Category Archives: empowerment

Befriend what arises, and be the light!

If you read the last post, I hope you had a chance to notice when fear showed up within yourself during the week. When we’re really paying attention, it can be surprising how much fear in all its guises is present. We experience it as physical tension (afraid the body will fall apart if we don’t lend extra holding power?) We experience numerous fear-based emotions: anger at another driver for putting us in jeopardy, anxiety over what people might think of us when we speak up, fear of being judged and found wanting, fear of getting ill, fear of dying, or of losing a loved one, etc. etc.

In looking back on a week asking the valuable question ‘What am I afraid of here?’ one student said that the more aware she was of the fear the more she was able to be with it and acknowledge it. Yes! We’re not pushing fear away. If we were afraid of snakes or rats, spending time in a controlled environment with an individual snake or rat would help to soften the fear, wouldn’t it? So much of our fear is rooted in our distrust of the unknown, so getting to know what we fear shifts us into a different frame of mind. We might still be cautious, we might never want to have a pet snake or rat. But something has shifted. That shift dis-empowers the fear, giving a deeper understanding of the nature of things a chance to guide us more skillfully.

While fear can activate us, motivate us to do something, more often it paralyzes us and keeps us from doing things in our lives. Fear has at times paralyzed me from living the full expression of this gift of life, from taking my seat at the table of life, the seat that is reserved for each of us just by being born into this world. Boys are usually raised in such a way that they don’t question that they have a seat at the table, a right to exist, a right to seek their own destiny. But women historically have not. To the degree that is beginning to change, hallelujah!

In class we also talked about the January 20th women’s marches locally, nationally and around the world. My husband and I went to the one last year in San Francisco, but this year we babysat our granddaughters while our son and daughter-in-law went. I shared a live stream of the SF march on Facebook, but mostly enjoyed spending time with the next generation of empowered women.

womensmarchsf-1-18.jpgOne student who attended the San Francisco march said that she had asked herself who she was doing this for? (Another really good question!) Before going to the march, she had felt that since the Bay Area marches rarely got coverage beyond local media, why turn out? But once she was in the march, the most peaceful and joyful she had ever experienced, she understood that ‘we were doing this for ourselves’. Now that’s powerful! When we see the truth in that, we transition from trying to impress the powers that oppress us to being the power, to taking our seat at the table. She sent me a number of wonderful photos she had taken at the march and gave me permission to post any I wanted. I enjoyed the many creative signs that the marchers carried, but I chose to share the one that is most closely aligned with my own message in my life, my teachings and this blog: “Don’t curse the darkness, be the light!’ In fact, amidst the little Buddha statues I’ve been given over the years, there is a small lighthouse to remind me of this meditative poem I wrote that is both calming, centering and empowering. 

Lighthouse: A Meditation

I radiate light
out into the fog

Air circles up and down
my staircase

Waves lap my shore,
storms pass through.

Just by shining
I am of service.

There’s nothing
more I need to do.

I radiate light.

– Stephanie Noble

The words you use shape your world

As we continue to look at the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, we come to Wise Speech.

a heart of wordsTraditionally wise speech is using words that are true, kind and timely. If any of those conditions are not met, then it’s not wise speech. We can see unwise speech in so much of what is being said and written in social media, especially by one who holds an office where words are usually carefully considered.

We can see untruths. We can see unkindness. Whether it’s timely or not, it’s hard to assess, but in its harshness and scare tactics it seems bent on stirring up volatile emotions and prompting reactions that are equally unskillful.

It may be tempting to turn away, and to some degree this kind of self-protection is useful, but only long enough to anchor ourselves in the present moment, remember and reset our truest intentions, check in with the quality of our effort, cultivate mindfulness and wise view through concentration practice. Then, and only then, we can engage as effective citizens of the world.

It is certainly not a time to be silent. But giving ourselves the gift of silence in daily practice or on a retreat is especially valuable in volatile times. We are not seeking escape. We are not running away. We are not sticking our fingers in our ears, shutting our eyes and saying ‘lalalala’ to shut out what we don’t want to hear. Instead, we are finding our center, anchoring ourselves in the sensations of breathing, hearing, feeling whatever sensations are present in our experience. And in doing that we see how things change from minute to minute. That gives us the gift of understanding the nature of impermanence. No experience, whether difficult or wonderful, goes on forever. And that informs us as to our role in engaging in life. We are not separate beings shoring up our isolated identities in order to feel safe. We are part of an amazing whole, integral to the well being of all life. Our actions matter. Our words matter. No matter whether we are talking to a child or putting words out into the twitter-sphere, we are setting into motion something powerful that cannot be retracted. Our words matter. So let them be true. Let them be kind. Let them be timely. Let them inspire compassion rather than hatred.

As someone who spends a lot of time writing, I find words and language are much more interesting and complex than simply making sure that they are true, kind and timely, although that is an important aspect. So in this post I want to explore the power and beauty of words, in the context of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.

The power of words is undeniable. George Lakoff has long pointed out that in politics the words you use deeply influence the populace in how they think about policies. He uses the example of ‘regulation’ — a word that carries the burden of oppressive government interference. This word can be felt in the body as a tightening in resistance if one feels the government is prone to overreach. But notice how differently the word ‘protection’ is felt in the body. This is a word that accurately can be applied to the laws, such as environmental laws, that were created to protect the health of our streams, ocean, air and ourselves as living beings who are deeply dependent on a healthy environment. Choosing the word that more accurately reflects the nature of what we are discussing makes a huge difference in how it is received, doesn’t it? This is not just word play, but an insight into the nature of our relationship to language.

In class, when I shared this comparison, a discussion arose around the word ‘protection’ and how it can have a negative effect as well. One student pointed out that sometimes it is suggested that women need to be protected, and that patriarchal belief doesn’t sit well with many modern women. Another student said that inciting violence at an international level is often done in the name of ‘protection’. So the investigation continues for each of us as to how we use words that accurately reflect our truest intention.

Word choice is so important because it shapes our understanding and attitudes, and it impacts how what we say is received. In a personal conversation this can be just as true. There are words that may be well-meant but they push buttons in the other person that we never intended. In the language of intimacy in particular, we may feel like we are walking on eggshells. And we may become so fearful that we might say the wrong thing that we say nothing, maybe at a time when the other person very much needs something to be said!

Language shapes and potentially limits understanding. The recent movie Arrival had this idea as one of its theme. Visitors from outer space arrive and the main character, a linguist played by Amy Adams, is asked to communicate with them. Their language is unlike anything on earth but somehow she manages to understand it. Of course her military colleagues wanted to know are these beings friends or foes, in order to know how to treat them. She tried to get them to understand that setting up an ‘us and them’ paradigm by asking questions that assume they are here to attack or take something from us, locks out the possibility of other intentions because it will feel threatening to them. Language shapes and potentially limits understanding and outcomes.

We can see how true that is in our own conversations with each other. When we are in a conversation with someone and suddenly there’s a shift of mood, or an escalation of tension, where did we get off track? What happened? It certainly wasn’t our intention (or was it?) to irritate, aggravate, denigrate or any other kind of -ate. Yet here we are in a very different place than we intended.

Speaking of language and power, here is a very interesting quote from an article on the blog Vox by Emily Crockett where she says, “Women, and women leaders in particular, often get criticized more for how they say something than for what they actually say. They have to walk a difficult line of being assertive but not too aggressive, likable but not too much of a pushover.

“When women speak, people tend to mentally turn up the volume. Even though women are interrupted more often and talk less than men, people still think women talk more. People get annoyed by verbal tics like “vocal fry” and “upspeak” when women use them, but often don’t even notice it when men do. The same mental amplification process makes people see an assertive woman as “aggressive.”

What’s a woman to do? In class last week, one student shared that within her she felt an up-welling of powerful feminine energy, a fierce protector power that is inherent in us when what we love is threatened, like a mother bear protecting her young.

Another student was surprised because, as it turns out, she was currently writing about the very same subject. So in our women’s group, we will certainly open to this needed energy, and cultivate it to be skillful, with wise intention, wise effort, wise mindfulness, wise view and wise use of language, assuring that our words are true (as in speak truth to power!), kind (as in compassionately speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves) and timely (as in speaking up when our voices are most needed, like Now! and persisting even when cautioned that it is somehow unladylike to use our power for the benefit of all beings.)

We all have a seat at this table of life. We don’t have to wait to be invited. We were born with our seat already there and the table set for us. Yet many women, and some men, are in a state of waiting for permission, waiting for an invitation. Wait no more! Our voices need to be part of the conversation. And we need to be wise in the words we choose, knowledgeable about how powerful words are, and how easily misunderstood. If we speak from our truest intention, respectfully, compassionately, our words will be powerful.

I have written a number of other talks about Wise Speech. Here are links to past posts if you would like to explore further.

The Ripple Effect

The impact of our words and actions cause a ripple effect beyond our immediate circle of family, friends, neighbors, associates and brief encounters with strangers. Each impact affects them and in turn everyone in their circles, rippling out further and further until no being is untouched. This is true for each one of us. We are all powerful. Our words and actions truly matter.

This ripple effect has no time boundaries. My parents died over twenty years ago, my grandparents over forty years ago, yet their words are alive in me, still affecting my idea of self and my interpretation of situations. Their words or actions are still sending ripples reverberating down the generations to my children, their children and beyond; to nieces, nephews; to friends and casual acquaintances and their progeny. There truly is no end to it, especially to harsh statements with echoes that keep wounding again and again. The self-doubt that sabotages me so often comes in the form of ‘Who am I to do…?’ My aunt says this is the question the women in my family have lived with for generations. No need to keep us barefoot and pregnant! It seems we have a built in self-stifling mechanism. I doubt this is something exclusive to my family. Does it sound familiar to you? Recognition of the power of our actions and words might make us afraid to say or do anything for fear of causing harm. We could become very self-conscious and tentative. Or it could inspire us to be fully conscious, to be present in this moment and to generate universal loving-kindness. (Which sounds kinda sappy until you do it.) To be present in the moment takes practice. (See basic instructions.) Transmitting lovingkindness is also a practice that begins with ourselves first (May I be well. May I be happy. May I be at peace.) because otherwise we are saying we don’t deserve it. In this way we belittle ourselves and think our words and actions don’t matter. When we think we are of little consequence in the world, the consequences to ourselves and those around us can be painful, sometimes even catastrophic. As you know all too well, the news is filled with the horror stories of some person’s destructive actions. Notice how that someone is always reported to have felt powerless. We are each of us powerful. We don’t acquire it or earn it. This is not a pep-talk. Power is a pre-existing condition of life. It is just the nature of our interconnection, the ripple effect of our actions and words. Through meditation we develop the skill to be fully in the moment, awake and connected. We can sense the ripple effect that we and all beings have in the world. If this seems like an overwhelming responsibility, relax. Remember that at the same time this is true, it is also true that our whole galaxy is only a speck in the cosmos and we are one of seven billion people on this little planet. So it is not all up to us to save the world or to solve every problem.
We can look at history and see that one person can make a difference in the world. Look at Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. to name just a few. They weren’t born any more powerful than any other person on the planet. They just used their power as skillfully as they were able for the benefit of all beings. Of course, we don’t need to be high-profile to make a difference. We are all powerful in our own ways, using the skills we inherit and the ones we develop as the natural expressions of the life force that we are. But even more important than believing that we each CAN make a difference is understanding that we each ARE making an impact on the world already. If we are stuck in fear, feeling powerless, our words, actions and non-actions are causing pain. If we are present, if we can let go of the need to prove anything to anyone, then we send out powerful waves of loving-kindness that benefit all beings for generations to come. Now that is power!

Does meditation make you docile? Or powerful?

Over the past decade in the U.S. the teaching of meditation has been tried and found valuable in the workplace, in prisons and in schools. It is recommended by doctors and taught in hospitals because, as shown on this chart, it has been proven to have many physical health benefits. Recently one of my teachers, author and Spirit Rock co-founder Jack Kornfield was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. And this week’s Time magazine cover article is ‘The Mindful Revolution’. Meditation has definitely become part of the mainstream American experience.

More and more people are taking the opportunity to turn off electronics and find some alone time to center in and savor the spacious silence. Before radio, television, computers, iPods, etc., our ancestors had easier access to natural periods of quiet solitude, fulfilling a basic human need. Now with every waking moment plugged in, that solitude has to be purposely created. So it’s not surprising that meditation has been fully embraced at this time in history.

At the beginning of this trend in the West, some religious leaders thought the practice of meditation was a foreign religion that would, by its nature, turn people away from God. Since in practice it can actually deepen one’s understanding of whatever spiritual tradition one follows, that concern has died down considerably, and the more contemplative aspects of Christianity and Judaism have been enlivened by a new understanding of their value.

But still, ‘new’ things are scary, especially for those who hear about them but don’t try them to see for themselves. So the latest concern making its way around the blogosphere is whether meditation is being offered and encouraged by corporations in order to make workers docile.

Well, good luck with that! Meditators are doing an active practice that increases awareness of the natural moral compass within each of us. They are the least likely people to mindlessly do someone’s bidding, especially if that bidding encourages them to violate that moral compass.

It is part of the meditation practice to notice, question and calm our reactivity to external experience. So is meditation sedation?

Hardly! At the same time that we are less reactive to external experience, meditation also creates awareness that empowers us. We see how in each moment we have choices. By training our minds to stay present, we develop mindFULLness, not mindLESSness.

We actually have the power when we are being mindful to change the energy in a space, to awaken others to the present moment and to a sense of loving-kindness based on common bonds and interconnection. From this sense of ‘all in this together’ and no sense of ‘us against them’, we as a community are able to accomplish things that benefit all life.

I have seen it happen first-hand in my own community. It is fairly typical to say you can’t fight city hall, but the citizens of my neighborhood had decided to try. The first meeting descended into rancor with one neighbor storming out in the middle because he didn’t feel his position was being heard. While speaking with the meeting leader afterwards, I suggested she might want to be more inclusive and less angry. So she put me in charge of the next meeting. (You’d think I would know when to be silent!)

The purpose of that next meeting was to prepare ourselves to speak to the town council about our concerns. It was important to represent all the concerns, but not repeat them, causing the mayor to feel they had heard enough, and end the session. So as neighbors arrived for this preparation meeting they were asked what their main concern was and what experience, skills and resources they had to address that concern. Then they were sent to the table that matched their primary concern. Each table then brainstormed to come up with compelling facts, create brief statements; then they chose the person at their table best equipped to represent that idea to the town council, and made sure that person had everything they needed to do a great job.

The city council was impressed by the well-coordinated, clear-spoken, friendly and civilized nature of our presentation, and they let us deliver it with a thoroughness that would not have otherwise been possible. I was delighted to see democracy in action in the way it was meant to be done.The council decided to delay the vote, do more research and meetings within the community, and eventually most of our concerns were met and compromises were made. We each have this capacity to make a difference in this way, and the responsibility as citizens to do so.

The electronics of our age may distract us from quiet time, but they also activate our awareness of our intrinsic interconnection. And, while electronics can be seriously misused, we are also, and I believe more often, able to respond with loving kindness, sometimes in a very big way. I love all the flash mob musical and dance events that seem to erupt and delight spontaneously! And remember a few months ago when when the whole city of San Francisco came together and recreated itself as Gotham to give a Make a Wish Foundation child a unique and special experience of being Batkid for a day? There were more beneficiaries than just that child. All who participated in making his dream come true felt empowered and enriched by the experience. All of San Francisco felt the awe and wonder of being part of something so purely loving. All of the world could stand witness to the power of love and collective imagination.

As more people become mindful, and have their fears of ‘other’ replaced by an understanding that we are all expressions of the same life force, whether we call it ‘God’ or energy or don’t name it at all, then we are more empowered to face the challenges of our times with a life-loving enthusiasm.

I imagine there are people who believe that meditation is a means of escape from the challenges of worldly life. They go off into some dream-world and find rest. But this is not the form of meditation that we do, and escape is not the purpose of Insight Meditation. Quite the opposite! We challenge ourselves to be fully present for whatever arises in this moment. Sometimes that is very difficult because we find ourselves squirming and uncomfortable in our body or mind. Sometimes it may feel impossible. In a moment of major crisis, we may feel like we are falling apart. But then, as crisis-mode passes, we have our practice of compassion to rely on as we tend our brokenness with loving kindness, and find we are able to come face to face with what is going on in this moment, again and again. We reset our intentions to be present, anchored in physical sensation, to be compassionate with ourselves when we find we are not, and to be compassionate with others when they seem to be caught up in reactivity and fear.

This is not mindlessly chewing our cud, ignoring what is going on. We are fully engaged but in a way that takes into account the understanding that life is impermanent, that we are all interconnected, and that we create suffering through clinging, grasping and pushing away.

The Moral Compass
Another way to recognize that meditation is not docile, is to look at the last three aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path that we just finished exploring. Wise Action, Speech and Livelihood, are pretty specific as to what is okay and not okay. These three constitute the moral component of the Eightfold Path, and of the Buddha’s teachings in general.

If we have a regular practice of meditation that allows us to access our intrinsic sense of connection so that we care about the well being of all, and if we include this moral component to our inner investigation of the way of things, then we find we have a moral compass, or if you prefer, a pitch-perfect tuning fork, to recognize when something is harmful. In fact, our bodies register when something feels wrong — whether we have said or done something unskillful, or whether we are able to see that our work is not wise livelihood. We can physically feel it if we are paying attention!

Docile? I don’t think so!

Any company that provides opportunity for meditation to its workers will ultimately be glad of it. Although it’s impossible to define common traits of any group, people who meditate regularly are more likely to enjoy teamwork than if these same people did not meditate. They are less likely to whine, gossip or sabotage. As mentioned earlier they have the capacity to change the energy in a meeting or in a company from rancorous to collaborative.

Regular meditators are healthier than the average person so they will be on the job. They are steadier and more balanced than they would be without meditation, so the climate of the workplace is more conducive to reaching clear and reasonable goals. I mention reasonable, because a meditator is unlikely to be driven by fear, or the belief that some future moment will create personal happiness. A meditator is more likely to be present, to question assumptions, to be an active listener, a creative problem-solver and a clear-sighted leader (though it might help if they are a Toastmaster too!) If the company is providing a useful product or service, has fair business and employment practices, then offering meditation practice to its employees is indeed a very wise move. But please, don’t expect docility!

Now let’s talk what everyone is talking about: The weather!
Mindfulness empowers us to cease suffering. We begin by noticing it in the first place. 
For example, we are in drought here in the Bay Area, and the hills that usually turn green in the winter are brown because we have had hardly any rain, and what little we did was way back in the early autumn. I have noticed that I suffer this drought. I suffer seeing the dryness. I suffer worrying what this will mean, how long the drought will last, and how our garden will survive, etc.

In the meantime, the sky is blue, fruit trees are blooming, the sun is shining and the air is delicious. There is nothing I can do to make the drought stop. I have the power to conserve water more consciously than ever, but nothing I can do will make the rain come any sooner. I heard someone on local news refer to this warm pleasant weather as ‘a guilty pleasure’.

I do feel guilty, and so many people I talk to during the day seem to feel it as well. As beautiful as the weather is, we get caught up in this sense of distress. What causes me distress is my fear of the future. When I am purely in the present moment, I am mindful of limited resources, but also enjoy the weather while it lasts.

If you live in Marin County, CA, here’s a link to the MMWD 25% voluntary reduction request.

If you live in an area that has been experiencing record cold or record heat, I send you metta (loving-kindness)! Be mindful and take extra good care of yourself.

The Wisdom to Know the Difference
The power is in doing what we can, accepting what we can’t change. Hey, that sounds like the beginning of the AA serenity prayer: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’

Our practice of meditation and our exploration of the Buddha’s teachings helps us to understand the difference between what we are empowered to do and what conditions we learn to accept with grace.