Category Archives: cause of suffering

Why does it hurt?

Here’s a photo of a little girl with her dolls. What a lucky girl to have three dolls! She must be so be happy! But when I look at her, I don’t see happiness, do you? Maybe she’s afraid someone will take her dolls away. Look how tightly she’s holding them. She is planning on defending them. And maybe she’s looking at some other child who has some dolls and she wants to add them to her collection, too.
Of course, holding them this tight she can’t really enjoy her dolls, can she? She can’t look at their faces, talking to them, singing to them, feeding them, dressing them…maybe having a tea party and inviting other children over with their dolls to play. She can’t do any of that because she has to hold on tight to these dolls for fear of losing them.
We can all recognize ourselves in this little girl. We have all had the experience of clinging to something, afraid of losing it. Whether it’s our possessions, our money, how are relationships, our career, our beliefs, the way we see ourselves, or the way we see our world; we hold on tight because we don’t know who we would be without these cherished things and we are afraid to find out.
But just as this little girl can’t play with her dolls when she holds them so tightly, we can’t really enjoy our lives and all the wonders in it when we hold them in such a tight grip.
What happens when we hold on so tight in a relationship? What happens when we cling tight to someone we love, begging them to spend more time with us, pay more attention to us tell us they love us? We suffocate the love and it turns to nothing in our hands.
So this tendency to grasp and cling to what we care about isn’t an effective strategy, is it? At best we can enjoy it and at worst we might cause it to disappear.

Now here’s another little girl. She’s not happy either, but instead of holding onto something she loves she’s focused on something that hasn’t measured up to her standards, her expectations, or her desires. Maybe her mother said she couldn’t have ice cream before dinner and she’s determined to be miserable about it for a good long while. Something in her life is not right. So she can’t enjoy herself either.I’m sure we can all recognize ourselves in this little girl, too. We’ve all had experiences that didn’t measure up to our expectations. We’ve all had times when that disappointment ruined the whole experience. We’ve all had trouble enjoying this moment because we’re still caught up and what happened last week, last month, last year and we’re letting it color our whole experience.

Here’s a third picture of a little guy with his hat pulled down in front of his face. He can’t see what’s going on all around him. We probably have a harder time seeing ourselves in this image because we’re blind to it. But we might get a sense that we’d rather not look too deeply into things. We’d rather gloss over the surface and assume our understanding is the reality of any situation.

And finally, here’s a photo of a girl who is delighting in a frog resting on her open palms. Notice that this photo is in full color while the rest are in black and white. Why? Because she’s the only one who is living fully in the present moment.
Notice that she is not clinging to the frog. The frog can hop off her palm at any time, and she understands that. And notice that she doesn’t seem to be judging the frog, finding fault in its size, color or any other aspect. She accepts the frog as it is.

Can we find this kind of joy in the moment? Can we notice when we’re grasping and clinging, when we’re pushing things away or assessing things as lacking? Can we see clearly what is arising in our experience in this moment and hold it in a gentle open embrace?

For most of us these moments of pure open enjoyment are rare. If we have them, we may get so excited that we try to grab hold of them and that makes the moment fall apart. Maybe we ask ourselves why it can’t always be like this? And so we activate the sense of dissatisfaction in our lives.

Is it possible to be in this kind of relationship with life all the time? The Buddha found that it was and he shares his discovery in the Four Noble Truths. In a recent post we looked at the First Noble Truth, that there is dukkha in life.
These four photos are visual aids to help us recognize the Second Noble Truth, the causes of dukkha, the suffering we all experience in life: The first three photos represent Greed, Aversion and Delusion. The last photo represents what life can be if we liberate ourselves from these ‘Three Poisons’.

How do you know when you are experiencing the Three Poisons?
Here’s a little questionnaire:

Greed
Does your suffering feel tight, grasping, stressed out and striving? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the future, daydreaming about acquiring dwellings, clothes, vacations, events, achievements, awards, complements, sexual conquests, etc? Well, greed is present. It’s not a very nice word, but then this isn’t a very nice feeling, is it? If you prefer, you can use ‘passion’, but the results are the same: dukkha, suffering.

Aversion
Does life not meet your expectations? Do you find many things irritating? Do you spend the present moment thinking about how it might be better, or comparing it to what you thought it would be? Is nothing quite right?
Or do you spend a lot of brain power finding who’s to blame for whatever is arising? Does your blood boil? Do you have a lot of grudges?
Then aversion is present. It shows up as anger, disappointment, angst and  intolerance. 

Delusion
Whatever is causing suffering, would you rather not think about it, definitely not talk about it? Do you think you have all the answers? Do you avoid looking too deeply into anything? Do you shut down conversations that get uncomfortable? Do you feel powerless?

Then delusion is present. It’s a hard one to name because how can you name something you can’t bring yourself to look at? And it gets entangled with greed and aversion.

If you recognized these kinds of patterns in your life, or didn’t but you know that you are not truly happy, then the Buddha offers guidance in how to notice them and how to work with them in a way to lessen their impact and even liberate yourself from them.

And that’s what we will be doing over the coming series of posts. I hope you will join me in this valuable exploration.

The pursuit of enlightenment: One more thing to let go of

tree-sitOne of my students said that the least interesting thing to her in the study of Buddhism is enlightenment. ‘That’s funny,’ I said, ‘because that’s exactly what I planned to talk about today.’ But maybe not the enlightenment she was imagining. If we think of enlightenment as some goal of miraculous transformation, I agree with her, because focusing on ‘achieving enlightenment’ sabotages our practice. A practice that enlightens us!

In class and in these blog posts we’ve been exploring the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Awakening or Enlightenment. The factors are Mindfulness, Investigation, Energy/effort, Joy, Concentration, Tranquility and Equanimity. Each factor is full of potential for rich inner discovery. Speaking of enlightenment, I feel lighter for having explored them. In the process there’s been a lot of letting go, Ahh! And in the lightening up, there has been a lot of gratitude. I hope if you have been following along and doing a regular meditation practice that you have found some benefits as well.

What does ‘awakening’ or ‘enlightenment’ actually mean?
For many it is seen as a means of escaping the difficulties of life, the ‘rat race’, ‘emotional roller coaster’ or however we want to describe the suffering we experience. But is enlightenment just another version of a beach hut on Bora Bora with a Mai Tai? There are plenty of shows you can watch that let you tag along as people, mostly overworked but highly paid executives, pursue just such a getaway. There’s even one where you can buy a whole island, just for you. Given global warming, these multi-million dollar purchases seem like a poor bet. But an equally poor bet is believing that escaping is the way to happiness. Because once the initial euphoria wears off, our patterns resurface and we’re back where we started, just thousands of miles away from what we thought was the source of our suffering. Hopefully we realize that, just like Jon Kabat Zinn’s book title, Wherever You Go, There You Are.

As uncomfortable as it may be to recognize that suffering travels with us, it’s enlightening to see that we are the ones who are cultivating suffering. We’re not helpless and there’s nothing wrong with us. We’ve just been barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. This recognition empowers us to try out new more wholesome ways of being in relationship to all that arises in our experience. That’s the heart of our practice.

Another book title, Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape, reminds us that it is skillful to stop thinking this (whatever ‘this’ is for each of us) is something we have to get away from. Of course, there are certain situations — abusive relationships, for example — where it is skillful to leave and to notice the patterns of excuses we make that deter us from doing so. But if we are beating ourselves up about, say, not having the funds, the smarts, the talent, the luck, etc. to buy an island or our dream home, or a perfect job, body, family, life, etc. — or we blame the world, our parents, the system, etc. and let that pattern of blaming sabotage us into inaction — then coming home to this moment, just as it is, and finding compassion for ourselves and all beings is the absolute best thing we can do.

With wise intention and wise effort and the help of the wisdom teachings we can gently cultivate awakening, which the Buddha defined as the end of the three causes of suffering: greed, aversion and delusion (which I think of as Yum! Yuck! and Huh?)

Since greed, aversion and delusion are the ways we habitually react to our experience, this is indeed a challenge. But being present to notice what’s arising, not running away from it, but allowing ourselves to be curious, aware and compassionate, is a more wholesome way of relating to all that arises. Daily practice for even ten to twenty minutes can make a world of difference to our whole lives. Add in a weekly class and an occasional retreat, and you’ll be amazed at how much clearer, kinder and lighter you feel!

Spirit Rock Meditation Center co-founder and author Jack Kornfield in an article titled ‘Enlightenments’ (in the Fall 2010 issue of Inquiring Mind, recently republished by Tricycle’s ‘Trike Daily’) suggested that there is more than one kind of enlightenment. Under his teachers Ajahn Chah in Thailand and Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma, he was given two very different means of awakening. With Sayadaw he was taught complete ongoing immersion into the retreat experience of sensory moment-to-moment awareness. When after a year he returned to study again with Ajahn Chah, he shared all the wondrous meditative experiences he had. Ajahn Chah nodded and appreciated all he had shared, and then said ‘Just one more thing to let go of.’

Ajahn Chah taught simply notice all that arises moment to moment in this daily life just as it is. Both of these ways are in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, and we have the opportunity to do both practices, as one supports the other. But attaching too much importance to going on retreat in order to experience the factors of awakening can undermine our understanding that awakening is available in every moment. There’s no place we have to go to ‘get’ it.

That said, given the opportunity to go on retreat, take it! It’s much easier to practice when that’s all that is asked of you and you are completely supported by all around you. Certainly some of the deepest insights that stay with me came to me when I was on retreat, and I am so grateful to have had those opportunities. It is relatively recently that we in the West have had retreats to go on, and it’s important to value and support the centers that provide them. That said, the most awake I ever felt and the deepest insights I ever had came from a period of dedicated meditation on my own, when, due to illness, I had a choice of going mindless watching endless television or taking a weekly meditation class and doing the practice extensively on my own. This was back when classes were rare and retreat centers unavailable.

Whether on retreat or in daily meditation practice, we set the intention to be fully present and compassionate with all that arises in every moment of our lives. That seed of intention planted firmly blooms into wise effort and mindfulness throughout the rest of our lives.

With that intention and effort, the Seven Factors of Awakening bloom within us. They are qualities we cultivate and states we experience more and more through our practice. Each Factor supports and enhances the others. There is a dependent co-arising of awakening.

Since we have recently looked at how language shapes our inner landscape, we might look at the traditional translations of the teachings of the definition of enlightenment: ‘extinguishing’ or ‘getting rid of’ greed, aversion and delusion. Do these verbs put us in a combative relationship with greed, aversion and delusion? Another word that is often used is ‘cessation’ that seems less combative, and then there’s the very simple word ‘end’ that for me seems relatively neutral. The overall term for greed, aversion and delusion is the Three Poisons. I think that’s a good description because dealing skillfully with poison is first a matter of noticing it, being aware of its toxicity, and then not swallowing it! The process of recognizing that these are indeed poisons could take some time. But noticing that they exist and then noticing how they cause suffering in our lives is central to our practice. If we are really looking, we can see how the endless desires and cravings make us unhappy. We can look at our judgments, annoyances and anger and see how they make us miserable. It’s harder to look at delusion, but we can often see it after the fact and we can let that awareness be a reminder of the likelihood of its presence in our lives.

Here is a practice that cultivates light:

Exercise

  • Notice greed, aversion and delusion as they arise in your experience.
  • Sense how they feel in the body, how tightness and tension arises.
  • Breathe more spaciousness to be able to stay present with the greed, aversion or delusion.
  • Cultivate compassion and clarity to dissipate fear and bring understanding.
  • Investigate instead of judging whatever arises; see the pattern and maybe the source.
  • Release with lovingkindness and loving intention whatever is passing away.
  • Notice whatever arises now with a sense of friendliness and gentle curiosity.
  • Let go of the goal of enlightenment, and let the light in. Let it fill you to overflowing.
  • Radiate infinite light!

I look forward to your thoughts on this topic. Click on ‘leave a reply’ above the post.

Monster Mash :: What are you waiting for?

delayed.jpgLast week we took a trip to the East Coast, a whirlwind week of new sights, old friends, extended family and autumn foliage. Pretty much ‘perfect’ in every way. Until we arrived at the airport for our flight home and were informed it was delayed four hours.

We made the best of the situation and chose a good restaurant to have a leisurely lunch. But eventually we felt the pull of our departure gate, the only place to get real information. Once there we discovered that it wasn’t just our flight to San Francisco that was delayed, but flights to Seattle and L.A. as well. Conflicting explanations as to the cause of the delay were bandied about, leaving our idle minds to go wild with wondering. Had Kim Jong-un pushed the nuclear button and boom? Had there been a seismic event of epic proportions? Were the wildfires still burning creating too much smoke to land? Or was there a Midwest waltz of tornadoes we wouldn’t be able to fly through?

How much easier it would have been to settle in if we knew early on that our intended plane had a problem and had to be replaced with a different one. Of course if there was anything wrong with the plane, we would prefer a new one, thank you very much. It wasn’t until seven hours later, right after we finally boarded, that the pilot shared that helpful information.

So there we all were: passengers for three flights crammed into this relatively small wing of gates at the airport. But we fortunately found seats and set in to wait.

What is waiting anyway?
So often in our lives we are in this state of waiting: In traffic, in the grocery store line, and at the airport. As I sat there I realized that this body of mine has to be somewhere, why not here? I am not in pain or danger. My stomach is satisfied, my bladder is empty. Nothing is actively causing me suffering. Why not simply be present with this experience? After all, even if the plane was on time, I would still be sitting there for a certain amount of time.

The knowledge that I would be there quite a bit longer than anticipated changed everything. Instead of planned passivity I was awash in a flow of impatient emotions, each of which I met with that same statement: ‘The body has to be somewhere. Why not here?’

Over the years I have talked about waiting as an opportunity for practice. I have cited the grocery store line as a place of awakening, if we are present and open to the experience. I have said that I teach a style of meditation I call ‘a portable practice’, that can be done ‘in an airport waiting area.’ Well isn’t this just karmic comeuppance, Miss Meditation Teacher! Let’s see how you deal with what turned out to be a seven hour wait at the gate!

First let’s look at this word ‘waiting’. By waiting we are saying that this moment doesn’t count compared to some future moment we are anticipating. What an opportunity to practice being present with whatever arises.

Waiting is also wanting things to be different than they are. Wanting is a kind of poison that we binge on. Whether we want more of what we have and hate to let go of the experience when things change, or we want things to be different than they are, wanting is the cause of suffering.

This truth is the core of the Buddha’s teaching. And it’s a great place to start any exploration of our relationship with whatever is arising in our current experience.

As I was sitting in Gate 42C at Logan Airport, I had a lot of time to ponder this, to ask myself ‘How am I in relation to my current experience?’ This is not to find fault, to shame myself into looking at the bright side, or to try to change anything. It’s just a way to be present and see the truth of what’s going on.

The wanting things to be different flavors everything in an experience, doesn’t it? If we can set aside that wanting even briefly, we can find all kinds of things to engage us in this moment. Certainly a room packed with travelers is full of entertainment potential. There are children whose antics are amusing, and their weary parents whose situation makes mine feel infinitely less onerous. Great compassion to them. There are friendly people to talk to as well as those trying to carry on their work lives. One man conducted a whole webinar as we all sat around, forced to listen to him expound on contractual marketing in the hospital sector. Huh?

The body has to be somewhere. Why not here? This has so many applications. When we’re stuck in the sick bed or the hospital, or stuck inside due to inclement weather, or stuck in traffic. We can ask ourselves what else is here in this moment besides the idea that ‘I don’t want to be here’?

A little boy expresses joy at seeing an airplane out the window. Can I have such a beginner’s mind as that in regard to all that is arising in my experience? All the simple pleasures?

Instead, so often the mind begins a circular pattern of regret and recrimination: What could I have done differently? In this case, I could have gotten the airline app that would have told me earlier that there would be a delay, and we could have perhaps spent the day sightseeing instead of sitting here. If stuck in traffic, we might think what a difference it would have made to take a different route. At the store, what if we had stood in a different line? And is it statistically possible for us all to be the person that always chooses the wrong line? Or does it just seem that way because we don’t notice all the times we breeze through and things go easily. That’s our natural negativity bias that neuroscientists talk about kicking in. Did I even once say to myself ‘Gosh, of all the flights I’ve taken over the years, this is the first time I’ve had such a delay.’ No. Even though that is true, it didn’t cross my mind.

After almost seven hours hanging out together in this compact space, the carefully crafted formalities between us dissolve. The other two flights to LA and Seattle have gone. We are now a fleeting family with a shared experience. The airline representatives break out Halloween songs and do a little dance to Monster Mash. Reluctantly we are lured into enjoying ourselves. Things fall apart, but in a good way. And I recognize how the magic of shared human experience happens in the places where things don’t run smoothly. But you’d never discover it if the plane ran on time.mon-oj.jpg

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.

darlenecohen_rrzendowebsite

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.