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Infinite Joy in this Finite Life

In this life each of us has only a finite number of sunrises and sunsets, even fewer full moons, even fewer splendid seasons and favorite holidays, even fewer times with a beloved child at this unique phase of their life, and even fewer moments with an elder on the verge of transition. This thought can make us depressed. We want it all to go on forever so that we can relax and be casual about it, rest in it, trust in it. But it’s so finite that we may scold ourselves for not gorging fully in every second of it. We may feel bad that we are not sufficiently appreciative of this gift of life.

These kinds of feelings can spark a renewed intention to practice meditation. We know this regular practice will help us develop the mindfulness to experience infinite joy in the finite moments of our lives.

What we find in the process is that meditation can help us develop compassion for ourselves as we live our lives in a way that works best for us. Yes, we are more present to appreciate this gift of life in all its variations, but we may see that we don’t have to rush around to seek out every amazingly beautiful moment of earthly pleasure. We discover that even the most ordinary moment when fully experienced is infinitely satisfying in beauty and depth.

Take this moment for example. You are reading, I am writing. Let’s both just take a moment here to notice all that is going on. Sense into the body. Notice the overall energy in the body, temperature, textures, the breath rising and falling, the feeling of support the earth provides, any sounds going on in this moment, and any smells available, maybe some discomfort or pain, maybe some pleasurable sensation. Now look around and notice the light, color, patterns, shadows, and the contrast of values. Open to this moment of being, releasing judgments, cultivating compassion, noting gratitude. Ah.

See what I mean? No matter where you are, if you greet this moment sincerely with all your senses, the moment reveals all its treasure.

My mother had a great lust for life, and in her later years every full moon she would organize an evening picnic on the easternmost point of our fair city overlooking the bay. Three generations gathered together to watch the moonrise. It was special, and I am so grateful she did that. In the years since she died there have been many times when I notice myself feeling guilty that I missed a moonrise, again. I have often had private moments with the setting moon out my bedroom window, so it is not the moon I am missing. And I am very involved with my own children and grandchildren, so it is not the three-generation event I am missing. Maybe I am just missing her. And I have a long habit of comparing myself to the woman she was and coming up short. But when it came to full moonrises, she knew she had only a dozen or so more to experience. And that is a great motivator.

I remember when my husband and I planned a trip to enjoy the autumn leaves in New England. After I had made all the reservations at cute little B&B’s, his work informed him that he just could not be spared at this time, that he would have to postpone his trip. Postpone? Did they think the autumn leaves would just linger on the tree limbs until he could get time off? We cancelled the trip, but it started him thinking about the finite nature of the years we had left and not long after he quit his job and started being a full time artist. The next year we did go East to see the leaves, but wouldn’t you know it, everywhere we went people would say, ‘Oh, you should have been here last year. The colors were so amazing.’

How is it for you? Do you feel the finite nature of this fleeting life? Does it make you feel you need to fill your life with amazing experiences?

In this consumer culture, it’s easy to develop a consumer mentality around life experiences, acquiring stamps on passports, photos on the internet and checks on bucket lists. It’s easy to get into an acquisitive relationship with life. But what do we really ‘have’ in the end?

Some people say they do extreme sports because it’s the only time they really feel alive. Every year we see people doing increasingly dangerous things with the only bodies they have in this life. I am so grateful that none of my children seem to have that need! A less extreme way of feeling that aliveness is through travel where everything is new and engages us in a way our habitual life does not because we live on auto-pilot, get lost in past and future thoughts, and everything becomes a dull redundancy.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. No two moments are ever the same. We don’t need to go away to experience this moment as new, fresh and alive. Certainly we can travel to interact with other people, to practice other languages, to learn our way is not the only way, and to deepen our understanding of what it is to be in this body on this planet at this point in time. But no matter where we are, if we are fully present and compassionate, we won’t have missed a thing.

We can bring the infinite joy of being fully present to savor each moment in this oh-so finite life.

Fire! Fear and Meditation

Image result for california fires 2015

Last night a swirl of smoke moved in from the east where forest fires are burning uncontained in multiple areas here in Northern California. The brown cloud covered the sun, turning it bright red. My mind filled with scenes of tinderbox forests and golden hillsides in towering flames as valiant firefighters work endless hours to protect whatever they can. I send them metta, loving- kindness: May they be well. May they be free from harm. I feel a welling up of gratitude for their efforts. Then I look out at the forest where we Iive and feel the fear I always feel in this dry season, but especially now after years of drought. I don’t want to think about the devastation that could happen before my eyes, taking away our home, our neighborhood, the glorious little eco-system on this hill, the restful green beauty that soothes me, but every time I hear sirens, I feel tension in my body as fear leaps into the foreground of my awareness.

What is the benefit of the regular practice of meditation, you might reasonably ask, if you still experience this kind of fear and worry? Shouldn’t I, a long-time practitioner and a teacher of meditation, be all blissed out? I remember Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman and his goofy grin saying ‘What me worry?’ I think of Janis Joplin singing ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’ This is why theoretically monks have a better chance at a bliss state: They have given up all material incumbrances. But the human mind is funny. It quite naturally builds ‘something’ even out of what some might call nothing. And then it protects that something fiercely. Remember the Tassajara fire where Buddhist monks risked their lives to defend the monastery? Brave. Foolish. Those two words are so often entwined.

People who have lost their homes to tornados always thank God that the family survived. Their house and all those mementos now destroyed and scattered for miles will be missed, of course, but that force of nature that tore through the neighborhood left behind a harsh but valuable lesson on what really matters.

Whatever we lose we can always imagine something worse. That is the nature of the human mind. And when that worse thing happens — because we do lose family members, don’t we? — we amazingly find some way to live with that. 

It is the nature of the human mind to care, and I for one appreciate that. We care deeply! Meditation practice doesn’t cause us not to care. It is not a drug to bring a state of oblivion. Instead it creates a compassionate spacious ease where we can see more clearly the activity of the mind and how we are in relationship to all aspects of our lives and the world around us. We can see how we cause ourselves and others suffering through grasping, clinging and pushing away.

Meditation can’t stop the fires, of course. But the awareness that arises in meditation allows me to notice the tension in my body and the fear that causes it. I can pause and breathe into the tension, relaxing and releasing it to whatever degree is possible in this moment. I can see how my childhood fears of fire are easily activated. I see that little girl I was being terrified by a TV movie about children trapped in an elevator with the orphanage on fire, and how my mother, knowing how fearful I was, always made sure my bedroom in all the homes we lived in had a fire escape. And how that fear also made me the most qualified candidate in my elementary school to be Fire Chief. I used to get to decide when we would have a fire drill, and I and my four (boy) deputies would stay in the building to monitor the drill and then go around and give reports to all the classrooms. All of these memories live inside me and contribute to what is happening here and now. I don’t need to get lost in them, but mindfulness practice helps me see not just what’s going on but its source as well.

As long as I know our emergency evacuation plan, I have no reason to live in future thoughts. I can practice being present in this moment with all that is happening here and now — the cool air coming in the screen door, the sunlight on the mountain, the sounds of birds, traffic, my husband doing Tai Chi on the deck, the feel of being supported by my seat, my fingers on the keyboard, my breath rising and falling. For many years  I have been training my mind to come home to this moment. This moment fully sensed can hold all my fears and worries, acknowledged with compassion. This mindfulness practice is so spacious that the worries are like little threads traveling through. They haven’t disappeared, but I see them in context. I am not tangled up in them. They are not choking me. Quieting down and cultivating compassion and ease allows me to live with the vagaries of life and still fully experience the sweet gift of this moment.

Feeling a little tense, are you?

Sometimes I find myself all tense and worried about a current situation, and I fall into the belief that once this is over I can really relax. And then it is over and I’m glad, but my body is still tense! What’s up with that?

The body has a strong preference for the here and now, so when the mind has cast a net into the future, the body tightens up, creates discomfort and even pain as a reminder to release the net and come back to this, just this.

The body so wants me to be here now that even as I’m writing this I can feel my body purring like a cat!

Oil painting by Stephanie Noble

If you feel tense, pause to sense into your body. What do you notice? Where exactly do you feel tension? We all have places we chronically hold tension and it’s useful to know where they are so in a moment of crisis we can gently focus on that area, softening its grip.

Once you have identified the area(s) of tension, spend some time relaxing and releasing the tension in whatever way works best for you. Maybe send it the message ‘Relax’ or ‘Release’ or another word or phrase that soothes you like ‘Let go’. Maybe imagine breathing into that area, softening it with the warmth of your breath.

Now notice other sensations in the body, places where there is no tension. Find a pleasant or neutral sensation and it will remind you that there is more going on in your body and in your life than just this situation that is causing you tension.

Use all your senses. Listen to the various sounds around you without getting caught up in attaching them to preferences or references that draw you into the past or future. It’s just a symphony of sounds. Look around you and notice all the light and dark contrasts, the colors, patterns, shadows and reflections. See if you can smell anything. If not, you might go find something to smell – the cinnamon in the spice cabinet or the flowers on the table. (Smelling things was a big part of our childhoods but we often don’t use it now except to notice something unpleasant. My little granddaughters sometimes generously share their blankies, offering them up to be smelled. All the comfort they derive from these little soft squares of fuzzy fabric is in that cozy scent.)

There are so many sensations available to us in any given moment: texture, temperature, the dampness inside our mouths, the breath that rises and falls in our chest, the feel of the earth supporting us. The more we are able to access sensation, the more present we are in this moment. The more present we are in this moment, the more we are able to live fully with clarity and compassion.

So come to your senses, release whatever tension you can and see if it doesn’t make you purr!

The Wisdom of the Breath, the last tetrad of the Anapanasati Sutta

The fourth and final tetrad of the Anapanasati Sutta is called the Wisdom Group. Continuing to be present with the breath, the Buddha instructs us first to focus on impermanence. We can do this by noting how sensations in the body arise and fall away, how the breath itself changes over the course of our meditation practice.

Then he asks us to focus on ‘fading away’. What could this mean? Is it  the edges of who we hold ourselves to be that fade away? With your eyes closed, see if you can tell where this defined person you call ‘me’ ends and where ‘other’ begins.

Without the sense of sight those edges disappear, don’t they. With the eyes closed the sense of body loses its tight definition. And with a focus on the breath we are even less sure about clearly defined edges, aren’t we? The breath is inside us and outside us. Where are the boundaries we previously took for granted?

Is there also a sense of ‘self’ that softens and loses its edge? Not just the body but our rigid idea of who we are? (Read more about this.)

Next the Buddha asks us to focus on cessation as we breathe. We know that life in this body is temporal, but in this culture we like to pretend that death is an option. I was reminded of this recently when my husband and I were in Mexico writing our Mexican wills and we were asked to write out When I die…. American wills shy away from such a simple statement of fact. I thought maybe they say something like ‘in the case of my demise’ but when I looked up a standard will template I discovered it avoids the mention death at all, just leaps right into instructions to the heirs! That’s how much we are in denial about our own death in this country. The death of strangers in the news, movies and books we find fascinating, but we’re not able to acknowledge that such an event is in the cards for us.

Coming into a deep awareness of the temporal nature of our lives is not depressing but freeing. Our acceptance illuminates the value of being fully here to enjoy life in this moment. It lets us see it as a natural part of the cycle of life.

You can investigate this yourself by sitting with awareness of your temporal nature. You might say to yourself, ‘On some undisclosed date I will definitely die.’ And then sit with that and see what you notice. Is there added tension in the body? Does the breath get shallower? What emotions and thoughts arise in your awareness?

The last step in the Anapanasati Sutta asks us to focus on relinquishment. When we understand and accept the temporal nature of life, accept that this body is an integral part of a whole complex set of processes and is not separate, and accept that everything is impermanent, then what is it we are relinquishing? We relinquish our fear. We relinquish our clinging to beliefs that don’t serve us. We relinquish it all and open to the joy of awakening to this moment, just as it is with clarity and compassion.

So those are the sixteen steps. If it interests you then you can read Larry Rosenberg’s book Breath by Breath. You can also listen to the recordings of Tempel Smith’s daylong retreat at Spirit Rock that I attended in March 2015.

Thoughts & emotions in meditation, continuing the Anapanasati Sutta

In our continuing exploration of the Anapanasati Sutta, the Buddha’s teaching on mindfulness of the breath, we now come to the third Tetrad, the Mind Group. Here we bring our friendly focused attention to the whole of the mind, which includes the heart in this tradition so that we notice both thoughts and emotions as they pass through our spacious field of awareness.

The second step of this group instructs us to ‘gladden the mind’. This is not an instruction to put on a happy face. It is asking us to notice and in that noticing appreciate this joyous state of being fully alive and aware. It knocks us out of the temporal reactivity of our normal state and allows us to sense into the quality of infinite being. The Sutta doesn’t use those words, just ‘gladden the mind’ but see where it takes you.

The third step instructs us to steady the mind, bringing some balance into the mix. We’re not floating off into ecstasy. We want to develop states that are functional, that end suffering in our daily lives, not just a temporary escape from our personal challenges.

The last step of this tetrad instructs us to ‘liberate the mind’. This isn’t freeing the mind to run amuk. This is liberation from mindlessness, from assumptions not based in fact, from auto-pilot, and from habitual thinking. If you remember our investigation of the Hindrances in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, at this stage you can really observe them in action: the clinging, aversion, restlessness, worry, torpor, sloth and doubt.

Deepening in this practice of following the breath and noticing the mental processes, we can begin to see the tenacity with which we hold onto lifelong habits, patterns and processes. We notice the activation of judgment, justification and argument, as well as various emotions that fuel aversion and desire to do anything but simply be with what is in this moment.

But if we can expand our spacious field of awareness to hold all of those difficult thoughts and emotions, without acting on the desire to push them away, then we discover we can live with them in a kind of intimacy that is softening and illuminating. We see for ourselves the pain of attachment. Then with consistent compassionate attention we might see the superfluous nature of attachment. Then eventually, without effort beyond the wise effort of our sitting practice, quite naturally the attachment softens and perhaps dissolve.  

This kind of liberation of the mind leads to awakening and a deepening of wisdom. It is a willingness to be present with whatever arises and see it with a clarity, and a willingness to question everything. ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’

Next week we will complete this brief look at the Anapanasati Sutta.

Breath focus continues…

This week in class we continued our exploration in meditation of the Anapanasati Sutta (mindfulness of the breath), this time adding the second tetrad, the Feelings Group. If you recall from our exploration of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, ‘feelings’ are not emotions but our basic response to experience as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. So as we meditate with a focus on the breath we find a pleasant experience of noticing the energy in the body and a sense of vibrant aliveness, and maybe we get excited about this. (The word ‘rapture’ is used to describe this state, but for me that word is simply too loaded in our culture.) We notice pleasure arising in our experience, and we develop our awareness of that sense of pleasure as we continue to consciously breathe in and breathe out.

But these experiences of excitement and pleasure are not all that is going on, is it? We also have a lot of thoughts and emotions that arise and fall away. These are mental processes that we note as a naturally occuring part of our experience as we continue to follow the breath. These thoughts and emotions are seductive and we likely get distracted from the breath from time to time, but whenever we realize we have been lost in thought, we acknowledge the existence of mental processes and come back to the breath.

We end this second part as we did the first by actively calming these mental processes, with the power of our focus on the breath. Just as we breathe in fresh air to create spaciousness in the body, we can create spaciousness in the mind. Just as we release tension in the body on the exhalation, we can release the tight tangle of thoughts.

The students found the instructions beneficial to their practice and I hope you do too, though it is of course much more challenging to do so without someone offering guidance as you meditate. If you’re in the area, come to class!

Concentration & The Problem with problems

The word ‘concentration’ is so misleading because of the way we think we need to configure our brains to do it. We think of it as a tightening and narrowing of or focus. But Wise Concentration is actually a much softer and friendlier way of paying attention to what is arising in this moment.

I recently attended a daylong retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center on the Anapanasati Sutta led by Tempel Smith who is able to express the heart of the teachings in a way we can easily understand it. The Anapanasati Sutta is the Buddha’s sixteen-part exploration of using a focus on the breath to deepen one’s practice and perception. Tempel recommended the book Breath by Breath by Larry Rosenberg, which I have been reading and highly recommend if you are interested in deepening your meditation practice.

Because in our weekly women’s meditation class we have been revisiting the Noble Eightfold Path, I held off on discussing Wise Concentration until I had had the chance to attend that retreat, read that book and experiment with the teachings on the Anapanasati Sutta.

Ana is a pali word that means life energy that comes in; apana means waste as it is expelled; sati means mindfulness, the ability to notice in an open way. So this teaching (sutta) is all about being mindful of the whole process of the breath. If you have never meditated on the breath then the idea that there could be sixteen levels of exploration sounds improbable, but if you have spent any time noting the breath you have most likely found it to be a whole lot more interesting than you would have imagined. With this sutta we have a guide to being with the breath in a way that really deepens the practice.

The sixteen contemplations of the Sutta are divided into four groupings, called Tetrads. This week we practiced the first Tetrad within our regular meditation, first becoming aware of the breath, the quality of the breath in this moment. Without judgment we notice the breath is long, short, deep, shallow, rough, smooth, etc. Then the awareness broadens to sense the whole body in relationship to the breath. Having deepened and broadened awareness, we calm the body. The breath comes in bringing fresh air, creating spaciousness; the breath leaves taking with it all the excess energy and tightness.

Off to a good start! In the coming weeks we will practice adding in each of the other three Tetrads in our meditation.

‘There is Nothing Wrong Here’

After answering any questions about this Sutta, we had time for another discussion. I always read a little excerpt from our Pocket Pema Chodron book before beginning my dharma talk or discussion, and the one I read last week, #88 titled ‘An Open Ended Approach’ really resonated, so we discussed what it brought up for us. It is about the importance of working with rather than struggling against whatever we are finding unacceptable in ourselves and in the world. Pema talks about how when we think in terms of problems and solutions we are making an enemy and that is not the relationship that will bring an end to suffering. 

I was reminded of how in the Church of Science of Mind, where a friend of mine is a minister, there is a phrase they use when coming upon what might be considered a problem: ‘There is nothing wrong here.’ That’s a very fun phrase to play with every time something unsettling happens, but all of us can think of situations where saying such a thing would make no sense at all. For example, if someone is abusing a child, imagine saying ‘There is nothing wrong here.’ Really? It looks VERY wrong to me, and it makes me angry and I want to haul that abuser off and… 

But if we go deeper into it, we can see that making this person the enemy or even this action the enemy is not going to change anything. Bringing a more open compassionate space and a clarity of mind that is not judging but seeing all of what is going on — all the causes and conditions, all the pain within the abuser as well as the one being abused — creates a safe space for the person doing the abusing to let down their rigid defensive posture and feel he or she can look at the whole of what is going on. In class someone brought up dealing with someone who is addicted. Again, how much more helpful it is provide a loving non-judgmental but very aware space for that person to be able to let down his or her defenses and gain some clarity. Since real change comes from deep within, providing a safe space for that inner exploration is infinitely more useful than acting out in anger, making demands, making an enemy, seeking a solution to a problem.

Pema ends with: “The approach we are suggesting is more groundless…” And that reminded me of what Tempel Smith said at the daylong retreat about how with our meditation and mindfulness practice we are developing the ability to function well in the state of groundlessness we find ourselves in. For those of us who are always searching for solid ground, this is an alarming statement. But true! In this experience of life there is nothing solid, unchanging that we can stand on and make everything stop and be predictable. Instead we have better success and lots more joy if we learn how to live in this groundless state. Think of Alice as she falls down the rabbit hole finding interest in all she encounters even as she doesn’t know where this journey will take her. Isn’t that how life is? We pretend we know what will happen based on our plans and informed calculations, but then the unexpected happens and we are thrown for a loop. Why? Because we believed we were standing on solid ground, but in fact the reality of our experience is much more groundless than that. So maybe we are learning how to float in space or even fly?