Category Archives: greed

Why does it hurt?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on the Climate Crisis Summit at Spirit Rock

No Time to Lose: A Dharma Response to Climate Change
In the beautiful community hall of Spirit Rock Meditation Center over four hundred people gathered on Sunday, September 15, 2019, joined by many more live streaming. Led by Buddhist teacher and author James Baraz, the event was filled with the big names of insight meditation, including Buddhist teacher/authors Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach and Joanna Macy, who has for decades actively advocated for environmental responsibility.

The Great Hall at Spirit Rock Meditation Center holding our beloved planet

The event was a fundraiser for OneEarthSangha, a key player in the emergence of a Buddhist response to climate change, providing a hub for information, connection and organizing. Founded five years ago by a graduate of the dharma leadership program and a burned out executive from World Wildlife Fund who found sustenance and strength to renew his dedication to the environment through Buddhist practice, the 10,000 member organization offers EcoSattva training to anyone, or any group, interested in deepening their understanding of environmental issues and finding a way to help. They work in partnership with other Buddhist environmental organizations such as Earth Holder, Buddhist Climate Action Network and Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective.

A few environmental organizations had tables in the lobby to help attendees find other direct ways to get involved: Citizens Climate Lobby, Sustainable Fairfax, Marin350, and Pachmama Alliance.

There were in person presentations by James Baraz, Joanna Macy, Belvie Rooks, and others, as well as video-conferences with the co-founders of OneEarth Sangha and Tara Brach. There was a recorded interview with the revered Buddhist monk and scholar Analayo, a dharma talk by Jack Kornfield and a sharing of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunburg’s talk to the United Nations.

We were offered several opportunities to actively participate. Canadian musician and environmental songwriter Jennifer Berezan and her group had us standing, singing and swaying with ‘Praises for the world’. The hall has amazing acoustics (funny for a room where a majority of time is spent in silence!) so when we were all standing and singing and swaying the words “praises for the world” was powerful.

We were offered the opportunity to write down on a piece of paper our personal intentions of how to use our gifts for the benefit of the earth. We were asked to make a copy for ourselves and put the other one in a basket. All the gathered intentions will be put into the dharma wheel at the entrance to the retreat area.

The effect of offering heartbreaking information, uplifting music, insights and the opportunity to express our own hopes and fears, made for an emotional roller coaster of an experience. We were allowed to crack open and encouraged to feel our sadness, but we were also given means to take care of ourselves and to use whatever gifts we have to help.

The key takeaways from the event are these:

This is no time to play small, asking ‘who am I to….’ make a difference.

Action absorbs anxiety.

“We’re like children playing with their toys in the attic while the house is burning down.” – Buddha

“Climate change is the most important topic for the dharma hall.” – Analayo

The dharma holds the key to sustainability.

Let go of the need to know how it will turn out. Just do what you are doing wholeheartedly.

The harm that has been and is being done to the earth is done out of ignorance and confusion. If we can understand that, we can let go of the anger and come from a more empowered place that can truly make a difference. Anger, even righteous anger, is poisonous and will not bring the desired results. It is a toxic fuel.

“You have no moral authority over those who can feel your underlying contempt.” – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Othering (us against them, seeing people with different understanding as the ‘enemy’) is the primary disease of the world. Hatred ceases by love alone.

Greed, anger and delusion (which the Buddha called the Three Poisons) are the challenges we all face. We can see the greed embraced by our culture and inherent to our economic system. Joanna Macy said ‘The Industrial Growth Society’ thrives on these three poisons. You can see the greedy, ‘I’ve got mine and I want more’ mentality on which the whole system is built.

Delusion keeps people blind to what’s happening and the causes and effects of their actions and inactions. Resignation is also a part of delusion. The majority of us live in delusion about climate crisis, but we are waking up.

Part of the resistance to waking up to what is going on is the uncomfortable feeling of ‘I’m responsible’. It is far better to say ‘I am taking responsibility to change the situation.’

‘Just fall in love with what is.’ – Joanna Macy
Can we love the earth just as it is right now, wounds and all? Can we love the earth as it burns? We can never return to what was, but we can craft a life-sustaining society through the collapse by learning how to take care of each other.

Then Joanna led us in a dyad exercise where we took turns finishing the sentences:
“As the current world order collapses, I am grateful for___________________”
“As the current world order collapses, I fear ___________________________”
“As the current world order collapses, I want to remember _______________”

She said that the current order keeps power by pathologizing our disobedience and grief. Big Pharma has a pill for that, and others industries offer distractions from our grief. We need to allow ourselves to be sad!

She talked about the Great Unraveling. Since she was talking to a Buddhist group she didn’t need to educate us about the nature of impermanence, how things fall apart. This is the way of all life. Then she talked about the Great Turning, the welling up of consciousness to meet the challenges we face together to build a sustainable community of all beings.

Belvie Rooks’ presentation was profoundly touching as she shared her poetry and her personal process of grieving the loss of her husband. She is a cofounder of Growing a Global Heart.  She shared something her grandmother told her: “But for such a time as this that you were born.”

There was such a powerful sense that yes, we were born for this time. And it is not by accident that so many of us are waking up from the numbness of going along to get along, of reacting with greed, hatred and delusion to life; of feeling separate and lost. But for such a time as this that we were born. If a woman who was born into slavery could recognize her own purpose and power, then surely we can stop making excuses for our self-absorption and inaction. Yes, we need to take care of ourselves, and recognizing the Three Poisons active in us is an important part of that. Can we see greed, hatred and delusion at work in ourselves and in our world? And can we see ourselves as intrinsic and vital to what the earth and all life needs now?

The Hindrances make us go deaf and blind

The Five Hindrances* cause a kind of blindness and deafness. How can that be? You can probably provide your own example. If there is some issue that sets you off when a topic comes up on the news, that’s a perfect time to notice how every time it comes up, there is that same circular pattern of anger, the same volatility of emotion, and a repetition of thoughts on the matter that blot out all else in that moment. Can you even hear the news or have you gone off into your own inner rant? In that moment, if someone were offering some brilliant solution to the very problem that upsets you, you would not hear it because the volume of your angry rant is ramped up so high. If anger is not something you experience often, you might notice it in someone else. (If you do, it is skillful just to notice, not to offer unasked-for instruction on the Hindrances!)

Greed too has a blinding/deafening quality. When desire or craving arises, we may have a difficult time tempering it. Only justifications to fulfill the craving are admitted into our thinking. Yes, another hindrance might chime — self-judgment, shame or despair, perhaps — but we are blind or deaf to the calm loving voice of compassionate reason.

I remember one time on my way to the refrigerator to fulfill a hunger that had nothing to do with my stomach, I was so consumed in my desire for ‘a little something’ that it was a shock when I heard another voice within me asking if this was really going to appease my desire or was it actually fueling it. Who was that?

I’d never heard that wise voice before in this context because when I am caught up in greed, I am deaf to its kind loving words. They don’t suit my goal or the kindness doesn’t feel deserved. But that one time, for whatever reason, I heard it. Having heard it once, there is a better chance I will hear it again at another moment when such wisdom would be useful in bringing me into the moment, aware of what I’m actually doing.

By noticing the hindrance, naming it as hindrance, and seeing the hindrance as simply an obstacle to clarity of mind, we unlock its hold on us. A calmer, more fully-informed way of being prevails.

We practice awareness to develop the ability to see and hear the wisdom that is always available to us. We practice compassion to be better able to stay present with whatever arises. Our compassionate eyes do not need to look away from what is difficult in the world and within our minds. We can hold it all in an open friendly embrace, neither grasping nor pushing away.

The hindrances of worry and restlessness also blind us. We only pay attention to what feeds the worry, however remote this information may be. The antsy quality of restlessness doesn’t allow for the possibility that it might be okay, maybe even joyful, to simply be here now in this ordinary moment.

Sloth and torpor also cause deafness and blindness. We don’t want to pay attention to any sense within ourselves that calls us out to play, to breathe, to be active, awake, alive. We create what we hope is a safe couch-potato or bedridden refuge for ourselves, but in fact it is not a refuge at all. It is a dulling down, a deadening, an enervating escape. A true refuge is a place where rest refuels, energizes and balances us. As we develop awareness we can begin to see the difference between shutting down and refuge.

Doubt is blind and deaf as well. When we doubt, we punch holes in everything that is offered. (For example, if we are given a compliment, we discount or distrust the source.) We see only the holes, and not the whole of the fabric of being. We even embroider the holes and make them seem more real than the fabric itself. If wisdom were to arise and speak to us, we wouldn’t trust it. And such is the nature of this quiet still voice that it would simply be quiet. It has no agenda, no goal, and all the time in the world since it is beyond time. It is simply there, always available, woven deeply in the fabric of being. But we have to be available for it as well, by sensing into the texture of the fabric of this present moment experience.

Compassion provides clarity.
When we notice one of the hindrances arising or being active within us, that noticing is skillful. It’s awareness! Yay!
But in the next moment the hindrance might draw us back into all kinds of self-abuse. Compassion at this moment makes all the difference in how we proceed. With compassion, we can stay present with seeing clearly what is happening in this moment.

Compassion is not indulgence but an infusion of honesty. It tells us, ‘Hey, these hindrances are universal and a longstanding part of the human condition. The hindrances are not who you are. You are not uniquely flawed because a hindrance keeps arising, anymore than a swimmer is flawed because a wave in the ocean overcomes him or her at some point.’

So we use compassion and universal loving-kindness skillfully when we notice the presence of a hindrance. ‘Aha!’ and then, ‘How human an experience is this!’ With this two-fold noticing, we are able to stay present to witness the dissolving of the strength of the wave of hindrance that might otherwise drown us.

Rejoice! Recognizing the blindness and deafness of the Five Hindrances helps us to dissolve them. When we are present and the hindrances have fallen away, we are grateful. We are encouraged to notice and stay present with this awareness of their disappearance. Rejoice! Notice the joy! Notice the tranquility! Notice the happiness!

The Buddha likened this state of being (at least temporarily) hindrance-free to being free from debt, to being released from prison, to being liberated from slavery, to having safely crossed a dangerous desert, and to having recovered from an illness.

Recently my three-year-old granddaughter had a terrible bout of stomach flu. Such misery! The next day when we visited her, she told us, ‘All that tummy ache. All that poop!’ She was fully recovered, happily dancing about the house. The simple joy of normal life after she had been so knotted up in pain gave her a pronounced bounce in her step, a lilt in her voice, a ready smile, laughing at nothing, when usually she is quite serious about her play. She was rejoicing. Isn’t it great to be alive and pain-free?

Back into the Fray
Of course things change moment to moment, and this sense of gratitude and delight we feel can easily turn into greed for more. ‘Why isn’t it always like this?’ we might complain. Or the fear of losing it arises. A myriad of other thoughts can come along to drag us instantly back into one hindrance or another.

But to the degree we can stay present to see the arising of a hindrance, we can meet it with awareness and compassion. Then it dissolves and we can expand into a spacious delight where we can rest in mindfulness, concentration and absorption.

Naming and Claiming
If we notice a hindrance, we might be in the habit of saying, ‘Oh, I’m the type of person who has this hindrance’? This naming and claiming game is just a divisive diversion. In this moment when we recognize a hindrance, we are seeing clearly. We can be appreciative of this moment of clarity. And we can send loving-kindness to ourselves to create more spaciousness in our heart-mind to hold this new information in a way that will support expansive understanding instead of diving right back into a hindrance.

Metta (Loving-kindness)
We practice metta to remind us that it is available in any moment, to cope with whatever arises. If we discover we are being hard on ourselves, we use metta to gentle up our approach to the challenge at hand. If we are holding a grudge against someone, we can send them metta — not because they ‘deserve’ it, since metta is not a reward, but because when we enter a state of sending metta, we better understand the unitive nature of being. We let go of the isolationist indoctrination of our culture that has had each of us in a tight little knot unable to sense our connection. We might say or think:

May I be well. May I be happy. May I be at ease. May I be at peace.
May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be at peace.
May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace.


* The Buddha’s Five Hindrances are desire, aversion, restlessness/worry, sloth/torpor, and doubt.

Naming Our Poisons

The Buddha taught of the three poisons, the mental states that manifest in unskillful action and cause us and those around us to suffer. They are greed, aversion and delusion. As our minds become clearer through the practice of meditation, we begin to see these three states as they arise within us. We can notice how our actions are rooted in and fed by one or the other of these states.

Right now, for example, I am sitting here feeling greedy for the dharma as I write, hungering to learn more, and the desire to share it in the clearest way possible so that my students may benefit from knowing it. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, and it isn’t. Especially noticing it as it arises is a good thing. But noticing also brings an awareness of a tinge of energetic urgency, panic and fear that are also present in this hunger. Fear of it not being enough, of me not being enough, of my being an imperfect vessel for this information.

At the same time I am noticing a strong aversion to a phone call I am expecting from someone I have never talked with before but who appears to have anger issues as shown in his email. He is not a direct client of mine but is someone my client has to deal with. Suddenly I am ‘having to deal with’ him too. I don’t want to! I’m afraid! I feel the tension in my body rising up. I have held this tension since yesterday when we made this appointment for him to call me. And to top it off, he is already 47 minutes late in calling, which leaves me in this purgatorial state of dread.

Noticing these states, there may be a tendency to work with them, as in ‘fix’ them. That is just another form of aversion arising. I feel aversion for this state of aversion. How does that help? It really doesn’t.

So instead I breathe. Admittedly the breath started out as a sigh, but that reminded me to breathe! I send myself a little compassion. Compassion releases some of the tightness, infusing a sense of expansiveness that allows me to see more clearly. Already my shoulders have dropped an inch. However, I notice my jaw is tight. The buzz in my body is present.

I look out the window, the green and grey morning is calming. The tree outside my window doesn’t see my challenge and yet lives in this world. I don’t want to be the tree, but I am not unlike the tree. I don’t know what the tree experiences, but I can be pretty sure it is not currently dreading a phone call.

The tree is rooted in the earth. I sense my rootedness in the earth. The tree relies on its roots to weather high winds and powerful storms. I am anticipating some high wind this morning, so I sink into my roots, my connection. Thanks tree! Good advice!

The phone call went very well, by the way. A friendly constructive exchange with full agreement and goals achieved all around. Was that just a fluke? Or did my grounding myself help me to remember the humanness of the caller?

Having had a positive experience when anticipating a negative one is something I try to notice, adding it to my learned experiences. I am surprised that with attention, I actually do find I can reason with myself, saying, “Chances are, based on past experience, this will be fine. I will see how I wasted my time dreading an experience that much more often than not is a positive one.”

Noticing when we are operating out of greed or aversion is easier than noticing when we are operating out of delusion. What is delusion anyway? It’s like walking around in a fog and being constantly surprised when things happen. It can be operating as if we are an object being acted upon rather than the subject of our own lives, able to make decisions.

If we are in a state of delusion, how can we notice it? We can’t! At the moment of delusion the mind is enveloped in a cloud or fog, drifting, lost and unaware. But if we have set our intention to be present, then we can notice when it clears a bit. Just noticing that begins the development of awareness of delusion, and that awareness thins the fog. When the fog is thin, we have more options. We can drift or we can stay present. We can notice when the clarity begins to fade and we can take that as a reminder to reset our intention to be present with compassion, to notice the cloud of delusion as it comes and goes. Delusion has a very different felt sense than aversion or greed, but all three take practice to notice.

How do we work with these Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion? I remember when I first started studying Buddhism at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, there was a good deal of talk about how we are generally more inclined to one or the other of these mental states. People would say things like, “I am a greedy personality.” For me this seemed like just another way to label ourselves. We are often attracted to self-labeling, even if it’s an unattractive label.

Defining who we are seems to give us a place in the world, but it locks us in to a false sense of self. While we each do physically fill a finite place in this earthly life, defining it with limiting labels does not satisfy the deeper longing for a sense of understanding our infinite connection, the true nature of our existence.
We have talked before about the shift from the finite to the infinite view. For purposes of convenience in functioning in the world, we see ourselves as finite, singular and separate. But we discover through meditation, or perhaps through spontaneous insight, the infinite view that is always available to us, wherein we recognize that we are not separate at all, that we are a vibrant expression of life loving itself, like a drop of water flying through the sky knowing that it is a part of the sea-evaporation-cloud-rain-river-sea cycle of being which is a part of an even larger circle of life, and that all is one. With this infinite view, more fully discussed in previous discussions in the Eightfold Path, we are able to live more fully and joyfully in the world, even while being able to maintain our seemingly finite path with its various responsibilities, relationships and choices.

In the past few weeks, when discussing our clinging to the rock with our roots believing it to be our identity instead of releasing into the rich nourishing soil and allowing ourselves to grow to the fullness of our being, what we are talking about is letting go of the finite and releasing into the infinite. That shift from finite to infinite comes with our ability to be present and relaxed, releasing the tension that is our body’s way of holding the past and the future. This present moment fully experienced is the portal to understanding our interconnection, our being a part of and being supported by the infinite web of life.

While it may be tempting to label ourselves, it is more skillful to notice greed, aversion and delusion arising in our experience, and not get tangled up in saying, ‘I am an aversive personality type.’ Observing and judging ourselves to be more inclined to one of these three states may seem like it helps but it runs the risk of blinding us to the arising of the other two poisons, for we are tuning ourselves to notice the one above the others. All of us have all three poisons, even if not in equal measure.

The habit of self-labeling can make us passive, as if we have been indelibly stamped with this tendency and there’s nothing we can do. In truth, there’s nothing we NEED to do except be present and compassionate with all that arises in our experience, but that’s very different from a sense of helplessness that there’s nothing to be done about it, as if we are stuck. We are not stuck, we simply perceive ourselves to be stuck. In fact we are quite free, but we choose to pick out new wallpaper for our prison cell, remaking ourselves, rather than simply be present and watch the bars dissolve. We explored the whole concept of freedom in dharma talks quite a while ago. If that word resonates, perhaps you’ll want to read them. If freedom scares you, then that’s important to notice as well. Question in: “What am I afraid of?”

We can fall a little bit in love with even negative labels for at least they give us a sense of definition to cling to. But clinging to the hard rock of who we believe ourselves to be is the essence of what keeps us from opening to our true nature.

In a talk last year on ‘Holding the World in an Open Embrace’ I presented greed and aversion in the form of photos of two little girls, one holding tight to all her toys representing greed; the other with crossed arms and a pouty face representing aversion.

My sixteen month old granddaughter Lucy for the first time in my presence yesterday crossed her arms and pouted! Ah, aversion! This is the first manifestation in this form, though of course she has shown her preferences and dissatisfactions in a myriad of ways. But to actually see her cross her tiny chubby arms and pout with her little cupid bow mouth was quite something!

Where did she learn this particular manifestation? Lucy is my current teacher. I have been learning what is inherently human. When she wakes she does a natural yogi full body stretch, and she has done this since she was just a few months old. Now I try to remember to do that when I wake too. Where did I lose my natural inclination to do so?

And now seeing her pouting and crossing her arms I have to wonder how she developed this classic aversion pose? She doesn’t watch television, and has no older sibling to imitate. Where does she get this little Shirley Temple imitation? It’s a wonder. And it’s adorable and yes a little frightening. Aversion arises in Lucy and displays itself. We could easily go uh-oh and label her an aversive personality and be afraid, very afraid, of what the future holds with this crossed-armed pouty force to be reckoned with. But all that does is fuel our fear, lock her in a box of our labels, a box she will either stay in or break out of unless she can wear these labels lightly, knowing they do not define her true self.

In the past few weeks we have been discussing the inner aspects, what in psychological terms are also called sub-personalities, especially those we keep most hidden from our awareness that make up the shadow. When we are having a skillful inner conversation with an aspect, we might benefit from noticing whether it seems to be fueled by greed, aversion or delusion. I had mentioned Striver and Underminer, two aspects that have resurfaced in my awareness. Clearly Striver operates more from greed and Underminer from aversion, and both are delusional. (As some people might think I am to name inner aspects!! But it is a valuable exercise for the orderly exploration of a very complex lacy-patterned infrastructure of thoughts, emotions and beliefs that form a part of our experience that most influence, and sometime sabotage, our ability to live with awareness and a love of life.)

As a tool for self-exploration, knowledge of the three poisons of greed, aversion and delusion provide insight and clarity. We can use them as clues to see the fear at the root of the aspect we are exploring. These fears — the fear of separation, of exclusion, of not being acceptable, of disappearing, of being overwhelmed and washed away, of being judged, or of failing — are just a few of the ways we forget our connection to all that is and the universal oneness of being.

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.

Second Noble Truth: Insight

With the First Noble Truth we recognize the fact that there is suffering in life. Though it sounds harsh, this recognition to a degree relieves us of the anxiety about why we aren’t always perfectly happy. Once we have this recognition, once we sit with it awhile and mull it over in our minds, we may come to the Second Noble Truth.

The Second Noble Truth is an insight into the cause of our suffering. The Buddha had this insight when he sat under the Bodhi tree. He saw how there is pain that is a natural part of earthly existence, but that we create suffering on top of the pain. How do we do that?
The Buddha saw how we cause suffering by clinging to what we like and pushing away or denying what we don’t like.

He recognized a trait that has since been identified as part of the make up of all multi-celled creatures. These chemically-driven states of desire for pleasure and fear of pain are produced by our brains in order to help us survive.

So why would we want to get rid of these traits? First, we are not focusing on getting rid of anything. Instead we open to everything that arises in our experience, holding it in an open embrace of awareness.

As we become aware of these traits in our own nature and when we see them in others, we may see that often times we are not using them just for survival. We are grasping, clinging and pushing away or denying everything in our lives, not just things that are necessary for our survival or threaten it. These inherent traits of all animals have in humans turned into hyper-activated habituated tendencies.

Why is this so? Perhaps with our more developed frontal cortex — the part of the brain that enables us to imagine infinite possible outcomes — we are constantly activating physical and chemical reactions to imagined situations. Our overactive imaginations in our constantly thinking minds with all the re-runs, re-dos, application of acquired knowledge and sheer fabrications, have put us into mental over-drive. The result is an almost constant state of fear. This is not the fear of something we are actually facing in this moment, the way a deer will run away from anyone that comes too close. This is an ongoing state of mind that, lacking any current threat, will create imagined ones to fill the void.

What does fear do to us physically? If you’ve ever noticed a spider shrink into itself when it feels threatened, you know that that is what we do as well. A baby at four months is suddenly a little more wary of strangers, and her first response is to shrink a little into herself for a moment while she assesses the situation.

We adults do this too, but we easily end up staying there, tightened up into knots of tension, where we get stuck in a state of perpetual sense of alarm and isolation. We can’t sense our connection because we are locked into a hard separate stance. When we discover a connection with some particular person, situation or object, we are so relieved that we cling to them, and can’t bear to let this moment pass where we feel some relief from our ongoing sense of isolation. So we go from Teflon to Velcro with no place in between, with no way to inhabit our bodies and our being that is truly comfortable and easy.

Over the past weeks of exploring the First Noble Truth, I have been asking you to really notice how you cause suffering in your life. And what you have mentioned are the very tendencies the Buddha saw in his insight about how we create suffering in our lives: greed, aversion and delusion. Most of us fall more heavily into one of these tendencies, but all of us have some of each. So let’s take them one at a time.

Greed
When we experience pleasure and get attached to it, want it to continue, don’t want to let it go, begin to identify with it, start to need it like an addictive fix, go unconscious around it – a bit of a brain bypass that has a quality of time-out relief to it – this is the grasping, clinging, clamping down upon nature of the greedy mind.

Aversion
The tendency toward aversion brings up critical thoughts, judgments about people, behaviors, environments, aesthetics, conditions and situations. Nothing is every quite right. Even the most delightful situation could be improved upon, if only….

Delusion
This tendency is the head in the sand, or a certain grogginess that can be easily swayed and confused. If it takes a stand, it’s a stand of denial, not wanting to face facts.

Now all these traits have some positive aspects: Greed can be experienced as a zest for life. Aversion can be creative, transformational and problem solving. The delusive trait can see all sides of an issue and may pave agreement among disparate ideologies. But all can cause suffering.

These three tendencies – this grasping, clinging, pushing away and denying – are simply things to notice as they arise in our experience. Recognizing them is useful. Using the labels of greedy, aversive or delusive is not useful. We have more than enough labels already, thank you very much!

Seeing a tendency in ourselves is cause for celebration, not shame. It’s not our fault that these tendencies exist. Nature programmed us this way to keep us alive.

Our impressively developed brains continue to make an increasingly complex system of technological developments. When we steep ourselves in this hive of activity constantly, when we keep pace with the rapid-fire nature of modern life in our culture, we quite naturally succumb to one or more of these traits that cause suffering. Needing a retreat from the hubbub, we may choose unskillful means to numb ourselves with drugs, intoxicants, gambling, shopping, mindless eating, and other addictive behaviors. These are the answers readily provided by advertisers, so they are usually the first recourse.

Yet it is not just in this advanced technological age that humans cause themselves suffering. The Buddha didn’t have a cell phone or a computer, nor was he a jet-lagged jet-setter. In fact he spent his whole life within a very small mostly rural area, living amidst nature. Yet he knew suffering, and he saw it manifest in all the humans he knew as well.

Sometimes people get misty-eyed about some more quiet ‘simpler’ time, thinking that happiness was much easier to come by in the old days. ‘Simple for whom?’ is what I always wonder, because when I look back I see intolerance, enslavement and injustice. I am so grateful to be living now!

Not to exonerate the era we are in from these same forms of blindness. We continue to disrespect and trash the earth and, because of our vastly greater numbers, the impact is much greater. We trash our own bodies with faux food, and our governments wage war against each other over access to resources. And we live at a pace that is unsustainable and cannot be compensated by a week on the beach every summer.

But we are also, to a much greater degree than in past centuries, recognizing ourselves in each other, recognizing our connection to all of the inhabitants of this small blue planet. There are many movements afoot — not just in spiritual communities — that are slowing down the pace of life, acknowledging the value of this moment, of staying present.

Regardless of what era we live in, the development of the human brain has created this potential for creating misery, for getting out of balance. And the further refinement of it, through the insights of the Buddha and many other awakened beings, offers us skillful means to end, or at least cope with, our suffering.

The first step on this path is being able to recognize these traits of grasping, clinging, pushing away and denying as they arise in our experience. This is a great step to awakening! Don’t shut down now just because it feels uncomfortable to acknowledge something that seems to reflect badly on you. It doesn’t! Relax! We’re all in the same boat here.

So now as we explore for ourselves the Second Noble Truth, the challenge is to stay open. Yes, I know, this feels so personal, but it’s universal. And if we can gently but firmly be present to notice these tendencies in ourselves, we can begin to experience more spaciousness.

The key to sitting with the Second Noble Truth is to tap into compassion. We approach it with a great deal of metta, loving-kindness so that we won’t be swallowed up by the aversiveness that might be prompted by this inner discovery. Agh! I don’t want to be like that! Or I’m not like that!

No one said this work is easy, but there are ways to make it easier. I had a wonderful teaching a few months ago, watching my newborn granddaughter sleeping peacefully in her bassinette. Then suddenly she started rooting and struggling, waving her fists and poking her tongue in and out, wanting, wanting, wanting something, anything to stick in her mouth. How strongly I related to that! I recognized myself, the way I will sometimes roam the kitchen, looking in the refrigerator and the cupboards looking for a little something to stick in my mouth.

What an awakening it was for me to see that this is something born in me. My granddaughter was two weeks old! I didn’t invent this craving, I don’t have to feel shame for it! Of course, it’s not a free pass to eat everything in sight, but it is a deep acceptance of my own nature.

And then she gave me another insight, one that reined me in from forging my way to the kitchen. I noticed that after 30 seconds or so, her wanting, wanting, wanting passed, and she slipped into deeper sleep. She let it go. It passed. And if I pay attention, if I don’t rush to fulfill my wanting, if I sit with it a bit, I notice that yes indeed, she’s right: the wanting does pass.

So working with the Second Noble Truth is both humbling and enlightening. We are not trying to see how bad we are. We are accepting that we are human and finding some peace in that awareness. And perhaps we can hold it lightly, take ourselves less seriously, and feel less as if we have some fortress to defend.

Acknowledging and noticing is a continual process of creating spaciousness and awakening. It is made more painful if we see ourselves as isolated individuals up on a stage with judges about to call us out. If we can let view go, let ourselves be held in loving-kindness, if we can see ourselves as the small children we once were and hold ourselves with parental love, then we can begin to see each of these traits as clues to suffering, rather than one more reason to beat ourselves up.

So I hope during the week you will allow this level of noticing to bring about insights. And I hope that you receive the insights with great compassion.

This is the practice.