Category Archives: change

Finally Spring! Wait what?

In the Bay Area we have had an exceptionally rainy winter, especially compared to recent years of drought. We are grateful to have our reservoirs full, but we may have forgotten how a typical wet winter feels, let alone this seemingly daily deluge. So when spring burst forth in all its sun-drenched flower-studded green finery and the air became soft and welcoming for days on end, we breathed sighs of relief, and we celebrated.

Now the rain is back and predicted to be gray and wet for days. I don’t trust predictions, but let’s assume that’s the case. If I had not made the most of that beautiful weather and those lovely sights, sounds and smells, I would be feeling pretty grumpy about now. But I did appreciate it and made a point of making lots of room for noticing it, so even as the rain returns I have no regrets.

There is no cure for how things change except to live fully in the moment, not putting off deep appreciation of beauty for another day just because we have a long to do list. That to do list will be there, like a trusty dog who has the bad habit of nipping at our heels. Sure, there are some things that can’t be put off and we do them with our full attention, then discern what can wait and get out into nature and let the sun shine on our faces and breathe in the sweet scents abounding.

If we don’t do that, then when the rains come, we realize our opportunity was fleeting, that the rain and wind will force the blossoms off the trees and beat the flowers down, and nothing will be as it was. We will have missed it and now mourn it.

Where else in life do we experience the same feeling of having missed what mattered? Perhaps we had our eyes on the wrong prize, caught up in attending to ‘important matters’, believing that the beauty and wonder of life — of our loved ones, of our bodies health and abilities, of our own good fortune — will sit around waiting for us to take notice, to engage, to appreciate this moment and all that arises in it. Maybe we are so busy mourning the way things used to be that we aren’t able to see what’s right in front of us and find gratitude for that.

Things change. We change. No amount of wishing will change that! The only way to have no regrets is to be fully present to notice the beauty in every moment.

As I sit here writing, I look out across the wet deck at the soft gray clouds drift by. I see how the pale green leaves are filling in the empty spaces on the oak tree, and I hear loved ones — my husband of many years and an old friend visiting from a great distance — in other rooms of the house doing their healthy morning routines. I am chock full gratitude for this moment, too.

But, you may say, so much is wrong with the world and perhaps with our lives. How can we indulge ourselves in enjoying spring or anything else? After all, the same rains that filled the reservoirs and ended years of drought in California also flooded homes and businesses in some areas and caused debris flows in areas trying to recovery from devastating fires. Life is full of all manner of challenges. We do what we can to help, even at times that all we have is our good wishes for all who suffer everywhere.

I leave you with this Buddhist parable:
A traveling monk encounters a tiger. He runs across a field and the tiger chases him. Coming to a precipice, he catches hold of the root of a vine and lowers himself over the edge. As the frustrated tiger sniffs and snarls above him, the monk hangs there, trembling. In the valley below, he sees another tiger pacing, waiting for him to fall. And a few inches away from him, a mouse comes out of a crevice in the rock face and starts gnawing at his vine.
Just then the monk notices a ripe strawberry. He clings to the vine with one hand, and plucks the strawberry with the other.
Delicious!

Wise Action

 

alt=The next aspect of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path we’ll explore is Wise Action. We can all easily come up with examples in our lives of unwise action: Maybe the time we tripped and hurt ourselves, the time we left the burner on in the kitchen and forgot about it, or the time we ended up with indigestion from over-indulging.

Unwise action is often frustrating, sometimes painful and can be dangerous. So how do we develop more Wise Action in our lives?

First we check in with our intention. This is always the first place to go whenever we feel out of sorts. Is our intention wise? Is it a wise loving intention that promotes taking care of this gift of a physical body to the best of our ability? Or are our actions seated in some sense of self-hatred that assures that they are likely to be unskillful?

We can also look at our effort. We might see that we are trying so hard to accomplish something that we are not taking good care of ourselves. Or, we are under-efforting, and not meeting our body’s needs. Wise Effort arises from Wise Intention and the two work together to bring balance and effectiveness. It’s an area to explore.

What about Wise Mindfulness? If we hurt ourselves or others it’s often because we weren’t being mindful. We were thinking about other things and we had an accident of some kind. Is there any accident that we caused that didn’t arise out of not being fully present in the moment? If everyone on the road were being mindful as they drive, would there be any accidents? This is why self-driving vehicles are safer. A computer-driver is not making grocery store lists, talking on the phone or texting, daydreaming or caught up in an emotional storm. Instead it is constantly noting all causes and conditions. Theoretically we could drive as well as computers, but instead we let our minds wander and boom. This is no small problem! In the US alone, there are over 30,000 traffic deaths per year, and many more serious injuries.

What about Wise View? Our actions become unskillful in relationship to other people when we believe them to be separate, alien and threatening. It’s a scientific fact that we are not just made of the same stuff, but are seamlessly interconnected with all being, but coming home that reality is sometimes difficult because we are caught up in destructive patterns of emotion and thought. And the result is violence. When we are able to come to Wise View, our actions are more skillful.

Beyond violence, other unskillful actions arise from unwise view: All manor of addictive behavior that is destructive to ourselves and those around us.

Last post we looked at Wise Speech. Now we can recognize how unwise action can be activated by unwise speech. Words that are hurtful can lead to bodily harm.

See how all the aspects of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path work together? When we recognize that something in our life is off kilter, that we aren’t being skillful or wise in our actions, we can explore more fully where exactly is the lack of wisdom in this particular case.

Often our actions are reactions. This makes them intrinsically unskillful and likely to cause trouble for ourselves and those around us. As we cultivate wisdom, our actions rise out of that wisdom. They are not reactive. They are, instead, responsive. What’s the difference? Reactivity is mindless, on auto-pilot and rooted in fear. Responsiveness rises out of a sense of being interconnected to all life. The action is rooted in Wise Intention, a loving intention that has no expectation.

Wise Action in a Changing World

In general we are uncomfortable with change, even change we had hoped for. It takes us time to adapt, to mourn the loss of what was and come into some comfortable relationship with what is new. In part this is due to our habitual nature. We are used to doing things a certain way and suddenly we have to pay more attention. For example, moving into a new home can be exciting but stressful, not just because of all the boxes to unload and phone calls to make and things to arrange, but also because we were operating on autopilot in our old situation. We didn’t have to think about it. We knew where everything was. We knew the route by heart to the old home, and our body just naturally goes there. This new route takes some purposeful thinking.

This is true with a new job, a new relationship, a new physical challenge or a new leader. It all takes some getting used to. And that’s not easy.

If the change was something we chose, then we are buoyed by the excitement of an opportunity or challenge. We can still find it stressful, but overall we feel good about it. But if the change was not of our choosing then there is no excitement to buoy us up. We find ourselves floating and sometimes drowning in a sea of difficult emotions.

If that sounds at all familiar, then let’s explore skillful means to survive and even thrive in that sea of change.

First, we need to recognize that change is the only constant. From the day we were born, we and everything around us has been in flux, growing up, altering circumstances, changing course. Walking in nature we recognize the cycles of seasons. Nothing stays the same.  

Second, we can see that we have always somehow dealt with change and have survived. But is survival enough? Most of us want a little more from life than mere survival.

We can look at the way we have dealt with change to see if it was skillful. Or are we reacting to what comes up in our lives with emotions and actions that seemed skillful when we were eight years old? As adults, if we take the time to pay attention, we have the capacity to see that these are not skillful. But because we are not taking the time to explore, evaluate and reassess, we may still be handling things in childish ways: sulking, lashing out, acting up, hiding out, unwilling to look at all sides of an issue. We may still see from a child’s eye view: That the world or someone in our lives is the cause of all our problems and we totally helpless to do anything about it.

Is this true? For most of us this may be true in some areas and not in others, because we have paid attention and grown in some areas, but are still on autopilot in regard to others.

Insight meditation is developing a strong healthy habit of meditation, mindfulness and compassion. AND doing self-inquiry. Especially after a period of meditation, when the mind is quieted down enough so that our innate inner wisdom can be heard, we can begin to question some of our assumptions about things.

So when we feel adrift in a sea of change, meditation and inquiry can allow us to become like dolphins, able to inhabit the experience more fully and more joyfully. Coming into the moment, we can recognize our reactivity, and how we are causing ourselves misery. We can see how we get stuck in nostalgia, stuck in anger, or lost in despair. We don’t get unstuck by pushing any of these emotions away. We get unstuck by cultivating spaciousness, compassion for ourselves and others, allowing whatever is present to be there, but also noticing what else is also present in this moment.

At any moment, in our body and in the world, there are both pleasant and unpleasant things going on. Noticing both allows us to expand our view, to hold all that is going on in a skillful way. And from this noticing we find we are able to be fully present and rooted in a more peaceful and loving intention, so that we make wiser choices and wiser actions.

Past dharma talks on Wise Action:

https://stephanienoble.com/2013/09/30/wise-action/

https://stephanienoble.com/2011/04/02/the-five-precepts-intrinsic-to-right-wise-or-spacious-action/

https://stephanienoble.com/2009/03/11/eightfold-path-right-or-wise-action/

Sukha – Being Present for Happiness

We have been revisiting the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: that there is suffering in life. In the Pali language this suffering is called dukkha, and we delved deep into the doo-doo of dukkha in previous posts. But there is not just dukkha in life. And particularly for me at this moment of time it would be disingenuous to focus exclusively on suffering, when I am so grateful for this moment where everyone in my circle of family and friends is in better shape than in past months, where crises have passed and in some cases new exciting ventures are being launched, and life is suddenly more light-hearted and fun. My thoughts are filled with playful creative ideas instead of deep problem solving ruminations. Staying present with my experience, I acknowledge this temporal state of affairs. I know that conditions will shift and change, but while I am experiencing this, let me fully acknowledge it!

So as part of that acknowledgment, today we will talk not about dukkha but about sukha. Literally sukha means having a good axle-hole. While at first glance that seems to have a lot to do with this doo-doo dukkha, in fact it means that the axle of the vehicle of your life is round and even, so the wheels that carry you turn smoothly, making the course of your life less bumpy, more pleasant. So sukha is this pleasantness when things run smoothly, and noticing and taking pleasure in this smoothness.

So we’re talking about happiness. When we get to the Eightfold Path we will talk in more detail about how we can skillfully create conditions that produce happiness in our lives and in the lives of others. But as I understand it, sukha is not the conditions of happiness but our experience of enjoying it, just as dukkha is not pain but our tendency to compound it into suffering.

In our last discussion, we talked about this difference between pain and suffering. Pain happens, arising out of life itself. Through mindfulness we can reduce our risk of getting into a painful situation, but pain is an inherent part of being born, living and dying in this earthly realm. Trying to escape it just creates more suffering.

There are also moments of time when conditions are such that we are pain-free and life seems good. Maybe the weather is beautiful, our health is good, we’re doing what we want to do and those we love are in a good place. All the makings for happiness! But because we have the ability, sometimes even the tendency, to take a happy situation and look on the dark side or look all around the edges, we may miss the experience itself. Sukha is the ability to truly appreciate the goodness of life in the moment.

Now, if we take this happy condition and are unable to appreciate it because we fear it is fleeting, or we are afraid our appreciation will cause it to disintegrate, or we get into wondering why life can’t always be like this, or how we could make it be like this all the time, or any of a hundred inner conversations of that nature, then we are back in dukkha!

Sukha, the ability to enjoy ourselves in a way that is beneficial or harmless, is something we can cultivate within ourselves through concentration, insight and awareness practice. We have been spending a few weeks really paying attention to how we create dukkha in our lives, compounding any pain we find by dragging in the past and future, and we will bring more attention to that in the coming weeks. But this week, and from here on out, I ask you to also notice what is pleasurable in your life.

We talked last week about embodiment. Sensing in to our bodies is a big part of our focus in meditation practice. Sometimes we focus on the strongest sensation. But when the strongest sensation becomes overwhelming, it is skillful to find another sensation in our body to focus on, one that is neutral or pleasurable.

Because of the way our brains work and the requirements for survival in our history, we have a tendency to focus more on pain and the potential for future pain. So cultivating an ability to focus on what is pleasurable can be skillful, bringing us closer to the truth of the whole of our current situation. We don’t focus on what is pleasurable in our experience in order to escape or mask pain. We are not trying to run away from the pain, but to remind ourselves to open our embrace to hold all experience, not just the most difficult. We are bringing balance into the moment, acknowledging all of what is.

What we notice when we focus on any sensation for a long time is that it changes. What we labeled ‘pain’ may become a symphony of changing sensations. This is also true for pleasure. The most pleasurable sensation in the world may become intolerable if prolonged. It is valuable noticing to see the truth in this, to understand the impermanence of pain and pleasure. We can even take comfort in the truth of impermanence. ‘This too shall pass.’ And it serves as a reminder of how important it is to stay present with our experience so that we won’t miss the moments of our lives in pursuit of other moments, which, if we continue in this trend, we won’t be present for either.

Happiness sometimes scares us. We tell ourselves it won’t last. Of course it won’t. So what? This is life. This is the deal. Why should we ignore what is right in front of us, bouncing with delight, in favor of pondering the universal problems that abound in the world? Of course we use skillful means, compassion and wisdom to alleviate suffering wherever we find it, but it is not required of us to oppress ourselves constantly with the plagues that are ever present in the world. There has never been a perfect world and there never will be. We do a disservice to this gift of life if we are always in a state of finding it lacking. It is, once again, a matter of finding balance.

So, notice happiness. That’s your homework. Notice when it arises, when the conditions of happiness are there, and then notice what you do with them in your thoughts and emotions. I’m not asking you to “Look on the bright side” or to “Put on a happy face.” I’m asking you to bring awareness to what is pleasant, and then really notice your relationship to that pleasant condition. Make note of any phrases that come up, things you tell yourself, like, “I don’t deserve this.” Or “This is silly. I’m a serious person. To focus on happiness is frivolous in a world where there is so much suffering.” Or “If I pay happiness too much attention, it will disappear.”

Noticing our relationship with whatever arises is a part of the practice, whether it’s how we relate to pain or how we relate to happiness, how we create dukkha and how we cultivate sukha in our lives.

To deepen our investigation, I once again offer up embodiment, an anchoring into our senses. This is letting go of seeing consciousness as a little know-it-all pilot inside our heads operating the controls of this big vehicle of our body, navigating through the mine fields of the outer world.

Embodiment encourages us to take a more realistic view, once based in the facts. We are made of the exact same stuff as the earth and all the beings on it, the same stuff as the universe and beyond. We are stardust. Believing ourselves to be separate may have its uses, but it is just a construct, not meant to be taken as truth.

The truth is we are not just interconnected; we are one and the same body of being as all that is. Consciousness therefore is not a little navigational device, but a shift of awareness into a broader and deeper understanding. Expansive beyond imagining. Infinite, in fact!

When I spent a year on a personal retreat meditating most of the day, healing from the exhaustion of believing myself to be separate, what came quite naturally to me was sensing into my light nature. This sounds odd, I know. But I have sense learned that working with light is an accepted Tibetan Buddhist practice, and though I haven’t studied it and am not a Tibetan Buddhist, my own experience taught me that working with light energy is a universal part of awakening to the reality of consciousness.

When I think of sukha, the ability to truly experience happiness, I think of being fully aware of that light energy that permeates all life. At this time of year when we have just had the Summer Solstice, I am especially aware of light, as I take walks in the cool of the evening when it is still light at eight o’clock.

As we explore sukha for ourselves during the week, if it feels comfortable for you, let the practice include the exploration of light nature. Breathe in light; let it dissolve the imagined boundaries of your being. Let light shine through every pore and dissolve the capsule of skin you once believed to be the edge of your being. Radiate light out; allow your light body to grow as large as it wants. Radiate loving-kindness; wrap the earth in your light body awareness. Feel empowered by this radiance to hold the world and yourself in a loving open embrace of light. Ah sukha!

Yin, Yang & You

This is the Yin Yang symbol. It was developed over 2000 years ago in China by followers of the Tao, a philosophy for leading a richer more meaningful life. It was probably originally created as a teaching tool, and that’s how I will use it here, because this isn’t just some symbol of some foreign religion, but something we can learn from today in order to bring greater balance and understanding to our own lives.

First let’s talk about what we see when we look at this image. It is a circle and this is important. It is the circle of life, whole and complete unto itself. Then within that circle are two swirls, one black, one white. The black one is called Yin and it represents energies that are passive, weak, receptive, soft and dark. The white one is called Yang and it represents energies that are active, strong, hard and bright.

Yin is considered feminine and Yang is considered masculine. This may cause a bit of consternation, because as a woman, I can tell you I don’t feel passive or weak, and I’m not very receptive to the idea of feminine being associated with those words! But wait a minute, this isn’t about gender. This is about energies. If this were being developed today, they would probably choose to talk about the hormones estrogen and testosterone rather than feminine and masculine.

Because all of us, men and women, know what it feels like to have testosterone coursing through us. We feel strong and able, ready to accomplish whatever we put our minds to. And maybe sometimes we feel it as anger, frustration, even an urge to be violent.

Likewise, we all know what it feels like when estrogen flows through us. Perhaps we tear up with empathy at a movie. We feel a sense of connection with others and the world around us, we feel open and curious. But perhaps at times we might feel vulnerable, sad and weepy.

So we understand that women are not all Yin and men are not all Yang, that we all feel the effects of both these hormones to varying degrees throughout our lives. Our awareness of these energies helps us to bring them into balance and become more skillful. Chinese medicine and martial arts are all about this balancing of the yin and yang within us.

So this symbol of the Yin and the Yang is about opposites. We know a lot about opposites in our culture. When presented with opposites, we are geared to take sides, to choose one over the other. We root for teams, we get caught up in limiting ourselves to either/or decisions, and we define ourselves by our preferences. We might say, “I like summer better than winter.” By locking ourselves into choosing, we lock ourselves out of appreciating the fullness, the entirety of this earthly life. We doom ourselves to being dissatisfied at least part of the time.

But doesn’t the Yin Yang symbol confirm this point of view? When you really look at this symbol you notice that there is more to it than just two swirls. Within each swirl is a small circle of the opposite. This is not just an artistic decision to make a pretty design. This is the real message within the Yin Yang symbol.

When you look at the symbol, think of it not as a static image but as one frame in a continuous loop of the movie of life. A few frames beyond this one we are looking at, you would see that the little white circle and the little black circle are growing. In each subsequent frame they each grow and grow until the black swirl becomes white and the white swirl becomes black, and then small dots of the opposite emerge within them, and so forth and so on in an endless fluid motion. The Yin and the Yang are continuously merging and separating and merging again.

I mentioned that this was the movie of life. Yes! Look around you! Here we are in the middle of the day in the middle of summer. In twelve hours it will be in the middle of the night. In six months it will be the middle of winter. But night doesn’t suddenly appear. It makes its coming known, just like the growing dark dot within the white swirl. We feel it in our own bodies that are a little more tired than they were this morning, and in the slant of the sun and the shadows cast. Likewise, even in the middle of this hot dry season, the cool wet season makes itself known. The rolling hills covered with dry grasses call out to the coming rains. We feel the changes as they come, if we are paying attention.

And so it is within ourselves. If we are paying attention, really noticing our experience, we notice the growing of the opposite within ourselves, and within our current situation. How does this serve us? Well, say we are in an unhappy situation, things are going badly, we aren’t well or we have suffered a terrible loss. How great is it to become aware that within this very situation, there is a seed of change, a kernel of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel? “This too shall pass,” is an expression that the Yin Yang symbol embraces.

Yes, but what about when we’re in a good place, in a good relationship for example. Why would we ever want to think about it changing, of losing our loved one? Well, we all know the truth already. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all know that life is temporal, that we will all die, that nothing stays the same. That change is the only constant. It’s just the way it is. No point in kidding ourselves about it.


Brutal? Well, maybe. But when we allow that potential for change to be a small but acknowledged part of our experience, we are able to fully be present for the joy of our lives. We are able to really appreciate our loved ones rather than take them for granted. We can open to our experience, savor it for what it is, and stay present for the ways in which it changes.

This is why the Yin Yang symbol is valuable to us today. When we see it, maybe on jewelry, a poster or flag, we can take a moment to reflect on its message for us, and open fully to the ever-changing nature of this temporal life.

And we can also expand our awareness beyond this small circle that represents our earthly experience, beyond the dance of opposites merging and separating, and rest in infinite spaciousness, in the oneness of all that is.

If you are interested in learning more about the Tao, I highly recommend the very accessible book the Tao de Ching, which is available in many English translations.

Inaugural Blessings

Pausing in our ongoing exploration of the Noble Eightfold Path, I would like to simply be present for this moment when such strong (and mostly jubilant) emotion is being felt throughout the world.

I want to send metta (loving kindness blessings) to President Obama, his family and his administration. May they be safe and free from harm. May they be happy. May they know peace in their hearts. These are blessings we wish for every being.
For the newly elected leader of a nation I add: May you stay fully in touch with your deepest wisdom. May Right View be the foundation of your every decision. May you be fully present to hear and understand the needs of the people, the planet and the times. May you find peace within yourself and spread that peace throughout the world.

Beyond sending metta, I want to bring full awareness to this moment. First, I want to express gratitude for the skillful means with which every four to eight years our government manages the peaceful, sometimes even cordial, transition of power. All the pomp and circumstance that surrounds this transition helps to ensure the understanding of the importance of this emblematic moment.

Every moment is a moment of transition. Every moment in our lives has the potential to be pivotal. But some moments are the pivotal points in the lives of all beings on our planet at the same time, whether they are aware of it or not. And January 20, 2009 a few minutes after noon EST was one of those. The ramifications of this shift of such a powerful government from operating out of fear to operating out of love, hope and openness are huge. None of us know what the future will hold, whether the promise will bring hoped for results, but the potential is certainly there for positive change.

President Obama has been clear all along that he cannot save the world. He can only inspire us to do so. His greatest gift is his ability to empower us to be the change we want to see in the world. The ‘Obama Era’ is one of service. Each of us in our own way has the opportunity to enrich our own lives and the lives of others by spending some of our time volunteering. It’s up to each of us to look into ourselves to find what it is we would most like to offer. If you are interesting in finding opportunities in your area, go to http://www.volunteersolutions.org/ .

While I have been volunteering for a number of years, for some reason this call to service reminds me more of my father than myself. He had a prestigious career in arts administration as Director of the San Francisco Museum of Art and President of the Philadelphia College of Art, and none of us were surprised when he retired and got out his oil paints and brushes and set up an easel in the spare room. We would not have been surprised if he had volunteered to teach art in the community. But we couldn’t help but be a little surprised that he signed up to be a bus boy at the local free dining room. That volunteer job brought him so much joy. He truly loved the people he served and missed them when his health no longer permitted him to be of service. Years after his death, I still enjoy trying to imagine him busing tables in the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Room in San Rafael, CA. In the scope of his whole life, it was a very small part, but it’s the part that shines the brightest all these many years out.