Category Archives: Buddha

You can focus like Siddhartha under the ficus

ficus-buddhasTwenty-six hundred years ago, under a tree, a seeker named Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation, determined not to stop meditating until he awakened.

In his meditation he was taunted, terrorized and tempted by all manner of thoughts and emotions that came in such convincing guises that it was a challenge to not believe they were solid and true.

Instead  of engaging, chasing after or battling them, he recognized them for the passing illusions they were, and each time he greeted them in a friendly way with the words ‘I know you.’ Because of the deity-rich culture and times he lived in, he saw the hand of Maara (aka Mara, Maya), the tempter. Maara manifested thoughts of self-doubt, of the hopelessness of awakening and even of his right to try to do so. Maara also tried to activate desires and cravings, and to scare him into giving up his seat under that tree.

Again and again Siddhartha reset his intention, stayed grounded, and, thanks to six years of practice, he was able to stay fully present and see through these manifestations to their fleeting and illusory nature.  His awareness of the nature of impermanence and interconnectedness grew so strong within him that Maara couldn’t gain a foothold. And Siddhartha awakened. He became a buddha, which simply means awakened one. On occasion, throughout his long life, Maara tried again to seduce him to give up struggles, even for life itself when he was in a physically weakened state. Maara advised him to keep the wisdom he had learned to himself rather than sharing it. And, of course, Maara seized any opportunity to bring doubt into the Buddha’s mind that he was truly awakened.

The Buddha was a human being, with all of the struggles and suffering we all have at times. We honor the Buddha not as a god — he was the first to refute such an honorific — but as an inspiration to us to practice meditation as he did under that tree, with gratitude for his ability to see through Maara’s taunts, and share his teachings over many decades, so we benefit from them all these centuries later.

In class, I passed around little Buddha statues (gifts from students over the years) for class members to hold or to put in front of them while we did a few minutes of meditation with the image of Siddhartha sitting under that tree, his intention so strong, his concentration so clear. Perhaps you have such a statue that could at times be incorporated into your home practice. One student said it was easier to stay focused with the statue in front of her, reminding her of her purpose.

‘Now I understand why people have altars,’ she said. I teach what I call a ‘portable practice’ that can be done anywhere without drawing attention to oneself. But that practice doesn’t preclude having an altar at home for daily practice. It just means not becoming reliant on it, so that when it’s not there you can’t practice. Even traveling, one can bring to mind that young man so long ago with all the temptations we ourselves face, sitting under that tree with such skillful effort.

When he completed his marathon meditation and awakened, one of the first things he said was that all beings are endowed with the nature of awakening. This is important for us to remember, because our thoughts and emotions will likely try to convince us otherwise, that somehow we are uniquely incapable of awakening.

If Siddhartha can wake up, you can too. 

Can’t get no satisfaction?

chocolate cake thoughtSometimes right in the middle of a meal, I remember about dessert. Suddenly I can’t taste what I’m eating. My whole focus shifts to desire and the anticipation of something sweet. This may happen even though the meal is tasty and I had been looking forward to it! Sad, huh? But instead of judging it, let’s see what’s going on here, because this is an example of what we all experience to one degree or another in some area of our lives. Why can’t we enjoy what’s right in front of us? Why does the mind leap into the future or into the past?

Whether it’s a craving for sweets or some other sensory experience, desire for something else clouds our ability to be present. Sense desire is the first of the Five Hindrances, those obstacles to mindfulness. All of the Hindrances pull us away from present experience: We crave something or are annoyed by something; we are too restless, worried, spaced out or sluggish to notice what’s going on in this moment; or we are in a constant state of doubt. Whatever muddles the mind, clouding clarity and compassion, hinders us from feeling fully alive and well.

In our exploration of the Ten Paramitas, Perfections of the Heart, we now come to the third Paramita, Renunciation. What is that? All the synonyms for ‘renounce’ sound equally unpleasant: ‘abdicate, abstain, cancel, deny, disavow, eschew, forego, give up, let go, rebuff, refuse, relinquish, abandon, repeal, repudiate, sacrifice, spurn, surrender, veto, waiver, yield.’ Yuck! If you feel resistance to them, you are not alone. Even the Buddha said that at first his ‘heart did not leap up at renunciation, seeing it as peace.’ But later he did recognize the inner peace that renunciation creates within, once it is truly understood and acted upon.

In Buddhist practice, renunciation is not denial, nor is it punitive. Instead it is recognizing where our happiness is. If we believe that happiness comes from the objects of pleasure in our lives, then we are constantly seeking out these things and experiences, caught up in a state of longing. Then, once we attain the object of desire, after a brief jubilation, we find it difficult to fully enjoy because, like all things, it is fleeting. We want it to last forever, but that is not possible. So there is clinging that arises in our experience. We either plot how we can hold onto it, or we have discovered it isn’t all that great and plot how to get the next object of pleasure in our lives. Perhaps you can pause and think of some situation in your life that illustrates this.

Once we understand the nature of impermanence we see that it is not the objects of pleasure that provide happiness. It is, instead, our ability to be present. We can enjoy even ordinary moments, even challenging ones, if we are fully present in all our senses. Through our meditation practice, we create a spacious ease to hold all that arises in our experience, and we discover the joy available in every moment.

When we believe that happiness is attaining a particular sense object — I used chocolate as an example, but it could be anything that we long for and hate to see end — then we get caught up in the throes of misery of our own making. So I don’t have to renounce chocolate. (Yay!) I simply need to notice how the Hindrance of sense desire is activated within me, and how it causes me to suffer. That awareness, fully realized, disempowers the Hindrance. This is skillful renunciation — a kind of catch and release of the mind states. These Hindrances are universal in nature and we will come upon them again and again in our lives. Each time is an opportunity to notice, to celebrate and be grateful for the noticing, to observe and be curious about the way the Hindrance is impacting our experience, and to compassionately detangle and eventually release it, with a reminder to keep an eye out for it because it will appear again.

Renunciation is the third of ten Paramitas, right after Generosity and Ethics. All these Perfections of the Heart work together, but there is a traditional order and a reasoning for this order: As we develop a sense of generosity, deepening our connection to others, we naturally develop a sense of non-harming. So the Paramita of Generosity begets the Paramita of Ethics. Our exploration of Ethics took us to review the Five Precepts or vows of non-harming that are traditional in Buddhist practice. Each of the Precepts uses the word ‘refrain’, as in ‘I will refrain from taking what is not freely given.’ Notice how the word ‘refrain’ naturally leads us to Renunciation. We refrain from, we renounce, we let go of ways that we harm ourselves or others. And in all three of these Paramitas, the Hindrances have played a major role in our investigation.

A word came to me as I prepared to teach about Renunciation and I think it has a place in this discussion. I thought of ‘cleave’ as in cleave unto each other in our marriage vows. What if we ‘cleave unto this moment’, holding this moment above all others? In our mindfulness practice we are in effect vowing to ‘marry’ this moment, letting go of our longing for other moments, for the past or the future. There is a devotional quality to this wording that I think captures the sense of renunciation that we’re going for. It’s making an intentional choice to be here and now.

Buddha said, “I removed the fever of sense pleasures and dwell without thirst with a mind inwardly at peace.”

A few posts ago, I told the story of my nineteen-year-old self’s experience of being high and having a vision of a mountain with people earnestly climbing it. When I saw that although I was at the same level as the top of the mountain, I was in a hot air balloon and it was losing altitude. I recognized that I needed to ‘go to the mountain’ and climb one of those paths. Looking back, I can see that it was a moment of renunciation. It became clear that no drug could provide what I was seeking. So renunciation is not denial of the pleasures of life, but a way of recognizing what is truly beneficial and what is causing us harm.

A final quote from the Buddha: “When we understand the nature of desire, it falls away by itself.” A look at the Hindrances with a vow to release them with mindfulness and compassion allows true happiness to arise in our hearts.

Root-bound – Learning to Let Go

Just outside in the early spring sunshine, my neighbors were trying to pull a root-bound rosemary plant out of its pot for replanting. At one point it looked like he was giving birth with the pot held upside down against his stomach as she, playing midwife, yanked and pulled. All to no avail. She said, ‘There has to be a lesson in this somewhere, maybe a blog post?’ And I said, ‘Well, I am writing one about letting go.’ We all laughed, and eventually the rosemary bush plopped out of the pot to applause all around.

The root of suffering, says the Buddha, is grasping and clinging. So it follows that the end of suffering comes from letting go. But most of us are not very good at. We can’t imagine that life will be okay beyond the pot we are clinging to. Conversely, when we imagine things would be all better if we could just get beyond this damned pot, we might push with too much force which, according to the Buddha is the other primary cause of suffering. There was a moment just now when my neighbor was banging a hammer on the tip of a length of re-bar into the hole in the bottom of the pot her mate was holding, all within easy striking distance of his cheek and chest. It could have been a 911 call for sure!

When we develop a meditation practice and learn to be present with whatever is arising in the moment, we begin to notice the patterns of thought and emotion that fuel the grasping, clinging and pushing away. As we patiently practice, we find we are able to allow room for whatever passes through our open field of awareness to simply come and go. To the degree that we can be aware and compassionate with our experience, we find ease, balance and joy.

In this state of awareness and compassion, we might notice a pattern of thought that keeps our mind tense and entangled. Just developing the ability to notice thoughts in this way rather than getting lost in them is quite skillful. But even at this point we might fall into the trap of wanting to get rid of that thought pattern, making it bad, making ourselves bad in some way. That’s just another painful thought entanglement.

If you want to let go of something, just bring more awareness and compassion into the way you are holding your experience. Have heart courage to face your fears. This is a vulnerable state, but it doesn’t require armor or weapons (or a hammer!). Be willing to listen. See the fear inherent in the grasping and clinging. Soften your stance and whatever is ready to let go will go. Trust in the process.

If letting go is a subject of interest to you, here are some other posts to check out.

Spring Cleaning

The Buddha is quoted in the Pali Canon as saying that to define yourself in any way is to limit yourself, and that the question, “What am I?” is best ignored. So it’s useful to notice where we get caught up in believing we are this material form, the feelings/moods/preferences we experience, or any other of the Aggregates we will be investigating. As we practice in this way, we eventually become aware that not only will we not find ourselves in them, but that finding ourselves is not the goal. Learning how to relate to any experience with awareness and compassion so that we do not cause suffering to ourselves or others is the only purpose of any Buddhist practice, and this one is no different. So while it may seem we are on a journey, and we will most likely make discoveries, this process is more like spring cleaning than a quest.

When we do spring cleaning, we are not searching for something within our home. When we investigate these aggregates, we are not searching for that true thing that is ‘I’. In both cases, we are looking with fresh eyes and seeing what is in the way. This fresh view is very much about questioning what is cluttering up the space. What can be let go?

In the home it might be piles of old magazines and newspapers that we never read, but every time our eye rests on them we get distracted from simple presence.

We might see that a poorly-placed piece of furniture always bruises our thigh, and for some reason we have been living with it that way, but now we see that if we move it four inches, that would make all the difference in creating a sense of spaciousness and non-harming.

When looking at the aggregates, we can see how clinging to this or that idea of self causes a different kind of bruising and limits our motion in a different kind of way. When we recognize this, we are ready to let go of these habituated ideas we held about who we are. The letting go is not painful but liberating. We haven’t lost anything of value, only things that were causing suffering and confusion.

Once we recognize it as clutter, it’s much easier to let it go. If it is not easy, then we are caught up in another struggle. This means we are not bringing awareness and compassion to the process. Instead we might be striving to prove something to ourselves or to others. There is nothing to prove. This is a timeless process and we each find our own pace. This is not about ripping the rug out from under ourselves. But we might take up the rug and flap it a bit to let the dust go rather than sweep the dust under the carpet!

We also don’t need to rush out and replace what we have released with other people’s clutter or other people’s beliefs. We are just in a more spacious easeful home, a more spacious easeful mind, appreciative of the fresh, clean airy feeling and the simple joy of being.


A friend of mine happened to mention this poem and I felt it was a must-share while we are exploring the Buddha’s Five Aggregates.

Since my house burned down,

I now own a better view

of the rising moon.


— Basho


What does this Haiku mean?
Well, Matsuo Basho’s house actually did burn down, so it could be taken as just looking on the bright side of a bad situation. But as with all good poems, we can see at least one other level. In dream analysis ‘house’ often means the ‘self’, so quite simply this poem would then mean ‘since my sense of a solid separate self ‘burned down’ — perhaps through the process we are going through now where we are shedding the strong light of awareness on those things we have long held to be who we are — I now am able to see more clearly. That sense of separate self was blocking the view. Read the poem again and see if that feels true for you.


To make sure we all have time to process these valuable teachings of the Buddha, in class we paused in our investigation of the Five Aggregates and practiced walking meditation out in the garden, which is bursting with the delights of spring. I highly recommend walking in nature as an important part of any exploration of the dharma.

The Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness – an introduction

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

The Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness are:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Bowing


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

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

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

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

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

Buddha’s River Analogy cont’d: Poetry & an Exercise

In our exploration of the Buddha’s river analogy to talk about the Middle Way, we are looking and questioning what’s true for us, what is our experience of the shores, the boat and the river itself. Because we are so often lost on one shore or the other, it’s useful to see how we keep ending up over-indulging or adopting strict systems of self-denial.

Here are two poems to illustrate the two different shores. First, one about wanting run amok:


No End to Wanting
If truth be known, you want to be idolized,
to be set apart from the flock of ordinary beings
to be seen as separate and special.
You want a whole room of your mansion
for your many awards in specially lit glass cases
and the soundtrack of Rocky playing upon entrance.
You want your ghost-written biography
to fill a whole table at Borders with a
giant cardboard cutout of you and
a line round the block waiting since dawn
for you to sign your autograph and for them
tell you how much they love you.
You want to have a huge yacht with a crew
spiffy-clad in white shirts and shorts
lined up to greet you in exotic ports of call.
You want a small sleek jet done to your
taste by the world’s leading decorator
who answers your endless 2 am calls
happy to implement your latest desire
for say a chaise lounge in the loggia of
your villa on the shores of Lake Como
or your beachhouse in Bali, or perhaps
the estate in Provence or the penthouse in Paris —
each one of them staffed and stocked 24/7
in case you feel like a change of venue.
You want an entourage of sleek beauties or
hunks lounging at poolside, pouring you drinks,
laughing at your jokes, every steamy glance
 telling you how much they long to touch you,
to say they have touched you,
to be enhanced by your magical powers.
You want every celebrity in the world to be thrilled
at an invitation to drop in at a moment’s notice
because whatever else they had planned for a
Saturday night pales in comparison to the chance
to dine at your table and bask in your reflected glow.
You want your name to be a household word
said with a shiver of awe and a shared hint of desire.
You want your face to be as familiar as the one
people see in the mirror every morning
when they take stock and wish they were you.
You want people diving into your dumpster
to have even the most disgusting indigestible
parts of you to put on display
or be sold for thousands of dollars on eBay.
You want to walk down the street
and be mobbed by paparazzi who push you
back so they can get a better shot of you
because you are the most valuable prize
of their pathetic little lives and you know it.
You want to stroll into a showroom of
luxury cars and drive out with whatever
suits your fancy the way you used to
go out for an ice cream cone on a Sunday
afternoon when life was simple
and the sun on your back and the taste
of the ice cream and the laughter of a friend
was enough to make you happy.
When happiness was enough.
– Stephanie Noble


And to illustrate the other shore:

The Desert of Just Desserts
This scorched sand, this unrelenting sun:
No more than I deserve. 
Thick oozing lava pools and
a stack of buckets with instructions:
‘Fill and carry, don’t stop, don’t drop, don’t drink. Toxic.’
All around me others are loading up buckets, whispering,
‘This time I’ll do it, this time I’ll get it right.’
‘Please don’t let me fail again, please don’t let me fail.’
They don’t look up, so I drop my gaze, and set to the task at hand:
To carry these buckets across the vast arid sands,
to ignore those along the way whose
writhing bodies speak in tongues,
to set my sights, to keep my eyes on the horizon,
on the oasis shimmering golden in this hellish heat.

Oh, to be worthy of the illusive prize
to be worthy to set my lips upon the chalice
that holds that righteous sip
of sweet
pure
water.

– Stephanie Noble
To finish with our poetry sharing, here’s one by Mary Oliver. It is perhaps her most beloved poem for the way it gives us permission to see the truth about this ‘desert of just desserts.’ It is titled Wild Geese. Because I don’t have permission to publish Mary Oliver’s poem, here is a Youtube video of the poet reading three poems, including Wild Geese, which she reads because she says,‘Sometimes people get mad when I don’t.’ Watch it now or later, but come back to this post because we’ll be doing a valuable self-exploration exercise.


It’s important to recognize the quality of the river itself: Notice how it flows naturally, how it is connected in a great cycle of watery wholeness and life itself. Perhaps the image of a river feels claustrophobic. Imagine a wider river! Perhaps it seems boring. Imagine a livelier river, gurgling joyously! This is your experience of river. Let the river be an expression of freedom and life. Let the shores be less interesting than the river itself, so that your do not turn being on the river into another form of self-denial. And of course you don’t have to use the river analogy at all! It’s just an analogy and we have used many others that might better serve you. But it is one of the ways the Buddha made his teachings real to students, and so we have been exploring it thoroughly.

We did an exercise last week where we defined for ourselves what was luring us off the river of the Middle Way and onto the shore of over-indulgence or self-denial. I hope you had a chance to play with this, and that some lures came up.

Our exercise today is finding a lure on each shore that relates to one on other. These two lures are connected in some way. I will use a personal but pretty universal example to illustrate how this exercise works. Okay, so there is a hot fudge sundae sitting on the shore. No, wait, let me be more specific. There is a hot fudge BROWNIE sundae sitting on the shore. On the opposite shore there is a sign saying, ‘You’re a pig.’ Those two definitely have a relationship. I feel that if I eat the sundae, then I am a pig. And if I see that sign, I resonate with it and am reminded of the sundae I either ate or long to eat.

So now, find your two related lures. First, choose the thing that is sticky, that gets you caught up in craving, that makes you go mindless and sparks a lot of circular thinking and despair of ever being ‘good enough.’ The lure on the over-indulgence shore is not the occasional innocent treat. This is a mine field for you. It doesn’t have to be food, of course. It could be a craving for praise, fame, wealth, beauty, sex, security, or excitement.

If you have a lure on the over-indulgence shore that is ripe for exploring, there will definitely be some related lure on the opposite shore. It will chime in with some snide comment and draw your attention. The self-denial shore is full of rudeness, rules and regulations that don’t arise out of a sense of natural virtue and good will that comes from our feeling connected to all beings. Instead it is a set of whips and chains to use on ourselves and sometimes others when we project our issues on them. This shore is full of harsh judgments that don’t just deny us pleasure. They deny us our very right to be who we are.


Once you have found your two related lures, sit with the indulgence lure.
So I sit with the sundae. What does it offer me? What does it promise? A few minutes of pleasure, sweet taste, cool and creamy with hot and gooey, yum! A reward to myself. A sense of happiness. Oblivion, release.

Exploring further, what is the fear that drives the urge? What is the lure’s underlying fear-based message?

(Maybe you are saying, ‘Hey, why does there have to be fear? Why can’t it just be a hot fudge sundae. Well for some it would be, but I’ve got that ‘You’re a pig’ sign on the other shore, and a feeling that I would eat every hot fudge sundae if given the chance. So there is a fear message there. And if you’ve found lures that are equally or even more seductive, there is most definitely a fear-based message there. What is it?) 
The message I hear is, ‘Life is short. What if I get to the end of my life and feel I missed out on enjoying indulgent simple pleasures?” So I fear the regret that I didn’t live fully and embrace all that life has to offer.

We then check the statements that have come up for veracity. We ask, ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’ for each of the statements we have made.

When that exploration feels done for now, we turn to the related lure on the other shore, in my case the sign saying “You’re a pig!”

Explore what this lure offers. In my case I’m noticing guilt, self-loathing and shame. I’m also noticing a call to exercise discipline and will power. I’m hearing a promise of a reward of good health and a slender figure to provide me with a protective shield of ‘attractiveness’ that may make me more acceptable.

Now we ask ‘What is the fear that drives this urge?’ When put into words sometimes the fear sounds outrageous, but that’s okay. Outrageous as it is, it feels real enough, so write it down. You aren’t sharing this with anyone. It’s your own exploration just for you.
For me what comes up are fears that I will eat all the hot fudge sundaes in the world given half the chance, that I will become grossly obese instead of what I hope is seen as ‘pleasantly plump,’ that people will be repulsed by me, that I will be whispered about behind my back.

Again, we check some of these things for veracity, asking, ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’ for each of the statements we have made. This could be a long or short conversation. This is your exercise, your exploration, your experience. Give it as much time as you need.

Having fully explored both these lures on the banks of the river, can we find the Middle Way between the two? Yes, the Middle Way begins with awareness, so our exercise in shining a light on what lures us onto the shores of over-indulgence or self-denial helps us to stay present. When we are present fully with our experience, we are on the river. 

We’ve talked about the river as being awareness and compassion. Compassion is vital in this exercise and in life. Without discounting, negating or denying any of the feelings we have brought up, we notice them, acknowledge them, and then question them. Compassion allows us to return to the river. Without it we judge ourselves, our situation or the people we feel caused the situation, and thereby get stuck deeper and deeper in the muck and mire, the dark humid tangle of vines that choke us, or the quicksand of our thoughts and emotions.

So from our boat on the river we look at the two shores, thus reminding ourselves that this is the vantage point we choose, again and again, by setting the intention to be present and compassionate. Retraining our vantage point is part of the practice of meditation. With Wise Effort we are able to find this Wise View, this vantage point. We return again and again to the breath, whether we see it as simply the breath or as the river that runs through the center of our being.

If you are new to the practice, perhaps ‘the river’  is as illusive as the oasis or the golden mountain that looms deep inland on each shore, the horizon that never gets any closer. You may say,‘What river? I want the river! Where the heck is this river? Is it over that mountain? Maybe I better strive harder. Maybe I’m not worthy of the river.’

Don’t worry, the river is within you. The river is as close as the rising and falling of your breath. Only your ability to notice it is illusive, and it is that ability that we develop through meditation practice. So create for yourself a regular practice — begin with five minutes and work up to 30 or 40; or, if you prefer, do two 20 minute meditations a day. Set the intention to stay present with whatever you experience. And set the intention to be compassionate with yourself when your mind wanders, as it will, as it was designed to do. Just this will be enough. Let go of all else as you sit. Anchor in sensation, whether focused on the breath, on sound, or on an openness to all sensation; or choose a simple word or phrase that brings you present like ‘here, now, relaxed’ or ‘om.’ For more information on getting started in meditation, see the Meditation Basics page.

Or = Oar Along the Middle Way

In the last post I shared an embellished version of the Buddha’s analogy of the Middle Way being our course as we boat on the river of life, steering clear of the seductions of either bank that represent overindulgence and self-denial. You can read that post if you have forgotten or didn’t see it.

In the analogy, we focused on both banks but didn’t really spend much time exploring the river or the boat. For example, how do we keep our boat in the middle of the river and not stuck on either side?

That’s right, we need an oar. This is a very powerful oar, and it’s spelled O-R. Or: Perhaps the most powerful word in the English language. Powerful enough to steer our vessel along the Middle Way. How?

At any moment, inserted into a sentence, the word ‘or’ creates a pivot point, full of possibility.
Whatever we are doing, however close we are coming to either shore of over-indulgence or extreme self-denial, we can use ‘or’ to remind ourselves that we have other options.

This has worked well for me when I’m on the way into the kitchen to look for a treat. My inner sweetie is all excited by the prospect of some tasty treat even though I’m not hungry, and then, if I’m paying attention, I can hear the strong, clear, calm wisdom of the word OR rising up: “OR I could go out to the garden,” “OR I could go for a hike,” “OR I could wash the dishes,” “OR I could call a friend I haven’t talked to in a while,” “OR I could sit and enjoy being in this moment.”

This same OR rises up in other situations as well:

  • I’m walking by a store that has something I want but can’t afford. I simply offer myself the word OR – as in ‘OR I could walk on by.’
  • ‘I could keep channel surfing mindlessly, OR I could turn off the TV and do something more fun.’  
  • ‘I could keep stuffing food in my mouth even though I’m full, OR I could push away from the table.’

This word ‘or’ is very empowering. It gives us choice. Sometimes we have made a commitment to do something, and so our choices may seem gone. We’re in a committed relationship. ‘Or’ doesn’t give us the option to go home to someone different tonight! But even then we have the choice of how we approach our commitment, what attitude we take. ‘I could complain about this situation, or I could whole-heartedly take it on, remembering why I committed to it in the first place.’

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that are not of our choosing. We find that we or someone we love has had an accident, is seriously ill or is dying. The ‘or’ is not a means of escape from the situation, but a means of finding a new relationship with it, finding how to be present with causes and conditions of life with compassionate attention rather than getting lost in the mire of regret or fear of the future. ‘Or’ is not an escape route out of a sticky situation. It’s an awakening to consciousness, a reminder to be alive and alert to the reality of the present moment.

In class a student mentioned that the oar is also used for getting unstuck, so it has a quality of mobility. True! That’s an important aspect to bring into the mix. The word ‘or’ creates options for any moment.

But again it’s important for us to use our ‘or’ skillfully. The skillful, wise ‘or’ always brings us back to the river, back to awareness, back to compassion. An unskillful ‘or’ would have us paddling back and forth from one shore to the other, trying to find balance by going to both extremes. An example would be gorging ourselves and then going on a strict minimal intake diet. Another example would be the person who works beyond the point of exhaustion all year long and has a flat on the back on the beach vacation to make up for it. This isn’t skillful paddling! This is taking the oar and paddling ourselves with it! The Middle Way is being fully present and compassionate, not going from one state of extreme mindlessness to another and believing we have found balance.

In French the word or means gold, but what fool would choose gold over the infinite possibilities of the English ‘or’ or the French ‘ou.’

In Spanish or translates into ‘o’ – How that sunny perfect circle captures the essence of the infinite rays of choice, all those potential pivotal turning points available in any given moment.

So next time you find yourself doing something mindless, see if you can empower yourself with the word OR.

We have talked about accessing our Buddha nature, our wise inner voice that is our access to universal wisdom. This word ‘or’ radiating options, keeping the world spacious and open, keeping us conscious, is a simple way to access that inner wisdom. Listen for it!

The word ‘or’ can also be used unskillfully to divide up the world, as in: ‘It’s either you or me, us or them, your way or my way, and it better be my way.’ The word ‘or’ can be very divisive. When we are wandering on either shore, away from the river, an oar is no longer a useful tool but a useless appendage, or worse a weapon. So notice how you are using the word ‘or’ to recognize if you are stuck on one of the shores or in the flow of the river, embarked on the Middle Way.



Something else we didn’t discuss about the Buddha’s Middle Way analogy of a river is the river itself. What is the river? What is this that runs through the center of our being to which we return? This is the river of awareness and compassion. We return to it from states of unconscious habitual patterns that don’t serve us or the world.

Where does the river go? Is there some place we are getting to on this river?

Where does any river go? Yes, to the sea. And then what happens to the water in the sea? It evaporates and becomes clouds, which become rain, which eventually makes its way back to the river. This natural cycle of water, how it turns from liquid to gas (and sometimes to solid) is the easiest example we have to understand the nature of things, the nature of life and of our own part in it. For it isn’t just water that cycles through in infinite transformation, but all of life, including ourselves.

Once while attending a mountain camping retreat, I had the experience of observing a cascade with the drops of water flying above the creek, each drop fleetingly solitary. And I saw how that was true for each of us as well: This sense of solitary existence, of being in an isolated encapsulated body is indeed temporary and illusory. The drop of water is part of the ongoing cycle of life. It will momentarily return to the creek and then to the sea and then evaporate into a cloud, then rain in an ongoing cycle — as will our fleeting moment of seemingly solitary existence that we call ‘life.’

The drop of water is held separate by surface tension. Interesting to think that we hold ourselves separate by tension as well. When through meditation we release bodily tension, we access our awareness of being an integral part of the whole, not an isolated drop. How refreshing! How much easier it becomes to live in this world when we feel our connection to all that is. How much easier it is to be compassionate when we understand the unitive nature of life. There is no ‘us or them,’ but the interconnected cycles of life and this wondrous gift of awareness.