Category Archives: experiential exercise

Inquiry Series: Question #5

tool-collection.jpgIn this inquiry series, we’ve practiced using questions that help us deal skillfully with what arises in our experience: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? Is this true? We then looked at our inner landscape and asked: What am I cultivating here?  To the degree we incorporate these questions into our lives, they continue to be useful tools to find greater peace of mind, strength and equanimity.

Beyond the shared beneficial qualities we cultivate, we each have other gifts as well: The particular skills and interests that activate wholesome energy, aliveness, meaning and purpose.

What are these gifts? There is something inherent in each of us that draws us to different things. We can observe this in very small children. Beyond the fun things most children enjoy, any individual child will be more excited about spending time in one or more activities and less interested in others: Drawing, writing, cooking, doing math, solving puzzles, singing, playing instruments, listening to music, attending performances, taking things apart to see how they work, playacting, taking photos, doing science experiments, inventing things or walking in nature, for example.

But even though the adults around them may notice children’s natural bents, gifts and interests, often the children themselves do not see them or do not understand that all kids aren’t equally as interested in these things. Especially in decades past, the adults around them were likely a little blind to these gifts as well. And so the child grew up feeling a little lost, wondering where they fit in.

I was a shy little girl who had a spiritual bent that manifested in little chants I would make up to feel my connection with the divine. (“I am in God and God is in me” over and over again until I would fall down on the lawn laughing, because what made no sense at all suddenly made all the sense in the world to me.) I also loved to write poems and short stories. And I enjoyed making dollhouses and drawing floor plans. Bringing that little girl to mind now, if I were her parent, I would encourage all of those things, and maybe make sure she had access to materials, classes and kind mentors.

But instead of wishing I’d had different kinds of parents (my parents were wonderful, thank you very much!) I only need to remind myself that as an adult, I can parent myself in whatever way I need. I can provide whatever encouragement and guidance I may have craved growing up. Perhaps you have some dormant, underappreciated or hidden interests or skills that might be brought into the light of your increasing compassionate awareness. No matter what our age or situation, we can actualize all of the gifts we’ve been given in this fleeting experience of being alive in this oh-so impermanent body-mind.

EXERCISE

After meditation or after a few minutes of quieting the mind, ask yourself these questions and write down the answers that arise — as many as come up. Take your time. The first answer may be the best answer, or it may be a toss off answer and there’s a deeper, shyer, truer answer waiting to be heard. All are fine. Bring them on.

Notice any resistance that comes up, either in the exercise or in anticipation of an exercise. You can use our core questions then: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? And, when stories arise about why you can’t pursue a certain interest, look more closely at those stories and question them: Is this true? It may seem true, and it may seem important to hold onto the story, but look at every aspect with a kind but inquiring mind.

Okay, ready? Here we go:

  1. Think of moments during your day, week and life when you were filled with delight, contentment, purpose, enthusiasm — a sense of being in the right place, doing something satisfying. These will probably be very small seeming things but try not to judge them, just note them. List as many as come naturally to you.
  2. Look over your list of moments of delight and think of them as belonging to someone else. Bring your most compassionate, least judgy self to this task. By observing the list as someone else’s we are generally clearer and kinder, more willing to see latent gifts we might deny in ourselves.) Then ask, what interests this person? What does this person love to do? If a clear picture comes to mind, write it down as a little summary.
  3. Acknowledging that this is your list, not someone else’s, notice any emotions arising around this list as you read it. Notice any resistance to anything you have discovered. Notice any stories that come up to explain why, even if true, these interests and skills are for whatever reason not sufficient or not useful. Several people in class felt they probably weren’t doing this exercise ‘right’. A couple thought their moments weren’t sufficiently ‘lofty’. This is not about being lofty! And it is not about defining yourself and presenting yourself to the world. It’s more like the way a cat or dog might circle around to that just right spot of perfect contentment. Trust that whatever comes up is right for you in this moment.
  4. If you are judging yourself, finding fault or feeling resistance, ask ‘What am I afraid of?’ This is not a challenge, not a dare, but a heartfelt compassionate investigation. 
  5. Send metta, infinite loving-kindness to any fearful aspect that speaks up or hides out within you. The inner critic may be powerful and cruel, but it is not your enemy. It is only afraid and unskillful in the ways it tries to protect you.
  6. Looking at the summary you’ve made, do you feel that you are living your deepest most heartfelt interests?
  7. If not, set the intention to give more time to them, incorporate them more fully into your life and whenever you are in such a moment, to not feel rushed but really allow yourself to experience it fully with deep appreciation.
  8. Underline, circle, star or rewrite any core interests that you would like to explore more fully. This is not about ‘becoming’ something new. This is not a makeover. It’s recognizing what is already central to your way of being in this life, yet for whatever reason not actualized fully.
  9. Set the intention to be compassionate with those aspects of self that are fearful, but don’t let them run the show!
  10. Save and revisit this list, try the exercise again another time, and consider rewriting it as a note to yourself to keep close as a reminder.

If you do this exploration multiple times, you may find different answers each time, but a pattern will arise that will hopefully inspire you to honor your natural gifts, interests and skills.

If you discover powerful resistance, that is definitely worth exploring and challenging. I am reminded of the Marianne Williamson quote:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” — Marianne Williamson

Like many, I suffered from great doubts about my abilities. I kept my writing very private and never thought to share it with anyone. If I did share them, any compliments were like water off a duck’s back. I have no memory of them. But even the slightest suggestion or critique cut me to the core and the scars were a constant reminder of my lack of talent. It’s amazing I kept writing, but my writing was for me, and it was safe as long as I kept it private. And that’s fine. Writing and all the arts — music, visual arts, drama, crafts — all have the capacity to be cathartic. We each have our way of processing the traumas of our lives. I imagine that working out mathematical equations might be cathartic, too. Can we find our way of skillfully processing and coping with all that arises in our lives? Hint: It will never be a distraction from what we are going through. It will not make an enemy of it that we push away. There’s that old hymn: ‘It’s so high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it, so wide you can’t get around it, you’ve gotta go in through the door.’ The door is being fully present and compassionate with ourselves and others, finding that inner wisdom that is within each of us, by whatever name we might call it. But each of us also has one or more very personal ways of savoring life and processing what arises. And that’s what we’re exploring through this exercise.

Allowing ourselves our fullest expression is not a big ask. It is our birthright. It is our place at the table of life. That is such a hard lesson to learn, especially for women raised to always put others’ needs first and to be ‘demure’.

I will leave you with a personal experience: I had been teaching for a number of years and then writing blog posts from my dharma talks. After a year of teaching the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness, my students asked me to compile those posts and publish them in book form. I mentioned this to my teaching mentor and she said there are more than enough books in the world. (There were no comparable books on that subject at the time, and even still none that addresses women’s specific challenges, but that’s beside the point.) After I left our meeting, I felt like a daisy bush being told not to bloom, to stifle myself, because there are already too many daisies in the world.

Please, please, please, whatever kind of plant you are, feel free to bloom fully and radiantly! And don’t waste your time envying the rose or the lilac. You do YOU!

The Seed Catalog

As we continue our exploration of the valuable question ‘What am I cultivating here?’, wouldn’t it be nice to have a seed catalog for our inner garden? We could peruse through all the pretty plants and pick one we’d like to add. Well, hooray, there actually is one! It’s called the Ten Paramis (aka Paramitas) that we studied for a good part of 2016.

The Paramitas are qualities that are intrinsic to our nature, but not necessarily growing strong right now. In the following exercise, we can notice what we have nurtured and perhaps what is in need of more conscious cultivation. Ready to give it a go? Great!

Get something to make notes on, and take at least a few minutes to quiet down and center in. This would be a good exercise to do after meditation, but even a few minutes of quiet will help make it more meaningful.

Now, one by one, take your time looking over the list below. With each quality, pause. Sense in and see how it feels in your body. Does it bring pleasure? Then you probably have already cultivated this quality. Does it bring tension or anxiety? Make note of that. Discomfort may indicate a need for more attention in this area.
If you are not sure what the quality is, just put a question mark for now. Each paramita has a ‘READ MORE’ link to a fuller exploration.

In class, when we did this exercise on handout sheets, there was a place beside each quality to mark whether it needs cultivating or whether it is ‘sufficient for now’. One student appreciated the ‘for now’ because as long as we are alive we are cultivating something. Our garden is always in process.

Students developed their own little ‘rating systems’ with, for example, one, two or three stars, to rank qualities in some need or dire need of cultivating. Since we would like to cultivate one at a time, it’s helpful to rate them so that at the end of the exploration, you can see which one quality stood out.

EXERCISE: Paramitas — Seeds to cultivate in your inner garden

Generosity
This word may bring up examples of ways in which you have been generous with your time, your money or other resources. If so, you probably can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If it brings up feelings of tension, anxiety or shame for a pattern of withholding even when you want to be generous, give it a ‘star’ as something that may need more attention and cultivation. Recognizing our innate generosity, we can compassionately explore any fears that arise from past experiences of scarcity, of being taken advantage of, or of giving to exhaustion. [READ MORE.]

Ethical Conduct
This quality may bring up examples of times you have been fair, considerate and how in general you operate from your inner moral compass. If so, you can probably mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If it brings up feelings of anger, justification, annoyance or shame reflecting on examples of unethical behavior; or if your ethical behavior relies heavily on words like ‘should’ or fear tactics to keep you in tow, mark this one with a star.
It is only when we contract in fear, believing ourselves to be isolated and separate, that we think up and justify to ourselves unethical solutions to the challenges we face. It is skillful to see how these unethical solutions ricochet in our lives, causing pain and confusion. This reminds us to choose the simpler, clearer and more compassionate path of ethical conduct. [READ MORE]

Letting Go
This quality may bring up memories of relative ease with releasing objects, transitioning out of even the most pleasant experiences, and holding all relationships in an ‘open embrace’, loving without smothering. If so, you can probably mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If, on the other hand, you feel threatened by the idea of letting go, and recognize that you hold onto objects, roles, habits and relationships in a very tight way, then you will want to mark this with a star.
We are naturally fluid in our nature. But we can get rigid and clingy when we vest our identity in our attachment to people, roles, habits and objects. Our clinging makes us rigid and even more fearful. Then we believe that this fearfulness is who we are and the only way to remedy it is to cling harder, making ourselves and others miserable. But it is not our true nature to cling. It is our true nature to dance the fluid dance of life, a celebration of coming together and falling away, all of a piece. [READ MORE]

Wisdom
(Wisdom in this context is the deep understanding of the nature of impermanence, the sense of there being no separate self, and how we cause ourselves and others suffering through grasping, clinging and pushing away. If you have been meditating awhile, you may have had insights that can fall in one or more of these three categories of ‘Wise View’.)
If you feel you are firmly open and receptive to life’s ‘teachable moments’ that spark insights, if you see how they benefit your sense of well being, and if you are comfortable with not knowing all the answers but are happy to live with the questions themselves, then you can mark this one as ‘sufficient for now’. This is not to claim to be wise. It only means that you are growing it in your inner garden. It is taking root.
If this all sounds like gobbledygook to you, you might want to mark it as something to cultivate! [READ MORE]

Energy | Strength
This quality may bring to mind ways in which you readily meet the challenges of life, bringing a balanced physical and mental strength to handle whatever arises. If so, you can mark it ‘sufficient for now’.
If these words feel like challenges in themselves, if you find yourself often times lethargic and overwhelmed, then this might be a quality that needs cultivating. Conversely, if you often feel restless, driven, supercharged, and need to be always on the go, cultivating more balanced energy might be for you.
We come into the world with a natural understanding of the need to be active, the need to rest, the need to nourish. This understanding cultivates our innate balanced energy and strength. When we lose that understanding, striving or shirking, then we forget that we are strong and have the energy to do whatever we need to do in life, if it is wise, ethical, loving, generous. [READ MORE]

Patience
This quality may bring up examples of how you can easily wait without getting flustered or upset. If so, mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If the very word ‘patience’ has you in an inner tantrum, and you can think of many ways in which you are thwarted in life by slow drivers, busy doctors, long lines at the grocery store, being put on hold on the phone, planes not taking off, people not understanding what you’re talking about the first time you say it, people not getting to the point when they’re talking, etc., well, this is the quality for you!!!!!
We get impatient when we are trying to escape from our current experience. We want to escape when we are not open to seeing life as it is. We become blind to beauty of every moment unfolding. We become more patient through being fully present, aware of all life’s gifts, and through compassion. [READ MORE]

Truthfulness
This quality may seem to be about not lying to people, but it is also about noticing and questioning the long-accepted stories we tell ourselves. We explored together the question ‘Is this true?’ and discovered that we in fact often do inadvertently lie to ourselves by accepting without question our long-held opinions, etc. None of us are completely truthful in this way, but as long as we are aware and ready to question ‘Is this true?’ we can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If, on the other hand, you find it difficult to be truthful with others or you are unwilling to question the truth of what you tell yourself, you might want to give this one a star.  [READ MORE]

Resolve
If you are able to follow through on the intention(s) you set, then you have a strong sense of resolve. You can mark this ‘sufficient for now’.
If you find it very difficult to follow through on intentions, and you have checked in to make sure the intentions are wise, then Resolve might be a quality you want to cultivate more of.
When we find our true intention, we are innately able to stay true to it. We recognize and respect any dissenting voices within our patterns of thoughts and emotions, and find means to skillfully resolve the dissension within us so that our resolution rings true. [READ MORE]

Loving-kindness
If you practice loving-kindness to yourself, others and ultimately all beings, and truly feel the welling up within you of that infinite quality so that you radiate it, then you can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’– even though of course you continue to practice it.
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of giving yourself loving-kindness, or sending loving-kindness to even the most difficult people; or you are caught up in feeling there’s only so much loving-kindness to go around and you’re going to reserve it for those who are near and dear to you, then mark this as something you’ll want to cultivate in your inner garden.
If we recognize the infinite nature of loving-kindness, we attune to it and allow it to flow through us. It is our true nature when we are not caught up in believing ourselves to be separate isolated objects in a finite situation.  [READ MORE]

Equanimity
If you can think of all kinds of ways that you are balanced and resilient in life, how causes and conditions rarely throw you, or at least not for long; and if you can be present in the moment for each experience that arises, then you can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If you struggle and feel overwhelmed by what feel like ever-changing demands of modern life, and many times you’d like to just be on a beach somewhere, then this might be a quality for you to cultivate.
Our true nature is spacious and able to hold all of life in an open embrace. If we feel out of balance, coming home to our true nature allows us to rediscover that sense of being able to be in wholesome relationship with all that arises in our awareness. [READ MORE]

I hope you were able to really take time to look at each of these and sense in to sensations, thoughts and emotions that came up around each. If not, if you just perused them, make a point of trying this exercise at another time.

If you did the exercise, take a look at your notations and see what you’ve come up with. Notice those you’ve marked in need of cultivation and see if you can sense which one is in most need of attention right now. You might ‘rate’ them as to which ones activated the most difficult sensations, thoughts and emotions. Which one is causing you the most suffering right now?

All these qualities are interrelated. You might find you have marked two or three. As you look at them you may see a relationship between them. You might also recognize that you mistook one for another. For example, Resolve and Energy could easily cause some confusion. Look more closely. Is it really that you lack energy to do something? Or is it a lack of true resolve? That’s an interesting exploration in itself that you can pay attention to next time you’re feeling like a couch potato.

Exploring any one of these Paramitas could be a life’s practice. They work together to bring about awakening to our true Buddha nature.

Once identified, how do you go about cultivating your chosen quality?

One way to incorporate a quality into your life is to use it in your metta (infinite loving-kindness) practice. For example, you might say silently to yourself, ‘May I be well. May I be at ease. May I cultivate my natural generosity. May I be happy.’ See how I slipped the quality of Generosity in there? You can do metta practice at any time during the day, and at the beginning or end of your meditation practice. Or do the metta to yourself at the beginning, then metta to all beings at the end.

Another way to work with your chosen quality is whenever you find you are struggling, upset or conflicted. Instead of trying to change anything, see if you can cultivate your chosen quality to help you face the challenge. You might be surprised how well it applies and how it provides a kind and loving solution. If it doesn’t, then perhaps the quality you’ve chosen is not the one you most need to cultivate. Choose another! But I recommend you work with planting one quality at a time.

Abandon all ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’, ye who enter here!
Please do not take this list of qualities, these wonderful seeds to plant in your garden, as a to do list of ‘shoulds’. It would be very easy to give yourself a hard time about not already having grown these qualities. But that would not serve to grow them. It would only send you out of the garden altogether, saying ‘I’m no good at this kind of stuff.’ Instead, when you find yourself being unkind look at which quality would most help you here.

I would very much appreciate your letting me know how this exercise was for you. Feel free to ask questions and share your own findings.

Peace empowers intention, but what is peace?

I’d like to start off this continued exploration of the Paramita of Resolve with a guided exploration. It’s just two minutes, but it’s easier to talk it through rather than have you try to do it while reading.

EXERCISE (two minute audio recording)

(If for some reason you are not able to play the recording: Think about an intention that you have or a resolution that you have made either now or in the past. It doesn’t have to be your highest or most meaningful intention, just whatever comes up when I say that.
Now sense into your body and see how that intention sits. Where do you feel it? Does it stir up anxiety? Does it feel tight anywhere? Or does it make you feel more open and spacious, more clear and focused?)

Having done that little exercise, if you noticed tension come up in your body after stating your intention or resolution, then that intention is rooted in fear and confusion rather than compassion and clarity.

Let’s look at a common intention: ‘I want to lose weight.’ Why is it so difficult to follow through on that intention or sustain it? I don’t know about you, but when I say that intention, I tense up at the thought of people judging me for being overweight; of my jeans not zipping up, of having to buy a bigger size, and feeling some shame in my lack of control around certain foods.

How does that intention feel in my body? Heavy! Weighted down with shame, remorse, self-loathing, and a sense of hopelessness that has me giving up before I even get started. Well, how is that intention going to work for me?

Not very well, I can assure you. But then I had a little confab with a cardiologist who said to me, ‘As a kindness to your heart you could lose a little weight.’ Suddenly my intention was restated in a way that really spoke to me. Kindness was something I could get behind! So I reset my intention to be rooted not in fear or shame but in loving-kindness. In my body, instead of feeling tension and heaviness, I felt an upwelling of love and gratitude for my dear reliable heart that just pumps away all day and night for all these years. I have been able more often to come up with some kindness at the refrigerator door when my inner sweet tooth or just plain boredom has me lingering there. It’s also helped when I’m preparing a meal, when I’m sitting at the table, and when I’m shopping. I can put more love into the whole experience of eating, and more awareness into noticing when I am full or when I am eating mindlessly.

If you found tension or some other challenging sensation as you stated your intention in the exercise, how might you reword it to be rooted in love, gratitude and joyful celebration of life?

This experiential exercise might help you to rewrite your intention or it might erase an intention that doesn’t resonate with qualities we are cultivating here. There are fear-based intentions that activate desire, striving, and other qualities that drag us out of this moment. They are like glaring roadside billboards trying to make us believe some other moment is better than this one. This is a root cause of suffering: pushing away this experience in favor of some imagined past or future experience; and clinging to this fleeting experience hoping it will last forever.

A wise intention is not a distant goal that clogs up this present experience. It is a companion, a guide, deepening our resolve to be present and compassionate. It helps us to be more skillful in our interactions.

We can see from this experiential exercise that our bodies are the best indicators we have to discern whether our intention is wise. If it’s not wise, our body will tell us loud and clear: by tensing up or being painful in some way. When we pay attention to our thoughts — all those judgments and opinions — we can tell if we are going to be able to stay with our intention. If there’s a cacophony of voices fighting it out in there, it’s unlikely. But if our body and mind remains peaceful, and even gets a little tingle of expansive connectedness going on, then we know that we have named our intention in a way that we can follow through. Because there is inner peace.

Peace is the fourth way we are asked to look at the Paramita of Resolve, after discernment, truthfulness and relinquishment. But what if there’s not inner peace? Then we need to create more inner spaciousness, so the various thoughts can have their say but aren’t in constant conflict with each other. As we get to know the various patterns of our thoughts, we can respectfully discover what drives them.

We can create some inner peace if we are willing to pay attention. These various urges, drives, etc. all have well-meaning intentions: to help us survive. It’s just that those intentions are rooted in fear, and so the results are often ineffective and sometimes harmful. As we listen to them, we can use metta, lovingkindness, to allow them to exist as part of our experience without giving them everything they demand. We can create peace by creating spaciousness within ourselves so that it isn’t an tense tangle, but a vast field where all manner of thoughts and emotions can arise and fall away without creating conflict.

Maybe you would think it would be peaceful if everyone was in agreement, whether our internal voices or everyone in the world community. But we are not a mono-mind species either individually or collectively. We have different opinions, and two different opinions can seem equally valid, true, well-thought out, loving, etc. This is how it is to be human, isn’t it? So how can there be peace, ever?

Here’s how I see it: Peace is not the same note played by every instrument in the orchestra. Peace is the harmony that comes from each instrument playing its part so the resulting concert is beautiful. So then do we need a conductor? Not in my experience. With our young toy instrumentsgranddaughters we have a tradition of making music with the various toy instruments we have at hand. We march in a parade around the house with great exuberance banging and drumming and blowing on wooden flutes. From the outside it probably sounds horrendous, but for us it is a joyful celebration.

Every moment that I attend with awareness and compassion reveals its beauty. The challenge is always whether I can pay attention. With my dedicated daily meditation practice, I find that often I can. When I don’t pay attention to this moment, it can sound like a cacophony. But when I listen with spacious awareness and compassion, the beauty is revealed.

With that definition of peace, there is peace possible in every moment. It is not the peace of the dead or the dreamless sleep. It is the peace of life being lived in concert.

Why do we procrastinate?

Noticing the word ‘should’ when it shows up in our thoughts gives us creative opportunity for exploration. We hear the ‘should’ when we say it and we can pause to play with it. Yes, play!

So, for example, we notice ourselves saying, “I should do (fill in the blank). Ah, ‘should!’” Here we can recognize an opportunity to discover some inner resistance or ambivalence around the thing we feel we ‘should’ do. Noticing the should gives us the chance to sense into that ambivalence and resistance to discover what other thoughts or emotions are present. We might say, ‘Hmm, for some reason I have ambivalence or resistance to doing this thing since I am using the word ‘should’ around it rather than just saying I’m going to do it. What is my ambivalence? What is my resistance?’ This can be a very rich inner dialog, as long as we remember to set the intention to be respectful, curious and compassionate in the process.

Using the ‘shoulds’ we discover as opportunities for self-exploration is more useful and creative than creating another self-scolding ‘should’ level by thinking we shouldn’t use the word ‘should!’

One friend said that she didn’t use the word ‘should’ much. But then, as the conversation continued, she noticed that she was using ‘need to’ and ‘have to’ and other substitute words for should. And then a few shoulds cropped up as well. So we laughed about that! We all use this word or some variation all the time. So it’s not about eradicating the word from our vocabulary, but about noticing it, and then using that noticing to creatively question where we are feeling resistance.

Resistance and ambivalence leads to procrastination. You can look at the areas where you most often procrastinate and find a hornet’s nest of shoulds! Is it a pile of papers on your desk? A phone call you’ve been meaning to make? A party or trip you’ve been meaning to plan? A pile of clutter you’ve been meaning to sort? Whatever it is, it’s clearly a ‘should’ that makes you shudder. Why?

EXERCISE
After meditation, give yourself at least an extra ten minutes to perform this exercise if it is of interest to you. Have a journal or piece of paper handy to jot down anything that comes up that you might want to review later.

Pick an area of procrastination that feels pertinent right now, something you’ve been meaning to do but haven’t.
Just think about it in your usual way. You will have a recurring pattern of words that you use around this thing that you’ve been meaning to do. Simply allow it to play out.
Now notice the language you use as you think about it, just being curious and kind. (It’s like trying to get a little closer to observe some very skittish little animals that will run at the first provocation. So notice but don’t engage. Let them just exhibit their natural behavior.)
When you come upon a ‘should’ or similar word, pause to notice how it feels in the body.
Does anything tighten up, get closed off, get shut down?
How does this affect the inner conversation?
Does the conversation shifts energy on the pivot point of these should words?
If so, does it wind down so you just don’t want to think about it anymore? Or does it heat up in the form of anger, frustration, shame or blame?
Notice the emotions that arise.
This is an exploration. We are not trying to control it. There is no ideal outcome. There is just this noticing the habituated patterns in our thinking.
Notice hopefulness or expectation that this exercise will ‘solve the problem.’
Remind yourself to simply be present with the experience of noticing this pattern of inner conversation in order to learn more about it. This is not about trying to change it. When we are too eager to see results, our expectations sabotage the process.
Remind yourself to bring as much compassionate curiosity as possible to this exploration.
When you find yourself judging, be compassionate about that. This is also part of the pattern that you can explore.

We all have habituated inner conversations like this. I have several of them. I lurch a few steps forward on the project, then some chain reaction of inner events causes me to set it aside, sometimes for years. But even when I’ve set it aside, the ‘should’ is still there, running around in my head.
When I pause and see what’s happening, I can choose to explore it, if it’s an appropriate time, or I can simply be present, noticing the thread of thought as it passes through and return to whatever activity I am doing with my whole attention. 


One reason we are reluctant to explore why we procrastinate is the physical discomfort we feel when the subject comes up. Noticing the physical sensations is very helpful. Notice the sensations. Notice the desire to run away from these sensations. Set the intention to simply be present with them. 


These sensations, when noticed, provide a lot of insight. The tension that arises in our body is the way we hold the past and the future. In meditation, in order to maintain a sense of being fully present, we can breathe into the area to release the tension. This also works well when we are feeling stressed in life. BUT when we are doing an inner exploration, these physical sensations of tension are valuable messengers, because they do hold information in the form of memories, hopes and fears.


We may be afraid to open this ‘can of worms’ or ‘Pandora’s Box’ of memories and imaginings. In a post-meditative state we can be present with the fear as well as the images that arise. We are less threatened by them because we have developed the ability to observe threads of thoughts and emotions traveling through our open field of spacious awareness. There may be images of something painful, but if they arise they are here to answer a question only, not to cause more pain. After meditation we are better able to look at them with this fresh viewpoint rather than avert our attention in fear as we might usually do. 


How is this image answering the question posed? How does it tie in to the excuses we make about why we procrastinate in this area? Staying curious, kind, non-judgmental if at all possible, we have access to the answers within us. Through meditation, we are able to see more clearly the tight fear-bound patterns of our thoughts and emotions. After meditation we can take the time to pose a question, then be quiet enough to allow what arises within to inform us.

So, what sits on your to do list year after year because it has a lot of unexcavated ‘should’ qualities in it? Is it something you could simply remove from the list, some leftover or borrowed ‘should’ that has no meaning for you? Or is it something that you want to do, but simply have not explored the resistance and ambivalence you feel around it enough to have clear intention? Perhaps like me you have a voice in there that demands ‘Who are you to..’ do whatever it is you dare to even think about the possibility of doing. 



It really helps to get to know our inner cast of characters so that we can come into a healthier relationship with them instead of letting them shut us down so that we procrastinate endlessly, putting off activities we truly want to do, or loading us down with a sense we should do something that has no meaning for us. Life does not have to be this heavy! Some pain in life is unavoidable, but procrastination is one of the ways we cause ourselves and others additional unnecessary suffering.


So ask some questions, make a list, journal about why you want to do it and why you don’t. Notice if anything on your list come from somewhere else — a leftover desire to fulfill a parent’s goal for you; a fear of being judged, etc. When we can see the source of our inner conversations, we can more easily let them go. If they hang around, at least we recognize them and can compassionately acknowledge them and even negotiate with them. But as long as we recognize them for what they are, they can never have the same power over us they did when we believed our thoughts defined us.

This exercise is something you can do whenever you notice your life getting full of ‘shoulds’ and feel anxiety about not doing enough. It is not meant to solve anything, but it will loosen the stranglehold of tight patterns and bring things to light of awareness. By actively exploring we create an energetic spin that gets things moving. We fully inhabit our one and only personal point of power — this moment, when we wake to it.



[Read more about procrastination.]
[Read more about inner dialoguing.]

Buddha’s River Analogy cont’d: Poetry & an Exercise

In our exploration of the Buddha’s river analogy to talk about the Middle Way, we are looking and questioning what’s true for us, what is our experience of the shores, the boat and the river itself. Because we are so often lost on one shore or the other, it’s useful to see how we keep ending up over-indulging or adopting strict systems of self-denial.

Here are two poems to illustrate the two different shores. First, one about wanting run amok:


No End to Wanting
If truth be known, you want to be idolized,
to be set apart from the flock of ordinary beings
to be seen as separate and special.
You want a whole room of your mansion
for your many awards in specially lit glass cases
and the soundtrack of Rocky playing upon entrance.
You want your ghost-written biography
to fill a whole table at Borders with a
giant cardboard cutout of you and
a line round the block waiting since dawn
for you to sign your autograph and for them
tell you how much they love you.
You want to have a huge yacht with a crew
spiffy-clad in white shirts and shorts
lined up to greet you in exotic ports of call.
You want a small sleek jet done to your
taste by the world’s leading decorator
who answers your endless 2 am calls
happy to implement your latest desire
for say a chaise lounge in the loggia of
your villa on the shores of Lake Como
or your beachhouse in Bali, or perhaps
the estate in Provence or the penthouse in Paris —
each one of them staffed and stocked 24/7
in case you feel like a change of venue.
You want an entourage of sleek beauties or
hunks lounging at poolside, pouring you drinks,
laughing at your jokes, every steamy glance
 telling you how much they long to touch you,
to say they have touched you,
to be enhanced by your magical powers.
You want every celebrity in the world to be thrilled
at an invitation to drop in at a moment’s notice
because whatever else they had planned for a
Saturday night pales in comparison to the chance
to dine at your table and bask in your reflected glow.
You want your name to be a household word
said with a shiver of awe and a shared hint of desire.
You want your face to be as familiar as the one
people see in the mirror every morning
when they take stock and wish they were you.
You want people diving into your dumpster
to have even the most disgusting indigestible
parts of you to put on display
or be sold for thousands of dollars on eBay.
You want to walk down the street
and be mobbed by paparazzi who push you
back so they can get a better shot of you
because you are the most valuable prize
of their pathetic little lives and you know it.
You want to stroll into a showroom of
luxury cars and drive out with whatever
suits your fancy the way you used to
go out for an ice cream cone on a Sunday
afternoon when life was simple
and the sun on your back and the taste
of the ice cream and the laughter of a friend
was enough to make you happy.
When happiness was enough.
– Stephanie Noble


And to illustrate the other shore:

The Desert of Just Desserts
This scorched sand, this unrelenting sun:
No more than I deserve. 
Thick oozing lava pools and
a stack of buckets with instructions:
‘Fill and carry, don’t stop, don’t drop, don’t drink. Toxic.’
All around me others are loading up buckets, whispering,
‘This time I’ll do it, this time I’ll get it right.’
‘Please don’t let me fail again, please don’t let me fail.’
They don’t look up, so I drop my gaze, and set to the task at hand:
To carry these buckets across the vast arid sands,
to ignore those along the way whose
writhing bodies speak in tongues,
to set my sights, to keep my eyes on the horizon,
on the oasis shimmering golden in this hellish heat.

Oh, to be worthy of the illusive prize
to be worthy to set my lips upon the chalice
that holds that righteous sip
of sweet
pure
water.

– Stephanie Noble
To finish with our poetry sharing, here’s one by Mary Oliver. It is perhaps her most beloved poem for the way it gives us permission to see the truth about this ‘desert of just desserts.’ It is titled Wild Geese. Because I don’t have permission to publish Mary Oliver’s poem, here is a Youtube video of the poet reading three poems, including Wild Geese, which she reads because she says,‘Sometimes people get mad when I don’t.’ Watch it now or later, but come back to this post because we’ll be doing a valuable self-exploration exercise.


It’s important to recognize the quality of the river itself: Notice how it flows naturally, how it is connected in a great cycle of watery wholeness and life itself. Perhaps the image of a river feels claustrophobic. Imagine a wider river! Perhaps it seems boring. Imagine a livelier river, gurgling joyously! This is your experience of river. Let the river be an expression of freedom and life. Let the shores be less interesting than the river itself, so that your do not turn being on the river into another form of self-denial. And of course you don’t have to use the river analogy at all! It’s just an analogy and we have used many others that might better serve you. But it is one of the ways the Buddha made his teachings real to students, and so we have been exploring it thoroughly.

We did an exercise last week where we defined for ourselves what was luring us off the river of the Middle Way and onto the shore of over-indulgence or self-denial. I hope you had a chance to play with this, and that some lures came up.

Our exercise today is finding a lure on each shore that relates to one on other. These two lures are connected in some way. I will use a personal but pretty universal example to illustrate how this exercise works. Okay, so there is a hot fudge sundae sitting on the shore. No, wait, let me be more specific. There is a hot fudge BROWNIE sundae sitting on the shore. On the opposite shore there is a sign saying, ‘You’re a pig.’ Those two definitely have a relationship. I feel that if I eat the sundae, then I am a pig. And if I see that sign, I resonate with it and am reminded of the sundae I either ate or long to eat.

So now, find your two related lures. First, choose the thing that is sticky, that gets you caught up in craving, that makes you go mindless and sparks a lot of circular thinking and despair of ever being ‘good enough.’ The lure on the over-indulgence shore is not the occasional innocent treat. This is a mine field for you. It doesn’t have to be food, of course. It could be a craving for praise, fame, wealth, beauty, sex, security, or excitement.

If you have a lure on the over-indulgence shore that is ripe for exploring, there will definitely be some related lure on the opposite shore. It will chime in with some snide comment and draw your attention. The self-denial shore is full of rudeness, rules and regulations that don’t arise out of a sense of natural virtue and good will that comes from our feeling connected to all beings. Instead it is a set of whips and chains to use on ourselves and sometimes others when we project our issues on them. This shore is full of harsh judgments that don’t just deny us pleasure. They deny us our very right to be who we are.


Once you have found your two related lures, sit with the indulgence lure.
So I sit with the sundae. What does it offer me? What does it promise? A few minutes of pleasure, sweet taste, cool and creamy with hot and gooey, yum! A reward to myself. A sense of happiness. Oblivion, release.

Exploring further, what is the fear that drives the urge? What is the lure’s underlying fear-based message?

(Maybe you are saying, ‘Hey, why does there have to be fear? Why can’t it just be a hot fudge sundae. Well for some it would be, but I’ve got that ‘You’re a pig’ sign on the other shore, and a feeling that I would eat every hot fudge sundae if given the chance. So there is a fear message there. And if you’ve found lures that are equally or even more seductive, there is most definitely a fear-based message there. What is it?) 
The message I hear is, ‘Life is short. What if I get to the end of my life and feel I missed out on enjoying indulgent simple pleasures?” So I fear the regret that I didn’t live fully and embrace all that life has to offer.

We then check the statements that have come up for veracity. We ask, ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’ for each of the statements we have made.

When that exploration feels done for now, we turn to the related lure on the other shore, in my case the sign saying “You’re a pig!”

Explore what this lure offers. In my case I’m noticing guilt, self-loathing and shame. I’m also noticing a call to exercise discipline and will power. I’m hearing a promise of a reward of good health and a slender figure to provide me with a protective shield of ‘attractiveness’ that may make me more acceptable.

Now we ask ‘What is the fear that drives this urge?’ When put into words sometimes the fear sounds outrageous, but that’s okay. Outrageous as it is, it feels real enough, so write it down. You aren’t sharing this with anyone. It’s your own exploration just for you.
For me what comes up are fears that I will eat all the hot fudge sundaes in the world given half the chance, that I will become grossly obese instead of what I hope is seen as ‘pleasantly plump,’ that people will be repulsed by me, that I will be whispered about behind my back.

Again, we check some of these things for veracity, asking, ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’ for each of the statements we have made. This could be a long or short conversation. This is your exercise, your exploration, your experience. Give it as much time as you need.

Having fully explored both these lures on the banks of the river, can we find the Middle Way between the two? Yes, the Middle Way begins with awareness, so our exercise in shining a light on what lures us onto the shores of over-indulgence or self-denial helps us to stay present. When we are present fully with our experience, we are on the river. 

We’ve talked about the river as being awareness and compassion. Compassion is vital in this exercise and in life. Without discounting, negating or denying any of the feelings we have brought up, we notice them, acknowledge them, and then question them. Compassion allows us to return to the river. Without it we judge ourselves, our situation or the people we feel caused the situation, and thereby get stuck deeper and deeper in the muck and mire, the dark humid tangle of vines that choke us, or the quicksand of our thoughts and emotions.

So from our boat on the river we look at the two shores, thus reminding ourselves that this is the vantage point we choose, again and again, by setting the intention to be present and compassionate. Retraining our vantage point is part of the practice of meditation. With Wise Effort we are able to find this Wise View, this vantage point. We return again and again to the breath, whether we see it as simply the breath or as the river that runs through the center of our being.

If you are new to the practice, perhaps ‘the river’  is as illusive as the oasis or the golden mountain that looms deep inland on each shore, the horizon that never gets any closer. You may say,‘What river? I want the river! Where the heck is this river? Is it over that mountain? Maybe I better strive harder. Maybe I’m not worthy of the river.’

Don’t worry, the river is within you. The river is as close as the rising and falling of your breath. Only your ability to notice it is illusive, and it is that ability that we develop through meditation practice. So create for yourself a regular practice — begin with five minutes and work up to 30 or 40; or, if you prefer, do two 20 minute meditations a day. Set the intention to stay present with whatever you experience. And set the intention to be compassionate with yourself when your mind wanders, as it will, as it was designed to do. Just this will be enough. Let go of all else as you sit. Anchor in sensation, whether focused on the breath, on sound, or on an openness to all sensation; or choose a simple word or phrase that brings you present like ‘here, now, relaxed’ or ‘om.’ For more information on getting started in meditation, see the Meditation Basics page.

Tibetan Buddhist Exercise: Feeding the Demons

In our Tuesday class we continued to work with our inner critic who keeps us from our truest creative expression. We did an exercise based on the teachings of the American Tibetan Buddhist leader Tsultrim Allione who has taken the wisdom teachings of a 11th century female Tibetan Buddhist teacher Machig Labdrön and developed an experiential exercise called ‘Feeding the Demons.’ (Demons, dragons, Mara — it’s all the same. Don’t get caught up in trying to distinguish between them. They are just imaginary personifications of obsessions, fears, habits, chronic illnesses, addictions, depression, anxiety – all the things that sabotage our highest intentions.)

This powerful exercise, as I said in the last post, goes beyond conversing and negotiating with whatever is sabotaging our highest intention. I have had profound changes in my life made instantaneously by having participated in this half hour exercise. Judging from their faces as they left class yesterday, at least some of my students had profound experiences as well. I encouraged them to make notes and sketches of their ‘demon’ before and after feeding, as this enhances the exercise and its benefits, though is not required.

The basic premise of the exercise is the same as the exercise I developed for myself years ago, as mentioned in the last post: That these saboteurs are well intentioned but unskillful, and doing battle with them just fuels their power to disrupt our lives. As indicated by the title, the answer is to find out what the demons need and how they imagine they will feel when they receive what they need, and then to imagine ourselves as an infinite source of that feeling and imagine feeding it to the demon. Ultimately the sated demon is transformed into something benign or even an ally we can call on when in need. Pretty powerful stuff!

Although I will not talk through the exercise here, here is a link to an article in Tricycle magazine that does so, if you want to try it on your own. Or, better yet, buy Tsultrim Allione’s book titled Feeding Your Demons.

Comments from anyone who has experienced this exercise and would like to share them are invited. Click on ‘comments’ below.

Creativity & Meditation: Dragons at the Gate

Last week I wrote about an experiential exercise to help us discover our passions, and in this post we will focus on one of our passions: the one that is juiciest, most up for us right now, and/or the one that feels like the biggest challenge, that we are having the most difficulty finding time to do or joy in doing.

We can apply what we have learned from the dharma, and most specifically from the Eightfold Path, to the challenge we face in accessing and expressing this passion.

The Eightfold Path offers guideposts, and in this exercise we will practice going through each of the aspects of the Eightfold Path and shedding some light on our feelings and thoughts around the particular passion or project we have chosen to explore.

With each question, close your eyes and sense in to your body, noticing any sensation that comes up. Then notice the emotional tone of that sensation, if any. Then answer the question. Try not to edit what arises. There is no wrong answer. We are looking for the honest words of our inner aspects. We want to express as accurately as possible the words that keep us from pursuing our passion, so by their very nature they will probably be negative, even hateful. Let them speak! Write them down! Use quotation marks to get the exact wording. No one will read this but you. Let yourself relax and feel expansive enough to be open to whatever arises in this exploration.

We will go through the Eightfold Path in the reverse order of how we learned it. So we will start with Concentration. Since everyone will be more drawn to answer different aspects at different rates, I’m going to let you each work from the sheet of questions at your own pace. Then you can take it home to complete it if there isn’t enough time to do so here.

I recommend meditating before proceeding with this inquiry.

—————————
Eightfold Path to Creativity

Concentration
What distracts me from my focus on my project?
What story do I tell myself about why I should be doing something else? Invite comment from within and as accurately as possible, in quotes, record the voice of this aspect or aspects that keep us from doing what we want to do.

Effort
Am I striving to make this happen, focusing on the goal, the end product, and losing the joy of the process? If so, put in quotes the voice that says why this is necessary, why I have to work so hard at it.

Is my energy low or scattered around this project? Am I daydreaming about it but can’t muster up the energy to do it? Put in quotes the story I tell myself about why this would be better to do another day, week or month. Or any other story of tiredness or depression.

Mindfulness
When I approach this project, is my mind present or is it filled with all the other things I should be doing? Put in quotes the story about why I don’t deserve to be fully present with this experience that is so important to me.

Livelihood
Is there anything about this project that is harmful to others or the environment? Is there some way to make it safe or even beneficial?
Is this a costly project? Are there budget constraints that hamper its pursuit? Quote the voice that says I can’t afford to do this.

Speech
How do I talk to myself around this project? Do I put myself down? Say I’m not qualified? Say I will make a fool of myself? Put in quotes the cruelest words I use on myself around this project.

Action
Do I have doubts as to my ability to do this project? What would I need in order to do so? Is there a way to learn it? Am I willing to learn it? Am I willing to fail in the process of becoming more skilled? Put in quotes the fears of failure.

Intention
What is my intention in this project? Is it clear? Is it compatible with my Wise Intention to be kind to myself and others and to be fully present in the moment? After stating my intention in quotes, put in quotes whatever arises in reaction to the stated intention that perhaps doubts it. Does my ego have an intention here? Let the ego speak as well.

View
How do I see this project in the context of the world? Does it lean toward connection? Does it express loving kindness? Does it expand and/or deepen my awareness and compassion? Does it have the capacity to do the same for others?
Is there any constriction in my view of this project? Any part that feels tight and fearful? Perhaps a fear of success? A fear of how others will see me? Let this aspect speak and be known.

The things that we come up with, these fear-based thoughts and feelings, will now be our primary focus. They are what we call the dragons at the gate that we need to befriend before we can enter the temple.

Befriending dragons? This is not part of our western culture. We slay dragons!

From a Buddhist perspective, slaying dragons is a highly unskillful reaction to fear. Killing them only multiplies them. Violence begets more fear and anger which spawns more violence.

The dragon is not enemy, but is both illusion and teacher. The dragon is Mara, the tempter who taunted Siddhartha Gautama as he sat under the Bodhi tree 2500 years ago. Mara offered up every wondrous lure, every horrendous threat, every rude comment about his unworthiness to be enlightened. Sitting there he always had the option to rise up out of anger and slay Mara. But he knew well that such an action would only fuel Mara’s power to seduce and threaten.

Instead he maintained his sense of staying present for whatever arises, no matter how horrific, and each time Mara came up with yet another taunt, he would simply say, “Ah Mara, I know you.” And this was said with such loving compassion that Mara had no fear fuel to work with, and at the end of that long night Siddhartha found enlightenment.

So we can spend our time at the gate of our passion, sharpening the blade of our sword, strategizing approaches to outwit the dragon, or hiding behind bushes and quaking in our boots. But all of this behavior just fuels the dragon’s ferocity, so that we feel we have even more to fear.

So what is more skillful? Well, let’s take a cue from Buddha, why don’t we? Let’s sit with this dragon and become familiar with its ways. Let’s have a compassionate dialog with it and discover not what it wants but what it needs in order to feel safe in the world. The dragon is exhausted from all this fire-breathing and needs to rest! We have the capacity to offer that rest, that sense of ease and safety.

Before studying Buddhism, in my own meditations I had developed a practice of noticing, identifying and then dialoging with inner aspects that were sabotaging me and causing misery in my life. I brought my most compassionate self to the dialog and always remembered that each aspect was operating out of love and a desire to protect me, but that their means were often very unskillful. I never tried to get rid of an aspect, to beat it down or change it in any way. What I did was discover what it really needed to feel safe, and then I would negotiate a way to provide that without sacrificing my well being, my sense of joy.

Part of the process was to name the aspect when I noticed it forcing its skewed opinion into my life, trying to change my behavior, making me feel insecure, afraid or angry, luring me to eat when not hungry or avoid challenges. I give them affectionate names that make it easier to stay compassionate in the dialog, and compassionate when they rise up in my life. Little Sweetie is the sweet tooth. Slug is the one that hates exercise. Bumpy (for bump on a log) is the one that wants to avoid all excitement. It’s been a while since I’ve had conversations with them, because we negotiated a reasonable settlement, but they are still there, and if I were to do things that made them feel unsafe again, I’m sure they would speak up as if they’d never been gone.

What is a settlement? Well, it turns out Little Sweetie was more interested in savoring the sweetness of every moment than in sugar itself, so I negotiated that when I am drawn to sugar, I will bring myself more fully into the present moment and notice sensation.

Slug didn’t want to get out of bed because bed was like a big mommy hug, and he missed his mommy. This was just a year or two after my mother’s death. Well, I found a yoga teacher about my mother’s age who at the end of class lovingly tucked each of her students in under a blanket for Shavasana. Slug loved going to yoga with dear Mac! And after a couple of years was willing to branch out into more active exercise adventures as well.

So this is the way I found that was very effective in dealing with inner aspects of myself that used unskillful means to meet their needs. When I started out at Spirit Rock and the study of Buddhism, I recognized immediately what they were talking about when they would refer to dragons at the gate. These dragons aren’t always inner aspects, they can be problems in our lives that arise. Instead of being cowed by these problems, it helps to see them as dragons at the gate, something to work with, to find out what needs to happen to befriend them or at least render them benign.

In the course of this exercise, perhaps you have brought forth a voice or two from aspects that stand like dragons at the gate between you and your highest intentions. This may be in the area of creativity, but something else may have come up as well. Now that you have met them you might want to name them and do some loving inner dialog to see what they need. Please remember that their intentions are always for your well being and protection. Treat them with compassion and gratitude for their intentions, but recognize the unskillfulness of their means. Together find what it is they really need and find a creative solution to give it to them.

Next week in the Tuesday class we will be doing a powerful Tibetan Buddhist exercise that goes beyond conversation and negotiation into deeper realms of dealing with our dragons at the gate. Although I will not be able to recreate that here, I will offer a link to a source that does. So stay tuned!