Category Archives: Buddhism

Sniff, sniff. What’s cooking?

One of the Buddha’s most handy-dandy teachings is called the Noble Eightfold Path. It’s a practical tool for sorting out what’s going on in our lives and to see exactly where we’re making ourselves unhappy. Like so many of the Buddha’s lists, it’s challenging to remember. So I developed a visual metaphor that my students agree makes it super easy to recall and therefore use when we need it.

I’ve taught the Eightfold Path so many times over the past ten years that I didn’t think there was anything new to add, but this week I thought up one more useful addition to this metaphor. But first, a review:

The Eightfold Path consists of Wise Intention, Wise Effort, Wise View, Wise Mindfulness, Wise Concentration, Wise Speech, Wise Action and Wise Livelihood.

dd2dd-cooking-pot-analogy-w-spoonAs you can see from this simple illustration, ‘intention’ is the flame or spark that gets things going. Of course all will turn out better if our intention is wise.

Then there are the logs. A laid log fire is good metaphor for ”effort’ because it needs to be balanced — not lopsided, not too much kindling, not too little, etc. Even with the best of intentions, if our effort isn’t wise, things don’t go the way we intended, do they? If we’re striving and over-doing, we exhaust ourselves and everyone around us. If we get sluggish and don’t make any effort, nothing gets done. So Wise Effort is important to notice and cultivate.

The pot sitting atop the fire is our perspective on life, our understanding of how things are, our view. If our view is cracked it doesn’t function. Wise View is created out of regular practice and the resulting clarity of insight into the nature of life. We come to understand how impermanence is central and necessary to all life. We come to understand that there is no separate self, no isolated identity that needs to be shored up and shined up to please anyone. Instead we sense into the deeper understanding of dependent co-arising — this is because that was; this is not because that was not — and the patterns of interdependence of all being. And finally we see that suffering is caused by not understanding and embracing impermanence and the oneness of all being.

So that’s the pot. But what are we cooking up inside the pot? Mindfulness! That’s what we cultivate in our meditation practice and throughout our days: awareness and compassion, being truly alive in every moment, awakened to all our senses, able to perceive passing thoughts and emotions that arise in our experience in an open friendly embrace. Now this Mindfulness we’re cooking up is not a stew we can just put on the back burner to simmer. It’s a risotto! It needs to be constantly stirred by the spoon of Concentration (the various concentration practices, like following the breath, done on a regular basis to fine tune our ability to be mindful). Because what happens when we’re not mindful? All kinds of problems, mistakes, accidents, misunderstandings and frustrations, right? Without wise mindfulness, view, effort and intention, we just think life sucks and we’re the suckers who got stuck with it. At least some of the time.

But when the spark of intention is wise and the logs of effort are balanced, the pot is wholesome, seasoned by the mindfulness it contains; and the risotto is well tended, what happens?

Steam rises from the cooking pot in the form of Wise Speech, Wise Action and Wise Livelihood. Our words and deeds are informed by these other aspects and are naturally wiser and kinder than they would be otherwise. So instead of strapping duct tape on our mouth and handcuffing ourselves in order to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing, we focus on cultivating wise intention, effort and view, stirring the risotto of mindfulness with our practice. We pay attention to our language and actions, of course, but followed in this way, it is not the struggle it once was when ‘me and my big mouth’ used to duke it out in the alley.

See how it works? Now here’s the new addition:

Even though the steam that you see arising from the pot comes last in our learning about the Eightfold Path and in our practice, the steam is the first thing we notice in life. Think about it. Something smells delicious coming from the kitchen. Yum, right? The pleasant aroma flavors our whole experience of life. We come alive in our senses and all’s right with the world. Realtors know to bake cookies in a home before an open house, or to put on a pot with some cinnamon sticks in the hot water. They know that our sense of smell activates positive memories and associations that can make a house feel more desirable.

But what about when it doesn’t smell so good? We rush to the kitchen to see what’s wrong, don’t we? We know from experience that either the recipe wasn’t any good, or wasn’t followed, or the temperature’s not right or it’s been on the flame for too long. All kinds of things could have happened to make that stench. But whatever it is, we don’t just sit around and complain of the nasty smell in our own home. We do something about it, right?

So why when we are troubled in life, when we are suffering, we often do just that? We complain about the ‘stench’ in our lives but we just keep keeping on. We don’t go check out what’s causing it. The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is a wonderful tool for investigation, and especially with this Cooking Pot Analogy, it becomes super easy to see what stinks!

The smell from the kitchen happens pretty far along in the process of cooking, after all the ingredients have been chopped, measured, mixed and heated. Yet it is the FIRST thing we notice, the first thing that tells us if it’s going to be a tasty meal or a disgusting disaster. And in the same way, in this analogy, even though our words and deeds arise like steam from our intention, effort, mindfulness and view, it is those very words and deeds that are the first thing that let’s us know whether things are cooking nicely or whether something needs attending in the kitchen.

Let’s use an example. Maybe I have an unsettled feeling, a little nagging state of discomfort in my mind. What is it? After a little meditation practice, if I can take even just a minute to check in, I notice that discomfort and do a gentle self-inquiry. It might become clear that I’m feeling badly about something I said to someone. Perhaps my words were unkind. Or perhaps it wasn’t my story to tell. Or maybe I was in a hurry and didn’t take the time to be as kind and considerate as I might have been. Just the simple act of noticing lifts me up a bit, because I am able to recognize that ‘something stinks’ and now I know what caused it, and what I can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But before I get caught up in telling myself what a rotten person I am, I can use the Eightfold Path Cooking Pot Analogy to help me understand what really happened.

Let’s say that I recognized that my words were unskillful because I was rushing. Rushing is unbalanced effort, isn’t it? And why was I rushing? What was I hoping to accomplish?What was my intention? I might see that I didn’t want people at a meeting to think poorly of me for being three minutes late. My wise intention to be present and compassionate fell by the wayside, and my unskillful intention took over. Unskillful effort followed suit, leading to unskillful speech.

Whoa! That’s a lot of useful information. But let’s not stop there. Why was my intention unskillful? Because my view in that moment became unwise. I forgot that there is no separate self that needs to be polished up to perfection and presented to others. And I wasn’t mindful. I wasn’t stirring the ‘risotto’. I forgot that it needs to be constantly stirred, even while I go about my life, so that I am always present, noticing things with all my senses, no matter what. (Which is a delightful way to live, by the way.)

Try playing with this analogy yourself. If you want to read more about it, or any aspect of the Eightfold Path, use the search field on the right. Eightfold Path and all the aspects of it are discussed extensively in many of the posts.

And if you have questions, comments or experiences that illustrate how useful working with the Eightfold Path can be, please share by clicking on ‘Reply’ at the top of the post.

 

Coming home

spirit-rockWhen I first arrived at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the early 1990’s, it felt like a homecoming. Home to the lovely woodsy canyon surrounded by oak-studded hills. Home to the easy warmth and openness of the people — the teachers, staff and fellow students — the sweetness of sangha, the community of supportive fellow meditation practitioners. And home to the Buddha’s teachings that give me a framework to look at my own experience and insights. This was a place I could belong without ‘buying into’ some belief. Instead I was offered room to grow in my own way, at my own pace. It’s what teacher and Spirit Rock co-founder Jack Kornfield so aptly calls a path with heart.

So that’s what I want for my students when they come to my weekly class: To feel they have come home, and that there is room for them to grow into their true selves, aligned with their own inner wisdom. Together we cultivate spaciousness to be present with whatever arises in our moment by moment experience, and we meet it with friendliness, respect and curiosity. We learn that we have nothing to defend, nothing to hide and nothing to prove. We come home to ourselves as we come home to our breath in each moment.

Our purpose when we come together is not to learn about Buddhism, although we do become increasingly familiar with the teachings. We are not accumulating knowledge to become Buddhist scholars. We’re not here to accumulate anything. Instead we’re learning to gently let go of a lot of previously unexamined opinions, beliefs and judgments that cloud our view and keeps us from experiencing the joy and beauty of this life in every moment, no matter what our current experience. We are using the wise teachings of the Buddha as a framework, map or guide, so that our own individual explorations can be understood in greater context.

The Buddha told his students, ‘See for yourself.’ So that’s what we do here. If you give yourself the gift of meditation practice — on a daily basis, in a weekly class and in the extended silence of an occasional retreat — you can see for yourself how the practice benefits your life. All we are doing really is offering own inner wisdom what it needs in order to bloom within us. When that wisdom is heard and valued, there are gentle and sometimes remarkable internal shifts of perspective that are liberating.

Why Insight Meditation?
There are approximately 500 different schools of Buddhism. Not all of them have made their way to the US, but even here we have many choices, such as Zen, Tibetan, Shambhala and Vipassana/Insight Meditation. So how does one decide the one that’s a good fit? Since Spirit Rock was my first real experience of Buddhism, I can’t speak very knowledgeably about other traditions, but recently, at the Buddhist Insight Network conference I attended, Gil Fronsdal gave a dharma talk that included a helpful overview. He asked us to imagine a spectrum of Buddhist traditions ranging from very religious to totally secular. On the very religious end are deities, supernatural beings and ghosts, rituals, devotion, faith — all the makings of what we think of as religion.

Insight Meditation, especially as it is taught in the West, falls on the far other end of the spectrum. It is as secular as you can get and still follow the Buddha’s teachings. There are no deities, and the Buddha is not a god, but an enlightened teacher and inspiration. For those of us on this path, the more secular approach closely follows the Buddha’s own path 2600 years ago, since he kept it all very simple. He was an enlightened teacher generously sharing concepts that helped people to awaken to their own Buddha nature.

The Buddha’s interests were psychological rather than religious. Nothing that has been recorded of his teachings indicates any interest in whether there is a god — and if so how many — or what happens to us when we die. Those kinds of questions are at the heart of all religions, but the Buddha, the great investigator, seems to have had no interest in investigating such questions. He accepted reincarnation as true, it wasn’t the focus of his personal investigation or his teachings, and a Buddhist practitioner, at least in this tradition, can rest in the ‘I don’t know’ mind around that and pretty much anything, really. That resting in not knowing is at the heart of our practice. Like the Buddha. we can focus our interest on this life, right here, right now, and how to live it in a way that does not create suffering for ourselves and others.

As his wise teachings spread to different countries, they were incorporated into the already existing religious traditions, and became new schools of Buddhism. All forms of Buddhism adhere to the original teachings, but they emphasize different aspects and amalgamate the teachings into their cultural comfort zones. As Buddhism arrived in the West, the same thing is happening.

So we have a wide variety of traditions. Which one draws us? Which one, if any, feels like a homecoming?

The Insight Meditation tradition appeals to those who are not looking for God or a religion — either because they already have one or because they have no interest in one. Instead they are looking for ways to cope with life’s challenges. Even though we have a lot of fun in our class, nobody comes for the fun of it. The original impulse to find a meditation group comes more from heeding our own inner wisdom’s call to pay attention, and to develop the skills to do so.

You can see why this is the tradition that has been readily adopted by mental health professionals in the West. It has come to be taught in hospitals, schools, prisons, etc. without reference to the Buddha, just taught as Mindfulness.

There are scholars in this tradition, who study and translate the Pali Canon, the written record of the Buddha’s words as recorded 500 years after his death. (Before that it was an oral transmission down through generations of monks.) These scholars perform very important work. But this is a living tradition, and it is in the practice of meditation, in each of our own inner investigation and aha moments that the Buddha’s insights and wisdom lives on.

When I first ‘came home’ to Spirit Rock, I was already leading a meditation class a few miles away, having had my own deep experience of a series of insights that helped me recover from a debilitating illness. I had written a book and had been asked to teach. When my class went on a field trip to Spirit Rock, I had no idea it would change my life.

I really appreciated the way the Buddha’s mind worked, and how all the insights I’d had in my own practice fit so nicely within the framework he created. I could see how all that I had experienced was just a normal arising of a mind that has had the opportunity to quiet down and be present with compassion. What a relief! And what an inspiration! I decided to stop teaching for awhile and simply open myself to the teachings of the Buddha by attending a weekly class at Spirit Rock. Then about ten years ago, I was asked to teach, and I have been teaching ever since.

Rituals
I don’t want to give the impression that Vipassana has no rituals. It comes from the monasteries of southeast Asia, and if you go there, certain rituals will be very apparent. But at Spirit Rock, IMS in Barre, MS; and in the many other smaller sanghas throughout the US and beyond, you will probably find just a few:

  • In general, shoes are removed before entering the meditation hall.
  • Silence is maintained during meditation periods and may be requested by the teacher at other times.
  • Bells are rung to end the meditation, sometimes at the beginning, and on retreats as calls to practice. (My favorite of all rituals!)
  • There is usually some kind of altar with a statue of Buddha on it.
  • And there is bowing. At first it was difficult for me to be in a room with an altar and to bow to it. How is this not bowing to a god? I wondered. But then I heard somewhere that when we bow we put our head below our heart, and that helped me to recognize the benefit of releasing the churning patterns of the thinking mind and allow the heartspace to inform me.
    Mostly we are not bowing in this deep way. We simply press our hands together at the end of meditation, which I see as a way to acknowledge the experience, and to thank myself for taking the time to meditate.
    If we bow to the Buddha, it is out of deep respect and gratitude to a great enlightened teacher.
    And we may bow to our own teachers as well, not because they are ‘masters’ but because we are grateful for their taking the time to practice, to learn, to awaken to whatever degree they are able, and to generously share their wisdom.
  • On retreat, depending on the teachers, sometimes there is chanting, especially in the evening after the dharma talk. Very lovely and deep.

Gil’s talk about where our tradition fits on the spectrum from religious to secular was very freeing for me. Not only did I see that I was in the right place for me — no surprise there — but I realized that I had felt I should know all about the other traditions. For example, I had felt I should know the names of the deities represented in Tibetan Buddhist art. ‘I should, I should’ — that’s always a clue. That word ‘should’ comes from a place of fear, of insufficiency, not-enough-ness, of craving to be accepted, to shore up my identity as a ‘true Buddhist’ or whatever idea I might have had. But now I could see that feeling I need to name all the deities of another tradition makes as much sense as a Presbyterian thinking there is some failing in their not knowing all the Catholic saints!

The real key is to practice wholeheartedly in the path we have chosen, the one that feels aligned with our truest nature. And for me that is this very secular, very portable practice of Insight Meditation.  What about you?

Working with the Eightfold Path

For eight weeks we have been exploring the Buddha’s Wise Eightfold Path in order to incorporate it into our lives in a way that truly serves us.

At any moment we may find ourselves distressed about something. When we recognize the turmoil in our minds, we have options: We can take ourselves into full freak-out mode, distract ourselves with mind-numbing addictions, climb back in bed and pull the covers over our head, mull the problem over endlessly in our thoughts and in conversations with our declining number of friends and family willing to listen, OR, here’s an idea: We can turn to the Eightfold Path to see how we got here and what to do about it.

For example:

If I just got some sad news and my heart is heavy, I can remember Wise Mindfulness and simply be present with what is arising. I can acknowledge that, as uncomfortable as the thoughts and emotions are, there is nothing to fix here. This is part of life loving itself. I can attend all that arises with the compassionate awareness that the pain will shift, change and diminish in time, as all experience does.

Or maybe I feel guilty about something. Can I greet guilt as a useful messenger? Can I open to receive the message, deal with it and then let the messenger go? Yes I can, if I stay present and do some inquiry: Do I feel guilty because of something I said? Then I can look to Wise Speech and see where I misspoke. Was it something I did? Then I can look at Wise Action. In either case, if I am being honest, I can see just how I got myself into trouble. If I can be more conscious of how my words and actions have an impact, I can make apologies and reparations to whatever degree is possible. Then, and only then,  I can let go of the guilt. It’s served its purpose.

Am I feeling ashamed for the way I’m making a living, investing or spending money? Then I can look at Wise Livelihood and see how I might make some adjustments. Sometimes it seems so challenging to make big changes, but the biggest change comes afterwards, with the sense of inner freedom attuning to Wise Livelihood brings.

When looking at any of those three — speech, action and livelihood — I can ask ‘What was my intention there?’ I might discover that my words and actions weren’t aligned with Wise Intention. I might say, ‘Oh, yes, I see that I wasn’t present in the moment. Instead my mind was elsewhere.’ And I might see that I wasn’t being compassionate, either with myself or another.

And if I wasn’t being present, wasn’t activating Wise Mindfulness, then I need to use Wise Concentration practices more in my meditation. So I rededicate my daily meditation practice, consider going on a silent retreat, and make a point of noticing in each moment all the beauty around me, with deep appreciation for this gift of life — even when it feels difficult, painful and challenging.

If I notice myself striving, so focused on some goal that I’m blinded to the moment, or if I see that I’ve fallen into a habit of mindless boredom, stuck on the couch with the remote, never getting the things done that I say I want to do, then I can revisit Wise Effort to see how to bring myself back into balance.

If I feel isolated, defensive, judgmental and am more concerned with how people see me than how I can contribute to the general well being, then I can look to Wise View. I can recognize how my skewed perceptions are causing me misery. Over time, through mindfulness practices, my view naturally shifts into deeper understanding of the way of things. But even without that, I can at least identify that this is where my current challenge lies, and that will inspire me to keep meditating, to do compassionate self-inquiry, to spend time in nature, the greatest dharma teacher of all.

 

See how all of the aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path work together to guide us back to being fully present with joy and gratitude? What a useful tool! But the challenge for many people is how to remember all the aspects. How to become so comfortable with them that we can turn to them in our greatest need. For me, and for many of my students, a list is a hard thing to commit to memory in a way that is meaningful. So a number of years ago I came up with what I call the ‘Cooking Pot Analogy’. I have used it to teach the Eightfold Path over the years, and students agree it makes it so much easier to remember and work with.

31eb9-cooking-pot-analogy-8fp-tifHere is a downloadable copy of the Eightfold Path Cooking Analogy Sheet: 

eightfoldpathcookingpotanalogy 

for you to have on hand for any moment you feel you need it. Keep it handy! Feel free to share.
– Stephanie

The Ten Paramitas :: A Review

The qualities we have been exploring are not alien to us. They are intrinsic to our nature. To the degree we believe them to be something to attain from an external source we misunderstand them and suffer. Whether they are firmly established in our lives or seedlings waiting to be nourished, we are always able to cultivate the qualities of the Ten Paramitas more fully.

As we review the list below, notice your thoughts and emotions about each Paramita. Some qualities will speak to you more than others. Some will feel familiar, others perhaps a little foreign. One might stand out as being in dire need of more attention. Just notice.

One way to incorporate a Paramita into your life is to use it in your metta practice:
‘May I be well. May I be at ease. May I cultivate my natural generosity. May I be happy.’ See how I slipped the Paramita of Generosity in there? You can do metta (lovingkindness) practice at any time during the day, and at the end of your meditation practice.

Another way to work with your chosen Paramita is to notice when you are struggling, upset or conflicted. Once you notice you are in that state, instead of trying to change anything, see if you can cultivate your chosen Paramita to help you face your challenge. You might be surprised how well it applies and how it provides some spacious loving solution. If it doesn’t, then perhaps the Paramita you’ve chosen is not the one you most need to cultivate. Choose another!

Okay, let’s review the Ten Paramitas we have been exploring over the past several months. I have provided a link to more in depth exploration for each one.

Generosity

Recognizing our innate generosity, we can also compassionately explore any fear of scarcity that arises from past experience and a false sense of separation from all being. [READ MORE.]

Virtue | Ethics

Ethical conduct arises out of our innate sense of fairness and connection. Only when we contract in fear, believing ourselves to be isolated and separate, do we think up unethical solutions to the challenges we face. It is skillful to make note how these unethical solutions ricochet in our lives, causing pain and confusion. This reminds us to choose the simpler, clearer and more compassionate path of ethical conduct. [READ MORE]

Renunciation | Letting Go

We are naturally fluid in our nature. But we can get rigid and clingy when we vest our identity in our attachment to people, roles, habits and objects. Our clinging makes us rigid and even more fearful. Then we believe that this fearfulness is who we are and the only way to remedy it is to cling harder, making ourselves and others miserable. But it is not our true nature to cling. It is our true nature to dance the fluid dance of life, a celebration of coming together and falling away, all of a piece. [READ MORE]

Wisdom

While wisdom is carved into us from life’s ‘teachable moments’, increasing our compassion and understanding, it is inherent in our nature to be open enough to acknowledge that we don’t know everything, and to have insights that awaken us to our true nature. [READ MORE]

Energy | Strength

We come into the world with a natural understanding of the need to be active, the need to rest, the need to nourish. This understanding cultivates our innate balanced energy and strength. When we lose that understanding, striving or shirking, then we forget that we are strong and have the energy to do whatever we need to do in life, if it is wise, ethical, loving, generous.[READ MORE]

Patience

We get impatient when we are trying to escape from our current experience. We want to escape when we are not open to seeing life as it is. We become blind to beauty of every moment unfolding. We become more patient through being fully present, aware of all life’s gifts, and through compassion.[READ MORE]

Truthfulness

Again, as with ethics, we are innately truthful, and only lie when we are fearful and misperceive the situation. [READ MORE]

Determination | Resolve

When we find our true intention, we are innately able to stay true to it. We recognize and respect any dissenting voices within our patterns of thoughts and emotions, and find means to skillfully resolve the dissension within us so that our resolution rings true.[READ MORE]

Loving-kindness

If we recognize the infinite nature of loving-kindness, we attune to it and allow it to flow through us. It is our true nature when we are not caught up in believing ourselves to be separate isolated objects in a finite situation. [READ MORE]

Equanimity

Our true nature is spacious and holds life in an open embrace. If we feel out of balance, coming home to our true nature allows us to rediscover that sense of being able to be in wholesome relationship with all that arises in our spacious field of awareness. [READ MORE]

And finally, for anyone interested in learning the Pali names and meanings,click on the artwork above and it will take you to another blog with what seems like a very good explanation.

Exploring any one of these Paramitas could be a life’s practice! They work together to bring about awakening to our true Buddha nature.

How can what is difficult be the easy thing?

Anna Douglas,
co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center
and my dear teacher

Pema Chodron says, ‘Move toward difficulty.’ My teacher Anna Douglas, tells me, ‘Do the easy thing.’ What’s a Buddhist student to do?

This was the basis of our discussion in class on Thursday. (We are pausing in our study of the Buddha’s Five Hindrances to let the dharma lesson sink in and speak to us through our own experiences.) This discussion arose from a tradition we have in class of transitioning from meditation into the dharma talk by reading one excerpt from the Shambala classic The Pocket Pema Chodron.

This time we read #12 (We have already read through the 108 chapter book once and are on our second go-round because wisdom is always fresh, and we learn something different each time we hear it.) In this lesson, titled ‘Move toward difficulty,’ the title itself seemed strange to us, because it didn’t sound like simply being present with what is. Why would we move toward difficulty any more than we would move toward ease and pleasure? Why wouldn’t we just stay put, being present?

But in the body of the brief reading, Pema says that we are conditioned to find fault with our present experience. So perhaps a willingness to ‘move toward difficulty’ is simply countering our natural aversion to it, bringing us into the present and a willingness to be with what is difficult.

I am currently reading a book recommended to me by a friend whose taste in books I have found to be trustworthy and in step with my own. However, it was with trepidation that I opened A Pearl in the Storm, How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean by Tori Murden McClure, wherein the author took on the self-assigned project of rowing a 23-foot boat across the Atlantic Ocean. I am still reading it and am caught up in it in a way that surprises me. My taste generally goes towards cozy English cottage cups of tea and inter-generational sagas. Either that or the joyous rigors of the Satipatthana. But adventure and purposely putting oneself in great physical adversity? Never.

Tori Murden McClure

So here was a woman who truly was ‘following the difficult!’ And how do we reconcile it with Anna Douglas’ advice to me to do the easy thing? How can both of them be right?

The key is this: For the author, who rowed for thousands of miles in a solo expedition from the US toward Europe, this activity was ‘the easy thing.’ Not to discount the incredible hardships she endured, but she very clearly states that she would much rather be stuck in a storm in a solitary quest abreast the vast ocean than to walk into a room full of people and try to come up with chit chat. She was fully living in the moment, savoring her experience. How she treasured the sounds of the dolphins chirping, the whales that passed by, including a huge sperm whale, and the starry night sky unlike any she could have seen from land. Living on power bars, desalinating water to drink, rarely being truly dry or pain-free, and rowing from early in the morning to late in the evening was all part of the experience for her.

Each of us tends to follow our own preferences and tendencies, making use of our talents as best we are able. When we are honest and authentic in what we do, when we have nothing to prove, nothing to fear, nothing to hide and something to give, we follow what might look to others to be a very difficult path, but for us, because it stems from our natural bent, it is the easy way. And even when it is difficult, there is a joy in rising to this particular type of challenge.

How very different this is from the driven way that many people live. The ‘I’ll show them’ mentality indeed gets things ‘accomplished’ — but at what cost? And what is the quality of the deed done? And when the desired goal is met, is the person even present to enjoy the achievement, the award, the accolades? Or is the mind reaching ever toward the future toward another goal, another opportunity to prove that we are worthy of being alive, breathing and eating?

One student said, “But what about the arts? Where would we be if artists didn’t strive and push themselves?’

This reminded me of the daughter of an old friend who has known since she was very small that ballet was her way in life, the most natural expression of her being, and all she ever wanted to do. I think we can all agree that the life of a ballerina looks to be about the most grueling of all the arts. Yet this young woman thrives, not on striving, but on growing and blooming into the ballerina that she is. She has danced with some of the largest ballet companies in the world and she is still in high school. Her natural aptitude and genuine passion for what she does makes this most difficult art the ‘easy’ thing for her. Even when it’s challenging, or maybe especially when it’s challenging.

I also remember when I was deep in a writing project while raising young children and I was working away at my IBM Selectric (how I loved that typewriter!) every morning for several hours. When friends would say, ‘You are so disciplined!’ I thought, ‘Ah so THIS is what discipline is: When you do something with passion, when you are in the flow of a doing that doesn’t feel like work at all.’ I had always thought discipline was something we imposed on ourselves. But here it revealed itself as something quite naturally arising.

Certainly my writing and teaching the dharma takes a great deal of time and a certain amount of effort, but it is time doing what I love, time I enjoy, time that feels authentic, true, natural, real and fun for me. It’s my kind of challenge.

Last night at a gathering of my dear art critique group, a friend told a story of a child who paints with great dedication. In complimenting her, my friend kept referring to ‘your work’ and the child asked, ‘Why do you call it work?’ Indeed!

So two Buddhist teachers say too seemingly opposite things and we are left to consider and  find the intersection of the two. ‘Move toward difficulty.’ ‘Do the easy thing.’

Wise Effort. Balance. Authenticity. Anchored in the present moment. All of these we experience when both these pieces of advice can be met at the same time.

Being Kind to Ourselves Is Not Selfish

“The purpose of studying Buddhism is not to study Buddhism but to study ourselves.” – Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Meditation is the practice of creating time and space to quietly listen in. Sensing in to our breath and other sensations that arise and fall away, as do all phenomena, we open to the possibility of insight. If we pair our intention to be present with the intention to be compassionate with ourselves as we proceed, then we create a safe way to explore ourselves and the world.

We may feel some resistance to this idea of studying ourselves, just as we do to sending loving kindness to ourselves. It is likely we have been raised to focus on the outer world and to ignore and control emotions, thoughts and physical sensations. This is meant to counter self-indulgence and self-devotion. The practice of Buddhist meditation and psychology is not meant to create a narcissistic cult within us. We begin where we are with our practice, and where we are is entrenched in the seemingly permanent situation of being embodied in a particular form, having a particular series of patterns of thoughts and emotions that we believe define us. So this is what we notice. This is what we study. We develop the ability to hold our inner experience in loving awareness.

If we skip this step, whatever focus we have on the outer world will be tight, rooted in the complex patterns of fear and ignorance we harbor. We leap to the defense of this set of patterns because we believe it is who we are, and we desperately do not want to disappear!  In this fortified, calcified state we will offer up with the best intentions what we think the world wants and needs from us. We will not understand why when we are doing the best we can, these efforts are so misunderstood or poorly received. We will then blame ourselves or blame the world, causing the complex patterns to get tighter, denser and more toxic. We may seek oblivion to blind us to these patterns in the form of overindulgence in alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, overeating and other temporary distractions that do blind us, but also bind us even tighter to the patterns we are trying to escape. We’ve all tried at least some unskillful means of escape and have found them to be lacking. This is why so many people come to Buddhist practice after exhausting all other avenues. They come to the wisdom of ‘no escape.’

In our practice we begin where we are: Here, in this body, in this mind. We set our intention to be present and kind. That’s all. When we do this, there is a quite natural unraveling of the knot of patterns that have stymied us in our attempts to satisfy our idea of how we should be in the world. (Expectation stops the process, so notice and release impatience for a faster pace or greater rate of return on time invested. Let go of comparing mind. Just set the intentions again and again.)

Over time – days, weeks, months, lifetimes — we may notice that we are increasingly able to be in the world with a sense of being fully present, feeling, at least at times, true and universal loving kindness, a connected sense of compassion and much more. As this happens, we see that our practice has not been selfish at all. We practice on ourselves first. We are clearing the way for full engagement in the world.

In recent weeks we have been focusing on metta (loving-kindness) practice. Buddhism provides phrases for sending loving-kindness, as we have discussed previously. We begin with sending metta to ourselves, for the reasons I’ve just given. For a helpful mental aid to remind ourselves why we do this, remember that the airlines direct us to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we put it on our children. What use will we be to our children, or anyone, if we have passed out?

If sending metta to ourselves still feels too difficult, here is an additional instruction I just learned at Jack Kornfield’s daylong retreat on Buddhist Psychology:

Send metta to first one then another person in your life for whom you have unqualified affection, for whom you want all the best. Really spend some time with the feelings that sending this metta brings up for you. Notice the physical effects, the emotional tone, the way you hold these thoughts.
Then imagine these two people sending metta to you. You can draw on moments when they have exhibited loving kindness to you or have looked at you with heartfelt caring. Let yourself stay with this experience. Let yourself receive the metta.


You might try that practice and then notice how it feels in your body, how it feels in your emotions, and how it affects your thought processes. Perhaps it feels glorious. Perhaps it feels uncomfortable. Perhaps you can’t feel it or feel shut down by the process. Just notice what is present in your experience without trying to change anything.

Perhaps you can’t imagine two people who care about you. If so, then you might imagine being in the center of a circle of Buddhist monks with a lifetime of practice sending metta and seeing the Buddha nature in all beings. Imagine them all focused on sending metta to you.

Jack told us about his experience of meeting the Dalai Lama, how no matter how many people are waiting in line to meet him, he takes the time to look deeply in your eyes, holding your hand in both of his, until there is a deep connection, acknowledgement and understanding. So imagine the Dalai Lama sending you loving kindness! (He is doing so every day in any case, when he sends lovingkindness out to all beings!)

One of the students in my Thursday class said that ten years ago she was embraced by Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi is known throughout the world as Amma, or Mother, for her selfless love and compassion toward all beings.) and had that same sense of being held until some deep connection and release was felt. We discussed that feeling of total acceptance, so different from our usual sense of striving to be liked, loved, respected or admired. The nature of loving-kindness is universal, all-encompassing.

No matter what you have done, no matter what a mess you have made of your life, you can receive loving kindness. If you have done terrible things, allowing metta into your heart will give you the courage (from coeur, French for heart) to ask forgiveness and to make amends. If it’s useful, imagine metta as warm flowing liquid dissolving the granules of anger and resentment that have been keeping you from allowing yourself to forgive those you blame for past or current conditions, that keep you from forgiving yourself.

Our practice is to notice as much as we can about our present experience and to be as kind as we are able toward ourselves and others. That’s it. We don’t have to turn ourselves inside out. Whatever changes happen arise simply out of our practice. When a shift happens, it is from tight and fearful to open and loving. But we don’t force it. We don’t demand it. We don’t beat ourselves over the head until we are the ‘right’ way.

Our practice is to notice the arising and falling away of phenomena, including our thoughts, emotions and sensations. Our practice is to be kind to ourselves and others to whatever degree we are able. Sending metta activates our ability to feel deeply connected with all beings. From that sense of deep connection, we naturally become more compassionate.

Naming Our Poisons

The Buddha taught of the three poisons, the mental states that manifest in unskillful action and cause us and those around us to suffer. They are greed, aversion and delusion. As our minds become clearer through the practice of meditation, we begin to see these three states as they arise within us. We can notice how our actions are rooted in and fed by one or the other of these states.

Right now, for example, I am sitting here feeling greedy for the dharma as I write, hungering to learn more, and the desire to share it in the clearest way possible so that my students may benefit from knowing it. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, and it isn’t. Especially noticing it as it arises is a good thing. But noticing also brings an awareness of a tinge of energetic urgency, panic and fear that are also present in this hunger. Fear of it not being enough, of me not being enough, of my being an imperfect vessel for this information.

At the same time I am noticing a strong aversion to a phone call I am expecting from someone I have never talked with before but who appears to have anger issues as shown in his email. He is not a direct client of mine but is someone my client has to deal with. Suddenly I am ‘having to deal with’ him too. I don’t want to! I’m afraid! I feel the tension in my body rising up. I have held this tension since yesterday when we made this appointment for him to call me. And to top it off, he is already 47 minutes late in calling, which leaves me in this purgatorial state of dread.

Noticing these states, there may be a tendency to work with them, as in ‘fix’ them. That is just another form of aversion arising. I feel aversion for this state of aversion. How does that help? It really doesn’t.

So instead I breathe. Admittedly the breath started out as a sigh, but that reminded me to breathe! I send myself a little compassion. Compassion releases some of the tightness, infusing a sense of expansiveness that allows me to see more clearly. Already my shoulders have dropped an inch. However, I notice my jaw is tight. The buzz in my body is present.

I look out the window, the green and grey morning is calming. The tree outside my window doesn’t see my challenge and yet lives in this world. I don’t want to be the tree, but I am not unlike the tree. I don’t know what the tree experiences, but I can be pretty sure it is not currently dreading a phone call.

The tree is rooted in the earth. I sense my rootedness in the earth. The tree relies on its roots to weather high winds and powerful storms. I am anticipating some high wind this morning, so I sink into my roots, my connection. Thanks tree! Good advice!

The phone call went very well, by the way. A friendly constructive exchange with full agreement and goals achieved all around. Was that just a fluke? Or did my grounding myself help me to remember the humanness of the caller?

Having had a positive experience when anticipating a negative one is something I try to notice, adding it to my learned experiences. I am surprised that with attention, I actually do find I can reason with myself, saying, “Chances are, based on past experience, this will be fine. I will see how I wasted my time dreading an experience that much more often than not is a positive one.”

Noticing when we are operating out of greed or aversion is easier than noticing when we are operating out of delusion. What is delusion anyway? It’s like walking around in a fog and being constantly surprised when things happen. It can be operating as if we are an object being acted upon rather than the subject of our own lives, able to make decisions.

If we are in a state of delusion, how can we notice it? We can’t! At the moment of delusion the mind is enveloped in a cloud or fog, drifting, lost and unaware. But if we have set our intention to be present, then we can notice when it clears a bit. Just noticing that begins the development of awareness of delusion, and that awareness thins the fog. When the fog is thin, we have more options. We can drift or we can stay present. We can notice when the clarity begins to fade and we can take that as a reminder to reset our intention to be present with compassion, to notice the cloud of delusion as it comes and goes. Delusion has a very different felt sense than aversion or greed, but all three take practice to notice.

How do we work with these Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion? I remember when I first started studying Buddhism at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, there was a good deal of talk about how we are generally more inclined to one or the other of these mental states. People would say things like, “I am a greedy personality.” For me this seemed like just another way to label ourselves. We are often attracted to self-labeling, even if it’s an unattractive label.

Defining who we are seems to give us a place in the world, but it locks us in to a false sense of self. While we each do physically fill a finite place in this earthly life, defining it with limiting labels does not satisfy the deeper longing for a sense of understanding our infinite connection, the true nature of our existence.
We have talked before about the shift from the finite to the infinite view. For purposes of convenience in functioning in the world, we see ourselves as finite, singular and separate. But we discover through meditation, or perhaps through spontaneous insight, the infinite view that is always available to us, wherein we recognize that we are not separate at all, that we are a vibrant expression of life loving itself, like a drop of water flying through the sky knowing that it is a part of the sea-evaporation-cloud-rain-river-sea cycle of being which is a part of an even larger circle of life, and that all is one. With this infinite view, more fully discussed in previous discussions in the Eightfold Path, we are able to live more fully and joyfully in the world, even while being able to maintain our seemingly finite path with its various responsibilities, relationships and choices.

In the past few weeks, when discussing our clinging to the rock with our roots believing it to be our identity instead of releasing into the rich nourishing soil and allowing ourselves to grow to the fullness of our being, what we are talking about is letting go of the finite and releasing into the infinite. That shift from finite to infinite comes with our ability to be present and relaxed, releasing the tension that is our body’s way of holding the past and the future. This present moment fully experienced is the portal to understanding our interconnection, our being a part of and being supported by the infinite web of life.

While it may be tempting to label ourselves, it is more skillful to notice greed, aversion and delusion arising in our experience, and not get tangled up in saying, ‘I am an aversive personality type.’ Observing and judging ourselves to be more inclined to one of these three states may seem like it helps but it runs the risk of blinding us to the arising of the other two poisons, for we are tuning ourselves to notice the one above the others. All of us have all three poisons, even if not in equal measure.

The habit of self-labeling can make us passive, as if we have been indelibly stamped with this tendency and there’s nothing we can do. In truth, there’s nothing we NEED to do except be present and compassionate with all that arises in our experience, but that’s very different from a sense of helplessness that there’s nothing to be done about it, as if we are stuck. We are not stuck, we simply perceive ourselves to be stuck. In fact we are quite free, but we choose to pick out new wallpaper for our prison cell, remaking ourselves, rather than simply be present and watch the bars dissolve. We explored the whole concept of freedom in dharma talks quite a while ago. If that word resonates, perhaps you’ll want to read them. If freedom scares you, then that’s important to notice as well. Question in: “What am I afraid of?”

We can fall a little bit in love with even negative labels for at least they give us a sense of definition to cling to. But clinging to the hard rock of who we believe ourselves to be is the essence of what keeps us from opening to our true nature.

In a talk last year on ‘Holding the World in an Open Embrace’ I presented greed and aversion in the form of photos of two little girls, one holding tight to all her toys representing greed; the other with crossed arms and a pouty face representing aversion.

My sixteen month old granddaughter Lucy for the first time in my presence yesterday crossed her arms and pouted! Ah, aversion! This is the first manifestation in this form, though of course she has shown her preferences and dissatisfactions in a myriad of ways. But to actually see her cross her tiny chubby arms and pout with her little cupid bow mouth was quite something!

Where did she learn this particular manifestation? Lucy is my current teacher. I have been learning what is inherently human. When she wakes she does a natural yogi full body stretch, and she has done this since she was just a few months old. Now I try to remember to do that when I wake too. Where did I lose my natural inclination to do so?

And now seeing her pouting and crossing her arms I have to wonder how she developed this classic aversion pose? She doesn’t watch television, and has no older sibling to imitate. Where does she get this little Shirley Temple imitation? It’s a wonder. And it’s adorable and yes a little frightening. Aversion arises in Lucy and displays itself. We could easily go uh-oh and label her an aversive personality and be afraid, very afraid, of what the future holds with this crossed-armed pouty force to be reckoned with. But all that does is fuel our fear, lock her in a box of our labels, a box she will either stay in or break out of unless she can wear these labels lightly, knowing they do not define her true self.

In the past few weeks we have been discussing the inner aspects, what in psychological terms are also called sub-personalities, especially those we keep most hidden from our awareness that make up the shadow. When we are having a skillful inner conversation with an aspect, we might benefit from noticing whether it seems to be fueled by greed, aversion or delusion. I had mentioned Striver and Underminer, two aspects that have resurfaced in my awareness. Clearly Striver operates more from greed and Underminer from aversion, and both are delusional. (As some people might think I am to name inner aspects!! But it is a valuable exercise for the orderly exploration of a very complex lacy-patterned infrastructure of thoughts, emotions and beliefs that form a part of our experience that most influence, and sometime sabotage, our ability to live with awareness and a love of life.)

As a tool for self-exploration, knowledge of the three poisons of greed, aversion and delusion provide insight and clarity. We can use them as clues to see the fear at the root of the aspect we are exploring. These fears — the fear of separation, of exclusion, of not being acceptable, of disappearing, of being overwhelmed and washed away, of being judged, or of failing — are just a few of the ways we forget our connection to all that is and the universal oneness of being.