Category Archives: crisis

First Noble Truth: Embodiment as Awareness

We’ve been exploring the First Noble Truth, that there is suffering in life. We have re-visited a couple of dharma talks on the topic and discussed our own experience of the First Noble Truth.

When we revisit a subject, especially one as big as the First Noble Truth, naturally we see areas that were not covered in the first go-round. For me, one of these areas is embodiment. What is embodiment? It is, quite simply, coming home to our bodies, to the sensations in our bodies, to anchoring our awareness in these sensations in order to stay present in the moment.

In class we do a lot of embodiment practice as we settle in to our meditation. We come into awareness of the whole body, as an energetic field, and we practice concentration practice on specific areas of the body, or on specific sensation, like the rising and/or falling of the breath or the sounds we hear as we sit.

But I don’t believe I have focused on this embodiment in my dharma talks, and as I reread the talks, with an eye to editing them into book-form, I see that this is a gaping hole in my writing, especially since I happen to be reading a book of essays titled Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment.

Exploring our relationship with our bodies is a vital and valid practice. It is a primary relationship and for most women, one that is fraught with much suffering — physical, emotional and mental. So it is a very useful place to explore the First Noble Truth. There is suffering. Yeah! So I’ve noticed! Ouch!

I just read an essay by Linda Chrisman titled ‘Birth.’ As a Buddhist practitioner and a woman who had done a great deal of body-focused awareness practice in many different forms, she had a hard time accepting the fact, in retrospect, that she had experienced so much pain in childbirth. She had thought all her meditation and body awareness practice would exempt her from the pain that birthing women have experienced throughout history.

She writes, “ was only after giving birth and feeling like a failure that I realized I had expected these practices to protect me from pain.”

Through the process of writing about her experience, she saw that the point of all her practices was not to protect her from pain. Instead, they had given her the gift of being conscious and fully present for the powerful sensations that are a part of the birthing process.

This brings up such a good question about our own motivations for meditation practice. Are we expecting our practice to protect us from pain? When we experience mental, emotional or physical pain, do we feel like we must not be doing something right, that an awakened being is beyond pain?
Let’s be clear that the only being beyond pain is a corpse. And even though that’s where we will all end up, practice or no, let’s not get ahead of ourselves!

As you may recall Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert, wrote a book titled Be Here Now, and was a key figure in turning people on to awareness in the 1960’s. In the late 1990’s he had a stroke, and I remember his account of being strapped to a gurney and being pushed through the hospital corridor. He felt that all his years of meditative practice had forsaken him. What was it all for, if, at this moment of crisis, he was absolutely terrified and confused?

His experience of a stroke momentarily threw him for a loop. But after that initial derailment, his lifelong focus on awareness gave him a way to be with his experience, with all the losses of ability, with the loss of the life as he had known it, and he was able to find his way again. He was able to complete his book on conscious aging, titled Still Here.

That moment when he felt forsaken reminds me of how Jesus on the cross asked God, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” I imagine that Jesus must have previously felt so supported in his own ‘practice’ of sensing his connection to God and to his fellow beings. But on that cross, in that moment of extreme physical and emotional pain, despair arose within him as it would for any of us, as it did for Ram Dass. And one can’t help but wonder, ‘What’s the point? If in the moment you most need support, the rug is pulled out from under you, what’s the point of the practice?’

But this moment passes. Whether it’s a moment in meditation where we feel we will never ‘get it’ or a moment on the scale when we feel no matter what we do we will never lose those pounds, or a moment where we have received awful news, personal or global, that leaves us wondering why bother going on when life is so sad or scary? Meditation does not make us immune to this experience. Meditative practice is not a vaccine that protects us from pain. To believe that is just one more prescription for suffering.

There is no practice, belief or behavior that will create a magic protective shield against life. And really, is that what we want? To arrive at death’s door untouched by life, as if we’d never pecked open the shell of our lives and allowed ourselves room to grow?

No, if we are honest with ourselves, we find that we want to experience this earthly life fully, not by simply checking off a bucket list of things we want to do before we die, but by being fully available for whatever experience we go through, planned or unplanned, deserved or undeserved, pleasant or unpleasant. We live fully by letting life in, by letting it carve our hearts a little deeper, fill our skin with wrinkles, sags and cellulite, and letting life use up our cartilage, leaving us aching. We let life in so that we may know what it is to be alive as soft complex animals on a verdant planet traveling through vast space.

So the point of the practice is to develop awareness, not to create an insulating shield. The point is to develop compassion for ourselves and all life, to feel deeply connected to this collective is-ness of energetic being, purring in the delight of being alive.

So if you have been feeling a failure because your practice has not yet delivered the pure perfect contentment you desire, ask yourself instead if it has delivered on the only promise it ever made: that you might become more aware and more compassionate.

If things are so painful, why do we want to be aware of them? Because when we are not aware, when we go numb or unconscious, we not only experience pain but we create incredible amounts of additional suffering for ourselves and others.

The distinction between pain and suffering is crucial. This earthly existence provides abundant opportunities to experience pain — pain in our bodies through accident or illness, and pain in our hearts through loss and misunderstanding. But when we compound this pain by borrowing from the past or the future — remembering previous pains and fearing this pain will go on forever – then we suffer.

Embodiment, the practice of centering our awareness in physical sensation, helps us to make this distinction. When we notice pain, with awareness we can distinguish between the sensations that we are experiencing as unpleasant, sometimes unbearable, and the emotions and thoughts that rush in around the experience. This is the practice.

The practice does not erase pain. And at moments of extreme pain, it might even seem as if the practice has forsaken us, as it did for Ram Dass in that moment of panic flat on his back on a gurney, his body screaming, his mind in anguish, being pushed through the hospital corridors.

But in fact, when our panic subsides, we find the benefits of the practice we have cultivated are there to support us. The practice doesn’t flatten the sea of our experience. Instead it provides us the means to navigate more skillfully, even allowing us to be present enough to surf the waves, savoring the experience of life as it is in this moment.

Daily Meditation Practice: A life saver not just a life enhancer

We’ve been talking about the freedoms that arise naturally out of the regular practice of meditation. I could go on in this vein indefinitely, but I think you get the idea. Meditation has real value. It can enhance your life in every moment. Yay, for meditation! Isn’t that nice!

I have noticed that the most committed meditators are those who come to it out of crisis. They know first hand that meditation is not just a life enhancer, but a life saver.

Many years ago I came back to daily meditation after several years away. I returned to it because I was desperate. I was in a health crisis brought on by stress and mourning. In this state, the value of meditation was crystal clear. I took refuge in it and as my practice grew, it supported me.

When I went through another loss a few years later, my meditation practice was firmly in place and I noticed that instead of being lost and tossed on the waves of emotional turmoil, instead of gasping for breath and feeling like I was drowning, I was able to surf the rough waters, fully present as I rode the waves of my many emotions as they arose and fell. I didn’t escape pain or sorrow, but I didn’t add more suffering. I found in each moment a way to hold sadness, joy and whatever else arose as they arose, neither dreading, nor clinging, nor grasping. What a difference!

So when I hear people say they to want to fit a regular daily practice of meditation into their busy lives, but haven’t managed to do so yet, I can’t help myself from wondering what could I say, what could I do, to get them to take that next step toward a daily practice. How can I get them to see its akin to putting a well stocked life on board to be there for them when hard times come?

For hard times come to us all. Life deals up a panoply of challenges indiscriminately. Suddenly we are facing a loss – of a loved one, a way of life, our health, a relationship – and if we don’t have that life boat chances are we sink into the sea of misery, denial, fear and guilt that rises up around us. We lose perspective, we lose faith, we lose so much more than just that which we initially lost. We can’t seem to find a way to be with what is happening and not be crushed by it. And when we do eventually recover, it’s like having been out at sea for a long time before the life boat comes to the rescue. Yes we survive, but our recovery from the experience is hindered by the fact that we went for so long exposed to the sun, the cold, the lack of drinking water and food to eat.

In that crisis state many of us get the bright idea to take up meditation. Suddenly we see where we could fit regular practice into our daily schedule. But at that point it’s like rebuilding a house that’s lost its very foundation, instead of having done regular maintenance all along to keep the house in good shape. It is hard! So hard! Imagine trying to sit in silence with a storm raging in your mind, with your body feeling the weight of overwhelming emotions! It is so much easier to train our minds now when we are dealing with the little emotional ups and downs, the little judgments, the little irritations that make life seem less than pleasant.

So today I want to do more than paint more rosy pictures of all the enhancements brought on by meditation, these freedoms we’ve been discussing. I want to really confront the resistance to regular practice, to look at the reasoning that arises when we decide to put off putting this life boat aboard.

Perhaps we don’t believe anything bad will happen to us, even though we know that we are human and subject to all the challenges life brings to us all.

Perhaps we are concerned that daily practice will change us somehow, make us different from who we are, and we are very comfortable with who we are, thank you very much.

Perhaps meditation seems boring compared to other more stimulating choices of activity.

Perhaps we just don’t see where we can fit it into our busy schedules.

Perhaps we get started on a practice but haven’t been able to make it a habit because our schedule varies a great deal.

Perhaps we don’t want to be a ‘meditator,’ whatever that means to us.

Perhaps we like to meditate in a group and it’s not the same when we are alone.

Perhaps one of these reasons resonates with you, if you don’t have a daily practice, or perhaps some other reasoning arises as you sit quietly and ask yourself, “What is keeping me from developing a regular daily practice of meditation?”

I don’t want to rush in and offer rebuttals to any of these thoughts that might arise, but I do ask that you sit with them, and question them a little more deeply. Ask for more clarity. Ask “Is this true?” Ask “What am I afraid of?” And as in every process of this nature, be compassionate and respectful of the answers. If this are the honest feelings, then there is no arguing with them. Accept the truth of them.

Then perhaps you may find that openly expressing these feelings give you the opportunity to see them more clearly. If you hear yourself saying, “Meditation is boring,” you can ask what it is you want to be distracted from, what could possibly be richer and more interesting than this moment with all its sensory options?

If you have a scheduling challenge, you can ask if there are any activities during your day that are less nourishing than a regular practice of meditation. (Sometimes we think we need to have periods of watching mindless television or internet surfing as a way to relax, when if we were meditating daily we wouldn’t have gotten so stressed or exhausted in the that we needed that escape in the first place!)

Clearly I believe that meditation is a powerful and easily accessible tool that offers impressive benefits. But I also know that there are other forms, other ways that we can come home to our quiet inner spaciousness. Perhaps there is some way you are already accessing this spaciousness, or some way that with slight adjustments you could make an already existing activity more meditative – walks in nature, swimming, gardening, knitting, yoga, etc. Look for solitary activities that you could infuse with more mindfulness, practicing staying fully in the moment. It might simply be removing the iPod, creating an agreed upon period of silence in a nature walk with friends, or pausing before beginning a physical activity to set the intention to be present and to really sense in to the body.

But in all honesty, nothing I have ever seen can truly take the place of a regular sitting practice. So I urge you to give it a chance in your own life if you haven’t done so already. If you already have a daily practice, then you understand exactly what I’m talking about. If you had a practice, then let it go, then discovered yourself struggling again, you really know the benefits first hand. And if you started up again and found the benefits again, what a wondrous homecoming to this moment.

Why In Times of Crisis Meditators are Especially Grateful for the Practice

As meditators, we are grateful for our practice that helps us more skillfully navigate this current financial crisis and all situations in our lives — not as observers untouched by the experience, but as conscious participants, fully engaged but clear seeing.

Here are some examples of the kinds of differences in our daily lives that we meditators often find between having a regular meditation practice and not having one:

Say you have a headache or stomach upset after looking at the value of your retirement fund or the daily news. As a non-meditator you might take a drug or try to distract yourself in various unskillful ways, and if it persists call the doctor in hopes of more heavy duty drugs.

As a practiced meditator you will more likely sit with the sensation of the pain, notice the emotional component and breathe into the experience. You may recognize the tension in the body and understand the cause and condition from which it arose. You may give yourself more spaciousness, be gentle with yourself right now, not take on too much during this period, and perhaps take walks in nature or meditate more frequently.

As a non-meditator you may not connect the fear you are feeling with the anger you are expressing to family or fellow drivers on the road. You may not see the connection between your anxiety and your difficulty doing your work, so you give yourself a hard time for being so stupid. And you may give coworkers, also affected by the crisis, a hard time for their suddenly less than stellar performances as well.

As a practiced meditator you will be more likely to see the connection between your emotions, thoughts and behaviors, and sense your connection to all other beings. So you will be more likely to take the fear experience, sit with it, and allow it to inform your interactions with your coworkers, family and everyone else, in the form of compassionate understanding for any unskillful displays they show in response to their own anxiety.

As a non-meditator you may compound your fear by getting caught up in incessantly imagining a dark future, rerunning images of the 1930’s in your head, thinking back over what you might have done differently in the past that would have changed this outcome or cursing the past actions of others in an endless loop of blame. This leaves you unable to be attentive to the current moment that requires your full attention.

As a practiced meditator you have trained your mind to notice when your thoughts get caught up in the future or the past and you can skillfully and gently bring your attention back to this moment, knowing that this is the only moment that is real, the one you can experience with all your senses and the only one in which you can take action. The future and the past are just plans, fantasies and memories, in other words, just thoughts.

As a non-meditator you may have your identity firmly invested in your material wealth or your position. As a practiced meditator you have a greater opportunity to begin to recognize that you are not your stuff, that your value is not composed of material wealth, prestige or how you make that wealth, that you – and all of us – are uniquely and universally valuable just the way we are.

These are some of the reasons why at times of crisis meditators turn to each other and say, “I am so grateful for the practice. I can’t imagine going through this without the practice.”

Of course there are people who don’t have a regular sitting practice who have found the same spaciousness of mind. Perhaps they do Qi Gong or some other form, or perhaps they have a naturally spacious mind. But for most of us, without a meditative practice of some kind, we fall into the habitual and unskillful patterns of mind that bring us ongoing suffering.

At a time of crisis those who don’t have a regular practice might say to themselves, “I really should start to meditate.” or “I need to meditate more regularly.” It’s never too late to start!

If you would like to learn more about getting started meditating, click on the link (right side of this page) to my website — In the meditation section you will find several downloadable pages that offer ways to begin. If you need more help, contact me, or find a meditation center in your area.