Category Archives: freedom

Are you imprisoned by your preferences?

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

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


Darlene Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Meditation brings freedom beyond measure

We have been discussing various aspects of freedom. (See previous posts.) We may believe ourselves to be free because no one is constraining us from doing anything we might want to do, as long as it is legal. That is an important and valued freedom. But most of us are imprisoned and don’t even know it. Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet and mystic, wrote, “Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open? Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking. Live in silence.”

Regular meditation practice brings a sense of freedom that is rare in our lives. We begin to release some of the habitual thinking that has held us imprisoned. In this series of talks we have been exploring some of the ways we imprison ourselves. Today I want to talk about how we imprison ourselves with numbers. Most of us can rattle off a whole set of numbers that describe us, age, weight, height, etc. To the degree we believe these numbers to be ourselves, we are anything but free.

Of course, measurement can be useful. When you are building a house for example, it’s important, as any contractor will tell you, to measure and then measure again, or you are going to be walking around on uneven floors, wind will be howling through the walls and rain will be pouring through the roof.

But we are human, not construction projects. We are organic beings deeply interconnected with the organic universe. We are spiritual beings deeply interconnected with each other and all that is, even though we forget that, imprisoned as we are in our retracted state of separation. When we get caught up in measuring and comparing our measurements, it pops us out of our awareness of our true nature.

Though there are uses for the measurements available to us, most of us make the mistake of absorbing the numbers into our sense of who we are. We become our height, our weight, our IQ. We create a numerical prison, a misery index, dependent on what the scale told us this morning about ourselves and our ability to manage our weight to conform with what we have learned is acceptable in our culture. We allow these numbers to define us and to rule our emotions.

You may be surprised that one of the magazines I read regularly is Wired which focuses on cutting edge technology as it finds its way into our culture. Recently I was reading an article about living by the numbers. Today we know not just our height, weight and circumference, but our heart rate, our blood pressure, our metabolic rate, our blood glucose level, our cholesterol, all the various levels of elements in our blood, our body mass index, and that’s just a start. This is useful for working with our doctor to pinpoint a possible health issue, but if we focus too heavily on these kinds of measurements, we will find ourselves figuring out some formula by which all these figures add up to us.

And that is not the case. At all. We are not the sum of these measurements nor are we the size of the clothes we buy. Our ancestors didn’t know their size because clothes were custom made. They may have still dealt with fear-based numbers of security and status in the quantity or quality of possessions they claimed as their own. But these numbers we are dealing with that measure our physical size and all the intimate details of our body seem much more personal somehow. There’s no possibility of winning the lottery tomorrow and coming up with a whole new set of these personal numbers. There is just this struggle with the hand we have been dealt compounded by the challenge of our beliefs, desires and emotions around food, exercise and physical well being. These measurements are so intimate, measuring the inner workings of the very organism we inhabit.

Still, it’s all the same deluded process. Measuring and comparing. keeps us from simply living in this moment fully, sensing our aliveness, feeling gratitude for the gift of life in whatever form we experience it.

At earlier and earlier ages, girls compare their bodies to those of their classmates and as they develop into women, they compare them to the models and celebrities that fill magazines, television and movie screens, without understanding the misery and artifice involved in creating these unreal figures. It is a rare woman who feels comfortable with all her physical and mental attributes. Even the ones who look ‘perfect’ to others carry fears of being failures in some arena.

But it isn’t just girls, of course. I just heard a story about one little boy teasing another that his male member was too small. Of course, the one being taunted was devastated and depending on his personality and how the event was handled by his parents and school staff, it is perfectly possible that he could be deeply affected by the event, especially if he has been told that the ‘manly’ thing to do is to suck it up and forget about it. Without the opportunity to process it, question its veracity, the event sinks deeper and deeper, so that the boy, then the man doesn’t recognize the source of his resulting unskillful behavior for the rest of his life. This kind of thing happens all the time and parents often don’t know about it to address it, so there it lays: this little time bomb of pain and self-doubt that sets off perhaps a defensive aggressive need-to-prove-oneself kind of behavior that could bring more pain to that person and those around him. And we wonder why there are so many difficult people around? We need to see them as the walking wounded, and have compassion for them. They are us. We are all wounded in some way, we are all reacting to long-buried but still toxic stimuli.

In meditation we quiet our minds down enough to see our thoughts more clearly as they stream through, and eventually we have enough clarity to see that our thoughts are not who we are. (See previous posts.) If they are not us, we cease feeling the need to defend our thoughts. We only need to be curious about them. So let’s say this little boy didn’t have the kind of counseling that could have neutralized the schoolyard taunt he received. Let’s say he grew up and has a history of aggression issues, bullying other children, then in adolescence needing to prove himself over and over again in sexual situations. Probably this behavior followed him into his adult life, adversely affecting his relationships. And now here he is meditating, hoping to find peace in his heart and mind.

With regular meditation he finds himself becoming less defensive, less aggressive, less angry. And one day in meditation he has a thought, perhaps a thought he has had many times in his life, about proving his sexual prowess. But this time his mind is very quiet and he is unattached to the thought, neither ashamed nor proud. It is just a thought passing through. So this time he can look at the thought more clearly instead of building on it or pushing it away. He can sit with it in spaciousness. He can ask questions of the thought: Is it true? Where did this come from? And perhaps this long buried scene from his childhood will rise up in answer to his question. He will see the playground bully and remember his cruel words. He may be surprised how clear the memory is when he had forgotten it all these years. He can sense into his body and feel the pain of the attack and the emotions that arise around it. He can bring compassion to these emotions. He can also, from his adult perspective, recognize the wounded nature of the bully acting out. He can see that those words were spoken in pain and with no bearing to any truth, no bearing to him at all, that he just happened to be there, an innocent bystander of an inner violence blurting out. He can see how throughout his whole life he has let those words live and breed within him, stirring up so much pain that he lashed out again and again in pure reaction to that one long-forgotten moment.

If this sounds overblown, then you are forgetting how it is to be a child, sensitive and vulnerable and searching for identity. And if you doubt that we can draw forth long forgotten memories, don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself. Quiet down and ask a question, and see if the answer doesn’t arise in the form of memories. The thoughtless cutting thing some parent, teacher or friend said to you that has become a ‘truth’ that you live by, without questioning its source. Question it now! It will set you free.

I am talking about a meditative stillness of mind. Without that we rarely quiet down enough to see the ramshackle construction of our beliefs about ourselves and the world, made up of things people said that resonated with us in one way or another, sometimes confirming our worst fears. The sources may be long forgotten and the beliefs calcified within us unexamined, yet we rely on them for every decision we make, every word we say throughout our lives. How can this be true? Don’t take my word for it. Check it out for yourself.

The power of meditation is this clarity of mind, this release of identifying with our thoughts so that we can really see them and question their veracity. This is why trying to change our thinking, replacing corrosive thoughts with bright cheery ones and trying to convince ourselves they are true, is unsuccessful. We are trying to replace one habit of mind with another, but both are mindless habits, numbing us down to get through life untouched.

We can’t force inner transformation, we can only set the stage for it by quieting our minds as much as possible and listening in. The regular practice of meditation itself will set into motion all the changes that are needed, unfolding at the pace that is best suited for us to process them. This may be a long slow process, this unfolding. Certainly I don’t claim to be free in regard to this concept of measurement! But I trust in the process, the slow revelation, layer by layer.
Ultimately we come to realize that we are not our bodies, just as we are not our thoughts. And if we are not our bodies, then all the measures lose their power over us. But even though we are not our bodies, we are responsible for their care, and filled with gratitude for the gift of life in whatever form we inhabit. In Buddhist teachings it is said that the opportunity to inhabit the human form is as rare a gift as a sea turtle in a vast ocean surfacing in the circle of the only life preserver floating on the whole ocean. That has to be pretty rare indeed! And the human realm is considered the only one in which true liberation is possible, because the higher realms are too content to bother looking and the lower realms are too miserable to have time for such exploration. I’m no expert on Buddhist cosmology, and don’t have much interest in it as it seems for me superfluous to the Buddha’s core teachings which are timeless and culture-free truths that need no cast of characters, human, godly or angelic. But I appreciate any reminder of how fortunate I am to be here in this present moment in the form I am in. From that perspective being grumpy that my ‘big girl’ pants are tight seems pretty ungrateful.

It is useful to notice when we are finding fault with ourselves and comparing our bodies to others, and then to bring spacious awareness to the pain, the sensations around the pain, and the attachment we have to these harsh judgments. It is interesting to notice the emotions that arise, whether we feel guilty, ashamed, angry or victimized. These are all valuable opportunities to begin an inner exploration, questioning: ‘Why do I feel guilty?’ If victimized: ‘Who do I hold responsible for this unacceptable state?’

As with any inner dialog, don’t shut down the process by judging the answers unacceptable. ‘But that’s just stupid!’ is really not a very useful reaction. If it is the one that arises, then question it and let the process continue. What has come to be called Emotional Intelligence is something that has been developed over the past few decades. For most of us it is relatively new territory, especially our interior dialogs which may still be very rude and thoughtless. Noticing how we talk to ourselves is an important part of developing compassionate tools for self discovery.

Through meditation practice we develop a sense of caring – for the world, other people and ourselves. Bit by bit we tune in to our bodies and find that when we are really paying attention, instead of acting on automatic pilot, we crave healthy nutritious food instead of processed refined empty calories, which when our taste buds are fully engaged taste like cardboard and chemicals. When we really tune into our bodies, we take pleasure in exercising regularly to the degree that feels right for our body right now, neither too much nor too little. And we are grateful for the wondrous specificity of measures that modern science has at its disposal to help us when we are facing serious health challenges, but don’t mistake the numbers for ourselves.

If you are a regular meditator and the area of food and exercise is still shut down or numb for you, so that you behave unskillfully, it simply means that this is a very deep issue for you. Keep exploring. Really practice being present while eating – no reading or other activity to get in the way of the experience of all the sensations involved in the process. Really listen to what you are telling yourself when you don’t get the exercise your body needs. Use the scale to keep you honest. (Mine recently caught me in a bit of delusion. You really cannot trust stretchy clothes! They lie all the time.) But balance all of that with as much loving-kindness as you can muster for yourself exactly as you are.

If you, like me, are not quite there yet with this letting go of your comparing mind, at least let us bring as much awareness and compassion as we can to the experience. We see a photograph of a body and we see the vast disparity between it and our body, and we notice the various bad feelings that ensue. We don’t need to fight our habituated comparing mind so much as be aware of it when comparing thoughts arise. We can be curious about them. We can notice what sensations arise in our bodies when we start comparing and measuring. We can begin to see how we make ourselves miserable by measuring ourselves against others. Being compassionate with ourselves, we can gently free ourselves from the tangle of it, and return to the present moment.

We can also really look at the person in the photograph. We can go beyond the cookie cutter figure they have molded themselves into and send metta (loving-kindness) to the person feeling the need to be perfect in order not just to feel good about themselves but to make a living. What a burden that must be! We can let go of envy and let ourselves feel compassion.

With regular meditative practice we can relax into fuller acceptance of ourselves as unique but integral aspects of all that is, just as lovely as anything else in nature, just as perfect, just as flawed, and it’s all okay. We can rejoice in the variety of beauty possible in all forms of life, and accept who we are in the scheme of things. And that is freedom!