Category Archives: Buddha Nature

Taking Refuge in Stormy Times

Threee refuges“In these challenging times we need this refuge, these ripples of kindness, now more than ever. We are all interconnected. We are all tender-hearted humans who want to experience peace and ease in our daily lives.” – Jack Kornfield

These words were in a recent community email I received from Spirit Rock, just after I wrote out my dharma talk for this last week’s class. A perfect addition, especially about being tender-hearted. May we remain tender-hearted even as we cultivate the inner strength to do what must be done.

The word ‘refuge’ is central to Buddhism. Traditionally, we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Sometimes the idea of refuge has an especially strong appeal. We want to retreat, to nestle, to protect ourselves, and to lick our wounds perhaps. And the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha create a safe place to shelter from the storm.

But the storms of the world are also within us, so we find that we have not so much shut the door on them but created a safe space to be with them. We don’t push away our thoughts or make enemies of them. Instead we allow them to exist within compassionate spaciousness so that they release and eventually dissolve, at their own time and in their own way.

Let’s take the Three Refuges one by one:

The Buddha is not just the historical Buddha whose teachings we explore. The word buddha means awakened one. So we are actually taking refuge in our own Buddha nature, our own potential for awakening. That seed of awakening is within each of us, waiting to be noticed, nurtured and cultivated.

The Dharma is the teachings we learn through Buddhist teachers, but also the truth of being, so that we recognize the value of insights that arise from our own experiences when we are open to seeing clearly and compassionately. And we recognize that nature is the greatest dharma teacher of all, always offering lessons on impermanence and the interconnectedness of all being. We can see how we suffer when we rail against the truth of nature’s lessons. We find joy in being alive when we accept and celebrate it.

The Sangha is the community of practitioners who support each other in meditation practice and exploration of the teachings. A member of our sangha might also be someone who doesn’t themselves practice, but supports us fully in our practice, who doesn’t sabotage our wise intentions and effort.

These are the three traditional refuges. We can take great comfort in them. As we do, we can recognize the many ways we can provide refuge for ourselves in daily life:

  • Be fully present with the beauty all around us, letting go of the veil of harsh judgments and preferences in order to see more clearly what is right before our eyes.

  • Turn off the constant clamor of media frenzy. Be discerning in how we receive news, question its veracity (especially if it confirms what we already believe to be true!) and know when enough is enough.

  • Provide warmth, tenderness, quiet, laughter, kindness in our conversation.

  • Cultivate a regular meditation practice.

  • Create meditative moments throughout the day, opportunities to be fully present with our senses. We might notice the warmth of a cup of tea or the sun on our skin, for example, and feel gratitude and a greater sense of ease in that moment.

  • Cultivate compassion by actively sending metta (infinite unconditional loving-kindness) to anyone or any situation that is causing discomfort. This might not be all we can do, but it is a valuable practice that has surprising effects.
  • Find what you care about and ways you can contribute, then join with others to be the change you would like to see in the world.

Think of ways that in your life you create refuge for yourself and perhaps for others. Have any fallen by the wayside? Rediscover them! Share them here to inspire others.

The Power of Loving-Kindness

Over the past weeks we have been exploring the word ‘should’ and similar bully words that shove us around. We’ve practiced noticing these words as they come up and then using that awareness to explore where we get stuck in our lives, how we lose vital energy by relying on should thinking to determine our course.

When we pause, even briefly, we can tap into that vital energy that courses through us — the energy of light and loving-kindness that is our natural way of being in the world.

Now here you might skillfully question ‘Is this true? Is kindness our natural way? Are we born to it?’ When I ask in about this, I can’t help but think about the babies I’ve been hanging out with lately. Openness, curiosity and delight come quite naturally to newborns and as soon as they start spending more time awake, and basic needs are attended to, they are quite present, interested and easily delighted by whatever comes.

These naturally-occurring dispositions can easily be shut down and distorted. But if they are not, if they are met with loving-kindness, then loving-kindness will result. Parents and all who help care for children have the power to nurture or quash their way of being in the world, making their roles the most important and powerful in the world.

So babies are a good indicator that openness and loving kindness are basic to our nature. But we can do our own inner exploration by spending time away from the clamor of the media, electronics and the social interactivity that is central to most of our lives.

When we sit or walk in silence, our minds have the opportunity to calm. If we let our eyes close or gaze upon a tree, a bird or a flower, then we get a more accurate reading of our own nature. The thoughts that race around in our brains may still be there, but in time they may begin to seem more superfluous, no longer a part of who we believe ourselves to be. Awareness intensifies. The present moment expands and becomes all encompassing. In this moment we are simply here, sensing into this experience of being. What may arise from this experience is an upwelling of gratitude and tenderness for all of it.

If you try this experiment and are frustrated because your mind does not suddenly find perfect peace, then just be with the bundle of expectations, judgments and dissatisfaction that arises. Not as a punishment, but as an opportunity to be aware of what is, to breathe into it, to hold it with as much kindness as is possible in the moment. You are not unique in your frustration! Just allow for the possibility that awareness and loving kindness to the thoughts and emotions that arise is more useful than compounding misery with more harsh judgments. When we are most resistant, ‘allowing for the possibility’ is a gentle prod that can be very effective. It seems like not much of a concession, so we meet it with a perhaps grudging willingness. And that’s all that is needed to begin the process of melting the hard cold clamped down tightness that keeps us from accessing our true nature.

Though some may never take the opportunity to give themselves the gift of pausing to be in the moment, the ability to let go and access this ‘Buddha nature’ is within us all. So yes, we are naturally conduits of loving kindness, and when we are able to open to it, we align with that energy and amplify it.

This quality of amplification is one I hadn’t considered much in my practice. I imagine myself as a conduit of universal energy at times, but it acts more as a megaphone rather than a pipe shape. It takes the universal energy and focuses it in a particular direction, based on our natural interests and talents. This focus amplifies the felt sense of the energy.

Sounds like a lot of responsibility! You may be familiar with the quote by Marianne Williamson that reminds us that we are powerful beyond measure. Somehow we know this and often are afraid of this power. We have seen power misused. We have seen charismatic people incite crowds to all manner of destructive behavior. So we are right to be cautious! But it is not skillful to shut down the power that is within us. It is skillful instead to notice always if it is arising from fear, thus leaving destruction in its path; or arising from univeral loving-kindness, and thus creating spaciousness, a sense of well being and oneness.

We are all powerful. You undoubtedly have experienced or observed this power many times. Someone walks into the room and things lighten up, become fun and creative. Suddenly all seems possible. Conversely, someone walks into the room and suddenly things get weird, frenzied, anxious, contentious or the color just drains away and everything feels heavy. Perhaps you feel a need to leave.

One person can do that! Each of us is affecting the energy in whatever situation we are in. We may think we are separate and that our little inner world of turmoil is our business and no one else’s. But there is no separate inner world! There is no ‘me’ in that sense. Our misery may not love company, but no matter how we try to hide it, it’s what we are sharing in every exchange, even when we just stop to buy a little something at the store. 

You know this is true. You have seen it over and over again in your life. You have observed it in others, perhaps seeing a miserable person as separate, pathetic, someone you can compare yourself to and feel glad you are not him or her. But whatever thoughts and feelings exist in you at that time arise from the combination of your energy and theirs — powerful enough to invade your line of thought or even change the flavor of your day, depending on how much it resonated within you.

When we are centered, calm, compassionate, and fully present, we are powerful beyond measure to bring peaceful joy to every situation. So when we practice meditation, we are not being selfish at all. We are tuning in to the energy that is generous and life-affirming so that all beings may be well. We are not retreating from the world to escape it. We are regrouping, reconnecting to the natural loving-kindness of being so that we and all those we encounter may be made more spacious, alive and loving.

Affording ourselves the opportunity to access our true nature is our homework for life. This is about coming home to the open, curious, easily delighted nature that is our Buddha nature.

How do we do it? We notice. We question. We offer ourselves opportunities to pause, to breathe, to be present. We take the ‘shoulds’ that arise in our self-talk and use them for more exploration. We breathe spaciousness into the tangle of our thoughts and emotions so that they unravel and allow themselves to be known as just thoughts passing through, just emotions rising up and falling away.

As part of our practice, we send metta, the Pali word for infinite loving-kindness, to all beings. aligning with this kind of energy. Perhaps we experience this as being energetic expressions of God or all that is or however we are most comfortable envisioning that infinite nature that arises when we quiet down and allow the feeling of spacious interconnection to be known within us.

Everything I teach, everything any meditation teacher teaches, points us back to this simple practice of being present and being compassionate with ourselves when we discover we are not. This is not just a sitting practice. It is a life practice. Wherever we are, at any time, we can pause, we can gaze at whatever is before us, we can sense into physical sensation, we can notice tension, thoughts, emotions and simply breathe into them with our open, curious delight.

This is our birthright. It’s who we are. It’s our Buddha nature.

Powerful Beyond Measure

Many of us, especially women, are very uncomfortable with power. When we think of power, it is usually other people’s power. When we think of having power, we may think it’s an unattractive or unacceptable force that we must suppress, for it isn’t what we want, and it isn’t the way we want to be in the world, bullying others to get our way. Perhaps our life experience has taught us that power is brutal and dangerous. We want to be kind and compassionate.

That’s why we practice meditation, isn’t it? We want peace, tranquility, ease and kindness. So it may be surprising to learn that in Tibetan Buddhism there are three central deities that represent the desirable qualities of wisdom, compassion and power.


Yes, power. Even if we are too afraid or self-conscious to acknowledge our power, it is there. When we don’t acknowledge the power within us, it becomes subverted, perverted and unskillful. We stuff it down in the dungeon or try to kill it off, thus forcing it to become sneaky, underhanded and manipulative. We may develop passive-aggressive tendencies to get our needs met or become depressed, depleted from all the energy we are putting into tamping down and containing our innate power.

We are all experienced observers of human nature. We see how passive people get their needs met in convoluted ways, leaving them and all around them feeling worse. Think of someone you know who seems passive, perhaps even sweet, but whose life is a misery in one form or another – a constant whirlwind of problems, a bottomless pit of complaints or a fog of fading away, dependent on others to draw them out. We can notice how their behavior rises from past wounds. Their history is always present in the room when you are with them. They feel they have no power and are victims, but in fact they have the world cowed and suffering. Everyone who comes close gets sucked into the miasma of their misery or struggles to resist it. That is certainly a kind of power, to be able to make everyone suffer! But it’s not a beneficial power, to say the least.

This kind of power is shallow-rooted, based in fear. In relationship a person operating from such a fear-based shallow-rooted place, we do well to stay grounded in our own sense of presence and compassion, noticing our own emotions that arise in their presence.

If this description sounds like you, be compassionate without enabling these shallow-rooted habituated patterns. See if you can see the truth of the behavior that I’m talking about without feeling attacked as if this is who you are. This is not who you are! But neither are you a victim. Instead you are simply unaware of who you truly are. Your highest priority – no matter what is going on in your life and how pressing it seems — needs to be to anchor yourself into the present moment through the body so that you can safely explore the inner conversation that validates your misuse of power. Guides on your journey in the form of therapists are available when needed and there is no shame in needing their help.

All of us at times see glimpses of our power, but when its in a compressed dungeon-esque state it isn’t something we want to have anything to do with, so we add yet another lock and pretend it isn’t there, creating a deeper denser shadow. (Remember from our discussion last week that the shadow is that part of ourselves that we find unacceptable so ignore or pretend it doesn’t exist.)

We align ourselves with the softer gentler side of life, choosing to notice nature’s sweet offerings of cute puppies, babies and bowers of flowers, while avoiding nature’s offerings of fiery volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes. We feel we are aligning with life with these choices, but nature shows us life in its full cycle of birth, growth, aging, death, decay and renewal. We are afraid of the power of these naturally occurring events because we see the damage — the cities flattened, the lives lost, the pain and grief of survivors and the challenge of getting back to normal. Where is the upside in all this? We see none, so we judge nature’s power as ruthless. If we personify God, we ask why he would allow such things to happen. And when we thrill at the sight of nature’s power, it may be accompanied by a sense of guilt or shame, knowing that for someone somewhere this awesome event is causing pain. This is just something to notice: How thoughts, judgments, fears come into our experience. We might also begin to notice that these thoughts, judgments and fears arise when we feel our own power wanting to be expressed, and how our fear rises up to push down the power, denying it expression.

When we push down the power, we create a compressed, dense and toxic power that is now dangerous in a way that our natural power, our unsuppressed power, is not. ‘Evil’ is not a word I use, and it’s not a word used in the Buddhist teachings I have studied. But since evil is a concept so intrinsically a part of our western culture and world view, it needs to be addressed. This suppressed power, compressed in fear that creates this inner rotten stink that has the capacity to act in convoluted destructive ways is certainly an accurate definition of evil.

We can see that by this definition, battling against evil is simply aligning ourselves with it, as our suppressed fear-based power gets tuned in and activated by coming into contact with the fear-based eruption of toxicity from others. Throughout history we see the misery that this has caused, more than any naturally occurring show of power in nature.

So, as alien and odd-feeling as it may seem, this toxic compressed fear, this ‘evil,’ needs to be met with awareness and compassion. Only the light of awareness and compassion can safely expose and release the tight fear-based core and dissipate its dense toxicity.

The Power of the Present Moment

When we can come fully into the present moment, the power that we feel is pure presence. This is the power that is the third admirable quality when added to awareness and compassion, and it is only through awareness and compassion that we can discover this power and acknowledge that it flows through us. It is universal energy that surges through all open channels equally. When we see we are intrinsically a part of all that is, then we can accept our natural place in the world, including our natural ability to be conductors of this bright loving energetic power that arises naturally through our intention to be present and compassionate.

Being present is the only access point to our natural power. This moment right here and now is the only point of power possible. We can’t affect the past. It’s history. We can rewrite it in our mind, but we can’t go back and change things. The future is a dream, a hope or a fear and, while what we do now will impact the present moment we experience later, the only real power we have is here and now in this place and time.

Be present and feel your power! We are always and forever in the exact right pivotal spot in life to make powerful choices. This very moment is full of doors leading in all directions, and in every moment we choose one door. Being fully present and aware of this powerful pivotal point, we are no longer mindlessly wandering about but actively choosing the door that opens us to wisdom, compassion and presence.

You chose that door this morning when you came to class, or when you decided to read this post. You listened to your most deeply-rooted powerful nature, your Buddha nature, and made this choice. You could have listened to more shallowly-rooted voices begging to stay a little longer in bed, a little longer over breakfast, or the one that says you have too many things to do today to fit meditation class or a quiet time of reading dharma into your schedule. At any point along the road to get here, you could have chosen to ignore your own inner wisdom. But you didn’t and you are here. You are powerful and acting from that power.

Now maybe you are thinking, ‘Well actually, I came because I knew I should. I don’t feel powerful at all.’ But that’s just your own discomfort with power speaking. If you are here, your inner wisdom brought you. Allow for the possibility that this is true. All the shallow-rooted thoughts habituated to denying power out of fear from having witnessed its abuse may be present and we make room for them in our awareness. But they are like wisps of fog that have been covering the mountain this morning off and on. The mountain is still there. And so is our inner wisdom, powerful beyond measure. This calls to mind the Marianne Williamson quote that is so inspiring that Nelson Mandela used it in his first inaugural speech. She says,

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

When Marianne Williamson talks about letting our own light shine, that brings to my mind one of my favorite songs: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” which speaks to allowing the power of our true nature, our Buddha nature, to shine through us. If this song speaks to you too, let it be the tune in your head that reminds you to let your light, your own access to power, shine through and express itself in creative ways.

Feeling fully present, sensing our connection to all that is, we feel empowered. The power is fresh and full of life-force. It is illuminated by clear-seeing of being present and aware. It is fueled by compassion. It is the nature of life actively loving itself.

We have over the past weeks been using the metaphor of the plant with its roots clinging tight around a rock instead of spreading deep in the rich nourishing soil. Here we are again, seeing how clinging to that rock of false identity, believing ourselves to be victims and powerless, constricts us and subverts our ability to be fully alive. When we root deeply in the nourishing soil of being, we can feel the power of aliveness. We don’t have to exhaust ourselves repressing our power, being afraid of our power or being ashamed of our power. We don’t have to see power as belonging to someone else and our role to be the victim or the compliant one that always acquiesces to the wishes of others, who never says no to any request because to do so would seem unkind. We can say no respectfully but without apology, and our ability to say no with such kindness and clarity can inspire others. The limited convoluted idea of who we are in the scheme of things no longer fits, not when we have discovered our sense of presence and connection. Yes, we align with life, with ALL of life – the puppies and the volcanoes!

Now we begin to see that how in our misinterpretation of what it is to be a kind, caring and compassionate human in the world, we may have denied the value of acknowledging power. In our experiences of witnessing misused power, we may have a fear-based view of the nature of power. So we have been tamping it down when it arises within us, calling it nasty names and subverting it so that it becomes shadow-power, that dense toxicity that causes harm to everyone who encounters it, thus reinforcing our fear of it.

Now it is time to own up to the power that is inherent in our nature! It’s time to accept and celebrate our access to this universal energy that expresses itself through us and empowers us to be fully ourselves, open-hearted, strong and alive.

Asking in = Wising Up, How to Discover our Buddha Nature

Last week we talked about difficult emotions and how we often suppress them, turning ourselves into jailers. I read my article Emotions as Honored Guests that gives us a way to cope with uncomfortable emotions, reminding us that we are in charge but we need to be good hosts.

The key to all of this is noticing. That’s the basis of insight meditation, this learning to become aware of our emotions, as well as the nature of our thoughts and of our physical sensations.

A strong emotion is rich with clues that we don’t want to waste. Experiencing a strong emotion, we are encouraged to pause and take a meditative moment to notice all that is going on. For example: Where in our body do we feel that strong emotion? What associative images or memories come to mind? We can look to see what triggered the strong emotion. Perhaps it was an odor, sight or sound that on its own seems neutral, but fueled by our associative memory, becomes powerful and disturbing. This is not a time to turn away and tell ourselves ‘Don’t be silly!’ or any other dismissive phrase.

As I suggested in the article, and as the poet Rumi suggested so long ago, we can be the welcoming host of any emotion that arrives at our door. But our main goal is to find out what the emotion has to tell us. So we are kind, caring and compassionate but we are also inquisitive.

The other day here at our house we had a visit from a Sherpa mountain guide! And I’ll tell you, we were welcoming but also intensely curious about Pasan, his life in Nepal, why he came here and how he’s finding it, etc. What an exciting surprise to have a visitor from a whole other world come in the form of a plumber! As we talked we were following the other plumber who was training Pasan on his new job and educating us about how to flush our tankless water heater. We didn’t expect such a memorable experience from a plumbing appointment, just as we don’t expect anything of real value to come from a run-in with a strong emotion. We think of it as one of life’s things to be gotten through.

Now usually I don’t ask personal questions of people who come to our house as part of their jobs, but Pasan offered up the first information, giving us the clue that he was quite willing to talk. That’s true with our strong emotions as well. In fact they are ‘talking’ already. But we need to listen, and to then ask questions that give us answers we can use. But many times the emotion stirs up other emotions of embarrassment or shame that try to shut that emotion up before it has a chance to tell us anything of value.

So how do you have a fruitful conversation with a strong emotion? The most important thing is to speak from your wisest inner self, your Buddha nature, and not from some other needy, demanding aspect that is perfectly happy to get into a shouting match, judging and condemning.

That’s why inquiry is best done after meditation to assure that we have given ourselves a chance to find that calm, loving voice within. Now if this sends you into a panic because you feel you haven’t found that voice, then let’s explore how to discern that wise inner voice from the rest of our cast of inner characters.

Our wise inner voice has certain distinctive qualities that you can notice if you are really paying attention. First, it is patient. It never makes demands, never uses the words ‘should’ or ‘must.’ It comes from a sense of timelessness, so there is no urgency. Its ease is somewhat disarming, putting all those things we thought were so important into perspective. It is the voice of life itself, aware of its intrinsic connection to all that is. From this vantage point we relax because we are aware we are life, not separate from it. There is nothing we could do or say that would expel us from the is-ness of being. But there is plenty we can do that can make us unaware of our connection, and through that lack of awareness we can do things that are incredibly unskillful, causing pain to ourselves, to those we come in contact with, and the earth itself.

But this wise inner voice, this Buddha nature, has no agenda except to remind us of our connection. So if we ask it, ‘What do you want me to know?’ it will first and foremost say, “I love you, I have always loved you, I will always love you.” Well, that’s a lot to know! Suddenly we don’t feel so needy. How much of what we fear and what we try to accomplish is in response to a feeling of being unloved and unlovable? How often are we simply trying to prove that we are deserving of a love that it turns out is already ours, without our having to do a thing?

Does this mean the wise inner voice is saying “Don’t bother!” about everything we are doing in our lives? Not necessarily. It depends on our intention. If we are trying to gain love and respect, then yes, don’t bother. If we are tapping into our innate capacity to love life in all its myriad expressions, then our inner wisdom heartily concurs.

Another question that is useful to ask is, ‘Why do I feel this way? Why do I feel so tense? Why do I feel threatened? Why do I feel so bad about myself?’ These kinds of questions may bring answers from fear-based aspects, but with patience and careful listening, we will also hear that quiet still voice within answering our question either in words or images. Once in my 20’s I asked a ‘why’ question about an area of my life that felt especially dysfunctional, just out of despair, not knowing anything about this wise inner voice and not about to have a conversation with God as we hadn’t been on speaking terms in quite a while. And although no words arose, within the next few minutes as I sat there three powerful image memories rose up, and I sat and waited until I understood what those combined three memories were telling me. And they gave me a powerful answer to my question that I had assumed was unanswerable. The answer that came up changed my life and empowered me in a way that I could never have imagined. That was my first experience with understanding the power we have to inquire within and receive transformative answers.

This inner wisdom, this Buddha Nature, is not an aspect of us, the way all the other voices that create our thoughts and emotions are. We could instead think of ourselves as an aspect of it, as the temporal earthly life-experiencing sensors of this infinite wise loving energy. This is such a wonderful way to think of our interaction with life. Feeling this to be our role in life, we can easily access ‘Beginner’s Mind.’ Every sensation, every experience whether we judge it good or bad is still in this sense a gift of earthly life. When we come from that sense of wonder, that sense of oneness and connection, we are truly expressions of life loving itself. Whatever we do for each other from that place will be truly generous and kind.

If you have never noticed this inner wisdom, you might find inquiry to be your gateway as I did. You can also simply practice relaxing and being present, anchoring into all the senses that give us the opportunity to experience this gift of life.

Sometimes we only listen to wisdom that comes from outside ourselves because we don’t trust anything that comes from within. We may have very low self-esteem, and/or we may have been taught that to think that the answers come from within is turning ourselves into a god; that God is to be honored and set apart from our lowly selves and this mundane life. (Of course, if God created us doesn’t that make us and all of life sacred? Isn’t the profanity the unwillingness to recognize the sacredness of all God’s creation, even the tight and twisted terrified places that most need awareness of God’s infinite love? When we see ourselves as connected to God, as expressions of God, we are seeing God in all that is, not setting ourselves above. The personification of God as something apart from ourselves is a so pervasive that I have long since given up using the term, even though as you see, I can easily describe my understanding of God. I am not at odds with God. God and I are good. And Buddhist meditation and concepts are not at odds with God either. Believers from all faiths find that meditation and the study of Buddhist concepts enhance their understanding of their religion and deepens their faith.)

But whether we call this inner wisdom God or we call it the infinite energy of life loving itself, our resistance to trusting it comes from thinking that we could be the source of true wisdom. We still separate ourselves out, we still see ourselves as this amalgam of these whiny voices, our thoughts and emotions. But even if we hold that to be who we are, we can still access this inner wisdom. This inner access is like a well, but the well is not the source if the water, is it? The well is an access point to the water that travels under the ground. Through meditation and self-exploration we are bringing our attention to the existence of this well, this inner access to universal wisdom. Eventually we may see that the well is also a part of the infinite beingness of life, not separate, neither less nor more sacred.

When we deny the existence of inner access to wisdom, we are more receptive to it when offered up through outer sources: counselors, teachers, leaders, books, movies, magazines. So notice when something you see, hear or read resonates with its authenticity, clarity, compassion and feeling of calm. That’s your inner wisdom saying ‘Yes!’

If when you are watching or reading something, it’s activating the emotional inner aspects that are saying things like, “Yeah! The bastard deserved it!” or some such emotionally charged response, then by your viewing and reading habits you are giving your rowdier inner aspects confirmation that their world view is justified. The Buddha taught the importance of inclining the mind toward what is wholesome, so if you are activating anger, shame, revenge, etc. by your choice of entertainment, you are choosing to align with the rowdy aspects within, the ones that feed on fear and promote unskillful choices. But even in this setting, the wise inner voice is not the one that’s saying, “This is terrible! This is bad for me! I’ve got to get out of here!” That’s just another fear-based aspect.

When you sit quietly, listening in, noticing the various vociferous emotions spouting this thought and that, pay close attention to the quality of the voice. Is it urgent, demanding or caffeinated? Is it cynical, judgmental or hateful? Then it’s an aspect with a fear-based agenda that you will want to have a respectful inquiring conversation with. But if it is quiet, calm, loving, and offers love and when asked sincerely gives valuable guidance, without any sense of urgency, then you know that this is your deepest connected access. Whenever possible keep listening, keep asking in. You have found your teacher and your guiding light. Practice aligning with that wisdom, letting go of any sense of duality.

When you align with this inner wisdom you can then be the welcoming host to whatever guest emotion arrives at your door. Otherwise it is just a shouting match between two urgent aspects that both need to be heard and neither want to listen. Our inner wisdom is a great listener because it is the love of life itself.

So how does such a conversation with an inner aspect begin?
First we recognize an emotion that has come up. Naming it helps us to recognize it more quickly the next time it arises, and giving it a pet name not only locks it into our awareness but reminds us to be kind and respectful.

Once we have given it a name, we can greet this emotion as we would any guest who arrives at our door. Our emotions are so rarely acknowledged that this alone can meet needs.

What do we do next with any guest? We ask them to come in and sit down. This indicates that we want them to feel comfortable, and also that we have time for them. When it comes to a visiting emotion, our willingness to be present and to spend whatever amount of time is required needs to be clearly indicated. We physically sit down if we are not already seated. We turn off our cell phones and other distractions. We give this conversation whatever time is needed. This is another reason it is good to have these conversations following meditation where we have already set up a quiet zone for ourselves.

Then we can ask questions of our guest.
These questions need to be compassionate not accusatory. And the questions are better if they go deep to the achy source rather than encourage the emotion to get caught up in story. When I say story, I am talking about the experiential examples that such a voice will use to justify their existence. ‘I’m angry because she said this about that, or he did this and he’s evil, etc.’ This is all story and is just masking the core of this voice’s true concerns. Without being disrespectful, we can cut to the chase. Each time we are offered story, we can go deeper, we can take charge and the aspect will be grateful to surrender their suffering up.

‘What are you afraid of?’ is one of the most powerful questions we can ask. At the core of every negative emotion is fear. And the intention of every negative emotion is self-protection. We can see that their means of protecting us are unskillful and even unnecessary. Often they are trying to protect us from another part of ourselves that seems hell-bent on putting us in danger. For example we may have an aspect of self that seek external approval so doggedly that another aspect of self arises to undermine its efforts.

This has happened to me many times in my life, so I can see the pattern of it and when it arises I at some point recognize it and can go deeper into conversation. One of my patterns goes something like this: I am enjoying the process of some creative effort, then the aspect I’ve named Striver gets worried that I will be judged on the product of my creative effort, so that aspect takes charge to make sure that everything is perfect. Striver takes most of the fun out of the project and I begin to feel stressed. Even if there is no deadline for the project, Striver will create one. Then just when the product of Striver’s efforts is about to go out into the world, another aspect begins to make itself heard, one I’ve named Underminer. It too is terrified of public judgment, but it doesn’t trust perfection to be a solution, as it is judged just even more harshly than imperfection, so Underminer chooses instead to sabotage the whole enterprise. ‘A completed novel? Toss it in the drawer! Don’t put it out there in the world to be judged! Are you crazy?’

I don’t know why I was surprised recently to see that Striver and Underminer can still be activated if I’m not paying attention. In fact it was only upon rereading a section of my book Tapping the Wisdom Within in order to clarify the process of self-inquiry for this dharma talk that I came upon them and recognized how the past few weeks I have been increasingly stressed about producing an audio CD of my poems to have available at the poetry reading this Tuesday. Striver is frantically trying to produce perfection, when this is my first ever attempt to create a recording, and Underminer at the last minute jumped in and said, ‘Why bother? Just tell people you can’t do it.’

But my feelers have been tuned to tales of self-sabotage lately as it has come up in books and in conversations with family and friends. At every turn I get the message not to succumb to a life-long pattern of giving up at this critical stage, and also not to be so terrified that the product may not be perfect.

Also during this period I recognized how valuable an encouraging word from someone can be. I received several words of encouragement from friends and family that came at a moment where I was ready to abandon all hope that the project would get done. Those few words resonated with my own inner wisdom, ignored of late in the flurry of over-zealous activity, and also helped me get in touch with the negative aspects that were sabotaging me.

So since they are so present and available to hold up as examples of inner negative fear-based aspects, let’s use Striver and Underminer as the basis of our discussion. They are saying they are afraid of my being judged by others and found wanting. They have two different ways of dealing with that fear, both unskillful. So what do I do? I acknowledge their fear. I thank them for bringing that fear to my attention. I send metta to them and to myself. I rekindle my sense of connection with all that is. I remind myself that being human it is quite natural that these emotions will arise within me, that fear of disapproval is fear of separation, but that I can never truly be separate from the oneness of life. And in fact, awareness and acceptance of the existence of these emotions carves out more compassion within me for myself and for others, who also act out their fear of separation through unskillful means.

I also remind myself of that little note of insight I pinned on my bulletin board: I have nothing to prove, I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear, I have something to give. Certainly the CD of me reading my poetry is something I have to give, something that has been requested even. All the negative judgments about ‘Who am I to..’ do something are acknowledged but not fed. Instead I attune to my interconnection. Let me be a conduit for life loving itself, not a tight shut down place in the flow of energy.

If there is a way to meet the guest emotion’s needs without succumbing to their fears, then we do what we can. I have talked before about the deal I made with my inner aspect named Slug who doesn’t want to exercise but just wants to stay in bed because he misses his mommy and bed is a big mommy hug. I found a yoga teacher that tucks her students under blankets at the end of class for the final resting pose. Slug was in heaven and I was able to become more and more active.

When the inner conversation seems to be at an end, it’s important to remember to say thank you to the guest emotion, to make sure it knows that its concerns have been heard and will be incorporated into the greater awareness. It needs to know that we, the welcoming, patient and compassionate host, are in charge of our households and our lives, aligned with our Buddha nature, our access to universal inner wisdom.

One final caveat: In aligning with infinite inner wisdom, there will be a fear-based aspect that gets very attached to this idea of being wise and will cling to that image of self. This aspect can be more challenging to recognize than the rowdier ones, but it is just as destructive. What helps is to continually relax, stay anchored in the senses and send metta (loving kindness) even to this needy aspect that so longs for approval. When we find it, we may feel shame, sending it down to dungeon. But that’s not necessary. Simply recognizing its hunger for love and approval reminds us to be compassionate. Refining our ability to distinguish between the infinite wisdom that flows throughout all and the finite ‘see how wise I am?’ hungering for the respect of others, is just another part of the practice of inquiry and deepening awareness.

What keeps us from knowing our Buddha Nature?

Central to Buddhism is the understanding that there is no place to get to, that enlightenment is not some distant place, but lives ever present within us. This sense of presence is called our Buddha Nature. It is our inherent loving-kindness, our spacious mind that knows we are each expressions of a whole rather than the separate individuals we habitually believe ourselves to be.

This Buddha Nature may be a treasure we have yet to recognize, hidden in plain sight but camouflaged by our habitual patterns of seeing. But have no doubt! It is there, shining within us, a light of incredible brilliance that, when discovered, illuminates our experience, clarifying our understanding and dissolving the tangle of fear-based roots that has kept us feeling tethered, weighed down and out of kilter.

We have been studying the Third Noble Truth that promises that we can know and even live fully from this Buddha Nature. Our practice is to make ourselves available to this Buddha Nature by being as present in this moment as we can. We relax into the moment, for it is in this ‘here, now and fully-relaxed’ state that the inherent Buddha Nature makes itself known.

It seems simple enough to do this. The instructions are clear. Yet often, sitting after sitting we come away feeling as if we have waded through a bog of mental mud! We begin to doubt if we are capable of finding clear spacious open-heartedness or even a little precious peacefulness where we can momentarily rest our weary minds. We begin to worry that we are the only person in the world who doesn’t actually have Buddha Nature.

This is absolutely normal. There are so many ways our habitual mind sabotages our intention to access our Buddha Nature. We know that habits die hard. I remember when my mother finally quit smoking after her doctor told her she had emphysema. She told me that it wasn’t the addiction that was so difficult; it was her inability to imagine who she would be without a cigarette in her hand. In her mind, smoking made her more sophisticated, intelligent and glamorous. Without that little burning stick in hand, who would she be? After she quit, she was still just as vital, beautiful and exciting as she had ever been. And once the smoke cleared, she could see that that cigarette did not define her and had instead been hindering her from full enjoyment of life. But for so many years she had been too afraid to let go, to find that out; and that fear fostered the self-destructive behavior that killed her.

My mother’s experience illustrates how we cling more tightly than ever to our habits if they are entwined with our self-image. So if, for example, we like to think we are practical and not susceptible to any woo-woo nonsense, then we create a strong resistance even to something that offers us the possibility of a happier life.

This is not to say we should abandon good judgment and fall for every feel-good scheme that gets marketed to us! Quite the opposite! Instead, we need to become aware of our OWN inner wisdom. When we are disconnected from it, if we are honest we can feel that disconnect. During a period many years ago when I was ‘too busy’ to meditate or even to give myself much-needed alone time, I remember saying to a co-worker, “I feel totally separate from myself.”

This was a potentially pivotal moments in my life. Had I heeded the words coming out of my mouth instead of just finding them amusing, I might have saved myself and those I love a lot of subsequent suffering. (Often the wisest words are words we say ourselves, and just as often we don’t listen to them. It really pays to notice what advice we are giving others. It’s often for us as well.)

But I didn’t pay attention to my words of caution. Instead I continued my grueling schedule and ended up getting a serious chronic illness that incapacitated me, forcing me to leave my career, cutting our family income in half. Had I heeded my own words, I might have been able to make a milder and less painful course correction.

I began to meditate again, and since there was little else I could do, I meditated as if I were on what turned out to be a nine month retreat. I had been so out of balance and then so ill that that level of intensity felt necessary. In this way, I came home to my own inner wisdom, my own Buddha Nature, not just in rare moments, but as a steady guiding light in my life. Eventually that inner wisdom diffused in such a way that I understood it was not some separate inner guru replete with personality, but simply a shift of perception, from a sense of separation to a sense of connection.

These habits of mind we all have are deeply rooted in this disorienting belief that we are separate and isolated beings encased in envelopes of skin. I say ‘disorienting’ because at some level we know it is not true, so we have angst and restlessness, as we look all over for the things in the world that will make us feel connected. When everything fails to satisfy this deep longing, we feel steeped in fear that expresses itself in all manner of negative emotions and results in suffering, for ourselves and those around us.

As we meditate, we practice developing the mental muscles of setting clear intention to be present with whatever arises in our experience. We practice relaxing our muscles and letting our bones support our bodies. And we develop a sense of compassion so that we can meet our distracted minds with kindness rather than our habitual harangue. With steady practice we begin to find more spaciousness, and more clarity to notice habitual mental and emotional patterns. With compassionate curious attention, these patterns soften and may even dissolve.

The briefest glimpse into this spaciousness can be sufficient to begin the unraveling of these old fear-based habits. Buddha Nature is timeless, and therefore, once known, once perceived, is always available. Years ago there was a popular activity of staring at a visual puzzle, where an image was hidden within a complex pattern. People would stare and stare at this puzzle. Some would become frustrated and give up. Some would see it quickly. With others it took time, but by relaxing and keeping their vision refreshed, they finally saw it. But everyone who saw it couldn’t later un-see it. The image would always be there. This is also true of Buddha Nature. Once you know it, you can never un-know it. You may ignore it, but you will never again be unable to sense it if you open to it.

Since we are creatures of habit, we can set the intention to develop new healthy mental habits – habits of noticing, habits of being aware of sensation, habits of compassionately observing our mind at work. This is a very effective way to prepare ourselves for whatever shift in consciousness that might arise out of repeatedly making ourselves available.

Allowing for the possibility, making ourselves available – these are good ways of thinking about how this shift of awareness happens. They remind us that this is an opening to what already is, rather than a search for something hidden elsewhere. It’s more like tuning our instrument to play harmoniously. Perhaps we are currently strung too tight and so are playing a sharp instead of a natural. Or perhaps we’re strung too loose, sluggish in our energy, foggy in our thinking, sleepy in our meditation, so we need to focus on refining, clarifying and brightening our concentration. This is not done by hunkering down, gritting our teeth or bracing ourselves, but through opening to the energy that is ever-present. We can draw it into our being, feel its strength and healing power, and let it rise up to express itself through us.

As we open, allowing for the natural shift to a more fluid connected state that is always available, we can see that in this state the old habits of fear that we thought were serving to protect us serve no purpose. Their efforts only exacerbated negative situations, escalated arguments and confrontations, and cut us off from healthy interaction.

The idea of retiring our emotional weaponry sounds nice, but what if we are feeling stuck in fear? What if we are fearful of the ideas presented here? First, let’s remember that none of this is new news but draws from the well of universal wisdom that is at the core of all world religions and spiritual traditions. And, if religion scares us, we can find the same wisdom in the latest scientific findings.

Secondly, it’s valuable to recognize that all of these habits of mind are striving for our survival as best they can. They are trying to protect us from a perceived harm. So it is just another fear-based habit of mind to feel threatened by the habits themselves. It is more useful to see them as misguided allies.

I have occasionally referred to working with the various aspects or voices we discover as we really listen to our thinking mind. I have found in my own experience the value of inquiring into the specific desires and concerns of these aspects, and then compassionately negotiating a way for the aspects needs to be met without undermining my well being.

You may recall the story of my inner aspect ‘Slug’ and his resistance to exercise. He loved bed. Bed was for him a big mommy hug, and he missed his mommy. Well, of course, I missed my mommy too as she had died a few years before this encounter. But I knew my mother wouldn’t want me lollygagging in bed anymore than my own inner wisdom did, so I found a yoga class with a teacher about my mother’s age and who, at the end of class, as we students were lying on the floor in shivasana pose, would come to each of us with a blanket and tuck us in. Well, of course Slug LOVED this yoga class. And that’s how I was able to negotiate getting some much-needed exercise.

But as useful as it can be to work with aspects of self in this inter-personal way, giving them cute nicknames and personalities to encourage compassion in our dealings, there are many other ways to view these complex inter-workings of our mind.

These habits of mind are caught up in a view that is totally relative. Through the lens of these habits steeped in fear, we see things from an embedded perspective, like a journalist embedded in a military operation. We see a very intense, very personal, but very one-sided view of things. And it is so intense — this living a life — that we completely buy into it being the whole truth. But all the while we are stuck in this perspective that is vested in maintaining this singular point of view, as if we have pledged allegiance to it and must defend it, or are employed as its public relations representative.

We are not! We are free agents! We are free to walk about and observe with fresh eyes and see for ourselves what is true and what is not. How much of what we hold to be true have we really questioned or examined?

I was so taken years ago when I heard about a listening project in the Southern US, where trained volunteers visited homes and simply listened to the inhabitants express their views of the world. They were trained to notice when they made statements that seemed rote, as if accepted long ago and not examined since. And they knew how to probe, encouraging deeper self-reflection, so that on their own the interviewees began to see the flaws in their own arguments, and through further exploration, using their own good sense, they found they didn’t buy into the pre-packaged hateful things they had so readily spouted just an hour before. In this way the listening project did not promote another view; it just provided the space for exploration.

And this is what we do. We provide space and a willingness to notice and question our standing operating procedures, our pre-packaged beliefs, our previously unquestioned inheritance of values and ideas. We see where we may be holding two opposing beliefs at the same time and have never stopped to question them. No one else can do this inner work for us. We may be inspired by what others say, but the experience of questioning is an ongoing inside job.

For some this idea might at first feel very threatening. Our inherited beliefs may seem comforting, something to hang onto in a dangerous world. They may seem like the one way we do feel connected to something. And it may be true that at core they do offer that entrance to a sense of connection, but unexamined, accepted as truth without exploration, they are about as powerful as a baby’s security blanket.

Opening to the possibility that these habits of mind — these negative emotions, judgments and discomforting thoughts — are not personal but universal, helps us to feel safe in our exploration. Understanding that most of us look at the world from a particular mindset — not from our deepest and truest nature — helps us to let go of the need to defend our position.

How refreshing and relaxing it is to realize that these habits of mind are not traits that define us, but common patterns that course through us, shaping our thoughts and our behavior. These patterns are like the readily visible patterns in that visual puzzle mentioned earlier, before we see the image that is hidden in plain sight.

Insight meditation is the practice of noticing these patterns of mind, actively observing in a spacious way. If we notice when we are getting caught up in them and pause to breathe more spaciousness into our noticing, and then look with fresh eyes in a more relaxed way, we can begin to see something else emerging.

These relative mindsets we have believed to be our true selves all these many years, do not define us any more than my mother’s cigarette defined her. As we make that distinction and begin to see that we are not these habits of mind, then we can open ourselves more easily to the possibility of allowing them to pass through our current experience without feeling we have to rise up and do battle with them. In time we see that bringing spaciousness into our relationship with them gives us the ability to see them more clearly, to see all the thoughts, emotions and image associations that give us deeper understanding. Eventually, with that shift into seeing from our inherent Buddha Nature perspective, these habits lose their sense of purpose. With their need to protect us gone, they can dissolve quite naturally.

So what keeps us from knowing our Buddha Nature? Believing that our habits of mind –our endless thought stream, and our ocean of emotion — define us. As we let go of our clinging to this sense of separate self we become available for the revelation of the absolute reality of oneness with all that is that patiently waits within us. This is our Buddha Nature.