Category Archives: Fourth Noble Truth

Eightfold Path: Spacious* View

* In this exploration of the Eightfold Path, we are seeing how the use of the word ‘spacious’ instead of ‘right’ or ‘wise’ affects our understanding. Please see the previous post ‘Spacious Eightfold Path’, January 13, 2011 for an explanation of why this seemed a worthy exploration.

In conversation we might say “In my view…” We build our sense of identity upon our view of things, the way we see the world, the beliefs we align with or rail against, and the people we see as like-minded allies or enemies.

“From my perspective…” is another term we might use. Again, we are choosing a particular vantage point from which to observe and react to the world around us. It’s useful to notice what vantage point we have chosen, since it shapes so much of how we participate in the world. Maybe we were born here in this perspective, born to a sense of belonging to these inherited beliefs, obligated to live and live up to them in order to honor or validate our history. Or perhaps we found this perch on our own, and feel the pride of our individual stake in the rich vein we have claimed. How we come to our perspective plays a role in how attached we are to it. Our ‘story’ is our identity. We rely on our story. It comforts us even if it is a terrible tale. It is our tale and we hold it dear, as we share it with others by word or deed.

Sometimes our story seems incomplete and we are in a state of seeking something or someone who can tell us who we are. We search for some kind of confirmation that will give us a clear vantage point, a deserved perch, a deed to this life we are living. ‘Who am I?’ we may ask with the same urgency as a baby bird clambering blindly in a nest cheeping for food.

How does this attachment to our identity and this quest for a defining story, affect our ability to access Spacious View? When we are aligned so rigidly with a viewpoint, or seeking distinguishing marks that align and separate us, then how do we access or value Spacious View, where there are no sides, no mine, no yours, no theirs — just an infinite field of interconnection and compassionate understanding?

Although it might seem as if we need to get rid of our attachment to our identity in order to access this Spacious View, actually the attempt to get rid of it, or anything, knocks us out of an ability to access spaciousness.

Spacious View is the noticing of perceptions we hold and allowing room to explore them with increasing compassion and clarity. In this case, it is the gift of presence that arises out of noticing the way we cling to our story. We can notice the fear that we are nothing without our beliefs, our thoughts, our personality, our behavioral quirks that distinguish us from others, and our ways of being that mark us as part of this tribe and not that one.

Through the practice of meditation we begin to see the patterns of our thoughts and emotions. In class we have meditated together, making ourselves available to this sense of spaciousness. And hopefully, each of you have been developing or continuing a practice of daily meditation that furthers this sense of spaciousness.

Arising out of the stillness and inner silence, our alignments, our attachments, our judgments, our beliefs – everything that we thought makes us who we are – become visible in the spacious field of awareness that is infinite and generous.

If you notice any sense of defeat when I say this, as you judge your own experience of meditation, know that Spacious View has room for your defeat and your judgment or any other thoughts or feelings that arise.

As we meditate we are giving ourselves the quiet solitude we crave as a natural part of our lives. This is not news. The scientific proof of the value of taking time in silence for ourselves is everywhere in the media, especially in health news, to the point that it is an accepted part of our culture. And yet habits die hard and remarkably few people give themselves the gift of these quiet moments on a regular basis.

By allowing for this quieting down to be a natural and regular part of our lives, insights arise. We see that we are not giving up ourselves and taking on a different perspective, but we can see where our views came from, how they became ingrained or calcified in our patterns of thinking. What we thought was something solid becomes softer and more airy. Through this inner exploration we may find in time that we do not have to defend our views, do not have to hold them so tight, and do not have to make someone else wrong or take sides in order to exist with joy in the world.

When we use the word ‘spacious’ instead of ‘right’ or ‘wise,’ it reminds us to look at the space between things instead of just focusing on the things themselves. On a universal level this is seeing the interconnectivity, the fluidity of being. On a personal level we notice how we are relating to the object in question. For example, we can look at the way we see ‘the world.’ We can listen to how we talk about the world and instead of just accepting everything we say as truth, we can see our thoughts, emotions, judgments and beliefs more clearly. We see that ‘the world’ is not some solid clearly definable thing but a ‘whirled’ collection of amorphous opinions that we may have accepted as truth without bothering to question them.

Spacious View is always supported by questions, by curiosity, by a compassionate exploration of the relationship between things, especially between us and the things that matter to us. So take for example, the way we see a person who is important to us in our lives. Instead of focusing our thoughts on the person as if they are solid, separate entity, we can focus on the space between us that is so filled with belief, thoughts, emotions, judgments and opinion. We can see the degree to which we react when they say something or do something that sets off particular patterns in our behavior. Instead of focusing on them and how they should be different, we focus on our thoughts about how they should be different. We notice the physical sensations associated with these thoughts, the emotions that arise with the thought. We see the inter-related nature of this little storm system that sets in, spawned by a behavior on the person’s part that perhaps irritates us.

Spacious View allows us to see that the world is not some stagnant place with a bunch of solid objects bouncing around banging into each other, but a rich web of interconnection. When we begin to notice the web, these interconnections become more alive, fresh and wholesome, rather than calcified and rigid.

No doubt at some time in your life you have felt held by someone else’s calcified view of you. You have felt the stranglehold of being seen as something solid and unchanging. Perhaps someone who has known you all your life or someone who only knows you in one role can’t make room in their view for all of who you are. So you know how chaffing and exhausting it can be to be viewed this way, how it brings up feelings of having to prove their view wrong and has the potential to set off a whole series of unskillful interactions. Noticing this, we shift gears from perceiving ourselves to be solid, separate, crashing and careening objects in space to seeing how we are more akin to microcosmic points on a macrocosmic web of infinite interconnectivity, able to see all the strings of thought, emotion and sensation that interplay along the pulsing vibrating threads of life. That is Spacious View.

As we discuss Spacious View we might notice that there is something familiar here, something that sounds perhaps a lot like what people say they experience when they experience the presence of God. They talk about having a sense of being deemed okay as they are, forgiven for their human imperfections. Accepting a higher power is a response to an awareness of there being a vantage point that is infinite and all-encompassing. How does God, for those who believe in God, seem to be able to hold all the mess without getting dirtied by it? God by nature is transcendent and intrinsically personal, infinite yet never distant.

Every earnest accounting of an experience of the presence of God suggests this spacious awareness, this spacious presence that arises when we quiet down and open our hearts to what is, whether we are in a place of worship, out in nature or on our meditation cushion.

‘Defending God’ is an oxymoron, because the minute we fall into ‘us against them’ and ‘our belief against their belief,’ we fall out of spaciousness, out of the intimate and infinite experience of God.

It is not surprising that people of all religions have found that meditation and Buddhist teachings enrich their experience of their own religion, regardless of what religion it is. Training in letting go of attachment to the story and simply being available for the spacious sense of ‘union with the divine’ is revitalizing for any spiritual life.

There is nothing we have to give up, nothing we have to turn against, and nothing we are destroying or denying when we simply sit and open to what is. We sit quietly with generous infinite nature and let it be what it is, let it go unnamed, because the naming and claiming creates a trap of attachment. We notice it all, even the desire to claim it. We relax into its vast compassionate embrace.

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As a useful exercise during the week, take some time to focus on your relationship with either ‘the world’ as you perceive it or a particular person about whom you have a lot of emotional volatility or a situation in your life about which you have strong opinions and a sense of struggle. Notice, and perhaps write down, what happens when you shift from talking or thinking about them to noticing your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. Question your assumptions and beliefs. Is this true? How do I know this is true? Give this exercise the time, space and compassion to allow all that arises to be acknowledged and honored. Notice any wanting to change your mind, or to prove your beliefs to be right, or to make yourself wrong, or to want to be ‘better.’ These too are just thoughts. Let them arise and let them go as part of your experience.

This is a life-long exercise, so have patience and compassion.
Hold the experience in Spacious View.

The Spacious Eightfold Path

In the summer we studied the First and Second Noble Truth, and then the Third in September. We decided to hold off looking at the Fourth, the Eightfold Path, until the beginning of the year because it works so well with New Year’s feelings of new beginnings and setting intention.

We first encountered the Eightfold Path together in this class exactly two years ago and during our exploration this time we may review previous dharma talks. You can also look in the archive to expand your understanding. They will be in Jan and Feb 2009.

The Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s recommended course for coping with the First Noble Truth: That life contains suffering. It guides us to develop personal insight into the revelation of his Second Noble Truth: That although there is unavoidable pain in life through birth, death, loss and aging, most of our suffering is caused by our grasping, clinging and pushing away of our current experience.

You may remember my talk about holding the world in an open embrace, where I showed pictures of three little girls, one holding on tight to her dolls as if someone was about to steal them away, one pouting with her arms crossed as if something in her experience was unacceptable, and one holding her hands together, palms up, in front of her, and enjoying the frog that was perched there, free to leap off at any moment. (The class saw these photos but I didn’t feel I could put them on the blog as I don’t have rights to them. I am waiting for my great niece or granddaughter to provide the perfect illustrations!)

The Eight Fold Path allows us to experience the Third Noble Truth, wherein the Buddha points the way to end this in-effect voluntary suffering. The Eightfold Path, gives us guideposts that shed light on how to develop a meditative practice, how to be present in the moment and guidelines on how to lead a life that fosters joy, peace and compassion.

Here is a chart of one of the ways I like to envision the Eightfold Path to helps us develop an understanding of how the eight aspects work together. You can see that it is not a path but a circle. Because there is no one right entry point for the Eightfold Path. You can see the lines that connect each aspect to all the others. So that when we are exploring the aspect of Speech, we can see how Intention, Effort, View, etc. play an important role as well.


This circular or more accurately spherical interconnectivity is an accurate representation of life itself, the nature of energy and matter. This diagram has edges and limits, but what it represents is an infinite interconnection. And, not surprisingly, in class the diagram brought to students’ minds images and symbols from some of the world’s oldest spiritual traditions, based in a deep connection with nature.

Now last time we discussed the eight aspects, we used the perfectly acceptable term ‘Right’ when we talked about each of the aspects, so we had Right View, Right Intention, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Effort, Right Action, Right Speech and Right Livelihood. This time we could choose the other term that is used: ‘Wise.’ So we would have Wise View, Wise Intention, Wise Mindfulness, Wise Concentration, Wise Effort, Wise Action, Wise Speech and Wise Livelihood. How does this change your feeling toward the Eightfold Path? Language is so powerful that we can accept something with a change of name that perhaps we bristled at with a different name. Something to notice!

My guess is that neither ‘right’ nor ‘wise’ is perfectly accurate. The word ‘right’ holds tight to judgment and might make us feel confined and tentative, rebellious or afraid to be ‘wrong.’ The word ‘wise’ seems kinder, but also implies that until we ‘get with the program’ we are unwise or foolish…which we may well be, but no need to be rude!

The implied judgment of these two words doesn’t seem very useful to me. Nor does it feel compassionate. So I am going to suggest that we work with another word, a word that has become valuable in our exploration, and that word is ‘spacious.’

Just close your eyes, then say ‘Spacious View’ and ‘Spacious Effort’ and notice how that feels in your body.

For me, there’s no sense of judgment, but instead a physical opening, a relaxing breath, as if a door has been opened. How does it feel for you to translate the Buddha’s terms in this way?

Remember that ‘right’ and ‘wise’ are just translations from the original Pali language. To keep the dharma fresh we are always, through our own explorations, our own meditative practice, rediscovering the Buddha’s wisdom for ourselves. So there is no rule that says because early twentieth century English and American translators chose the words ‘wise’ or ‘right’ that these are the most accurate words to help us understand the dharma. These translators were students just like us, doing the best they could, bringing their best understanding, but also their own upbringing and personal and cultural baggage into the mix, their own grounding in the Judeo-Christian traditions and the Ten Commandments. There is no reason to hold their translations as sacred. When we do this instead of following the wisdom revealed through our own explorations and questioning them for veracity, when we lock ourselves in to other people’s interpretations instead of seeing for ourselves, then what we have is dogma, not dharma.

When I went to research the original Pali for these terms to see what other words might come up, I didn’t find them (I’m not much of a Buddhist scholar!) but what came up was a quote of the Buddha’s saying that ‘wisdom is neither hearsay nor tradition.’ This for me meant I am on the right track in exploring language that best reflects my understanding of the teachings.

In class we talked about discussing these aspects using the word ‘spacious’ instead of ‘right’ or even ‘wise.’ The class caught on a lot faster than I did, and in our discussion, I was habitually saying ‘right’ and had the whole group piping up to correct me saying ‘spacious!’ My years of having learned it in the traditional way are giving me a challenge now!

It is my hope that by using this less judgmental and open word, we will keep our own spacious awareness ever present, as we listen, discuss and explore together these key teachings.

If you haven’t been in class or following along on the blog, then this idea of spaciousness might be confused with spacey-ness. But spacey-ness is unconscious or numbed by fear, while spaciousness is a subtle but profound shift into clarity and awareness of the interconnection of all being. Spaciousness provides the ability to be fully present in every moment in order to respond to life, even challenging situations and emotions, with understanding and compassion rather than fear. Spaciousness is the ground out of which all effective and meaningful action arises. Ineffective and negative behavior arises out of fear. If this sounds strange to you, please take the time to revisit the posts on fear and spaciousness.

For quite a while now we have been and will continue to practice noticing our physical sensations, thoughts and emotions as they arise in our spacious field of awareness. So notice this: the thoughts, the body sensations and the emotions that come up for you upon being presented with this idea of spending time focusing on what might be seen as a ‘to do’ list; and secondly how it feels to be a little creative with our interpretation of what this list is called.

Remember how last week we talked about the many component parts of any emotion we may observe in our experience? Well, the Eightfold Path is a tool that helps us to explore and discover the components of any experience.

So we are not changing the subject by taking on the Eightfold Path, but adding a whole wonderful skill set to our ability to be present with our experience and notice what is happening. It’s like we have been handed a microscope and a telescope. Our understanding has the ability to deepen exponentially by using what is offered here.

Over the coming weeks we will explore each of these aspects individually, and especially when we come to Spacious Action, Speech and Livelihood, we will be bringing in examples from our own lives and lives we have observed to work with. We will share these examples and apply what we have learned to noticing what works and what doesn’t.

The Buddha’s world was full of challenges, but we’ll want to explore how to apply his Eightfold Path to the challenges of our world, such as cell phones, emails and texting when we explore Spacious Speech. When we explore Spacious Livelihood, which includes all the commerce aspects of our lives, we’ll want to look at our behavior in the area of conscious consuming when so much of what is offered comes from half way around the world perhaps at great environmental cost and human degradation such as underpaid or child labor. We’ll want to explore how we can make living less of a tightrope with so many ways to go wrong, and more of an interconnected supportive net. With spacious awareness and an understanding of the Eightfold Path, we will explore and discuss, finding ways to stay mindful and kind in the world we live in as it is.

So this is an adventure of enriching personal and universal discovery, not a scolding to conform to rules of behavior. Each time we come round to a teaching we have visited before, we deepen our understanding, we shift from thinking about it as something abstract outside of our experience, to experiencing it directly and finding it helpful, and then to living it fully, operating from that place of deep understanding.

And so we embark again on the Eightfold Path, or we might call it this time the Eightfold Circle of Interconnection, since we’re in a renaming mode! We set our intention to keep the dharma alive by fully experiencing it in our own way, applying this received wisdom to the specific challenges of the age we live in, and by using, with gratitude, the Buddha’s teachings to spark our own insights and deepen our understanding.

Fix-it? Forget it!

We were discussing the Second Noble Truth, and how we can each notice the way we create suffering for ourselves through clinging, grasping and pushing away our experience instead of holding it in an open compassionate embrace. A meditator said that she was noticing this, but that she hoped that the Third Noble Truth was going to offer the next step: How to fix what we notice.

I said that the noticing is all there is. Now this may have been a tad disingenuous because of course the Buddha offers the Eightfold Path (The Fourth Noble Truth.) I suppose it could be regarded as a fix, but I see it more as a circle of light with which we surround ourselves in this practice. Each aspect of the Eightfold Path is a guidepost shedding light that helps us see where we have strayed too far from the core of consciousness and compassion. But the Eightfold Path itself does not fix anything; it simply brightens our way so we can notice. The noticing itself is the one and only step in this process.

The minute we try to fix whatever arises in our thoughts, we are caught up in the stickiness of suffering. Our ‘noticing’ is fault-finding and once we have found a fault, like a fissure in a tooth, we want it ‘taken care of.’ We want it drilled, filled and made perfect.

This is a reasonable response, a naturally arising thought from our creative brain activity. But in this regard, when it comes to releasing from tight constriction into a spaciousness of mind, you can see that this fault-finding fix-it methodology is more likely to shut us down, make us feel defensive and constrict us, rather than open us to feel more and trust in the process. Thus our desire to fix ‘the problem’ undermines the process.

The only tool that is up to the task is this ‘noticing.’ At first our noticing might be rather coarse, full of judgment and attitude, like “Oh there I go again with my big mouth,” or “Yup, I see how angry I get at the least little thing that person does.” Even this has some consciousness to it, some willingness to acknowledge what is happening, or why things are happening as they are, even if we are harsher than we need to be. If this is where we are, we can acknowledge that this is considerably more skillful than not noticing we’ve said something offensive or not noticing our own anger or what seems to trip our trigger.

The next step is not to ‘fix’ what we have noticed, but to refine the quality of our noticing.

Noticing is polished to a rich sheen through meditation practice, both concentration practice and metta practice. This is why we practice and why it is ongoing. The practice is the way we keep our tool of noticing polished.

At first we might think that meditation is a place we go, a retreat we take to get a breather from the hectic life we lead. And if it offers this, that’s lovely, but it is not the purpose of meditation. The core purpose is to develop and refine the ability to see with clarity and compassion whatever arises in this moment.

You can think of the knife-sharpener or the silverware polisher performing a vital service. This is a good way to think of meditation because it takes away the allure of thinking it is about having a mind-blowing experience. It takes away comparing one meditation with another. It is just the practice of being as fully present as we can be in this moment with as much compassion as we can manage right now.

It is just polishing our ability to notice what arises. There is no bad or good meditation, only this taking the time to do the task, to do the practice. If it creates inner peace, sparks creativity, etc. all to the good. The knife sharpener at his grinder and the silver polisher with her felt cloth also may experience this quieting down of the mind. And all the while the knives get sharpened, the forks get polished and the food is well cut and served. Just so, with meditation practice insight, we polish and refine our ability to notice what is arising in this moment and to hold it with acceptance, wisdom and compassion.

And through this practice we can see how the quality of our noticing shifts from, “Oh God, there I go again” to something along the lines of, “Ah, thinking. Noticing a tightness in my jaw when that thought arises. The emotion that arises with it is a sort of_____. Hmmm, the associative images that are arising are ______. Making space in my field of awareness for this to simply arise and fall away.

This kind of inner process could be called a dispassionate curiosity. Although the subject is personal, we are willing to allow for the possibility that it is inherently human, that we –though unique and individual in our own ways – are dealing with a universal stream and we are constantly testing the waters. It is not our job to fix the water, but to become more skillful in navigating in it. We can only do this through noticing the nature of the tides, the undercurrents, the weather, etc. We tune in. We notice. We notice everything.

So through our regular daily practice of meditation this quality of noticing gets polished up into a tool of self-exploration and expansion, rather than a weapon of harsh judgment that cuts us to the quick and leaves us to find a hole to hide in while we lick our self-inflicted wounds.

As you give yourself this gift of meditation, trust that whatever noticing you experience is sufficient for now. Yes, with regular practice, over time the noticing will become more insightful, but judging your state of noticing now as lacking is just another sticky dukkha delivery system, just another tarbaby to get caught up in. So trust the process, trust that as long as we live there is the polishing.

Let your light shine.

Eightfold Path: Right Concentration

The eighth aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path is Right Concentration.
How is this different from Right Mindfulness?

The best way I can phrase it for myself right now is that Right Concentration is a dedicated practice that builds the muscle of mindfulness.

Why isn’t it taught first, not last?
The Eightfold Path is seen as petals on a flower, all working in concert expressing different aspects of a single truth. Although it might seem sensible to teach Right Concentration first (and of course it is taught as part of any meditation practice), teaching it last assures that it is grounded in the wisdom of Right View and Right Intention and informed with the ethics of Right Speech, Right Action and Right LIvelihood. Understanding Right Effort helps to temper the potential for intensity in a concentration practice. And understanding Right Mindfulness adds clarity to the practice.

This makes sense given our general life experience of the word ‘concentrate.’ The word may bring up associations that cause tension. “Concentrate!” a teacher tells us, as if squinching our brains up tight and hunkering down over our paper will somehow produce the desired result. “I can’t concentrate!” we tell our kids when they are racing around the house as we are trying to do the taxes or some other equally challenging task. From these experiences, concentration seems to be about being able to think really really hard. And it’s really really hard to do.

Right Concentration is something else entirely. Done with Right Effort, it is a steadying of the mind so that we can sustain a clear focus on a single object or experience, or sustain a broad awareness of all experience that occurs from moment to moment.

Developing Right Concentration begins with relaxation. A little metta (loving kindness) practice is very helpful to soften the tension that can build up around the prospect of concentrating. “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be at peace.” When we really feel ourselves bathed in the infinite loving kindness, this incredible unconditional good will, our muscles and minds relax quite naturally.

In Vipassana (insight) meditation we focus on the rising and falling of our breath. But in developing Right Concentration, we can also experiment with other objects of focus: a candle flame, a shell, a flower, allowing ourselves to become fully absorbed in the experience. Choose your object, then close your eyes and do a little metta practice. Then in the light of that loving sense of presence, open your eyes and gaze upon the object of your focus. Allow the labels, associations, memories, etc. to rise and pass as part of the experience. Allow the background to come forward and recede, as part of the experience. Simply be with whatever arises.

Bring the fruits of this experience into your regular meditation, with your focus on the breath. Bring the fruits of this experience into a walk in nature, noticing, noticing, pausing whenever something draws your attention. Forget about getting anywhere. You are already here. Bring the fruits of this experience into your daily chores. Allow the water in which you wash your dishes to captivate your attention. Bring the fruits of this experience into your relationship. Aren’t your loved ones, your friends, your co-workers each as uniquely fascinating as a rose?

This kind of deep absorption is a lovely gift we give ourselves through the exercise of single object focusing. Next we can experiment with expanding our field of focus. We are fully aware of our bodily sensations and all that the senses perceive: sounds, smells, tastes, textures, temperature. A sound will become dominant and we stay with that until a it passes, then the most dominant sensation is our heartbeat, so we stay with that awhile, etc. Whatever arises we notice with a soft and open attention. Whatever thoughts or feelings arise we notice as well. They are simply objects of curiosity arriving and leaving this field of our awareness. As if we were sitting in Grand Central Station enjoying the comings and goings of people and trains – all the hustle bustle – as we sit holding the whole experience with great compassion in this still point of center.

We will undoubtedly have the experience of our thoughts getting caught up in story about some aspect of our experience. Upon hearing a sound, our habit of mind is to identify its source, so not surprisingly we may find we have sent our mind to investigate and conjecture. Left to its own devices without the intention to be present and the practice of Right Concentration, we may get caught up in further habitual thought patterns. We might wonder ‘Who would be making that noise at this time of day? Don’t they know better than to…’ Judgment gets into play. Then memory might leap in. The sound reminds us of something else. The person making the sound once did something else to annoy us. We may feel victimized. Why can’t I live in a quieter place? Which sparks a daydream about a little house in the country, etc. etc. You know all too well what I’m talking about. Our minds may have different patterns, but they all have patterns, patterns of story making. And all the stories are sticky like flypaper. The flapping paper always looks enticing, always seems to promise something fascinating, but then there we are, stuck in the story again.

Fortunately, unlike the poor fly, we truly can unstick ourselves at any moment. Right Concentration is the gentle practice of staying with whatever arises, hearing the sound as pure sound. And if we succumb to the lure of the flypaper story, Right Concentration paired with Right Intention can bring us back to the present and Right Mindfulness.

You may be familiar with the work of John Cage, the 20th century avant-garde composer. His most famous and controversial composition, titled 4’33” is performed without a single note being played. Imagine the first audience in 1952 waiting for the piece to ‘begin.’ For four minutes and 33 seconds Cage offers the audience the chance to listen to …the sound of an audience. Whatever coughing, restless stirring and maybe whispering sounds occur become the composition. Cage creates a formal place and time to frame these few minutes of direct experience.

I am sure that there were members of the audience who took the performance as a joke. If they took it as a joke on them, they were probably angry and that anger fueled attitudes toward every subsequent exposure to anything in art they didn’t readily understand. If they felt they were ‘in’ on the joke, because they were clever enough to ‘get it’ then they might have been smug, and they tripped over that smugness in every subsequent experience, never allowing themselves the pure joy of not knowing.

No doubt others barely noticed what had happened, so tuned into their own thoughts, so ready to tune out of whatever experience was presented, that those few minutes were a blur, and afterwards they looked around asking, “Wha..?”

Some chalked it up to a waste of time but let it go as soon as they were out the door. “What can you expect of artists? They’re all crazy, just confirms what I’ve always said…”

Others, after two or three minutes of this strange un-event, probably started noticing the quixotic tumble of their own thoughts and emotions: the confusion, irritation, amusement, impatience, aggravation — whatever arose from this unusual situation.

Of these, some may well have become aware of the noise in the hall as pure sound, and they may have had a profound experience of being fully present for whatever arises, experiencing the sounds of coughs and stirrings as a life symphony.

No doubt, some of those who did probably turned that into a sticky story of how insightful they were, shoring up a sense of identity to protect them from the dreaded void. But others were undoubtedly affected deeply and began to experience the world around them in a very different way.

As a meditator practicing Right Concentration, why not give yourself 4 minutes and 33 seconds to formally be attentive to the composition that arises right now. Even as you read this, there are sounds and sensations around you to attend. Sensing in to your body, its pulsing energy and whatever else is present right now; sensing sound as pure sound rather than the ‘sound of’ something happening; looking around you, allowing the light and shadow to become prominent, then allowing color to become prominent, then allowing foreground and background to dance with each other; feeling the texture of your clothes on your skin, the pressure of your feet or buttocks resting on the surface below you.

Both deep absorption and spacious awareness are Right Concentration. And Right Concentration is possible even when the kids are racing around the house! Just think of them as a gift of awareness from John Cage.

Eightfold Path: Right Speech, Part Two

Since every situation is different, we may feel that coming up with Right Speech is near impossible. We need to think on our feet. We don’t have time to ponder what would be the most perfect skillful words to say.

If we are rooted in Right View and Right Intention, then pausing briefly to take a breath and bring our awareness fully in the present moment, is sufficient to assure us that the words we speak will be as skillful, heartfelt and timely as possible.

But we are human and we misspeak at times. Right Speech will not spout forth from our mouths just because we’ve heard a dharma talk and agree with the concepts in principal. Buddhist practice is an ongoing experiential exercise in learning how to access our deepest understanding.

All of the aspects of the Eightfold Path are life-long practices of awareness. Expecting that suddenly, having heard about Right Speech, we will know the perfect words for every situation is just one more way to cause ourselves suffering. But as we develop greater awareness through our practice, we may begin to notice our words. And this noticing is a great leap toward Right Speech.

We may also notice the variety of causes and conditions that can affect our speech. If we find ourselves babbling, we can notice if we are nervous, excited or if we are experiencing any biological fluctuations, energetic or hormonal, that may be influencing our speech patterns. As we notice, we can focus on our body sensations including the breath. This focus on sensation will help us to be fully present in the moment. Skillful speech might be giving ourselves a rest from speaking all together by asking the other person(s) a question, and then practicing being present as we really listen to their answer.

For most of us this is a new and challenging activity. No one has yet invented a mechanical filter to attach to our throats to assure Right Speech. Fortunately we do have some tools to work with: We have our intention to meditate regularly. We have our intention to bring our attention to the present moment every time we notice that our minds are stuck in the past or the future. And we have our intention to be as kind as we are able to be to ourselves and others.

If we practice honoring our intention, we can trust that our minds will become more spacious and peaceful over time. Then our speech will attune to this state, and be more rooted in the truth of our experience, more anchored in the present moment, and more filled with our growing sense of caring and compassion.

Of course, we are so used to instant gratification of our desires – if only we could charge enlightenment on a credit card! – that we may become frustrated when our minds keep falling into old habits of seeing and thinking. At the moment that we notice we have the opportunity to bring ourselves back to the present moment where expectation and disappointment find it difficult to take root, for they thrive on leaning toward the future and dwelling in the past. We’ve all had the painful experience of saying or hearing words dredged up from disappointment or aligned with expectation. So just this intention to return to the present moment will make us more skillful speakers.

More tools at our disposal are skillful questions with which we can explore our words. Choose any of the following questions that are resonant for you, or create your own:

Are my words reactive or responsive?
(Reactive words often feels defensive, self-protective, justifying our position. Responsive words are spoken from a deeper place and let the person know we have heard them.)

Do my words lean toward connection or separation? Do my words lean toward inclusion or exclusion?

Do I feel tension in my body when I say these words? (If so, what is causing this tension? What am I afraid of?)

Am I speaking from the present moment? (Or am I speaking from past disappointment or future expectation?)

Do I have lingering misgivings about my words? (If so, explore to see if the words you are concerned about were true, useful and timely. Accept this valuable lesson, bring this new awareness to any future conversations, and let this memory go.)

Is what I am saying in harmony with my core values?

Are my words sabotaging me into inaction? Am I saying I can’t do something, I’d like to do something, I want to do something, or I’m trying to do something, instead accessing our awareness of ourselves as connected, expansive, expressions of all that is, and going forth and doing it?

What do I hope to achieve by saying this?

When I’m telling my story, am I using my words to show off or to share?

Do I see the person I am addressing as ‘other’ or even as ‘enemy’? (From this dualistic view, real deep sharing is impossible.)

Questions help to create spaciousness because by questioning our assumptions about the way things are, we free our minds to look at things anew. Answers are all around us, if only we have the right questions with which to explore ourselves and the world.

Eightfold Path: Right Speech

The third aspect of the Eightfold Path is Right Speech. This is a very challenging one for most of us. When we were kids, we discovered that words are powerful. Even though we said ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me’ we knew even then that wasn’t true. Words can cut, they can scar, they can destroy. We got hurt by them and then perhaps on occasion we turned around and hurt others. As children we might have relished the little power we could find in our lives, and words surprised us with their power. We could make people laugh. We could make people cry. We could make people angry. We could make people look at us and smile. This word stuff was huge!

I remember being eager to grow up because it seemed to me that grown ups were generally nicer. They didn’t say cruel things, they didn’t make fun of me. Of course much of children’s talk is not purposely cruel, just bluntly honest, curious and untimely. When they see something different than they are used to, they stare and ask questions. This is appropriate for their main quest in life at their age: to discover this new world they find themselves inhabiting.

As children we may have received some variation on the theme of ‘children should be seen and not heard’ and if we couldn’t say something nice we were told not to say anything at all. If we felt the pressure of those sentiments, we may now as adults find we have a greater resistance to the idea of Right Speech than to any of the other aspects of the Eightfold Path. We want to feel we can speak our truth. We don’t want to be silenced. We may feel that to be quiet is to be dis-empowered, because we recognize that indeed words have power. We want to be able to express ourselves in our own way, and we don’t want our speech to be dictated by some set of rules that might squelch our unique creative expression.

We want to feel absolutely free to say what we want, but then sometimes we end up feeling terrible when our thoughtless words leave destruction in their wake. Words have power. We know this is to be so, but still we find ourselves occasionally talking without thinking, talking in ways that are harmful to ourselves or others.

And at that point, even if we have resisted the idea of Right Speech, we can appreciate it as a valuable tool for reflection. It, like the other aspects of the Eightfold Path, is not a rule but a guidepost to light our way out of the murky mire of our guilt over having misspoken. “Why do I feel so miserable?” we ask ourselves. The guidepost of Right Speech reminds us that unskillful speech can cause misery, and we might want to review the speech we’ve been using, asking ourselves,” Was what I said true, useful and timely?” for these are the three criteria of Right Speech. If we are feeling miserable, chances are we can’t answer ‘yes’ to all three.

With the regular practice of meditation our mind becomes more spacious so that we can see our thoughts and hear our speech more clearly. This spaciousness has given us at least glimpses of Right View (sensing in to our deep connection), and has brought us into alignment with Right Intention (to be fully present in the moment and to be kind to ourselves and others.) So now we can see more clearly whether our words are rooted in Right View and Right Intention, and are therefore most likely to be true, useful, kind and timely. Or whether they are rooted in fear, from a view of ourselves as separate and in need of defending. These fear-rooted words are weapons. They have been crafted to cut or to block out. Becoming aware of the roots of our words is vital in developing a natural and authentic expression that is true, useful, timely and kind, i.e. Right Speech.

Through trial and error we find our way, allowing our errors to be valuable learning experiences. Beating ourselves up about it every time we mis-speak is not Right Speech, but only compounds our errors. Acknowledging what we have done and being compassionate with ourselves as we gain personal insight into the ways in which we have misused words, is an ongoing practice. We have habitual patterns of speech that have the power of a lifetime worth of energy behind them, so we need to be patient with ourselves if from time to time we slip back into unskillful ways of expressing ourselves.

At the heart of Right Speech is deep listening, settling into the moment fully, accessing that deeper vaster vantage point of connection, so that we can truly hear what the other person is saying. If our mind can let go of planning what we will say next and truly stay with the conversation as it unfolds, we create a safe environment for honest exchange.

By being in the moment, we are less likely to say “You always do this” or “You never do that.” Instead we might sense into our body to gauge our emotional state and express our truth grounded in this moment. The “I feel…” statements that will naturally arise out of this kind of inner awareness are more useful and timely than accusatory statements that dredge up grudges from the past.

When we are fully present in this moment we are not rushing to the next appointment, or thinking about what to make for dinner. So we are better able to listen with full attention and patience, and take the time to speak with consideration and a full heart.

To develop Right Speech with others we need to really listen to how we talk to ourselves. Are we rude, scolding, name calling, or diminishing ourselves in some way? If we spoke to someone else that way, would we expect them to want to be around us? If we spoke that way to a child, would it be abuse? Does our self talk seem comfortable because it’s what we heard as children?

If so, we must remember that our adult self is here now to see more clearly and to set boundaries when we are abusive in our language. How can we possibly expect to speak with kindness to others if we are constantly speaking so cruelly to ourselves?

As we begin to consider incorporating Right Speech into our lives, let’s bring metta into the mix. Metta/loving kindness is the radiance that helps this guidepost cast a much brighter light. If we send metta to ourselves saying, “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be peaceful,” our interior conversations are more likely to be kind, if only because the contrast between this well-wishing message and our usual rudeness is so sharp that it makes us aware that we are taunting ourselves as cruelly as any playground bully or critical parent ever did.

Developing kindness in our interior speech comes from the wise understanding that we are acceptable because we are an integral part of all that is. No exceptions. Metta is like the sun, shining on all equally. The sun doesn’t pick and choose who is worthy of its light. Nor does metta. It doesn’t matter if you think you are deserving. There is nothing you have to do to receive the absolute blessing of Metta.

So we begin with ourselves, using metta to set the tone of our inner dialog. We use our awareness to begin to notice the kind of language we are using towards ourselves, the predictions of failure, the ‘I told you so’s when we fulfill our own negative expectations. With our increasingly spacious awareness we see the tight tangle of our thoughts become looser, so that individual thought threads become more visible. We can follow them back to their roots. If they are statements of judgment, if they are enemy-making, if they make us feel tension in our body, they are rooted in fear.

And what is fear? Fear is simply a momentary forgetfulness of our true nature. Fear rises up because we feel separate. Feeling separate, of course we feel we need protection. We are not aware that our fear draws to us exactly what we fear. It excites the energy of fear in others and they respond in ways that further exacerbate the situation, confirming our worst fears.

Metta practice is something we can do whenever we recognize fear arising. Metta awareness is one of the fruits of the practice, one of the Four Brahmaviharas (heavenly abodes), but it is also a gateway into Right View or Wise Understanding. It is particularly valuable in developing Right Speech because it uses words.

When we begin a conversation with others, we can send them metta as well. The briefest pause at the beginning of a conversation to take a breath, bring ourselves fully into the moment and send out metta to the other person, can make all the difference.

When we understand our connection to each other, when we see that we are one with this great infinite energy, we can release our fears, our clenched fists and jaws, so our words don’t build fortresses but celebrate the connection we feel. And when we remember our intention to be kind and to be fully present in the moment, we are much more likely to speak from a sense of deep connection, and our words will be true, valuable and timely.

As you can see, by practicing Right View and Right Intention we are more likely to use Right Speech, We are more able to discern whether what we want to say satisfies the three criteria of being true, useful and timely. If it is not, then silence is the better choice. But this is a very different silence from the zipped mouth we imagine. Because if we have Right View and Right Intention we have a quiet loving presence that doesn’t need the power of words to communicate. We are not in need of a power tool to accomplish a task. We are in need of nothing more than what we have – our full awareness of the present moment, our full understanding of our own deep connection to all that is.

If you have ever been on a silent retreat, you know how delicious it is (especially if you are a talkative person) to simply give up speech all together. To just let it go of all that potential for misunderstanding and simply be fully present in the moment with no agenda except to be fully present in the moment.

Of course, we still have our interior talk. And being able to hear our various inner voices and all their discussions, advice, scolding, etc. is a real gift to ourselves. On a silent retreat this inner discussion may feel amplified because it’s the only show in town. No radio, TV, books, internet, MP3 player, or exchanges with others. Just this. Whoa! A real opportunity for inner discovery! A real opportunity to send metta to ourselves, metta to all the raging aspects within us, metta to the wondrous natural world we inhabit, metta to our teachers and our fellow retreatants – the wonderful sangha (community) that shares this dedicated practice to awaken to this moment, to awaken to understanding our deep connection, to awaken to awareness.

Eightfold Path: Right Intention, Part Two

I mentioned in the previous post that as meditators and Buddhist practitioners we have three main intentions: First to develop a regular practice, second to return again and again to the present moment, and third to practice kindness to ourselves and others. In this post we will explore these three intentions in a little more and find useful means to help keep our intentions.

Intention: To develop a regular meditation practice
Setting the intention to develop a regular practice involves first recognizing that the practice is valuable. To the degree that we have already practiced, in a class or retreat, we may have begun to notice a subtle or perhaps significant change in our lives. This recognition of the gift of meditation sparks the desire and fosters the discipline to maintain a regular practice.

Setting up a regular practice requires a few practical decisions. Where, when and for how long will we practice?

Choosing a place to practice in your home, you will want to find somewhere you can sit comfortably erect where you will not be disturbed. Many people find creating a specific space is useful in reminding them to practice – everything set up just so. But this is a very portable practice, and place is ultimately not that important. Sitting in the airport waiting for a flight is as good a place as any. But in this tender time of developing a regular practice, designating a specific spot in your home and setting out reminders – a zafu cushion, an altar, a bell, for example, can be visual aids to remind you to practice. But place alone is not enough.

Setting a specific time that works best in your daily schedule and keeping that date with yourself no matter what is very important. Let meditation be the non-negotiable focal point of your day, and work everything else around it. For many, first thing in the morning is the best time. It’s usually quiet, easy to be alone while others sleep or have already left for the day, and is less likely to be interrupted by phone calls or doorbells. Usually the mind is not yet full of the day’s story, making the sitting easier. If mornings are a busy time for you, you can either get up earlier so you can have the time, or choose another time of day that works best, not just on some days but every day. Right before bed is another time of day that is usually available, but it is more challenging as most of us are inclined to fall asleep.

Setting a length of time for your practice is also important. Ideally you want to meditate for 30 – 40 minutes, or twice a day for 20 minutes each. There are no hard and fast rules on this, but its important that when you set a time you keep it. If you are new to meditation, starting with ten minutes, then working up to a longer meditation is a good way to go. You can set a timer to help you stay with the meditation.

Taking your personal practice seriously can be challenging at first. You are not used to sitting in silence with your eyes closed, and when your thoughts wander you might actually physically begin to wander, acting upon a thought of something you have to do. Be kind to yourself during this adjustment period, but don’t give up! When you find yourself reaching for the phone or standing at the refrigerator door, with great compassion but firmness bring yourself back to your practice.

Intention: To be fully in the present moment
In our practice we find ourselves lost in thought and we bring ourselves gently back to an awareness of the breath and sensations in the body. In our daily lives we can also use this embodiment practice, just sensing in to our general sense of aliveness, as well as to any specific sensations. We can run our hand against a texture – a rough fabric, a smooth stone, the bark of a tree. We can listen to sounds without attaching story to them that leads us into memories. We can look around us with fresh eyes, noticing light and shadow, pattern, color, varying levels of detail, etc. – using our artist eyes even if we never intend to paint what we see. We can really taste our food as we eat, savoring the melding flavors.

To help you stay in the moment notice when you are multi-tasking and decide which thing you will stop doing and which you will continue to do right now. Giving full attention to whatever we are doing is necessary in order to stay in the moment.

Notice when you are doing something out of habit, i.e. mindlessly. We want to bring mindfulness to all our doings. For some people it helps to turn habits into rituals. Think Japanese tea ceremony and the possibility of bringing a beauty and artfulness into making the bed, brushing your teeth, washing up, and cooking. On retreat we each have yogi jobs in which we learn to be mindful while doing simple useful tasks. It changes everything to have these daily duties change from things to be gotten through before ‘real life’ begins to being the essence of life well and fully lived.

Pay attention to the moments in between ‘real life’: waiting in line, waiting on hold on the phone, waiting at a stop light. See these as opportunities to pause, calm down, sense into the body, to be fully present with all that we see and experience. Don’t waste your time ‘killing time,’ filling these periods with mindless distractions. Each moment is a precious gift if only we can bring our full awareness to it, no matter what is going on.

For more about staying in the moment go to the Archive and read the posts in July 2008.

Intention: To be kind to ourselves and others
Developing kindness begins with noticing how we are treating ourselves and others now. When we are nice to people, is it an act or our true feelings being expressed? When it’s an act, then it’s not kindness, not a true caring. Instead it’s using kindness as a tool to keep ourselves safe from potential harm, or using it to obtain a desired result. That’s not really kindness at all.

If this false kindness is our modus operandi, once we know people, we may feel we can let down our guard. And because we see kindness as a shield or a tool, we might feel we can set down our shield and let our true feelings out. Perhaps we misinterpret a sense of connection as entitlement to impose our opinions, or we think we are creating intimacy by being (maybe teasingly) abusive. We may treat the ones we love with less respect, because for us respect is based in fear, and we no longer fear them. We may feel we have a certain shorthand together so we can skip the niceties of please and thank you. Or perhaps we feel that those close to us should understand us and we shouldn’t have to be kind.

These kinds of interactions with others are usually about power, and the need for power is rooted in fear. So when we stop to listen to how we talk to ourselves in our minds, it’s not surprising to find we are calling ourselves names and beating ourselves up at every turn. Rooted in fear, seeing the world as a dangerous place and ourselves as bumbling idiots making mistake after mistake, it is almost impossible to be truly kind.

True kindness stems from the Right View, from that shift of vantage point from seeing ourselves as separate in need of creating a protective fortress and operating our of fear, to seeing ourselves as an integral part of the universe, as interconnected with all life. We see that we are yet another expression of the loving creative mystery.

Once we make this shift – even a brief glimpse of this wise understanding can transform a whole life, the way one drop of something can flavor a whole glass of water – then we can become the natural conduits of the loving energy (metta/loving kindness) that flows through and around us, previously unnoticed.

This is vital understanding. We have all experienced the ‘kindness’ of people whose body language spoke otherwise, and we have felt the discomfort of that dishonesty. From our deeper more spacious vantage point, we can have compassion for them. Because we can imagine how they treat themselves, how cruel their inner conversation must be. We know because we have experienced it ourselves.

In order to develop true kindness, we must start with ourselves. We will explore this more fully in an upcoming post on Right Speech as we notice the language we use when we talk to ourselves. But there is much more about loving kindness/metta in the August 2008 posts. Check the archive.

Setting these three simple intentions will radically enhance your life. Start with one of them, the one that resonates most deeply right now, and begin. Then begin again. No matter how many times you lose the intention, it is there for you. Keep it alive. Write it down and put it some place you will come across it often. Explore it with as much spaciousness and compassion as you can. The rewards are infinite, and absolutely free!