Category Archives: Four Noble Truths

The Buddha’s cure for what ails us all

If the Buddha were alive today and took an aptitude test to determine a career path, he would no doubt be assessed as a research scientist. He was not a philosopher or theologian. He had no interest in how life came into being or what happens after we die or if there is a deity — he said these things are unknowable. What he cared about was discovering the causes of suffering and finding a cure. And he found it! In the first of his Four Noble Truths, the Buddha, like a good medical researcher, used his acute observation to define the disease: the dis-ease we all feel at times: dukkha

In the Second Noble Truth, he identified the direct causes of that disease: greed, aversion and delusion.

In the Third Noble Truth he pronounced that Hallelujah, there is a cure!

And in the Fourth Noble Truth, he gives a detailed prescription for us to follow in order to live a joyful and meaningful life: The Noble Eightfold Path.

I’ve often wondered why there is a third Noble Truth. Why not just cut to the chase and dive into the Eightfold Path? One possible reason is to allow that sense of celebration to settle in before proceeding to the challenge of learning how to incorporate the eight aspects of the 8FP (Eightfold Path) into our lives. Pausing to celebrate is high on my list of important life skills. For example, “Yay, I got the job!” is a different mode than that first day at work. Even the perfect job requires discipline, and so does the 8FP. But the rewards of this discipline are both immediate and ongoing.

A funny thing about discipline: Back in my thirties I was writing a novel. Every day after dropping the kids off at school and doing my exercises at Elaine Powers (:-O), I spent three hours in front of my IBM Selectric typing away, fully engaged. I loved it! But friends often asked me, “Where do you get the discipline?” Discipline? I had thought of discipline as something imposed from an external source and internalized, so a mean-spirited inner aspect would crack a whip and force me to do something. But the discipline I had then, and have had throughout the years of teaching and writing this weekly blog post, is not a whip-cracking discipline but a true labor of love. Meditation was what made that novel-writing experience turn from a state of misery into a joyful process. And the regular practice of meditation all these years helps me to be lovingly disciplined in almost everything I do.

This will be the fourth time I have taught the Eightfold Path. Each time I use a different definer for the eight aspects. Traditionally, we use ‘right’ or ‘wise’, so ‘Right View’ or ‘Wise Speech’, for example. One time I substituted the word ‘spacious’, so ‘Spacious Concentration’, for I had found that for myself and my students our mental habits were very tight and tense. Teaching the 8FP this time, I wondered what might be the most helpful word to use, and what came to me as I was leading a metta practice that I always say the same way week after week, year after year, was the sudden addition — as if out of nowhere — of May we be skillful. Skillful! Yes, there’s a word that reminds us that we are empowered to be skillful in any moment.

The 8FP is wondrous set of tools to explore and develop more skillfulness in life so that we don’t cause suffering for ourselves or others. It’s not a quick fix. It’s not a pill we can take. It’s an ongoing practice.

I’ve also wondered why it is called a path. A path indicates a starting and ending point, but the eight aspects of the 8FP work in concert, intricately interconnected and complementary. There is no destination, and focusing on one, gazing into some imagined future, takes us away from this moment just as it is. The more we discover about the 8FP, the more we discover about ourselves and our way of being in the world. We not only see the patterns of greed, aversion and delusion, but learn how to skillfully deal with them, so over time they are not constantly making us miserable.

For this prescription to work, we need a regular practice of meditation. Otherwise, we are just learning ‘about’ the Buddha’s teachings instead of living them as the prescription calls for. So if you don’t have a daily practice, this would be a great time to start one. If you think you don’t have time, you might want to investigate further, notice how you are spending your time. Perhaps there is some escapist activity you would be willing to sacrifice to discover a life that you don’t need to escape. On this website you will find lots of support, including a link to the free Insight Timer app with tens of thousands of guided meditations by outstanding teachers.

Even ten to fifteen minutes a day of stepping away from the fray to simply notice physical sensations, thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away, will signal to your inner wisdom that you are ready to pay attention, ready to learn how to live with joyous ease.

So celebrate that there is a cure! And then join me and my in-class students who are looking forward to having something to ‘really sink their teeth into’, as we explore together this skillful prescription to cure what ails us.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

If you’re struggling, this will be music to your ears

In the last post we looked at the Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion the Buddha identified as the source of dukkha (suffering). I offered some questions to help you investigate these three in your own experience. You may have had some aversion to this task, and I imagine many turned away. If you took the time to do it, perhaps you made an enemy of what you found, activating feelings of regret, remorse, shame or anger.

Maybe this additional teaching from the Buddha will help put things into perspective:

Having lived his life at both extremes — the lap of luxury and near starvation — Siddhartha Gautama knew them both to be empty of insight. So after six years of self-deprivation he gave up the ascetic path. After accepting some nourishment (to the horror of his fellow ascetics), he sat down with renewed intention and meditated under a ficus tree for many hours. Mara (illusion) tried hard to distract him by activating greed, aversion and delusion: all manner of delights and frights. As they appeared, he found that he could dissolve these lures by simply seeing them for what they were, illusions, and by acknowledging them without rancor. “Mara, I see you. Mara, I know you.”

We do know the delights and frights in our own lives that distract us and push our buttons. (You might think of those buttons as having labels on them: GREED | AVERSION | DELUSION.) That simple act of noticing is key to our practice. When we get caught up in a fantasy, can we just recognize it instead of shaming ourselves? Can we simply say “Greed, I see you.”? It’s just greed. It’s just aversion. It’s just delusion — lifelong companions we are growing weary of entertaining and tangling with. Then we come back to the fresh aliveness of the present moment, just as it is, anchoring our awareness in the breath and other physical sensations that arise and fall away.

When the lures of Mara finally faded away because Siddhartha was firmly present in the moment, he got up from the base of the tree.
In this awakened state, he listened to a woman playing a lute. This prompted an insight that made all the difference in the way he would practice and what he would teach. He noticed that the strings on the instrument were neither too tight nor too loose, in order to play sweet music.
Just so, he thought, when we strive too hard or don’t bother trying, we suffer. Denying ourselves creature comforts or over-indulging in them both cause us to suffer. Being mindful in the moment we can sense when we are attuned to life. We and those around us benefit when we are not living ‘off key’, when we are not so stressed out that we’re ‘breaking the strings’ or so lethargic that there’s no music.

It would be very easy to take the teachings of the Three Poisons and over-react or turn away in discomfort. Instead we can find what the Buddha came to call The Middle Way. We notice greed, aversion and delusion in our lives without falling into the blame and shame game. This teaching enables us to investigate without causing additional pain. Keep the lute in mind as you explore the thoughts and emotions that arise in your experience.

The Three Poisons combine in toxic ways
Identifying a specific poison may be difficult. For example, in class one student noticed she was experiencing comparing mind but she couldn’t assign it to one of the poisons. This is because all three poisons are present. Greed shows up in envying someone else’s life, looks, accomplishments, etc. Aversion shows up in the negative opinions we have about ourselves by comparison. And delusion shows up because we are deluded in believing that someone else’s life is somehow perfect and that they don’t suffer as we do.

As you give yourself the opportunity after meditation to notice thoughts and emotions arising, look for those Three Poisons in their infinite combinations. No need to make an enemy of them. Just recognizing them is enough — just as the Siddhartha recognized illusion, greeting it by name.

Why does it hurt?

Here’s a photo of a little girl with her dolls. What a lucky girl to have three dolls! She must be so be happy! But when I look at her, I don’t see happiness, do you? Maybe she’s afraid someone will take her dolls away. Look how tightly she’s holding them. She is planning on defending them. And maybe she’s looking at some other child who has some dolls and she wants to add them to her collection, too.
Of course, holding them this tight she can’t really enjoy her dolls, can she? She can’t look at their faces, talking to them, singing to them, feeding them, dressing them…maybe having a tea party and inviting other children over with their dolls to play. She can’t do any of that because she has to hold on tight to these dolls for fear of losing them.
We can all recognize ourselves in this little girl. We have all had the experience of clinging to something, afraid of losing it. Whether it’s our possessions, our money, how are relationships, our career, our beliefs, the way we see ourselves, or the way we see our world; we hold on tight because we don’t know who we would be without these cherished things and we are afraid to find out.
But just as this little girl can’t play with her dolls when she holds them so tightly, we can’t really enjoy our lives and all the wonders in it when we hold them in such a tight grip.
What happens when we hold on so tight in a relationship? What happens when we cling tight to someone we love, begging them to spend more time with us, pay more attention to us tell us they love us? We suffocate the love and it turns to nothing in our hands.
So this tendency to grasp and cling to what we care about isn’t an effective strategy, is it? At best we can enjoy it and at worst we might cause it to disappear.

Now here’s another little girl. She’s not happy either, but instead of holding onto something she loves she’s focused on something that hasn’t measured up to her standards, her expectations, or her desires. Maybe her mother said she couldn’t have ice cream before dinner and she’s determined to be miserable about it for a good long while. Something in her life is not right. So she can’t enjoy herself either.I’m sure we can all recognize ourselves in this little girl, too. We’ve all had experiences that didn’t measure up to our expectations. We’ve all had times when that disappointment ruined the whole experience. We’ve all had trouble enjoying this moment because we’re still caught up and what happened last week, last month, last year and we’re letting it color our whole experience.

Here’s a third picture of a little guy with his hat pulled down in front of his face. He can’t see what’s going on all around him. We probably have a harder time seeing ourselves in this image because we’re blind to it. But we might get a sense that we’d rather not look too deeply into things. We’d rather gloss over the surface and assume our understanding is the reality of any situation.

And finally, here’s a photo of a girl who is delighting in a frog resting on her open palms. Notice that this photo is in full color while the rest are in black and white. Why? Because she’s the only one who is living fully in the present moment.
Notice that she is not clinging to the frog. The frog can hop off her palm at any time, and she understands that. And notice that she doesn’t seem to be judging the frog, finding fault in its size, color or any other aspect. She accepts the frog as it is.

Can we find this kind of joy in the moment? Can we notice when we’re grasping and clinging, when we’re pushing things away or assessing things as lacking? Can we see clearly what is arising in our experience in this moment and hold it in a gentle open embrace?

For most of us these moments of pure open enjoyment are rare. If we have them, we may get so excited that we try to grab hold of them and that makes the moment fall apart. Maybe we ask ourselves why it can’t always be like this? And so we activate the sense of dissatisfaction in our lives.

Is it possible to be in this kind of relationship with life all the time? The Buddha found that it was and he shares his discovery in the Four Noble Truths. In a recent post we looked at the First Noble Truth, that there is dukkha in life.
These four photos are visual aids to help us recognize the Second Noble Truth, the causes of dukkha, the suffering we all experience in life: The first three photos represent Greed, Aversion and Delusion. The last photo represents what life can be if we liberate ourselves from these ‘Three Poisons’.

How do you know when you are experiencing the Three Poisons?
Here’s a little questionnaire:

Greed
Does your suffering feel tight, grasping, stressed out and striving? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the future, daydreaming about acquiring dwellings, clothes, vacations, events, achievements, awards, complements, sexual conquests, etc? Well, greed is present. It’s not a very nice word, but then this isn’t a very nice feeling, is it? If you prefer, you can use ‘passion’, but the results are the same: dukkha, suffering.

Aversion
Does life not meet your expectations? Do you find many things irritating? Do you spend the present moment thinking about how it might be better, or comparing it to what you thought it would be? Is nothing quite right?
Or do you spend a lot of brain power finding who’s to blame for whatever is arising? Does your blood boil? Do you have a lot of grudges?
Then aversion is present. It shows up as anger, disappointment, angst and  intolerance. 

Delusion
Whatever is causing suffering, would you rather not think about it, definitely not talk about it? Do you think you have all the answers? Do you avoid looking too deeply into anything? Do you shut down conversations that get uncomfortable? Do you feel powerless?

Then delusion is present. It’s a hard one to name because how can you name something you can’t bring yourself to look at? And it gets entangled with greed and aversion.

If you recognized these kinds of patterns in your life, or didn’t but you know that you are not truly happy, then the Buddha offers guidance in how to notice them and how to work with them in a way to lessen their impact and even liberate yourself from them.

And that’s what we will be doing over the coming series of posts. I hope you will join me in this valuable exploration.

Where does it hurt?

Once I told my mother I was feeling down. She said ‘Well, you shouldn’t.’ I knew she was right. It didn’t add up. I had all the prerequisites for happiness. Okay, but then what do I do with this feeling? (Don’t judge her. She was a woman of her time, before emotional intelligence was even a thing. She was of a generation that took pride in soldiering through any emotional turmoil.)

But the Buddha knew what I was talking about. He recognized this ongoing sense of angst and not-enoughness and called it dukkha, which has been translated as suffering, unsatisfactoriness and discontent. There’s no perfect word in the English language for dukkha, and besides the original Pali word is so perfect for us English-speakers because it marries two common words we may use for feces: doo-doo and caca. Doo-cah. Dukkha. Yup, that works to describe feeling poopy. We don’t need a specific reason to feel that way, do we? Sometimes we just do. We might say ‘I woke up on the wrong side of the bed’ which makes no sense at all but we feel the need to ascribe this feeling to something.

Sometimes the conditions of our lives do activate unhappy emotions, but often what we find to blame for this ooky feeling didn’t bother us yesterday. Yesterday we didn’t find someone’s habits annoying, but today for some reason we do. It has to be the fault of someone or something, doesn’t it?

No! According to the Buddha, it doesn’t. Dukkha exists. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to deal with it. The Buddha provides a brilliant set of solutions that we will be exploring in upcoming posts. But it’s important to first notice the existence of dukkha in our lives, and to notice that blame is not useful. Making an enemy of anything is not useful.

The Ill-fitting Axle Hole
In Pali dukkha literally means ‘ill-fitting axle hole’. Such a great metaphor for how dukkha feels in our lives. Imagine riding along in a cart with a wheel that is wobbly or otherwise dysfunctional. It makes a continuous ker-thump. Some of the time the beautiful scenery or the delightful conversation distracts us from the ongoing ker-thumping, but it’s there. Sometimes we can’t sense anything else because the constant irritation of the rough ride makes enjoying anything impossible. And that’s just like dukkha. It’s an underlying irritant that creates discontent even in otherwise pleasant circumstances.

This recognition of dukkha’s existence, even in the lives of those who seem to ‘have it all’ was the starting point of Siddhartha Gautama’s quest to end suffering for himself and all beings circa 600 BCE in northern India. He was born into wealth and destined to rule. Yet as a young man he felt a sense of unsatisfactoriness. No one is immune to dukkha. Because he was born into wealth, he knew that luxury can be a source of pleasure but not of true happiness. This saved him a lot of time that many of us spend striving and seeking material success, fame, admiration, etc. thinking it will wipe out the dukkha we are experiencing. Can we take his word for that? If not, we can look around at the rich and famous in our own culture and recognize that whatever true happiness they experience is not a product of their wealth or position, and whatever sadness they experience cannot be cured by another villa, island or fancy car. (Many recent studies show that beyond an income that assures sufficient food, shelter and health, wealth is no indicator of happiness.)

(Not familiar with the Buddha’s life story? Take this four post pilgrimage.

The First Noble Truth that the Buddha taught when he, after years of meditative practice, became enlightened was the importance of acknowledging the existence of dukkha in our lives. Our lifelong patterns of trying to ignore it make this a challenge, but the regular practice and the exploration of the teachings with a group of others, our sangha, who share the wholesome desire to understand and to cultivate awakening, make it possible.

In the Four Noble Truths, his first teaching after awakening, the Buddha named the problem we face as human beings. Then he identified the causes of the problem, identified the solution, and shared the necessary steps to implement that solution. Seeing the truth of his words, his small group of fellow seekers became his first followers. Over the decades of his life, his followers grew, and they took it far and wide. His teachings have been passed down over millennia and they are as alive today — as we explore them, investigating their veracity — as they were in his day in the forests with his followers.

During the week, see if you can notice dukkha’s presence in your own life, from minor discomforts to overpowering mental and physical pain. Over the coming posts we’ll discover what causes dukkha and how to liberate ourselves from it.

That is the heart of the Buddha’s offering.

Image by Matthias Böckel from Pixabay

The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path

We’ve been exploring the First and Second Noble Truths: the existence of suffering, dukkha, and the causes of dukkha. In the Third Noble Truth the Buddha says, hey, don’t worry, there’s a way out of this mess, and that way is the Noble Eightfold Path.

So here we are in the Fourth Noble Truth which is the exploration of the Eightfold Path, a comprehensive system of practices that helps us see where we’re suffering and offers very clear guidance to end it.

The Eightfold Path is traditionally divided into three types of practices:
  • Wisdom practices, panna, are Wise View and Wise Intention.
  • Virtue Practices, sila, are Wise Speech, Wise Action and Wise Livelihood.
  • Concentration practices, samadhi, are Wise Effort, Wise Mindfulness, Wise Concentration.

This is the third go-round of teaching the Eightfold Path that you will find on this blog. The first time the aspects were all ‘Right’ — Right View, Right Intention, etc. The second time I wanted to explore the quality of spaciousness that really helps us be able to handle whatever arises in our experience, so I emphasized this by calling the aspects Spacious View, Spacious Intention, etc.

This go-round is the first time we are approaching the Eightfold Path coming from the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, just as the Buddha taught it, and together we have been studying and practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness over the past year, so this time I think we are ready to give these eight aspects the label ‘Wise’ — Wise, View, Wise Intention, etc. We have earned it!

But feel free to refer to posts from any of the previous iterations. They all work together.

What is most different about how I have evolved my teaching of the Eightfold Path is the creation of the analogy of a pot sitting on a campfire to help us better understand how these aspects work together, and what role each one plays.


Each aspect of the Eightfold Path is a vital part of what makes the whole thing cook. Everything needs to be there — the match, the well laid logs and kindling, the pot, the contents of the pot. If any one of these is missing there will be no dinner! Just so, the Eightfold Path gives us a means to create a happy meaningful life, and a way to see where it’s not coming together. Did we forget the matches? Are the logs misaligned? Does the pot have a crack in it? Did we forget to fill the pot?

The main difference between the cooking pot analogy and the traditional way of looking at the Eightfold Path is that with the cooking pot analogy, the virtue practices of wise speech, action and livelihood arise as steam as a direct result of the coming together of the other practices.

While anyone would acknowledge that this is true, a good case can be made for entering the Eightfold Path by practicing, to whatever degree one is able, these virtue practices. But each teacher must adapt the teachings to his or her students. In my case, I teach a class of women of a certain age who have been practicing their own virtue practices for their whole lives, trying to do the right thing and say the right thing. The challenge for us needs to go a little deeper than simply being nice. Nice we’ve got covered. But there’s a big difference between being nice and being kind in a deep and caring way. So we will be looking at our deep intentions, and questioning how effective we are if our view is unwise, or our effort is unbalanced or our intention isn’t clear, and how skillful can we be if we are mindless.


So we will approach these eight aspects in the order that will provide deeper understanding of their interrelated nature, and surest results of wisdom.

Spacious Livelihood

Upon rereading Right Livelihood from April 2009, I find it still stands without restating, so I encourage you to read it. Of course the word ‘spacious’ can be added to enhance awareness of the moments when we are at a decision-making crossroads. That spacious pause might make all the difference as to how we interact in the marketplace in making a living, spending and investing money. Our choices shape the world we live in, so this is a powerful moment, a moment worthy of becoming centered, grounded and spacious.

In class we discussed how meditation increases our ability to notice our thoughts and emotions enough to see where we are in conflict in this realm. Say, for example, one thought-stream has the intention to be a thoughtful world citizen and another really wants that fruit from 3000 mile away or that cute shirt made inexpensive by the exploitation of workers. With spacious awareness we can pause to sense our interconnection with all beings and we can see more clearly the effects of our actions and calculate more accurately the true cost of our purchases.

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So that brings us to the end of the Eightfold Path, the Fourth of the Four Noble Truths. I hope you have found it a fruitful exploration. In this tradition we are encouraged to return again and again to the teachings, to revisit these Four Noble Truths. The first visit our eyes and ears take in the concepts but they are outside our experience. The second time around, we begin to recognize these truths in our lives and begin to incorporate them into our experience. The third time perhaps they have worked their way into our very bones. They can become the conceptual structure upon which we live our lives.

I encourage you to discover more about the Four Noble Truths from other sources and from your own experience through meditation and living in awareness. With each of the Truths, you can ask questions. For example:

The Buddha says that there is suffering in life. Is this true? How do I know it is true? Am I living with that understanding? How does that understanding manifest in my life?

The Buddha says that the cause of most of our suffering is grasping, clinging and pushing away the various aspects of life that attract or repel us. Is this true? Ho do I know it is true? How does that truth manifest in my own life?

The Buddha says that the end of suffering is possible. Is this true? Am I willing to practice in a way that I can discover for myself the truth of this statement?

The Buddha says that the way to end suffering is through the Eightfold Path: Wise Intention, Wise View, Wise Effort, Wise Concentration, Wise Mindfulness, Wise Speech, Wise Action and Wise Livelihood. Is this true? Am I willing to practice in a way that I can discover for myself the truth of this statement?

Getting Things Done – Spacious Action in Action

Wherever we are in any given moment we can remind ourselves of our intention to be fully present and compassionate. It’s simple but not always easy to remember, but it is so rewarding that we can soon develop a habit of doing so.

But how does being present and compassionate get things done?

Meditation practice fosters within us a sense of generosity and creativity. Spacious action arises out of those skillful impulses in whatever form is the clearest expression of our natural talents. Do we have the patience and persistence to sit until we are ripe and ready for skillful action? Do we feel we have the time and the permission to do so? Probably not! In our culture we are encouraged to ‘go for the gusto,’ to be goal-oriented, to plan for the future, to dream big, to ‘not stop ‘til we get enough,’ to ‘go for the Gold,’ ‘be all that we can be,’ etc. etc. Where in all these prompts to perfection, all these indications that we are not enough as we are, would be find room for simply sitting? And we come back to that question of how would we get anything done?

Gandhi is quoted as saying, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”

How I wish I had heard that quote back in the early nineties when I went through an extended lapse from regular meditation practice because I felt I didn’t have the time! Thus destabilized from my foundation of awareness, I paid no heed to my body’s call for a respite, for a time of silence and sitting. Instead I kept my nose to the grindstone and honored every commitment I made to others, but did not take the time to honor a basic commitment to take care of myself. At that time there were no well-publicized local retreat centers that would provide me with the simple life of sitting that I clearly needed. So what did I do?

I got sick. Illness is the one long-accepted form of retreat in our culture. Get sick in the body or mind and we will be forced to rest. We will become so unskillful or disabled that others will insist that we stop what we are doing and go away and don’t come back until we are well enough to pick up our burden again. Maybe we end up in a mental ward, a cancer unit or a prison cell. And there, if life were fair, the healing would begin. But instead chances are we get caught up in yet another intense culture where we feel threatened and overwhelmed…unless we are able to recognize the opportunity to let go and simply be.

I was heartened to read recently that in an Alabama prison there is an ongoing meditation retreat program for inmates who choose to participate. I wasn’t surprised that it has been extremely successful and that the recidivism among the members of that incarcerated sangha is much lower than the rest of the prison population.

When I was diagnosed with CFIDS (chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome) I felt fortunate that my illness was not life-threatening. All I had to give up was a career with which I’d had a love/hate relationship, half our family income, and the ability to do more than one thing a day beyond feeding my family and cleaning our home. Suddenly my overwhelming array of choices was eliminated.

Imagine that! If you could only do only one thing a day, what would it be? It became so clear to me who and what nourished me and who and what drained me. That was the deciding factor for any social encounter, any outing or any activity. The foods, films and people that put me into a tailspin of weariness were off the list. Television and novels that had been my days-end vacation were off the list! How had I not noticed that all these things were draining me? How had I not noticed that my nice corner office at work had been abuzz with freeway noise that I couldn’t hear after a while. How much energy had it taken for me to provide an inner muffle for that sound?

This discovery of what nourished me and what drained me was the product of my return to meditation, the one thing I could do as much as I wanted during my illness. In fact, for nine months I experienced a physically-enforced personal retreat. Through meditation I touched that deep connected mindfulness that creates the possibility of skillful spacious action. Until then I paid little attention to the many decisions and choices I made during any given day. I did what I had to do to get things off my plate, to get past where I was and onto some more tolerable future place. No wonder I got sick!

Now, thanks to the widespread practice of meditation and the development and appreciation for emotional intelligence, we have greater access to and greater acceptance of the knowledge to recognize when we are on autopilot, when we are becoming unskillful. We also have the resources available in the form of meditation instruction and retreats that can provide us with the ability to stay present and compassionate. Yet many of us are still not giving ourselves permission to let go for even a half hour a day and give ourselves what we need.

In the state I had been in working up to my illness, I was so disconnected that I didn’t feel deserving of anything for myself. I also felt that it was not something I could ask for. At some level I hoped that someone would give it to me, but I didn’t speak up and let it be known that I needed it. When my doctor told me I needed to quit my job, I went on half-time. But it wasn’t until I used that freed up time to meditate and get in touch with the inner wisdom that each of us has access to that I got it that I needed a complete time out in order to heal.

So what is it that kept me from asking for what I needed? It was a sense of unworthiness. Imagine sitting at the dinner table, feeling you have no right to ask someone to pass the salt. When I began meditating, I recognized that I was an intrinsic part of the universe, deserving what every being deserves, no less, no more. With that awareness I could accept my seat at the table and if I needed something, I understood that if I couldn’t reach it, it was reasonable to ask whoever was closest to it to ‘please pass the salt.’

I could also begin to recognize others who also felt undeserving of a seat at the table and I began to see that the table is infinitely expansive and there is plenty of food for all, so part of being at the table was inviting everyone to take their seat, their rightful seat that for whatever reason they had vacated or hadn’t been told was theirs.

What does it mean to you when I talk about accepting your seat at the table? What does it mean to you when I say ‘Feel free to ask for what you need?’

When we talk about skillful action we also talk about unskillful action because it helps us see more clearly. In this imaginary table we have constructed, we might see that there are those who see the seating and the food as limited, who look like they are sitting at a poker table and accruing chips instead of at a dining table with plenty of food and delightful conversation.

We can look at our own actions at the table. Are we eating off someone else’s plate? Are we telling others what they should and shouldn’t eat? Or are we allowing each other the full reign of our own seat and table setting?

How are we relating to the plate in front of us? Is it full or empty? Is it enough? Is it too much of one kind of thing and not enough of another? If we are looking longingly at another person’s plate or wishing we were in another’s seat, we can return to our mindfulness and skillful inquiry to ask what is driving that desire to unseat someone else or take what they have when there is plenty at the table and we already have a seat?

What are we afraid of? It always comes back to that when we get to a place of scarcity and contraction.

On a silent retreat at Spirit Rock a while back I realized that ‘I have nothing to fear, nothing to prove, nothing to hide and something to give.’ It wasn’t the first time I had realized that, but somehow phrased in that way, it was something I could write down and pin to my bulletin board where I can see it every day. It still informs me, and sometimes surprises me.

Once we begin to see that, even though we still have habituated patterns of fear-based beliefs and behaviors, we can begin to rest in awareness. We can really appreciate what is in front of us, even when it isn’t all chocolate pudding all the time. We can learn to look around and see what needs doing and understand what it is we bring to the table, what we have to offer from our set of skills and gifts and interests. Through the practice of meditation there is a natural shift of focus to what we have to offer, what is upwelling inside us from our natural generosity of spirit without any sense of agenda or recompense, just a joyous love of life and gratitude for this experience, even though it is sometimes painful and challenging.

Since we are not monks or nuns, since we are not on retreat constantly, we have options and challenges. Our needs are not taken care of by others. But in some deeper sense, we are taken care of. For those who believe in God, there is the personified understanding of being children of God, held in a loving embrace. For those for whom this personification doesn’t resonate, there is the scientifically based understanding of the interconnectivity of life, that we are all stardust, one being, and that each of us, even those suffering and struggling with outrageous misfortune, are intrinsically valued.

Maybe we feel we are not valued by some specific other – a parent perhaps — against whom we may rail, feeling abandoned or brutalized. But if we continue to come back to our intention to be present and compassionate, we will shift from feeling dependent on the permission, admiration or love of others. They don’t own the table. They don’t have to pull out our chair. We begin to see we are already seated, already here, at the table of life, nourished by the wholeness of being, accessed at any moment through awareness of the present and a willingness to be compassionate to ourselves and others.

So this is the way we get things done. We accept our seat at the table and we maintain the clarity and compassion to enjoy the interactions with others around us, to pass the salt to whomever needs it, and to not be afraid to say, “Could you please pass those sweet potatoes? They look mighty tasty!”