Category Archives: balance

This too shall pass.


Hell in a hand basket?

Despair is in the air this season, coming to the end of a year full of disasters, nuclear brinkmanship and sickening revelations. It’s enough to make a meditation teacher wonder what is the point of teaching how to find personal happiness. It seems equal parts selfishness and delusion.

But then I remember that Pollyanna happiness is not what I teach. Looking on the bright side and wearing blinders is not what I teach. I teach how to be present with whatever is happening with clarity and compassion for ourselves and all beings. That’s all I teach. And it’s always in season.

Last week I had a very bad cold, the first in many years. It wiped me out physically and mentally. I felt like all the color of life had been washed out of me. There was not one creative thought, not one ounce of curiosity. I was completely drained of everything except pain. One particular pain that went on for days was especially challenging: a sinus drip on a nerve ending in my temple. Every time it hit — erratically seconds and minutes apart — my whole body would clench up. No drugs alleviated it. And the only thing that helped was the reminder of the nature of impermanence: This too shall pass.

We can trust in impermanence when the world around us seems to be spinning off kilter. This too shall pass. Lord, I hope so! In class I opened the gates of despair and gave a big permission slip for students to express their feelings. And they did. And there were tears. And you know what? It was good.

Recently I was on a poetry retreat with Kim Stafford, and once we had all written a few poems, he encouraged us to go back and find the ‘B’ story in each poem. The ‘B’ story, he explained, is the hidden truth in what we write, the part that was trained out of us because it might not be nice glossy version our parents would approve.

So this week, after meditating and sending loving kindness to ourselves and out into the world that is so in need of it, we shared our deepest concerns, sorrows, longings and fears for ourselves and the world as honestly and openly as we could.

Part of the reason we resist such looking is the fear of seeing things we can’t cope with, can’t explain, can’t talk ourselves out of. We may worry that we will get lost there, get stuck in the murky mire, succumb to depression and never return.  But when we are looking with clarity and compassion, we can sit with fear. We can embrace uncertainty. The ongoing regular practice of meditation makes this possible.

I meditate every morning and am deeply grateful for my practice. But it is when we gather and meditate together that the real solace of the practice comes. There is something so rich and sacred in the shared silence. And out of that sacredness comes the antidote for despair.

First we discover we are not alone. The group gathers, each person feeling so isolated, stressed out and exhausted. And then, somehow, after ninety minutes together of sitting in silence and then exploring the dharma, we come away feeling refreshed, renewed and awakened.

Meditation lightens us to an awareness of the infinite nature of being. There is no way to explain what happens, but it feels to me like we relax into the flow of the ongoing dance of energy transforming into and out of matter. It’s a joyous dance of welcoming and letting go all that arises as we release into the continuum of being. Oh life! What a miracle! Wacky and wondrous and woeful, all at once.

With this expansive view, we see that, as bad as current times seem, history is full of parallel examples, that life is like this. We see through the lie of our nostalgia, that somehow we were all better, more noble, more exemplary in some long past day. In fact quite the reverse might be true in many cases, but we don’t need to compare. We can just remind ourselves that there is a tendency for the rear view mirror to be rose-colored.

Our tendency toward current events is to focus on negative news. The life we see is the result of the choices we make of what to pay attention to. We who are alive today have the capacity to be ultra-informed about every horror in every part of the world by an information industry playing on our inbred negativity bias ready and willing to scare us to death. If we are looking clearly we can also see that the distressing events are met by heroic and touching actions. We can see that horror, humor and honor all are represented. Yes, this awfulness exists. But so does this beauty, this communion of being, this sweetness, this enlightened awakening of deep appreciation of being here in this moment to experience whatever is arising.

It’s useful to remember that our ancestors had many challenges, hardships and losses, but they also had long periods of quiet and a deep interaction with the rest of nature. This is why meditation feels like a homecoming — it is a natural and necessary part of our experience.

Human evolution is not so quick as technological revolution, so here we are, ill-equipped to cope with all that confronts us moment to moment in our various devices. We are wise to give ourselves permission to turn them off, to step away, to reconnect with nature and with the natural eye-to-eye contact with our fellow beings. And even when we are using these devices, can we be sure to balance our exposure? Can we find a video of a flash mob Handel’s Messiah in a mall food court? And baby animals doing adorable things? This too is our world. Aw and awe!

When we give ourselves this permission, we find more balance in our lives. It is not turning a blind eye to suffering, just acknowledging the truth of our situation as one of 7.6 billion people in the world and it’s not all up to us in every minute so solve every problem. If we give ourselves the gift of clarity and compassion through regular meditation practice, and especially gathering to practice together, we are rendered more alive, more ready to spread the joy of the season, all year long.

Coping with what life gives us

The tenth Paramita* is Equanimity, the ability to hold all that is going on in our lives in an easeful way. In the past I have used the analogy of being like the sky, holding fluffy white clouds, rainbows, storms and lightning bolts all at once.

Many years ago a woman in our sangha out at Spirit Rock asked how was it possible for her to attend her daughter’s wedding with true joyousness of spirit when her dearest friend was dying in the hospital. This question has always stayed with me as an example of what is asked of us in life, and how equanimity serves us. The answer to the question is to stay as present in the moment as we can and to be compassionate with ourselves when we find that our awareness of joy is shot through with a thread of sorrow. So we can be fully where we are (at the daughter’s wedding) and be fully who we are (a caring friend and mother). One does not negate the other.

In fact, these kinds of contrasts are often the richest moments in our lives. I remember at the memorial we gave for my father in his home on his birthday the week after he died. I remember the beauty of the cherry blossoms that completely surrounded his deck and how much he loved them, and how sorry he felt that his beloved wife was no longer there to enjoy them. And I remember how I came upon my son changing the diapers of his month-old daughter on my father’s bed where just the week before, Dad and I had watched Wheel of Fortune and I had begged him to let me spend the night on the couch, sensing the end was near. One week apart, two sets of fathers and daughters: one set at the end of life, the other set at the beginning. To be able to hold the beauty of that is a great gift of equanimity.

There are other ways to describe equanimity. One is to find your center of gravity, that way of being in your body and in your life that you are sufficiently grounded that nothing throws you. Recently I heard a zen teacher from Nova Scotia talking about equanimity. He shared how his teacher had demonstrated it. He stood up and held his body rigid and told two men to try to knock him over. It was easy. Then he changed his stance, relaxing, going limp, being rooted in place with the release of tension. And when the men tried to move him, they couldn’t do it.
My students, all female, did not feel very inspired by this image. Is the real goal in life to be unmoved?  But they responded with more enthusiasm when I suggested that trees are grounded in this way.

Here’s a poem I recently wrote that captures some of that feeling:

Oak Sisters

Three oaks entwine on the hillside:
Minoan snake goddesses with burl breasts.

I, with the good fortune to sit below them,
rarely bow in gratitude,

while they bow to the wind, the rain,
the sun and the moon.

I am footloose, but rarely dance,
while they, despite earthly constraints,

sway together in ecstasy.
I imagine underground a mirror dance

of roots rollicking round rock,
deeper and deeper into the soil of being.


Of course, California live oaks are beautiful trees but not necessarily the best example to aspire to when we want to remain upright come what may. In a severe storm or even in the middle of a drought, an oak will occasionally crack and fall to the forest floor. We might choose instead a more supple tree for our role model! But you get the idea.

So now we have two ways of seeing equanimity:

  • Being spacious like the sky to hold whatever arises
  • Being like a supple tree, rooted and able to dance in the winds of life, resilient

Both of those views are helpful. Some others less so. For example, when we think of balancing, we might picture a tightrope walker on a highwire. Life might feel like that at times, but it’s a worldview that is bound to create fear and tension. If you find yourself in that position, let go! Discover that life will support you.

Another image that comes up is the art of balancing stones. Perhaps you’ve seen the results, or have watched in fascination as the artist gives his or her full attention to setting the stones, and perhaps you have even tried it yourself. At Spirit Rock on retreat I have walked up the hill to an area that was full of stones that were fun to stack. They weren’t the more challenging rounded stones the artists use, but the process still required my full attention. It’s a lovely meditative process.

That view of equanimity reminds us to be fully present, to sink into full awareness and a sense of connection with whatever we are doing. But the image could backfire if we are attached to the stones staying stacked! It could easily bring out perfectionist tendencies and the fear of things falling apart and personal failure.

In my ‘Oak Sisters’ poem there was a quality of dancing, and I am reminded of how for many years I did Nia, a dance exercise class that develops a supple grace in the body. I had no idea how stiff and ungraceful I was until I started that class! But over time I softened in my movements and gained greater balance. I felt centered and joyous. We worked from our core, just as you do in Pilates or yoga, and were trained to not overextend our limbs. What a good lesson for life that is! Where in life are you feeling overextended?

Part of the reason we overextend is that we are trying to please or impress someone else. So we are seeing ourselves from the outside, the way we think others see us. This is ‘object mode’. This is a good way to get way off balance! We need to be the subject of our own lives, the center of our own universe. This is not selfish. This is growing where we were planted. Remember that when we send metta (lovingkindness) we always begin with ourselves before sending it out to others and ultimately to all beings. Because we can’t give what we don’t have.

In meditation we find that when we go rigid we get easily distracted, and getting caught up in thinking and emotion will cause tension in the body. But when we relax our muscles and find a balanced posture, we are able to sustain a seated practice for quite sometime. And as our mind relaxes that spacious quality of sky is able to arise and fill the whole of our awareness.

And then when we go about our lives, perhaps we can develop a greater sense of ease and natural grace, able to carry whatever challenges life has given us. We may even find that what we have held as burdens will gently reveal their gifts.

May we be dancers on this earth, sensing into the music of life.

So these are all ways of looking at equanimity. What resonates with you? What questions does it bring up? What is your experience of equanimity? Please comment below.

*Paramita or parami is a state of quality of Buddha mind that we are cultivating. Equanimity (Upekkha) is the last of the ten paramitas we have been studying. See the rest in earlier posts. You can type ‘paramita’ in the search bar in the right-hand column.

Are you feeling out of balance in your life?

At the autumnal equinox, the midway point on the earth’s axis, night and day are the same length. It always makes me think of balance. But does that mean that the rest of the year the earth is out of balance? Of course not. And our lives don’t have to be out of balance just because everything in them is not equal. One of the major life skills we learn through the practice of meditation is equanimity, the ability to hold whatever arises in life without getting out of balance.


‘Where am I out of balance?’ is a question I ask myself if I’m feeling disjointed. I might realize that I’ve been over-efforting, with my ‘eye on the prize’ instead of being present in the moment as I do the work at hand. Or I might find I’ve been too sedentary. I do love to lounge but too much lounging leads to lethargy. Getting out for hiking or dancing lets me feel more alive and balanced. Maybe I’ve been tightly-focused in my thinking, going around in circles, and find balance in opening to take in a broader view. I might feel maxed out on being super social and need some alone time. Or vice versa. Each of us has different set points for activity, social engagement, etc. Where our set point is may change over time, but it’s useful to notice.


The body is attuned to balance and gives us lots of cues when it recognizes that our thought-emotion override button has been pushed once too often. What are some of the cues your body gives you? Aches? Illness? Restlessness? Tiredness? In mindfulness practice we are learning is to notice physical sensation. As we develop greater ability in this area, we can also develop better interpretive skills, and take the body’s message to heart. We might go for a walk, go to bed earlier, say ‘no’ to an invitation if we want to. We might say ‘yes’ to something that is outside our normal routine but somehow feels very right, if a little scary. As a Toastmaster, I felt myself and have witnessed many others take that first brave step to overcome the fear of attending a meeting or give a speech. I remember transitioning from believing that I was just naturally shy to overcoming a fear that was keeping me from so much I wanted to do in life. Taking that step was part of bringing myself into balance.

As we develop our meditation practice we also may find that we are less victimized by circumstances and better able to find a quality of equanimity regardless of causes and conditions. There are times in life when conditions are not perfect, when extra energy or extra rest is required. You’re up all night with a sick child, for example, and there’s just no rest possible. Or you are ill and resting is enforced by the fact that you’re too weak to rise. At these times it isn’t useful to be attached to the idea that in order to be happy you need perfect amounts of sleep or activity. Life does not always conform to these needs, does it? Making our own happiness dependent on certain conditions makes us ping pong balls in the game of life. Whack! In fact most of us have more stamina and fortitude than we ever imagined to do what we need to do when there’s no choice but to do it. If we lace our thoughts during this period with worry that we will suffer greatly from lack of rest or over-exertion, then we set ourselves up and fulfill our own expectations of doom. But, once that period is through, then we allow for a balancing rest instead of moving on immediately to the next crisis, making this frenzied way of being the norm in our lives.

We find a balance that is in tune with the body’s messages, based on what we’ve found fosters wellbeing, AND we accept that there will be times when a perfectly balanced schedule is not possible.

Finding balance at work is a challenge when the lines between work-time and off-time are blurred by the ease with which we can be reached at any hour of the day. We each make our own choices as to how available we will be. No job requires that we be on call 24/7/365. If you dispute that, talk to your supervisor. If you are your own boss, hire someone to give yourself regular respite, or simply define ‘off’ periods for yourself. The refreshed quality you bring to your ‘on’ times will more than make up for any delayed response. In fact, it is a gift to others to model this kind of balanced living. My neighbor is an in-demand author, speaker and consultant to Fortune 500 companies. She is her own boss and has no assistance. But she always claims set times for herself to garden, hike, cook and socialize. She has a balanced life. I was amazed when she told me she never checks email on weekends. There’s a big lesson in there: To be effective in our work role, we need to claim space that is totally free from it.

Meditation practice most definitely needs tech-free space. On retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, cell phones are left behind or deposited in a basket to be held by the retreat manager. There are no video or audio presentations, no radio or recorded music, only the pleasure of silence and the evening dharma talks of the teachers.  The retreat experience helps us to refine our home practice because it shows us the value of silence. Perhaps one of the reasons meditation has become so popular is that people find it so difficult to justify turning off their gadgets for any other reason. Our agricultural ancestors in the course of a day spent extended periods of time alone in nature, working or walking or riding. Inside any sounds were not funneled in on wires from elsewhere. It was quiet or there were homemade sounds. It’s in our genes to need that quiet downtime in our lives as well. We can enjoy our gadgets all the more when we give ourselves periods of time away from them.

One of the ways we enjoy our gadgets is through social media that our pioneer ancestors would certainly envy. We can stay in close touch with friends and family around the world. And we make new friends based on shared interests, finding communities of like-minded people with whom we can share ideas. It’s very easy (believe me!) to get a bit addicted to that sense of connection. But there’s another sense of connection that is worth noticing: When we open to the trees, the breeze, the birds, squirrels and lizards, the clouds, the creek, etc. all right there available to make us feel intrinsically a part of nature. Can we come fully present in the moment, whatever we are doing, bringing ourselves into balance by being here instead of mentally pulled all over the place? Finding balance is being skillful in how we use the technology we’ve been given, and knowing when to set it aside.

When we give ourselves space and time to be present and attuned to the body without distractions, we naturally come into balance. We come home to the joy that is inherent in being alive.

If you feel a little addicted to your phone or computer, claim some more space for yourself:
  • If possible, turn the phone or the ringer off and put it in another room when you are sleeping.
  • Check email and social media at a planned time once or twice a day rather than all day long.
  • Consider taking a day or two off from it on a weekly basis.
  • Take a trip into nature and leave your phone off.
  • Tell friends and family you text with not to take it personally or worry if you don’t respond immediately.

If you never seem to have enough time to meditate or take a walk in nature or have lunch with a dear friend, maybe you are thinking of them as rewards, and that you don’t deserve them until you’ve accomplished something. If that’s the case then stop thinking of them as rewards. These are necessary. Claim time for them. Note them on your calendar, not as rare  treats or defaults but as locked in and important.

Notice physical sensation, not just in meditation but always. Let the wise body guide you to balance.

Three Supports Needed for a Balanced Happy Life

Divorce's three legged-stool is honesty, courage, and resilienceWhen we sit in meditation, there are three points of support: the buttocks and two knees, if sitting on a cushion on the floor, or the buttocks and two feet if sitting in a chair. This is the triangle that provides full support to sustain our practice. In Buddhism, there are three supports as well:  The Buddha, the dhamma and the sangha. They work together and all are equally important. Traditionally these three are called the Three Refuges or the Three Jewels or Triple Gem. Both these feel true when you are already familiar with them. When you know the comfort and clarity they provide, you want to take refuge in them. When you are fully present with them in a balanced way, they radiate like jewels. But for beginners to understand them, I like to present them as supports because starting anything new, we need all the support we can get!

Let’s explore each a little more fully:

Buddha means awakened, and there is always some core part of us that is awake. It is often hidden under layers of dust, ignored as we chase after and run from the Eight Worldly Winds. Our buddha nature, that wise balanced presence, is accessed through regular meditation practice, where we cultivate spacious ease and compassion for ourselves and all beings.

Dhamma (aka dharma) is the wisdom shared by the Buddha and other awakened teachers throughout human history. The dhamma is also taught by the forest, the sea, the hills and all the inhabitants who live in harmony with the natural way of things. We listen to the dhamma, we observe the dhamma, and we are inspired to insights into our own nature. We come to a deeper more compassionate understanding of life.

Sangha is the community of meditation practitioners who support each other in our practice and in our lives. When everyone around us is living a distracted life, it can be very difficult for us to choose a different course. When we come together on a regular basis with people who share our intention to meditate and live mindfully, we are inspired to keep this practice of meditation a regular part of our lives and to live authentically from a sense of connection with all beings. We are reminded why we love the practice and how much it means to us. (I always extend my sangha to include anyone who supports me in my practice, even if they are not meditating themselves. In our class, most of the women have mates who do not meditate, but all are supportive of it because their wives are so much happier.)

Are you enjoying the benefits of all three of these supports of buddha, dhamma and sangha? Are you finding refuge in them? Or are you forgetting one or more of them? Perhaps you have had glimpses into your own buddha nature, but have not set the wise intention to practice meditation to cultivate spacious ease so that you are operating from that buddha nature rather than being tossed to and fro in life, trying to be all things to all people.

Or perhaps you have a regular meditation practice, but it is dry for you. Is there enough dhamma in your life? (Not drama! Dhamma!) Are you reading, listening or attending dhamma talks? Are you taking quiet strolls in nature, pausing to notice what wisdom is there?

Or perhaps you listen to talks online or read books, and are inspired to practice, but have no sense of community, no one to answer questions that come up and no feeling of support in your practice.

You can see how the buddha, the dhamma and the sangha all work together to make a balanced lifelong practice that brings joy, ease and balance to your life.

If chanting is part of your preferred practice, here is the traditional Pali chant for taking these three refuges:
Buddham saranam gacchami (I go to the Buddha for refuge)
Dhammam saranam gacchami (I go to the Dhamma for refuge)
Sangham saranam gacchami (I go to the Sangha for refuge)

You don’t have to walk a tightrope

After a summer hiatus, our meditation class happily regrouped this week.

Since we last met, much has happened in our lives and in the world. We looked at how we relate to all that arises in our experience, whether in our personal lives or in the news.

How do you handle what arises in your experience?

Do you see yourself walking on a tightrope over a deep chasm while you try to balance too many plates?

Perhaps you have developed some coping skills that help you deal with whatever arises. Pause to consider how you handle sudden difficult situations in your life, ongoing conditions and unsettling news. Are they effective in helping you to find equanimity?

Is there some situation or condition that is currently causing you concern? If so, tell yourself the story about it, get caught up in it enough so that it is active in your mind.

Now pause.  Notice any place in your body where you feel a new sensation, perhaps tension, tightness or achiness.

If you find tension anywhere, put your hand there. (If your hands are cold, rub them together first.)

Breathe into the area with tenderness and compassion. With each inhale imagine healing energy creating spaciousness. With each exhale imagine releasing the tightness and  discomfort. Just this simple activity can help to create more ease in the body and mind. You can spend as much time as feels useful, and you can do this on as many areas as needed.

Through this exercise we become more aware of how the body holds our stories, and how much more effective it can be to work with the body than to stay only with the story, telling and retelling it to ourselves, hoping to come to some different ending.

This is not to say that talking is useless. If we are really paying attention, saying the words out loud or writing them down can make us aware of what we are thinking so that we can question our assumptions and see the holes in our reasoning. But chances are we are thinking this same story over and over again without paying attention, and every time we tell it, the body re-lives the experience and tightens up. This is toxic for our health and well-being. Working directly with the body starts a healing that releases us from the story that has us enthralled. So consider incorporating this exercise into your daily life, especially when you feel overwhelmed.

It is so easy to feel overwhelmed, isn’t it? The to-do list, the demands from others, the hectic nature of rushing about to take care of business. Even when our time is our own and no one else is dependent on us, we can get caught up in such a flurry of activity that we feel overwhelmed. We wonder why on earth we do that to ourselves.

We can get into the habit of wishing this moment away in favor of one that seems potentially more easeful conducive to joy. But when we are caught up in that pattern of thinking, we discover when we arrive at that future moment, we are still wishing for more or wishing for different, wishing this new moment away, just like the last.

We are creatures of habit. We create patterns. Some of the patterns we create cause us to suffer, such as this longing for something different than what is, the ‘if only’ pattern, as in ‘If only this situation were resolved I could relax and enjoy life.’

Sound familiar? If so, notice if you fall into another very human pattern of thinking that this pattern you’ve noticed is one more flaw in your make-up, one more thing to work on, one more chore on your to-do list. Aagh!

Let’s remember that because we are creatures of habit who create patterns, we can create patterns of ease and joy too. The regular practice of meditation and other ways that we nurture ourselves are just such joyful patterns. The beauty of this particular pattern is the way it has of revealing and releasing many of the patterns that cause our suffering.

That’s why we take time to sit in stillness, the way we might sit at the edge of a pond. Within seconds we are seeing things we hadn’t noticed were there: a water skate, reflections, a perfect web spun in the branch overhead, the sound of birds, the feel of the air on our skin. Just so in meditation we simply sit and notice, and in the stillness of our intention to be present, the mental patterns reveal themselves. We might see the very leap our mind makes based on erroneous previously-unquestioned assumptions.

We reset the intention to be present, relaxed but alert, anchored in physical sensation, and we set the intention to be compassionate with ourselves and with others. If we get caught up in thinking about a situation or a person, when we realize we are thinking, we simply send loving-kindness to the situation, to the person and to ourselves, and bring our attention back to the breath, or the light on our eyelids, or the sounds in the room, or the feel of the earth under our feet if we are walking. This is the practice.

This simple gift of a practice enables us to hold whatever arises in our experience in a more spacious way so we are not sucked into the inner storm. The storm is more of a little tempest in a teapot that we find curious, interesting, perhaps amusing, and instructive. We are able to be mindful, to see how we, being human, create many of these tornados through the very patterns of mind that we hope will save us.

Instead of walking a tightrope trying to balance too many plates, we can sense the support of the earth and our interconnection to all life, that we are not alone. The weight of the world is not our singular burden to carry.

No matter what life is throwing at you, you have a standing invitation to pause, to sit, to walk in nature, to give yourself the gift of attention and compassion. This is the great gift of equanimity.

Wise Effort – Finding the right balance

While meditating before giving my dharma talk I noticed that when I over-effort — striving and straining, trying to get something right — the ‘cure’ is to apply my intention to be kind. Loving-kindness, releases the tight knots of unskillful exertion. I feel released into a quality of supported ease, where I am not alone, separate, singular in my efforts. I send metta to myself: May I be well, may I be happy, may I be at ease…and I find the joy of wise effort in my meditation practice.

Conversely, it is easy to see that the ‘cure’ for under-efforting, where the mind dulls and lethargy sets in, is to apply the intention to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation. There is joy in cultivating mindfulness.

We can discern between Wise Effort and unwise effort if we are paying attention. Unwise effort leads to suffering for ourselves and others. Wise Effort is a direct cause of happiness. There are few things in life that can cause such an immediate sense of well being as Wise Effort.

In our Cooking Pot Analogy, we have established that you can’t start the fire without the match flame of Wise Intention. Now you can see that Wise Effort is represented by the crossed logs of a campfire.

Have you ever built a traditional log fire? If so, you know that you can’t just set out a log or two and hold a match to it. You need to lay out the logs in a way that they will remain steady and support each other. And you need crumpled wads of newspaper and kindling — smaller pieces of wood that will catch fire more easily — in order to start the fire and get it going strong enough to eventually light the logs. Building a campfire that will actually heat the pot requires a combination of understanding the requirements of the task and a willingness to take the time necessary to do it. That is Wise Effort.

Imagine being so hungry to eat the contents of the cooking pot that you rush through the laying of the campfire, thus get poor results and no meal. Or conversely imagine getting so caught up in the campfire building that you lose sight of the overall purpose — to heat the pot. Wise Effort keeps a balanced awareness of both the bigger picture and the task at hand.

We have explored Wise Effort — as Right Effort and Spacious Effort — before in this blog, and if you are interested in exploring further, I encourage you to check out these older posts.

This time around we have the benefit of our year long study of the teachings of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to work from, so it seemed right to use the word ‘Wise’ because we have earned it! (If you are just joining us don’t worry, that’s not a prerequisite.)

We can look at the Five Hindrances that we studied a few months ago and recognize how they cause unskillful effort.

  1. The hindrance of desire might cause us to want instant gratification without effort, or to set our eyes so much on ‘the prize’ that we are caught up in striving and can’t be present, even when we achieve our goal.
  2. Aversion might cause us to resist making any effort at all, perhaps because nothing seems worthy of our effort.
  3. Restlessness and worry cause us to spin our wheels, to be ineffectual in our efforts.
  4. Sloth and torpor leaves us stuck in enertia, perhaps depleted from unskillful over-efforting and lost in depression and despair.
  5. Doubt might cause us to second guess every move so that we exert effort in unskillful fits and starts.

We can also look at the Five Aggregates, these aspects of life experience we erroneously believe to be who we are. When we are caught in the illusion of being a separate self our efforts are often unskillful, because our intentions are built on the fear of disappearing. If we can reset our Wise Intentions again and again, we may find that the fear softens and releases.

If you ever have the opportunity to observe babies and toddlers for any period of time, notice how they naturally do what they need to do in order to learn and experience life and they do it with joy. I imagine this joy is in part a feeling of being at one with the universe. There has not yet been a sense of separation established, a mindset of being solo in this life. When we believe ourselves to be separate, then we have a more exhausting challenge and feel unsupported. The baby, the plant, the tree is intrinsically supported because it doesn’t see itself as apart from the whole energetic is-ness of being. Well, all right, it’s hard to know what a tree thinks or believes, but when we release into the understanding of the nature of inter-connection, it certainly gives ease and powerful energy to our efforts.

For our class discussion, we explored various examples — from our lives or the lives of people we know — of unwise or unskillful effort and its consequences.

One important theme was the painful consequences of over-efforting. We all have had the experience of taking on a project and pushing ourselves to complete it within a tight time-frame. Even though our body is sending out signals that we need to take a break or quit for the day, we plod on, determined to finish. And what happens? Accidents, pain, long-term suffering, sometimes permanent disability, sometimes death. Hello? We need to listen to the wisdom of our bodies as we go about our tasks. Wise Effort knows when to stop!

Similarly, an all or nothing attitude can get us into trouble. If we have been exerting no effort and suddenly decide ‘enough is enough’ and set ourselves a grueling course of exercise — going from couch potato to marathon runner in one day — we totally sabotage the possibility of developing a sensible exercise plan. The next day we will be in such pain that it’s back to the couch for us. ‘Well, I gave it a shot!’ Really?

Another way we sabotage ourselves into unwise effort is by procrastinating. We put ourselves into a time crunch and give ourselves ‘no choice’ but to rush to complete the task. Well, we did have a choice in every moment along the way. We just kept choosing the unskillful one.

A clue to unwise effort can often be found in the language we use when talking to ourselves. For example, the word ‘should’ is used frequently to point out that we feel misaligned with our intentions, that we are exerting unskillful effort. See if you find that word in your vocabulary. It’s an opportunity to explore where you are conflicted and what’s keeping you from exerting Wise Effort.

Tension in the body when you are doing something is a clue that we are operating from a finite depletable source of energy; that we are striving, forcing things, feeling some conflict about what we are doing, whether it’s the amount of time we are given to do it or whether this is something we want or feel is right to do. Back to questioning our intentions!

We discussed how Wise Effort could be applied to planning a big event, like a wedding. Although it’s important to see the big picture, it’s wise to then divide all that’s required into do-able bits, manageable tasks, and only do the one that’s needed now. Allow this task to be its own event, to be joyful and meaningful in itself.

Remember that the most skillful surgeons bring all their experience to bear on this moment, fully present, loving what they do. In fact, loving what you do is a prerequisite to Wise Effort. You might say ‘Well there are some things I love to do, but there are some things I just have to do, love it or not.’ 

Yes, that’s true for all of us, but let me share my experience on a silent retreat: 
Every retreatant is given a ‘yogi job’ so they have a hand in helping to maintain cleanliness or provide meals. On this particular retreat I asked for a job that would allow me to maintain my silence completely, so they gave me scrubbing shower stalls. Yup, that would do it. Oh joy!
I noticed my lack of enthusiasm for such a task, including an aversion to being in a small windowless space with cleaning product fumes. The cleaning products are non-toxic and the work requires a half-hour to forty-five minutes a day, but still… I was in a state of mindfulness from seven or so hours of meditation a day, and each day I discovered a shift in my attitude toward the work:
  • At first I did it because I had to and I just tolerated it as best I could to get through it. I was a ‘good sport.’ And I labored with the hope of praise for a good job, or at least a lack of criticism for a poorly done job. 
  • Then, because these were the showers the retreat teachers used, I did it as a service in kind, out of gratitude for their teachings. 
  • And then I felt my body — my arm rotating as I scrubbed, my legs supporting me as I reached or crouched. I felt my mind attend this as a simple meditation, a place to put my consciousness. I felt my breath steadily fueling this engine of activity.
  • I let go of any concern for the outcome. The shower stalls were scrubbed every day, by me on this retreat, but by other dedicated retreatants throughout the years before and after me.

As a practice of mindfulness. This exercise trained me in Wise Effort more than anything else I have ever done. The first thing I did when I got home after the retreat was to scrub our shower stall! But the lasting effect was a change in how I tend all my necessary tasks. They are yogi jobs I do for a set period each day, and with daily application, I can trust that all will be done.

You can see from the above example that at a certain point the goal was set aside, the idea that at any one point in time that shower had to be glowing to pass inspection. Many of us live life as if there is this looming inspection day just ahead, and we will be judged. So we spend our time — yes I say ‘we’ because perfectionism is something I deal with — judging ourselves constantly, seeing all that we do with some imaginary judges eyes.

Perfectionism arises, at least in part, out of a need to feel we can control the world, but can we? Of course not. Things happen all the time that are completely outside of our control. No matter how immaculate our house or person, a big wind could come and make a mess of it. No matter how good a job we do, someone might not approve of us, might not like us, and we will still survive. Passing inspection is not the goal of life.

To strive for perfection is to live in delusion, one of the ways we create suffering for ourselves and others. In many traditions of craft, such as rug or quilt making, it is important to have one mistake on the piece because no one but God is perfect. Whether we believe in God or not, it’s a good reminder to not be attached to perfectionism.

Does this mean we don’t do our best? Of course not. It is a joy and pleasure to work hard. But Wise Effort means being present with the joy of the work and not live with our minds entangled in the future, focused only on the end result.

Wise Effort is balanced effort, neither pushing too hard nor avoiding exertion. Finding that balance takes awareness, noticing the nature of our effort in this moment. Are we straining, striving, stressing, or are we lethargic, lax, bored, avoiding mental or physical exertion? And if so, how do we respond to that recognition? With judgment or with kindness, and a resetting of our intentions?

If we have our intentions to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be kind, then our efforts are going to be wise, and unskillful efforting will be seen and instead of judged, simply adjusted with kindness and renewed wise effort.

Autumnal Equinox

We have been exploring the concept of balance, inspired by the coming of the autumnal equinox, when night and day are equal in length. We have looked at: how to be in balance in the midst of chaos and how to create balance in our lives. And here we are at the autumnal equinox (Happy Fall!), only to discover that balance is not any particular moment in time, but something that we can find in any moment, even in the midst of challenging, seemingly out of balance circumstances.

Yet hearing or reading about a concept such as balance is just the first of a series of ways we incorporate it into our lives so that it can be of value. After learning about it, we live with it as an interesting idea. If it holds our interest, we study it in greater depth. With each exposure to the concept, we pause to notice our own response, what it activates within us: curiosity, fear or greed, for example. Our process is to question the concept itself, our understanding of the concept, and our reaction to the concept. By testing it for veracity, opening to it, walking with it, sitting with it, we can ultimately awaken to the truth through our own insights. Through this process we may find that we have incorporated this concept into our own view and our own way of being in the world.

What has come up for you in this exploration? Is the concept of balance valuable for you at this time? Is there a sense of imbalance in your life? If so, what is causing that sense of imbalance? Is it the causes and conditions of life that feel askew and you are struggling to stay centered amidst them? Or are you out of balance in your own patterns, not getting sufficient sleep, exercise, nourishment, meditation, pleasure, social engagement, mental stimulation, peace and quiet, laughter, order, simplicity or space for contemplation?

Through the regular practice of meditation we find the still point of center, a sense of being present and compassionate with whatever arises. From this vantage point, we can accept circumstances beyond our control and be empowered to change what is within our control. This sounds like the AA Serenity Prayer, which is based in deep wisdom. Whether we are prone to addictive behavior or not, we can incorporate this saying into our lives when seeking balance, for it is when we get out of balance that we fall into unskillfulness in whatever form is our personal pattern.
The Serenity Prayer concludes by asking for the wisdom to know the difference between the things we can change and the things that are beyond our control. This kind of discernment, being able to see when we are creating the imbalance in our lives and when it is something that we need to find a way to make peace with, comes with the regular practice of meditation. Without this clarity, we may believe we have no power to change a situation that is destructive, disruptive or out of balance in some way. Conversely we may believe we have it all together and it is our business to ‘correct’ someone else’s situation. We may spend our time railing against the world rather than accepting our seat at the table to co-create the world.

What comes up for you as I say these things? Notice images and associations. Make notes or journal if that is useful. What is the story you have been telling yourself? How has that story prevented you from seeing the balance that exists or seeing the imbalance that exists in your life?

When we talk about balance it is easy to assume that happiness is somehow only attached to one state of being, that happiness will come when all our ducks are in a row, all the stars aligned and we have gotten our act together. If we think we can only find happiness under certain conditions, as if we were hot house flowers, then we are creating a false narrative, an overly narrow and virtually impossible standard for happiness to exist.
Seeking happiness in itself is a sure means of never attaining it. If happiness is always on the horizon, then it is always beyond our reach. We are in a constant state of waiting, of hoping and dreaming. Look at the horizon. Does it ever get closer? No matter how far you travel you will never reach it. Is that not so? So our practice isn’t about some moment days, weeks or years hence, when all will be perfect. Our practice is about this moment: Being present, being compassionate, being here for the only gift we are given, again and again, fresh in each moment. Balance is only possible in this moment.
This sense of presence brings us the gift of being in balance, aka Equilibrium or Upekka, one of the Four Bramaviharas, or divine abodes. The first three Bramaviharas are Metta, loving kindness; Karuna, compassion; and Mudita, sympathetic joy, when we are happy for the happiness of others.
These states of being arise naturally out of the practice of meditation, of being present. We don’t have to go on a trek to find them. They are here and now, always arising from our regular practice of meditation. As you practice with consistency you may notice a sense of lovingkindness arising in you, not just for people you like for a particular reason, but for all beings. That is Metta. May ALL beings be well.
You may notice as you continue to meditate regularly that compassion arises. Compassion for yourself as you let go of erroneous ideas of who you are; and compassion for others, not because you feel sorry for them, but because you feel connected to them – no longer ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ but ‘There go I.’ That is Karuna.
As you practice you may begin to notice that you feel true joy for the happiness of others where before you may have felt gnawing envy, as if their happiness was stolen from you. Now you see that joy creates joy and is contagious. It is an infinite rather than finite resource. That is Mudita.
And you may discover that thanks to your meditation practice you are developing the ability to be present fully even when two strong emotions are vying for your attention. For example, it is not unusual at some point in life to be attending the wedding of a child and at the same time mourning or worrying about the ill-health of a parent or other loved one. In such a situation without the gift of a regular meditation practice, we might feel incapable of holding these two experiences or some other complexities of life without being plowed under by them. With meditation we find emotions can be full, rich and powerful, but there is a spacious awareness that gives us the abiding strength to hold it all in a loving open embrace. That is Upekka.
These four states, these heavenly abodes, are the naturally arising gifts of the practice. And Upekka, equanimity, the ability to live in a balanced way is indeed a great blessing. Explore this concept of balance in your own life and in your way of being in the world. Distinguish between what is within your control and what is not. If it is within your control, find the strength of love and gratitude within you to choose to create in each moment a balanced and harmonious life. If it is beyond your control, find within you that still point of center again and again, using the paired intentions: to be present and compassionate.