Category Archives: future

Awakening to Choice

In the previous post we looked at finding magical moments of mindfulness in the middle of everything. I offered examples of how to come fully into whatever moment you’re in and the joys to be found there.

But there’s even more magic in being fully present. In each moment of mindfulness we can recognize that this is a pivotal point in our lives. This puts us in a position of personal power because we can see that we have a choice. We are not stuck in a rut or being dragged along by the currents of life. We are here and now, awake, alive, aware.

Not all our choices are beneficial. In each moment we can, for example:

  • let craving drive us in a habitual direction of unskillfulness that promises happiness but causes misery
  • let aversion judge ourselves or others harshly so that we feel angry and beaten down and cause others to feel the same

OR

See that pivot point there, that >>>>>OR<<<<< ?

It’s the little word of wisdom that offers us options to our habituated and often destructive behavior. It reminds us that we can choose to be fully present in this moment just as it is and greet the arising of the next moment with wise intention.

The first time I noticed that ‘or’ I was trodding a well-worn path to my refrigerator, that altar of delights for my taste buds and solace for whatever was ailing me. I was on a mindless habituated trek when I heard the word ‘or’. My inner wisdom was offering me an option to this pattern of mindlessness and self-destructive behavior. It said, ‘Or…I could take a walk in the garden.’ ‘Or…I could call a friend.’ ‘Or…’

You get the idea. There were so many choices that I could make if I paused to notice that I wasn’t hungry, just bored or sad or who knows what in that moment. My go-to answer was to follow a craving. In that moment I was suddenly present.  Being present, a world of choices opened to me.

Where in your life do you typically go mindless and end up following the lure of a craving or being caught up in aversion, stewing over something or someone? Are there any instances when you suddenly saw that you had other options?

We are all mindless at times. As we practice being more present in the moment, we discover how easy it is to slip into mindlessness again. The opportunities are all there: the cravings, the emotions, the judgments. But as we stay present we can see there are other opportunities offering themselves to us: to notice and follow our wisest intention to be present, aware and filled with compassion for ourselves and all beings. Living fully in this moment, our wise intention will naturally carry us to the next moment.

Each moment of awareness is a pivotal moment, but that doesn’t mean that we are constantly standing at a crossroads, wondering which way our future lies. That would cause us to fall out of mindfulness. There are times when considering the future is valuable, like preparing ourselves and our families to handle potentially volatile conditions. But most of the time future leaning causes imbalance in our lives, leaves us unavailable to see or hear what is happening right now. And that mindlessness will likely lead us to a future we never wanted, because we won’t have been present and engaged with life, so we become increasingly isolated and unskillful.

The power is here in the present, fully experienced with all the senses, as we learn again and again how to grow in awareness and compassion, right where we are in this moment, just as it is.

The Future’s Not Ours to See

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The approach of a new year always reminds me of December 1959, the eve of my first conscious experience of transitioning not just from one year to the next, but of one decade to the next. 1960 loomed large in my twelve-year-old imagination. It felt like embarking on totally new territory, a new continent of time.

Midnight came. The clock struck twelve. Nothing changed. I went to bed and woke up to…just another day. Was I relieved or disappointed? Maybe a little of both.

Change, it turns out, is a continuous stream that has all to do with cycles and seasons, and little to do with our desire to measure it and put it on a timeline, making it seem linear rather than cyclical.

That New Year’s Eve at the dawn of the 1960’s, I was fortunate not to have any inkling what the future would bring. Had I had an advance glimpse of the headlines from that decade, I would have been terrified: A beloved president, his brother, and Martin Luther King Jr. all assassinated. A war in a small country in southeast Asia that would kill, maim and cause a lifetime of suffering to the people there and many of the boys of my generation.

And what would my very prudish, judgmental twelve-year-old self have thought of the nineteen-year-old I became, living in the Haight Ashbury District of San Francisco, ingesting whatever hallucinogen anyone passed me without serious thought to the consequences? Would I have wanted to wake up the next morning to the decade of the 60’s?

Maybe not. But fortunately we don’t know the future. This is a blessing! Because everything sounds worse in anticipation, doesn’t it? And there’s something important that takes us so long to learn and we tend to forget: We have an incredible capacity to live through volatile times and not just survive but thrive.

Even if we could ‘know’ the future, we would not know it fully in the experiential way we actually live it. When I was nineteen, a fortune teller gave me a reading. She said, and I quote, ‘In the end your friends will all turn against you.’ Oh my! What a prophecy to live with! I imagined dying alone, having been abandoned by everyone I ever loved. Who knows if that will ever come to pass, but within six weeks of that reading, I had an experience that fulfilled that prophecy. I had moved back across the country, and was hanging out mostly with my closest friend and my high school boyfriend. He and I had casually taken up where we had left off. The three of us had been a tight little circle for a short period of time as I found my way in a new situation. So they were in that moment ‘all my friends’. And then they fell in love and became an couple, hiding it from me until they could figure a way to tell me. Of course at first it felt like a betrayal, as if they had turned against me. But that wasn’t the full truth of that experience. I recovered quickly, our friendships remained in tact. When I recognized that the prophecy was true, but in a much different way than I imagined, it was a life lesson: We just don’t know what life will bring and cannot predict how we will experience it.

See the truth of this for yourself: Think of a year where the headlines were horrendous. (Pick any year. Headlines are always horrendous!) Then think of your own life. Like most people you can probably list some triumphs and traumas. But how much of your ongoing state of mind has to do with the headlines? None of us live our lives in the headlines, even though they affect us at some level. Even if we are part of the news, it can’t capture the fullness of the experience. I remember the 1989 earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area. It certainly affected us! But the national news distorted it beyond recognition. The news thrives on our tendency toward what neuroscientists call a ‘negativity bias’. We tend to focus on the negatives of any given situation first and foremost. It’s something useful to notice in ourselves, and good to try to bring into balance by observing what positive or pleasant things are also going on. It’s not to push the negative away, but simply to expand our awareness to the fullness of experience.

Good news does exist, it’s just harder to find in the news as it’s hidden away behind all the negative news that grabs our attention more readily. Here are just some of the many good news stories of the past year.

Imagine how we bring this negativity bias into the future. Dread arises! It’s not accurate because not only are we projecting our fears, but we do not know and do not have the ability to imagine all that is possible. The future may be better or worse than we imagine, but it will not be the way we imagine it. Of that much we can be sure.

Headlines do not write the story of our lives. And as Doris Day sang in ‘Que Sera, Sera’, the future’s not ours to see. Our focus is on how we are relating to the experience of being alive in this moment, whether we are being mindlessly reactive or mindfully responsive? Are we tightly wound in fear and striking out? Or are we cultivating our capacity for spacious awareness, compassion, integrity and wisdom? In this way, whatever the future brings we will thrive, not just survive, and not just for ourselves but for all beings.

I appreciate your comments and questions.

Wishing you all a very happy new year, whatever comes!

Worried? Read on!

Last week I had jury duty, so I made sure my calendar was clear in case I had to serve on a longish trial. It turned out that I didn’t. But it gave me the opportunity to see how it felt to have a clear calendar, and wow, I have to say, it felt very very pleasant.

That sense of ease and openness made me realize that in my inner landscape of mental activity, future events are sometimes like black holes that suck up a lot of energy. This goes beyond simple planning. Long after the planning is done, the mind might be drawn into that black hole, circling around the anticipated event — a trip, a social gathering or something like jury duty — pretty much anything that has unknown elements, which is everything in the future, isn’t it? Being a woman, charged full of oxytocin, the ‘bonding hormone’, I also expend a lot of mental energy worrying about the well being of my loved ones.

Sound familiar? Well, don’t worry about it. It’s part of the human condition. Over 2600 years ago, the Buddha identified worry as one of the Five Hindrances (Sensual Desire, Aversion, Restlessness & Worry, Sloth & Torpor, and Doubt). Maybe for you, one of the other Hindrances is more a presence in your life. Most of us have all of them to varying degrees. But why did he call them ‘hindrances’? What are they hindrances to? They can get in the way of opening to and receiving this moment fully. This doesn’t mean we have to get rid of these hindrances. Good luck with that! But we benefit by noticing them when they arise in our awareness, seeing them for what they are. Simply noticing them in a spacious compassionate way weakens their power to hold us.

I have written about all the hindrances in the past, and you are welcome to check out those posts, but let’s stay with worry for now. You can see how worry gets in the way of being fully present. The mind is stuck circling that black hole of future event or the black hole of what someone we love is experiencing, and it keeps going there even when there is absolutely nothing more we can do about it now.

When we meditate, we are practicing making ourselves fully available to the sensations of this moment. With openness to whatever arises in our experience and compassion for ourselves when we find we’ve gotten lost in thought, we return our attention to the breath or other physical sensation. In that moment we come to understand the way of things: We see that there is impermanence, so we know that this too shall pass. We see that we are all of a piece here, made of the same microscopic stuff as the air we breath the earth we walk on and each other. And we see how when we forget those two things – impermanence and no-separate self — we suffer because we get caught up in grasping at lifesavers and clinging to cliffs, shoring up barriers, chasing after empty promises and running away from imagined monsters. All of which takes a whole lot of mental energy.

So worry if you will, but be aware of the quality of worrying. Don’t make an enemy of worry, but see it for what it is. Be compassionate with whatever arises. There’s nothing wrong here.


Yesterday Will and I went on a hike on Hoo-Koo-e-Koo trail up in the hills of Kentfield, CA. Most of the trail is fairly level, following the contours of the mountain, in and out of canyons. In normal years there is at least a little waterfall running down each canyon, but now in early fall, after four years of drought, even the deepest cool dark canyon is dry. Standing there, surrounded by hillsides of bay trees, ferns and dried leaves and the boulders normally covered with a cascade, we stood still to listen to the absolute silence. The stillness I experienced there is akin to the stillness deep in a meditation. So peaceful. Accepting the moment as it is, not wishing the water was running; not worrying, in that moment, about whether there will be rain in our future: That is what we are learning to do with our practice.

 

Holding Your Life in an Open Embrace

This was a speech with visual aids. I will try to get permission to use the photos I shared in person, but until I do, imagine:

(A black & white photo of a little girl holding on tight to her three dolls, with a distrustful scowl on her face.)

Here’s a photo of a little girl with her dolls. What a lucky little girl to have three dolls! She should be happy. But when I look at her, I don’t see happiness, I see fear. Maybe she’s afraid someone will take her dolls away. Look how tight she’s holding them. She is planning on defending them.

Of course, holding them this tight she can’t really enjoy her dolls, can she? Enjoying her dolls would be holding them in front of her, looking in 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.

But 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 all cling to something, afraid of losing it. Whether it’s our possessions, our money, our relationships, our career, our beliefs, the way we see ourselves, the way we see the world – we hold on tight because we don’t know who we would be without them, and we are afraid to find out.

But just as this girl can’t play with her dolls when she holds them so tightly, we can’t really enjoy our lives and all the wonderful things in it when we hold them in such a tight grip.

What happens when we hold on so tight in a relationship for example? When we clamp down on the one we love, begging them to spend more time with us, pay more attention to us, tell us they love us. What happens? Usually we suffocate the love we hold so dear, we strangle it, we squish it. It turns to nothing in our hands.

So this tendency to grasp and cling to what we care about isn’t really a very effective strategy. At best we can’t enjoy it, and at worst we might actually cause it to disappear.

(A black and white photo of another little girl.)

Now here’s another little girl. She’s not happy either. She’s got her pouty face on and her arms folded. But instead of holding on to something she loves, she’s focused on something that hasn’t measured up to her standards, her expectations, 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. Or maybe she’s just arrived at a party. Maybe she’s been fantasizing about this party ever since she got the invitation three weeks ago. She imagined the entertainment, the cake, the friends who would be there, how much fun she would have. And here she is and something is not right. It may be the most fun party in the world, but she is stuck on the one thing that’s lacking, the one way in which it doesn’t measure up. So she can’t enjoy herself.

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 at times let that disappointment ruin the whole experience. We’ve all had trouble enjoying this moment because we’re still caught up in what happened last week, last month, last year, and we’re letting it color our whole experience.

The Buddha defined these two ways of being – this grasping and clinging and this aversion as the primary causes of suffering. He acknowledged that there is unavoidable pain in this life, but that most of the suffering we experience is optional, actually caused by these two tendencies.

But it’s not our fault that we’re like this. Like all animals we are programmed to go after what is pleasurable and avoid what is unpleasant. This is the basis of our survival instinct. We are attracted to bright colors and nature made the brightest color vegetables the most nutritious. We are attracted to the mates that will best help us procreate for the survival of the species. We are programmed to avoid the big sharp-toothed roaring bear who might maul us to death.

Our human brain is a little different however. With our highly developed cortex, we can dwell in the past, remembering in incredible detail all that has happened to us. And we can imagine infinite futures, so we can spend a good portion of our time in a state of planning and daydreaming. Now this is an amazing skill to have! Without it we would not have literature, history, inventions, technology, ever evolving architecture, design and the arts.

But we’ve been given this gift without a user manual, without a warning notice that spending too much time in the past or the future instead of staying in the present moment is hazardous to our health and our happiness.

But the brain is still evolving, still developing, and part of this development is tuning in to awareness, consciousness, rediscovering our ability to be in the present moment.

The primary purpose of meditation is to create this ability to be present, to come into balance, to open ourselves to what is arising in this moment and be able to savor it without grasping and clinging.

(A full color photo of a little girl holding a frog in her cup hands in such a way that she can see the frog in front of her. She has a look of curiosity and a smile on her face.)

In this final picture is a little girl who is living in the moment. You’ll notice that this photo, unlike the other two, is in full color. That’s because she is in the present, the only place that is real. The past and future are just thoughts.

She is holding a frog in her hand and she is holding it in open cupped palms, what I call and open embrace. She is able to fully enjoy the frog. She knows that the frog could jump out of her palm at any moment, but she knows that she will still be okay. The frog is not the source of her happiness. Her ability to be with whatever arises is the source of her happiness.

So this is what I hope for all of us: That we take responsibility for our own happiness, by learning how to be present with our experience, how to hold life in an open compassionate embrace.

Coming into relationship with what is

Coming into relationship with what is – that’s what we are doing in our practice. We can stop running around pretending, covering up, or reframing the truth. Instead we open to whatever arises in our experience in this moment. Whether it is pain or beauty. We acknowledge it. We let it all in. No extra added ingredients, no preservatives, just this, life expressing itself through us and around us. The unvarnished, unedited, unqualified moment to moment multi-dimensional experience of existence.

The Four Noble Truths are all about this coming into relationship with what is. By acknowledging that, along with all the delight and wonder, there is also pain and suffering, we can relax a bit. The cat’s out of the bag! What a relief! We don’t have to keep pretending that there’s some iconic perfection of a life that we must strive to fulfill in order to be allowed to be here. This is life. Just as it is in this moment.

This is not a passive stance, not “Oh well, I might as well give up and accept that I will never amount to anything, that I will never be happy.” Quite the contrary! This is actually a very empowering stance. Standing fully in the reality of this present moment is the only point of power we ever have.

If our thoughts dwell in the past, we find ourselves incapable of being engaged with the present in a full and meaningful way. It is an unstable stance in which we are constantly pulling the rug out from under ourselves. For example, we may feel that because of some past event we don’t deserve this moment. So we can’t even see the invitation we are offered to fully partake in the richness of life. It is valuable to notice what messages from the past are streaming through us in this moment, to notice what we are telling ourselves and question the source of that message. We are often seduced into using the past as a measuring stick to determine what we are capable of doing. When the thoughts tell us things like, “I flunked algebra so I can’t do math related things,” or “I come from humble origins so I don’t belong in this rich person’s mansion,” then we can see that we are standing in the past and thus not fully present. While we may feel more comfortable in certain areas than others, or in certain places than others, it is still valuable to question that comfort, to question all assumptions whenever they start chaffing and causing suffering by making us feel there are areas that are off limits to us.

Likewise, although projecting into the future feels powerful, as if we are in control of our destiny, this stance sets us up for comparing everything that happens to some imagined ideal future. It makes us vulnerable to ‘lose’ things we never had to begin with – an accomplishment, a house, a child, a mate. It is possible to create suffering out of dashed hope, a mirage created in the past that haunts the present, making this moment seem incomplete. Standing in the future leaves us so totally out of balance, so outside of our immediate experience, that we are unable to receive the gifts that are arising in this moment, opening doors to futures beyond our limited imagination.

We may feel we are in the present even as we hold ‘the broad view’ of our lives, able to take measure of our achievements and our failures, our strengths and our weaknesses. We feel this informs us, but our broad view is not broad enough or informed enough to take as truth! Staying present with what is — not just at ‘this time in our lives’ or ‘this week’ or even ‘today,’ but in this millisecond, this fleeting flash of consciousness — is an opportunity to step into the very specific experience of being alive. Just because something bad happened this morning doesn’t mean the whole day needs to be flavored by it. We are so easily seduced into calling it a ‘bad day’ or a ‘bad week’ or even a ‘bad year,’ so ready to ring in the new with the thought that it will somehow save us. We are so desperate for a blank slate, but then so ready to call it ruined by anything that happens. This is nonsense! Truly! Staying fully present in the moment, we don’t need to wait or throw away whole blocks of time! We recognize the unique nature of each moment and let it stand on its own, unencumbered.

If at some unitive moment of deep clarity we get a glimpse of our whole life, then we may understand how all our harsh judgments, expectations, disappointments and demands were totally off the mark. But for now, it’s just better to remind ourselves that there’s a whole lot we don’t know. This moment fully experienced is the only access point to deeper clearer perception.

The basic practice of meditation invites us to open to whatever arises in our thoughts, emotions and senses, acknowledging it, perhaps even noting it, saying, for example, ‘planning,’ all within the spacious awareness of the breath rising and falling, if that is our focus. We often talk about ‘returning’ or ‘coming back’ to the breath, and this may be useful at first but, for me it seems that it eventually gets in our way, like training wheels on a bicycle when you’ve achieved a sense of balance. It is misleading to suggest that we have ‘gone’ anywhere. There is no ‘away’ and no place to ‘return’ to. We have been sitting here in this position the entire time. Our thoughts have been streaming through the field of our awareness. Sometimes they are so powerful, or our energy feels so scattered that our awareness gets disoriented, as if a wave has turned us upside down momentarily. Over time, with practice and clear intention, we develop skills to keep ourselves oriented in a way that our minds can handle whatever waves of thought or emotion that pass through without getting so completely disoriented every time.

This spacious mind is a place that feels safe, where even though we may experience pain, we can sit quietly with it and begin to see it more clearly. It is a place where we notice the heavy arsenal of weapons we carry, and we can lay them down and rest. We can see how we have created fun-house-mirrors that distort our view of ourselves and the world around us. We can see through our faux confidence in the fancy sword-play techniques we use to go into battle with any thought or deed that threatens to unmask some deep core belief we hold to be true about ourselves and the way of things. We recognize our fear.

We may see how we create mine fields that we then walk through or discover that others have stumbled upon, and we then see the pain caused by our unconscious emotional bumbling. Over time we may see what trips the triggers, what ignites the fuse to the bombs we set off, and later regret. All of this and so much more we sit with and allow to rise and then fall away, giving it all the same kind compassionate attention we give our breath that rises and falls.

Resting in this state of non-judgmental awareness, we understand that this is what it is to be human, to err, to bumble, and to go unconscious. Having laid our weapons and shields down, we can cultivate compassion for ourselves and for those in our lives who act out of this same bumbling unconsciousness.

Here, as we sit with what is, things can get very simple and very clear. Stories fall away, leaving only the residue of emotion that finds some physical expression – an achy chest, for example. We rest with whatever arises. If we find a physical sensation, we attend it with openness and compassion, not trying to change it, but simply letting it fill our experience in this moment, letting it be as big or small as it wants to be, letting it sink like a rock or lift like a feather. We hold it in a compassionate open embrace, and let it inform us. This physical sensation exists in the present moment and, held in awareness, may transform. Opening to what is present in this moment is powerful healing, not just the physical pain but for the associated emotional pain as well.

This practice of quieting and opening is not unique to Buddhism. It is a part of every spiritual tradition. And it is not uniquely spiritual. It is a natural state we are born to experience. If not honored as valid and valuable, we lose it.

I remember as a small child having this quality, being able to shift into this kind of open accepting awareness. Perhaps you have noticed, as I have with my granddaughter, that children seem to have a way of self-nurturing, of calming themselves down when they have become over-stimulated. It’s important to honor that ability and not try to commandeer the experience. When we make this self-nurturing activity seem oddball, then a child naturally looks for that sense of calm through other more socially accepted means: Mindless television, video games, snacking, etc. – all those unskillful avenues with potentially painful side effects that we as adults may find ourselves pursuing in an effort to self-nurture, to find that calm quiet place to simply be.

So we may come to meditation as if it’s some foreign experiment in mental transformation. But when we actually sit, we find we are coming home to something we once knew, even if only briefly, and it feels as welcoming and safe as our long lost ragged blanket or love-worn teddy bear.

As we practice, we see how giving ourselves back this spaciousness also gives us back a sense of openness and playfulness in our lives. It gives us other more skillful means than weapons to approach any challenges we may face.

When we talk about embodiment, this anchor to the present moment, this effective means of healing, we are not talking about something foreign either. As babies we began very much in our bodies, very much in the body of being, feeling undifferentiated and physically connected to the world around us. So as a very important part of our practice, we sense in to the body.

Words are useful, but they can only point to experience, they cannot be the experience itself. So it is the senses that really ‘knock some sense’ into us, really show us wherein resides the core story, what one might call ‘the big lie,’ that we tell ourselves, the one that keeps us feeling separate, judged, shamed, and afraid.

If this sounds off-putting, remember the embodied experience in turn enhances our ability to savor the sweetness of life. So it is a great gift, this ability to sense in. To feel the boundless nature of energy expressing itself as breath, temperature, vision, sound, smell, touch, texture, pressure, tightness, release – is life itself and the way to joy in living.

Embodiment practice is the way to discover for ourselves the Second Noble Truth. It is the most immediate way to be with what arises, to recognize suffering, to accept it into our experience in order to know its roots and associative behaviors, emotions and thoughts. So when you are sitting, fully inhabit the body. When you are walking, fully inhabit the body, letting go of all ideas of where you came from and where you are going, just this moment of experience, open to the kaleidoscope of senses telling you everything you need to know.

That is the practice.

The Don’t Know Mind

At this moment in my life, a grandchild is about to be born. I don’t know when. I don’t know for sure anything about this baby. We assume she’s a girl because an ultrasound early on indicated that was the case, but we can’t be certain. And all the other possible variables in life are held in a wonderful womb of mystery. Who is she? What will she be like? All I know is this sense of waiting.

We all have moments in our lives like this, where we are waiting to hear. Perhaps we have applied for a position or a program, and we are waiting for acceptance or rejection, not knowing if we will be elated or disappointed. Where every ring of the phone, checking email or looking in the mailbox could be pivotal, changing the whole direction of our lives.

The nature of this moment is quite clearly the state of not knowing. We see clearly that this is true because there seems no way around it. But in fact this is true of every moment in our lives. We never can be fully sure that the next moment will be the way we imagine it.

Last week my husband and I had long-held tickets in hand for a flight home from Mexico, but it turns out that one leg of our flight had been cancelled. The airline left a message on a cell phone that wasn’t operative because we were out of country, so we didn’t know that our trip home was in question.

We didn’t know.

We had our ticket in hand that promised us a flight, and believed it meant something. But it meant nothing. It was just a piece of paper, not a promise at all. We didn’t know.

Fortunately, we found out in time and were able to do a work around and we arrived home on the day we planned, just by way of different cities. And even then, there were things we didn’t know. The gate stated on our boarding pass was 19. We waited there, but then an announcement was made and all of the passengers on the SFO bound flight were to go to gate 34. We waited there, assuming we would be boarding from that gate. Why wouldn’t we? It was a natural assumption, just as it’s a natural assumption that we will wake up the next morning, or that our car will be where we left it. Our lives are based on such reasonable assumptions. But then, an announcement was made that we should all go to gate 29. A hundred people together shuffling around their baggage and babies, their cell phones and cameras, sharing this experience of ‘I don’t know.’ This was not that big a deal, but it just illustrated so clearly about these assumptions. And this particular set of illustrations could have gone on and on, as there are about 70 gates at the Mexico City airport!

Once on the flight, once up in the air, once homeward bound, the future seemed a little more certain, a little more clear. We relaxed into knowing we would be home soon.

Then suddenly all the lights went out. Now this was not a shifting from ceiling lights to low lights. This was suddenly barreling through a pitch black night in absolute darkness. It only lasted about five seconds. Not long enough for voices to rise. Just long enough for the truth of the situation to make itself known in that dark silence: We don’t know.

We don’t know what the next moment will bring. At some level we all understand this, but we don’t acknowledge it. Not to ourselves and not to each other. None of the crew explained this event, nor to my knowledge did the passengers discuss or acknowledge that brief close up glance at the truth. Life aboard the plane went on, cabin attendants pushing their carts of meals and drinks (All free, even alcoholic drinks! A little plug for good old Mexicana!)

It wasn’t until we were all wearily assembled around the baggage claim at midnight that I heard one man say to another, ‘So, how’d you like that blackout?” People chuckled. It was now a story to tell, grateful that it was just a blip of a tale, not like the ones that make the news. Not like the flight to Hawaii our friends took years ago, where the skin of the plane peeled away and they were flying through the blue sky and clouds with the wind beating upon them.

We all know these as stories about other people. It is human nature to be fascinated by them, perhaps because at core we want to know the truth, even as we hide from it in our own lives. In someone else’s life it gives us the truth, but allows us the delusion that it doesn’t actually apply to us. We can go on believing that our lives will play out as planned, even as others do not. This idea of not knowing seems so scary. We feel that knowing is a level of control over our situation. But it’s not.

On the shuttle trip home from the airport, our driver was a gruff woman, short tempered with other drivers and with passengers as well. (Somehow this is our traditional re-entry into the US after being made soft by the sweet nature and patience of the Mexican people.) This driver was impatient and grumpy. When a passenger would dare to offer information to make finding their house easier, the driver would say, “I know, I know!” as if the idea of not knowing was a mark against her, or a threat to the integrity of her very being. This happened in each case, and in each case it turned out she didn’t really know and had to make sometimes dangerous last minute modifications to correct her course. As the last passengers to get out, I felt so badly for her, trapped in her defensive fortress of ‘knowing’ that I tipped her generously. She was surprised, and she really struggled to say thank you, another threat to her fortress: gratitude. Had she sensed how badly I felt for her, she would have probably punched me out.

Thinking we know is painful, even dangerous. In this tight defensive stance, we are cut off from resources – like the bounty of information the passengers had about how to get to their homes. Thinking we know, we are narrow focused to the point of blindness.

Imagine trying to find your way across a field while peering through binoculars. Obviously you could easily trip over what’s right in front of you or be eaten by a hungry bear right to your left side. But this is kind of what we do in our lives when we think we know the future. We fall in love with our plans and trust in the promises of pieces of paper that say what the future will hold. We believe that the binoculars give all the information necessary. Clearly they don’t. We never ever have all the information.

While in the Mexico City airport, I was trying to get news of the potential tsunami from the 8.8 earthquake in Chile. My brother lives in Maui and I wanted to know that he was safe. I was in a place it was difficult for me to check news, so I kept looking for people that seemed to be connected to the internet and asking, “So how’s Hawaii?” Turns out it was fine. My brother and friends had a fun party upcountry and that was that.

He told me when I talked to him that he knew it would be a non-event. And I said, well, I appreciate that knowing that, you still took sensible precautions. He said well there was one potential event that he would not have time to take precautions for: Apparently a big chunk of the Big Island could drop into the ocean one of these days, and if it were to do that, he and his neighbors wouldn’t have time to run upcountry, let alone plan a party.

One potential event that could catch him by surprise? Only one? Really? This from a man who has had his fair share of unexpected news come across his phone over the years. Yet he names the one event he would be unprepared for, the void in his known universe. And this is what we all do. Perhaps we each have the scary thing we name that we keep as a Talisman to ward off all other unknowns.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Ah! How liberating is the I don’t know mind! The Buddha always encouraged his followers to rest in the moment and discover for themselves what was true. He didn’t encourage them to rest in the future, to vest in the future. He didn’t encourage them to trust his findings but to find their own, moment by moment.

To think we know what the next moment will bring is clearly erroneous. We don’t know! Pretending we do is a great weight. Acknowledging that none of us knows may seem scary, but it is also freeing.

One thing we get free of is being locked into expectation and disappointment. Thinking we know how things will turn out, we live partly in the future, conjuring up fantasy. Then when reality hits, we are stuck in that place in between, comparing, contrasting, complaining. We make ourselves miserable over and over again.

When we have these moments where so clearly we can see that we do not know, like this moment for me awaiting a grandchild – when we have these anticipatory moments, we can see them as a gift. They remind us of the truth of EVERY moment, not just this one. Every moment is pivotal. Things turn on a dime. Knowing this we can release into the sea of change, learning to surf the constant ebb and flow of causes and conditions. Learning that staying fully present in THIS moment is always the best course.

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.