Category Archives: cause of suffering

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.

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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!

 

“I’m in an abusive relationship with life.” – Homer Simpson


We’ve been exploring the concept of dukkha, the suffering that can pervade our lives, or at least crops up from time to time. Dukkha is such a central concept to the Buddha’s teachings, I want to be sure we all understand it before moving on, because without understanding the nature of our unhappiness, how can we create happiness?


Many of us have habitual patterns of dukkha without even realizing it. We go through life mentally being the referee of others’ behavior. We are ever vigilant to call out a bad driver or an inconsiderate line-jumper or someone who just has a bad attitude. Is this useful? Effective? Does it cause happiness? Or is it just a pattern of ongoing critical thought that causes us and those around us suffering? (This is quite different from being in a situation you can actively do something about. We’ll talk more about that in our exploration of Wise Action in the Eightfold Path.)


If you recognize yourself in this description of a referee, consider this option: When you see someone doing something unskillful, recognize the mindlessness of their action. Recognize the dukkha they are dealing with. Recognize that you have at times also been mindless, maybe even in just the same way. Send metta, infinite loving-kindness, to that person, instead of judgment. This doesn’t condone their action, but it does acknowledge their humanity. Sending metta effectively short-circuits the counter-productive pattern of thought that makes you mindless as well, and lets you get back to the activity — driving, for example — that needs your full attention.


Here is a wonderful classic Buddhist story that illustrates the nature of referee dukkha.


Two monks were walking in the mountains and came upon a young woman on the bank of a river, in distress because it was too deep and rapid for her to safely cross. To the surprise of his companion, one of the monks offered to carry her across. She agreed. He picked her up and maneuvered across the river and deposited her safely on the other side. Then the monks continued on their way in silence.


Quite a while later the other monk said, ‘Brother, you violated a vow by carrying that woman across the river.’


The other replied, ‘Brother, I set that woman down over an hour ago. You are still carrying her.’


Isn’t that the way it is? The mind gets totally entangled in playing referee, in replaying a wrong, in judging the actions of someone else or ourselves, and we suffer. That’s the nature of dukkha.


Maybe you are not the referee. Not to worry, there are plenty of other ways to create dukkha in our lives. See if you find yourself in any of the following examples:


  • The gardener who is only happy when everything is in ‘perfect’ bloom.
  • The person who is devastated by what they see in the mirror because it isn’t the youthful face and figure they remember.
  • The person who gets yelled at by a passerby on the street and takes it personally.
  • The person who indulges to excess, then bemoans the painful consequences.


If you have been following along in previous posts, you might recognize that the first two illustrate not understanding or accepting the nature of impermanence. The third shows the lack of understanding ‘no separate self’, and the last one is how we create suffering through the addictive behavior of desire to ‘change the channel’ rather than simply be with what is in this moment.


When we know dukkha, we can name it in our experience. When we bring it to our attention, we are better able to release the tight patterns that bind and chafe us.


What experiences in your own life do these various examples bring up? When you find yourself suffering, pause to explore it. Instead of blaming it on a cause,condition or person, check in with how you are reacting to the cause or condition. This is not to blame yourself, but to look at the patterns of thought that arise again and again. The story of whatever is going on is not nearly so important as the noticing how you are relating to this story.

And whatever you do, give yourself metta. ‘May I be well. May I be happy. May I be at ease. May I be at peace.’ This process of noticing what’s going on, bringing yourself into the present moment, and then giving yourself and any others involved the warmth of universal loving-kindness, will go a long way to reduce suffering and create happiness.

‘Am I defined by my preferences?’

Last week we began an exploration of the Buddha’s Five Aggregates. We explored the First Aggregate, material form. We considered whether the answer to ‘Who am I?’ is my body. We observed how the body by nature is impermanent. It grows, it ages, it dies, and it is subject to illness and injury. We observed that the body is inseparable from the rest of the physical world on a cellular level. And we observed that, for the most part the body is beyond our control, as we had no say in most of its dimensions, coloration and distinctive features, and it operates independently of our will for the majority of its functions. Impermanent, not separate, and beyond our control in many ways: These are the qualities that tell us the body doesn’t define us. We apply this same kind of inquiry around these qualities to the four other aggregates.

This is an experiential exercise, as are all of the Buddhist teachings. The teacher offers a little guiding light in a certain direction, but it is up to each of us to explore whether it is true. We ask questions of everything that arises — questions about the teachings and questions about the assumptions we find we have been making. We come to the truth in our own time and in our own way. So simply be present and compassionate with yourself as you do this investigation.


I imagine that few of us who would take a meditation class or follow a meditation blog would ever believe the answer to “Who am I’ is as simple as ‘I am my body.’ We may have believed it to be a part of who we are, but certainly not all of it. So maybe letting go of the idea that the body is who we are is quite natural, even a relief.


We might say, ‘I am more than my body. I am also a person with certain preferences and ways of being in the world. Even if I forgot my name, even if there was no one around to identify me, I would still be here, still be me, still enjoy chocolate, still find high temperatures unpleasant, etc.’ You might pause now to jot down some of your likes and dislikes. You might magine you are writing a personals ad and these are the things any interested party should know about you. Once they’ve seen your photo of your material form, the next thing they need to know to answer the question of who you are is your preferences, right?


Thus we come to the second of the aggregates. The belief that we are the feeling tones, the way we experience things as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We all have preferences, but when we begin to think that they describe us, we run into trouble. We might say, ‘I am the kind of person who likes chocolate’ rather than ‘This tastes good.’ You can see the difference between these two statements. ‘This tastes good’ is very much in the present moment. ‘I am the kind of person who likes chocolate’ sets us up to mindlessly eat chocolate at every opportunity. We may be so of the belief that chocolate is an indicator of who we are as a person that we can skip the noticing, the simple experience of discovering, as if with new taste buds, what this experience is in this moment.


As a person who has long identified with being a ‘chocoholic’ and bonding with friends over that belief, I can attest to the fact that if I am truly in the moment tasting in a meditative way, the sensations of eating chocolate are not in and of themselves always as satisfying as I believe them to be.


This is not to take the fun out of a simple pleasure. In fact, by being in the moment and not caught up in attachment, the pleasure can be exquisite. If we let it be momentary, acknowledge its fleeting nature, enjoy it while it lasts, let it go with ease as the next moment brings another experience, then we are not suffering.


We do suffer when we believe ourselves to be our preferences.

As we found in the Third Foundation of Mindfulness, those simple feeling tone ‘seeds’ of pleasant or unpleasant can grow into a jungle of thoughts and emotions, with vines that strap us up and even strangle us. Now we look at how many of those thoughts and emotions are caught up in identity-building. In the process of believing “I am the type of person who likes this, who doesn’t like that and couldn’t care less about that other thing,’ we build an impressive historical reference library of these preferences. We expect those who know us to have studied that library. We even give tests!


Think about how we feel when someone gives us a present that really shows us they know our preferences. Then think how we feel when the reverse is true, when we are given something that we would never choose for ourselves in a million years. In the first case, we feel known and loved. That person really gets us! In the second case, if it’s a person we thought knew us, we may suddenly feel a little bereft, in doubt of their feelings for us. That person we thought knew us apparently has no clue who we are.


As we did with exploring whether the body is who we are, we can look to see whether these feeling tones are impermanent, insubstantial and ungovernable.


Impermanent? Absolutely. Our preferences change throughout our lives, dependent on so many variables — what we are exposed to, what experiences we have had with them. A year ago my granddaughter was so excited to see broccoli on her plate she would sing a song about it. An ode to Bahkalee. Now she turns up her nose at it. Tastes change.


Talking about impermanent preferences, just think about style! Look at some pictures of you at various phases of your life. Would you wear that outfit or that hairstyle again? Not in a million years, you might say. But at the time we all believed that look to be quite the thing.


I will never forget the day in the mid 1970’s when I was walking down Fourth Street in San Rafael wearing my favorite mini-skirt, when suddenly I felt naked! I could not take a step further. I had to go back home and change. One minute the fashion I had been wearing happily for a number of years was fine, and the next minute it was a total embarrassment!


For those who don’t change with industry-promoted fashions, there might be a certain smugness to having a personal sense of style. But this too can become a ‘taking ourselves to be our preference.’ That style so much defines us that we can’t let it go. There is nothing wrong with our preferences. We only get in trouble when we believe that our preferences define us.

How much trouble can a preference cause? My mother smoked for most of her life. Certainly she was addicted, but she once told me that if it were just a physical addiction she could have kicked the habit years ago. What she couldn’t kick was her idea of herself as a smoker — how sophisticated she believed herself to be. If she quit smoking would she be as intellectual and cool? Well, she finally did quit and she was as cool and smart as she’d ever been, of course. Unfortunately it was too late to save her from the emphysema that killed her. She paid a huge price, and all of us who loved her paid a huge price, for her belief that smoking defined her.


Our choice of cars is a powerful preference that for most of us has to correlate with our belief about who we are. I drive a Prius. Enough said! Because I drive a Prius, I am automatically putting out a statement about my core values. My daughter is making her statement with a monster truck you can hear coming from two blocks away. She wouldn’t be caught dead driving my car. I wouldn’t be caught dead driving her truck! These hunks of metal are very much tied into who we believe ourselves to be. Next time you see an ad for a car, notice how the message is geared toward your identity.

Which brings up whether our preferences are all that distinct and individual. In fact my mother’s belief that she was cool when smoking was suggested to her by those 1930’s black and white movies where smoking was almost a fine art. Our choice of fashions, cars, homes, etc. are only ever in part our own. We share them with the rest of our culture, or certain groups within our culture with whom we identify. So they are not uniquely us.


When we are so caught up in the belief that we are this preference, we suffer. If, for example, we are assigned a rental car that doesn’t match our personality, we might struggle with the discomfort of being seen in something that so ill suits us. If we believe our preferences to be who we are, we will suffer. If we allow ourselves to notice the discomfort and question it, that rental car might actually be a source of liberation. It doesn’t mean we go home and buy one like it. It just means we recognize that we are not our car, our house, our clothes, etc. We are not defined by the things we like and the things we don’t.


So these preferences are impermanent, changeable, sometimes even fickle. But are they ungovernable, out of our control?


Yes! Just try to be sexually attracted to someone you’re not. Just try to eat a food you find disgusting. Some of our preferences seem to be hardwired. Even though they may change, they seem to change on their own, not because we mandated the change. And when they change, we might feel uncomfortable, as if we’ve lost a bit of who we are. But if it is

not within our control, how can a preference be who we are?


We have preferences galore, enough to keep all kinds of industries in business for many years to come. But is feeling tone, this liking and not liking, the ‘I’ we are seeking?
Impermanent, insubstantial and out of our control — so probably not.

There is a great simile from the Buddha’s teachings of the Five Aggregates of a dog tied to a post. The post is the Five Aggregates we believe ourselves to be. When the dog walks, it can only walk circles around the post. We can’t wander beyond the edges of who we believe ourselves to be. We are chained to these beliefs just as that dog is tied to the post.


Notice for yourself over the coming weeks the degree to which you take your preferences to define you. Then come fully into the moment; be present with the fleeting nature of whatever is happening. With awareness you might find a freedom from the tight leash of the belief that you are your body or your preferences. See how that feels.


In this process, remember that we are not trying to wipe out anything. We are not trying to erase preferences, become clean slates, devoid of all likes and dislikes. Striving for that would be just another preference. We do have to wear something, eat something and live somewhere. But we might find we are much happier if we vest less in our preferences and simply be in the moment, wherever we are.


At each stage of looking at these aggregates, these states of experience that we believe ourselves to be, we not only look more clearly, with more spaciousness, but also with great compassion. We are holding the child of our nature in a loving embrace. We are saying maybe you are not this and you are not that, but there’s nothing to fear. You are here. And it’s okay.

Black-eyed Dharma

I recently taught a day long retreat with a black eye, the result of a fall I had while hiking in the mountains. My hands and knees were also bruised but not so on display as this amazingly dramatic black eye and bruised chin.

‘Well, meditation clearly doesn’t save you from pain,” my students might well have thought.

True! But it did help to illuminate in the moment of impact and those that followed as I sat on that granite cliff, gasping for breath, sobbing, as my forehead gushed blood down my face, my hair and all over my clothes and the rock below, and my dear husband dug frantically around in the backpack to find our first aid kit.

In that moment, I noticed the physical sensation of having fallen, and there was pain, of course, but the pain was not as severe as pain I’ve known in my life. The tears came from the thoughts that were coursing through my head. ‘Oh my God! Why didn’t I pick up my foot a little higher?’ and ‘Oh please, don’t let anything be broken!’ and ‘Oh no, how will we get ourselves back down the mountain? Can I possibly hike three miles in this state?’ and ‘Oh no, I’ve ruined our perfect camping trip!’ and ‘Thank goodness I fell here, not twenty feet earlier where I might have tumbled down a cliff.’ But my over-riding concern in that moment, as Will tore open the little packets of alcohol, anti-bacterial unguent and bandages was for the way the strong mountain wind was whipping those little white pieces of paper up. I kept grabbing them and collecting them, determined not to leave litter on the mountain. Will assured me he would pick everything up after we got the blood staunched and my wounds tended, but I knew the wind was going to blow them off our little outcropping to places he would not be able to reach and I simply could not bear to litter this pristine wilderness with the detritus of my mishap. That was the pain that focused my attention.

Noticing. That was the gift of meditation in that moment. And later, safely back down the mountain, assured there was no permanent damage, and comforted by a chocolate ice cream cone and an ice pack on my swollen brow and lip, I was able to see that the cause of my fall was my lack of mindfulness in previous moments. I had stubbornly resisted my body’s cues that clearly warned me I had hiked high enough, even if I hadn’t reached our goal: a picnic spot at a pair of mountain lakes. I had multiple opportunities to heed what my body was saying: When I noticed I was too tired to go on; when I noticed that even though we were trying to conserve water, I really needed to be drinking more of it; and when I let a whole series of future and past thoughts override my awareness of the moment.

What tripped me up was not just a little tree stump, but the thought that for the past few years, every time we are in the mountains and we decide to hike to a certain spot, we never get there! We always turn back! So it seemed to me that to give in again, to ‘not get there’ this time, was to acknowledge something much larger than merely the tiredness I was feeling in my body. It was acknowledging aging, change, a lack of control over what I could or couldn’t do. Or it was acknowledging that I was out of shape and needed to spend the rest of the year being more active, taking much longer more rigorous walks. All of this thinking was weighing on me as I hiked up that rocky trail that required intense concentration for each step.

And so, I refused to turn back each time Will suggested I seemed tired and maybe we should. The heat was oppressive, especially as I covered myself thoroughly, not trusting my sunscreen to be enough to protect my skin, and not sure how many hours we had been hiking.

Youthful hikers bounced by us and I felt ancient in a way I’ve never felt ancient before. Their ease made my discomfort all the more unacceptable. Oh comparing mind! Also I occasionally chide myself for being comfort-loving and soft, and I wanted to challenge that image, I wanted to show that inner voice that I was made of tougher stuff.

But in the last portion of the trail to the lakes, there was suddenly a very steep, much narrower dirt section that I had to look at with the eyes of the surgeon who replaced my hip two years before. It looked very slippery and precarious. Maybe I could get up it, but how would I ever get back down? Maybe I could do it if I was fresh, but I could never do it in this state.

So we turned around. Once again! Defeated and exhausted, I followed my long shadow back down the gravel trail that demanded even greater concentration going downhill. My shadow was hypnotic, an elongated version of my three-year old self who, according to family lore, was dragged up the Smokey Mountains against her will. Now the shadow of my straw hat pulled in at the sides by the shirt I tied to keep it anchored from the strong wind, made the shape of the little bonnet I wore on that journey sixty years before.

So we walked together this small grumpy child and I, following my beloved husband down the mountain. Our descent was slow but buoyed by our plan to return to a shady view spot we remembered from our climb that seemed a good place to rest and have our picnic. Somewhere along the way, I took the lead, and when we arrived at the spot and I stepped off the trail, relaxing into my tiredness, thirst and hunger. And in that moment of release, of letting down my intense concentration on each step that had been necessary for survival on this challenging trail, I missed seeing the little stump in the shadow of a rock, and I tripped and fell.

Will says that for him it happened in slow motion, watching me fall and feeling helpless from his position to save me. For me, there was a moment lost somewhere. There was the arriving at the rest spot with a sense of relief, and there was being flat on the granite, my sunglasses flying off to the left, my face smashed against the jagged rock, blood erupting, and me saying, “I’m fine. I’m fine.”

During the week that followed, I found the most challenging part was dealing with the dirty looks my sweet husband was getting when we were together as strangers assumed he did the damage.
One male friend joked that Will should point to my black eye and say, “She wouldn’t listen.” I was horrified by his suggestion because of the serious nature of spousal abuse. I couldn’t find the humor in it. But you know what? He was right. I got a black eye because I wouldn’t listen! I didn’t listen to Will when he expressed his concerns about my well-being on the climb, and I didn’t listen to my own body when it said enough already. So let that be a lesson to me!

So no, meditation doesn’t always save us from pain, though in this case it could have, had I stayed more present with my experience. We’ll discuss that aspect more when we get into the Eightfold Path and Wise Action.

But, just as that black eye has healed so quickly, showing a wonderful resilience, my meditation practice provides me with more mental and emotional resilience than I would have had otherwise. It provides a more expansive view of things so that I don’t keep kicking myself for my misstep, don’t keep knocking myself down over and over again. And, although I admit I did give that little stump a good kick and a piece of my mind as we left that now-bloodied rest stop, it was in jest, and I haven’t indulged in railing against it, or the trail or the heat or my body or any other condition that could easily become the tarbaby dukkha delivery system. How many events in our lives are still holding us hostage, still delivering dukkha as if we have a standing order?

My meditation practice gave me the patience to give myself a lot of down time to rest and heal, even though it’s been a busy time. It gave me the ability to process a painful experience with compassion and more clarity than I would have had otherwise.

It gave me gratitude for being alive, an awareness of impermanence and a new appreciation for my face without bruises. I look prettier to me now! During the period my face was so shocking to see that people gasped or averted their eyes, I appreciated this gift of insight into how it might be to have some permanent disfigurement in such a prominent place as the face; how it must be to constantly deal with the responses of others, when one feels perfectly normal inside. This experience carved a deeper sense of compassion in me, as I felt my desire to just stay home, to just avoid going out all together.

I have made use of the black eye, working it, making ‘lemonade’ out of this lemon experience. This dharma talk, a poem brewing somewhere within me, and even a two minute speech at the Civic Center. I was scheduled to give a ‘Tip of the Day’ at my Toastmasters meeting there, and had planned to talk about our camping trip with a suggestion people visit that area. I did that, but I choreographed it to keep my ‘dark side’ covered with my Veronica Lake locks until the dramatic reveal of my black eye and the suggestion that people should watch their step when hiking. The gasp of the audience was priceless!

It’s a traditional Buddhist practice to sit with such examples of impermanence, so I was providing a service to you, my dear students as you watched me giving my dharma talk in class and on retreat. What a devoted teacher!

So I open this up to explore that quality of noticing, of heeding our inner wisdom and what happens when we don’t. What recent experiences in your own life have given you this same lesson, or this same sense of gratitude for the practice? What past events are still holding you hostage? When you have some time and want to explore, meditate and then ask these questions of yourself. The answers will arise and may even surprise you.

Coming into relationship with what is

Coming into relationship with what is – that’s what we are doing in our practice. We can stop running around pretending, covering up, or reframing the truth. Instead we open to whatever arises in our experience in this moment. Whether it is pain or beauty. We acknowledge it. We let it all in. No extra added ingredients, no preservatives, just this, life expressing itself through us and around us. The unvarnished, unedited, unqualified moment to moment multi-dimensional experience of existence.

The Four Noble Truths are all about this coming into relationship with what is. By acknowledging that, along with all the delight and wonder, there is also pain and suffering, we can relax a bit. The cat’s out of the bag! What a relief! We don’t have to keep pretending that there’s some iconic perfection of a life that we must strive to fulfill in order to be allowed to be here. This is life. Just as it is in this moment.

This is not a passive stance, not “Oh well, I might as well give up and accept that I will never amount to anything, that I will never be happy.” Quite the contrary! This is actually a very empowering stance. Standing fully in the reality of this present moment is the only point of power we ever have.

If our thoughts dwell in the past, we find ourselves incapable of being engaged with the present in a full and meaningful way. It is an unstable stance in which we are constantly pulling the rug out from under ourselves. For example, we may feel that because of some past event we don’t deserve this moment. So we can’t even see the invitation we are offered to fully partake in the richness of life. It is valuable to notice what messages from the past are streaming through us in this moment, to notice what we are telling ourselves and question the source of that message. We are often seduced into using the past as a measuring stick to determine what we are capable of doing. When the thoughts tell us things like, “I flunked algebra so I can’t do math related things,” or “I come from humble origins so I don’t belong in this rich person’s mansion,” then we can see that we are standing in the past and thus not fully present. While we may feel more comfortable in certain areas than others, or in certain places than others, it is still valuable to question that comfort, to question all assumptions whenever they start chaffing and causing suffering by making us feel there are areas that are off limits to us.

Likewise, although projecting into the future feels powerful, as if we are in control of our destiny, this stance sets us up for comparing everything that happens to some imagined ideal future. It makes us vulnerable to ‘lose’ things we never had to begin with – an accomplishment, a house, a child, a mate. It is possible to create suffering out of dashed hope, a mirage created in the past that haunts the present, making this moment seem incomplete. Standing in the future leaves us so totally out of balance, so outside of our immediate experience, that we are unable to receive the gifts that are arising in this moment, opening doors to futures beyond our limited imagination.

We may feel we are in the present even as we hold ‘the broad view’ of our lives, able to take measure of our achievements and our failures, our strengths and our weaknesses. We feel this informs us, but our broad view is not broad enough or informed enough to take as truth! Staying present with what is — not just at ‘this time in our lives’ or ‘this week’ or even ‘today,’ but in this millisecond, this fleeting flash of consciousness — is an opportunity to step into the very specific experience of being alive. Just because something bad happened this morning doesn’t mean the whole day needs to be flavored by it. We are so easily seduced into calling it a ‘bad day’ or a ‘bad week’ or even a ‘bad year,’ so ready to ring in the new with the thought that it will somehow save us. We are so desperate for a blank slate, but then so ready to call it ruined by anything that happens. This is nonsense! Truly! Staying fully present in the moment, we don’t need to wait or throw away whole blocks of time! We recognize the unique nature of each moment and let it stand on its own, unencumbered.

If at some unitive moment of deep clarity we get a glimpse of our whole life, then we may understand how all our harsh judgments, expectations, disappointments and demands were totally off the mark. But for now, it’s just better to remind ourselves that there’s a whole lot we don’t know. This moment fully experienced is the only access point to deeper clearer perception.

The basic practice of meditation invites us to open to whatever arises in our thoughts, emotions and senses, acknowledging it, perhaps even noting it, saying, for example, ‘planning,’ all within the spacious awareness of the breath rising and falling, if that is our focus. We often talk about ‘returning’ or ‘coming back’ to the breath, and this may be useful at first but, for me it seems that it eventually gets in our way, like training wheels on a bicycle when you’ve achieved a sense of balance. It is misleading to suggest that we have ‘gone’ anywhere. There is no ‘away’ and no place to ‘return’ to. We have been sitting here in this position the entire time. Our thoughts have been streaming through the field of our awareness. Sometimes they are so powerful, or our energy feels so scattered that our awareness gets disoriented, as if a wave has turned us upside down momentarily. Over time, with practice and clear intention, we develop skills to keep ourselves oriented in a way that our minds can handle whatever waves of thought or emotion that pass through without getting so completely disoriented every time.

This spacious mind is a place that feels safe, where even though we may experience pain, we can sit quietly with it and begin to see it more clearly. It is a place where we notice the heavy arsenal of weapons we carry, and we can lay them down and rest. We can see how we have created fun-house-mirrors that distort our view of ourselves and the world around us. We can see through our faux confidence in the fancy sword-play techniques we use to go into battle with any thought or deed that threatens to unmask some deep core belief we hold to be true about ourselves and the way of things. We recognize our fear.

We may see how we create mine fields that we then walk through or discover that others have stumbled upon, and we then see the pain caused by our unconscious emotional bumbling. Over time we may see what trips the triggers, what ignites the fuse to the bombs we set off, and later regret. All of this and so much more we sit with and allow to rise and then fall away, giving it all the same kind compassionate attention we give our breath that rises and falls.

Resting in this state of non-judgmental awareness, we understand that this is what it is to be human, to err, to bumble, and to go unconscious. Having laid our weapons and shields down, we can cultivate compassion for ourselves and for those in our lives who act out of this same bumbling unconsciousness.

Here, as we sit with what is, things can get very simple and very clear. Stories fall away, leaving only the residue of emotion that finds some physical expression – an achy chest, for example. We rest with whatever arises. If we find a physical sensation, we attend it with openness and compassion, not trying to change it, but simply letting it fill our experience in this moment, letting it be as big or small as it wants to be, letting it sink like a rock or lift like a feather. We hold it in a compassionate open embrace, and let it inform us. This physical sensation exists in the present moment and, held in awareness, may transform. Opening to what is present in this moment is powerful healing, not just the physical pain but for the associated emotional pain as well.

This practice of quieting and opening is not unique to Buddhism. It is a part of every spiritual tradition. And it is not uniquely spiritual. It is a natural state we are born to experience. If not honored as valid and valuable, we lose it.

I remember as a small child having this quality, being able to shift into this kind of open accepting awareness. Perhaps you have noticed, as I have with my granddaughter, that children seem to have a way of self-nurturing, of calming themselves down when they have become over-stimulated. It’s important to honor that ability and not try to commandeer the experience. When we make this self-nurturing activity seem oddball, then a child naturally looks for that sense of calm through other more socially accepted means: Mindless television, video games, snacking, etc. – all those unskillful avenues with potentially painful side effects that we as adults may find ourselves pursuing in an effort to self-nurture, to find that calm quiet place to simply be.

So we may come to meditation as if it’s some foreign experiment in mental transformation. But when we actually sit, we find we are coming home to something we once knew, even if only briefly, and it feels as welcoming and safe as our long lost ragged blanket or love-worn teddy bear.

As we practice, we see how giving ourselves back this spaciousness also gives us back a sense of openness and playfulness in our lives. It gives us other more skillful means than weapons to approach any challenges we may face.

When we talk about embodiment, this anchor to the present moment, this effective means of healing, we are not talking about something foreign either. As babies we began very much in our bodies, very much in the body of being, feeling undifferentiated and physically connected to the world around us. So as a very important part of our practice, we sense in to the body.

Words are useful, but they can only point to experience, they cannot be the experience itself. So it is the senses that really ‘knock some sense’ into us, really show us wherein resides the core story, what one might call ‘the big lie,’ that we tell ourselves, the one that keeps us feeling separate, judged, shamed, and afraid.

If this sounds off-putting, remember the embodied experience in turn enhances our ability to savor the sweetness of life. So it is a great gift, this ability to sense in. To feel the boundless nature of energy expressing itself as breath, temperature, vision, sound, smell, touch, texture, pressure, tightness, release – is life itself and the way to joy in living.

Embodiment practice is the way to discover for ourselves the Second Noble Truth. It is the most immediate way to be with what arises, to recognize suffering, to accept it into our experience in order to know its roots and associative behaviors, emotions and thoughts. So when you are sitting, fully inhabit the body. When you are walking, fully inhabit the body, letting go of all ideas of where you came from and where you are going, just this moment of experience, open to the kaleidoscope of senses telling you everything you need to know.

That is the practice.

Second Noble Truth: Insight

With the First Noble Truth we recognize the fact that there is suffering in life. Though it sounds harsh, this recognition to a degree relieves us of the anxiety about why we aren’t always perfectly happy. Once we have this recognition, once we sit with it awhile and mull it over in our minds, we may come to the Second Noble Truth.

The Second Noble Truth is an insight into the cause of our suffering. The Buddha had this insight when he sat under the Bodhi tree. He saw how there is pain that is a natural part of earthly existence, but that we create suffering on top of the pain. How do we do that?
The Buddha saw how we cause suffering by clinging to what we like and pushing away or denying what we don’t like.

He recognized a trait that has since been identified as part of the make up of all multi-celled creatures. These chemically-driven states of desire for pleasure and fear of pain are produced by our brains in order to help us survive.

So why would we want to get rid of these traits? First, we are not focusing on getting rid of anything. Instead we open to everything that arises in our experience, holding it in an open embrace of awareness.

As we become aware of these traits in our own nature and when we see them in others, we may see that often times we are not using them just for survival. We are grasping, clinging and pushing away or denying everything in our lives, not just things that are necessary for our survival or threaten it. These inherent traits of all animals have in humans turned into hyper-activated habituated tendencies.

Why is this so? Perhaps with our more developed frontal cortex — the part of the brain that enables us to imagine infinite possible outcomes — we are constantly activating physical and chemical reactions to imagined situations. Our overactive imaginations in our constantly thinking minds with all the re-runs, re-dos, application of acquired knowledge and sheer fabrications, have put us into mental over-drive. The result is an almost constant state of fear. This is not the fear of something we are actually facing in this moment, the way a deer will run away from anyone that comes too close. This is an ongoing state of mind that, lacking any current threat, will create imagined ones to fill the void.

What does fear do to us physically? If you’ve ever noticed a spider shrink into itself when it feels threatened, you know that that is what we do as well. A baby at four months is suddenly a little more wary of strangers, and her first response is to shrink a little into herself for a moment while she assesses the situation.

We adults do this too, but we easily end up staying there, tightened up into knots of tension, where we get stuck in a state of perpetual sense of alarm and isolation. We can’t sense our connection because we are locked into a hard separate stance. When we discover a connection with some particular person, situation or object, we are so relieved that we cling to them, and can’t bear to let this moment pass where we feel some relief from our ongoing sense of isolation. So we go from Teflon to Velcro with no place in between, with no way to inhabit our bodies and our being that is truly comfortable and easy.

Over the past weeks of exploring the First Noble Truth, I have been asking you to really notice how you cause suffering in your life. And what you have mentioned are the very tendencies the Buddha saw in his insight about how we create suffering in our lives: greed, aversion and delusion. Most of us fall more heavily into one of these tendencies, but all of us have some of each. So let’s take them one at a time.

Greed
When we experience pleasure and get attached to it, want it to continue, don’t want to let it go, begin to identify with it, start to need it like an addictive fix, go unconscious around it – a bit of a brain bypass that has a quality of time-out relief to it – this is the grasping, clinging, clamping down upon nature of the greedy mind.

Aversion
The tendency toward aversion brings up critical thoughts, judgments about people, behaviors, environments, aesthetics, conditions and situations. Nothing is every quite right. Even the most delightful situation could be improved upon, if only….

Delusion
This tendency is the head in the sand, or a certain grogginess that can be easily swayed and confused. If it takes a stand, it’s a stand of denial, not wanting to face facts.

Now all these traits have some positive aspects: Greed can be experienced as a zest for life. Aversion can be creative, transformational and problem solving. The delusive trait can see all sides of an issue and may pave agreement among disparate ideologies. But all can cause suffering.

These three tendencies – this grasping, clinging, pushing away and denying – are simply things to notice as they arise in our experience. Recognizing them is useful. Using the labels of greedy, aversive or delusive is not useful. We have more than enough labels already, thank you very much!

Seeing a tendency in ourselves is cause for celebration, not shame. It’s not our fault that these tendencies exist. Nature programmed us this way to keep us alive.

Our impressively developed brains continue to make an increasingly complex system of technological developments. When we steep ourselves in this hive of activity constantly, when we keep pace with the rapid-fire nature of modern life in our culture, we quite naturally succumb to one or more of these traits that cause suffering. Needing a retreat from the hubbub, we may choose unskillful means to numb ourselves with drugs, intoxicants, gambling, shopping, mindless eating, and other addictive behaviors. These are the answers readily provided by advertisers, so they are usually the first recourse.

Yet it is not just in this advanced technological age that humans cause themselves suffering. The Buddha didn’t have a cell phone or a computer, nor was he a jet-lagged jet-setter. In fact he spent his whole life within a very small mostly rural area, living amidst nature. Yet he knew suffering, and he saw it manifest in all the humans he knew as well.

Sometimes people get misty-eyed about some more quiet ‘simpler’ time, thinking that happiness was much easier to come by in the old days. ‘Simple for whom?’ is what I always wonder, because when I look back I see intolerance, enslavement and injustice. I am so grateful to be living now!

Not to exonerate the era we are in from these same forms of blindness. We continue to disrespect and trash the earth and, because of our vastly greater numbers, the impact is much greater. We trash our own bodies with faux food, and our governments wage war against each other over access to resources. And we live at a pace that is unsustainable and cannot be compensated by a week on the beach every summer.

But we are also, to a much greater degree than in past centuries, recognizing ourselves in each other, recognizing our connection to all of the inhabitants of this small blue planet. There are many movements afoot — not just in spiritual communities — that are slowing down the pace of life, acknowledging the value of this moment, of staying present.

Regardless of what era we live in, the development of the human brain has created this potential for creating misery, for getting out of balance. And the further refinement of it, through the insights of the Buddha and many other awakened beings, offers us skillful means to end, or at least cope with, our suffering.

The first step on this path is being able to recognize these traits of grasping, clinging, pushing away and denying as they arise in our experience. This is a great step to awakening! Don’t shut down now just because it feels uncomfortable to acknowledge something that seems to reflect badly on you. It doesn’t! Relax! We’re all in the same boat here.

So now as we explore for ourselves the Second Noble Truth, the challenge is to stay open. Yes, I know, this feels so personal, but it’s universal. And if we can gently but firmly be present to notice these tendencies in ourselves, we can begin to experience more spaciousness.

The key to sitting with the Second Noble Truth is to tap into compassion. We approach it with a great deal of metta, loving-kindness so that we won’t be swallowed up by the aversiveness that might be prompted by this inner discovery. Agh! I don’t want to be like that! Or I’m not like that!

No one said this work is easy, but there are ways to make it easier. I had a wonderful teaching a few months ago, watching my newborn granddaughter sleeping peacefully in her bassinette. Then suddenly she started rooting and struggling, waving her fists and poking her tongue in and out, wanting, wanting, wanting something, anything to stick in her mouth. How strongly I related to that! I recognized myself, the way I will sometimes roam the kitchen, looking in the refrigerator and the cupboards looking for a little something to stick in my mouth.

What an awakening it was for me to see that this is something born in me. My granddaughter was two weeks old! I didn’t invent this craving, I don’t have to feel shame for it! Of course, it’s not a free pass to eat everything in sight, but it is a deep acceptance of my own nature.

And then she gave me another insight, one that reined me in from forging my way to the kitchen. I noticed that after 30 seconds or so, her wanting, wanting, wanting passed, and she slipped into deeper sleep. She let it go. It passed. And if I pay attention, if I don’t rush to fulfill my wanting, if I sit with it a bit, I notice that yes indeed, she’s right: the wanting does pass.

So working with the Second Noble Truth is both humbling and enlightening. We are not trying to see how bad we are. We are accepting that we are human and finding some peace in that awareness. And perhaps we can hold it lightly, take ourselves less seriously, and feel less as if we have some fortress to defend.

Acknowledging and noticing is a continual process of creating spaciousness and awakening. It is made more painful if we see ourselves as isolated individuals up on a stage with judges about to call us out. If we can let view go, let ourselves be held in loving-kindness, if we can see ourselves as the small children we once were and hold ourselves with parental love, then we can begin to see each of these traits as clues to suffering, rather than one more reason to beat ourselves up.

So I hope during the week you will allow this level of noticing to bring about insights. And I hope that you receive the insights with great compassion.

This is the practice.