Category Archives: benefits of meditation

The Practice Put to the Test

In recent weeks my meditation practice was put to the test. Together with my husband and five visiting family members, I hosted my brother’s hospice care in our home.

While I won’t go into detail about our experience, I do want to share the ways in which the regular practice of meditation supported me throughout that time and continues to support me now in my mourning of my beloved brother.

Understanding Impermanence
My gratitude for the practice started long before this intensive time in my life. I have been meditating for many years, and for many years I have been aware of how precious and finite our time together on this earth truly is. I bring this awareness into every relationship, and it deepens my appreciation and compassion.

At a recent poetry reading, while my brother was in the hospital, I read a poem I had written many years ago about our relationship.

Humming

We used to hum ourselves to sleep, my brother and I,
in the back of our old black ’54 Ford station wagon
where our father had fashioned us bunks upon the luggage,
or when we were lucky, in a real bed in a motor court,
or in a heavy green canvas tent by the bank of a stream where we,
with the industry of beavers, had built an unneeded dam.

Humming began low on the scale, each breath carrying us up a note,
until we reached the dizzying heights of our range
and plunged to the bottom again, that deep bass rumbling in our chests.

Humming was voodoo, ritual magic, a place where the day’s teasing died,
where small dark spaces relaxed into the boundless arms of the soft summer night,
and we were lured into dreaming by our own hypnotic drone.

Humming we greet each other now, tender huggy hums of delight,
hums that pour into our embrace all the precious frayed treasures
of that fragile someday-to-be-forgotten world of our beginnings.

– Stephanie Noble 2003

Written twenty-five years ago, that poem contained the seed of this moment, the understanding of the fleeting nature of life. I am grateful that I have always treasured every moment we’ve spent together in person and talking on the phone over the years of our adult life.

Dependent Co-Arising
Recently I taught about the Buddhist concept of dependent co-arising, and during this hospice experience it helped me immeasurably to recognize that ‘this is like this because that was like that’. It seems so simple, so obvious, but how often in life do we get caught up in hurt feelings and blame because we are in the habit of not seeing or acknowledging all the causes and conditions that created the actions, words and current state of being of those around us?

In his last days, in pain, confusion and delusion, my brother sometimes lashed out with his words at times. It hurt, and is painful still when I think of it, I won’t lie. But I was also able to see how he was reverting to a childhood pattern we shared, one that we had grown out of (with help from his first wife who took us each aside and said ‘You know your (sister/brother) loves you, don’t you?’ We apparently didn’t! We had been so caught in a pattern of teasing and scolding and hurt feelings.) But here it was again, that old pattern arising. He would say my name in the same stern way he did when he was my twelve year old big brother: ‘Stephanie, sit down!’ I began to fear those words, to tremble the way I did as a child. I felt vulnerable because of my deep love, my anticipated loss and my exhaustion as all of us stretched ourselves to the limit of our capacity to learn how to be medical providers on the fly.

At times I cried and was comforted by the team, I could feel their upset on my behalf. What an ungrateful bastard my brother was when I was providing him with the best damn sendoff anyone could ask for. Yeah! I appreciated that support, believe me. At times it felt like we were in a British aristocratic soap opera, with the cranky lord making all kinds of unreasonable demands and harsh judgments, and we, the underlings huddled together around the kitchen table to regroup. Then whoever was on call would descend once more into the fray.

But much of the time he was the loving, funny person he had always been. This experience gave me a deeper understanding and cultivated greater compassion for everyone in relationship with difficult people. If this were not a limited period of time situation, I would not have continued to subject myself to such behavior. After he died, each day those painful moments have softened and have begun to find their very small place in the greater context of seven decades of love. They diminish and may even dissolve. (Not quite yet, perhaps, but in time.)

Practice First and Foremost
As we embarked on this hospice care adventure together, I claimed my regular daily meditation time and quiet private space throughout the experience. This was crucial for maintaining my own stability and endurance. In this way I gave everyone on our team of seven family members encouragement and permission to claim their own time and space for self-care, in whatever form that took for them — runs, yoga classes, an evening out. We made the schedule work as well as possible, taking into consideration everyone’s needs. There was no telling whether we were doing a sprint or a marathon, so we had to take care of ourselves to sustain a marathon.

Especially as women, it is so easy to give up self-care when the needs of others arise, forgetting that when we claim what we need we are always better able to meet the demands of life. So it is a kindness to all to put our meditation practice first. It is the seed that grows the support we will need to balance all that arises. This is no time for skimping!

No Need to Proselytize
Buddhism, at least as we practice it in Insight Meditation, is not full of dogma. It’s full of living wisdom (dharma) that arises from our own practice and experience. Every experience, when met in the moment, contributes to our understanding of the nature of being. And we are so grateful for the teachings, the practice and the community of practitioners. If anyone were to ask us, we would happily share our understanding, and encourage them to take the time to learn to meditate, to develop a practice and to see for themselves.

But if no one asks us, we don’t push our views. We don’t knock on doors to spread the good news. For some this might seem selfish, but if someone is ready, they find a teacher and find a community. And nowadays meditation is on offer everywhere in one form or another. It’s in the air!
A distant ex-relative of my brother’s very much wanted to visit with him ‘to see if he was going to heaven or hell’, and I assume to set him on the straight course. This was done out of deep belief and caring, but it was not anything he was open to, to put it mildly. It was not part of his belief system. It was probably very painful for that distant ex-relative to deal with, and I send her great compassion. How I would have loved to meditate with my brother, to help him handle the physical pain he was in, perhaps even to share some dharma that might have helped. But even knowing I am a Buddhist meditation teacher, he never once asked me to help him in that way. So I didn’t.

On my own I quietly sent him metta, infinite loving-kindness. This is something we can do for ourselves, for our loved ones, for difficult people in our lives or the world, always ending with sending it out to all beings everywhere. This is non-invasive. It helps us. And it helps relationships.

Resting in the ‘I don’t know’ mind
My brother did at times ask me questions. When I would take my turn after dinner sitting alone with him, several times he asked me ‘So what’s next?’ I wasn’t sure if he was asking, whether he was in a lucid state of understanding he was dying, or in his delusional state where he would tell friends on the phone that he was on the mend.

My answer to both questions would be the same: ‘I don’t know.’
But even though I had to say ‘I don’t know’, I was also able to tell him the truth of the present moment: ‘I don’t know what will happen next, but whatever happens we are all here together. You are surrounded by family and friends, and we are filled with love. And we will take care of you.’ That seemed to put his mind at rest. In the moment.

The not knowing was not just an answer to give my brother, but something we all had to grapple with. No one could tell us exactly how long this hospice care would go on. We had all put our normal lives on hold to whatever degree we are able. Living with not knowing, embracing uncertainty, is an important part of Buddhist practice. For after all, none of us knows the hour of our own death. None of us can read the future. Situations arise that we could never have imagined. Although there is value in planning, it is always with the understanding that we have no idea what will come.

Planning with impermanence in mind
Sitting in my brother’s world temporarily replicated in a room in our home, with the television news on 24/7, I spent a few minutes pondering what my own final days and hours might be, if I am given the choice, as he was. I know I will want peaceful and beautiful surroundings. I imagine quiet conversations, hand holding and deep gazes and hugs, and simply sitting together in silence. Perhaps this is a fantasy. But it’s also a possibility.
All of us who were caring for him dearly wanted to know what his wishes might be, but we were left guessing for much of it. He hadn’t done any planning. He didn’t like talking about death. He intended to live forever, or some reasonable facsimile, in spite of having been a smoker since the age of thirteen. He didn’t have one document and barely one forced conversation with an old friend who said, so just on the off chance you ever die what do you want to have happen with your remains? In a moment of lucidity he gave his answer, one that we would have guessed, but without his own stamp of approval, how could we know we were fulfilling his wishes?

Wise Speech
My brother’s words were sometimes so hurtful that I wanted to put up a sign in his room reading ‘The words you use now will be emblazoned on the hearts of your loved ones forever, so choose wisely, kindly and with love.’ But I didn’t do that because it would have been unkind.
But in my own life I aspire to remember that, not just in the moments we know are the last we have together, but in every moment, because it could be the last, to use wise speech and speak from love not from fear, anguish and pain. That is an intrinsic part of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, a core teaching.

Gratitude
There is a value in recognizing the opportunity to practice being fully present with all the arising emotions of difficult times. Though we certainly wouldn’t wish for them, when they arise, we can recognize that we now have something significant to practice with. We can grow substantially in our understanding at these times. Or we can forget to practice, forget all we learned, and plunge into mindlessness. If we do, may it only be a temporary plunge, rising into greater awareness of the gift of this moment, whatever it brings.

buddha-deathMy brother sank into a deep sleep where he no longer needed to have his suction machine running or the television on. In this unusual quiet and calm, I did my meditation at his bedside, watching him breathe a slow ragged breath. I could see that every ten minutes or so he would grimace with pain. By taking that time, not distracting myself with a book or email, but just sitting watching, sending metta, following my own breath, I was able to see that he needed more medication. It felt like a gift of the training to simply sit and notice all that is arising in the moment, to be able to give him comfort by calling Hospice and getting a nurse to come out and up the morphine drip.

The next afternoon he died, surrounded by his oldest friends and closest family. I sat again with his cooling body as we waited for the mortuary van came, sometimes alone, sometimes with my niece, husband and other brother.

Sitting with death is an important part of Buddhist practice, but even though I had been a caregiver at the end of both my parents’ lives, I had not experienced this before. The only dead bodies I have seen have been embalmed and presented in a box at a funeral. They didn’t look like the relatives I loved. My brother looked exactly like himself, just at complete peace. My grief found a natural home by his side.
I am so grateful for all the well-wishing from friends and extended family. Everyone who knew him loved my brother, and were appreciative of the efforts our team had made on his behalf. I too was grateful that we had the opportunity to give him as loving and beautiful a goodbye as possible. Throughout, as difficult as it was, I was so grateful that he was in safe harbor, here in our home, not on his own in some distant place, struggling to hide his condition from those who love him.

Meditation is not Immunity
In some of the well-wishing messages, there seemed to be an assumption that because I meditate, this experience must be, if not a breeze, then at least far easier.

Although our practice does help us to stay present and to hold whatever experience that arises with more spaciousness and compassion, meditation does not make us immune to pain. Loss is still loss. Grief is still grief.

No one gets through life unscathed by pain. It is a built in feature of earthly existence. But it is how we are in relationship to it that makes all the difference.  My practice has kept me present with my emotions and made it possible to hold them tenderly. The grief is there, and I am able to see it take various forms as the days pass. Even amidst all the practical matters to deal with after his passing, I stayed present. And that is a gift. Now that those responsibilities have been taken care of, my feelings, twelve days out, shift again and again, and I notice them as they arise and fall away.

I also recognize that my grief is not all that is arising. In every moment there is also great beauty, simple pleasures, deep joy, and potential for laughter. They do not erase the grief. They co-exist in the space of my awareness.

I see the nature of my thoughts, too. I see how, like a tongue rubbing against the empty space of a lost tooth, I circle round again and again to that volatile time of caring for my brother at the end of his life — sometimes with smiles, sometimes with tears, sometimes with regret at things said or left unsaid, done or not done. This is a natural course for the mind to take. But I gently encourage myself to also stay present in this moment, not pushing anything away, but opening again and again to all that is arising.

I hope these findings are of value to you, and remind you of the value of the practice.

How does happiness happen?

smiling buddhaMy granddaughters are seven and five years old. Their definition of happiness is getting what they want when they want it. If things go their way then it’s the ‘best day ever’ and if they are denied anything, then it’s the ‘worst day ever’.

There are plenty of adults who concur with this definition of happiness. They see it as some externally regulated occurrence over which they have little or no control. Their emotional lives wobble about like a yo yo being yanked on a string. This is not happiness! It’s helplessness. No amount of ice cream, stuffed animals, compliments or cute shoes can create true happiness. Which is not to say we can’t enjoy these things, but we delude ourselves if we think they will make us happy.

As part of the maturation process, most people recognize that if they want food, shelter, clothes, transportation, etc. — the basic necessities of modern life — then they will have to work for them. Maybe that motive of achieving happiness through attaining these things is helpful in its way. These things can provide some sense of security, contentment and maybe achievement. But sustainable happiness? Not so much. It still may feel random and elusive. So they may begin to blame themselves. They feel that there is something inherently wrong with them if they can’t appreciate all they have, especially if on that list, besides stuff, they also have close relationships they value, most of the time. They may feel guilty for not feeling sufficiently grateful for all they have, making them feel even more discontented.

Watching my granddaughters go through their emotional gyrations reminds me of myself as a little girl. I too knew the soaring heights of, say, Christmas morning seeing a pile of presents under the tree. Then within a matter of minutes I knew the lows of sitting amidst the litter of ribbons and torn wrapping paper, realizing it was all over.

‘Is that all?’ I would ask. Go ahead and call me a spoiled brat, but I had a hunger no amount of presents could fill. And we all do.

‘Is that all? Is this what life is? Seeking happiness through the acquisition of stuff?’ If you were a person who was made permanently happy by stuff, you would not be reading this. So let’s be honest and acknowledge together that it is not for lack of stuff that we suffer.

You may be familiar with the Buddhist word dukkha. Dukkha is suffering that is caused by greed, aversion and delusion. Dukkha is such a great word because when it comes to us English speakers, it already contains the quality of, excuse me, shittyness in its syllables: doo-doo, cah-cah. We just double-down on the word dukkha. There is an instant understanding of how dukkha feels. We’ve all had times we could easily describe as shitty. And there’s a relief in being able to acknowledge that.

Let’s look a little closer at greed, aversion and delusion:

  • Greed is a hunger that can never be sated, not just for stuff but for experiences, for novelty, for approval, for accolades and so much more. It is a bottomless wish list.
  • Aversion is an endless hit list, all the things that annoy and threaten us in one way or another, activating fear, anger and hatred.
  • Delusion is a listlessness, living in a fog, being tossed about on ocean waves, not knowing how to surf, always gulping for air.

You can see how much suffering, how much dukkha, is caused by these ways of relating to the life. But there is another word, sukha, that is the happiness that grows from our own cultivation of mindfulness rather than waiting for someone else to hand us happiness on a platter. It offers a sense of freedom from constantly craving more.

So how do we cultivate true happiness, sukha?
Wherever we are right now we pause, release whatever tension is present, come into all the senses, cultivate spaciousness to hold all the thoughts and emotions that may be entangled in tight knots. And we give ourselves some infinite lovingkindness: May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be happy. Then (and only then) we extend our well-wishing out into the community of all beings: May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be happy.

Sure, we still may feel some extra energetic zing when our ducks are all lined up in a row or we receive a nice surprise or we feel relief that some bullet has been dodged, and we might have a little happy dance or celebrate any way we choose. But at a deeper level we recognize that there is a kind of happiness that exists without the need for perfectly aligned ducks and that every moment is a cause for celebration. It is unconditional happiness or joy that is expansive enough to hold even our disgruntlement, disappointment, grief, anger and every other emotion, because it rises out of the wisdom to see every emotion as a fleeting condition, like a cloud passing through an otherwise infinitely blue sky. Even when conditions are such that there’s no blue sky to be seen at all, just gray storms and even thunder everywhere we look, we know that there is a blue sky that holds it all, even the most difficult emotions. Our happiness is not dependent on every day being sunny, every flower being in perfect bloom or our bodies being pain free and flawless. Things can be going to hell in a handbasket, as the saying goes, and yet somehow we find joy in the moment.

It isn’t like living in a bubble of immunity to pain. Pain happens. Loss happens. Bad news can still make the heart feel like it is breaking. Tears still fall. Fear in all its guises still arises at times. But it is visible. We see it just as it is. It is not an enemy to confront or hide from. It is not the boss of our experience. It is not who we are. It is just what is passing through our experience in this moment.

Think of a parent caring for a crying baby. The parent holds the baby, cuddles the baby, soothes the baby with soft words, coos and sings until the baby settles down. The parent is supportive witness to the experience, acknowledging that it is okay. We can be in relationship with our own emotions in the same way. We hold them with compassion and kindness. We are not making light of the experience. We are simply holding the space for the experience within the greater understanding of the nature of impermanence. This too shall pass.

As with all I teach, this exploration is for myself as well. If you have been following along on this blog, you may remember that my brother is dealing with a life-threatening illness. He is certainly being challenged, and all of us who love him are also challenged, to adjust to the new normal, and find a way to accept the unacceptable. And we all will, one way or another. Whether we do it by railing against the nature of impermanence, against illness and old age and death, or whether we find a more open and friendly way to be with it, whatever the ‘it’ of the moment is, that’s a journey for each of us to make in our own way. We can each only do what we can do. The more difficult the journey, the more grateful I am for my meditation practice. It doesn’t help me to escape anything. It helps me to stay fully present, to recognize the preciousness of each moment, to let go of everything but that awareness and gently hold the moment like the precious jewel it is — even seeing someone I love in a hospital bed hooked up to drips and machines. Touching his arm, hearing his voice even as he complains, I can hold the moment like a jewel, for this moment — each and every moment — is rarer than the most valuable stone ever mined. It cannot be duplicated or relived. There is only this moment. Just as it is. And living at that level of aliveness, being that present, is sukha, happiness.

What a gift to be alive, fully alive! Even as things fall apart, understanding that it is the nature of things to fall apart, and to come together, again and again and again.

We don’t need to put our lives on hold for happiness. And we don’t need to put happiness on hold while we live our lives. Seeing that true happiness is fully possible in every moment, we wake up to notice greed, aversion and delusion as they arise and pass through our experience. We don’t make enemies of them. Just by seeing them for what they are and holding them with compassion, we attain increasing clarity, until each moment is illuminated like the radiant precious jewel it truly is. With wise intention and wise effort, we cultivate happiness within ourselves and let it ripple out to all beings.

Just how powerful is meditation?

Some of my students have been meditating for many years, while others are new to the practice. The value of sangha, the community of practitioners that comes together on a weekly basis, is not just the teachings that are shared, but the inspiration of fellow members. This week a relatively new meditator said that, although she loved meditating in the group, it was difficult to develop a regular practice at home on her own. We all totally understood and shared suggestions as to how to proceed. But the real challenge in establishing any new habit is the lack of any tangible benefit to remind us why we are making the effort. Advanced meditators have developed the habit, and they keep going because they feel the benefits of regular practice in their lives.

Without any experiences of her own to motivate her, the new meditator was helped by hearing about the benefits that others have experienced, (while being reminded that focusing on a goal of benefits is counterproductive!) One group member talked about the difference regular practice has made in her life over the years. And then I shared a story that I recently heard from a friend of mine named Linda, a talented artist who has been meditating for the better part of a decade.

A few months ago Linda went on a meditation retreat on the beach in the Yucatan. Lucky Linda, right? She was having a lovely illuminating experience. On the fourth morning of the retreat she rose early per instructions and went out into the early morning dark and headed for the beach for a walking meditation.

She describes her experience that morning:

“On my way down to the beach in the dark, the cement path in front of me was blocked by a group of people, so I stepped to my left to let them go by. My left foot went down into a four-foot deep hole with a cement floor. It was a spot to rinse off sand when leaving beach. It was unlit and had no rail.  I fell on my side and couldn’t move so I called out in the darkness for help.

powerofmed“A couple of hours later in the hospital, the orthopedic surgeon told me I had broken both leg bones, some ankle bones, and my hip. He said that the hip must be replaced, and the ankle repaired with two metal plates and many screws. He told me that the surgery must be done at one time due to the severity and would require about nine hours.  Because I was geriatric, ‘a bad risk’ and might not survive the surgery, I had to have a family member sign for me.”

Her son was called, but he couldn’t get to her. So he called his brother, the one from whom Linda had been estranged for many years for reasons I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that this lack of contact with her son and grandchildren has been a source of great sorrow, as any mother or grandmother can well imagine. Over the years, with the help of meditation, Linda had come to some state of equanimity around it, but of course she always held some hope of a reunion.

And here it was. In this moment of crisis, with his mother quite possibly confronting death, her long-estranged son rushed to her side, and there in the hospital they had a brief but deep conversation that did a lot to heal Linda’s heart. And as to all those broken bones, the surgery was successful! In fact, when I saw her at a party a few months later, she looked more healthy and beautiful than ever. When she told me all that happened to her, I could hardly believe it, but here’s the part that she wanted me to know:

“Stephanie, I never took any pain medications. The doctors and nurses couldn’t believe it. I credit my meditation practice. I wasn’t being brave. I just didn’t need it.”

Now, wait a minute. I’m a longtime meditator, yet I appreciated the proffered pain medication after my hip replacement surgery. But Linda’s story reminded of the woman I shared the hospital room with. We were both in pain after surgery, but she was in traction with her leg up in the air, having fallen off a horse. She cried and yelled for more medication all through the night. I always assumed the difference in our post-op experiences had to do with the fact that my surgery had been planned for and it was just a matter of waiting to be pain free after years of hip pain. So it was easy for me to simply be present with my various sensations, to accept with gratitude the kindness of the nursing staff and my husband, and to be patient, knowing that this too shall pass.

My roommate’s experience was quite different: She was perfectly fine and painfree yesterday, riding along on her trusty steed having a wonderful time, I assume, and in a split second she suddenly found herself in an extremely painful and unexpected situation. Who wouldn’t be grumpy and terrified of what the future might hold? I figured. But she was the biggest pain in my experience with her constant yelling and moaning. The nurses all night told her she already had the maximum amount of medication they could give her, and told her to practice breathing slowly.

It was a long night, and I dozed off and on, but much of the time I was groggily awake and feeling that I should help her. Some inner wisdom told me I was in no state to do so, and that I needed to focus on my own healing for now. But in the early morning hours when I was feeling clearer and more myself, I said to her, ‘I’m a meditation teacher. Do you want some help?’ She said YES!!!! So I worked with her a bit and she found the little exercises I was able to share with her very useful. But since she had never tried anything like it before, it only had limited potential to ease her pain.

For years since then I have wondered how might her experience have been different had she been a practicing meditator. Or, put another way, how might I or any other experienced meditator have managed such an experience? And now, here was Linda telling me a story that in many ways sounded far worse. She described it this way:

“After surgery I woke up in ICU.  There I had a beautiful, kind, loving nurse, an older Mexican woman, who was just an angel.  A week and two transfusions later, my surgeon filled me in on my adventure. He told me that I had never gone into shock, which was amazing considering the trauma, and pain. He said that I never asked for pain meds, and that I was amazing.

“Four different new friends I met at the retreat came to visit me in the hospital,  A good friend from home flew down to be with me, as my son had to return to work, and stayed with me for a week at the hotel, which was good enough to give us a room until I was well enough to fly home.  My surgeon gave me a gift of a walker. My ICU nurse came and gave me a present, saying I had touched her life!! I flew home and was greeted with loving friends and my son, and I never lacked for food, or help, or visitors.

“My neighbors were there every day, with food, or a call just to check on me, and ask what I needed.  I am truly filled with joy, and love; blessed beyond belief!!  I am now walking, need no more surgery, and, much to my therapist’s disbelief, I am walking without a limp.

“I am certain that after four days of meditation, and the joy and peace I felt, I came through all of this with an ease that amazes people.”

So that is Linda’s story. By her own account, it would have been a very different story, and in many ways a significantly different outcome, if she had not been meditating. I know, I know, if she hadn’t been at a meditation retreat, none of this would have happened! But falling down and breaking bones happens all the time to women of a certain age. The difference here is quite significant. Perhaps you are thinking that Linda is just a naturally resilient and indomitable spirit who looks at life that way. But no. When I first met Linda she was in quite a different space, with quite a different vantage point. She credits the regular practice of meditation for her ability to be present with this experience in a way that not only made it easier for her, but uplifted those around her. Now that’s something!

So if you don’t have the habit of meditation practice, let this story inspire you. It is said that we practice not just to feel better in our lives now, but for those moments in life when we are most in need: moments of loss, moments of pain and the ultimate moment of our own transition. Our meditation practice supports us now and always.

Does Linda’s story bring up anything for you? Please comment, share your own stories, comments or questions.

What is Mindfulness?

laos buddha-curt firestone

Photo credit: Curt Firestone

Through the regular practice of meditation — insight, vipassana or mindfulness — we cultivate the ability to stay present with whatever is going on in our experience. It is not an escape from the difficulties of daily life. It is practice in skillfully relating to whatever arises in our experience with more compassion, spaciousness, awareness and kindness.

Next week I will be sharing effective concentration practices to cultivate mindfulness. But for now, let’s look at what mindfulness is, and what it is not.

Mindfulness is being in the moment, noticing what is present, using all our senses. It’s also noticing any desire for things to be different or to get more of whatever we are experiencing. When thoughts and emotions rustle through, as they will, we notice them without getting lost in them. If we discover we have been lost in thought, we gently return our attention to the breath.

With mindfulness when we notice a recurring pattern of thought, we can pose a question — Is this true? for example — and then be fully present for the answer when it comes.

Mindfulness is not viewing things from a lofty remote location as an observer, separate from life. It is instead continuously cultivating boundless awareness, holding all that arises in our experience with great compassion, being fully present in this body-mind, grateful for the opportunity to be alive in this form.

With mindfulness we don’t make anything ‘other’ or ‘enemy’ So we are not pushing away, blaming or punishing any aspect of self, or making anyone person or situation a scapegoat for the challenges we are facing in this moment. What presents itself as either/or can be investigated more closely to reveal it’s both/and nature. With mindfulness we open again and again to these kinds of possibilities. We discover the most skillful way to deal with antagonism is to engulf it in the power of infinite loving-kindness. When we slip into the pattern of other-making, we feel stuck in the sludge of fear that drags us down and causes us to be blind to the true nature of life.

We see how in every moment we are given the option to make skillful choices, by staying present, anchoring our awareness in physical sensation. We are powerful beyond measure when we are living mindfully. We can be responsive rather than reactive. We can dance with all that arises rather than let it keep us on the sidelines or engaged in a battle. We see that every moment is a pivotal point of power, where we can act on our truest intention with wise effort, or we can go mindless and fall into habitual behavior, driven by fear.

Mindfulness is not something we have to struggle for or chase after. It arises of its own accord through dedicated meditation practice that is rooted in wise intention and wise effort.

As we cultivate mindfulness in our sitting practice and in our daily lives, we feel some release of fear-based tension. Or at least we notice the presence of tension, which is an excellent place to start.

With mindfulness life doesn’t get ‘perfect’. But difficulties become more permeable, and we see bridges and networks revealed where we thought there were only walls. 

With mindfulness thoughts have enough space to not be constantly in conflict. And there’s room for the ‘I don’t know’ mind to hold all life with reverence and awe.

With mindfulness we can appreciate this gift of life, in whatever form it has taken, through whatever experiences we find ourselves in. The comparing mind is seen as just a fear-based pattern that softens and dissolves as we continue to practice.

Mindfulness also softens and releases the ‘if only’ mindset that had us trapped in the belief that causes and conditions are the source of our happiness, when in fact joy arises simply out of being present, aware and compassionate with ourselves and all beings.

Mindfulness is quite a life-enriching benefit to come out of spending minutes a day in meditation practice! It costs nothing. And the list of health benefits is long and scientifically proven.

As you practice, let go of expectations, but note growing awareness, growing compassion and growing sense of aliveness.

As with the other aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, I have given a number of dharma talks over the years, and you can check out their companion posts for further understanding. https://stephanienoble.com/?s=right+mindfulness  and
https://stephanienoble.com/?s=spacious+mindfulness

Wise Mindfulness, the Gift of Meditation

When I really began to have a regular practice of meditation, I noticed a shift in my awareness as I started to sense more deeply my surroundings and perceive the nature of my thoughts and emotions. While driving, I saw how I would get frustrated by the lack of manners or even common sense of fellow drivers, how easily I would get unsettled, letting their action throw me into a mental tizzy. My regular drive to and from home went by a hospital, and it seemed there were even more unskillful drivers there. One day it dawned on me that the person who had just cut me off in their big hurry was probably rushing to the hospital because his wife was giving birth or his father was dying. This recognition created a sense of compassion within me that had not been there before. I had both given birth at that hospital and had sat at my mother’s deathbed there. I knew how mindless I can be, especially when distraught. (In retrospect I am shocked that I even got behind the wheel, but we tend to see our cars as extensions of our bodies, not as the potentially fatal metal projectiles we so casually hurl through space.)

That recognition shifted something within me. It didn’t take long before I understood that drivers anywhere could be going through anything. I remember thinking that someone could be driving extra slowly because they have a wedding cake in the backseat. I began to allow for the possibility that there was a lot going on in the lives of other drivers. So instead of getting upset with them, their unskillfulness activated a sense of compassion and a desire to send them metta, loving-kindness.

Mindfulness and Meditation
In the past decade the word ‘mindfulness’ has become associated with Jon Kabat Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, and to a degree ‘mindfulness’ has been used instead of ‘meditation.’ But the two words are not interchangeable. Meditation is a practice done in all spiritual traditions in one form or another. Jon Kabat Zinn studied in the Vipassana Buddhist tradition, so it’s not surprising that his program teaches a similar form: with eyes closed, sitting, focused on the physical sensation of the breath.

So then why didn’t he just call it meditation? At the time the word was too associated with religious practice for those in the scientific and medical communities he was working with to feel comfortable, so he called it mindfulness and proved its value to the point that it is taught in hospitals, schools and prisons. Since then the word ‘meditation’ has been better understood, that it is not inherently religious and can certainly include secular practice, so you might hear or read a news story about meditation being taught in schools (with a resulting ‘15% increase in math test scores’ I just read in one article) and there is no concern that people will think religion is being taught in school. It is a simple practice anyone can do at any age.

Mindfulness is what arises out of the regular practice of meditation: an ability to be present, noticing with what American poet Mary Oliver calls ‘convivial’ attention. She is describing her attention as she is out in nature opening her creative mind to write, but it perfectly applies to mindfulness because it is alert, non-judgmental, friendly but not sticky.

The regular practice of meditation leads to mindfulness, and mindfulness has so many benefits that we continue to meditate regularly. On the rare occasion when I have gone a few weeks without meditating, I see how mindfulness begins to slip away, and with it creativity, compassion, peace of mind, skillfulness in relationships and a sense of gratitude for being alive. So meditation is a lifelong practice for me, the first thing I do every morning. I teach it to share the value of it, but also to remind myself to keep meditating. How easy it is to forget that it is definitely worth putting in the regular time training the mind to return to the present moment again and again with great compassion.

Meditation is the practice that naturally brings about mindfulness, but we can also ‘practice’ mindfulness throughout the day, whatever we are doing. When we are driving and we come to a stop light, we can think of it as a reminder to pause our thinking-planning-worrying and focus on the experience of driving, feeling our hands on the wheel, being alert. One student in class said that she is currently taking a California state online refresher driving course and that the main focus of the course is on being mindful, present and focused on the task at hand. Makes sense!

In line at the grocery store, instead of being impatient to get done and on our way, we can practice being mindful, not just noticing what is going on but noticing with compassion. We can question our assumption that we are in a hurry, that we don’t have time to ‘wait’ — oh, how we hate that word! So let’s not ‘wait’! Instead let’s be present and mindful and enjoy this moment of humanity. Here are a few other creative ways to be present in that line:

  • If you enjoy looking at paintings, see the painting before you — the bright colors, the figures, the contrasts and values.
  • If you read novels, in this situation there are a whole cast of characters, each with enough life experience to fill many novels, people just like you with all their worries and concerns. You don’t need to make up stories about them, only to understand that there are stories there, each one creating the causes and conditions which influence their actions, just as yours do.
  • Sense gratitude as you stand there with your basket full of bounty you are able to afford.

There are SO many ways we can experience any moment. Why choose the one that has us irritated and complaining? Why not take the opportunity to be kind, to smile, to wish someone well? Isn’t that the world you’d rather live in? Well it’s not some other place. It’s right here if you choose to notice it and participate with loving-kindness.

This moment, just as it is, is the one and only gift we are given. How we relate to it, what we do with it, sets the pattern of our lives.

In class we discussed some of the practical benefits of mindfulness:

  • We are more skillful and less prone to accidents because accidents tend to happen when we aren’t paying attention.
  • We are much better able to listen to other people and to hear what they say without the filters of defensiveness. We are really listening, hearing the nuances. We are not busy formulating what we plan to say next to further push our own agenda or make points.
  • We eat with more appreciation and the ability to notice when we are full; and to recognize when our desire to eat something doesn’t spring from hunger. As an example, when I am being mindful I can notice that my sweet tooth is aptly named because the sensation is focused in my mouth. Since it is not my stomach that is egging me on to eat that piece of candy, I can find a way to sweeten the taste in my mouth, like sucking on a breath mint or brushing my teeth. Eating is the area where I have the greatest challenge to be mindful, so I celebrate even small mindful miracles.


We’ll continue the discussion next week, because there are so many benefits to being mindful and recognizing them helps us to be consistent in our practice of meditation. So stay tuned, and meditate!

First Noble Truth – Uncle Remus Redux

We are staying with the exploration of the First Noble Truth. In class I shared again the First Noble Truth as Told by Uncle Remus. I also read some excerpts from a few essays from the book Being Bodies, Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment, edited by Lenore Friedman and Susan Moon, and from Wes Nisker’s editorial titled ‘The First Noble Kvetch’ in the Fall 2009 issues of Inquiring Mind magazine. (Inquiring Mind is wonderful for exploring various subjects from a Buddhist perspective. Subscribe to it!)

Then we continued our discussion from the previous week about our own experience of suffering, what we noticed during the week. It’s an exploration that can take a lifetime.

One meditator shared that on her recent trip she was surprised to find herself somewhat hysterical when her carry-on luggage, filled with all her most necessary possessions, was lost by a small airline. She said she had thought she had evolved beyond such reactivity, and was humbled by her experience. But as she was telling it, we all noticed that she had in fact evolved. She had evolved into really noticing her initial reaction, and, as soon as possible, applying what she had learned through meditation to come back into balance. She apologized to those she had yelled at for her initial rush of panic-driven words, and she was able to use the experience for further learning. She exhibited increased awareness, an increased sense of connection with all of life, including those who lost her luggage, and a willingness to see where she strayed off the Eightfold Path into unskillful behavior, the ability to step up and do whatever possible to correct it, and compassion for herself and others. To ask more from ourselves than that is really stepping into deep dukkha!

So if you were not in the class, read the Tar Baby tale and give yourself the opportunity to further explore your own relationship with suffering.