware and filled with compassion for ourselves and all beings. Living fully in this moment, our wise intention will naturally carry us to the next moment.

Each moment of awareness is a pivotal moment, but that doesn’t mean that we are constantly standing at a crossroads, wondering which way our future lies. That would cause us to fall out of mindfulness. There are times when considering the future is valuable, like preparing ourselves and our families to handle potentially volatile conditions. But most of the time future leaning causes imbalance in our lives, leaves us unavailable to see or hear what is happening right now. And that mindlessness will likely lead us to a future we never wanted, because we won’t have been present and engaged with life, so we become increasingly isolated and unskillful.

The power is here in the present, fully experienced with all the senses, as we learn again and again how to grow in awareness and compassion, right where we are in this moment, just as it is.

You are not broken and you don’t need fixing.

This YouTube video of two teenagers who have never seen a rotary phone before is fun and fascinating to watch. For those of us who grew up using rotary phones dialing is just second nature. Even if we haven’t used one in years, we know without question what to do. Kids today think of smartphones, tablets and computers in the same way, so it’s difficult for many of them to be patient with elders when they struggle to learn new technology. They don’t get what the challenge is. Now these two boys, trying to use this earlier technology, get it for sure!

Watch and enjoy!

After you’ve watched the video, here’s a question for you:

Is that rotary phone broken?

No! It works perfectly well. But there’s no operating manual for it and these young users had to figure it out on their own, naturally making lots of mistakes along the way. Sound familiar? We are not broken. We function perfectly well. But none of us came with manuals. We are all doing the best we can to figure out how to function. Hopefully we are willing to spend more than a few minutes at a stretch. Hopefully we don’t give up and decide not to bother.

If you are a parent you may remember leaving the hospital with your first child, feeling some degree panic and astonishment that the nurses allowed you to leave without your knowing how to take care of this tiny fragile bundle of vulnerable living breathing (for now!) being.

Of course there are books on child rearing and no doubt most prospective parents read them, but it just doesn’t prepare you for the real deal, does it? And advice changes from generation to generation, from ‘let them cry’ to ‘pick them up’, from benign neglect to helicopter parenting. There are also lots of relatives and people in the grocery store all too happy to give advice. But it’s all conflicting advice! And it often feels like it comes with so much judgment. Finally you just have to find your own way and do the best you can. Right?

Without that operating manual, it’s no surprise that many of us grow up befuddled with this assignment called life. We may feel unlovable, unseen and misunderstood. We may have a difficult time finding contentment, connection, meaning or even a sense of safety in our lives.

When we seek help we find advice that tells us how to fix ourselves, change ourselves, transform ourselves into some ideal version of a human being. We wonder “What’s wrong with me?” and then, to top it off, people around us may be happy to make a list!

But we are not broken and we don’t need fixing.
It’s more useful to think of ourselves as a mysterious technology we’re learning how to use. We may fumble a lot, but over time, by paying attention we get little insights and we begin to have a clearer sense of how we function. There is help available from wisdom teachings, like the Buddha’s, but he’s most famous for saying something to the effect of ‘Don’t take it from me! See for yourself.’ But he taught us how to sense in and see, and to have self-compassion. And that makes all the difference.

Practicing mindfulness we start to notice how much better we feel when we meditate regularly, and we notice a falling away of that sense of equanimity when we forget to practice for a while. We are each learning our way, writing our own little operating manual, seeing what works for us and what doesn’t, what helps and what harms us.

We learn how to greet what arises with friendliness and an understanding that this too shall pass. We notice the patterns of our thoughts, thickly woven with the stories we tell ourselves about our personal histories. Instead of getting paralyzed with fear, we gently shine the light of awareness and compassion.

We are not broken.
Just like that rotary phone, we work perfectly well. But we may be unclear how to dial up the connection we crave, that sense of being fully present in this moment, full of compassion for ourselves and others. Ring! Ring! This present moment calling! May we remember to come back to simply paying attention to whatever is arising with patience, curiosity and gratitude for this gift of life.

Awareness dissolves mental hindrances

Last week I introduced The Five Hindrances, the first of the dhammas that make up the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness. All these numbers and lists might have you throwing up your hands at this point. It does seem a little daunting. But any time you think, ‘This is too much,’ just allow yourself to rest in awareness of whatever physical sensation is present in that moment.

Remember that all we really need is the two intentions with which we enter meditation: The intention to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and the intention to be compassionate with ourselves and others. In meditation and in our daily life, if we can reset these intentions whenever we are feeling lost or confused, we are good to go!

Then why learn anything else about the dharma? Each of us has to decide for ourselves whether in this moment we are ready and able to learn more of the Buddha’s teachings. If the cup is full, stop pouring in more tea! Our minds can only take in so much information. Then we need to spend time with what we have taken in, allow it to steep. 


Buddhism is primarily experiential. The dharma lessons point the way and provide tools for the experience to illuminate and awaken, but if we just study-study-study, then we are out of balance with the teachings. Our own sitting and walking meditations, our own ability to create spaciousness in our experience brings the dharma home where it can actually give meaning and end suffering. All else is restless mind, greedy mind, trying to know it all. Resting in ‘I don’t know!’ is one of the most delightful experiences of my life. I rejoice in it. I savor it. It’s delicious. Make room for that sense of being comfortable with not knowing and see for yourself if it releases a few endorphins.

If you have been following along and have developed a regular practice of meditation, then it may be interesting to explore more of the Buddha’s teachings that shed so much light on our experience. One of my students mentioned this week that the Five Hindrances might be a more accessible door to the dharma for some people.


What are the Five Hindrances?

The Five Hindrances are mind states that act as obstacles to clarity of mind. They are desire/craving, aversion, restlessness and worry, sloth and torpor, and doubt. Do any of these sound familiar? Most of us experience all of them at one time or another, sometimes in combination or quick succession. In class, one student felt sloth was too pejorative a term. Another clarified the distinction between sloth and torpor — sloth a sense of physical sluggishness and torpor more a fogginess of the brain. This sounded right to me. It’s important to remember that all of these terms are the closest English approximation to the original Pali language terms. Can we leave room in our understanding for the translations to not be completely satisfactory?

How to be in skillful relationship with the Hindrances
It is skillful to acknowledge the Hindrances that are currently present in our experience. That recognition is all that is required. If we actively try to change them or push them away, we are just getting caught up in aversion. Compassionate awareness brings everything into balance. If we can stay present with the hindrance that we notice, it can teach us something valuable. Each hindrance has the capacity to be a great gift, if we recognize it, can stay present with it and learn its nature. This is the path of awakening! So don’t turn away.

One student said she really liked the word ‘hindrance’ — so much easier to deal with than ‘character flaw,’ the term she was raised with. Other students nodded their heads.

Yes! We can much more easily spend time noting a ‘hindrance’ than dwelling on a ‘character flaw’ that takes us right into shame or guilt. The statement, ‘Oh, I’m so lazy,’ takes us to a dead end place where we either suffer quietly with our ‘defect’ or noisily try to bust out, rebelling at the label.

How much wiser is the statement, ‘Ah, sloth, I know you.’ This simple recognition of a transitory state passing through our experience has the ability to dissolve it on the spot. We don’t claim it, cling to it, or react to it. We sit with it, see it for what it is, and the clarity of recognition brings us into the present moment.


Noting what causes hindrances to arise
The Buddha’s teachings also encourage us to notice what leads us to activate these hindrances, and then to mindfully avoid those situations. For example, if you crave alcohol, don’t hang out in a bar. If you crave pastries, don’t go inside the bakery. Years ago when I attended Weight Watchers meetings, I remember they called the foods we just couldn’t resist ‘red light foods.’ The answer to these irresistible temptations was to not have them in the kitchen, to not tempt ourselves with what was just too challenging. This works to a point, especially when we are feeling most vulnerable.

With each of the hindrances we can observe in our own lives the point at which they are activated. It might not be a place, person or object that sets it off. It might simply be a habituated pattern of thought that we get caught in again and again. We just go there, almost as a default position. Noticing the pattern is skillful. Then we can investigate the nature of the pattern. We can see which mind state it leads to. We might see where it comes from — a parent, a teacher, an old love interest, a playmate or schoolyard bully.

The radiant light of awareness, developed through these mindfulness practices, recognizes that thoughts, emotions, mind states, etc. are not who we are. We suffer in our attachment to them as identity, and are liberated from suffering when we simply enjoy and feel gratitude for the opportunity to experience all of this finite fleeting earth experience in whatever form it takes.

Seeing what activates the hindrances helps us to develop the ability to stay present with a clear mind. This ability at first may seem so brief that we have a hard time seeing how it even happens. I remember thinking that it was like alighting on the head of a pin and then almost instantly falling off. When I understood that this was natural, like the challenge to find balance when learning to walk or ride a bike, I was less frustrated and thus more able to be present with the experience. With practice that brief alighting becomes more constant, a widening stable foundation where we place our awareness.

While we are developing our practice it is especially important to be with people who support us in our practice and to avoid spending too much time with those who lure us into behaviors that lead to mindlessness or actively try to throw us off this course. This is being kind and skillful.

As our practice deepens and our sense of being in the present grows, we may be sufficiently grounded in our practice to recognize that not only can we resist temptations that had previously drawn us, but we have a sense of presence that helps others become more grounded as well. This is not something we aim for, lest our goal-setting topples our equanimity. But we can recognize when it happens, and then be less self-protective and more engaged in the world beyond sangha in a way that creates a sense of moment.

A good test is to see if you are using the word ‘should’ as in ‘I should be able to sit in a bar and drink iced tea even though I crave liquor.’ The word ‘should’ is just a stick we beat ourselves up with. Put it down and pick up compassion and common sense instead!

Noting when the Hindrances are absent
If we find we are in a state of awareness, the Buddha encourages us to notice how that feels and to enjoy the spacious ease of not being caught up in the thirst of sensual desire, the turbulence of aversion, the sluggishness of torpor, the agitation of restlessness and worry, or the muddiness of doubt. To rest in clarity is peaceful and pleasurable, and this pleasure is finer than any we had imagined when pursuing a goal driven by sensual desire. Whatever happiness we were striving to achieve is nothing compared to this. Just this. Bliss.

The Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness – an introduction

In our meditation practice we notice physical sensation, emotions and thoughts as well as any insights that arise in the process. This is what we do. This is our practice. This practice the Buddha called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Knowing the name, seeing it written out, formalizes our understanding and appreciation.

The Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness are:

  • awareness of the body, physical sensation
  • awareness of feeling tones
  • awareness of mental phenomena, thoughts, emotions
  • awareness of truths, insights, the Dharma


Those of you who are in my class can recognize that these four foundations are deeply ingrained in the way I give meditation instruction. But they are also very present in our dharma discussions, woven into them, intrinsic to them. So this is not new information but it is a new way of looking at them, a way that might help us see them more clearly.

I like the word ‘Foundations’ and the order in which they are listed. We develop awareness of the physical senses first because it is the most readily available and reliable way to bring ourselves into the present moment. With this first foundation we are learning how to notice in a skillful way. We are developing Wise View in relation to these sensations, and in relation to the body. Without this first foundation, we don’t have the practice in the skills that are needed to notice feelings, emotions or thoughts with Wise View. We get entangled with them, we drown in them, but we don’t see them clearly. As we practice each of these Foundations, we develop the ability to notice without getting entangled; or at least to see the entanglement with more spaciousness.

With these first three Foundations we are developing a strong practice in noticing, in seeing with loving awareness, and the Fourth Foundation quite naturally arises out of the first three.

Knowing that there are these Four Foundations of Mindfulness reminds us that if we are feeling overwhelmed we can revisit the First Foundation again, sensing into the body; and then work our way to the Second, noticing whatever feeling tone is present; then the Third, noticing the thoughts and emotions that are arising and passing away in our awareness; in order to allow the Dharma, the truth, an insight, an Aha!, a moment of clarity to be seen and understood, which is the Fourth of these Four Foundations.

Nice, huh? The Buddha knew how to fashion a conceptual construct to make things very clear. That’s what drew me to his teachings, and the desire to incorporate them into my own experience of meditation and its great gifts.

We will discuss more about the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in the following months. This was just a brief introduction of the overall concept.

Bowing


Because we have several new students in the class, I took a moment to give my take on why I bow at the end of meditation and at the end of our class, and it opened into a lovely discussion as to why others do as well.

I bring it up because when I first attended Buddhist classes, I was a bit uncomfortable with the bowing. What did it mean? Was I bowing to a deity? What was the deal? Then someone said that when we bow, we are putting our head below our heart. I loved this explanation and it made it possible for me to bow at any time. Putting out heart below our head is such a simple way to bring some balance to our approach toward the world, to let the heart — our natural loving kindness — have its say. And what it expresses is gratitude. Gratitude to ourselves for taking this time for meditation when so much else in the world might seem much more enticing; gratitude for this moment, this life, these teaching.

There is also a quality of sealing whatever was received in the meditation. Pressing our hands together is sealing what has been received, setting it with intention, that it may stay present in our experience as we go throughout the day.

There is nothing about the bowing we do in our class that is in violation with any religion any student might practice. Our class is not religious in nature, and the practice of meditation and exploration of the dharma has been shown to enhance one’s appreciation and understanding of the student’s own religion. I have heard this many times and think it has much to do with learning how to be present to actually hear, see and appreciate the teachings of any world religion.

So bowing can be devotional, but for me, and the students in my class, it is a simple acknowledgement of gratitude, appreciation and intention.

Three Aspects of Mindfulness Meditation Practice

Last Thursday we spent more time than usual in class practicing, exploring and clarifying three aspects of meditation practice. (Blog readers should know that these dharma talks — over 160 now — are only one part of the class. The core of the class is experiential, the practice of meditation itself. I encourage anyone who has been finding value in reading the blog but hasn’t either developed a personal practice or joined a meditation group, to take that step now. I work with individuals and small groups to develop or refine a practice. Reading about it is not enough!!! )

The first aspect we discussed is our concentration practice, training our minds to stay focused on a specific experience, like the breath, for example. Even as beginning meditators we can follow our experience of this wise effort. We can notice when we have lost our focus and compassionately bring our attention back to the focus. If accessing a concentration point in the senses is difficult, I suggest focusing on the tongue or a foot and doing subtle movement — running the tongue around the teeth, wiggling the toes, etc. — to create a stronger sensation to focus on. Then reduce the movement and see if you can stay focused on the more subtle sensation. Then cease the movement and see if you can still notice sensation. In this way we build our ability to focus. Because the breath is for most of us a neutral, dominant and reliable sensation, it is the concentration focus most in this tradition choose for the main body of their meditation. But it is not the only one possible, and any sensation can be a focus for concentration practice.

The second aspect of the practice is a more generalized awareness of spacious infinite energy. Certain kinds of meditation practices can take us right to this ‘bliss state,’ as can various substances and activities. Vipassana meditation practice is not about attaining a state of bliss, as if it were a tropical vacation to escape from the world. Perhaps after such a ‘vacation’ the regular world feels more tolerable for a time, but then we need to escape again. Vipassana or mindfulness meditation is not about escape. It is actually the opposite. It is very useful for people whose minds are always escaping into daydreams, etc. because it is about being truly present here and now so that we find the joy in every moment of our lives. This is the wisdom of no escape. There is nothing to escape from when we discover how to be fully present with our experience, whatever it is.

So many people spend so much time finding a means to escape out of fear of being present with their experience. Younger meditation students complain that it is hard to find young people who are not drunk or stoned most of the time, meaning it is hard for them to find young people who are not afraid to face their lives sober. Those who take this route can blame the stresses of modern life, but at some point we need to remember that we are no longer children who have no control over our lives, who need to be able to escape in our minds. In fact we are very powerful. We can, through being fully present, shift the energy in the room, in an online thread, in our community and ultimately, because of the ripples even the smallest pebble makes, we can shift the energy of the world, simply by being present.

Think of how a minister, Martin Luther King Jr., shifted the energy of the civil rights movement and helped to begin a healing of a nation. Think how the man who inspired him, Mahatma Gandhi, a lawyer from South Africa, led India into a peaceful state of independence, just by his willingness to be present and compassionate. This kind of mindfulness is contagious, and we are in an amazing period of history able to see it in action as the peaceful assembly of the Occupy and 99% movement let their concerns be known with patience and consensus decision-making. We might say, well I’m no Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. Well, neither were they, in that famous powerful figure aspect, before someone helped them to shift their energy and discover the power of non-violent action. Perhaps we will never be famous, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t each of us incredibly powerful in our own way. We have the power to sour the energy, to incite anger, cat fights, nastiness, jealousy, violence. And we have the power, through anchoring into our senses and being fully present to bring peaceful collaborative exuberance, joie de vivre, a love of life, holding life not in a stranglehold of fear but in an open embrace.

Of course, if we get caught up in the goal of changing the world, then we are not living in the moment and that powerful energy is gone.

Just so, the naturally arising bliss state that may come through meditation or other means is not a goal nor an achievement. It is just another experience we hold with an open loving embrace. Whether the bliss state ever comes or whether it stays, that is not really our concern as meditators.

The bliss state does give valuable information, but even a hint or a brief experience of that timeless state can inform a lifetime. The valuable information is that all is one. There is no separate self. We are all expressions of life loving itself. We are like drops of water briefly experiencing soaring in a state of feeling separate, but in fact we are still the ocean.

For students who have never experienced this state and who feel the lack, I recommend watching science programs or reading about the current scientific understanding of reality with special attention to how much space there is, how structure, including ourselves, is mostly space. Think about skin, how we believe it to be the edge of who we are. But that is not true, is it? The more we know about biology and other sciences, the more we begin to understand the infinite nature of being. Now this kind of learning is not the same as experiencing the state of ‘knowing’ this to be true, feeling that interconnection. I wish English had two different verbs for ‘to know’ the way Spanish does, making a differentiation between something we have learned and something we have experienced.

But if we give the logical mind the opportunity to learn through watching or reading scientific information, it will help to unlock the door to the possibility of experiencing it. Then it’s just a matter of creating opportunity through meditation, chanting, retreats, being slow and silent in nature, dancing, creating or listening to inspirational music, etc. to experience abandoning the dead shell, to slough off the molting skin of these old limiting beliefs.

For the religious this experience grows the understanding and appreciation of the nature of God. You can see how God is all and everything, no part excluded from that infinite beingness, and how this consciousness can be so present in all things, able to experience all that is in each moment.

In our meditation practice we can go back and forth between a focused concentration practice and a spacious awareness state.

The third foundation makes all else possible. This is metta or loving-kindness practice. We end every class with the blessing “May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at ease. May all beings know peace.” But within each personal practice of meditation we set our intention to be compassionate with ourselves when we discover our mind has wandered. Without this kindness and compassion, we are doomed to get tangled in self-recrimination and blame. So this kindness, this compassion, is a fundamental part of our practice as well.

We always begin our practice of metta with ourselves. First, we often find ourselves to be the most difficult person to be kind to. And ultimately, because we are all one, sending true infinite loving kindness of this nature to ourselves is the same as sending it out into the world. Feeling that kindness, we express kindness in the world. We embody kindness, ease, generosity and peace. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the peace we seek.

So those are the three aspects of our practice in our class, in our personal daily practice of meditation and in each moment in our lives as we experience it, holding it in an open and loving embrace with full awareness and the resulting deep gratitude.

Noticing: Thoughts on the Beach

Walking on the ocean’s edge yesterday, I noticed huge clumps of kelp, all tangled like beached whales. This, I thought, is how thoughts are when they get tumbled in the rough storm of emotion.

The beach was so clear that even the delicate tide lines showed, even the impressions of tidal bubbles left lacey tracks. And I thought: This is like the meditative mind, so quiet that even the most subtle thoughts, emotions and sensations become clearly visible.

I looked at the interwoven smooth and salty surfaces of the maroon and ochre kelp, remembering how as a child I would take that bulbous length and run with it, whipping up the sand for the sheer joy and exuberance of such a vast expanse of space.

In some of the clumps were tangles of turquoise rope. I imagined the small boat from which it came, for this was not a shipboard purchase but the choice made in a boat shop where the color promised tropical sea sailing instead of the cold cruelty of the choppy Bay, Gate and Pacific Ocean. Nearby on the beach there was what looked to be a peach-colored oval stone, but when I picked it up it was light-weight, with four evenly spaced holes and a wedge cut the full length of both sides for line to slide, so I knew it to be nautical in nature. I suppose there are some sloppy sailors, but I noticed how images of some mid-ocean mishap arose within my mind.

There was a dark green plastic garbage can stranded on the beach, without wheels or lid. I noticed how this object launched a long involved fantasy beginning with imagining dragging it along, picking up the detritus of human life, leaving the shore devoid of all but footprints. But there seemed so much, and I thought how it’s a long way to April 22nd, so I imagined an ‘earth day every day’ party where we would don gloves and carry garbage bags to pick up the oil cans, the bottle caps and bags. And people would come to help and come for the tasty picnic part with rich conversation and camaraderie and leave feeling nourished in every way.

Together my husband Will and I imagined a lot of photos we might have taken had we remembered the camera – especially of the dune grasses thatched so decoratively against the russet cliffs in the distance. We framed potential paintings and planned to return, camera in hand, while knowing no moment can ever be recaptured, that the light would shift and the grasses would fade.

We watched, enchanted by the chubby little sanderlings racing on their tiny legs, chasing each receding wave as it exposed choice tidbits, with precious few seconds to poke, suck and swallow before rushing to escape the incoming flow that followed.

And now I share this experience with you, not in the hopes to take you there yesterday at the beach, though it would have been fun, but to offer up this example of a typical mind at work, and all the kinds of thoughts that traverse through it like the kelp through the storm, like the turquoise rope through the oval fitting, that now washed ashore whispers scary stories, like the plastic leavings and the thatched grasses calling up regrets, wishes and plans.

And the shore birds bringing attention back to this moment, as they need — as we need — every moment to be conscious.

So we become conscious of the thoughts that are just the tangled detritus of our nature. And if we find that we are caught in the tight tangle of thoughts, we can, through meditation and metta (loving kindness), give ourselves the spaciousness of the vast expanse of beautiful beach that is contained in our every breath, our every awareness of physical sensation.

The thoughts do not disappear. We simply see them in the context of how the brain functions, a part of the experience of being alive in human form. By broadening our spacious awareness through practice we make room for all of life. And this making room for what is arising in this moment is the key to finding joy and relieving suffering.

But how do we practice it? During meditation we practice opening into the silence, releasing tension, setting intention, and paying compassionate attention to a sensory experience – the breath, the sounds in the room, etc.

What about after we open our eyes? I would like to encourage a continuing of this kind of awareness practice even after the meditation is over. The meditation shows us what’s possible, but if we treat it as a getaway vacation instead of instruction for living our lives, we are peeling the apple, tossing away the most nutritious part.

The most nutritious part of meditation comes outside of formal practice when we continue to maintain a level of awareness. Meditation is training us to be present, but if we don’t practice being present in every moment, then what is the training for?

In our post-meditation discussion this week we did this. And it is something you can do on your own, with friends or in a meditation group.

We adjust our bodies to be relaxed but alert. We stay present with the rising and falling of the breath or other sensory focus, even as we listen to each other, even as we notice our thoughts, our judgments, or questions, our feelings. And in our discussions we actively practice using our language in a way that helps us to continue to recognize the nature of our thoughts. Instead of stating our opinions or facts, we can actually say, “I notice that when you say ________ a judging thought comes up for me, or a question comes up for me, or tension arises in my body, or a feeling of ______ comes up.” Now this is by nature a slow and maybe at times awkward structure, BUT it is a way for us to intensify our practice and bring it into the rest of our lives where it might serve us well.

This process is at once deeply personal yet universal. The thoughts we each have are not our thoughts. They are just the nature of thoughts, and we all experience them as they pass through, given a wide variety of factors, causes and conditions. Perhaps some system of thoughts gets stuck in a holding pattern, like the eddy of a stream where branches get stuck, and it easy to think of them as ours because we become so familiar with them we begin to define ourselves by their existence. But there is no thought that defines who we are. Knowing this frees us to greet thoughts with curiosity and loving kindness, neither grasping them nor pushing them away.

So try this exercise of speaking from your most conscious spacious awareness, bringing to light with loving kindness the process of your thoughts.

Enjoy the spacious beach-ocean-sky of the human mind, including all the thought forms that pass through it!

Curiouser and curiouser

I have been reading Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson because it’s the book my class read in my absence and I want us literally to be on the same page.

On page 60 he writes that the three processes of being with whatever arises, working with the tendencies of mind to transform them, and taking refuge in the ground of being, are essential practices of the path of awakening.

He says that as we practice we encounter certain stages of growth. The first is acting out unskillfully without even being aware of it, not even seeing how we are causing suffering to ourselves and others.

The second is noticing our behavior, our words, our thoughts and how they are causing suffering, but not being able to do anything able to do anything about them.

The third is being able to transform these thoughts or feelings midstream, so that they don’t get acted out. They still cause us suffering to a more limited degree, but we have not put it out into the world.

And the fourth is a level of non-reactivity, where the situation doesn’t automatically set off reactions that cause suffering.

As meditators we may recognize these stages as part of our own experience, because as we begin to meditate we create enough spaciousness to start seeing our own thoughts and behavior.

Hanson says the most difficult stage is stage two, where we first notice our unskillfulness but feel helplessly caught up in it.

This initial period of inner awareness can be painful! It can even stop us from meditating because we don’t want to see the truth of things. We would rather be oblivious! Who could blame us?

This is the value of having some guidance, if just to have someone assure you that it’s normal to have this reaction, to have these thoughts, to feel the shock, shame and disappointment to discover our own innate unskillfulness.

If we do stay the course, continuing to meditate, we may discover a softening of our hearts and an increase of patience, so that we can hold our flawed selves with more compassion. Having opened to this experience, having survived the initial shock of discovery, we find a willingness to sit with whatever arises with less judgment and more curiosity. It becomes less personal. Reading Hanson’s book with its physical explanations for why we are the way we are increases our ability to get how impersonal it really is!

But still, what arises, if painful, if frightening, can be difficult. These difficult thoughts, emotions and sensations, we can consider as dragons at the gate of the inner temple of our own awakening. This image has helped me over the years to recognize and value the experience of sitting with difficulty as a vital part of the spiritual experience of accessing the spaciousness within.

Instead of an extended talk, for this class I asked the students to take some time in the garden in walking meditation or sitting in contemplation, giving themselves the silence, the time and the attention to notice whatever arises. If you did not attend the class or did but would like to repeat this on your own, try this in a garden or park or out in wild nature.

As you walk at a slow pace, bring full consciousness to physical sensations of the body: the foot rising and falling, the breath, the air on skin, the sights and sounds. Whatever arises in the mind is to be noted for its tonal quality, whether it’s an emotion or a thought stream, whether it’s a judgment, a memory, a plan, etc. Some times you may just be caught up in the flower or the lizard or the patterns the leaves make on the deck or the sound of the waterfall. At other times a stream of associative thoughts or emotions will ensue. Whatever arises, bring as much awareness to them as possible, being curious. Notice how the mind does what it does, as if it were a lizard pumping in the sun. Give it as much of that kind attention as possible.

Afterwards give yourself the gift of a little more time to reflect on and internalize this experience before returning to normal activity.