A series of natural disasters and senseless tragedies over the past month culminated this week in a firestorm in the counties north and east of us here in Northern California. So intertwined are the lives of people in these counties, that most of us in Marin have relatives and friends who have either lost their homes or have been evacuated and waiting to hear.
We have friends from downtown Sonoma who fled the fire and have been staying with us, so the anxiety is not just something we see on the news but an ongoing palpable presence in our home. Also my closest longtime friend and her husband were evacuated from their home of forty years in Santa Rosa, and my anxiety about them has been ongoing as communication has been difficult.
Yesterday at the end of class, I could hear my friend leaving a message on the answering machine. I did something I have never done before: I excused myself and ran across the house — so urgently did I just need to hear her voice. She told me that their home is safe but currently uninhabitable.
Even if we didn’t know anyone personally affected, the smoke fills our skies, eyes, throats and lungs, keeping us all indoors as much as possible, closing our schools and cancelling flights at the airport. You can see from the photo our view of usually crystal clear Mt. Tam. And the sun when it sets looks more like a full moon, bright solid tangerine amidst the dusky smoke. How can we not hold those in danger in our thoughts and prayers?
In class I led a metta practice woven throughout the sitting, sending messages of wellness, ease, peace and happiness out to all who are suffering. As always we begin with ourselves, and at times of great stress this is especially important. I have been noticing that my personal practice is improved when I begin with sending metta to myself — ‘May I be well’ etc. — It is very grounding, centering and clears the mass of thoughts that can cloud my mind like smoke.
If you are affected by any of these scary and challenging events, or have any kind of anxiety or stress in your life, try metta practice to find solace and strength to carry on.
A few weeks ago I wrote about equanimity, the ability to hold all of what arises in a spacious balanced embrace. This unparalleled firestorm has delivered stories that remind me how often life offers up joy and sorrow in equal measure. I heard that a member of my high school gang lost his home to the fire just a few days before he will be walking his daughter down the aisle. Such a joyous moment for any father paired with great loss. A reminder of what’s precious and how fragile life is.
One of the friends staying with us had just days before been excitedly sharing the news on Facebook of the birth of her first grandson. Then she and her husband woke to discover their lives and home in grave danger of fire carried on high winds, encircling their town.
I remember one woman years ago asking how it was possible to hold simultaneous joy and sorrow. And now, having these two new examples, I wonder if maybe that’s why we are given two hands — to hold all that arises, whatever life brings.
I want to end with a story that my old friend shared on that phone call I raced to answer. She said that for a long time she had been asking her husband to go through all the accumulated stuff in the garage and get rid of whatever he didn’t want. They were his things so it wasn’t something she could take on. He procrastinated and procrastinated. And then for some reason, last Sunday he decided the time was right to go through it all. They packed the car up to the gills and drove down to their local Salvation Army. But it was closed. Oh well. No problem. They would just take it in on Monday. Then in the wee hours of Monday morning, they woke to the smell of smoke, alerts on their phones and had to rush to evacuate. They were lucky they were given more advance warning than some of their fellow citizens of Santa Rosa. But like many others they were driving a car filled with household possessions.The difference was that their car was filled not with the things they most cherished but all the things they never wanted to see again.
I have been honored to witness with both sets of friends the wisdom, compassion, resilience and willingness to let go that they exemplified. I am so very grateful for their friendship.
May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.
In the last few posts of my dharma talks we have been looking at the Brahma-viharas, spacious mind-states where we can dwell in loving-kindness, compassion and happiness for others. Now we look at the fourth of these mind states: Equanimity.
Equanimity is the ability to hold all that arises in an open embrace. It is the last of the four mind states because it naturally arises out of the continued practice of loving-kindness, compassion and happiness for others.
We have all had moments of equanimity when, for no particular reason, we feel relaxed, joyful, and in sync with life. At such moments we don’t feel victim to the whims of circumstance. We handle things that come up with an ease that surprises us. We are able to see how ‘this too shall pass’ and that a comment we might otherwise have taken as a slight isn’t really about us. We find we can be present and enjoy all that is arising, without muckraking up past offenses and future fears. Thus we don’t make mountains out of molehills. It’s as if gravity has become lighter so what we had been carrying as a burden is now a transparent bubble, and sometimes even a gift.
What if equanimity could be our natural state, even when things are not going well and we are faced with major losses and difficulties? It can be! Just by continuing our regular practice of meditation, we are cultivating equanimity. At first it comes upon us seemingly at random for brief periods. Maybe we get caught up in liking it so much that we begin to grasp at it, cling to it and strive for it. Then we lose it. Frustrating! But as we get the hang of being present with all that arises in our experience, as we practice sending metta (infinite loving-kindness to ourselves and out to all beings), equanimity becomes a more natural state.
That may sound good, or maybe too good to be true, and there may be some resistance to the idea. We may believe that we are locked into our habitual ways of reacting to life, unskillful as they may be. We may even be attached to ‘our ways’, thinking that they define us, make us distinctively who we are. This is something to notice. We can hold these thoughts in a more spacious way, respectfully questioning their veracity: ‘Is this true?’ ‘How do I know this is true?’ The thoughts may hang in there, but they will hold less power to throw us out of kilter or sabotage our wise intentions.
In the practice of mindfulness, we develop skillful ways to be in relationship with all that arises in our field of experience. We are not finding fault with our habitual reactivity or trying to ‘fix’ ourselves. Nothing is broken here. Nothing is lacking. Nothing has to be discarded or destroyed. We are simply learning how to exercise a muscle that has always been here, just under-used.
In the process of regularly flexing our muscles of awareness and compassion, we have insights that expand our understanding and our capacity for equanimity.
These insights generally fall in one of three categories:
Recognizing the nature of impermanence. This is not just accepting that everything changes, but actually realizing that there would be no life at all without impermanence. Neither death nor birth, neither decay nor growth. We see how all of the patterns and processes of life are in a constant state of coming together and dissolving and reforming. Just the way clouds in the sky were quite recently mist rising from the sea and before that the sea itself and before that the rain and before that cloud. The cycle of life is revealed in every aspect of being when we pause to pay attention.
Recognizing that, even though for practical purposes we live our lives as if we are separate beings, taking responsibility for this body-mind and all its interactions; in truth we are not separate at all! We are made up of the same stuff as the earth and stars. We are interconnected on the deepest level to all beings, in the past, present and future, in a continuous flux and flow. We are in this moment like a water drop leaping in the air over a cascade, experiencing a life that feels independent, but is in fact a fully integrated part of all being.
And finally, recognizing that when we resist these first two understandings, we make ourselves (and often those around us) miserable. Out of fear of things changing, out of fear of being isolated, we engage in unskillful grasping/clinging to whatever gives us pleasure and pushing away anything that doesn’t please us, we suffer. This is not the simple pain of living life in a body. It is suffering that we actively create again and again through our own unwillingness to be present in our experience, just as it is.
Studies show that meditation alone is powerful in many ways, but that the practice of metta, loving-kindness, is more powerful still. There’s no reason to choose one practice over the other. They work together. I always end my daily meditation, and the meditations I lead in class, with metta practice: May I be well/at ease/at peace/happy; May all beings be well/at ease/at peace/happy. Wording varies from practitioner to practitioner, but you get the idea. This audio is an example of sending metta. It is an extended practice, including sending metta to difficult people. Adapt the practice to suit yourself.
If we get into the good habit of sending metta to any person or situation that crops up in our thoughts, especially the difficult ones that can entangle us in emotional upheaval, we bring our mind back to the present moment, and at the same time do a great kindness to ourselves and to whomever we send loving-kindness.
Metta practice activates deep compassion within us. As we become aware of the nature of suffering and the interconnection of all beings, our natural generosity of spirit springs forth, providing help that is responsive, balanced and useful.
As we cultivate loving-kindness and compassion, we feel other people’s happiness as if it is our own. We have breached the previously-perceived divide between us. That divide dissolves and we are able to fully experience sympathetic joy. We see that happiness is contagious, unlimited and available in every moment if we are open to it, even if we aren’t getting everything we crave.
The skillful cultivation of loving-kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy creates equanimity in our lives. Instead of feeling tossed around by what’s going on in our lives, we become like the sky, spacious of mind and able to hold all that arises — clouds, fog, lightning, airplanes, etc. — without losing touch with our natural state of being.
When something delightful and something sorrowful happen at the same time, equanimity allows us to hold it all in an open embrace. We can be present for the joyful event, even as slender threads of sorrow arise.
As we age, we experience these kinds of situations more often. Loved ones become ill or die. Babies are born. Joys and sorrows abound. It is with equanimity that we are able to hold them just as the sky holds rainbows and hurricanes at the same time. The sky is still the sky. We too can cultivate compassionate spaciousness to hold all of our experience without getting lost or toppled. We are not devoid of emotion. But we can be present for them as well.
Imagine the sky dealing what passes through in a typically human way. Try to picture the sky running away from clouds, striving to overcome fog, getting lost in the pursuit of rainbows, turning its back on lightning, throwing up its hands at hurricanes, falling apart in a tornado, turning to drugs to numb itself to days of rain. Ridiculous, right?
We have the capacity to be like the sky! Whatever arises in our experience, we can hold in an open embrace. With attention, respect, compassion and kindness, but without clinging or grasping. If a thought is tenacious, we send metta to the person or situation, and return fully to the present moment.
Teaching in class about equanimity, I felt my whole chest opening as I expanded my arms out in a welcoming embrace. Words felt insufficient to express the meaning of equanimity. Maybe this physical sense of expansiveness is an additional way of opening to the possibility of equanimity in your life. Try it!
Equanimity is a spacious mind-state that naturally arises out of the regular practice of meditation. It is not a goal, not something to try hard to do, strive for or aim at. It’s not something to achieve. All of these ways of approaching any quality of mindfulness only entangle us in a tight knot of fear-based thoughts and emotions.
If you want to experience equanimity, the path is simple: Practice meditation every day. Attend weekly classes for inspiration and support. Go on retreats when you can for deeper insights. Go for walks in the woods, on the beach or wherever you can connect with trees, water and sky. Then don’t get lost in conversation with others or your own thoughts. Instead just listen to the sounds of nature, look around you, and feel your body moving through space. Find your place in nature. Give yourself quiet times to be present with all that is arising, send metta to yourself and all beings and equanimity will rise up within you.
The tenth Paramita* is Equanimity, the ability to hold all that is going on in our lives in an easeful way. In the past I have used the analogy of being like the sky, holding fluffy white clouds, rainbows, storms and lightning bolts all at once.
Many years ago a woman in our sangha out at Spirit Rock asked how was it possible for her to attend her daughter’s wedding with true joyousness of spirit when her dearest friend was dying in the hospital. This question has always stayed with me as an example of what is asked of us in life, and how equanimity serves us. The answer to the question is to stay as present in the moment as we can and to be compassionate with ourselves when we find that our awareness of joy is shot through with a thread of sorrow. So we can be fully where we are (at the daughter’s wedding) and be fully who we are (a caring friend and mother). One does not negate the other.
In fact, these kinds of contrasts are often the richest moments in our lives. I remember at the memorial we gave for my father in his home on his birthday the week after he died. I remember the beauty of the cherry blossoms that completely surrounded his deck and how much he loved them, and how sorry he felt that his beloved wife was no longer there to enjoy them. And I remember how I came upon my son changing the diapers of his month-old daughter on my father’s bed where just the week before, Dad and I had watched Wheel of Fortune and I had begged him to let me spend the night on the couch, sensing the end was near. One week apart, two sets of fathers and daughters: one set at the end of life, the other set at the beginning. To be able to hold the beauty of that is a great gift of equanimity.
There are other ways to describe equanimity. One is to find your center of gravity, that way of being in your body and in your life that you are sufficiently grounded that nothing throws you. Recently I heard a zen teacher from Nova Scotia talking about equanimity. He shared how his teacher had demonstrated it. He stood up and held his body rigid and told two men to try to knock him over. It was easy. Then he changed his stance, relaxing, going limp, being rooted in place with the release of tension. And when the men tried to move him, they couldn’t do it.
My students, all female, did not feel very inspired by this image. Is the real goal in life to be unmoved? But they responded with more enthusiasm when I suggested that trees are grounded in this way.
Here’s a poem I recently wrote that captures some of that feeling:
Three oaks entwine on the hillside: Minoan snake goddesses with burl breasts.
I, with the good fortune to sit below them, rarely bow in gratitude,
while they bow to the wind, the rain, the sun and the moon.
I am footloose, but rarely dance, while they, despite earthly constraints,
sway together in ecstasy. I imagine underground a mirror dance
of roots rollicking round rock, deeper and deeper into the soil of being.
Of course, California live oaks are beautiful trees but not necessarily the best example to aspire to when we want to remain upright come what may. In a severe storm or even in the middle of a drought, an oak will occasionally crack and fall to the forest floor. We might choose instead a more supple tree for our role model! But you get the idea.
So now we have two ways of seeing equanimity:
Being spacious like the sky to hold whatever arises
Being like a supple tree, rooted and able to dance in the winds of life, resilient
Both of those views are helpful. Some others less so. For example, when we think of balancing, we might picture a tightrope walker on a highwire. Life might feel like that at times, but it’s a worldview that is bound to create fear and tension. If you find yourself in that position, let go! Discover that life will support you.
Another image that comes up is the art of balancing stones. Perhaps you’ve seen the results, or have watched in fascination as the artist gives his or her full attention to setting the stones, and perhaps you have even tried it yourself. At Spirit Rock on retreat I have walked up the hill to an area that was full of stones that were fun to stack. They weren’t the more challenging rounded stones the artists use, but the process still required my full attention. It’s a lovely meditative process.
That view of equanimity reminds us to be fully present, to sink into full awareness and a sense of connection with whatever we are doing. But the image could backfire if we are attached to the stones staying stacked! It could easily bring out perfectionist tendencies and the fear of things falling apart and personal failure.
In my ‘Oak Sisters’ poem there was a quality of dancing, and I am reminded of how for many years I did Nia, a dance exercise class that develops a supple grace in the body. I had no idea how stiff and ungraceful I was until I started that class! But over time I softened in my movements and gained greater balance. I felt centered and joyous. We worked from our core, just as you do in Pilates or yoga, and were trained to not overextend our limbs. What a good lesson for life that is! Where in life are you feeling overextended?
Part of the reason we overextend is that we are trying to please or impress someone else. So we are seeing ourselves from the outside, the way we think others see us. This is ‘object mode’. This is a good way to get way off balance! We need to be the subject of our own lives, the center of our own universe. This is not selfish. This is growing where we were planted. Remember that when we send metta (lovingkindness) we always begin with ourselves before sending it out to others and ultimately to all beings. Because we can’t give what we don’t have.
In meditation we find that when we go rigid we get easily distracted, and getting caught up in thinking and emotion will cause tension in the body. But when we relax our muscles and find a balanced posture, we are able to sustain a seated practice for quite sometime. And as our mind relaxes that spacious quality of sky is able to arise and fill the whole of our awareness.
And then when we go about our lives, perhaps we can develop a greater sense of ease and natural grace, able to carry whatever challenges life has given us. We may even find that what we have held as burdens will gently reveal their gifts.
May we be dancers on this earth, sensing into the music of life.
So these are all ways of looking at equanimity. What resonates with you? What questions does it bring up? What is your experience of equanimity? Please comment below.
*Paramita or parami is a state of quality of Buddha mind that we are cultivating. Equanimity (Upekkha) is the last of the ten paramitas we have been studying. See the rest in earlier posts. You can type ‘paramita’ in the search bar in the right-hand column.
At the autumnal equinox, the midway point on the earth’s axis, night and day are the same length. It always makes me think of balance. But does that mean that the rest of the year the earth is out of balance? Of course not. And our lives don’t have to be out of balance just because everything in them is not equal. One of the major life skills we learn through the practice of meditation is equanimity, the ability to hold whatever arises in life without getting out of balance.
‘Where am I out of balance?’ is a question I ask myself if I’m feeling disjointed. I might realize that I’ve been over-efforting, with my ‘eye on the prize’ instead of being present in the moment as I do the work at hand. Or I might find I’ve been too sedentary. I do love to lounge but too much lounging leads to lethargy. Getting out for hiking or dancing lets me feel more alive and balanced. Maybe I’ve been tightly-focused in my thinking, going around in circles, and find balance in opening to take in a broader view. I might feel maxed out on being super social and need some alone time. Or vice versa. Each of us has different set points for activity, social engagement, etc. Where our set point is may change over time, but it’s useful to notice.
The body is attuned to balance and gives us lots of cues when it recognizes that our thought-emotion override button has been pushed once too often. What are some of the cues your body gives you? Aches? Illness? Restlessness? Tiredness? In mindfulness practice we are learning is to notice physical sensation. As we develop greater ability in this area, we can also develop better interpretive skills, and take the body’s message to heart. We might go for a walk, go to bed earlier, say ‘no’ to an invitation if we want to. We might say ‘yes’ to something that is outside our normal routine but somehow feels very right, if a little scary. As a Toastmaster, I felt myself and have witnessed many others take that first brave step to overcome the fear of attending a meeting or give a speech. I remember transitioning from believing that I was just naturally shy to overcoming a fear that was keeping me from so much I wanted to do in life. Taking that step was part of bringing myself into balance.
As we develop our meditation practice we also may find that we are less victimized by circumstances and better able to find a quality of equanimity regardless of causes and conditions. There are times in life when conditions are not perfect, when extra energy or extra rest is required. You’re up all night with a sick child, for example, and there’s just no rest possible. Or you are ill and resting is enforced by the fact that you’re too weak to rise. At these times it isn’t useful to be attached to the idea that in order to be happy you need perfect amounts of sleep or activity. Life does not always conform to these needs, does it? Making our own happiness dependent on certain conditions makes us ping pong balls in the game of life. Whack! In fact most of us have more stamina and fortitude than we ever imagined to do what we need to do when there’s no choice but to do it. If we lace our thoughts during this period with worry that we will suffer greatly from lack of rest or over-exertion, then we set ourselves up and fulfill our own expectations of doom. But, once that period is through, then we allow for a balancing rest instead of moving on immediately to the next crisis, making this frenzied way of being the norm in our lives.
We find a balance that is in tune with the body’s messages, based on what we’ve found fosters wellbeing, AND we accept that there will be times when a perfectly balanced schedule is not possible.
Finding balance at work is a challenge when the lines between work-time and off-time are blurred by the ease with which we can be reached at any hour of the day. We each make our own choices as to how available we will be. No job requires that we be on call 24/7/365. If you dispute that, talk to your supervisor. If you are your own boss, hire someone to give yourself regular respite, or simply define ‘off’ periods for yourself. The refreshed quality you bring to your ‘on’ times will more than make up for any delayed response. In fact, it is a gift to others to model this kind of balanced living. My neighbor is an in-demand author, speaker and consultant to Fortune 500 companies. She is her own boss and has no assistance. But she always claims set times for herself to garden, hike, cook and socialize. She has a balanced life. I was amazed when she told me she never checks email on weekends. There’s a big lesson in there: To be effective in our work role, we need to claim space that is totally free from it.
Meditation practice most definitely needs tech-free space. On retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, cell phones are left behind or deposited in a basket to be held by the retreat manager. There are no video or audio presentations, no radio or recorded music, only the pleasure of silence and the evening dharma talks of the teachers. The retreat experience helps us to refine our home practice because it shows us the value of silence. Perhaps one of the reasons meditation has become so popular is that people find it so difficult to justify turning off their gadgets for any other reason. Our agricultural ancestors in the course of a day spent extended periods of time alone in nature, working or walking or riding. Inside any sounds were not funneled in on wires from elsewhere. It was quiet or there were homemade sounds. It’s in our genes to need that quiet downtime in our lives as well. We can enjoy our gadgets all the more when we give ourselves periods of time away from them.
One of the ways we enjoy our gadgets is through social media that our pioneer ancestors would certainly envy. We can stay in close touch with friends and family around the world. And we make new friends based on shared interests, finding communities of like-minded people with whom we can share ideas. It’s very easy (believe me!) to get a bit addicted to that sense of connection. But there’s another sense of connection that is worth noticing: When we open to the trees, the breeze, the birds, squirrels and lizards, the clouds, the creek, etc. all right there available to make us feel intrinsically a part of nature. Can we come fully present in the moment, whatever we are doing, bringing ourselves into balance by being here instead of mentally pulled all over the place? Finding balance is being skillful in how we use the technology we’ve been given, and knowing when to set it aside.
When we give ourselves space and time to be present and attuned to the body without distractions, we naturally come into balance. We come home to the joy that is inherent in being alive.
If you feel a little addicted to your phone or computer, claim some more space for yourself:
If possible, turn the phone or the ringer off and put it in another room when you are sleeping.
Check email and social media at a planned time once or twice a day rather than all day long.
Consider taking a day or two off from it on a weekly basis.
Take a trip into nature and leave your phone off.
Tell friends and family you text with not to take it personally or worry if you don’t respond immediately.
If you never seem to have enough time to meditate or take a walk in nature or have lunch with a dear friend, maybe you are thinking of them as rewards, and that you don’t deserve them until you’ve accomplished something. If that’s the case then stop thinking of them as rewards. These are necessary. Claim time for them. Note them on your calendar, not as rare treats or defaults but as locked in and important.
Notice physical sensation, not just in meditation but always. Let the wise body guide you to balance.
After a summer hiatus, our meditation class happily regrouped this week. Since we last met, much has happened in our lives and in the world. We looked at how we relate to all that arises in our experience, whether in our personal lives or in the news. How do you handle what arises in your experience? Do you see yourself walking on a tightrope over a deep chasm while you try to balance too many plates? Perhaps you have developed some coping skills that help you deal with whatever arises. Pause to consider how you handle sudden difficult situations in your life, ongoing conditions and unsettling news. Are they effective in helping you to find equanimity?
Is there some situation or condition that is currently causing you concern? If so, tell yourself the story about it, get caught up in it enough so that it is active in your mind. Now pause. Notice any place in your body where you feel a new sensation, perhaps tension, tightness or achiness. If you find tension anywhere, put your hand there. (If your hands are cold, rub them together first.) Breathe into the area with tenderness and compassion. With each inhale imagine healing energy creating spaciousness. With each exhale imagine releasing the tightness and discomfort. Just this simple activity can help to create more ease in the body and mind. You can spend as much time as feels useful, and you can do this on as many areas as needed. Through this exercise we become more aware of how the body holds our stories, and how much more effective it can be to work with the body than to stay only with the story, telling and retelling it to ourselves, hoping to come to some different ending.
This is not to say that talking is useless. If we are really paying attention, saying the words out loud or writing them down can make us aware of what we are thinking so that we can question our assumptions and see the holes in our reasoning. But chances are we are thinking this same story over and over again without paying attention, and every time we tell it, the body re-lives the experience and tightens up. This is toxic for our health and well-being. Working directly with the body starts a healing that releases us from the story that has us enthralled. So consider incorporating this exercise into your daily life, especially when you feel overwhelmed. It is so easy to feel overwhelmed, isn’t it? The to-do list, the demands from others, the hectic nature of rushing about to take care of business. Even when our time is our own and no one else is dependent on us, we can get caught up in such a flurry of activity that we feel overwhelmed. We wonder why on earth we do that to ourselves.
We can get into the habit of wishing this moment away in favor of one that seems potentially more easeful conducive to joy. But when we are caught up in that pattern of thinking, we discover when we arrive at that future moment, we are still wishing for more or wishing for different, wishing this new moment away, just like the last.
We are creatures of habit. We create patterns. Some of the patterns we create cause us to suffer, such as this longing for something different than what is, the ‘if only’ pattern, as in ‘If only this situation were resolved I could relax and enjoy life.’
Sound familiar? If so, notice if you fall into another very human pattern of thinking that this pattern you’ve noticed is one more flaw in your make-up, one more thing to work on, one more chore on your to-do list. Aagh!
Let’s remember that because we are creatures of habit who create patterns, we can create patterns of ease and joy too. The regular practice of meditation and other ways that we nurture ourselves are just such joyful patterns. The beauty of this particular pattern is the way it has of revealing and releasing many of the patterns that cause our suffering.
That’s why we take time to sit in stillness, the way we might sit at the edge of a pond. Within seconds we are seeing things we hadn’t noticed were there: a water skate, reflections, a perfect web spun in the branch overhead, the sound of birds, the feel of the air on our skin. Just so in meditation we simply sit and notice, and in the stillness of our intention to be present, the mental patterns reveal themselves. We might see the very leap our mind makes based on erroneous previously-unquestioned assumptions.
We reset the intention to be present, relaxed but alert, anchored in physical sensation, and we set the intention to be compassionate with ourselves and with others. If we get caught up in thinking about a situation or a person, when we realize we are thinking, we simply send loving-kindness to the situation, to the person and to ourselves, and bring our attention back to the breath, or the light on our eyelids, or the sounds in the room, or the feel of the earth under our feet if we are walking. This is the practice.
This simple gift of a practice enables us to hold whatever arises in our experience in a more spacious way so we are not sucked into the inner storm. The storm is more of a little tempest in a teapot that we find curious, interesting, perhaps amusing, and instructive. We are able to be mindful, to see how we, being human, create many of these tornados through the very patterns of mind that we hope will save us.
Instead of walking a tightrope trying to balance too many plates, we can sense the support of the earth and our interconnection to all life, that we are not alone. The weight of the world is not our singular burden to carry.
No matter what life is throwing at you, you have a standing invitation to pause, to sit, to walk in nature, to give yourself the gift of attention and compassion. This is the great gift of equanimity.
The regular practice of meditation develops a refined quality of attention to the micro-events of the present moment experienced through the senses. Attuned to the moment, we might notice different types of very pleasant mental qualities that arise and fall away. These are called the Awakening Factors. Mindfulness is the first of the Awakening Factors, the one that makes it possible to experience the others. Anchored in physical sensation — the rise and fall of the breath, sound, sight, smell, texture, etc. — without getting caught up in inner commentary about them, we are mindful. In this state we are aware of all that is present in this moment, and only this moment. Once we are mindful, other Factors arise. We might be more aware of one than another, but in general they seem to arise in the following order: Investigation of the dhammas arises out of mindfulness, because as we closely attend the sensory experience, we develop a wholesome curiosity that leads to insights into the nature of experience and natural phenomena. Energy for this investigation arises. This is not the restlessness we talked about when discussing the Hindrances, but an attunement to the energy of the natural world, a sense of purpose and wholesome effort, that feels quite wonderful and leads to… Joy, not the singular pleasure from a specific condition or outcome, but a non-specific quality of rejoicing in being alive in this moment, sensing a connection with all being, which allows for the arising of… Tranquility. Being so fully in the moment, sensing our connection, there is nothing to fear, so we are able to be calm and at peace, which leads to a great ability for… Concentration, the ability to stay with a single-pointed focus, fully supported by all the factors, resulting in… Equanimity, a way of being in the world in any given moment, aware of all that arises and falls away, and able to hold it all with spacious awareness and a quality of understanding the nature of things. Equanimity allows us to hold both difficult situations and happy events in the same open embrace at the same time. Having said there is an order can be interesting and may be useful, but it could also be confusing and disruptive. In practice, simply focus on your intention to be mindful. Anchor your awareness in physical sensation, preferably finding one that is dependable, like the breath, that you can stay with. At the same time, set the intention to be compassionate with yourself and whatever causes and conditions arise — people making noises, situations not being ‘perfect’, your own judgments about your practice or the behavior of others. If we practice in a dedicated way, the Awakening Factors reveal themselves. If we try to achieve them, if we say ‘Feel joy, damn it!’ then obviously we will feel anything but joy. We toss ourselves into one or more of the mental qualities of the Hindrances: doubt, worry, restlessness, anger, desire, sloth and torpor. When we find ourselves in one of these states, we simply reset our intention to be mindful, anchored in physical sensation, and the intention to be compassionate with ourselves. You might notice that some of these Awakening Factors are antidotes to Hindrances we studied earlier. For example, Energy is the opposite of Sloth & Torpor. Tranquility is the antidote to Restlessness & Worry. So if you notice your mind state in one of the Hindrances, it helps to remember that there are more wholesome states accessible through mindfulness. Mindfulness is the prescription to bring us out of unwholesome mind states and into these wholesome ones. We learn about these states so that we recognize them when they arise. Resting in them, we have a tangible confirmation that we are doing our mindfulness practice in a way that reaps benefits. Not feeling the reaping so much? Not to worry. If you are giving yourself time to be quiet and focus your awareness on the rising and falling of the breath, releasing tension that arises, letting go of harsh inner commentary, that is all that is necessary. Let it be enough. Notice when your thoughts get caught up in the ‘not-enoughness’, the longing for joy or inner peace, the doubting you’ll ever achieve such lofty mind states. These are the Hindrances at work, creating a tangle of misery that doesn’t serve you. When you see them, rejoice in noticing them. That is mindfulness at work! Continue to be mindful, anchored in physical sensation. Do this with compassionate wise effort. If these Awakening Factors seem like a pipe dream, you are looking at the fantasy you have in your mind of what it would be to be awakened. This is not the search for a mythical unicorn. It is a practical, methodical means of coming into the present moment, the only moment that exists, the only moment we have to enjoy. The past and the present are thoughts in our heads — memories, regrets, nostalgia, fantasy, planning and fear. Don’t worry about awakening. Just sense in to this moment with compassion for all the ways your mind wants to distract itself. Focus on the senses — the breath rising and falling, for example. That is mindfulness. When you start noticing that there is no edge to the breath and see how the air is out there and in here until there doesn’t seem to be a dividing line, that is a form of investigating the dhammas. With it comes a sense of aliveness that is open yet purposeful. This is energy. When you sense that quality of edgelessness, of no separate self, from following the breath, joy arises. When you sense the boundless nature of this moment, fear falls away and there is an ease that creates tranquility, a quality of peace. In this open peaceful state, there is nothing to distract you from your concentration. You see with a remarkable clarity. And in this state, whatever events or conditions arise, you can hold them in an open and easeful way. This is equanimity. Daydreaming about when these states will be yours is a total waste of this precious moment right now revealing itself to you. If you feel tangled in a web of stories that can’t take you anywhere but away, again and again, from this very moment that offers everything, including the power to awaken you to joyous life, set the intention to be present, anchored in physical sensation. Set the paired intention to be compassionate with yourself when you realize that you haven’t been present. In the moment you realize you haven’t been present, you are present! Cause for celebration.
All matter and all experience is conditioned, dependent on something else having happened or existed. Try to think of any object and imagine it existing in isolation. What is it made of? Where did the things it was made of come from? Who made it? Who transported it? Who packaged it? Who sold it? A tree relies on the sun, rain and soil. All the elements rely on one another. All affect one another. This is the nature of dependent co-arising. Our thoughts are conditioned as well, dependent on sensory experience, memory, and events in the past, the present or what we fear or hope might happen in the future. They arise and fall away just as physical matter arises and falls away, in a non-linear complex web of interwoven events. This is important to notice when we look at the dhammas, these lists that constitute The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness. Why so many lists? The hindrances, aggregates, sense spheres, etc. do not present themselves in list form when we experience them for ourselves, do they? No. We experience ‘worry’ as worry, not as an item on a list of the Five Hindrances. Each component of any of these Buddhist lists is also part of the web of dependent co-arising. Lists are not the way we experience life, but they do have their uses, don’t they? We organize information in this way to assure ourselves that we have addressed everything we need to remember. The many, MANY lists in the Buddha’s teachings, were memorized and handed down from generation to generation of monks in a purely oral tradition for the first 500 years after the Buddha’s death. We can see they did a good job of clear transmission, because even now, 2500 years later, we are still empowered to investigate and discover for ourselves the truth of the teachings. If the transmission had broken down, subverted by some leader’s thirst for power, turned into dead dogma, the teachings could not be verified in the experience of each meditator who dedicates him or herself to meditative practice. We don’t have to be Buddhists to have this experience. There is no one path that can claim the only way to wisdom or enlightenment. I came to the Buddha’s teachings after having already experienced for myself the power of meditation to heal and sense the unity of all being. So when I arrived at Spirit Rock Meditation Center back in the mid-1990’s, it was like coming home. My first teacher at Spirit Rock, Sylvia Boorstein, read my book, Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living, and called it ‘jargon-free dharma.’ You might wonder why, if I had already literally ‘written the book’ or at least a book, I set aside teaching and writing about what I had discovered in order to study and practice Buddhism for the next fifteen years. Simply this: I love the elegant structure of the way the Buddha’s teachings are organized. This structure offers the best possible chance for someone to awaken. And so I learn it. And so, once again, I share it. That said, I have to add that the compilation of all these lists seems a bit crazy-making. There are lists of Buddhist lists they can be helpful to give an overview of all the teachings. But it’s important for us all to remember that we are not asked to memorize the lists or to take them in all at once, even if it were possible to do so. As we go through the dhammas, we go at our own pace, taking in what we are able to understand, what we are able to see is true from our own experience, and we let the rest wait, rising like dough for us to knead at another time when we are ready. All this to say we are about to look at another list! It’s the last list before we look at the Four Noble Truths, which of course is a list of four and contains a list within it of the Eightfold Path.
The Seven Awakening Factors
For those of you who were on our recent retreat, just think of some of the mental qualities that you may have experienced during your meditative sitting, walking and simply being in nature. We practiced and experienced Mindfulness. That’s the first and foremost of the Awakening Factors, without which the others are unable to arise. In class, students responded quite naturally with several of the Awakening Factors on their own. This is the nature of the dharma. For those who are practicing meditation on a regular basis, the dharma reveals itself. Several students spoke of the quality of peacefulness, which is the same as the factor called Tranquility. They talked about a sense of opening, another way to describe Equanimity, the ability to create spaciousness to hold whatever arises with ease and balance. I reminded the students of some of the comments they made at the end of the retreat. One had spoken of experiencing a quality of aliveness. This is the Awakening Factor of Energy. Another student had spoken of noticing how three roses were in different states of bloom, and that one had been nibbled on and she was so glad there was enough to share. This is an example of the Awakening Factor called Investigation of the Dhammas. I remember noticing a student sitting by the waterfall, eyes closed, deep in Concentration on the sense of sound, and with a smile filling her whole face, in a state of pure Joy. So we come to this ‘list’ not as something foreign, but something wonderfully familiar. Everything in boldface is an awakening factor. Next week we will explore how these Awakening Factors work together to bring balance and, well, awakening! But for now it’s enough to know that all these lists may look daunting or boring from the outside, but when we begin to explore them, we are really coming home to the experience of our own practice.