Category Archives: beginning meditation

Meditation: Chore or Pleasure?

sweeping.jpgDeveloping a meditation practice may feel like another chore to do, like taking out the garbage or cleaning the kitchen. Both require wise intention and skillful effort to do, and afterward there’s a noticeable positive difference in our lives.

But they are also very different, probably in many ways, but here’s at least one: Chores are things that someone else could do for us if we didn’t want to do them and money was no object. But no one can meditate for us. Just as no one can attend a concert for us or eat a meal for us. No one can enjoy a good book for us or go on a life-transforming trip for us. These kinds of things no one could do for us because they are not chores, but experiences that directly provide us with pleasure, nourishment, insight and edification.

Meditation is a pleasure! This might not be immediately apparent because like many pleasures, we develop our deep appreciation of it through practice and exposure. Though some people find meditating easy from the start, for most it is an acquired delight.

It is similar to acquiring a taste for walking in the woods if we’ve never done it and have only watched scary movies and the woods is where the bodies get buried. We may be afraid of what’s behind a tree or around the next curve on the trail. Just so, someone who has never meditated may fear what might be lurking within their minds. But, as with the new hiker in the woods, practice grows awareness and understanding. The new meditator discovers that simply being present with the senses in silence is a safe place to be. They increasingly find comfort in their growing ability to stay present with all the physical sensations, emotions and thoughts that naturally arise in their field of awareness. They develop the skills to greet all that arises with friendliness, to trust their own inner wisdom to help them see more clearly and experience more expansively being fully alive in each moment.

When it comes to chores, a regular meditation practice helps us to discover that even these tasks can be pleasurable. The pleasure isn’t just the satisfaction of a job well done, but in the doing itself, living life just as it is in this moment with appreciation.

In class, students shared some of their experiences with last week’s exercise working with the question: What are your inherent gifts, interests and skills? It made for an interesting discussion. If you did the exercise, what came up for you? Looking over your list, is there anything you noticed during the week? Did any moments from the past jump out as reminders of something that you could add to that list? Did any of the things you wrote down surprise you? Do any two or more of the skills or interest potentially combine in a satisfying way?

These are ongoing questions. If you didn’t do the exercise, you might want to go back to the previous post and give it a try. If you did it but it feels a little scary or troubling, then go back to the first few questions in this series and work with them around what comes up: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and whatever answers come up, look at them with fresh eyes and ask Is this true?

You might notice a harsh inner voice that devalues the gifts you name. There are often more than just one of these expressions of our fears, whose intentions are to keep us ‘safe’. They can be thanked for their intentions, treated with respect and kindness, but not given the run of the place, because operating from fear is unskillful and potentially dangerous.

In meditation we are tuning in to the still quiet voice of infinite loving kindness and wisdom. It has no sense of urgency. It never dictates. It simply offers guidance in the form of options. When a harried inner voice is sending us with a sense of urgency to the refrigerator for a treat, the wise inner voice might be quietly saying ‘Or, you could notice that you’re not hungry but bored and head out to the garden instead.’  But it takes practice to hear that quiet wisdom speaking amidst the cacophony of all those fear-based thought patterns going on in our brain. The more we listen, the more we recognize that wisdom, the more we operate from it, and though the other voices are present, we don’t feel compelled to act on what they say. (Or at least not all the time!) As we anchor into awareness and compassion, we can even ‘interview’ them, discover their needs, and wisely negotiate some skillful solution that would satisfy them without sabotaging our well being.

I remember my discovery of that wise inner voice in my meditation. It felt like dancing on the head of a pin. I fell off so many times, and the moments when I was there were so fleeting. But over time, with consistent practice, that pinhead grew larger and larger until I was able to be there most of the time, and I was very aware if I was no longer there, and knew how to get back in balance.

It may seem impossible at first. All those inner voices screaming and carrying on and laughing their heads off at the very idea that you could find wisdom within yourself. But the Buddha said ‘Be a lamp unto yourself’. He knew that each of us has the capacity to deepen in our experience, to cultivate presence, and to find that core of wisdom within. One of my students shared an insight she had, but she called it a ‘Stephanie moment’. I called her on that. It was not my moment, it was her moment. Her attendance in class has helped her find her own inner wisdom, but it is absolutely hers. She is learning how to be a lamp unto herself.

But it is challenging! It reminds me a bit of my aunt’s experience with macular degeneration. She had adapted to seeing through just one eye, but suddenly that eye also went blind. She freaked out. But she attended a class, and she was encouraged to really look and to notice that there was a pinprick-size window of sight in the lower right side of her vision. She was trained to see through that tiny window. Over time it felt to her as if the tiny window must have grown larger, but it was her capacity to focus there that had strengthened. That’s the same with the practice of meditation: We grow in our capacity to pay attention, to be aware and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. And to recognize the access to infinite wisdom we each have within us.

In the next post we will look at the final question in this series, and I am very excited about sharing it. Stay tuned!

Meditating with Insight Timer

2017-03-05-09-48-24If you don’t have a regular meditation practice and would like to establish one, I highly recommend using Insight Timer. It is an app that you install on your phone, computer or tablet to help you stay on track with your regular meditation practice. (There are other apps of this nature, but I have only had experience with Insight Timer.)

Why use Insight Timer?

  • It will time your meditation so you don’t have to keep looking at the clock.
  • It provides a beginning and ending bell that is very satisfying.
  • It reminds you that you are not alone in this endeavor, that at this very moment thousands of people around the world are also meditating. There’s a map of where they all are as well as profile photos. A global sangha!
  • It provides guided meditations (including my own) for all different kinds of meditative experiences: To relax, to develop awareness or to get to sleep, for example.
  • It provides talks by teachers, although if you are seeking dharma talks, I would recommend
  • You can find community in the many different online groups that focus on various traditions or aspects. For example, I belong to ‘Women Who Meditate’ and ‘American Buddhists’.
  • It’s free! While there are advanced features that cost some minimal amount, this is a free service offered by people in the tradition of generosity.
  • It keeps track of how much you are meditating and gives you congrats and stars for consistent practice. While this may feel like being in grade school, it is not surprising that most of us still respond to stars, especially when aligned with our core intention.
  • You can set it up to remind you to meditate at whatever time you want. Especially useful for a beginner who hasn’t established the habit of meditating at a certain time of day.

How to use Insight Timer

First download the app.

If you are installing it on your phone, it’s wise to put your shortcut to it on your main screen so it is up front to remind you to meditate. Apps for mind traps like social media and games can be put on subsequent screens. You’ll find them! Besides Insight Timer’s Buddhist bell logo is a powerful emblem of your deepest intention to stay present and compassionate.

In the app, you will set up your profile. There are many privacy options so explore and see what works for you. As you feel more at ease with the program, you may want to revisit your profile and adjust. You may just want to start by sharing your first name and a peaceful nature photo. 

In settings (the little gear image), make ‘Timer’ your opening screen. This will help you stay on track and not get lost in checking out groups, etc. when your intention was to meditate. It’s so easy to get distracted in social media, so make it easier to start your meditation than to get caught up in the comments in the ‘groups’ section. Even though it is a supportive community, if it is keeping you from meditating, it’s just another distraction!

On the timer page you will put in how many minutes you want to meditate and what sounds you want at the beginning and end. The free bells are really nice. but perhaps you prefer something different.

Now you are all set to meditate!

If you are a beginner, I suggest setting the timer for ten or fifteen minutes at the most to start. You can always continue to meditate after the end bell rings if you feel like it. And, if you want ‘credit’ for the full time you meditated, just check the little box above ‘DONE’ that asks if you want to log your extra minutes.

Each day you can then add more time in five minute increments, until you are meditating anywhere between twenty and forty minutes a day. Find what works best for you. There is no rule. Just developing a regular daily practice of any length is something to celebrate.

After meditation, the phone is right there, so handy, but try not to get involved right away exploring the groups, checking email or browsing social media. Instead stay present with the quality you have cultivated in your meditation. Do some mindful self-care, make yourself a cup of something to drink with mindfulness, practice mindfulness as you do meal prep, household chores, dog-walking, etc., keeping that quality of spacious ease active. If your mind is busy with some challenge you are facing, this period of deeper awareness after meditation is a good time to do some inner inquiry, journaling, walking in nature, and being open to the wisdom that is more likely to come when you have cultivated quiet receptivity.

If at a different time you want to more fully explore Insight Timer, you might look into the communities. There are many! If you want to join in, it’s easy to request to be a member. If you like the conversations, you can visit often and get involved by ‘liking’ and/or commenting. Once you comment, you will get notifications whenever anyone else comments, so it may get more involving than you want. But it also might be just the sangha you are seeking. If you want to post in these communities, bring your Wise Speech to bear before posting: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it timely? What is my intention here? If you share an experience, try to give the gist of it rather than the details, especially if it involves other people. The groups on Insight Timer are meant to be about inspiring each other to practice, so if your sharing is not helpful in that way, reconsider sharing it. This is not a gossip mill or a therapist’s office.

Using Insight Timer, or another similar app, can be very skillful. But meditating with your phone by your side can be challenging. Set your phone to ‘Do Not Disturb’ if you are likely to get tantalizing sound notifications that you have a message, email or phone call. If this is too difficult, forget about Insight Timer! Meditate the old fashioned way with your phone in another room.

Whatever you do, may it support your ongoing meditative practice.

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)

Finding Balance

Here we are in September. Notice how that feels, what thoughts come up for you around the end of summer, the coming of fall.

We are coming into the time of the autumnal equinox, where day and night are equal in length, so I’m drawn to think about balance — finding balance in our lives, noticing where we get out of balance.

Do you notice where you get out of balance in life? Where you over-indulge or over-effort? It’s often in certain specific areas — in our relationship with food, work, family, friends, coworkers, entertainment, exercise or access to nature. Finding balance begins with noticing what’s true in our current experience.

If you have ever watched a gyroscope in motion, you can see that it is always in balance. This example of one shows how the center portion is stable while the rest circle in all directions. The two parts of the upright pole extending vertically from the level disk remind me of our paired intentions to stay present and compassionate. Where the pole intersects with the disk can be seen as the still point of center that we cultivate through meditation and these intentions.

One kind of gyroscope animation from Wikipedia

The three outer circles in constant motion represent the causes and conditions of life, the events that are unpredictable and beyond our control. With practice our attention stays more and more centered, able to be present with all that occurs without being thrown off by it.

Finding balance is not making sure that everything is even, equal and easy in our lives, but rather that however wildly the circles of life rotate, we are grounded through our sense of presence and sense of compassion to be able to be with it. In looking at this center level disk that represents awareness, I imagine it as having grown from a very small point, the point of a pin that I’ve mentioned before to describe how it may initially feel to be present for a brief moment or two. Now awareness has grown to be this stable ample disk where we can maintain awareness for longer periods without grabbing for one of those rings.

Looking at the gyroscope animated image above, can you imagine trying to hang on to one of the outer edges, the wild swings and loops, being tossed this way and that, and trying to hold on for dear life? Imagine how easy it would be to be thrown off.

When we ride the edges of our experience, allowing ourselves to be thrown by causes and conditions, we suffer and those around us suffer. But when through regular meditation practice we stay present and compassionate, we can find joy in simply being alive even in the most difficult circumstances, while still being fully present for whatever arises. We don’t have to find a ‘better ring’ to hang onto. We simply practice awareness.

If this gyroscope image is useful for you, you might gaze at it for awhile and incorporate that image into your practice.

In our lives, sometimes we may focus more in one area than another, but we can still stay in balance. When we get out of balance, it is because we have gone unconscious and grabbed one of the outer rings of our experience. Perhaps we’re spending too much time at the computer and we’re overriding our sense of presence with a sense of need to get things done. We get into future thinking, grinding through this time in order to get to the reward time when we can relax.

Pause for a moment and think of where in your life you might be out of balance now. If nothing comes up, that’s fine. You might think of a recent example, or an area of your life where you often get out of balance.

Once you have it in mind, think of ways you seek balance when you notice it. For example, when we find we are eating to extremes and growing by leaps and bounds, a typical reaction is to determine to go on a strict diet. Often because the diet is so devoid of joy we put it off until some future date, and then knowing it is coming we figure we better eat up while we can, thus getting ourselves further out of balance!

Then when we actually go on the diet, maybe we get really into it, maybe we enjoy the rigors of self-discipline as a fresh contrast to the over-indulgence we had been experiencing. Yes, but what else is happening? Are we so focused on this regime that we are making it our life? Are we talking about it with others to the exclusion of any potentially more interesting topic? Are we defining ourselves by our ability to stick to a diet and lose weight? Are we spending more time in front of the mirror? Are we living for a future date when we will be at our target weight, promising ourselves the perfect weight wardrobe?

And then what happens? Well, let’s just say there’s a reason that diet programs always say ‘Results not typical’ under the before and after photos of celebrities that followed their program.

It’s not that it’s impossible to lose weight and keep it off. It’s just that the above example, which IS typical, is how we try to balance and extreme with another extreme. This looks more like a teeter totter than a gyroscope, with us soaring and plunging and ultimately falling off.

So I am living with this in my own life: noticing where I am living at an extreme and noticing the reaction to counterbalance it with another extreme. And instead of following through with that plan, which I have seen over and over again doesn’t work, I am simply being as present as I can be and as compassionate as I can be. I am making note of little traps that I fall into and figuring out little work-arounds that help me avoid them. For example, lately at meetings I attend there have been tempting snack foods put out within arm’s reach. I am finding there is another option besides indulgence or denial, even for me. I deny myself the food until I am leaving, and then I take one piece and enjoy it. So this is an example of how each of us can find our own way around things that throw us out of balance and into unconscious behavior. Noticing what happens, and instead of over-reacting or making it someone else’s problem — i.e. “Let’s make a rule that no treats can be brought to meetings.” — simply finding ways to negotiate a workable solution that is balanced.

I’ve noticed that when I am over-efforting — spending too much time on the computer working on a project or being focused on preparing for a future event that needs to be perfect in every way (an example brought up by a student that I think many of us can relate to!) — that if I stop to think about it I realize I have gone into people-pleasing mode. This desire for perfection, for making everything right, is our fear of not being accepted, not being enough, and not being loved. It is a form of appeasement we may have developed in childhood to cope with parents whose critical faculties were in high gear, or some other such challenging situation. It’s the way we’ve dealt with it and we can’t find fault with it because working hard is a virtue, is it not?

I think we can agree there is nothing wrong with hard work, but when it begins to crowd everything out, then we know we are dealing with a matter of extremes. In the example of preparing for an event, the student mentioned that by party time she was wiped out and not present to enjoy it or to be available for others except to make sure they had what they needed. But what they needed was her! Her presence!

So that need to please and appease is something to look at when we find we are over-efforting. If that doesn’t exactly fit, we might think of it in even a broader term of needing to exist, and acknowledgement from others for a job well done is a way of knowing we exist. Of course it is only a temporary fix and doesn’t truly satisfy.

When we are under-efforting or over-indulging, as in the case of over-eating, we might look at what we are avoiding or denying ourselves. What is this indulgence a stand-in for? Where in our lives are we denying ourselves some aliveness, some joy?

When I’m looking for inner answers, I often turn to nature. When I think of balance in nature, one of the best examples for me is the tree.

A classic tree image is of roots reaching down and out in balance to the outreach of its branches. As I think about the tree with its branches reaching up to the sky, its leaves absorbing nourishment from the sun, its roots absorbing nourishment from the soil, and its whole being functioning in balance with all of life, as it takes sin carbon dioxide and releases oxygen for mobile life forms to breathe; as it provides shade, shelter and nourishment to woodland creatures; and its roots keep the earth together. Just by being, existing, a tree performs its balanced functions that benefit all of life.

Just by being, existing, attuned with our own inner wisdom, there is a distinct possibility that we too are fulfilling our natural function. Perhaps we don’t have to go to extremes! Perhaps we just need to stay present and compassionate to be fully alive and balanced.

Speaking of roots, we can revisit our exploration of shallow-rooted fear-based living versus deeply rooting in the spacious nourishing soil of life. Another way we get out of balance is between our creative non-linear impulses and our inner desire for structure and rules.  In psychological terms these are the puer and the senex. I have been rereading ‘The Wisdom of Imperfection’ by Rob Preece, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher and Jungian psychotherapist, and he mentions these terms. So let me bring my own exploration of shallow and deep rooting to these two aspects. The puer when it is well-rooted, coming from a sense of love and wholeness, is a font of creativity and freshness. The senex when it is well-rooted is the ability to take that creativity to its fullest expression through supplying a grounded organization for it. Preece uses the example of a craftsperson who develops senex-based skills and systems to bring to fruition the puer-based creativity of their craft. But now let’s look at the shallow-rooted fear-based puer: infantile, childish, erratic, different just to be different, using imagination to create conspiracy theories, mischief and destruction. And the senex when it is shallowly rooted in fear becomes rigid, autocratic, bureaucratic, heavy-handed, punitive and authoritarian, squelching all creativity and fresh thinking as threatening to the systems it has established.

So when the puer and senex are deeply rooted, nourished and tapped into a loving inner wisdom, they are a powerhouse of combined creativity and the supportive structure and systems that build upon and maintain the fruits of that creativity. When they are shallow-rooted in fear, puer and senex fight each other because they feel threatened by each other.

We can see this when it happens in ourselves, and we can clearly see it happening in the world around us. So that gives us a way of looking at what happens that can be very helpful to remind ourselves to attune to the inner wisdom, to stay present and deeply-rooted, knowing ourselves to be a natural expression of the universe loving itself. Just like the tree! And in that alignment we find a natural way to find balance in our lives. 

The Dungeon of Difficult Emotions

We’ve seen how holding tight to our established identity creates contraction as we grasp and cling to that hard rock of who we believe ourselves to be. This contraction can also be an aversion to who we believe ourselves to be. We’ve talked about how when we let go of that contracted state by relaxing, releasing, letting go in a mindful way, we create the space to see things more clearly and compassionately, including our emotions.

The emotions themselves are free agents. None of us can claim emotions as our identity though we often try to do so. Emotions float through our present experience like the weather, as natural as fog, rain, snow, heat, clouds, storms and rainbows. Emotions simply exist. Understanding this frees us from believing that we are the emotions we experience or that the emotions reflect on us. We can simply notice them as they pass through our experience with compassionate curiosity.

We are certainly responsible for how we behave in response or reaction to the emotions we experience. We all have habituated ways of dealing with them. We may feel the helpless victim of emotions, letting them dictate our behavior. We may feel ashamed of certain emotions and shield them from sight, sometimes so effectively that we shield them from ourselves.

It’s very likely we were taught to put forth acceptable emotions and hide, deny or push down unacceptable ones. Our parents and teachers may have been uncomfortable with their own negative emotions, and so were unwilling to acknowledge ours. In my case if I said, “I feel (a particular emotion), I was told “Well, you shouldn’t.” At other times my fears were dismissed. “Don’t be silly,” was a phrase that came up a lot in my upbringing. I’m sure this or some variation on it was pretty much the norm for mid-twentieth century. But it leaves us as adults with a habit of suppressing these ‘unacceptable’ emotions. So how does that fit with the weather analogy, where all kinds of emotions simply pass through our experience? Well, it’s as if we’ve been corralling thunderbolts and locking them up in an airtight vacuum packed dungeon somewhere inside ourselves.

I remember when I first started meditating I had some fear that what I would find in this process of self-discovery would be that my true self, my true nature, would be hideous and unacceptable. There was this sense of bottled up toxicity that I was terrified of unlocking. Now I can recognize that I was not completely wrong, that there was indeed a bottled up toxicity within me, but it wasn’t my ‘true nature’ but simply the imprisoned storms of many years of habituated emotional suppression.

This process of pushing down or suppressing seems to successfully contain the emotion. It can no longer just pass through, but is locked up and it’s sitting in a cell deep in the dungeon of our subconscious, plotting revenge, digging tunnels and rattling the bars from time to time to remind us it is still there. We are all emotional jailers to some degree, and it’s not a role we really relish. Even if we get into the whole jangling keys, gun toting, star on our chest swagger of it, in truth there are so many other things we’d rather be doing than minding the jail that contains our suppressed emotions. And the perception of ourselves as toxic at the core, when we believe those suppressed emotions to be our true selves, is a great cause of suffering that affects us and those around us day in and day out.

When it comes to jailing emotions, anger is the easiest target to round up and toss in the clinker because it makes such a ruckus. We know if we don’t lock it up it will smash everything in its path. So anger is easy to spot and uncomfortable to be around — not an emotion we want to find in our personal experience. It doesn’t suit our sense of who we are, this anger, and its existence can make us angrier, so that we find we are the kind of jailer that roughs up the inmate on the way to tossing it in its cell. We are embarrassed by this anger, so we keep jailing it up every time we come across it and hope that nobody notices.

In our weather analogy anger is not the town trouble-maker but a thunder storm passing through. We would never think of locking up a thunderstorm. We know how to behave responsibly around it. What’s the difference between a real thunderstorm and anger? We think anger is a reflection on us, so we compound its intensity by fueling it with other emotions like shame. When we react to anger with fear of exposure and try to suppress it, we are compressing the anger into something densely toxic that begins to poison our life and the lives around us.

Suppression of emotion is a dangerous, even deadly game. It plays havoc on all aspects of our lives, including our physical health. These suppressed emotions feed on challenging situations, difficult personalities, scary events and high pressure deadlines, so that we may find ourselves addicted to disaster in our lives. We can get hooked on horrendous news, terrifying movies and drama in our own lives to feed those suppressed emotions.

Conversely we might feel unable to deal with any exposure to news, violence in movies or drama in our lives, feeling sapped by them, and afraid of their power to harm us. We see ourselves as weak and vulnerable, prone to illness.

The Buddha taught his followers to incline the mind toward what is wholesome, because that supports our ability to walk the Eightfold Path that frees us from suffering. But he was not suggesting that we are somehow so weak and vulnerable that we can’t face any difficulty that comes along. We are to be present and notice its qualities and our reactions to it all with an open spaciousness of compassionate mind. Our fear of what is unwholesome throws us in its path, for unwholesomeness feeds on fear.

Addiction to or aversion of anything are really two sides of the same coin. Both provide valuable clues to our relationship with the emotional weather that has been passing through our lives. If we learned to suppress emotion as children, then we may feel we are betraying our parents or family by going down in the dungeon and unlocking the cells. But if our parents taught us how to suppress, it’s only because they didn’t know any better. They did the best they could with what they had available. They taught what they knew to be true from their perception of themselves and the world around them. As unskillful as it may have been, they did what they felt would best protect us in the world. And for their intention we can be grateful. But we don’t honor them by staying true to the false beliefs they thought at the time to be true.

When we finally go down into the dungeon, we find that the emotions we have needed to muster in order to keep the old ones jailed are more dangerous than the prisoner-emotions themselves. When we are able to look at them with an open spacious mind we can see that the prisoners are in fact weak and helpless. How can this be? Because when we are willing to look and be present with them, we have stopped fueling them with our fear. We have stopped empowering them. We see them clearly and recognize, as the Buddha recognized when repeatedly confronted by Mara the tempter as he sat under the Bodhi tree with the intention to awaken, that they are illusions created by the interaction of our fears, our aversions and our overwhelming desires, with the emotional weather that is part of the experience of being human.

Meditation provides us with a sense of dispassionate self-acceptance that makes it safe to visit the dungeon of our suppressed emotions. If we don’t feel it is safe, we can seek the help of a therapist to walk beside us as descend into the dungeon.

Why is it so important to visit these emotional prisoners? Doing so liberates not just them but us. As long as we are suppressing emotion, we are constricted in a way that inhibits our ability to love ourselves and others, to find a way to be joyful and useful, and to be healthy.

We hear about how meditation benefits physical health, and we can easily demonstrate the direct connection between the mind and the rest of the body by doing this simple experiment: Close your eyes and bring to mind something that upsets you, some person, situation, event, deadline, etc. that irks you, gets your goat, angers you, or scares you. Then when that thought is fixed in the mind, notice where in they body you have contracted. Check out the brow, the jaw, the temples, the neck, the shoulders, the chest, the hands, and the gut. Notice it, then let the thought go, and relax, release and shake out any accumulated tension.

If you noticed tension in any area of the body, then the mind-body connection is made perfectly clear. Here we were, perfectly comfortable, and then an emotionally charged thought is brought up, and our body contracts in some habituated way. If anyone ever doubts the truth of the mind-body connection, that’s the simplest way to demonstrate it.

If you didn’t notice it, try it some time when you are upset about something and really pay attention to sensations in the body.

Dr. John Sarno, orthopedic surgeon and author of a number of books about the mind-body connection, is an excellent resource to check out if you have any physical ailments, especially chronic ones or ones that the doctor can’t explain. Reading one of his books has made a great difference in the lives of many, including my own, I’m happy to say.

Just seeing the mind-body connection for ourselves and understanding some of how it works can free us of pain, whether we are meditators or not. But a Vipassana meditator trained to be present and compassionate with the arising and falling away of phenomena, including emotion and physical sensation, is more readily noticing what’s going on in both the body and the mind.

But being a meditator doesn’t make us clairvoyant. Like anyone else we can be blind to what’s right in front of us if some aspect of ourselves feels too threatened by it. As meditators when we do discover it, we have the training to deal with it in a way that is effective. Facing what scares us most is an important part of meditation practice.
Instead of feeling failure at such a discovery about ourselves and acquiescing to the urge to push our discovery down into a deeper dungeon, we are more likely to feel like investigators having found an important clue. We approach the discovery with curiosity and maybe even excitement. Aha! We feel we are at the beginning of a rich journey.

So this is the process, this making space and then noticing. If it feels self-indulgent, then it is probably a clue to habituated suppression. We discount and discard feelings that make us uncomfortable. We tell ourselves we’re being silly, that we should bucker up, grin and bear it, have a stiff upper lip, etc. But this is just our discomfort talking, our fear of what we’ll find if we visit the dungeon. But when we use our keys – our meditative tools of self-discovery – to liberate those suppressed emotions, we find we have liberated ourselves from suffering.

I ended this week’s class by reading an article I wrote many years ago, titled Emotions as Honored Guests. It was published in The Emotional Intelligence Newsletter, and I still on occasion get requests for its excerption or reproduction, so it clearly resonates with people. It is always available on along with other downloads of useful information about meditation. Some of you may recognize similarities in concept between this piece and a poem by Rumi. I wrote it before I ever read Rumi so I was surprised, delighted and a little unsettled by discovering his poem. The coincidence shows that while each of us may draw our understanding from different wells, the wells tap into a deep river of universal wisdom. Our goal in meditation-based self-discovery is to keep dipping in the well.

Eightfold Path: Spacious Effort

Imagine a bird soaring in the sky, held aloft by the air currents. Spacious effort is like that. Out of a sense of connection with all that is, we are held aloft, so that we are not alone and solely responsible to carry the weight of the world upon our shoulders or push a boulder uphill over and over like Sisyphus. We can instead be like sailors who know the tides and the ways of the winds, and with a slight shift of the rudder and choice of sails, align with the already existing energy of the universe to do whatever needs to be done.

How does this play out on dry land? Through the Spacious Intention to be present, to sense in to the energy of the universe as it courses through our own bodies, we can come into Spacious View, seeing the interconnection, feeling the support of that vibrant web of life.

Although this would not be the traditional way of explaining right or wise effort*, and actually seems more akin to the Taoist term Wu Wei**, it still feels accurate to me to describe Spacious Effort as aligning with and feeling supported by the infinite energy of which we are made and that breathes through us. From this sense of connection and support, our effort will be fruitful, sincere and well-received.

But how often does that happen? For most of us accessing and riding the infinite energy of the universe seems like a fantasy. The world we live in is full of challenges, difficulties and obstacles to be overcome, and it certainly seems that none of it will happen without serious effort on our part. Even as I say this I can feel the locking down of my muscles, the clamping of my jaw, the clenching of my heart and the overloading of my brain. It’s true, I cry, it’s true. Life is hard and I sometimes have a hard time coping.

Life is a challenge! Any given life at any given time has a set of responsibilities that can be daunting to contemplate. Perhaps we really do feel as if we are carrying the world on our shoulders up a steep incline with no summit in sight. Or maybe we feel like a waiter with too many plates to carry and too many hungry diners making excessive demands. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well, wouldn’t it be great to have a sailboat to ‘align with the universe! Wouldn’t that be just dandy! But that’s not how life is. Give me a break.”

Okay, okay. Reality check! But here’s the reality: Most of what we are dealing with on a daily basis is not reality, but perception.

Whatever seems true in our lives right now is a mirage, as much a lie as what we see when we look in the mirror. Think about it: What we see in the mirror is flipped horizontally, only the front of our body, probably cropped, fixed in an unusual stationary moment, and distorted by our filters of selective perception. That false mirror distortion of our body actually mirrors how it is in our lives as well.

Think about your own to-do list. Think about the people who depend on you. Think about your fears of what will happen if you don’t fulfill your obligations. Bring everything to mind, everything you can think of.

Now sense in to your body. Notice any tension that may have escalated just that quickly. Feel the clamping down. This is the adrenaline of fear coursing through us. Most of us live in this constant bath of adrenaline, putting strain on our bodies and minds.

Now focus on your breath. Breathe in the generous infinite air that surrounds us. Allow the breath to ease the tightness of muscles, soften the heart and open the mind. Allow yourself to be held in this spacious presence of sensing in.

Sensing in, we relax. Sensing in, we become aware of what is true in this present moment. Sensing in we find reality, beyond the mirage of our perceptions.

When we access the moment, we bring ourselves into alignment with the ever present infinite energy that is a simple factual scientific truth, not something requiring belief. There is nothing woo-woo about it, as we discussed when studying Spacious View.

(I admit I am finding that this word ‘spacious’ does seem to have some quasi-magical incantation quality. I find saying to myself ‘spacious mind, spacious heart, spacious life’ gives me access to a calm centered place where I can remember that I am just one of six billion people on the planet and it’s not all up to me. I have had feedback from some of you that the word spacious has the same effect on you!)

Whatever challenge we are facing, being grounded in spacious awareness allows us to meet the challenge. There is a quality of release and letting go in spaciousness. For those of us who find we are tense and determined to accomplish goals, to get something right, to become the best we can be, we can begin to question the value of our exertions. ‘What is it I hope to accomplish? Are my efforts effective? If I feel tense, is my tension serving me or sabotaging me? When have I exerted effort and felt joy in the exertion?’

Let’s play a little with this last question. Perhaps you remember a physical activity like swimming where the pure pleasure of the strokes and the sensation of the water against your skin brought you more fully into the moment, and you felt alive, awake and joyful. This was an experience of Spacious Effort. Sensing in, you felt the joy of using your muscles, and hopefully, sensing in you knew when your body was ready to stop, and you did, rather than forcing some over-efforting thought control onto what was a joyous and healthy experience. Studies now show that forcing ourselves to do exercise that we don’t enjoy actually adds so much stress that it negates any health benefit.

Connecting to the isness of being is plugging into creative energy as well. I remember when I used to write advertising copy, whenever a co-worker and I brainstormed together and laughed until our jaws ached in the creative process, the resulting ads were the best work either of us every did. Quality results arise from joy and a unitive state of ease! A worker in a factory who stays fully present in the moment and honors the work being done as almost a ritual and a gift offered in joy will also produce a finer product than a worker who is tensed, afraid of making a mistake, or sluggish, grumpy or daydreaming, potentially causing harm to the product, themselves and others. We’ll discuss that more when we get to Spacious Livelihood, but you can see the nature of Spacious Effort in these two work examples.

Unskillful effort comes from not being fully here and in this moment. With over-efforting, mostly likely we have a goal, an expectation or a desire that keeps us feeling locked out of the moment, stuck in some future moment of triumph, accomplishment or relief. How often do we keep ourselves slogging away with mental visions of a hot shower, a cool drink or a cozy bed? We are avoiding being present because of discomfort, when it would be more skillful to honor the moment, pay attention to our bodies’ cues, take a break from the activity, have a sip of water, a change of pace, and sense in to the sensations of the moment before proceeding. Slogging away is a sure way to end up falling down on a hike or making errors in our work. Spacious Effort honors the body’s cues and responds with compassion.

With under-efforting, we have some inner conversation that is making such a convincing argument that we can’t seem to get off the couch to do what needs to be done. Spacious Effort brings us into the moment, into noticing the inner conversation and compassionately working with the inner messages we hear.

Before we start really listening we might think of our thoughts as a monolog, as ‘our’ thoughts, an expression of our true selves. But when we begin to listen more closely with spaciousness and compassion, we begin to see that it’s not a monolog but a dialog. There’s the voice that says ‘I want….” and another voice that questions the veracity of that statement. The more we pay attention, the more voices we begin to notice, until we see that our thoughts are more of a symphony of various component parts. Now this is not a case of split personality. It’s just the nature of thought. Thoughts are drawn from all over the place throughout the course of our lives. When we meditate and give ourselves space to explore, we can begin to see the source of some of our thoughts. Maybe we believe something about ourselves because someone in high school said something hurtful. We incorporated it into our thinking and haven’t bothered to question it since. Giving our minds space, and noticing, we can see the associative images and memories that fuel these thoughts. Once we see them, sometimes they simply vanish because the source revealed is so obviously unreliable we can no longer believe it. But most often this noticing is just the beginning of a very sweet process of inner exploration.

An effective way of working with all these messages is to begin to notice their variations of voice and tone, and begin to assign them pet names that have something of the nature of their general message, so that we recognize them more easily when the message arises in our minds. In this way we can say, ‘Ah, yes, I know you,’ just as the Buddha recognized Mara in all its guises as he sat under the Bodhi tree.

Here’s an example: Many years ago when I had a problem getting myself to exert some effort to exercise, I noticed the inner aspect of myself that hated exercise and loved bed and, once identified, I gave it the pet name ‘Slug’ to help me notice when those kinds of thoughts arose, and to give me a way to address this aspect in an inner dialog.

Slug told me that he loved bed because it was like a big mommy hug, and he missed his mommy. This was in the early 1990’s. My mother had died in 1989 and I had not taken sufficient time to honor her passing and to honor my grief.

Being compassionate toward an inner aspect, it is possible to negotiate a way to meet its needs without sabotaging my own. Because Slug missed his mommy, I decided it might work to attend the yoga class of a friend who was the same age as my mother and who at the end of class when we would lie on the floor in shavasana (corpse) pose, would come around with blankets and lovingly tuck each of us in. Well, needless to say Slug was in heaven with this motherly treatment, and I could begin to rediscover the joy of stretching and moving my body. Eventually I was able to add other forms of exercise without Slug complaining.

You can see how the Spacious Intention that we discussed last week is so important here. The intention to be present allows us to be aware of thoughts that push too hard or sabotage our efforts. Our intention to be compassionate enables us to explore in a loving way the roots of our over or under efforting.

We can notice if we are tense, frantic, frenzied, or sluggish, lethargic, exhausted. Spacious Effort will feel calm, balanced, infused with an enthusiasm that is whole- hearted and centered. We will feel both at ease and alert.

We can notice what is sabotaging our ability to exert Spacious Effort. Noticing the quality of our effort gives us valuable information as to how we feel about the project at hand and how we feel about ourselves. If we are trying too hard, who are we trying to please? What goal are we trying to reach? Why is it so important to us? If we are feeling sluggish and resistant, what is it that we are resisting? What aspect of self is telling a story here? And what is the story being told? There are many questions that can lead to rich exploration. But we can only begin the journey if we first notice what’s happening.

Over-efforting often has to do with people pleasing which has to do with seeing ourselves as the objects of others’ views rather than the subject of our own lives. I talk about this a lot in my book ‘Tapping the Wisdom Within.’ It is not something that I have ever heard addressed in my years as a student of Buddhism. I think it might be more of (though not exclusively) a ‘girl thing.’ The Buddha probably didn’t have this issue so didn’t think to address it. But it is epidemic among girls and women in our culture. Think about how we are objectified, how important our packaging is and how effectively advertisers work our fear of not being the most desirable object. We get stuck trying to be what we imagine others want us to be, whether it’s pretty, smart, funny, efficient, capable, etc. We imagine that if we are not all these things we will not be lovable and we will be alone.

Our fear of separation drives us out of balance. We have no center. And when we have no center we can’t connect with others because we’re not where they expect us to be. They try to get to know us, but we are too busy trying to figure out what would make them like us to let them in! We are imagining how they see us and making constant adjustments.

I certainly had this object-orientation for the first forty or so years of my life. It wasn’t until I was flat on my back with a nine-month illness that I was able to quiet down enough to see what was happening. I spent that nine months meditating and taking notes on the insights that arose. The subject versus object issue was high on the list of topics of concern. And over that time I began to get to know myself, my own preferences, my own opinions, my own feelings. It was fascinating to discover them, to discover myself without the until-then all-important feedback of others.

The over-efforting that was a part of my having seen myself as object rather than subject of my own life led to my illness. It is very stressful to always be trying to figure out what others want from you and how to please them! So part of my healing was coming back to center, coming back to acknowledging that the only person I can be is me, even if everyone dumps me. But what happened was quite the opposite. When I was well enough to socialize, my simply being myself instead of the person I thought people wanted me to be actually improved all my relationships. I was who I was and they could find me where they expected to find me and understand me in a way that they couldn’t before, back when I was a shape-shifting blob of desire to please them.

So over-efforting and under-efforting are clearly unskillful, landing us in states that are even more unpleasant than the one we are trying to escape through under-efforting or over-efforting!

What do you notice for yourself about effort? What stories drive you or keep you from bothering? Take on this valuable exploration, a gift of the Eightfold Path. In the coming weeks notice where you over-effort and where you under-effort. Notice it in the areas of work, relationships, food and exercise, or any place else. Begin to notice the thoughts that are the source of what drives you or undermines you. This is the beginning of coming into clarity, balance and Spacious Effort.

To read more about this subject, check out the post on Right Effort from our first go round exploring the Eightfold Path in 2009.


* ‘avoiding unhealthy mind states, abandoning unhealthy mind states once they have arisen, moving the mind to healthy mind states, and maintaining the mind on healthy mind states that have already arisen.’

Now I imagine that the majority of the Buddha’s students were younger men, and I understand that getting a guy to stop thinking about sex would be a huge challenge. Also with all that testosterone, perhaps the challenge is also to stop fantasizing about acting out anger through violence. But my students are mostly mature women. For most of us this is not our challenge. We have other challenges, which I address in a way that feels more useful to me. If of course, any of you do have runaway thoughts of sex and violence, then that is what you will be noticing and questioning.

The Buddha always encouraged questioning the veracity of any statement. I don’t question that inclining the mind toward healthy states is useful, but I believe most of my students have been attempting to focus on healthy mind states most of their lives and don’t need my reminder to do so. The duality of healthy vs. unhealthy thoughts seems more likely to keep us in the ongoing inner battle rather than shifting our focus to the spacious interconnection that has room for it all, even the errant negative thoughts that are clues that are more useful being respectfully questioned rather than suppressed.

** Wu wei is the ‘action of non-action,’ when our actions are in alignment with the ebb and flow of the cycles of the natural world.

The Red Balloon

In a recent speech to a group of mostly non-mediators, I shared the story of an illness I went through in 1990, the intensive meditative ‘retreat’ I had during the nine months of my recovery, and how my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living was written from that meditative expanded state.

As a prop for the speech, I used a red helium balloon to demonstrate the situation leading up to my illness. I had been overwhelmed with the responsibilities of trying to be all things to all people in my sphere: a good mom to my teenage children, a good daughter to my aging ill parents, a good wife to my husband, a good executive vice president for our company’s clients and employees. I was trying so hard to understand what it was that all of these people wanted me to be that I lost any sense of who I was. I only knew I was overwhelmed and exhausted.

The balloon, like me, was held up by a finite amount of energy, energy that was leaking. I held up another balloon I had purchased the day before. It was already flagging on the floor, having lost most of its helium overnight. I too was operating from a depleting source of energy. I was depending on will power, effort and determination to be the best I could be.

Just like the balloon, I was heading down, leaking energy. Like the balloon I was susceptible to sudden events that might hasten my deflation. For the balloon that sudden event was the existence of a pin. Pop! In my case it was the death of my mother, who was my dearest friend and the foundation of my life as I knew it. It was as if my world had lost its axis. And like that popped balloon in pieces on the floor, down I went, succumbing to chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome, and under doctor’s orders to quit my job.

The balloon seemed an effective prop to demonstrate how vulnerable I was. The pop was perhaps over the top, and could have caused heart attacks, but it certainly got the crowd’s attention! After the speech I received many enthusiastic responses, and it seemed that I was able to persuade many of them that they need to take quiet time for themselves to listen in to their own inner wisdom.

But several times people mentioned that they needed to re-inflate their balloons. While I am glad if that means they will be nourishing themselves, my analogy of the balloon was not to say we are balloons and we need to stop for a helium fill up every so often!

I was trying to convey that I had been functioning as if I were a balloon, reliant on a rapidly depleting source of energy. I had been unaware that I could access an infinite source of energy, that I wasn’t a balloon at all, wasn’t separate and vulnerable, but an expression of energy that is infinite and boundless. As are we all.

We can make a subtle shift of awareness to access this sense of being connected, not like Legos, separate but interlocking, but as energy – the buzzing life force — briefly communing in the form of a flower or a bird or me or you! The way an ocean wave rises and falls, all life forms rise and fall. Yet we are all one, all ‘water’ – even when being a cloud or a raindrop or an avalanche of snow — still inextricably one with life.

Though the balloon analogy wasn’t totally effective, it did what it needed to do by getting people’s attention. I wish some red balloon popping had gotten my attention back when I was feeling so overwhelmed trying so hard to be all things to all people. I wish I had been listening to myself when one day I said to a coworker, “I feel totally separate from myself.” I wish I had taken that as an invitation to question in about what was going on with me, instead of just laughing it off.

Perhaps reading this will remind you to listen for any messages that rise up from within you. The quiet wise whisper within always ready to guide you is patient, not pushy. It doesn’t tell you what you ‘should do’ or ‘must do’ or ‘have to do.’ It doesn’t insist on anything or set a deadline. It has no urgency. It’s never strident. That’s why it’s so important to provide a quiet solitary environment for it to be heard! It’s just a quiet patient voice that when asked what you need to know will most likely tell you, among other things: “I love you. I have always loved you. I will always love you.”

And really, when the infinite being-ness of life tells us that we are loved no matter what, then all sense of struggle to be something other than we are falls away. In its place an open-hearted peaceful love of life rises up to fully support us in whatever we do.

That’s what I wish for all beings. That’s what I wish for you.