Category Archives: Eightfold Path

Are you defined by your yum, yuck or yawn?

(NOTE: We are exploring the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, a handy set of tools that help us recognize and end suffering in any situation. The first of the eight ‘tools’ or aspects that we’ve been looking at is Skillful View. Our view of existence is off-kilter if we think that everything can or should stay the same, and if we believe we are isolated instead of an integral part of the fabric of being. Because impermanence is so obvious in the changing of the seasons and in the mirror, I only ask that you look around and at least accept if not celebrate the ever-changing wonder if life.
Understanding the concept of ‘no separate self’ is more challenging, because everywhere we look we find cultural reinforcement of the belief that we are separate and in need of identity fortification. So to help us, I’ve brought in the Buddha’s Five Aggregates to delve deeper.)

In the last post we considered whether the answer to ‘Who am I?’ is this body we care for, enjoy, abuse and suffer. We saw how the body grows, ages, dies, and is subject to illness and injury. We recognized that on a cellular level the body is inseparable from the rest of the physical world. 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 what make us understand that the body doesn’t define us: changeable, inseparable and beyond our control. We apply this same kind of inquiry around these filters to the four other aggregates. All these teachings shine a light for you to look and see for yourself. Please don’t take my word for it, or even the Buddha’s. Discover for yourself if this is true.

Yum, yuck and yawn
Now we continue to the Second Aggregate that keeps us clinging to the painful belief that we are separate: Feeling tones, the way we experience things as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, what I like to call yum! yuck! or yawn.

We all have things we like and don’t like. Where we get in trouble is when we lock in those preferences and believe they define us. What a depletion of enjoyment it would be to narrow down life’s experiences to only a predefined set of preferences that relies on our not being fully present to our senses in each moment.

Let’s use chocolate as an example. Look at the difference between tasting a piece of chocolate with a fresh palate, really experiencing the flavors, and claiming “I’m a chocolate lover (or a chocoholic) so I love this.” Caught up in assumptions and beliefs, we activate the craving and maybe gobble it up without tasting it at all. Do we even like chocolate in this moment? How would we know? All our thoughts and emotions are abuzz and entangled in ideas of identity.
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 as satisfying as I believe them to be. Oh no, who am I without my chocolate? There’s almost a sense of betrayal to my tribe of chocolate lovers.

Now let’s expand our exploration into other preferences and how we define ourselves by them. How about a sports team? Our local basketball team is almost all new players and one of the team’s shining stars has an injury so won’t be able to play this season. Yet fans will continue to follow and root for their team, wear their jerseys and wave their banners. Why? Because that team brand is part of how they identify themselves as part of a particular tribe. Automatic acceptance and connection.

Then there’s political affiliation. This is not simply a logically thought out set of ideas and then finding politicians to go carry them out, is it? No, this is deeply rooted loyalty. When I was in elementary school, enjoying the easy camaraderie of my classmates, I suddenly felt isolated because it was presidential election season and all the kids sang “I like Ike!” while my mother was devotedly working for Adlai Stevenson. My sense of self was more strongly defined by family and there was no way I would ever betray that by putting on an Ike button to fit in with my friends. I was too young to have any clue what either of the candidates planned to do if elected, yet my perceived identity forced me to take sides. Notice how much other-making comes out of preferences. It can be pretty toxic stuff!

RIght about now, you might be feeling like the Buddha’s asking you to chuck your choices in life, and that is not the case. All that is being asked is to be fully alive in this moment to recognize that our preferences are not who we are. In doing so we might actually be able to enjoy them more or engage in a more meaningful way. Because all we’ve been doing is narrowing our options for savoring life in the fear that without labels we will be lost.

When in fact we will be found! We find ourselves fully alive in this moment, able to appreciate all that arises, able to send lovingkindness to all beings without regard to their tribal affiliations. We can root for a team for the fun of the game, yet still care if a player on another team is hurt. We can seek solutions to challenges without making enemies of those who out of fear resist the changes we seek, or don’t see things as we do. In not making enemies we open to the possibility of real conversations and beneficial means.

I remember arriving late to my 20th high school reunion. My classmates were already seated at big round dinner tables, and the only seats left for us were with people I didn’t know. It turns out in high school they were kids I kept clear of — the ‘greasers’ with their hot rods, the girls with beehive hairdos and heavy makeup. Oh no! But guess what? Twenty years later they were just ordinary people like us, and we had a very pleasant time with them.

Defining ourselves by our preferences, we may feel loved when someone gives us what we like — they’ve been paying attention! – and conversely feel invisible if they give us something we would never choose for ourselves — OMG, they have no clue who we are. But maybe we’re the ones who haven’t been paying attention. After all, our preferences change throughout our lives, depending on what we are exposed to, what experiences we have had with them. There was a time our 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. 

One day in the mid 1970’s I was walking down the street 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 before. 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. 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 an electric car. Enough said! 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, or the identity of someone you perceive to be very different from you.

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 experience discomfort being seen in something that so ill suits us.

Because these preferences are impermanent, changeable, sometimes even fickle, how can they define us? Beyond that they are ungovernable, out of our control. Don’t believe me? 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 this the self we are seeking?
Impermanent, insubstantial and out of our control — hmm, 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 represents the Five Aggregates we take 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.

The Pali Canon, the recorded teachings of the Buddha, quotes him as saying that to define yourself in any way is to limit yourself, and that the question, “What am I?” is best ignored.

Notice for yourself over the coming week the degree to which you believe your preferences define you. To the degree that they define you, they confine you! We are not trying to erase preferences. We just let go of the idea that they are us.

Come fully into the moment; be present with the fleeting nature of whatever is happening. With awareness, you might free yourself from the tight leash of the belief that you are your body or your preferences. How does that feel?

Image by Jill Wellington

Who are you?

“As I look more deeply, I can see that in a former life I was a cloud. And I was a rock. This is not poetry: It is science. This is not a question of belief in reincarnation. This is the history of life on earth.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

As we explore the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, we will take it at a leisurely pace, giving ourselves the opportunity to understand each aspect. Within each aspect, there may be a need to review and reflect on other teachings of the Buddha that help us become skillful in that aspect. We might not do this with every aspect, but certainly in this first one, Skillful View, we will. Because how can we become skillful in how we look at things if we haven’t had the opportunity to really look at things? That’s exactly what the Buddha challenges us to do.

We begin by looking at the very heart of his teachings, the Three Marks or Characteristics of Existence to see where we cling to unfounded habituated patterns of thought, causing us to have skewed views of the world we inhabit and ourselves.

THREE MARKS or CHARACTERISTICS

  • All things are impermanent.
  • There is no separate self.
  • Not understanding those two causes suffering.

Okay, let’s take them one at a time:
Impermanence: We may be in the habit of railing against it yet it’s not all that difficult to see that it is the nature of things. Right now in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s autumn: leaves fall off the trees, there’s a chill in the air. Further evidence of impermanence: On my calendar is a memorial service for an old friend, and in my inbox is an email of the latest school photo of our nine-year-old granddaughter that gives a strong indication of her teenage face. It seems just yesterday I was holding her in my arms, whispering welcome to the world. How easy it would be to rail at the passage of time and the impermanence of life. But it doesn’t make my life easier, does it? And it doesn’t make time stop. In fact, it makes my life much more difficult when I either cling to the past or wish away a challenging present in the rush toward a possibly more promising future. Noting and accepting impermanence can lead to appreciating it, finding the wonder of this moment just as it is. Over and over again.

Where in your life might you be wrestling with the nature of impermanence? Can you be compassionate with yourself as you explore the veracity of any untenable position? After all, if no one died, no one would be born. The amazing cyclical natural system would be broken. If nothing changed, there would be no cause for awe and wonder. And without the nature of impermanence and the cycles of nature, we would all starve. You get the idea. It’s not an alien concept.

The third Mark, how we suffer, is not all that hard to see in our lives and the lives of others if we pause to pay attention. Since I wrote about it recently, I won’t go into in-depth here but you are welcome to review.

No Separate Self can be more challenging to understand. But it’s also the one with the greatest sense of reward. Pure joy arises from that deep understanding. So hang in there.

Our habit of mind is to view this body-mind, this thinking-feeling-skin-sac we call ‘I’ and ‘me’ as a singular being. But is it? For practical purposes of managing our lives and our responsibilities in modern life, this way of thinking has its uses. No one is suggesting you toss out your passport, drivers’ license, etc. and erase this identity built up around your name, date of birth, etc. The system’s all set up to support it. It’s a convenience. But that doesn’t mean we have to vest our identity into it hook, line and sinker. It’s much better if we don’t! If we can hold it all more lightly, with appreciation for its benefits, we can access a deeper understanding of the true nature of being.

A couple of posts ago, I offered this scientific explanation of ‘no separate self’:

“All matter, whether it’s solid, liquid or gas, is made up of atoms. We might imagine matter as made up of microscopic versions of children’s plastic building blocks, because, thanks to electrons, atoms bond together into molecules, just the way the little holes and plugs of the blocks allow them to connect. So I’m made up of atoms, as is the air I breathe, the solid, liquid and gas all around me, and every being of every species. All atoms all the time, all interconnected, all coming together and falling apart, in an ever-changing state of being. So there are no edges to being. There is fundamentally no separate self.”

Understanding the science doesn’t automatically make us feel that it is true. Our habit of mind is strongly in favor of the separate-self version of being. But how is that working for us? Look around! We humans are incessantly ‘other-making’ in our relationships with each other, the earth and all life. We get stuck in an alienated mode of misery that doesn’t serve us, angry and hurting.

To help us understand ‘no separate self’ on a deeper level, we practice quieting down and being fully present, softening our habitual need to fortify our identity as ‘me’ and ‘I’. The Buddha knew this part is challenging, but he also knew that these teachings lead to the end of suffering, so he persevered. And we will too, as we look at the Five Aggregates that help us understand the idea of ‘no separate self’, and thus, in incremental doses, help us cultivate Wise View. 

The first of the Five Aggregates: Body

We ask the simple question, a child’s question really, but also the question that forms the foundation of many philosophical discussions throughout the ages: Who am I?

Pause for a moment, close your eyes, sense into physical sensation, and ask it again, as if for the first time. ‘Who am I?’ You might say it over and over like a mantra that goes deeper and deeper.

Where is this solid, dependable sense of self that you call ‘I’ and ‘me’?

The first thing that might suggest itself is this physical body, this material form. This is me. This is who I am, or at least it is part of who I am.

Is this true? What are the edges of the self-defined by this body? Is it the skin that is so porous, letting in and out moisture all day long? That very skin sheds itself constantly. Is it still ‘me’ when it’s dust being vacuumed up off the floor and carpet?

What about the breath? Is it ‘me’ when it is in my lungs, but then no longer ‘me’ when it has been exhaled?

The cells in the body are totally different than the ones that were here seven years ago. This seemingly permanent body is neither solid nor separate from the rest of life.

The Buddha said, “This body is not mine or anyone else’s. It has arisen from past causes and conditions…” This body we see as so separate and so intrinsic to our identity is an intrinsic part of the pattern of life ever-changing and evolving. So getting caught up in labeling it and claiming it, feeling pride or shame in it is just another habituated pattern that entangles us. How liberating it can be to recognize that this body in whatever shape or shade it is, is simply the fleeting opportunity to experience life in human form. Can we appreciate the benefits of being embodied — mobility, sensations, etc. — without attachment? Can we take good care of this wondrous temporal vessel of being without wishing it to be other than it is?

Spend some time noticing your own experience of being embodied. After meditating, do some self-inquiry around the body and the way you think of it. Pay attention throughout the day for clues in your thoughts, words and deeds that reveal your perceptions. Ask “Is this true?” Let the automatic answers arise and be acknowledged, but leave room for the quiet wisdom with nothing to fear and nothing to prove also have a say.

Artwork by Gordon Onslow Ford, Lunar Wind, 1962, Parles paint on canvas (Gordon was a friend of my parents and I sure wish I still had the beautiful piece they had of his!)



Where were you when the lights went out?

Everywhere in the world it seems we are increasingly challenged to cope with emergency situations. And many of us don’t prepare for that likelihood, maybe because we don’t want to think about it, or we just get busy, or we can’t imagine it.  So we put off valuable preparations that make all the difference when the alert goes off on our phones and we have to spring into action.

Skillful Action is one of the eight aspects of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. How we prepare and cope with emergencies falls into that area. Because my students and I had just experienced a three-day county-wide power outage*, I jumped ahead in our curriculum to that aspect. We’ll go back to our ‘regular programming’ — the order I had planned to teach the Eightfold Path in — after this brief but valuable opportunity to apply what we’ve learned to preparing for future events.

Here are a series of questions I posed my students. If you also experienced the power outage, please take this opportunity to answer them for yourself and make notes for an action plan. If you weren’t part of this California fire season event, please use this opportunity to explore these questions in regard to emergency situations in your own area. Perhaps you can reflect back to the last flood, hurricane, storm, earthquake, tornado or fire that you experienced. No one is immune! (For more comprehensive suggestions, go to ready.gov.)

PREPAREDNESS QUESTIONNAIRE

If you experienced this power outage or other emergency situation recently, take a moment to reflect and note down what worked well and what didn’t. This questionnaire was geared toward my students, all of whom were able to stay in their homes but had no power. In neighboring counties many people were evacuated due to fire, threat of fire and smoke. For those kinds of emergencies, having out-of-area family or friends you could call to stay with, and of course having a ‘go’ kit ready with your medications, cash, etc. is vital.

Some areas to consider: 

Communications – Were you able to stay in touch? Use your phone? Read your emails? Text? Keep your cell phone charged? Use your landline if you have one? Who is your service provider? Were others with different providers better equipped? Some elderly people don’t have cell phones, so were quite out of touch, and loved ones were unable to contact them to assure they were safe. Is it time to get an inexpensive emergency cellphone for just such occasions?

Charging – Keeping your phone charged is easy if you have a little solar backup charger. Our community also offered charging at various community centers, but not right away. Most vehicles are set up to charge, but you have to keep the car running. The more options you have the better, so be sure to have a back up charger fully charged in your emergency kit.

Community – Do you know your neighbors? Was there a system in place to look out for each other? Did your town provide services, and if so, did you know about them? Is there someone locally who made sure that you were okay, or would have if you were in an emergency situation? (If not, consider setting up a ‘buddy system’ with another local person in the same situation. Independent living is great but in emergencies, we fall back on the networking skills of yore, and that means neighbors. There are many rewards to establishing strong bonds with neighbors even in non-emergency situations!

Food — Did you have sufficient food on hand to last? Were you able to cook? If you like coffee, be sure to keep plenty in stock. If you wouldn’t be able to make it, consider having a few canned coffee drinks on hand.
During this power outage those who had gas stoves were able to cook, but in another kind of emergency that might not be available, so what preparations would you need to make for that?
Usually power outages are localized, so you can just go to a different part of town or a neighboring town and go to a cafe, grocery store or restaurant. But this one affected all businesses in our county. Being prepared for that possibility is important.

Refrigeration — Again, in a small scale power outage, you can get ice, but since no stores had power, there was no ice to be had. If this happens again, I would put everything in the freezer compartment because it is smaller, or use an ice chest. Even with a number of ice packs and extra ice in plastic bins, the refrigerator warmed up faster than I expected.

Without refrigeration, canned or dried food is the go to. I find it difficult to make myself stock up on canned foods I would never eat, only to toss them when they expire. But we always have nuts on hand, and we used up salad makings, etc.

Cooking — If you are able to stay in your home but you can’t use your stove, it’s good to have a barbecue with a burner, or a camp stove (only use outside!!!!) Be sure to keep sufficient fuel canisters on hand.

Cash — When the power’s out even stores willing to stay open may need to be paid in cash, so be sure you have an emergency fund handy. Store cash in dry plastic bags. Ours was stored in a money belt in our car and the money got a little mottled. FYI Banks aren’t allowed to take moldy or disfigured currency.

Heat — If you have a gas furnace, is it the kind that runs when the electricity is off? Ours isn’t. But we do have a gas insert fireplace in one room in the house. Research best heating solutions for your situation.

Transportation — Keeping your car fully ready to get away is important. Our electric car was charged and our hybrid was charged and had a full tank of gas. All gas stations in our county were closed, and those in neighboring counties had long lines. Best to just stay put or get around on foot! Because traffic lights were out, there was a period of adjustment as people learned to treat such intersections as if they had stop signs. For the most part people were careful and courteous, and most stayed home to avoid getting in the way of mass evacuations.

Medical supplies — If you rely on equipment that needs electricity, or medicines that need to be refrigerated, you might want to get a generator of some kind. At the very least, make sure your neighbors know that you are particularly vulnerable. As a general rule, be sure to order your prescriptions enough in advance that you won’t run out during an emergency.

Light
Were you in the dark or did you have useful solutions?
Our Petzl Tikkina coal miner headlamps made all the difference — perfect for reading and cooking in the dark. They use AAA batteries, so we stocked up on them for next time.
Little battery-operated votive candles all over the living areas gave a festive feeling and provided enough light for getting around. Besides our cellphone flashlights, we have a number of regular flashlights, and extra batteries, but we didn’t use them.

Air Quality
Although our air quality was okay, surroundings areas were affected by the smoke from the fire to the north. Do you have an N95 mask for each member of the household? To freshen the indoor air, consider adding more houseplants. Back in the 1970’s we had 22 houseplants in our tiny apartment! Not up for that? Me neither. But even a few scattered about the house might make a difference.

Entertainment
Sitting in meditation is a perfect activity under such circumstances. As is inner investigation — such a perfect opportunity to notice our thoughts and emotions! But most of us also want to have some other kinds of fun. In the daytime we had plenty of light so no problem doing chores, reading, writing with pen and paper, and because the weather was nice, and the air quality was not too bad we were able to do gardening. Had the smoke been intense or if it had been stormy, we would have been stuck inside.

Hiking trails were all closed due to fire danger so little walks around were best. Students reported meeting many neighbors and fellow citizens as they go around on foot.

If charging the phone is not a problem, and data is not an issue, of course there are many games, podcasts, music, etc, but why do things you can do any time? What a perfect opportunity to be completely unplugged!

The candlelight is ideal for deep conversation, making music, playing games and, um, other pleasures. And outside with the power out all over, the stargazing was wonderful.

I wanted to have a POPL party – Power Outage Potluck Party. When we had a home in Mexico, and there was an unusually long and heavy rain storm, we invited all our neighbors over for a potluck feast of whatever was in our refrigerators. It was a great festive gathering amidst the gloom.

What made life without power easier, safer, more fun for you?
Is there anything you might keep doing, even though the power’s back on? Just because you can switch on your lights and various technologies doesn’t mean you have to! Maybe establish a lights out night a week to rekindle the fun you discovered.

What do you wish you had thought to do beforehand?
While not everything was under your control, there were some things you no doubt could have done differently. While those are still fresh in your mind, make a note and then take action! This is probably the only time that you can really give it the energy, time and attention it requires. Make the most of it!

How were you in relationship to the experience?
Maybe you were afraid, depressed, lonely, impatient for it to be over, angry at someone in power, frustrated with your own lack of preparedness. This is important noticing! No need to beat yourself up about it. At the same time, it is an opportunity to discover your own capacity for patience, compassion, equanimity and other qualities that we are cultivating in our practice.

Did you have any insights?
Sometimes being out of the habituated patterns of our lives helps us to see things more clearly. It’s a kind of unexpected retreat, if we allow ourselves to be fully present for it.

A final reminder:

  • Restock whatever you used (batteries, cash, food, etc.)
  • Research solutions to any problems you encountered.
  • Retain any delight or insight you had from the experience.

Please share your experiences, suggestions and discoveries here, whether you experienced this recent event or another. Together we can assure wiser, more skillful action for all.

* The power was out in over 800,000 homes and businesses in California, not just our county. But this was the only time in my memory that our whole county was out of power.

The joy of seeing clearly | Buddha’s ‘Skillful View’

When my mother was fifteen years old, she got her first pair of glasses. She was, it turned out, very near-sighted. Leaving the optometrist’s office, she walked down the street and discovered that trees had individual leaves on their branches! How exciting it was for her to suddenly see details that hadn’t been part of her world view. She hadn’t realized she wasn’t seeing well. She hadn’t been aware of all the adaptations and compensations she had to make to get along. She assumed her view was accurate. Until suddenly she could see!

That’s what we all do with the way we view the world, not just with our eyes but through our habituated lenses of perception. We tend not to question our view of things, automatically filtering out any conflicting information. We may feel attached to our view, believing it to be an intrinsic part of who we are. On top of that is the fear that softening our fierce attachment to our view might put us on the outs with the community we were born into or the one we have chosen. (We feel this way even though clear-seeing is not leaping from one set of beliefs to an opposite set, but seeing the complex web of fear-based patterns that prompt them all.) From inside a myopic world view, It feels much safer to stick rigidly and unquestioningly to the familiar discomfort of inner conflict, no matter what.

So along comes Buddha, who right out of the gate (or out from under the Bodhi tree where he attained enlightenment) challenged our view of ourselves and the world. Such nerve!

But maybe we could be inspired by my mother’s thrill of discovery as she walked down that street, seeing things anew. She didn’t toss her new glasses in the nearest trash bin and revert to the questionable comfort of the world she knew. Can we open to the possibility that we could polish up our perception and find joy in the process?

Skillful View is one aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path that helps us liberate ourselves from suffering. We explore it first, because developing the skill of clear perception — and noticing what clouds that perception — enables us to see the other seven aspects of the Eightfold Path more clearly.

Without skillful view, we become mindlessly entangled in greed, aversion and delusion, driven by the fear of not having enough, not being enough, finding fault with ourselves and/or others, having something to prove, having strong opinions about the way the world is that has no room for equivocation.

So who is the Buddha to tell us how to see? Exactly what the Buddha would encourage you to ask! He always told students not take his word for it, but to investigate for themselves.

Fortunately for us, his own deep practice and investigation provide the tools for us to explore, because his brain just worked that way. He was really good at organizing the insights he had. So when you have an insight, you can see where it fits into the overall teachings. That’s what drew me to Buddhism. When I began studying it, I had already been meditating extensively, investigating, having insights, writing them down and, when asked, sharing them. I arrived at Spirit Rock with a meditation group and felt I had come home. Home to the natural beauty of the place, home to the community’s open acceptance of me and my individual journey, wherever it might take me, and home to the wise teachings of the Buddha, who had a scientific bent.

So it’s not surprising that when we come to his teachings on ‘wise’, ‘right’ or (as I’m choosing to call it in this series ‘skillful’) view, modern science supports what the Buddha taught.

If we understand the nature of matter, then we can more easily develop a skillful view of all that arises in our experience, especially our perception of ourselves.

The Buddha identified the causes of our suffering to be the Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion. [Read previous posts for review]

The Three Poisons grow from these unskillful views:

  1. We think this being we call ‘I’ and ‘me’ is separate and alone.
    While there may be those for whom a little individuation would be healthy, for most of us what clouds our view is the belief that our bodies and minds operate in isolation. We label things ‘mine’, defend them and want more and more, in order to build and reinforce this separate self for a sense of safety and for others to admire, love or fear.
  2. We react to our current experience by either wanting this pleasant situation to stay the same, or feeling like this unpleasant situation will never end.
  3. We can’t see, or we refuse to see, the suffering we are experiencing, caused by the first two.

Skillful View #1
Here’s the simple science: All matter, whether it’s solid, liquid or gas, is made up of atoms. We might imagine matter as made up of microscopic versions of children’s plastic building blocks, because, thanks to electrons, atoms bond together into molecules, just the way the little holes and plugs of the blocks allow them to connect. What an incredible system, right?

Okay, we get it. I’m made up of atoms and over there you’re made up of atoms and that table is made up of atoms. But it doesn’t stop there because that’s only acknowledging solid matter. Don’t forget the gas state atoms — the air we breathe, for example. There is nothing we can sense that is not atoms! We’re all made up of the same stuff and it is all connected. There are no edges to being!

Skillful View #2
These atoms are not static. There are ever-changing systems and networks of life interacting. Everything is changing all the time. Imagine you construct a whole town of plastic building blocks and then play time is over and you take it all apart and put it back in the toy box. What fun would it be if once you put your town together it was stuck that way forever?

You may think you don’t like change, but you wouldn’t exist without it! The world we live in is constantly coming together and falling apart in cycles of birth, growth, death, decay that nourishes new growth.

Why are these two views skillful?
If we can see that we are not separate and that everything is in a constant state of flux, that this is the natural way of all matter, then we are liberated from the exhausting business of shoring up a permanent separate fortress of self that must constantly be defended. We are liberated from the pain of dreading change, whether in the seasons, in the culture or in ourselves. We are alive in this moment, with deep appreciation for this incredible molecular dance of life!

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The Sorting Room

In our home there is a room off the garage that I recently designated ‘The Sorting Room’. That’s a fancy name for the place where I can go through boxes I haven’t looked through in over thirty years without having to repack them quickly to make room for the evening meal. But the room has taken on a sweeter quality than its utilitarian purpose would imply. It is an inviting space so I don’t dread going there. It celebrates the process of its purpose. 

In exploring the Buddha’s teachings of the EIghtfold Path in upcoming posts, we might cultivate a kind of internal Sorting Room. After meditation, for example, is a good time to create a mental space that is welcoming and safe to notice the complex threads of thoughts and emotions and discern the interwoven repetitive patterns without getting entangled,

One friend on retreat years ago said that she was walking around Spirit Rock in that sometimes dazed, but often mindful way one does when one is doing seven sessions of sitting meditation a day, and she noticed a thought that just kept passing through her awareness. I don’t remember her exact words, maybe ‘Oh you again.’ The awareness that these are just thoughts, not who we are, is intrinsic to awakening. Her experience was much like the way Siddhartha Gautama, sitting in meditation under the Bodhi tree, recognized the patterns of illusion without claiming them as who he was or making an enemy of them, just greeting them and letting them go.

When we believe these thoughts to be who we are, we attach great significance to them. They become precious and we hold them up to be admired or deplored. In our meditation practice we begin to recognize that this is just part of the illusion. We spend time in The Sorting Room with clarity, compassion and a sense of insight, gratitude, connection and perhaps release.

In the room off the garage, I spent a little time freshening it up, making it an inviting place to be. Just so, we can cultivate a more welcoming internal sorting room by being selective and compassionate in our choice of entertainment, the company we keep and the activities we do. Consider some of the films, shows, games and books you have spent your time with recently. Are they contributing to your well being? Or are they amplifying some fear-based inner pattern that already feels like a burdensome rant? Notice how you feel after you partake of an activity or spend time with someone. If you find you feel depleted, tense or exhausted, then make note to make wiser choices.

In class, my students talked about some of the films they’ve been seeing at the Mill Valley Film Festival. One student found herself so oppressed by the cruelty of all the characters in one film that she finally walked out. We each need to be aware that we have the option to walk out, to turn off the TV or shut the book whenever we find that what we are exposing ourselves to activates fear, tension, depression, hatred, etc. This is not the same as putting blinders on to avoid seeing the world as it is. It is recognizing that taking care of ourselves so that we can be useful in the world, to ourselves and for the benefit of all beings, is a top priority. We will talk about this more when we explore the Eightfold Path aspect of Skillful Action. 

In the Sorting Room, I could easily get caught up in just making the room nicer and nicer, or just while away my time there and think that is all it’s for. I could forget that at least part of the reason we created this room was to go through our hoard of stuff so that it’s not creating unnecessary clutter, nor adding undue hardship to the grief of our heirs.

In the same way, we could develop a practice of meditation and enjoy the fruits of it without ever feeling the need to sort through anything. Perhaps we, unlike most people, haven’t accumulated patterns of thinking that are self-destructive, undermining or sabotaging. Perhaps, we are uniquely free of aversion, greed and delusion. Great! Maybe. Living in a continual bliss state may work until some situation causes a disruption, and then it would have been good to have a set of practices to rely on.

You may have seen a recent 60 Minutes segment on the research into psilocybin, the hallucinogen that can change brain patterns to such a degree that some people give up addictions easily and lose all fear. Why not just go through that experience, as fraught for many as it may be, and get instantly past this attachment to ego, this confusion of illusions? Well, first, it’s not legally available to the public. Second, it’s potentially dangerous for some. And third, you’d miss out on this amazing skillful process!

Taking the time to practice meditation, have insights and apply those insights to what shows up in the inner sorting room, is not drudgery! Done skillfully, it is fun. “Aha! What’s this?” we say, activating our inner Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew, with a little heartfelt inner Marie Kondo.

As we embark on discovering the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, it’s a perfect time to assure that we have created a welcoming space to receive it, that we are taking it on not as a hunk of knowledge to learn in case we’re ever competing in a trivia contest.

To think of this as just another piece of knowledge we can claim to know, stow away or forget about, would be doing such a disservice to ourselves when this is the Buddha’s finest gift to us. He spent six years preparing his own ‘sorting room’. He made space for the wisdom to be well received when it came to him. Maybe we can honor his efforts with gratitude and with a generosity to ourselves by cultivating a receptive space to receive it.

The Buddha’s cure for what ails us all

If the Buddha were alive today and took an aptitude test to determine a career path, he would no doubt be assessed as a research scientist. He was not a philosopher or theologian. He had no interest in how life came into being or what happens after we die or if there is a deity — he said these things are unknowable. What he cared about was discovering the causes of suffering and finding a cure. And he found it! In the first of his Four Noble Truths, the Buddha, like a good medical researcher, used his acute observation to define the disease: the dis-ease we all feel at times: dukkha

In the Second Noble Truth, he identified the direct causes of that disease: greed, aversion and delusion.

In the Third Noble Truth he pronounced that Hallelujah, there is a cure!

And in the Fourth Noble Truth, he gives a detailed prescription for us to follow in order to live a joyful and meaningful life: The Noble Eightfold Path.

I’ve often wondered why there is a third Noble Truth. Why not just cut to the chase and dive into the Eightfold Path? One possible reason is to allow that sense of celebration to settle in before proceeding to the challenge of learning how to incorporate the eight aspects of the 8FP (Eightfold Path) into our lives. Pausing to celebrate is high on my list of important life skills. For example, “Yay, I got the job!” is a different mode than that first day at work. Even the perfect job requires discipline, and so does the 8FP. But the rewards of this discipline are both immediate and ongoing.

A funny thing about discipline: Back in my thirties I was writing a novel. Every day after dropping the kids off at school and doing my exercises at Elaine Powers (:-O), I spent three hours in front of my IBM Selectric typing away, fully engaged. I loved it! But friends often asked me, “Where do you get the discipline?” Discipline? I had thought of discipline as something imposed from an external source and internalized, so a mean-spirited inner aspect would crack a whip and force me to do something. But the discipline I had then, and have had throughout the years of teaching and writing this weekly blog post, is not a whip-cracking discipline but a true labor of love. Meditation was what made that novel-writing experience turn from a state of misery into a joyful process. And the regular practice of meditation all these years helps me to be lovingly disciplined in almost everything I do.

This will be the fourth time I have taught the Eightfold Path. Each time I use a different definer for the eight aspects. Traditionally, we use ‘right’ or ‘wise’, so ‘Right View’ or ‘Wise Speech’, for example. One time I substituted the word ‘spacious’, so ‘Spacious Concentration’, for I had found that for myself and my students our mental habits were very tight and tense. Teaching the 8FP this time, I wondered what might be the most helpful word to use, and what came to me as I was leading a metta practice that I always say the same way week after week, year after year, was the sudden addition — as if out of nowhere — of May we be skillful. Skillful! Yes, there’s a word that reminds us that we are empowered to be skillful in any moment.

The 8FP is wondrous set of tools to explore and develop more skillfulness in life so that we don’t cause suffering for ourselves or others. It’s not a quick fix. It’s not a pill we can take. It’s an ongoing practice.

I’ve also wondered why it is called a path. A path indicates a starting and ending point, but the eight aspects of the 8FP work in concert, intricately interconnected and complementary. There is no destination, and focusing on one, gazing into some imagined future, takes us away from this moment just as it is. The more we discover about the 8FP, the more we discover about ourselves and our way of being in the world. We not only see the patterns of greed, aversion and delusion, but learn how to skillfully deal with them, so over time they are not constantly making us miserable.

For this prescription to work, we need a regular practice of meditation. Otherwise, we are just learning ‘about’ the Buddha’s teachings instead of living them as the prescription calls for. So if you don’t have a daily practice, this would be a great time to start one. If you think you don’t have time, you might want to investigate further, notice how you are spending your time. Perhaps there is some escapist activity you would be willing to sacrifice to discover a life that you don’t need to escape. On this website you will find lots of support, including a link to the free Insight Timer app with tens of thousands of guided meditations by outstanding teachers.

Even ten to fifteen minutes a day of stepping away from the fray to simply notice physical sensations, thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away, will signal to your inner wisdom that you are ready to pay attention, ready to learn how to live with joyous ease.

So celebrate that there is a cure! And then join me and my in-class students who are looking forward to having something to ‘really sink their teeth into’, as we explore together this skillful prescription to cure what ails us.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Sniff, sniff. What’s cooking?

One of the Buddha’s most handy-dandy teachings is called the Noble Eightfold Path. It’s a practical tool for sorting out what’s going on in our lives and to see exactly where we’re making ourselves unhappy. Like so many of the Buddha’s lists, it’s challenging to remember. So I developed a visual metaphor that my students agree makes it super easy to recall and therefore use when we need it.

I’ve taught the Eightfold Path so many times over the past ten years that I didn’t think there was anything new to add, but this week I thought up one more useful addition to this metaphor. But first, a review:

The Eightfold Path consists of Wise Intention, Wise Effort, Wise View, Wise Mindfulness, Wise Concentration, Wise Speech, Wise Action and Wise Livelihood.

dd2dd-cooking-pot-analogy-w-spoonAs you can see from this simple illustration, ‘intention’ is the flame or spark that gets things going. Of course all will turn out better if our intention is wise.

Then there are the logs. A laid log fire is good metaphor for ”effort’ because it needs to be balanced — not lopsided, not too much kindling, not too little, etc. Even with the best of intentions, if our effort isn’t wise, things don’t go the way we intended, do they? If we’re striving and over-doing, we exhaust ourselves and everyone around us. If we get sluggish and don’t make any effort, nothing gets done. So Wise Effort is important to notice and cultivate.

The pot sitting atop the fire is our perspective on life, our understanding of how things are, our view. If our view is cracked it doesn’t function. Wise View is created out of regular practice and the resulting clarity of insight into the nature of life. We come to understand how impermanence is central and necessary to all life. We come to understand that there is no separate self, no isolated identity that needs to be shored up and shined up to please anyone. Instead we sense into the deeper understanding of dependent co-arising — this is because that was; this is not because that was not — and the patterns of interdependence of all being. And finally we see that suffering is caused by not understanding and embracing impermanence and the oneness of all being.

So that’s the pot. But what are we cooking up inside the pot? Mindfulness! That’s what we cultivate in our meditation practice and throughout our days: awareness and compassion, being truly alive in every moment, awakened to all our senses, able to perceive passing thoughts and emotions that arise in our experience in an open friendly embrace. Now this Mindfulness we’re cooking up is not a stew we can just put on the back burner to simmer. It’s a risotto! It needs to be constantly stirred by the spoon of Concentration (the various concentration practices, like following the breath, done on a regular basis to fine tune our ability to be mindful). Because what happens when we’re not mindful? All kinds of problems, mistakes, accidents, misunderstandings and frustrations, right? Without wise mindfulness, view, effort and intention, we just think life sucks and we’re the suckers who got stuck with it. At least some of the time.

But when the spark of intention is wise and the logs of effort are balanced, the pot is wholesome, seasoned by the mindfulness it contains; and the risotto is well tended, what happens?

Steam rises from the cooking pot in the form of Wise Speech, Wise Action and Wise Livelihood. Our words and deeds are informed by these other aspects and are naturally wiser and kinder than they would be otherwise. So instead of strapping duct tape on our mouth and handcuffing ourselves in order to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing, we focus on cultivating wise intention, effort and view, stirring the risotto of mindfulness with our practice. We pay attention to our language and actions, of course, but followed in this way, it is not the struggle it once was when ‘me and my big mouth’ used to duke it out in the alley.

See how it works? Now here’s the new addition:

Even though the steam that you see arising from the pot comes last in our learning about the Eightfold Path and in our practice, the steam is the first thing we notice in life. Think about it. Something smells delicious coming from the kitchen. Yum, right? The pleasant aroma flavors our whole experience of life. We come alive in our senses and all’s right with the world. Realtors know to bake cookies in a home before an open house, or to put on a pot with some cinnamon sticks in the hot water. They know that our sense of smell activates positive memories and associations that can make a house feel more desirable.

But what about when it doesn’t smell so good? We rush to the kitchen to see what’s wrong, don’t we? We know from experience that either the recipe wasn’t any good, or wasn’t followed, or the temperature’s not right or it’s been on the flame for too long. All kinds of things could have happened to make that stench. But whatever it is, we don’t just sit around and complain of the nasty smell in our own home. We do something about it, right?

So why when we are troubled in life, when we are suffering, we often do just that? We complain about the ‘stench’ in our lives but we just keep keeping on. We don’t go check out what’s causing it. The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is a wonderful tool for investigation, and especially with this Cooking Pot Analogy, it becomes super easy to see what stinks!

The smell from the kitchen happens pretty far along in the process of cooking, after all the ingredients have been chopped, measured, mixed and heated. Yet it is the FIRST thing we notice, the first thing that tells us if it’s going to be a tasty meal or a disgusting disaster. And in the same way, in this analogy, even though our words and deeds arise like steam from our intention, effort, mindfulness and view, it is those very words and deeds that are the first thing that let’s us know whether things are cooking nicely or whether something needs attending in the kitchen.

Let’s use an example. Maybe I have an unsettled feeling, a little nagging state of discomfort in my mind. What is it? After a little meditation practice, if I can take even just a minute to check in, I notice that discomfort and do a gentle self-inquiry. It might become clear that I’m feeling badly about something I said to someone. Perhaps my words were unkind. Or perhaps it wasn’t my story to tell. Or maybe I was in a hurry and didn’t take the time to be as kind and considerate as I might have been. Just the simple act of noticing lifts me up a bit, because I am able to recognize that ‘something stinks’ and now I know what caused it, and what I can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But before I get caught up in telling myself what a rotten person I am, I can use the Eightfold Path Cooking Pot Analogy to help me understand what really happened.

Let’s say that I recognized that my words were unskillful because I was rushing. Rushing is unbalanced effort, isn’t it? And why was I rushing? What was I hoping to accomplish?What was my intention? I might see that I didn’t want people at a meeting to think poorly of me for being three minutes late. My wise intention to be present and compassionate fell by the wayside, and my unskillful intention took over. Unskillful effort followed suit, leading to unskillful speech.

Whoa! That’s a lot of useful information. But let’s not stop there. Why was my intention unskillful? Because my view in that moment became unwise. I forgot that there is no separate self that needs to be polished up to perfection and presented to others. And I wasn’t mindful. I wasn’t stirring the ‘risotto’. I forgot that it needs to be constantly stirred, even while I go about my life, so that I am always present, noticing things with all my senses, no matter what. (Which is a delightful way to live, by the way.)

Try playing with this analogy yourself. If you want to read more about it, or any aspect of the Eightfold Path, use the search field on the right. Eightfold Path and all the aspects of it are discussed extensively in many of the posts.

And if you have questions, comments or experiences that illustrate how useful working with the Eightfold Path can be, please share by clicking on ‘Reply’ at the top of the post.