Category Archives: craving

Who are you letting shape your reality?

One day Ron Finley put two and two together. He realized that while his home was in a food desert in South Central Los Angeles, he could plant vegetables in the parking strip to benefit the whole neighborhood. Neighbors started pitching in and the project expanded.

Imagine what a difference that must have made, not just in the physical health of all who now had access to fresh produce, but to their mental health, the feeling of community, and being empowered to create a more self-directed and meaningful life. What an inspiration he must be to all who saw what he had done, and how much of a difference one person with a simple idea can make in the world!

What did it take for Ron Finley to do what he did? What would it take for any of us to make a positive impact on our community? It takes wise view, wise intention and wise effort, and Ron Finley clearly had all three.

What is this wise view?
At one point a friend asked Ron if he wasn’t worried about people stealing what he’d grown, and he replied, “That’s why it’s in the street! I want them to take it!”
The two men clearly had different views of life. The friend, like so many of us, saw the world as a dangerous place where we must protect ourselves and our stuff from others who want to take what we have. But Ron Finley saw a community and an opportunity to bring health and joy. He says, “I manufacture my own reality.”

Most of us accept the reality manufactured for us. We are endlessly subjected to the self-limiting perception of the need to name and claim instead of expanding our sense of who we are — intrinsic interconnected aspects of life in a state of continuous flux. Everything we experience informs our understanding of reality, so our sense of reality is in a state of flux as well. That can feel unnerving if what we crave is something solid and unchanging. So we shut down, lock the doors and isolate ourselves in a protective shell. But this doesn’t protect us. It exacerbates our sense of emptiness, and the habit of craving, grasping and clinging — the very definition of suffering.

If we take a break from craving, grasping and clinging, we discover that we can find joy and share it in any situation. It takes a shift of view, but that shift is ours for the taking.

Our innate ability to make the best of whatever arises in life is not what most industries want for their potential customers. They are bent on making their products seem like the answer to our prayers. If only we had this new (fill in the blank) it would assuage our sense of emptiness and satisfy our cravings. Sure, sometimes a product makes life easier, but believing that it will meet our deepest needs is delusional. Believing that a different outfit, a new house, a different job, a perfect wedding, a different mate, a more ideal body — a different anything! — will fill the emptiness of our lives is accepting a manufactured reality that is inconsistent with the nature of joy.

Mine
The word ‘mine’ is one of the most undermining words in the English language. It creates barriers, tension, withholding, and misperception of the reality of our situation. It’s challenging because for most of us who live in developed countries, that may seem like the natural order: I, me, my, mine, and ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’. Caught up in the pattern of desire, there are never enough toys, and other people’s toys always manage to look shinier.

Wow, what a set up, right?  Look at what we as a culture have collectively created: A system that activates fear, craving, grasping and clinging, advertising that makes insidious use of psychology to activate fear, making people feel like they aren’t enough just as they are and that this product will make that feeling of emptiness go away.

Emptiness
Many of us at times experience a sense of ‘feeling empty inside’. Paired with depression or despair, emptiness doesn’t feel good. But what would happen if we embraced the emptiness? In Buddhism ’emptiness’ is not a painful vacuum, a sense of something missing from our lives. It is seeing clearly all that arises in our experience as ever-changing. Nothing is permanent. Nothing exists in isolation. Everything is made of all that went before and continues in an intricate relationship with all that exists in this moment in an ongoing dance of molecules interacting, coming together and falling apart and reconfiguring. There is no solidity.

Let me repeat: Nothing is solid here. This is the nature of life. Look around! If you’re thinking that the leaves falling off trees and the seasons changing don’t apply to you, then here are a few assignments: 

  • Look through your family album and observe all the changes, the new additions, the growth and the faces of loved ones no longer alive. 
  • When you vacuum, contemplate what you are vacuuming up. A lot of it is the detritus of your body — hair, particles of skin, etc.
  • When you clean out the lint filter of the dryer, consider that even your clothes are in a constant state of change, leaving a little fabric behind with each washing.

I could go on but you get the idea. If you are uncomfortable with these reminders of the transitory nature of life, then you are causing yourself unnecessary suffering. And yet you believe that you are avoiding suffering! You want things to stay the same, or you want a set of changes that you craft to match a perfect future you envision. If that future is shiny and you see yourself enshrined, it probably arises out of craving. If you achieve it you will be disappointed and set your sights on yet another shiny future, because that is the forward-leaning pattern you have created for yourself.

Wise view cultivates the kind of present that organically grows into a fulfilling future. If you are collaboratively creating a world full of respect, patience, kindness, compassion and joy, then you can relax about the future. It’s got good roots!

If however you can see that you are stuck in a world view manufactured to keep you craving and clinging, then congratulations on recognizing the pattern. Keep noticing for yourself how this cycle of suffering plays out, how the pattern of craving, grasping and clinging causes a sense of suffering. Know that you are not alone. And know that we didn’t invent the pattern. We inherited it and we are encouraged to keep suffering from it, while calling it the pursuit of happiness. But we can release it and discover how much more joyful it is to open to the beauty of the fluidity of all life.

This is much more fun than struggling to build a safe and impressive fortress of being in the shape of this person we so call ‘I’ and ‘me’ full of things we call ‘mine’. Why claim a little patch of life and call it ‘mine’ when in truth we are welcome to experience the whole garden?

Which brings us back to Ron Finley who planting vegetables in his parking strip, and to his friend who was stuck in a world of ‘mine’ and found Ron’s more expansive view alarming, worried that people would steal his vegetables. Here’s Ron’s TED Talk for you to enjoy:

Ron says, “I manufacture my own reality.” We can ask ourselves whose view of reality we are accepting unquestioned? If that view of reality is making us feel miserable, isolated and depressed, it’s not one that serves us very well, is it? We can wake up and live fully in each moment, alive, ever-changing and deeply interconnected.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? I’d love to hear them. And if this speaks to you, please share!

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!

 

Can’t get no satisfaction?

chocolate cake thoughtSometimes right in the middle of a meal, I remember about dessert. Suddenly I can’t taste what I’m eating. My whole focus shifts to desire and the anticipation of something sweet. This may happen even though the meal is tasty and I had been looking forward to it! Sad, huh? But instead of judging it, let’s see what’s going on here, because this is an example of what we all experience to one degree or another in some area of our lives. Why can’t we enjoy what’s right in front of us? Why does the mind leap into the future or into the past?

Whether it’s a craving for sweets or some other sensory experience, desire for something else clouds our ability to be present. Sense desire is the first of the Five Hindrances, those obstacles to mindfulness. All of the Hindrances pull us away from present experience: We crave something or are annoyed by something; we are too restless, worried, spaced out or sluggish to notice what’s going on in this moment; or we are in a constant state of doubt. Whatever muddles the mind, clouding clarity and compassion, hinders us from feeling fully alive and well.

In our exploration of the Ten Paramitas, Perfections of the Heart, we now come to the third Paramita, Renunciation. What is that? All the synonyms for ‘renounce’ sound equally unpleasant: ‘abdicate, abstain, cancel, deny, disavow, eschew, forego, give up, let go, rebuff, refuse, relinquish, abandon, repeal, repudiate, sacrifice, spurn, surrender, veto, waiver, yield.’ Yuck! If you feel resistance to them, you are not alone. Even the Buddha said that at first his ‘heart did not leap up at renunciation, seeing it as peace.’ But later he did recognize the inner peace that renunciation creates within, once it is truly understood and acted upon.

In Buddhist practice, renunciation is not denial, nor is it punitive. Instead it is recognizing where our happiness is. If we believe that happiness comes from the objects of pleasure in our lives, then we are constantly seeking out these things and experiences, caught up in a state of longing. Then, once we attain the object of desire, after a brief jubilation, we find it difficult to fully enjoy because, like all things, it is fleeting. We want it to last forever, but that is not possible. So there is clinging that arises in our experience. We either plot how we can hold onto it, or we have discovered it isn’t all that great and plot how to get the next object of pleasure in our lives. Perhaps you can pause and think of some situation in your life that illustrates this.

Once we understand the nature of impermanence we see that it is not the objects of pleasure that provide happiness. It is, instead, our ability to be present. We can enjoy even ordinary moments, even challenging ones, if we are fully present in all our senses. Through our meditation practice, we create a spacious ease to hold all that arises in our experience, and we discover the joy available in every moment.

When we believe that happiness is attaining a particular sense object — I used chocolate as an example, but it could be anything that we long for and hate to see end — then we get caught up in the throes of misery of our own making. So I don’t have to renounce chocolate. (Yay!) I simply need to notice how the Hindrance of sense desire is activated within me, and how it causes me to suffer. That awareness, fully realized, disempowers the Hindrance. This is skillful renunciation — a kind of catch and release of the mind states. These Hindrances are universal in nature and we will come upon them again and again in our lives. Each time is an opportunity to notice, to celebrate and be grateful for the noticing, to observe and be curious about the way the Hindrance is impacting our experience, and to compassionately detangle and eventually release it, with a reminder to keep an eye out for it because it will appear again.

Renunciation is the third of ten Paramitas, right after Generosity and Ethics. All these Perfections of the Heart work together, but there is a traditional order and a reasoning for this order: As we develop a sense of generosity, deepening our connection to others, we naturally develop a sense of non-harming. So the Paramita of Generosity begets the Paramita of Ethics. Our exploration of Ethics took us to review the Five Precepts or vows of non-harming that are traditional in Buddhist practice. Each of the Precepts uses the word ‘refrain’, as in ‘I will refrain from taking what is not freely given.’ Notice how the word ‘refrain’ naturally leads us to Renunciation. We refrain from, we renounce, we let go of ways that we harm ourselves or others. And in all three of these Paramitas, the Hindrances have played a major role in our investigation.

A word came to me as I prepared to teach about Renunciation and I think it has a place in this discussion. I thought of ‘cleave’ as in cleave unto each other in our marriage vows. What if we ‘cleave unto this moment’, holding this moment above all others? In our mindfulness practice we are in effect vowing to ‘marry’ this moment, letting go of our longing for other moments, for the past or the future. There is a devotional quality to this wording that I think captures the sense of renunciation that we’re going for. It’s making an intentional choice to be here and now.

Buddha said, “I removed the fever of sense pleasures and dwell without thirst with a mind inwardly at peace.”

A few posts ago, I told the story of my nineteen-year-old self’s experience of being high and having a vision of a mountain with people earnestly climbing it. When I saw that although I was at the same level as the top of the mountain, I was in a hot air balloon and it was losing altitude. I recognized that I needed to ‘go to the mountain’ and climb one of those paths. Looking back, I can see that it was a moment of renunciation. It became clear that no drug could provide what I was seeking. So renunciation is not denial of the pleasures of life, but a way of recognizing what is truly beneficial and what is causing us harm.

A final quote from the Buddha: “When we understand the nature of desire, it falls away by itself.” A look at the Hindrances with a vow to release them with mindfulness and compassion allows true happiness to arise in our hearts.