Category Archives: challenges

In the vortex of the Eight Worldly Winds

Whatever is going on in your life right now, if you really pay attention, you will see that it is impermanent. For added help in seeing clearly what is arising and falling away, and how to be in skillful relationship with them, the Buddha divided the experiences, these ever-changing winds, into eight categories, presented in pairs. They are pleasure & pain, gain & loss, praise & censure, status & disgrace.
Think of something going on in your life right now and see if it fits in any of these categories.8WW.jpg

These Eight Worldly Winds are naturally occurring. There’s no way to avoid their arising and falling away in our experience. But we can be more skillful in how we are in relationship to them. First we notice how we react to them. Are we caught up in the winds, welcoming some and rebelling against others? In both cases we might feel at their mercy, tossed about hither and yon, feeling broken and bruised. Is this any way to live?
When I first learned about the Eight Worldly Winds, I was reminded of a meditation technique I used to do when my mind was abuzz with planning, worrying, reliving past moments, etc. In meditation I would imagine my thoughts like a whirlwind circling around me. I would sit cultivating such stillness that the thoughts, in contrast, seemed to be whirling faster and faster until they blurred together and my mind could not latch onto any particular worry or plan or regret or desire. I sometimes actively stirred the winds, creating a vortex where I could sit in the lightness of the center. Amidst it all, I was able to be at peace. (You might think of poaching an egg, how you stir up a vortex in a pot of hot water, slip the egg in and it holds its shape. No vinegar needed in this meditation recipe, however. 😉 )
If we sit this way, either creating a vortex or simply allowing the winds to pass through our spacious field of compassionate awareness, we cultivate a space for the calm quiet voice of our own inner wisdom to be heard. If our meditation practice is regular, and especially if we give ourselves the gift of going on retreat occasionally, we empower our ability to listen in to that wisdom, and let it gently guide us to be skillful, ethical, kind and balanced. (Note: If the inner voice is strident or demanding, it’s not the wise inner voice, but a fear-based aspect trying to run the show. No need to make an enemy of it. Treat it with respect, negotiate reasonably, but don’t follow it’s instructions!)
We see the impermanence of all that arises: the pleasure and the pain, the loss and the gain, the praise and the censure, the status and disgrace. We can dance with the wind as a willow tree’s branches sway, while being deeply rooted in wisdom, instead of shallowly rooted and ultimately uprooted by the passing winds of life.
As we go about our day, if we are present and compassionate, we can see the Eight Worldly Winds more easily. When one of them blows through our field of experience, we can acknowledge it but we don’t have to chase after it or run from it.
Can we appreciate gain without fearing loss? For example, can we allow ourselves to love without holding back because we fear losing the person we love?
Can we understand loss as a natural part of the experience of being alive in this impermanent world? Can we be compassionate with ourselves in our grief, but also see it all as part of the dance of life?
Can we enjoy a pleasure as it arises in our experience without getting caught up in craving it and clinging to it?
Can we recognize pain as a bodily messenger to heed and attend? And if the pain is beyond remedy, can we be present with the many sensations within what we label ‘pain’, and recognize how they arise and fall away like parts of a symphony? Can we find other sensations that are happening in other parts of the body at the same time that are neutral or pleasant, and see that the pain is just one aspect of all that is arising in our experience?
Can we accept praise without seeking it? Can we accept praise without reacting against it? Can we accept praise without doubting the praise giver’s truthfulness or intentions?
Can we accept censure when we have done something unskillful and do what we can to make amends? Can we look within and see how this unskillfulness happened, and set the intention to be more skillful in the future? If we are blamed for something we did not do, can we handle our response with clarity and compassion, seeking solutions instead of getting caught up in the blame game.
In relationship to elevated status, can we let it be simply a byproduct of something authentic and skillful that we have done? Can we not see it as a goal or a solution to the emptiness within?
If our reputation is tarnished and we experience disgrace, can we handle it with grace? Can we make reparations? Can we take the opportunity to look within and see how we may have erred. If the accusations are false, can we be skillful in how we respond instead of making it worse or confirming opinions?
At the very core can we remember that none of these Eight Worldly Winds are who we are? When we set the intention to be present in this moment, compassionate with ourselves and others, the Eight Worldly Winds do not define our lives. We all experience gains and losses. We all experience pleasure and pain. We all experience praise and censure. We all experience status or disgrace, to varying degrees. We may experience a variety of emotions and thoughts around them. But as we rest in awareness and compassion, we are supported by a deeper understanding of the nature of our experience that comes from our wise intention and the skillful efforts that follow from it.
Coming into skillful relationship with the Eight Worldly Winds, we can use the questions we have been exploring in the previous posts.
When we ask What is my intention here? we might see that we are chasing praise, pleasure, gain or status, or fighting or fleeing from censure, pain, loss and disgrace. We can look at what we are afraid of. We can pay attention to the stories that arise out of that fear, and we can ask if it is really true.
The person seeking fame may discover the fear of disappearing, not being seen at all. Let’s say they do become famous. Now they are still afraid because they are not being seen for who they really are. Being seen can be pleasurable, but if fear of not being seen is a prime motivator, then all kinds of misery ensues.
The person seeking pleasure may be running away from the pain in their lives. But the pleasure they seek, if overindulged, may ultimately exacerbate the pain.
The person seeking praise feels lost and needs constant acknowledgement in the form of praise to help them feel like they exist at all. They prefer praise, but if it’s not available, then censure gets attention too. At least they are visible!
The person who seeks gain may need it to build their sense of self, to impress others, to prove their worth, or they have a gripping fear of scarcity from some earlier life experience. There is no amount of worldly goods that will satisfy this need. Loss then reflects poorly on them. They may have more than they need to lead a comfortable life many times over, but loss is still threatening, defining them as a ‘loser’.
But if we recognize the existence of the Eight Worldly Winds and see their impermanent nature, we can be in a more skillful in relationship with them. If we practice meditation regularly and openly explore what arises in our field of awareness, we can dance gracefully like willow branches swaying in the wind.
As you go through your day, see if you can recognize which of the Eight Worldly Winds present themselves to you. Then notice how you are in relationship to them. See if you can allow each of them to flow through without making an enemy of it, chasing it or clinging to it. It’s a challenge and a lifelong practice well worth doing.
Report back!

Coping with what life gives us

The tenth Paramita* is Equanimity, the ability to hold all that is going on in our lives in an easeful way. In the past I have used the analogy of being like the sky, holding fluffy white clouds, rainbows, storms and lightning bolts all at once.

Many years ago a woman in our sangha out at Spirit Rock asked how was it possible for her to attend her daughter’s wedding with true joyousness of spirit when her dearest friend was dying in the hospital. This question has always stayed with me as an example of what is asked of us in life, and how equanimity serves us. The answer to the question is to stay as present in the moment as we can and to be compassionate with ourselves when we find that our awareness of joy is shot through with a thread of sorrow. So we can be fully where we are (at the daughter’s wedding) and be fully who we are (a caring friend and mother). One does not negate the other.

In fact, these kinds of contrasts are often the richest moments in our lives. I remember at the memorial we gave for my father in his home on his birthday the week after he died. I remember the beauty of the cherry blossoms that completely surrounded his deck and how much he loved them, and how sorry he felt that his beloved wife was no longer there to enjoy them. And I remember how I came upon my son changing the diapers of his month-old daughter on my father’s bed where just the week before, Dad and I had watched Wheel of Fortune and I had begged him to let me spend the night on the couch, sensing the end was near. One week apart, two sets of fathers and daughters: one set at the end of life, the other set at the beginning. To be able to hold the beauty of that is a great gift of equanimity.

There are other ways to describe equanimity. One is to find your center of gravity, that way of being in your body and in your life that you are sufficiently grounded that nothing throws you. Recently I heard a zen teacher from Nova Scotia talking about equanimity. He shared how his teacher had demonstrated it. He stood up and held his body rigid and told two men to try to knock him over. It was easy. Then he changed his stance, relaxing, going limp, being rooted in place with the release of tension. And when the men tried to move him, they couldn’t do it.
oaks
My students, all female, did not feel very inspired by this image. Is the real goal in life to be unmoved?  But they responded with more enthusiasm when I suggested that trees are grounded in this way.

Here’s a poem I recently wrote that captures some of that feeling:

Oak Sisters

Three oaks entwine on the hillside:
Minoan snake goddesses with burl breasts.

I, with the good fortune to sit below them,
rarely bow in gratitude,

while they bow to the wind, the rain,
the sun and the moon.

I am footloose, but rarely dance,
while they, despite earthly constraints,

sway together in ecstasy.
I imagine underground a mirror dance

of roots rollicking round rock,
deeper and deeper into the soil of being.

 

Of course, California live oaks are beautiful trees but not necessarily the best example to aspire to when we want to remain upright come what may. In a severe storm or even in the middle of a drought, an oak will occasionally crack and fall to the forest floor. We might choose instead a more supple tree for our role model! But you get the idea.

So now we have two ways of seeing equanimity:

  • Being spacious like the sky to hold whatever arises
  • Being like a supple tree, rooted and able to dance in the winds of life, resilient

Both of those views are helpful. Some others less so. For example, when we think of balancing, we might picture a tightrope walker on a highwire. Life might feel like that at times, but it’s a worldview that is bound to create fear and tension. If you find yourself in that position, let go! Discover that life will support you.

Another image that comes up is the art of balancing stones. Perhaps you’ve seen the results, or have watched in fascination as the artist gives his or her full attention to setting the stones, and perhaps you have even tried it yourself. At Spirit Rock on retreat I have walked up the hill to an area that was full of stones that were fun to stack. They weren’t the more challenging rounded stones the artists use, but the process still required my full attention. It’s a lovely meditative process.

That view of equanimity reminds us to be fully present, to sink into full awareness and a sense of connection with whatever we are doing. But the image could backfire if we are attached to the stones staying stacked! It could easily bring out perfectionist tendencies and the fear of things falling apart and personal failure.

In my ‘Oak Sisters’ poem there was a quality of dancing, and I am reminded of how for many years I did Nia, a dance exercise class that develops a supple grace in the body. I had no idea how stiff and ungraceful I was until I started that class! But over time I softened in my movements and gained greater balance. I felt centered and joyous. We worked from our core, just as you do in Pilates or yoga, and were trained to not overextend our limbs. What a good lesson for life that is! Where in life are you feeling overextended?

Part of the reason we overextend is that we are trying to please or impress someone else. So we are seeing ourselves from the outside, the way we think others see us. This is ‘object mode’. This is a good way to get way off balance! We need to be the subject of our own lives, the center of our own universe. This is not selfish. This is growing where we were planted. Remember that when we send metta (lovingkindness) we always begin with ourselves before sending it out to others and ultimately to all beings. Because we can’t give what we don’t have.

In meditation we find that when we go rigid we get easily distracted, and getting caught up in thinking and emotion will cause tension in the body. But when we relax our muscles and find a balanced posture, we are able to sustain a seated practice for quite sometime. And as our mind relaxes that spacious quality of sky is able to arise and fill the whole of our awareness.

And then when we go about our lives, perhaps we can develop a greater sense of ease and natural grace, able to carry whatever challenges life has given us. We may even find that what we have held as burdens will gently reveal their gifts.

May we be dancers on this earth, sensing into the music of life.

So these are all ways of looking at equanimity. What resonates with you? What questions does it bring up? What is your experience of equanimity? Please comment below.

*Paramita or parami is a state of quality of Buddha mind that we are cultivating. Equanimity (Upekkha) is the last of the ten paramitas we have been studying. See the rest in earlier posts. You can type ‘paramita’ in the search bar in the right-hand column.

Curiouser and curiouser

I have been reading Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson because it’s the book my class read in my absence and I want us literally to be on the same page.

On page 60 he writes that the three processes of being with whatever arises, working with the tendencies of mind to transform them, and taking refuge in the ground of being, are essential practices of the path of awakening.

He says that as we practice we encounter certain stages of growth. The first is acting out unskillfully without even being aware of it, not even seeing how we are causing suffering to ourselves and others.

The second is noticing our behavior, our words, our thoughts and how they are causing suffering, but not being able to do anything able to do anything about them.

The third is being able to transform these thoughts or feelings midstream, so that they don’t get acted out. They still cause us suffering to a more limited degree, but we have not put it out into the world.

And the fourth is a level of non-reactivity, where the situation doesn’t automatically set off reactions that cause suffering.

As meditators we may recognize these stages as part of our own experience, because as we begin to meditate we create enough spaciousness to start seeing our own thoughts and behavior.

Hanson says the most difficult stage is stage two, where we first notice our unskillfulness but feel helplessly caught up in it.

This initial period of inner awareness can be painful! It can even stop us from meditating because we don’t want to see the truth of things. We would rather be oblivious! Who could blame us?

This is the value of having some guidance, if just to have someone assure you that it’s normal to have this reaction, to have these thoughts, to feel the shock, shame and disappointment to discover our own innate unskillfulness.

If we do stay the course, continuing to meditate, we may discover a softening of our hearts and an increase of patience, so that we can hold our flawed selves with more compassion. Having opened to this experience, having survived the initial shock of discovery, we find a willingness to sit with whatever arises with less judgment and more curiosity. It becomes less personal. Reading Hanson’s book with its physical explanations for why we are the way we are increases our ability to get how impersonal it really is!

But still, what arises, if painful, if frightening, can be difficult. These difficult thoughts, emotions and sensations, we can consider as dragons at the gate of the inner temple of our own awakening. This image has helped me over the years to recognize and value the experience of sitting with difficulty as a vital part of the spiritual experience of accessing the spaciousness within.

Instead of an extended talk, for this class I asked the students to take some time in the garden in walking meditation or sitting in contemplation, giving themselves the silence, the time and the attention to notice whatever arises. If you did not attend the class or did but would like to repeat this on your own, try this in a garden or park or out in wild nature.

As you walk at a slow pace, bring full consciousness to physical sensations of the body: the foot rising and falling, the breath, the air on skin, the sights and sounds. Whatever arises in the mind is to be noted for its tonal quality, whether it’s an emotion or a thought stream, whether it’s a judgment, a memory, a plan, etc. Some times you may just be caught up in the flower or the lizard or the patterns the leaves make on the deck or the sound of the waterfall. At other times a stream of associative thoughts or emotions will ensue. Whatever arises, bring as much awareness to them as possible, being curious. Notice how the mind does what it does, as if it were a lizard pumping in the sun. Give it as much of that kind attention as possible.

Afterwards give yourself the gift of a little more time to reflect on and internalize this experience before returning to normal activity.