Category Archives: Buddhist teachers

Are you imprisoned by your preferences?

In the past four posts, I’ve written about the mind states of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity: the Brahma-viharas, heavenly abodes, that we cultivate through our practice of mindfulness.

But part of cultivating any mind-state is noticing what obstacles arise, causing disruption. One of these obstacles, easily discernible, is our collection of preferences and our attachment to them. So let’s take a look at preferences. We all have them. I certainly do. Most of my preferences I earned the hard way, by trial and error. Why would I even think to question them? I feel resistance at the very idea. Perhaps you do too. But because we know there is value in those four expansive mind states, let’s just open to the possibility that there is something worth examining here.


Darlene Cohen

Recently I was rereading an essay by Darlene Cohen, a Zen priest at Green Gulch who died in 2011. She compared her experiences of going through two surgeries twenty years apart. In the first, she felt that the period of surgery and recovery was completely separate from her normal life. I can imagine how she wanted to ‘get back to normal.’ But after years of Buddhist practice, when she had the second surgery, she found there was ‘no rent in the fabric’ of her life. Her days were ‘all of a piece’. She wrote, “I see students, I get cut open, I eat Jell-O, I receive visitors, I feel as sick as a barfing dog, I pace the corridors, I ride home with the passenger seat all the way down, and so on, to the experience of golden apricot colors, helplessness, dread, and being borne on a sheet carried by angels.’

(In class I was able to read more extensively from her essay, but because of copyright laws, I can only offer you brief quotes. If you are a woman living in Marin, I encourage you to attend the Thursday morning class so you don’t miss out on the wholeness of experience. There’s a lot that doesn’t make it into the blog post. And I encourage all readers to consider purchasing the book of essays: Buddha’s Daughters, Teachings by Women Who Are Shaping Buddhism in the West. My copy is filled with post-it notes, so as I revisit those pages, I expect to draw inspiration from other Buddhist women in the West. And you might too!)

Darlene Cohen found for herself how her preferences created obstacles. Without making an enemy of the obstacle, we can notice how when we get caught up in preferences, we grasp at and cling to some experiences and push others away. That is the Buddha’s very definition of the cause of suffering.

Attached to our preferences, we become calcified in our little ruts of what is acceptable and what is not. Something as simple as a favorite flavor of ice cream can be an experiment in preferences. Darlene wrote that she dared herself to go beyond chocolate and chose blindly, ending up with a flavor she never would have chosen. But she discovered it was amazingly delicious. I know I certainly don’t stray far from my preferences. But what am I missing? Is it true that my life is dictated by preferences? And aren’t some preferences valuable?

At least some, hopefully many, choices we make in life are rooted in Wise Intention: Doing no harm to ourselves and others. Aren’t these choices preferences? It seems skillful to look to the source of our preference when we come upon it. Is it rooted in fear? Or is it rooted in kindness, compassion, awareness? Is it a habit that allows us to go mindless? These questions and more can help us understand the nature of how we are in relationship to the world around us. And how our world is shaped by our preferences.

I came across this quote the other day that fits in well here:
“What is freedom? It is the moment by moment experience of not being run by one’s own reactive mechanisms.” – Ken McLeod, Freedom and Choice

Preferences could certainly be called ‘reactive mechanisms’. They establish a set of reactions that may cause stress, distress, discomfort and dissatisfaction. Even the positive experiences are a little numb. Darlene mentioned ice cream, so let’s stay with that tasty subject about which most of us have strong preferences, one way or another. I have a preference for chocolate ice cream so that’s what I order, and in repeatedly choosing that over other flavor options, I enter a habituated reaction to the experience of having a chocolate ice cream cone. Is my mind even in the experience, sensing the taste, texture and temperature of what’s in my mouth? Or am just ‘happy’ to have something I craved? Is that truly happiness? There’s often some mixture of regret in having succumbed to temptation and fear of adverse effects. Whatever happiness there is certainly doesn’t last very long. It literally melts away!

We can look at where our preferences come from. Are we really still anti-brussel sprouts or is it just because the one time we tried them the cook didn’t do them justice? It’s worth questioning every preference we come upon, even those that seem benign.

Living in the rut of our preferences, we don’t recognize the freedom we have to reshape our experience. And if we are in relationships, we may be limiting others as well. In Darlene’s essay, she used the example of how her preferences shaped her younger life and the life of her small son. There was no way was she going to attend a ‘stupid Muppets movie’ or go to Disneyland, leaving her son to rely on other parents for those activities. Looking back, she regretted how much she missed by letting her preferences rule her in that way, saying, ‘What kind of twit chooses her aesthetic tastes over spending exuberant time with her child!’

Indeed! We can each look at our own choices and see if we are letting our preferences limit our ability to live fully and openly. Yes, perhaps some unpleasantness may occur if our preference filters are dropped. But in our practice we learn how to be present with unpleasantness, don’t we? We simply notice all that arises in our expansive field of compassionate awareness. If there is a pain, we stay present with the whole of the experience, noting all the small ever-changing sensations within it. We notice how our thoughts lurch into the past and future — ‘Oh no not this again!’ or ‘How long will this go on?’ We notice also whatever pleasant or neutral sensations are also present in this moment, so that we are not stuck in our automatic negativity bias. Imagine how liberating it would be to be able to be open to whatever comes. How much do we live in fear that things won’t be just as we want them to be. How attached are we to the belief that our slightest discomfort is intolerable?

In noting our preferences, we might also see to what degree we allow them to define us. This is especially noticeable if you or someone you know gets upset that a purported loved one doesn’t remember their preferences. ‘How could he not remember that I hate yellow! He doesn’t really love me.’ As if the preferences are the person. If you feel this way, it’s worth examining! Do you really believe that what people love about you is your preferences?

As we practice being fully present with whatever arises, we tap into a powerful freedom. We can be in situations where we have little control and still have equanimity and the resilience to respond skillfully to changing situations.

The past two weeks we have seen how natural disasters can play havoc with our nice ordered life, rooted in preferences. None of the people affected by hurricanes and earthquakes were consulted as to their preferences before finding themselves in those situations. And the more entangled they are in preferences, the more they suffer.

Of course, no one would actively choose disaster, loss of home, loved ones, power, communications, food, water, health care, etc. So doesn’t everyone suffer in these situations?  Everyone experiences pain, but there is a distinction between the pain we experience being alive in this life and the suffering we cause ourselves, compounding the pain many times over. If we are actively practicing being fully present and cultivating skillful ways of being in relationship with all that arises in our experience, then that experience shifts dramatically.

My heart goes out to all who have been affected by these natural disasters. As I watch, helpless to do anything but send metta and money, I am awed by the instantaneous outreach and self-organizing rescue aid that arises at times like these. It reminds me that a person at the mercy of their personal preferences may not be able to respond skillfully to changing circumstances. They are so caught up in a tight knot of reactivity that setting their personal preferences aside to meet the needs of the moment could be a huge challenge. It might be a moment of awakening, of breaking out of that dull deadening rut, but just as likely their reactivity to things not being the way they want them may make them turn away, rushing to find solace in something familiar, perhaps something self-destructive.

In Darlene’s essay she says that “a life lived openly without filters includes pain, heartbreak, Disneyland, and unpleasant occurrences. But you do have a satisfying feeling of being infinitely approachable; the universe gets through to you, whatever scenery it’s hauling.” Infinitely approachable. I love that!

So just as an exercise, perhaps as a little homage to Darlene Cohen and her wise teachings, but also as a gift to yourself, try opening to something beyond your habituated preferences, and see what happens. If you give it a try, please report back. And I will be taking note of and challenging my beloved preferences. Oh dear!


Freed from the Fortress

We have been looking at the freedom that rises out of the regular practice of meditation. These are not things we have to strive for or changes that we need to make in ourselves. These are the naturally arising benefits of spending say, a half hour each day in meditation. I mention all these freedoms not as commodities to be acquired or goals to be reached, but as gifts that you might notice receiving as you continue to practice.

We each receive these gifts in different orders, in different ways, to varying degrees, and there are probably many gifts that I cannot tell you about, because they are not my experience. All Buddhist teachings come from the direct personal experience of its teachers. There is an established framework of concepts and terms to help interpret the experience, but there must be the experience. It is through this encouragement of direct experience that Buddhism has stayed a living teaching rather than desiccated dogma. It’s like sourdough bread making. Buddha provided the initial starter, but each of us adds our own flour, our own practice and intention, to make the dharma dough fresh each day.

The Buddha ended his dharma talks by saying, “Don’t believe me. Go find out for yourself if this is true.” And every Buddhist teacher’s greatest hope is that students will question the ideas proposed in dharma talks, take them out into the world for a test drive, take them into their own lives, their own experience, their own hearts, and ask “Is this true?”

Teachers speaking from direct experience end up sharing their lives in anecdotes as grist for the mill of sharing the dharma. And the freedom I share with you today is certainly the one that is most intimate to me and that has probably made the biggest difference in my relationships with others. It is the story of being freed from the fortress of my defensiveness.

When we were first married forty years ago this week, Will told me I was the most defensive person he had ever met. It seemed that he couldn’t say anything without me bristling with hurt feelings.

It is hard for me to imagine now, yet I know it was true. If you had asked me about my childhood memories back then, I would recount every experience where my feelings had been hurt, where I had been humiliated, slighted or made to feel stupid.

I remember being teased, and it is easy to see in retrospect how I used all these experiences as building blocks for the fortress. Every comment that anyone made, no matter how benign or light-hearted or even loving, I took in and interpreted through complex filters that turned everything into slights, criticisms, or name calling that somehow made me wrong, stupid, naïve or ugly. Then every time someone DIDN’T say something, I would interpret that negatively as well. For me at that time, silence was not golden, it was leaden and toxic.

Thus experienced, it’s not surprising that my relationships with others were difficult. To befriend me was to walk through a mine field and try not set off any of the millions of land mines I had planted as tests of your love for me. Agh! That anyone bothered is amazing to me now.

How fortunate that I came upon meditation when I was still relatively young, in my twenties. And how surprised I was to suddenly see that fortress for what it was, and to watch as it crumbled away with regular meditative practice. Over the course of years as I continue to meditate, I still on occasion find more leftover bits of the fortress, lone walls standing with no foundation or purpose, but still sending little messages into my system that might, if I’m not noticing, prompt a habitual reaction. My awareness of them lets them disintegrate, at least for now. These walls are leftover unquestioned assumptions that, under the light of insight, can’t justify their existence. As long as I keep the light of insight shining, this freedom from defensiveness is a gift to myself and all around me. (Trust me!)

So what is it that actually happened to me? What is it that happens to meditators in general? Why does a simple practice of meditation produce such radical changes in our psyches? Scientific studies show some of the physiological changes that happen with meditation, including the raised levels of gamma waves. Studies show that during meditation, a flux in blood flow and activity excites certain neurons. The act of maintaining attention sustains activity in designated regions. The brain’s grey matter begins to grow, actually changing its physiological shape.

Of course scientists can’t put a value on whether this change is for the better. But as meditators, we know the value from our own felt experience of living our lives with the benefits of meditation.

Now, I didn’t know about the physiological aspects of any of this, but I suspected there was a chemical component. When I lived in San Francisco’s HaightAshbury in 1966, not surprisingly I had a few chemically-induced psychedelic experiences. I called my experience ‘losing my ego.’ In sharp contrast to my normal life as a typical disgruntled, critical, judgmental adolescent, suddenly I was simply delighted to be alive and engaged in the senses. I recognized the gift of life, the humor, the beauty, the complexity and the simplicity. In that state, I seemed to have none of the bristly, defensive qualities that usually plagued me.

But even as great as it was, at some point I would turn to a friend and say, “Remind me not to do this again.” I could feel the extreme and unnatural strain on my body, suddenly flooded with an overload of mind-altering chemicals.

A pivotal point for me was one ‘trip’ when I had a vision of a mountain with many paths going up it. Some of the paths were vertical, some gently switch backing up the mountain. Some were rocky, some lush — all different, but all eventually went to the top of the mountain. I observed people on these paths, earnestly plodding, one footstep after the other. It looked boring, and I noticed that I was already at the height of the top of the mountain, already experiencing what they were seeking. But then I noticed that they were on solid ground and I was in a balloon that was deflating and descending. I may have been experiencing the benefits of this heightened perspective where I could see the wholeness of life, the interconnection and rejoice in that awareness, but I was losing altitude rapidly. There was no way I could sustain my mountain top experience. I realized the only thing to do was to set the intention to climb the mountain myself.

So I have been climbing the mountain ever since, first on a path fueled by an eclectic variety of teachers and books, then for a while with Dances of Universal Peace, then a more intensive period of group and independent meditation that resulted in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, and for the past couple of decades I have been plodding along on the Buddhist path. I have found it to be a path that is well-traveled over the past 2500 years, but always fresh, not worn out. I travel in silence but feel surrounded by a loving and supportive sangha (community) of practitioners, with teachers who, if I get lost, shine a light on the path so I can find my way again.

Do I feel the way I did when I was tripping? Sometimes. One time on a retreat I even had some of the visual effects I remember while walking in the woods, not the patterning but the luminosity of life shining so brilliantly, even in the shadows; that same day I remember hearing a symphony in the clattering sounds of utensils on dishes and chairs scraping in the dining hall. On my most recent retreat I became intensely aware of the mystery of all that is, how so much is hidden, and it’s absolutely okay. I relaxed into the delights of the don’t know mind.

But these experiences are so much better than those brief trips from back in the day, because these are naturally arising rather than ingested, and my body is comfortable, wholesome and cared for. Even when I don’t have that same intense experience, I feel the awareness, the clarity and the sense of connection. In my daily life this has become a constant presence, this feeling of being very present. I can trust in these gifts of joyous awareness as long as I continue to meditate on a daily basis. I am on the mountain path, and it hasn’t been boring at all!

Thanks to dedicated meditation practice, I no longer see myself as the object of others perceptions but as the universal life force expressing itself through this perspective from this particular point in space and time. When I do think of myself as a unique and separate being, I feel compassion for my humanness as I would for any other unique and separate being I know or see in the world. I am more in touch with my child self than before, and therefore more in touch with creativity, fresh eyes, carefree laughter and pure pleasure.

The fortress of my defensiveness has crumbled, for there is nothing left to defend. Instead there are all these universally shared experiences and traits to be curious about, and the shared joys and challenges of this human experience. The fear of being judged seems to have fallen away. I admit I have not been put to any real test. I am surrounded by the kindest of family members, friends and colleagues who have no intention to harm me. But I subject my creative work to critique, my speeches to evaluation, and my commercial writing and design work to committee, so I have many opportunities to get my feelings hurt or receive confirmation of any negative belief I might hold about my lack of ability. Now if people love something I do, I thank them but don’t feel the same kind of relief I used to feel. When people have negative comments, I appreciate their interest, their creative assessment, and consider their comments seriously, but don’t feel they have attacked me in any way. What a difference! Now I have a sense of collaborating to increase clarity and connection through these various forms of expression. Much more fun!

Being freed from the fortress of my defensiveness is a sweet surrendering of all that had seemed so vitally important for my own survival. I thought I had to be smart, pretty, clever, talented, skillful, savvy, knowledgeable, etc. in order to be acceptable. In order to be loved. What a set up for misery that was! I didn’t stop to notice that what I loved about people, the traits I found most endearing, were often the least ‘perfect’ aspects, and certainly the least striving.

Freed from the fortress of my defensiveness, I am happier, safer, more supported and enriched. I am acceptable in my imperfection. I am fine with saying “I don’t have a clue!” I am fine with being totally uncool. Because cool or uncool, in this moment I am free.