Category Archives: Four Brahmaviharas

Are you imprisoned by your preferences?

In the past four posts, I’ve written about the mind states of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity: the Brahma-viharas, heavenly abodes, that we cultivate through our practice of mindfulness.

But part of cultivating any mind-state is noticing what obstacles arise, causing disruption. One of these obstacles, easily discernible, is our collection of preferences and our attachment to them. So let’s take a look at preferences. We all have them. I certainly do. Most of my preferences I earned the hard way, by trial and error. Why would I even think to question them? I feel resistance at the very idea. Perhaps you do too. But because we know there is value in those four expansive mind states, let’s just open to the possibility that there is something worth examining here.

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Darlene Cohen

Recently I was rereading an essay by Darlene Cohen, a Zen priest at Green Gulch who died in 2011. She compared her experiences of going through two surgeries twenty years apart. In the first, she felt that the period of surgery and recovery was completely separate from her normal life. I can imagine how she wanted to ‘get back to normal.’ But after years of Buddhist practice, when she had the second surgery, she found there was ‘no rent in the fabric’ of her life. Her days were ‘all of a piece’. She wrote, “I see students, I get cut open, I eat Jell-O, I receive visitors, I feel as sick as a barfing dog, I pace the corridors, I ride home with the passenger seat all the way down, and so on, to the experience of golden apricot colors, helplessness, dread, and being borne on a sheet carried by angels.’

(In class I was able to read more extensively from her essay, but because of copyright laws, I can only offer you brief quotes. If you are a woman living in Marin, I encourage you to attend the Thursday morning class so you don’t miss out on the wholeness of experience. There’s a lot that doesn’t make it into the blog post. And I encourage all readers to consider purchasing the book of essays: Buddha’s Daughters, Teachings by Women Who Are Shaping Buddhism in the West. My copy is filled with post-it notes, so as I revisit those pages, I expect to draw inspiration from other Buddhist women in the West. And you might too!)

Darlene Cohen found for herself how her preferences created obstacles. Without making an enemy of the obstacle, we can notice how when we get caught up in preferences, we grasp at and cling to some experiences and push others away. That is the Buddha’s very definition of the cause of suffering.

Attached to our preferences, we become calcified in our little ruts of what is acceptable and what is not. Something as simple as a favorite flavor of ice cream can be an experiment in preferences. Darlene wrote that she dared herself to go beyond chocolate and chose blindly, ending up with a flavor she never would have chosen. But she discovered it was amazingly delicious. I know I certainly don’t stray far from my preferences. But what am I missing? Is it true that my life is dictated by preferences? And aren’t some preferences valuable?

At least some, hopefully many, choices we make in life are rooted in Wise Intention: Doing no harm to ourselves and others. Aren’t these choices preferences? It seems skillful to look to the source of our preference when we come upon it. Is it rooted in fear? Or is it rooted in kindness, compassion, awareness? Is it a habit that allows us to go mindless? These questions and more can help us understand the nature of how we are in relationship to the world around us. And how our world is shaped by our preferences.

I came across this quote the other day that fits in well here:
“What is freedom? It is the moment by moment experience of not being run by one’s own reactive mechanisms.” – Ken McLeod, Freedom and Choice

Preferences could certainly be called ‘reactive mechanisms’. They establish a set of reactions that may cause stress, distress, discomfort and dissatisfaction. Even the positive experiences are a little numb. Darlene mentioned ice cream, so let’s stay with that tasty subject about which most of us have strong preferences, one way or another. I have a preference for chocolate ice cream so that’s what I order, and in repeatedly choosing that over other flavor options, I enter a habituated reaction to the experience of having a chocolate ice cream cone. Is my mind even in the experience, sensing the taste, texture and temperature of what’s in my mouth? Or am just ‘happy’ to have something I craved? Is that truly happiness? There’s often some mixture of regret in having succumbed to temptation and fear of adverse effects. Whatever happiness there is certainly doesn’t last very long. It literally melts away!

We can look at where our preferences come from. Are we really still anti-brussel sprouts or is it just because the one time we tried them the cook didn’t do them justice? It’s worth questioning every preference we come upon, even those that seem benign.

Living in the rut of our preferences, we don’t recognize the freedom we have to reshape our experience. And if we are in relationships, we may be limiting others as well. In Darlene’s essay, she used the example of how her preferences shaped her younger life and the life of her small son. There was no way was she going to attend a ‘stupid Muppets movie’ or go to Disneyland, leaving her son to rely on other parents for those activities. Looking back, she regretted how much she missed by letting her preferences rule her in that way, saying, ‘What kind of twit chooses her aesthetic tastes over spending exuberant time with her child!’

Indeed! We can each look at our own choices and see if we are letting our preferences limit our ability to live fully and openly. Yes, perhaps some unpleasantness may occur if our preference filters are dropped. But in our practice we learn how to be present with unpleasantness, don’t we? We simply notice all that arises in our expansive field of compassionate awareness. If there is a pain, we stay present with the whole of the experience, noting all the small ever-changing sensations within it. We notice how our thoughts lurch into the past and future — ‘Oh no not this again!’ or ‘How long will this go on?’ We notice also whatever pleasant or neutral sensations are also present in this moment, so that we are not stuck in our automatic negativity bias. Imagine how liberating it would be to be able to be open to whatever comes. How much do we live in fear that things won’t be just as we want them to be. How attached are we to the belief that our slightest discomfort is intolerable?

In noting our preferences, we might also see to what degree we allow them to define us. This is especially noticeable if you or someone you know gets upset that a purported loved one doesn’t remember their preferences. ‘How could he not remember that I hate yellow! He doesn’t really love me.’ As if the preferences are the person. If you feel this way, it’s worth examining! Do you really believe that what people love about you is your preferences?

As we practice being fully present with whatever arises, we tap into a powerful freedom. We can be in situations where we have little control and still have equanimity and the resilience to respond skillfully to changing situations.

The past two weeks we have seen how natural disasters can play havoc with our nice ordered life, rooted in preferences. None of the people affected by hurricanes and earthquakes were consulted as to their preferences before finding themselves in those situations. And the more entangled they are in preferences, the more they suffer.

Of course, no one would actively choose disaster, loss of home, loved ones, power, communications, food, water, health care, etc. So doesn’t everyone suffer in these situations?  Everyone experiences pain, but there is a distinction between the pain we experience being alive in this life and the suffering we cause ourselves, compounding the pain many times over. If we are actively practicing being fully present and cultivating skillful ways of being in relationship with all that arises in our experience, then that experience shifts dramatically.

My heart goes out to all who have been affected by these natural disasters. As I watch, helpless to do anything but send metta and money, I am awed by the instantaneous outreach and self-organizing rescue aid that arises at times like these. It reminds me that a person at the mercy of their personal preferences may not be able to respond skillfully to changing circumstances. They are so caught up in a tight knot of reactivity that setting their personal preferences aside to meet the needs of the moment could be a huge challenge. It might be a moment of awakening, of breaking out of that dull deadening rut, but just as likely their reactivity to things not being the way they want them may make them turn away, rushing to find solace in something familiar, perhaps something self-destructive.

In Darlene’s essay she says that “a life lived openly without filters includes pain, heartbreak, Disneyland, and unpleasant occurrences. But you do have a satisfying feeling of being infinitely approachable; the universe gets through to you, whatever scenery it’s hauling.” Infinitely approachable. I love that!

So just as an exercise, perhaps as a little homage to Darlene Cohen and her wise teachings, but also as a gift to yourself, try opening to something beyond your habituated preferences, and see what happens. If you give it a try, please report back. And I will be taking note of and challenging my beloved preferences. Oh dear!

 

Equanimity :: Holding life in an open embrace

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In the last few posts of my dharma talks we have been looking at the Brahma-viharas, spacious mind-states where we can dwell in loving-kindness, compassion and happiness for others. Now we look at the fourth of these mind states: Equanimity.

Equanimity is the ability to hold all that arises in an open embrace. It is the last of the four mind states because it naturally arises out of the continued practice of loving-kindness, compassion and happiness for others.

We have all had moments of equanimity when, for no particular reason, we feel relaxed, joyful, and in sync with life. At such moments we don’t feel victim to the whims of circumstance. We handle things that come up with an ease that surprises us. We are able to see how ‘this too shall pass’ and that a comment we might otherwise have taken as a slight isn’t really about us. We find we can be present and enjoy all that is arising, without muckraking up past offenses and future fears. Thus we don’t make mountains out of molehills. It’s as if gravity has become lighter so what we had been carrying as a burden is now a transparent bubble, and sometimes even a gift.

What if equanimity could be our natural state, even when things are not going well and we are faced with major losses and difficulties? It can be! Just by continuing our regular practice of meditation, we are cultivating equanimity. At first it comes upon us seemingly at random for brief periods. Maybe we get caught up in liking it so much that we begin to grasp at it, cling to it and strive for it. Then we lose it. Frustrating! But as we get the hang of being present with all that arises in our experience, as we practice sending metta (infinite loving-kindness to ourselves and out to all beings), equanimity becomes a more natural state.

That may sound good, or maybe too good to be true, and there may be some resistance to the idea. We may believe that we are locked into our habitual ways of reacting to life, unskillful as they may be. We may even be attached to ‘our ways’, thinking that they define us, make us distinctively who we are. This is something to notice. We can hold these thoughts in a more spacious way, respectfully questioning their veracity: ‘Is this true?’ ‘How do I know this is true?’ The thoughts may hang in there, but they will hold less power to throw us out of kilter or sabotage our wise intentions.

In the practice of mindfulness, we develop skillful ways to be in relationship with all that arises in our field of experience. We are not finding fault with our habitual reactivity or trying to ‘fix’ ourselves. Nothing is broken here. Nothing is lacking. Nothing has to be discarded or destroyed. We are simply learning how to exercise a muscle that has always been here, just under-used.

In the process of regularly flexing our muscles of awareness and compassion, we have insights that expand our understanding and our capacity for equanimity.

These insights generally fall in one of three categories:

  • Recognizing the nature of impermanence. This is not just accepting that everything changes, but actually realizing that there would be no life at all without impermanence. Neither death nor birth, neither decay nor growth. We see how all of the patterns and processes of life are in a constant state of coming together and dissolving and reforming. Just the way clouds in the sky were quite recently mist rising from the sea and before that the sea itself and before that the rain and before that cloud. The cycle of life is revealed in every aspect of being when we pause to pay attention.
  • Recognizing that, even though for practical purposes we live our lives as if we are separate beings, taking responsibility for this body-mind and all its interactions; in truth we are not separate at all! We are made up of the same stuff as the earth and stars. We are interconnected on the deepest level to all beings, in the past, present and future, in a continuous flux and flow. We are in this moment like a water drop leaping in the air over a cascade, experiencing a life that feels independent, but is in fact a fully integrated part of all being.
  • And finally, recognizing that when we resist these first two understandings, we make ourselves (and often those around us) miserable. Out of fear of things changing, out of fear of being isolated, we engage in unskillful grasping/clinging to whatever gives us pleasure and pushing away anything that doesn’t please us, we suffer. This is not the simple pain of living life in a body. It is suffering that we actively create again and again through our own unwillingness to be present in our experience, just as it is.

Studies show that meditation alone is powerful in many ways, but that the practice of metta, loving-kindness, is more powerful still. There’s no reason to choose one practice over the other. They work together. I always end my daily meditation, and the meditations I lead in class, with metta practice: May I be well/at ease/at peace/happy; May all beings be well/at ease/at peace/happy. Wording varies from practitioner to practitioner, but you get the idea. This audio is an example of sending metta. It is an extended practice, including sending metta to difficult people. Adapt the practice to suit yourself.

METTA PRACTICE

If we get into the good habit of sending metta to any person or situation that crops up in our thoughts, especially the difficult ones that can entangle us in emotional upheaval, we bring our mind back to the present moment, and at the same time do a great kindness to ourselves and to whomever we send loving-kindness.

Metta practice activates deep compassion within us. As we become aware of the nature of suffering and the interconnection of all beings, our natural generosity of spirit springs forth, providing help that is responsive, balanced and useful.

As we cultivate loving-kindness and compassion, we feel other people’s happiness as if it is our own. We have breached the previously-perceived divide between us. That divide dissolves and we are able to fully experience sympathetic joy. We see that happiness is contagious, unlimited and available in every moment if we are open to it, even if we aren’t getting everything we crave.

The skillful cultivation of loving-kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy creates equanimity in our lives. Instead of feeling tossed around by what’s going on in our lives, we become like the sky, spacious of mind and able to hold all that arises — clouds, fog, lightning, airplanes, etc. — without losing touch with our natural state of being.

When something delightful and something sorrowful happen at the same time, equanimity allows us to hold it all in an open embrace. We can be present for the joyful event, even as slender threads of sorrow arise.

As we age, we experience these kinds of situations more often. Loved ones become ill or die. Babies are born. Joys and sorrows abound. It is with equanimity that we are able to hold them just as the sky holds rainbows and hurricanes at the same time. The sky is still the sky. We too can cultivate compassionate spaciousness to hold all of our experience without getting lost or toppled. We are not devoid of emotion. But we can be present for them as well.

Imagine the sky dealing what passes through in a typically human way. Try to picture the sky running away from clouds, striving to overcome fog, getting lost in the pursuit of rainbows, turning its back on lightning, throwing up its hands at hurricanes, falling apart in a tornado, turning to drugs to numb itself to days of rain.  Ridiculous, right? 

We have the capacity to be like the sky! Whatever arises in our experience, we can hold in an open embrace. With attention, respect, compassion and kindness, but without clinging or grasping. If a thought is tenacious, we send metta to the person or situation, and return fully to the present moment.

Teaching in class about equanimity, I felt my whole chest opening as I expanded my arms out in a welcoming embrace. Words felt insufficient to express the meaning of equanimity. Maybe this physical sense of expansiveness is an additional way of opening to the possibility of equanimity in your life. Try it!

Equanimity is a spacious mind-state that naturally arises out of the regular practice of meditation. It is not a goal, not something to try hard to do, strive for or aim at. It’s not something to achieve. All of these ways of approaching any quality of mindfulness only entangle us in a tight knot of fear-based thoughts and emotions.

If you want to experience equanimity, the path is simple: Practice meditation every day. Attend weekly classes for inspiration and support. Go on retreats when you can for deeper insights. Go for walks in the woods, on the beach or wherever you can connect with trees, water and sky. Then don’t get lost in conversation with others or your own thoughts. Instead just listen to the sounds of nature, look around you, and feel your body moving through space. Find your place in nature. Give yourself quiet times to be present with all that is arising, send metta to yourself and all beings and equanimity will rise up within you.

Open to it like the sky!

Envy can be a useful clarifying tool

envyEnvy makes us feel like we’re on the outside looking in, that we don’t belong, that there’s something wrong with us because we don’t have what someone else has. When we notice it, we may feel shame. So we push it away, shove it down and try not to listen when it continues to whisper its ugly messages undeterred.

As we practice cultivating mindfulness, we develop a more compassionate awareness of all that arises in our experience, including unpleasant emotions. We don’t celebrate these emotions or condone the plots they hatch. Instead we acknowledge them, just as a skillful parent acknowledges a ranting child: with kindness but not indulgence.

Developing such a skill is part of our practice. We learn how to hold an arising emotion safely and see what’s really going on. We don’t make an enemy of it, succumb to its lure, buy into its argument or get entangled with it. If we do, we notice that too, and cultivate more spaciousness and compassion.

Envy and all difficult emotions can be useful when we notice them arising. We can see them as an opportunity for investigation into the causes of our own suffering. Noticing them is the first important step. Allowing them to exist without acting upon them, we use own natural compassionate curiosity to discover what’s really going on.

You might think of these tight tangles of emotion (and the oft-unquestioned stories we tell ourselves that support the emotion) as a pile of sea kelp washed up on the beach in a clump. Can our mindfulness be the powerful incoming tide that let’s the tangle loosen?

In this way we can see the individual strands more clearly from all angles. With this kind of awareness practice, over time those thoughts, emotions and inner stories can untangle, drift off, soften, and even sometimes dissolve. This is a great gift of insight meditation practice.

In the last blog post, I talked about compassion, and in previous posts I have talked about infinite loving-kindness. These are part of an inspiring body of teachings called the Four Brahma-viharas. Brahma means expansiveness of spirit and vihara means abode, so we might say they are states where we can dwell in expansive awareness. But they are also practices, in that we can actively cultivate each one: Metta, infinite lovingkindness;  karuna, compassion; mudita, sympathetic joy; and upekkha, equanimity. For this post, we are focusing on mudita.

Mudita – Sympathetic Joy
Think of someone in your life who is happy. Does their happiness make you happy? If so, you know how delightful mudita is. It activates joy. It’s contagious. It’s life-enhancing.

Most of us feel happy when someone we love is happy, especially a child. Most of us, to one degree or another, are pushovers for happy playful puppies and other animals. Even in a moment of misery, the sight of such innocent joy may give us a moment’s respite and a bit of laughter in the midst of our tears.

But most of us have also experienced the opposite: Someone’s happiness brings up negative emotions for us. Pause for a moment and think of someone in the present or past whose happiness causes or caused you to feel unhappy. If someone comes readily to mind, then consider taking a few minutes to do the following investigative practice. If not, then you might follow along as a way to be prepared for such an experience — no one is immune — and also to cultivate compassion for someone who may find your happiness annoying. 😉

EXERCISE
After at least a few minutes of mindfulness practice, bring to mind a person whom you envy. Then ask yourself these questions:

Is that person’s happiness the cause of my unhappiness?
Maybe you can see right away that it isn’t, that it’s just a reminder of what you are lacking. But maybe there is some sense of direct causation that you can explore more fully. If they, for example, got the very job, award, mate, home, etc. that you very much wanted, it might seem reasonable to be upset with them. But unless they stole it from you directly and on purpose to upset you, they are not the direct cause of your feeling of loss. Many factors went into their getting it and your not getting it. If there is anything to learn from an honest assessment of why things happened the way they did, it could be useful information to have for any future endeavor. Given that in most cases, the person we envy is not the direct cause of our unhappiness, then can we be happy for them?

Too soon? Okay, moving right along.

If I am feeling envy, is there anything I can learn from it? Is there useful information here?
Noticing what activates envy can create a road map to show us where we might focus our energies in our lives. Getting out that vision board is a lot more useful than writing poison pen letters in our minds!

The visioning process might include an investigation:

Do I truly want what it is I’m envisioning? 

Or do I actually want the qualities it represents: Simplicity? Respect? Self-empowerment? Freedom? Creativity? Sense of purpose? Security? Beauty? Other quality that would bring balance into my life?

If I definitely do want it, what are the steps needed to get there?
Who do I know that knows the way there? (Contact them!)
What skills will I need to learn? (Learn them!)
Unless the vision is made concrete, it’s just a dream to get lost in when the going gets rough, a dream that becomes more unfeasible the more we get entangled in envy.

Am I comparing my insides to the other person’s outsides? 
It’s useful to remember that everyone suffers in some way, but we tend to show only our polished surfaces to others. Assuming another person’s life is perfect is a sure path to misery. Assume everyone is carrying a great burden that we can’t see, and we will naturally be kinder, more compassionate and less prone to envy.

Am I assuming material possessions, status and achievement are causes of happiness?
Once basic needs are met (food security, shelter, health care, sense of safety) studies show that increase in wealth does not cause an increase in happiness. In fact, that person may be envying someone with a simpler life, with less stuff to manage. You never know.

Do I believe myself to be an envious person?
Anytime we come upon a destructive emotion, it’s important to remember that it is not who we are. It is just an emotion arising, a common emotion that everyone has experienced at times. This allows us to avoid falling into the pit of shame and self-hatred that makes it impossible to see clearly.

Noticing envy when it arises in our experience can be used as a clue to what we want to cultivate in our lives. We can also see more clearly how, left to their own devices, envy and jealousy erode relationships, causing ever more unhappiness. They can be crippling. They dis-empower us. They blind us to the gifts we have to offer that connect us with the world. Can we step back, broaden our perspective and see all that is arising in this moment? Can we let in the light? Can we let in the joy? Can we let other people’s joy activate our own?

Each of the four brahma-viharas, practiced in order, helps us cultivate the next. As we send infinite loving-kindness — first to ourselves and then out to widening circles, ultimately to all beings — we find it more natural to practice acts of compassion — first to ourselves and then out to widening circles, ultimately to all beings. As our circle grows to include all beings, then their happiness becomes our happiness too!

So begin where you are, begin with yourself, then widen your circle and you will greatly increase your capacity for joy. That’s mudita!

Compassion is life loving itself

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Kwan Yin, Goddess of Mercy and Compassion

Part of mindfulness practice is cultivating compassion for ourselves. For example, when we are meditating and we get lost in thought, our habituated reaction may be to give ourselves a hard time. This just throws us into another tangle of thoughts and emotions about past ‘failures’ and/or future hopelessness. But if we cultivate compassion for ourselves, we gently shift back to here and now.

Having cultivated compassion for ourselves, we are better able to cultivate compassion for others. But it’s important to distinguish between compassion and empathy. When we encounter someone who is struggling, we may feel empathy, especially if what they are going through is similar to our own experience now or in the past. We literally feel their pain as if it is our own. Because it is painful, we may turn away as a form of self-protection. Or we may be drawn in because it is so familiar. In either case, it doesn’t help the other person, does it? And it doesn’t help us, because we either feel guilty for turning away or we feel like we’re drowning in someone else’s misery.

Compassion is recognizing suffering and responding in a way that is useful. If I see an insect stuck on the inside of a screen door, compassion sparks me to open the door to let it out. If I was just feeling empathy, I might stand there and say ‘Oh, you poor little bug! Look how you struggle. Me too! Boo hoo!’ And if I had no empathy and no compassion, I’d grab the fly swatter, seeing the bug as a potential danger or at least an annoyance, threatening my own happiness and peace of mind.

Compassion respects all life. It isn’t limited to beings we find ‘relatable’, whose experience mirrors our own. Compassion recognizes suffering but expands to hold it in an open and loving way rather than succumbing to it.

Compassion is action. When we see someone in distress and we help them in whatever way is skillful, that is compassion. Many instances of compassion we might recognize as simply being human, being neighborly or ‘doing the right thing’. Compassion comes naturally to most of us, at least in certain situations.

I am sure you have performed many acts of compassion this week. Maybe you let a car merge in front of you. Maybe in the grocery store you helped someone get something off a high shelf beyond their reach. Maybe you gave a respectful nod to someone sitting on the sidewalk. Maybe you saw or heard about a community in distress from flooding or earthquake or other disaster, and you sent a donation. Compassion is action, but it comes in all shapes and sizes: From a nod of respect to giving a majority of your waking hours to a cause you care about or a person in need. As citizens in a democracy, we cultivate compassion when we vote and make our voices heard for the benefit of our community, our nation, all beings and the earth itself.

Compassion doesn’t register within us as an identity — “I am a compassionate person” — trying to be seen as a hero, taking credit for actions, or being concerned about how we are perceived by others. Shoring up a personal identity just knocks us into seeing ourselves as separate, rather than a part of the celebration of the oneness of all being that sparks true compassion, life loving and taking care of itself.

There are many among us whose whole lives are devoted to compassionate action. And for them especially it is important to discern between compassion and empathy. Over the years I have had a number of insight meditation students who are psychologists, counselors and therapists. Some have complained about the weight of carrying their patient/clients problems into their own lives after the appointment is over. I suggest, for the benefit of their clients and for themselves, that they think of the client’s sharing as being laid out in the space between them for both to examine in a spacious way. Trying this out, my students found that they could bring all their practice and wisdom to the challenge without taking it on as their own. For their clients it helped to see their sharing as a story passing through their experience rather than an aspect of their identity. It makes sense that people who choose professions in the field of psychology are empathetic and want to be of help to those that suffer. But the empathy can become a source of misery.

It’s important to acknowledge that this misery is not just experienced by the empathetic person. When when you share your grief and your friend cries, you are unlikely to feel you can share freely. It is painful to cause suffering in another. Sharing our suffering with a person who has cultivated compassion feels safer. They receive it with loving-kindness, respect and full attention, but they don’t make it their own.

An experiment conducted by neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki comparing empathy and compassion showed that empathy training activated motion in different parts of the brain than compassion training. The outcome was that the empathy-trained group found empathy ‘uncomfortable and troublesome’ while the compassion group felt kinder and more eager to help others.

This makes sense. Taking on the suffering of others as if it is our own is not very comfortable, is it? Being so empathetic we become drained when we spend time around others, because we are taking on their suffering. We may need to get away just to allow ourselves to reconnect with our own experience. While I encourage everyone to take time for themselves, having to be alone a lot can certainly be challenging in maintaining satisfying relationships. If this is your experience, you might notice whether being overly empathetic is at play, and whether cultivating active compassion might help to channel it more skillfully.

But whether we lack empathy or are inundated in it, how do we cultivate compassion? Again, cultivating compassion begins with ourselves: compassion for our own suffering and grief, but also for our ignorance, blundering and foolishness. We do this, in part, to soften the rigid pattern of harsh self-judgment and the resulting suffering that becomes toxic and contagious. This doesn’t mean we ‘let ourselves off the hook’ when we have done something unskillful. A part of our mindfulness practice is cultivating ethical behavior, speech and livelihood (See Noble Eightfold Path). But if we enforce our behavior with cruel words or punitive actions, then we are compounding our unethical behavior.

Instead we do what we can to right any wrong, make amends, apologize, and investigate what went wrong in order to learn from our experience and not repeat the unskillful behavior. But this is only possible if we also actively cultivate compassion, because without compassion we beat ourselves up or avoid dealing with it through all manner of addictive and distracting behaviors.

Once we have cultivated more compassion for ourselves, we are better able to extend compassion to others. We see the suffering at the root of the unskillfulness of those around us. For example, driving around we may be quick to judge someone who drives too closely, too fast, changes lanes erratically, etc. At that moment we might recognize their suffering, and feel compassion. Who among us has not at times driven mindlessly? Who among us has not been lost in our own suffering, or been lost in a hormonal high that makes us feel immortal. That last one is most often the realm of the young who haven’t quite connected with the reality of the two ton metal weapon they are wildly wielding on the road. But knowing that they are not immune to suffering in this life, we can have compassion for them as well, even if at this very moment it is challenging to do so. The compassionate action that arises within us is to not react or retaliate as we drive, but to maintain mindful safe driving and actively send lovingkindness. ‘May you be well. May you be safe.’

For most of us it is easy to feel compassion for someone in a temporarily difficult situation that we can relate to. We tend to have a harder time cultivating compassion for someone who seems to have made poor life choices and is now living with the consequences. It helps to recognize that our harsh judgments function as a bypass to avoid feeling other people’s pain or recognizing our own poor choices in life. Perhaps our poor choices did not have substantial adverse effects on our lives. Do we take that good fortune as a credit to ourselves? None of us is perfect. And none of us is immune to suffering, no matter how fortunate.

Compassion does not command us to be saviors. It offers us the opportunity to live fully in the joy of being alive, and to recognize all life as deserving of respect and kindness, and a little help from a fellow being now and then.

 

Love doesn’t have to hurt.

Metta heartsWhen we talk about love we may mean romantic love or the family and friendship ties that bind us in a love that varies in degree and complexity, depending on our own nature and what each party contributes and expects from the other. Think of all the relationships in your life. Each one has it’s own course, doesn’t it? Some are lifelong, some are brief interactions. Almost all are complicated.

Try this little exercise:
Pause and bring to mind a person with whom you once had loving feelings but no longer do.

Looking at that relationship, let yourself remember what was the initial connection: physical attraction, chemistry, shared experience, shared values, shared confidences or something else entirely.

Answer any of these questions that readily activate a response:

  • What was your initial goal in that relationship?
  • What were you planning to have happen that maybe didn’t?
  • How did that person fail to live up to their part of the deal?
  • How did you fail to live up to your part of the bargain?
  • What would have made the relationship a success?
  • What was that person’s agenda in the relationship, as far as you can tell? Was the agenda overt or hidden? Was it different from yours?

Before you get too caught up in a painfully familiar mental romp or rant, let’s look at the words in this exploration: Goal. Plan. Failure. Deal. Bargain. Success. Agenda.

What do they have in common? What world are they a part of?
Clearly these are all business terms. What business does business have in our relationships? We don’t like to think of love relationships in these terms. But if answers to the questions came up for you, then the business model fits, doesn’t it?

To whatever degree you suffered from the end of that relationship, I send you metta, infinite loving-kindness, and apologies for bringing it up. But I did it for a reason: It is valuable to distinguish between love that brings joy and love that causes suffering. And the difference is tied up in those business words. Love that causes suffering is a negotiation, and we think it’s not going well or it failed because we didn’t understand ‘the art of the deal’.  Sad.

Love that activates authentic joy is not a business transaction. It is not confined by the limited view of ‘I’ and ‘you’. It doesn’t require a return on investment. It doesn’t require a winner or a loser. It doesn’t circumscribe a small group of people who by reason of blood, hormones, preferences or proximity are the ‘us’ that in turn defines some external ‘them’ for whom we have no love or maybe even understanding.

Love that activates true joy, softens the heart, and deepens contentment is called metta in Pali and maitri in Sanskrit. There is no English word that properly captures its meaning. Some people call it friendliness. I call it infinite loving-kindness. Every meditation I lead, I end by doing a traditional abbreviated metta practice of well wishing, first to ourselves, then to someone (or a group of people or a situation) that’s in particular need of loving kindness right now. Then out and out so that we are sending metta to all beings: May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

But there is a longer traditional practice that actually teaches us how to access the ability to send metta. Many people are uncomfortable with sending metta to themselves, feeling they don’t deserve it. Many people find resistance sending metta to a challenging or difficult person. This practice helps in both cases.

Take a few minutes to meditate, and then give this metta practice a try.

EXTENDED METTA led by Stephanie Noble

This practice is not just for meditation. Activate infinite loving-kindness whenever you are being hard on yourself or someone else in your thoughts. Someone cuts in front of you? Send them some loving-kindness: May you be well. Someone in your life causing you heartache or headache? Send them some loving-kindness: May you be at ease. Discovering yourself putting yourself down in some way? Send metta: May you be at peace.

Metta practice grows joy in the moment and in your life, expanding in ripples out in all directions. Perhaps you are actively working with energy. Or perhaps you are simply grounding yourself in a loving space. Either way the effect is powerful, transforming your relationship with everyone and everything around you.

This all sound pretty good, right? Naturally we would prefer to love in a way that creates joy, not all the suffering that comes with clinging, worrying, trying to match the other person’s level of engagement, etc. But we have been loving in one way for so long, and our culture totally supports that way, fascinated by all the emotional turmoil, intrigue and drama. We may want to get rid of the suffering way and switch over to the joyful way, but pushing anything away just activates more suffering. Instead, we use the mindful tools we have been developing:

We cultivate spaciousness to hold all that is arising in our experience. If what is arising is the limiting entangling kind of love, then we cultivate spaciousness to hold all that tangled mess in a compassionate way.

We also do inquiry, noticing that kind of love’s thorny nature. Without judging it, we can simply be present with it. This clear seeing softens our attachment to it. Just like some junk food you might be addicted to, if you saw how it was actually made, you might go off it. When we see the toxic components of this long-suffering love, we see how ill-fitting it is, how insidious it can be, how it is all surface glamour with no depth, all soap opera and no real feeling, all fear and not in fact love at all.

Seeing that, we might want to toss love on the junk heap and live a life of solitude. While there’s nothing wrong with solitude, we often choose it as a way of hiding from something we are afraid of. Perhaps we’ve come to the conclusion that we’re no good at relationships, and we accept that judgment without inquiry. Naturally, as part of our practice, we’ll want to question such assumptions: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Examples of failure in relationships will arise to answer these questions, but there is likely to be more answers than we have previously noticed. We stay with the process, continuing to cultivate spaciousness and compassion to hold it all in an open loving embrace.

Whatever we find, we do metta practice. This practice can become an inherent part of our being present in the world. We can do it whenever we think of someone. We can do it when we are with someone. We can do it for ourselves every time we feel ourselves faltering. Metta practice keeps us in touch with the expansive nature of all being. It softens the seemingly impermeable barrier between this seemingly finite person and a world of seemingly other beings. How joyful it is when recognize there are no barriers, that we are all one infinite ongoing cycle of life loving itself.

As to those negotiated relationships, hold them in loving-kindness. See when you are slipping into a contractual state of mind; send metta to yourself and the other person.

If you are doubting this will make a difference, just try it. It can’t hurt. And if you discover it does make a difference, let me know! I love gathering stories of the wondrous effects of metta.

Uppekka – Be like the sky!

The fourth of the Four Brahma Viharas is Uppekka, the ability to hold all that passes through our current experience with equanimity.


When something delightful and something sorrowful are happening at the same time, the ability to hold it all in an open embrace is such a blessing! But for most of us it is very difficult to imagine. I remember a woman saying she didn’t know how she could attend her daughter’s wedding with joy when her lifelong closest friend was in the last stages of dying in a nearby hospital. She felt completely split, pulled in both directions. She felt guilty for not being completely there for her daughter and guilty for not being completely there for her friend. There was no escaping the discomfort of her thoughts and emotions.


As we age, we experience these kinds of situations more often. Loved ones become ill or die. Babies are born. Joys and sorrows abound. It is with the grace of uppekka that we are able to hold them. How? That is our exploration today.


Each of the Four Brahmaviharas has an elemental quality for me. (It may have for others but I haven’t heard or read about it from any other teachers.) As previously mentioned, metta (loving-kindness) is radiant like the sun, karuna (compassion) is solid, present and receptive like the earth. Mudita (sympathetic joy) could be likened to dancing sparkling water, reflecting back all that is near it, and flowing without any sense of obstacle. Now here we are at uppekka, and I would liken it to the sky. The sky can hold clouds, rainbows, thunderstorms, and snow all at the same time within its spacious expanse. The sky holds it all, whatever it is, with equanimity. The sky is still the sky.


Try to imagine the sky dealing with clouds and other phenomena in a more typically human way: running away, avoidance through distraction, either over-efforting or getting lost in the pursuit of pleasure, turning its back on it all, throwing up its hands, falling apart, turning to drugs to numb itself, etc. Ridiculous, isn’t it? For the sky, and for us as well.


We can be like the sky. Whatever arises in our experience, we can expand in our ability to hold it in an open embrace. With attention, with tenderness, with compassion, but without clinging or grasping.


For example, a daughter’s wedding happening the very week a friend is dying. How do we do it? Like the sky! We attend each moment — whether at the betrothal or at the bedside — with our fullest possible attention, anchoring into physical sensation as we do in meditation and any time we want to bring ourselves fully present.


While at the wedding, we probably at times notice threads of thought and emotion streaming through our field of awareness. They arise and fall away, ebb and flow: Thoughts of the friend, memories of times together, sadness at the thought of losing future moments. Natural thoughts to have, natural emotions to experience. But as we anchor into physical sensation to be present in the moment, we find we are able to experience thoughts without getting lost in them.


Most commonly people want to know how they can ‘get rid of thoughts’ that will take them out of the present moment. Uppekka is the answer, but it points up the error in the question itself. It answers the deeper need. We don’t ‘get rid’ of anything. We use our meditation practice to expand our ability to hold all of what arises in a spacious way. We anchor into physical sensation to be present as much as possible, but if there is something else going on, thoughts and feelings may very well arise. We see them, note them, send metta, loving-kindness, to the person or situation that keeps coming up in our awareness. We do this even as we maintain full awareness of physical sensation, including the sights and sounds of our current experience. But if we have lost our attention to it, we simply reset our intention to be present, to follow the breath, etc. We create space. We don’t get entangled in judgment. And when we do, we reset our paired intentions to be present and compassionate. These two activities together create uppekka, the ability to hold all of our experience with equanimity.


There is a shift of consciousness that happens as we develop a steady meditation practice. With Wise Intention, Wise Effort, and Wise Concentration, a quality of Wise View will naturally arise. Instead of believing yourself to be tiny and separate tossed about by the sea of thought and emotion, swallowing, choking and feeling you are drowning; you come into a sense of infinite connection and spaciousness. A quality of Wise Mindfulness will arise: You are the sky that holds all experience, spacious and alive with equanimity. Not just when the sun is shining or the clouds are cute and fluffy. You can hold the hurricanes that pass through as well. Expand into equanimity! That is the practice.

Mudita – The Antidote to Envy

So there you are, walking down the street and you see a toddler splashing joyfully in a puddle or pointing to a ‘boid’ with delight, and your own mood lifts. Your heart lightens. You are reminded of the beauty and wonder of life. That is mudita, sympathetic joy, the third of the Four Brahma Viharas. But maybe joy isn’t what you experience at all. Perhaps you don’t even notice the child because you are so caught up in ‘thinking, thinking’ that you are not present in the moment. Or perhaps you find children annoying so feel immune to childish delight. Or maybe the child is a symbol of something you wanted in your life or something you’ve lost, and the sight and sound of that little person’s delight opens painful wounds. As we practice metta (loving-kindness) and find a softening and a deepening sense of connection with all of life, even with difficult people, we develop authentic compassion (karuna), and this quality of sympathetic joy, mudita. These are some of the fruits of practice. For most of us, there are people we love so much — family and close friends — that to see them happy makes us happy. But we may not be so familiar with experiencing joy at the sight of a stranger’s happiness. In fact, we may have experienced quite the opposite, when at the sight of someone else’s happiness we felt envy or self-pity. As you meditate and become more aware of the nature of mind, you have probably come upon some difficult thought or emotion arising in your field of experience. Envy is just one of them. When we notice it, we might then experience some shame at its existence. Mudita is a mental state we can savor when it occurs, but mudita practice helps us to work with the difficulties that arise, especially around envy, feelings of failure, comparison and general disgruntlement. When we discover constricted, grumpy thoughts or feelings, we are in a position of awareness. We may be in the habit of beating ourselves up or finding an external distraction. What a lost opportunity! With practice we can face the fear and discomfort, and find joy in the process. What is envy? This emotion, that arises around the perception that other people have what we want for ourselves, is rooted in fear. Looked at with Wise View, we can see that this is the same old fear that is at the root of all difficult emotions: The fear of being separate. This fear manifests in worry about not being enough, in feeling we have something to prove. Whom do we have to prove it to? Someone we feel separate from, someone we long to be recognized by, someone we want to love us unconditionally and respect us for who we are, even the bits we are not proud of. Wise View lets us understand that we are not separate. We are in this amazing experience of being, briefly, seemingly separate, the way a drop of water soaring over a waterfall is temporarily separate from the cycles of water of which it is intrinsically a part. On a molecular level, we are not at all separate from the rest of life. Yet much of what we do in our lives is actively create a sense of separation, build a separate identity, make a mark, matter in the eyes of others. On one level that may be our purpose here, who knows? But how much richer is the experience if we also sense the deeper connection, the intrinsic nature of being! We can celebrate this gift of life, this brief sense of separate volition and identity without succumbing to the belief that it is all there is. The gift of life is not the accumulation of stuff or relationships or prestige or anything else. It is simply the gift of being fully present with whatever arises.
When we find we are experiencing envy or another related emotion, it doesn’t help to compound that misery by saying, ‘What a terrible person I must be to feel envy when I should feel mudita.’ Instead, we can use the awareness of mudita to shine a little light on our thoughts and emotions, ask a few questions, and find some spaciousness in our experience. We can ask, for example, if the envied person’s happiness is the cause of our own unhappiness. If that person lost what they have, would we gain it? Usually not. And in the rare circumstance that that would be true, would that gaining actually create our happiness? We can look to our own experiences of happiness to recognize that whatever joy comes from external circumstances is temporal. We think that purchase or experience or connection will make us happy, but we quickly absorb these new conditions into our lives. They become the new normal. External conditions are unreliable and cannot create true and lasting happiness. We may still want them, but we would be foolish to rely on them for happiness. We create happiness by taking the time to be present, to experience what is true in this moment. We create suffering (dukkha) by grasping and clinging and wanting things to be different from how they are. If we begrudge other people the things we wish we had, then we expand our suffering to include them as well. Not purposely probably but just out of the discomfort of being around people who have what we crave. It’s like a sugar addict sitting at a table where desserts are displayed but denied. Check in to see if you believe that the other person is responsible for your suffering. And if so, really take some time to quiet down, center in and question that belief. Perhaps you have been on the receiving end of someone’s inability to tolerate your happiness. From your perspective the person seems like a self-destructive razor-sharp tornado of misery. Any effort you make to reach out causes you pain. If you can see that it is your situation — the very existence of your success, your love life or your children — that aggravates them, then it’s easier not to take it personally. And there is no reason to feel guilty for your own situation, unless achieved in some unethical way. Just letting other people have their happiness without faulting them for it is a major step for some of us. It’s important to remember that this letting go is not a loss but an opening to joy, a joy not dependent on causes and conditions. We can’t know with any certainty another person’s suffering. Likewise we can’t assume they are happy simply because they have a nice house, or good health, or any other item or situation. There are happy and miserable people in every walk of life and profession. The person who wins the lottery may have a temporary thrill, but within a year studies show they return to their previous level of happiness. We are very adaptable, and we adapt to changes of circumstance, treating it as the new normal. So mudita is feeling happy for the happiness of others because we sense our underlying unity. From this deep rooted sense of connection, we feel their joy as if it were our own. And then we drop the ‘as if.’ Because the shared joy melts the possessive edges that can never adequately contain true happiness. From this perspective we can see more clearly that no person’s good fortune is stolen at our expense, and that no human being has a life devoid of pain, no matter how perfect their life may seem to us. How do we find mudita? When we quiet down in meditation, anchor into physical sensation to stay present with whatever is arising in this very moment, tap into this infinite source, deeply know that all is one, then we find that joy is contagious and bountiful.