Category Archives: grasping

Are you imprisoned by your preferences?

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

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

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Darlene Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Root-bound – Learning to Let Go

Just outside in the early spring sunshine, my neighbors were trying to pull a root-bound rosemary plant out of its pot for replanting. At one point it looked like he was giving birth with the pot held upside down against his stomach as she, playing midwife, yanked and pulled. All to no avail. She said, ‘There has to be a lesson in this somewhere, maybe a blog post?’ And I said, ‘Well, I am writing one about letting go.’ We all laughed, and eventually the rosemary bush plopped out of the pot to applause all around.

The root of suffering, says the Buddha, is grasping and clinging. So it follows that the end of suffering comes from letting go. But most of us are not very good at. We can’t imagine that life will be okay beyond the pot we are clinging to. Conversely, when we imagine things would be all better if we could just get beyond this damned pot, we might push with too much force which, according to the Buddha is the other primary cause of suffering. There was a moment just now when my neighbor was banging a hammer on the tip of a length of re-bar into the hole in the bottom of the pot her mate was holding, all within easy striking distance of his cheek and chest. It could have been a 911 call for sure!

When we develop a meditation practice and learn to be present with whatever is arising in the moment, we begin to notice the patterns of thought and emotion that fuel the grasping, clinging and pushing away. As we patiently practice, we find we are able to allow room for whatever passes through our open field of awareness to simply come and go. To the degree that we can be aware and compassionate with our experience, we find ease, balance and joy.

In this state of awareness and compassion, we might notice a pattern of thought that keeps our mind tense and entangled. Just developing the ability to notice thoughts in this way rather than getting lost in them is quite skillful. But even at this point we might fall into the trap of wanting to get rid of that thought pattern, making it bad, making ourselves bad in some way. That’s just another painful thought entanglement.

If you want to let go of something, just bring more awareness and compassion into the way you are holding your experience. Have heart courage to face your fears. This is a vulnerable state, but it doesn’t require armor or weapons (or a hammer!). Be willing to listen. See the fear inherent in the grasping and clinging. Soften your stance and whatever is ready to let go will go. Trust in the process.

If letting go is a subject of interest to you, here are some other posts to check out.

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.

Meditation on Gratitude


Tomorrow we Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, and for many of us it’s a very busy day filled with the three F’s: food, family and football. So filled, in fact, there doesn’t seem to be room for the G’s: gratitude, grace and giving thanks.

So here’s a chance to focus on our sense of gratitude.

What are we grateful for? It is easy to launch into our list: Our family and friends, our homes, our health, our jobs, our financial security to whatever degree we have it, etc. If things are bad — and for many of us these are difficult times indeed — we are grateful that they aren’t any worse.

Watching the devastation of the recent firestorms in Southern California — how within 20 minutes hundreds of people’s homes just vanished into smoke — we know what the survivors will say. They say what all survivors say after losing their homes: That as difficult as the loss of cherished possessions is, they are grateful: Grateful to be alive, grateful that their families survived

It is only human to view these horrific news reports with a combination of feelings: compassion for those who are going through the experience, fear of anything like that ever happening to us, and renewed gratitude for our own homes and families, still safe and sound.

Looking more closely at this perfectly natural kind of gratitude, you might notice that it is rooted in fear, the fear of losing what we have. That’s why we feel it more strongly when we witness the losses of others. “There but for the grace of God go I.”

It is, therefore, a conditional gratitude, dependent on there being enough left on our list that we value. Dependent on this kind of gratitude, we may fall into patterns of clinging to the people and things on our list, terrified of losing them. Clinging, as you will recall, is the root cause of suffering identified by the Buddha in The Second Noble Truth. This clinging strains relationships and tightens us into knots. This kind of gratitude is, as I said, perfectly natural, but being so conditional, it is shallowly rooted in the hard cake soil of fear, and what grows out of it can be distorted and unnourishing.

From this shallow rooted place, we may find our gratitude list has many qualifiers. ‘I am grateful for this, but would be more grateful if it were different.’ These qualifiers may overwhelm our sense of gratitude, and we find ourselves with a shorter and shorter list. Then we ask ourselves how did we end up with such a puny little list?

The less we are able to write on our gratitude list, the more this gratitude is likely to be counter-weighted with a sense of deprivation, anger, failure, humiliation, envy or frustration. Other people have what we wanted for ourselves. We are exhausted from trying to acquire the things we want to be able to write on a gratitude list, the things that we believe will make us happy.

Frustrated, we may be compiling another list that grows longer: the list of our complaints, worries and gripes. Nothing is ever quite good enough. There seems very little, if anything, to be grateful for. In this case our gratitude is very conditional indeed.

So how do we get to unconditional gratitude?
There are many gateways. One of them, strangely, is grief. By a certain age, most of us have lost someone dear to us, some of us have lost quite a few. We have experienced our hearts imploding in grief, and the pain that rises and falls like waves, sometimes carrying us away into realms we didn’t know existed.

How does this create gratitude? Well, perhaps right away it doesn’t, but if we are able to stay present with our experience, eventually we will notice the way our hearts have been carved deeper by this loss, making room for a deeper form of gratitude, an unconditional gratitude, not dependent on our ability to hang on to everything in our lives that matters to us.

Other forms of loss can be gateways as well. Perhaps because they bring us up short, break us out of our habitual patterns, force us to really look at ourselves and the world around us with new eyes.

Fortunately, loss is not the only gateway to unconditional gratitude. Through regular meditation practice, we can access it as well. We feel gratitude for being conscious in each moment as it reveals itself. We learn the fine art of holding it lightly and savoring it. It is a gratitude for ‘the best seat in the house’ where the amazing gifts of the world, in a vast variety of forms, continually come onto the stage of our awareness. These gifts are probably not what we wrote on our wish list or our to do list, but our willingness to be present, to let go of having to dictate the outcome, allows us to be available to savor whatever arises.

This devout gratitude sheds light on the darkest despair, allowing us to discern the treasure buried deep within. It allows us to experience pain as a symphony of passing sensations. Deep unconditional gratitude can be a constant companion that opens our eyes and our hearts. And ultimately, at the moment when we breathe our last precious breath, we are grateful even for this.

Gratitude can be a practice unto itself, allowing us to savor every moment, to appreciate every being we meet. Because underneath the hard cake fear is the nourishing soil of unconditional love that supports us. We can toss the list because we would be writing forever if we tried to keep up with all that we are grateful for in this expansive unconditional way. We can simply let the gratitude breathe us, illuminating our lives.

Happy Thanksgiving – today and in every moment of your life!

The Second Noble Truth & Coming into Skillful Relationship with Desire


In previous posts we explored the First Noble Truth: That there is suffering in life. The Second Noble Truth says there is a cause of this suffering, and that cause is our grasping, clinging and pushing away of the objects, ideas, experiences and people that we either want or don’t want in our lives.

Wanting. We all know about wanting! Given a blank page we could each sit down and write a comprehensive list of desires, those things we want more of, those ways we want to change ourselves, our situation and the world.

Desire is a naturally arising phenomenon. Getting rid of it is not the goal. That would just be a desire to be free of desire. Instead we want to develop a skillful relationship with our desires. For many of us our current relationship is that our desires control us, dictating our behavior. That’s suffering!

The first step to come into skillful relationship with our desires is to notice a desire as it arises. And then, before we rush to fulfill the desire, we pause. We pause and just experience the desire fully. (See the exercise below.)

Pausing to just be with a desire can be challenging when instant gratification is so easy. With credit cards, stores open around the clock and overnight shipping from anywhere in the world, if our desire is for a particular taste or a particular possession, we can almost skip over the whole experience of wanting and go right to fulfillment.

Do you remember wanting something as a child? The waiting, the longing? We became intimate with our desire. We lived with it for long periods (that seemed even longer!) We could describe the experience of desire as a bodily burden that was almost insupportable. Many of these desires passed. Some didn’t. Some were fulfilled. Some weren’t. Some were given as gifts, treats or rewards. Some we were told to save for. Some we were told weren’t good for us and we wouldn’t be allowed to have ever. Some were for things that couldn’t be purchased.

While none of us want to return the power to our parents to decide whether our desires will be fulfilled, we can recreate a bit of that state of delayed gratification. Not as torture but as a way to come into relationship with our desires and to be more skillful in our response to them.
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Exercise
Stop for a moment now and see what comes up when you say, “I want…..” Whatever desire arises is fine. It doesn’t have to be anything special for you to work with it.

Now, close your eyes and sense in to your body, saying the statement again. Does the statement bring on any physical sensation? Does it bring up any emotion? Does it bring up any images beyond the visualization of the desire itself, perhaps a memory?

This is an interesting self-exploration that you can do with many different desire statements (both “I want….” and “I don’t want…”). For it to be most useful, write down the statements and any accompanying sensations, emotions or images.
When the desire arises of its own accord (not from the prompting in this exercise) you can also notice what, if any, thoughts preceded it and see if there is a causal relationship. You can notice what thoughts accompany the desire that energize or enable the wanting. And you can notice what thoughts follow the desire — judging yourself for the desire perhaps?

It is also interesting to notice any external causes and conditions that may have brought on the desire. For example, you’re walking down the street, perfectly content, when you see a luxury car driving down the street or something in a shop window and suddenly you feel wanting.
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Look at the last sentense of that exercise: “…and suddenly you feel wanting.” Wanting as in lacking in something. As if you are somehow incomplete. Suddenly you are not enough because you don’t have (fill in the blank). Amazing, isn’t it? What an opportunity to notice how we so readily attach our identity to objects of desire, and often even to the desire itself.

By pausing before fulfilling our desire, we give ourselves the opportunity to be fully present with it, to recognize it as a recurring pattern, and to come into awareness – through bodily sensation and evoked emotions and memories that flit through like faint traces of dream.

We may notice that many of our desires, if not instantly fulfilled, simply pass away. An itch that doesn’t get scratched often subsides.

By paying attention to what else arises with the desire, we may recognize that the thing we think we desire is just a mask for some deeper desire that we were not willing to look at, but can now.

These unmasked desires may be for things that can never be fulfilled, like a return to a seemingly safer time, the return of a loved one who has died, or a chance to undo past mistakes. But by allowing ourselves to be fully present with them in a compassionate and spacious way, these desires benefit by being given a voice. Once acknowledged they may shift, but even if they don’t, they enrich our understanding, thus reducing our sense of suffering.

In this compassionate non-judgmental spaciousness, we can also allow ourselves to acknowledge an addictive desire, when we realize that the desire is controlling our behavior and that no matter how often we rush to fulfill it, it never satisfies the gnawing desire that fills us. And if through this process we are not able to skillfully explore this addiction, we can finally seek the help we need to do so.

Desire is not a dictate that we must mindlessly obey, but simply a natural phenomenon coming into our experience of this moment. By pausing before rushing to fulfill desires that arise, we have a rich opportunity to fully experience this utterly human trait as something in and of itself. We can be in a spacious relationship with our desires, neither clinging, grasping or pushing them away. We simply hold them in an open embrace.