Category Archives: fear

Exploring our relationship with the ‘enemy’

On especially hot days I am reminded of the summers I spent in Philadelphia when I was in my late teens. My parents had moved there from California, so when I went ‘home’ for the summer it was to this place that didn’t feel like home at all. It was a brick oven of a place, a sauna — so different from the San Francisco Bay Area where ‘nature’s air conditioner’ rolled in from the ocean most evenings. And yet there was something wonderful about a ‘hot town summer in the city’ experience, walking about Center City in the warm evening and meeting up with other young people in Rittenhouse Square. I made friends with a girl who lived around the corner and she was my guide. She taught me, for example, that how you walk across town when you are a young woman is not always a direct route. If guys are out cruising and start saying ‘Hey baby’ etc. and won’t let up, then how convenient that Philly has lots of one way streets. You just turn up the next street that goes in a direction his car can’t go. Oh yes, she taught me the ropes.

Upon returning home we’d often spend the night at each other’s homes, and finding it difficult to get to sleep in the oppressive heat, even at midnight, we’d make up lists. Our favorite list was of all the things we would get rid of if we had the power to do so. We could easily get to one hundred, taking turns naming, for example, people who do obnoxious things. We would get very specific. So, ‘boys who won’t take no for an answer’ might be on the list. Or ‘people who leave gum on the street’ or ‘girls who wear…’ whatever fashion we didn’t find becoming. I don’t remember the details of the list, just that we made one and that we were perfectly ready to wipe them off the planet for their offenses.

In retrospect, of course, this seems at the very least harsh, and at most horrifying. It was all in good fun, a shared complaint about the state of a world over which we had no power.

As a mature woman, I recognize that there is still an internal list, not as lengthy and not of people I would wipe off the face of the earth, but of things I perceive as a threat. And I know for a fact I am not alone in this regard.

At a time when so much saber rattling is going on in the world, it’s worthwhile to take a look at what we identify as ‘enemy’. We don’t have to be at war to have an enemy, do we? Throughout the day we find ourselves at odds and finding fault with all manner of people, situations and aspects of ourselves.

In the Buddhist tradition, we practice kindness, but not ‘nice-nice’ in the way of my mother and perhaps yours, who if I said I felt a certain way told me I shouldn’t feel that way. No, in this tradition we look at what is arising with as much compassionate awareness as we can. If we can look honestly at our thoughts and our fears, we can cultivate a more loving skillful relationship with all that arises in our lives, recognizing its true nature.

So if you are game, take a moment to bring to mind someone or something that you react to as an enemy. Take note of the physical/emotional reaction as your body tightens up and fear or anger arises. This enemy may be a specific person or group of people. It may be a concept. It may be something that causes you pain. Just whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t need to be just one thing. It can be a list! Feel free to write them down if you want.

Now, assuming you were able to come up with at least something that feels threatening to you, let’s look at some common traits that things we perceive as ‘the enemy’ have in common, and see if this is true for yours.

The enemy causes a visceral reaction. We can feel ourselves tensing up and/or negative emotions arising when we think about the enemy. If there’s no visceral reaction, then it’s just an opinion, not something that feels threatening.

The enemy takes up a lot of space in our thoughts and emotions. It’s not just a passing thought. It’s not just someone with whom we disagree. If you doubt it takes up a lot of space, then how did you so easily come up with one or more ‘enemies’? They were right there, readily accessible.

The enemy has power. For example, an enemy might be:

  • A leader with whom we strongly disagree feels threatening, while a past-leader now ‘ordinary citizen’ doesn’t. Yet perhaps we can remember when they felt threatening to our well being, back when they had the power.
  • Pain has power to lay us low, sometimes change our personality and even cause us to feel life is not worth living.
  • Age has power to diminish our abilities in a number of ways.
  • A boss has the power to fire us.
  • A coworker has the power to make us miserable forty hours a week.
  • A parent can feel like an enemy at times simply because when we’re in their care they have power over us. (Any power we give them after we become independent is an unexamined patterned response worth taking time to investigate.)
  • Disease in ourselves or in a loved one has the power to kill, disable and break our hearts.

What power does your ‘enemy’ have over you?

The enemy has volition. We are more inclined to perceive as ‘enemy’ someone who made a choice rather than, for example, an act of nature. There is a classic story of a man rowing his boat on a misty morning when he sees another boat heading towards him. As it comes closer and closer he gets more and more upset. Why is that person not watching where he’s going? Is that person purposely aiming for his boat? Who is it? What did I ever do to him? etc. etc. Enemy alert to the max. And then the boat bumps against his and he sees that it is empty, just a lost boat adrift in the water. All his anger vanishes. The boat is not the enemy. It is just carried on the currents. There is no enemy with whom to be angry.

Abstract concepts are not as powerful as personal experiences. We might be against violence in general, but it isn’t a palpable enemy unless it is happening to us (or did happen to us and we are still processing it), or it happens or happened to someone we love, or to someone right in front of us, whether in person or on a video or in a book. Abstracts do not activate our emotions in the same way.

Those are some things I have noticed as common traits of ‘the enemy’. What else do you notice? This is an exploration. Feel free to check it out for yourself and report back by commenting. (Click on reply at the top of this post.)

HOW TO COME INTO SKILLFUL RELATIONSHIP WITH ‘ENEMIES’

NOTE: If you are in a situation where you are in that moment being threatened, you will do whatever you feel in that moment that you need to do — your flight or flight response will likely kick in and nothing we discuss here will make a bit of difference. However, regular meditation practice will help you to be more mindful and better able to see the situation clearly, and perhaps will have cultivated some compassion that could help to ameliorate certain threatening situations. But street smarts and a call to 911 may be what’s needed. Just sayin’.

But, assuming we are talking about someone or something that is not holding a gun to our heads in this moment, but which satisfy the definition of ‘enemy’ for our purposes here, let’s proceed.

All of this ‘other’ making, this ‘me’ against the world or ‘us’ against ‘them’ thinking, takes a serious toll on our mental and physical health. It depletes our capacity for ease, joy and kindness to ourselves or anyone else. But it isn’t skillful to push these thoughts away or pretend they don’t exist. It is equally unskillful to actively antagonize an external designated enemy. This only adds to their power by fueling it with similar energy. So what are we to do?

Know your enemy
We’ve already made a first step by defining who or what we are perceiving as enemy. We have ruled out anything that’s just an opinion and anything that is abstract. Now we can focus on something that does activate a visceral reaction, that does cause us to feel threatened in some way. We get to know the enemy not to strategize how to defeat them, but in order to understand their true nature and the nature of our own mind.

Here are some ways to come into a more skillful relationship with the enemy or enemies we have named.

Expand awareness
We tend to get caught up in the story or the rant about whatever we perceive to be enemy. We probably don’t even listen to ourselves anymore, we just blather on in a habitual way. But we have a choice. Without pushing the enemy away, we can notice all else that is going on in this moment. We can come into an awareness of our senses — sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.
We can notice pleasant sensations also going on right now. The enemy may still be present, but we see that it is just one part of all that is happening in this moment, a slender thread in the whole fabric of being. We can take in all of this moment with gratitude for being alive to experience it, enemy and all.

Interview, inquire, investigate
When we feel up for it, perhaps after meditation, we can invite the enemy into our thoughts for clearer observation and investigation. We can breathe into the discomfort. We can take care of ourselves. We can remind ourselves that the enemy in this moment is just a pattern of thought and emotion. It is safe to look more closely and to do some insightful investigation.
Part of this investigation might be actual fact checking. When we perceive something or someone as ‘enemy’ we might not be able to talk ourselves out of it, but it is worthwhile to know at least whether it is as dangerous as we think. So, for example, if we have a fear of flying, the fact that it is statistically much safer than driving may be little comfort, but it is an important fact to keep handy. Other typical fears — spiders and snakes, for example — can also be aided by discovering their benign and helpful aspects, and perhaps how unlikely it is that we would encounter a dangerous variety in our area. Some things are easier to fact check than others. We need to be sure our sources are reliable, that our enemy is not the product of some random thing read online or the irrational ranting of some pundit with an ax to grind and bills to pay.  We might notice how willing we are to believe someone who reinforces our existing view, and let that be a red flag for us to make further inquiry rather than getting more entrenched in our position which is causing us, and perhaps others, such suffering.

Consider whether the enemy is a projection
We can recognize the possibility that what annoys us about another person is the very thing that we are either suppressing or judging in ourselves, especially if it’s always the same ‘type’ of person who annoys us.

Back when I was too shy to speak my own truth, I found I was often judgmental toward powerful women. ‘Who does she think she is?’ But it was just my own insecurities and my own desire to feel that freedom to speak up that was making enemies of perfectly nice people who were more worthy of admiration than condemnation.

If the ‘enemy’ that you defined is not necessarily powerful, then there’s an even stronger reason to look at the idea of projection. Perhaps you’re annoyed by people who are virtually powerless. Then what part of you feels powerless? This is not an accusatory investigation. We inquire with respect and kindness.

enemy-as-messengerRecognize the enemy as messenger
We can look at the possibility that what we have taken to be an enemy with a weapon to harm us is in fact a messenger with an offering that has the potential to heal us. The image shown here could be carrying a weapon or a scroll with an important message for us. We won’t know until we take the time to look.

Let’s take tension, for example. It is the one thing we actively work to diminish in our meditation practice. So it is easy to see it as the enemy. But in fact it is the messenger. It tells us that our thoughts are caught up in the past and/or future. When we befriend the messenger — come on in, take a load off, care for some tea? — then the tension releases to whatever degree is possible in that moment, and we can be fully present with what is arising in that moment. Noticing the tension, we recognize where our thoughts have wandered. The tension is the messenger.

Let’s look at some other ‘enemies’ we might encounter and what their message is:

If you experience any degree of impatience or even road rage, then your ‘enemies’ may be:

  • Someone driving slower than you want to drive. The message is to cultivate patience and to stay more present in the moment rather than rushing to be somewhere else.
  • Someone cutting you off, being discourteous. The message is to cultivate compassion, to recognize that everyone is carrying a burden we are unaware of.
  • Someone driving recklessly, putting you and everyone else in danger. The message is to be mindful ourselves, to be aware we have great power to do harm as we drive around at high speeds in these metal ‘killing machines’.

You get the idea. So what we’re learning is how to be present with someone or something we perceive as enemy by cultivating a spacious field of awareness to hold whatever is arising.

As we stay present with the enemy in that spacious field of awareness, we can inquire about the message it is bearing. We can ask ‘What do you want me to know?’ for example. This would be very skillful in post meditation inquiry if a challenging ‘enemy’ is present.

Practice meditation on regular basis. By doing so we become more and more attuned to recognize the infinite interconnection – all one, that there is no separate self that needs to be defended against some outside enemy. In that way we are able to see through the faulty filter of fear that has named something or someone ‘enemy’.

Feed your Demons This is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that can be very skillful in working through a difficult relationship with an aspect of self that presents as enemy.

Send Metta  A powerful practice is to send metta, infinite loving-kindness, always beginning with ourselves and always ending with sending it to all beings. In between we can send it to a difficult person. I have heard so many first-hand accounts of the power of metta practice — May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. May you be happy. — to shift a relationship and reveal that in fact the ‘enemy’ is a vulnerable suffering being, worthy of kindness and compassion.
Here’s a recording of me leading an extended metta practice.

Speak our truth to whomever is in power, whether in government or in our private lives. Once we have cultivated compassionate awareness, we are ready to use wise speech to address any concerns we have. Instead of aggravating the enemy, turning off their ability to listen to us, we touch a deeper place and inspire their own inner wisdom to look more closely at their own way of being with difficult emotions.

I hope that these suggestions help to whittle down your enemy list, and create some powerful positive changes in the process. Let me know!

The Faulty Filter of Fear

 

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As I was meditating the other morning, I noticed fear arising. This is not unusual. Fear appears in many guises — worry, planning, anxiety, hurt feelings, self-doubt, anger, etc. Fear is felt in the body as tension. Fear is a presence I usually recognize when it shows up, but this time I saw the fear in a very different way. That new way of seeing fear has helped me. Maybe it will help you, too.

An important part of our practice, especially when things aren’t going well, is to do a little self-inquiry. A key question we ask ourselves is ‘How am I in relationship to this?’ I could see that I was relating to my experience with fear. But how am I in relationship with fear itself? In that moment I could see that the fear is not part of the fabric of my being, but is, instead, a lens or a filter through which I am looking at experience. The fear is not me, not even an aspect of me, though almost every aspect of who I perceive myself to be looks at the world through the distorting faulty filter of fear.

If fear is simply a filter or a lens, suddenly it is neutral and more manageable. It is neither friend nor foe. It is not the boss of me. I don’t have to go into battle with it. It is simply an increasingly transparent filter that when in place distorts my view of things. Just noticing this gives me tremendous power! Whenever I become aware of fear arising, I can recognize it as the filter it is, and I have options: I can continue in my habituated way to look through the filter, or I can open my senses in this moment to see a world teeming with beauty and life ever unfolding in cycles of energy and matter. I can feel how this body, this transient gift, is intrinsically interconnected to all beings. And in that moment, that filter of fear reveals itself to be myopic and unreliable.

‘Now wait a minute’, you may be thinking, ‘fear is important and useful. Where would we be without fear? Would we have even survived as a species?’

These are interesting questions. So let’s look at fear more closely.

Let’s look at a situation where some innate sense in our body perceives a danger. Perhaps hair stands up on the back of the neck, or some other physical sensation that lets us know we might want to steer clear. Not walking into a situation that might put us at risk is a biological imperative. It’s instinctive. Point taken.

But I wonder when we live so steeped in fear all the time, if we really pick up on the instinctive cues. Fortunately I have not had the opportunity to see for myself. But I do follow my neighborhood online community and there was an interesting discussion about a ‘colorful character’ in town who wears different costumes on our main street, including one of a Buddhist monk! Another outfit is a kilt. Those are the only two I’ve seen. Anyway, the online conversation ranged from concern for the fellow to concern for public safety. But only one person in the group had actually had a conversation with the man. He found him to be a very sweet, not altogether ‘there’ person, who was clearly not a threat to anyone. Yet his very calm presence in his various guises really rattled up a lot of fear in a number of people. The filter of fear is full of faulty assumptions.

There are those hopefully rare times when an adrenaline rush sparked by fear gives us extra strength and speed to, for example, get out of the way of a moving vehicle. Okay, life saved! Good job! But upon closer inspection, we might ask how did we get in that position? Could we have been more mindful? More in touch with all our senses so that we could see that car coming? Maybe if we weren’t distracted by our phone, our planning mind, etc. But, yes, let’s acknowledge that adrenaline is useful in very small doses on such occasions. It’s when adrenaline is pouring through the body constantly keeping us on high alert that it can cause all kinds of problems in our bodies and minds.

Everyone in class this week recognized the existence of fear in an ongoing way. some immediately, some after an autopilot declaration of ‘I’m not afraid of anything.’ After a few minutes of looking more closely, they could see that it was fear itself that was making that bold statement.

It may help to consider whether fear itself is disruptive, or if it is our blindness to it that causes us trouble. For example, I am afraid right now, anxious about whether the medical treatments for my brother will work. If I don’t acknowledge how this fear is impacting me, how my whole torso is tense as a direct result of my concern, then I won’t treat myself tenderly. I won’t make room for all that is arising. And as a result I will be, I guarantee it, unskillful in some way: anxious mindless eating, prickly in relationships, exhausted and grumpy, or some other of many possible totally useless and sometimes destructive ‘coping’ mechanisms. And making an enemy of fear causes even more upset that may play out badly.

Just now from the other room I heard my brother on the phone telling his friend he didn’t know why Stephanie wasn’t able to find those other pills in his bag. Opportunity to notice my reaction: Okay, yup, there it is: Hurt, fury, ‘after all I’ve done for you’ yada yada, worry about being seen as a lousy caregiver by whoever he was talking to. word spreads, elder abuse – oh my! Okay now a little revenge, plotting to give my brother the cold shoulder for his lack of appreciation, (even as I know I won’t do that, because after all he’s operating out of fear too, and he’s in a fight for his life). All this mental storm in a matter of thirty seconds! Wow. Fear in the house!

Acknowledging the fear, I allow myself the time, space and compassion needed to be skillful in my life, taking care of the needs of others more ably and lovingly because I continue to be present and compassionate with myself. If this sounds self-centered, remember the oxygen mask directions on an airplane. Put your own mask on first before helping someone else. Especially for many women, this is a necessary reminder. How much of our willingness to give ourselves away, to always put others first even to the detriment of our own health, has to do with fear? ALL of it, in one way or another.

So we recognize fear. We feel it in the tension in the body. We don’t try to talk ourselves out of it, because that is just an inner battle between — let’s nickname them — ‘logical mind’ and ‘scaredy cat’. There’s no kindness or respect there. It’s more skillful to simply listen, using the infinite inner wisdom that rises up when we take the time to listen in. Every little aspect of self except that infinite inner wisdom is terrified of something. And it’s useful to see the nature of that fear. There’s the fear of making a fool of ourselves, so that aspect keeps us from speaking. There’s the fear of getting hurt in love, so that aspect keeps us from exposing our vulnerability. With awareness and compassion, we can recognize the specific fear-based message of any fear we identify. It can also be helpful to investigate where that message came from. But all of this is done in a loving and respectful way. Not to change or get rid of anything.

Fear sets in when we let unexamined assumptions motivate us. Past experience perhaps has taught us to be cautious in certain situations or with certain people. People who were major influencers in our lives handed down their own fear-based views, and we accepted them without question, too. So here we are, full of fear. But it’s just a lens distorting reality. And we have our tools of skillful questions: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Is the man wearing a kilt one day and a monk’s robe the next a threat? 

For some fears, we don’t need to go on an inner journey. We just have to recognize what we are surrounding ourselves with in our daily lives. If the news is churning out endless images, headlines and opinions that are contrived to activate a fear-based addiction, is it any surprise we feel overwhelmed with fear?

When we don’t take the time to question the veracity of our beliefs and assumptions, then fear holds the reins of our lives, causing us to behave in ways that are destructive to ourselves, those around us and, since we’re all a part of the same living system, ultimately all life on down through generations.

‘Now wait a minute’, you may say again, ‘where would we be without fear? It’s a great motivator to do the right thing. Without the fear of negative consequences, wouldn’t we all just run around doing all kinds of damage?’  I don’t know the answer to that. Certainly people are motivated by fear to do the right thing: Fear of going to hell. Fear of a spanking. Fear of losing our job. Fear of getting a ticket. Fear of getting fat. Fear of being seen as less than admirable. Fear is a powerful motivator, no doubt about it. But the results of acting out of fear quite naturally fail.

Let’s take the example of the fear of getting a ticket. That’s a pretty common fear, one that all drivers tend to have. But we could drive with mindfulness and compassion, aware of the fact that we are driving a potential weapon of death, maintaining safe speeds, watching for pedestrians and other vehicles, sharing the road with kindness and consideration, and we would be skillful drivers. The fear of getting a ticket could make us think that as long as there isn’t a police car in the vicinity we could pretty much run rampant and ‘get away with it’. What are we getting away with? While not all laws are perfect, the majority of laws were made up to keep us safe. The laws are based in common sense, and if we use common sense, awareness and compassion, we don’t have to be afraid of getting a ticket.

For me now, the direction of this exploration takes a fearful turn. Because of the advent of videos capturing incidents of police violence against unarmed black men, there is a heightened awareness and what feels like a very reasonable fear. Because the majority of the men in my family are black, my chest tightens with fear when I think about it. When it comes to this particular fear, I am currently unable to talk myself down from the ledge. But I will keep looking at it, and that’s all any of us can do: Just keep practicing, and keep exploring. I have noticed that I am less fearful when I am able to actively do something, so that might be something to also explore.

Our practice is to notice what is arising. Noticing fear is not always comfortable. But finding a way to be present with fear, without pushing it away or making it the enemy, really does help us to come into more skillful relationship with all that arises in our experience.

See for yourself if you are looking at your experience or the world through a faulty filter. And please let me know what you discover!

Fear, Metta and the Long Goodbye

Letting Go of Fear
At the heart of every difficulty of letting go of anything we find fear, nestled like a snake, always ready to strike or strangle. Whatever object, habit or hindrance we set the intention to release is held tight by our fears.

While fear serves us well in certain situations, alerting us to imminent danger, it can very easily take over. It becomes fear on overdrive, a hyper-fear that doesn’t serve us. We develop tight patterns of fear that lock us into escalating tension and potentially illness as the body struggles to cope with being ever on high alert.

In class last week I led an exploration exercise that the participants said had a profound effect on them, and prompted some valuable insights. Unfortunately, I can’t replicate it here. Perhaps it is something I can lead in a workshop if there is interest. Let me know!

Sharon Salzberg at Spirit Rock
On Saturday I attended a Sharon Salzberg day long at Spirit Rock. She is a gifted teacher and very funny. She has many books, podcasts, etc. so you can get the benefit of her teachings if you are interested. Her primary focus has always been metta, lovingkindness, and that was the theme of the day. Metta practice is a natural antidote to fear, so it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to spend a day with the ‘queen of metta.’ She, along with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, founded Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, taking over an old building that had been a Christian monastery. She told the story of how it came to pass that there is a ‘Metta’ sign above the door of the main building. Originally the letters read something like Brothers of the Testament. They asked if maybe the letters could be rearranged to say something about them in their new retreat venture. And voila! 

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The Long Goodbye
Sharon had been told she would be among the first teachers to teach in the new beautiful community hall at Spirit Rock. But that was not to be as it is still under construction in its final final final stages.

I trust this was the final class I will ever attend in the old hall. The opening date keeps being moved forward so that I have now attended a number of classes that I assumed were the last class I would spend in that sweet old dilapidated temporary structure that has been standing some thirty years, but is now truly looking like it will dismantle itself at any moment. Each time I say a fond farewell and thanks for the memories over the past twenty-two years of spending rich hours there doing meditation, yoga, listening to dharma talks, participating in discussions and on occasion teaching. This time it was like ‘Goodbye, already!’ Is that because I’ve been practicing letting go of late? Ha! Really just sensory desire rising up to experience sitting in that beautiful new building. But still, once again, and for the very last time, let me say thank you to the old hall that has undoubtedly ushered in more awakening than any other prefab structure in America.

Fire! Fear and Meditation

Image result for california fires 2015

Last night a swirl of smoke moved in from the east where forest fires are burning uncontained in multiple areas here in Northern California. The brown cloud covered the sun, turning it bright red. My mind filled with scenes of tinderbox forests and golden hillsides in towering flames as valiant firefighters work endless hours to protect whatever they can. I send them metta, loving- kindness: May they be well. May they be free from harm. I feel a welling up of gratitude for their efforts. Then I look out at the forest where we Iive and feel the fear I always feel in this dry season, but especially now after years of drought. I don’t want to think about the devastation that could happen before my eyes, taking away our home, our neighborhood, the glorious little eco-system on this hill, the restful green beauty that soothes me, but every time I hear sirens, I feel tension in my body as fear leaps into the foreground of my awareness.

What is the benefit of the regular practice of meditation, you might reasonably ask, if you still experience this kind of fear and worry? Shouldn’t I, a long-time practitioner and a teacher of meditation, be all blissed out? I remember Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman and his goofy grin saying ‘What me worry?’ I think of Janis Joplin singing ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’ This is why theoretically monks have a better chance at a bliss state: They have given up all material incumbrances. But the human mind is funny. It quite naturally builds ‘something’ even out of what some might call nothing. And then it protects that something fiercely. Remember the Tassajara fire where Buddhist monks risked their lives to defend the monastery? Brave. Foolish. Those two words are so often entwined.

People who have lost their homes to tornados always thank God that the family survived. Their house and all those mementos now destroyed and scattered for miles will be missed, of course, but that force of nature that tore through the neighborhood left behind a harsh but valuable lesson on what really matters.

Whatever we lose we can always imagine something worse. That is the nature of the human mind. And when that worse thing happens — because we do lose family members, don’t we? — we amazingly find some way to live with that. 

It is the nature of the human mind to care, and I for one appreciate that. We care deeply! Meditation practice doesn’t cause us not to care. It is not a drug to bring a state of oblivion. Instead it creates a compassionate spacious ease where we can see more clearly the activity of the mind and how we are in relationship to all aspects of our lives and the world around us. We can see how we cause ourselves and others suffering through grasping, clinging and pushing away.

Meditation can’t stop the fires, of course. But the awareness that arises in meditation allows me to notice the tension in my body and the fear that causes it. I can pause and breathe into the tension, relaxing and releasing it to whatever degree is possible in this moment. I can see how my childhood fears of fire are easily activated. I see that little girl I was being terrified by a TV movie about children trapped in an elevator with the orphanage on fire, and how my mother, knowing how fearful I was, always made sure my bedroom in all the homes we lived in had a fire escape. And how that fear also made me the most qualified candidate in my elementary school to be Fire Chief. I used to get to decide when we would have a fire drill, and I and my four (boy) deputies would stay in the building to monitor the drill and then go around and give reports to all the classrooms. All of these memories live inside me and contribute to what is happening here and now. I don’t need to get lost in them, but mindfulness practice helps me see not just what’s going on but its source as well.

As long as I know our emergency evacuation plan, I have no reason to live in future thoughts. I can practice being present in this moment with all that is happening here and now — the cool air coming in the screen door, the sunlight on the mountain, the sounds of birds, traffic, my husband doing Tai Chi on the deck, the feel of being supported by my seat, my fingers on the keyboard, my breath rising and falling. For many years  I have been training my mind to come home to this moment. This moment fully sensed can hold all my fears and worries, acknowledged with compassion. This mindfulness practice is so spacious that the worries are like little threads traveling through. They haven’t disappeared, but I see them in context. I am not tangled up in them. They are not choking me. Quieting down and cultivating compassion and ease allows me to live with the vagaries of life and still fully experience the sweet gift of this moment.

‘Go to the Places That Scare You’

At the beginning of each dharma talk, after our meditation (so we are all primed to receive insight and wisdom,) I have been reading a page from The Pocket Pema Chodron, a diminutive and dear collection of the author’s teachings, usually one to three paragraphs long. This book was a present from one of my students and has become a lovely tradition for our class. We never know what it will offer, but it always feels like a gift.

This week was Teaching #85 ‘Go to the places that scare you.’ We don’t often discuss at any length what we have read, because the author is so succinct and spot on, what more needs to be said? But this time it felt like we could just hang out with that thought for awhile, so we talked about what it is to go to the places that scare us. Pema Chodron has a whole book on this topic, so it’s not surprising that we found we could spend time with the idea. It led to a very rich sharing with a number of personal insights by students. See what it brings up for you when you go to the interior places that scare you, the places you usually avoid.

In our discussion we were able to experiment with using the techniques we discussed last week: Sharing without getting involved in ‘the story.’ We could see how this way of sharing was very powerful and approachable. Together we could look at what was arising use skillful means to sit with it and allow it to transform.

What seemed to want to be shared after that was this dharma talk about noticing strong emotions: http://stefnoble.blogspot.com/2011/01/noticing-enzyme-action-for-emotion.html

Naming Our Poisons

The Buddha taught of the three poisons, the mental states that manifest in unskillful action and cause us and those around us to suffer. They are greed, aversion and delusion. As our minds become clearer through the practice of meditation, we begin to see these three states as they arise within us. We can notice how our actions are rooted in and fed by one or the other of these states.

Right now, for example, I am sitting here feeling greedy for the dharma as I write, hungering to learn more, and the desire to share it in the clearest way possible so that my students may benefit from knowing it. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, and it isn’t. Especially noticing it as it arises is a good thing. But noticing also brings an awareness of a tinge of energetic urgency, panic and fear that are also present in this hunger. Fear of it not being enough, of me not being enough, of my being an imperfect vessel for this information.

At the same time I am noticing a strong aversion to a phone call I am expecting from someone I have never talked with before but who appears to have anger issues as shown in his email. He is not a direct client of mine but is someone my client has to deal with. Suddenly I am ‘having to deal with’ him too. I don’t want to! I’m afraid! I feel the tension in my body rising up. I have held this tension since yesterday when we made this appointment for him to call me. And to top it off, he is already 47 minutes late in calling, which leaves me in this purgatorial state of dread.

Noticing these states, there may be a tendency to work with them, as in ‘fix’ them. That is just another form of aversion arising. I feel aversion for this state of aversion. How does that help? It really doesn’t.

So instead I breathe. Admittedly the breath started out as a sigh, but that reminded me to breathe! I send myself a little compassion. Compassion releases some of the tightness, infusing a sense of expansiveness that allows me to see more clearly. Already my shoulders have dropped an inch. However, I notice my jaw is tight. The buzz in my body is present.

I look out the window, the green and grey morning is calming. The tree outside my window doesn’t see my challenge and yet lives in this world. I don’t want to be the tree, but I am not unlike the tree. I don’t know what the tree experiences, but I can be pretty sure it is not currently dreading a phone call.

The tree is rooted in the earth. I sense my rootedness in the earth. The tree relies on its roots to weather high winds and powerful storms. I am anticipating some high wind this morning, so I sink into my roots, my connection. Thanks tree! Good advice!

The phone call went very well, by the way. A friendly constructive exchange with full agreement and goals achieved all around. Was that just a fluke? Or did my grounding myself help me to remember the humanness of the caller?

Having had a positive experience when anticipating a negative one is something I try to notice, adding it to my learned experiences. I am surprised that with attention, I actually do find I can reason with myself, saying, “Chances are, based on past experience, this will be fine. I will see how I wasted my time dreading an experience that much more often than not is a positive one.”

Noticing when we are operating out of greed or aversion is easier than noticing when we are operating out of delusion. What is delusion anyway? It’s like walking around in a fog and being constantly surprised when things happen. It can be operating as if we are an object being acted upon rather than the subject of our own lives, able to make decisions.

If we are in a state of delusion, how can we notice it? We can’t! At the moment of delusion the mind is enveloped in a cloud or fog, drifting, lost and unaware. But if we have set our intention to be present, then we can notice when it clears a bit. Just noticing that begins the development of awareness of delusion, and that awareness thins the fog. When the fog is thin, we have more options. We can drift or we can stay present. We can notice when the clarity begins to fade and we can take that as a reminder to reset our intention to be present with compassion, to notice the cloud of delusion as it comes and goes. Delusion has a very different felt sense than aversion or greed, but all three take practice to notice.

How do we work with these Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion? I remember when I first started studying Buddhism at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, there was a good deal of talk about how we are generally more inclined to one or the other of these mental states. People would say things like, “I am a greedy personality.” For me this seemed like just another way to label ourselves. We are often attracted to self-labeling, even if it’s an unattractive label.

Defining who we are seems to give us a place in the world, but it locks us in to a false sense of self. While we each do physically fill a finite place in this earthly life, defining it with limiting labels does not satisfy the deeper longing for a sense of understanding our infinite connection, the true nature of our existence.
We have talked before about the shift from the finite to the infinite view. For purposes of convenience in functioning in the world, we see ourselves as finite, singular and separate. But we discover through meditation, or perhaps through spontaneous insight, the infinite view that is always available to us, wherein we recognize that we are not separate at all, that we are a vibrant expression of life loving itself, like a drop of water flying through the sky knowing that it is a part of the sea-evaporation-cloud-rain-river-sea cycle of being which is a part of an even larger circle of life, and that all is one. With this infinite view, more fully discussed in previous discussions in the Eightfold Path, we are able to live more fully and joyfully in the world, even while being able to maintain our seemingly finite path with its various responsibilities, relationships and choices.

In the past few weeks, when discussing our clinging to the rock with our roots believing it to be our identity instead of releasing into the rich nourishing soil and allowing ourselves to grow to the fullness of our being, what we are talking about is letting go of the finite and releasing into the infinite. That shift from finite to infinite comes with our ability to be present and relaxed, releasing the tension that is our body’s way of holding the past and the future. This present moment fully experienced is the portal to understanding our interconnection, our being a part of and being supported by the infinite web of life.

While it may be tempting to label ourselves, it is more skillful to notice greed, aversion and delusion arising in our experience, and not get tangled up in saying, ‘I am an aversive personality type.’ Observing and judging ourselves to be more inclined to one of these three states may seem like it helps but it runs the risk of blinding us to the arising of the other two poisons, for we are tuning ourselves to notice the one above the others. All of us have all three poisons, even if not in equal measure.

The habit of self-labeling can make us passive, as if we have been indelibly stamped with this tendency and there’s nothing we can do. In truth, there’s nothing we NEED to do except be present and compassionate with all that arises in our experience, but that’s very different from a sense of helplessness that there’s nothing to be done about it, as if we are stuck. We are not stuck, we simply perceive ourselves to be stuck. In fact we are quite free, but we choose to pick out new wallpaper for our prison cell, remaking ourselves, rather than simply be present and watch the bars dissolve. We explored the whole concept of freedom in dharma talks quite a while ago. If that word resonates, perhaps you’ll want to read them. If freedom scares you, then that’s important to notice as well. Question in: “What am I afraid of?”

We can fall a little bit in love with even negative labels for at least they give us a sense of definition to cling to. But clinging to the hard rock of who we believe ourselves to be is the essence of what keeps us from opening to our true nature.

In a talk last year on ‘Holding the World in an Open Embrace’ I presented greed and aversion in the form of photos of two little girls, one holding tight to all her toys representing greed; the other with crossed arms and a pouty face representing aversion.

My sixteen month old granddaughter Lucy for the first time in my presence yesterday crossed her arms and pouted! Ah, aversion! This is the first manifestation in this form, though of course she has shown her preferences and dissatisfactions in a myriad of ways. But to actually see her cross her tiny chubby arms and pout with her little cupid bow mouth was quite something!

Where did she learn this particular manifestation? Lucy is my current teacher. I have been learning what is inherently human. When she wakes she does a natural yogi full body stretch, and she has done this since she was just a few months old. Now I try to remember to do that when I wake too. Where did I lose my natural inclination to do so?

And now seeing her pouting and crossing her arms I have to wonder how she developed this classic aversion pose? She doesn’t watch television, and has no older sibling to imitate. Where does she get this little Shirley Temple imitation? It’s a wonder. And it’s adorable and yes a little frightening. Aversion arises in Lucy and displays itself. We could easily go uh-oh and label her an aversive personality and be afraid, very afraid, of what the future holds with this crossed-armed pouty force to be reckoned with. But all that does is fuel our fear, lock her in a box of our labels, a box she will either stay in or break out of unless she can wear these labels lightly, knowing they do not define her true self.

In the past few weeks we have been discussing the inner aspects, what in psychological terms are also called sub-personalities, especially those we keep most hidden from our awareness that make up the shadow. When we are having a skillful inner conversation with an aspect, we might benefit from noticing whether it seems to be fueled by greed, aversion or delusion. I had mentioned Striver and Underminer, two aspects that have resurfaced in my awareness. Clearly Striver operates more from greed and Underminer from aversion, and both are delusional. (As some people might think I am to name inner aspects!! But it is a valuable exercise for the orderly exploration of a very complex lacy-patterned infrastructure of thoughts, emotions and beliefs that form a part of our experience that most influence, and sometime sabotage, our ability to live with awareness and a love of life.)

As a tool for self-exploration, knowledge of the three poisons of greed, aversion and delusion provide insight and clarity. We can use them as clues to see the fear at the root of the aspect we are exploring. These fears — the fear of separation, of exclusion, of not being acceptable, of disappearing, of being overwhelmed and washed away, of being judged, or of failing — are just a few of the ways we forget our connection to all that is and the universal oneness of being.

Eightfold Path: Spacious Intention

In our last exploration of the Eightfold Path two years ago, I said that Right or Wise Intention is the way we keep our spacious view from becoming spacey. But can there be such a thing as spacious intention?

Intention clarifies, takes us out of the fog or miasma of our amorphous thoughts and emotions and adds a sense of precision and presence. But does something need to be solid to be clear? No! Think of air, think of a clear pool of water. Spaciousness allows us to have clarity without rigidity. So Spacious Intention is possible because intention is the clarity of purpose that arises out of spaciousness.

To review, our intentions, wise, right or spacious, are three-fold:
• to develop a regular practice of meditation
• to stay in the present moment
• to be compassionate to ourselves and others.

If this is new information for you, I recommend rereading the post from January 2009 about Right Intention. When we talk about spacious intention, we are looking to see how spaciousness might enhance each of these intentions.

The intention to set a regular practice
The first thing we need in order to establish a practice is to claim some space in our often busy day. For some people this seems impossible. Where would they find the time? A sense of spaciousness allows us to see the day differently. We can see space between activities perhaps. With Spacious View we can look at our day and see the times when we are sensing our interconnection, expanding that sense of presence and compassion. We can see the times we are not spacious but spacey, either in repetitive circular thinking patterns that become mindless and exhausting or in succumbing to mind-numbing activities that we think of as restful, like surfing the internet, watching television, playing video games, going shopping without needing anything, etc. When we get into Spacious Action, we’ll look at these kinds of activities more closely, but for now, let’s accept that most of us have some form or another of escapist activity that doesn’t serve us very well.

Many of the things we do to ‘give ourselves a break’ are misguided attempts to connect with Spacious View. When we can see this is true, we can replace at least some of the activities with a regular practice of meditation for twenty, thirty or forty minutes a day. Even ten minutes to start will make room for the possibility of developing Spacious View. (Read more about setting up a meditation practice.)

The intention to be present
Setting the intention to be present is setting the intention to anchor our awareness in our senses, the ground of the present moment out of which the infinite field of awareness is able to keep expanding to hold whatever arises in our experience. Notice that we talk about the senses, not about the body, because the image that we hold about the body is usually finite, bounded in our skin. In truth, the body’s edges are much less defined than we imagine, as the skin is a permeable collection of cells and pores, and the breath that enters our bodies and is then released blurs the boundaries as well. But, for the purposes of navigating around in the world, we have developed a strong awareness of edges and have made them more ‘real’ than is useful for purposes of our intention to be present. For this purpose, we are better off sensing, noticing what arises in the vast field of our awareness that is free of boundaries. This field is full of energy waves that our senses perceive as sound, light, felt sensation, taste and odor. We set the intention to notice without naming, without forcing the edges onto the sound that we recognize as the chirp of a bird, for example. By letting go of the naming, we can also let go of judging. If judgment arises, we notice it, but it too is simply an amorphous arising wave of thought that is simply passing through our awareness.

Being present and noticing in this way is a practice. Part of what we might notice are feelings of frustration caused by our expectation that a lifetime of not being present will suddenly evaporate simply because we want it to. Our expectations, our wanting, and our frustration are all part of the experience, all to be noticed and given spaciousness. And because we are prone to experience such frustration and harsh judgment of ourselves, our third intention is to be compassionate.

The intention to be compassionate
Lack of compassion arises out of fear and a sense of separation. All the harsh judgments that live inside us – judgments of ourselves, family, friends, public figures, and the way of the world – come from a tight state of anxiety and defensiveness, what has been called a vestigial fear ingrained in us since the days when we had many predators and few skillful defenses. I read somewhere that after we had discovered fire, invented spears and developed a strong sense of community to defend against and ultimately decimate species that preyed upon us, that vestigial fear still remained. Once we were safe from predators, we needed to pin that fear on something, so we began seeing differences among ourselves, naming ‘other,’ defining boundaries and creating war.

Now our ability to make boundaries and see differences has become such a highly developed skill that we feel totally separate, even from our closest kin. We encourage individualism and celebrate our uniqueness, but at the same time we have, out of fear, created absolute isolation! We have dysfunctional community relations because what we think we want from each other – admiration, recognition of specialness, etc. – is not what we need from each other: a sense of connection. That feeling of isolation can cause all manner of fear-based acts of aggression. Then the fear seems reasonable, as we feel we must protect ourselves from those who, out of fear, perpetrate these acts.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all could notice the fear as it arises and have skillful means to deal with it? Then perhaps together we could release the fear. Groups that form to foster peace and understanding are trying to do just this. And so are we who meditate on a regular basis. Some Buddhists take the bodhisattva vow to be reborn again and again in this world until all beings are able to awaken together.

Developing an awareness of our vestigial fear enables us to hold it up to the light to see if it is necessary. We are developing the ability to be conscious in our thoughts, emotions and actions. But consciousness can only show us the truth. Compassion enables us to hold what we discover in a way that is beneficial to ourselves and all beings.

So we set the intention to cultivate compassion. How does spaciousness come into play with compassion? A sense of spaciousness creates room for compassion to arise within us. Compassion is a spacious generosity of being, beyond the tightness of unfounded fears and a false sense of separation.

Compassion helps us to release what is held so tight within us. A number of years ago I had an insight on a retreat and I still have it pinned to my bulletin board. It says: ‘I have nothing to fear, nothing to lose, nothing to defend and nothing to prove.’ What a breakthrough that was for me! It was like discovering the big tight knot in the core of my being – that vestigial fear, that fortress of isolation – and being able to loosen the knot a bit, to liberate myself, if only momentarily. These insights come and awaken something within us, something that once seen may begin to dissolve in the light of awareness.

Now if this statement that I have nothing to fear, nothing to lose, nothing to defend and nothing to prove sounds misguided, it’s because in a finite sense, in a world of separation and isolation, of course I could lose loved ones, material wealth, health and life; and therefore I have plenty to lose, fear and defend!

But as we discussed last week Spacious View sees the oneness of all that is. This is the great inner shift of awareness, an expansive perspective from which we see the energy waves rising and falling and the rhythm of life pulsing, and all the experiences that arise out of causes and conditions — all the pleasure and pain possible in this life — as vibrant threads in the fabric of being. And when we experience pain, if we have access to this Spacious View and this sense of compassionate awareness, then we feel sustained in a way that would not have seemed possible.

This is not to discount the emotions we experience. Grief at the loss of a loved one is still grief. But when grief is freed to be itself, alive in the moment, experienced as it is, without being blindly compounded by a sense of isolation, vestigial fear, physical tension that hangs on to all the dregs of past associative pain and all the images of a future filled with this same intensity of grief; when we are able to sense in to the spacious energy of life itself, without needing to make sense of it, without needing to justify it, without needing to make up stories around it in order to gain some sense of control, then we can rest in compassionate spaciousness and hold ourselves with tenderness.

Out of this restful spaciousness, we can bring kindness and joy into the world, providing ourselves and others with a sense of connection and well being. Spaciousness allows us to see that our way is not the only way, or that someone else’s way does not have to be our way, and that these seeming differences are just a place to hang our fears left over from the Stone Age. There’s a part of us that doesn’t want to let them go! We are nostalgic for the saber tooth tiger! But spaciousness allows us to live from our deep sense of connection, a sense that cultivates compassion for ourselves and all beings.

As with most aspects of our practice, one feeds the other. So we can arrive at Spacious View through the practice of compassion. Setting our intention to be compassionate and to send metta to ourselves and to others as part of our practice, develops a way of experiencing the world that fosters our ability to sense the oneness.

So that is Spacious Intention!