Category Archives: identity

What’s in a Name?

Lately I’ve been noticing how often people call themselves names: ‘stupid’ or “idiot”; or they describe themselves as ‘technologically challenged’ or ‘anal’, etc. They may start sentences with ‘I’m the kind of person who…’

What’s wrong with that? This is such a common human thing to do that it doesn’t seem problematic on the surface. Self-effacement is socially acceptable and even encouraged, unlike boasting, a sure way to lose friends. The boaster puffs up their personal identity in order to be admired, respected and safe. The person whose words are self-diminishing has a different strategy for self-protection: Perhaps to lower expectations? To put themselves down before someone else does? To gain sympathy? Not all the motivations have to do with impact on others. And probably only a small percentage of the put downs are said out loud.  Both the people who boast and the people who put themselves down may feel they are simply stating truth, seeing themselves ‘realistically’. Is that true? Or is it selective observation at best and distortion at worst?

As we practice mindfulness and become increasingly present in our experience, we can see how these autopilot statements lock us into a very limited sense of self. The words form a false construct — a painted shell — that camouflages our authentic being, disconnects us, and prohibits true engagement in life.

It is a good practice to listen for our own self-defining statements and to question them when they arise. This isn’t judging them, but seeing them clearly, questioning their veracity and motivation. In the last post, I talked about the faulty filter of fear. Can we see these ways we define ourselves as a part of that filter? If we say ‘I’m such an idiot’, there is clearly at least one if not a series of painful past experiences that bring us to this conclusion. It’s worth revisiting that past and investigating: Were we called a name by someone who was afraid in their own lives? We may doubt that the original voice of that name-calling was afraid, but what healthy happy person with no ax to grind goes around calling anyone an idiot? People who put others down are acting out their own unhappiness and insecurities.

Many of us over-manage our image like hyper-zealous stage mothers. And our running commentary gets in the way of people seeing us clearly. If this sounds at all familiar, are you ready for a little challenge?

Challenge

  1. Stop describing yourself to others! There’s no need to explain yourself. You may have your opinions, but let others draw their own. Live your life with wise loving intention and effort, and let the rest go.
  2. Pay attention to the unspoken but oft-repeated negative names you may call yourself. If you find one or more, take time to investigate, preferably after meditation, to find the source. Question the veracity with awareness and compassion. For example, you repeatedly call yourself ‘stupid’, you might think of times when you were smart.

veil-3

 

Exercise

Occasionally in class I share this exercise I created almost thirty years ago, when I was teaching meditation, but before I began studying and practicing Buddhism. It’s called ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’. If you’ve been following along the posts in this blog, you might see a correlation between the veils this week and the filters from last week. Clarifying our view of the world and ourselves is an ongoing valuable part of our practice. And as always, we’re simply noticing how we are in relationship to all aspects of our experience, not trying to push them away or change them. Try this exercise after at least a few minutes of meditation.
‘Dance of the Seven Veils, an Exercise in Letting Go’
by Stephanie Noble

Here’s a written version, in case you can’t play it, or just want to review:

The first veil is the you that is defined by material possessions. These possessions reflect your taste, your financial status and your values. Think of your home, your furnishings, your clothes, your vehicle — all the choices you have made that tell people who you are.

To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The second veil is the you that is defined by your achievements and your failures, your badges of honor and your battle scars. Woven into this veil are the titles you hold, the awards you have won, the degrees you have earned, the good deeds you have done, the pain you have caused, the guilt you bear, the struggles you have gone through. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The third veil is the you that is defined by your relationship with others. See the threads of your various roles as son or daughter, sister or brother, father or mother, husband or wife, friend, lover, student, teacher, co-worker, employee, employer and citizen. To the degree that these roles define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The fourth veil is the you that is defined by your beliefs, how you have woven together your religion, your spiritual beliefs, your political affiliations, your judgments, the angers and resentments that shape your judgments, and your assumptions about other people. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The fifth veil is all the aspects of you that you were born with: Gender, ethnicity, ancestry, physical features, and the most fundamental aspects of your personality. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The sixth veil is the you that is defined by your perception of your body as isolated and your skin as an encapsulation and barrier. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you.

Let it go.

The seventh veil is the you that is defined by mind, consciousness. It is the you that maintains resistance in order to exist as a separate consciousness. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you. Let it go.

The seven veils drift to the floor. For this brief moment, allow yourself to shine free of them.

Now who are you? Beyond the barriers of all your veils of identity, beyond the veils that create shadow, mask and distortion, suddenly all is clear. Who are you? You are one with all that is, an expression of the joy of oneness. You are undefined thus unconfined and expansive without limits. Yet completely here and now, always in this moment. Rest in this joyous light being.

Now you can dress in the veils. Take your time to take on each one as a light sheer manifest expression of being alive in this place and time:

This separate seeming consciousness — now lighter, sheerer, a softer way of being in the world.

This separate seeming body — now lighter, sheerer, able to dance with this gift of life.

This veil of personality and traits — now lighter, sheerer, more fluid and loving.

This set of beliefs — now lighter, sheerer, more insightful and open.

This set of roles in relationships — now lighter, sheerer, more ready to see the wholeness of being as you engage with others.

This veil of personal history loosely woven life lessons — now lighter, sheerer and full of kindness.

This final veil of possessions, no longer seen as self at all, but simply objects to use, enjoy, give, receive and maintain.

Once again you are fully dressed in all your veils, but now they are diaphanous and don’t weigh you down. Never again will you mistake them for you. The authentic inseparable you that is light energy source and receptor, transmitter and receiver. You that is released from the limits of fear and knows the infinite power of love. Behold your true self. One with all that is.

                                               – Stephanie Noble

 

Barnacles can’t dance, but we can!

Every time I come home after a retreat I feel as if I’ve been released into a more natural way of being, as if I’m lightly dancing with life. I am able to see more clearly the nature of suffering and how I tend to create it.

barnacleAn image from my childhood comes to mind: The barnacles on the boats in the Marina where my friend and I used to play on sunny San Francisco days. We humans often act like barnacles, attaching ourselves to all manner of things.

We may do this in our relationships. Clinging is corrosive and can destroy natural loving bonds and connections. Think about how you react when someone clings to you. It feels more like a drain, an imposition or a demand that you are unable to fulfill, doesn’t it? The person who is clinging doesn’t realize that they are having the opposite effect of what they are trying so hard to achieve. They can’t see that what they are offering is not love or friendship at all. Love is like a dance of the interplay of energy. How does a barnacle dance? Not very well!

I think you get the idea. Where else in our lives might we be clinging rather than dancing?

We cling to our ideas of who we are. With barnacle-like persistence we fasten ourselves to an identity made up of all kinds of things to varying degrees: political affiliation, personal style, religious belief, culture, profession, physical characteristics, personality traits, possessions, family, ancestry, relationship roles, experiences, preferences, etc. These amalgams of how we see ourselves can get locked in early in life, long before we have the wisdom, experience, judgment, or understanding to question the veracity of these views. But it’s never too late to pause in a moment of mindfulness and question our barnacle grip.

The film critic Mick LaSalle was asked by a reader about his favorite films and actors. Mick replied “…I think self-definition through the announcement of favorites can sometimes shut the door on discovery.” Then he went on to list his favorites. But in that acknowledgement he kept the door open to discovery, didn’t he? And that’s what we all want to do, even while enjoying what we know and love.

In class we discussed how whole generations brand themselves by set ideas of fashion, music, hairstyles, vehicles, etc. Recently I heard the term ‘perennials’ to describe people of any generation who are less interested in age-based divisions and are fully engaged in life, ever new and unfolding. I liked that. I might even get a little attached to it!

So here we are, attached to these ideas about this self we hold ourselves to be. We may promote or berate this self, but we rarely question that it is exactly who we are. If we are not totally thrilled with this self, we want a makeover. We find the most offensive aspect or the one that is most readily changeable — weight, for example — and we focus all our distress, unhappiness and dissatisfaction on the idea that if only we lost some pounds, then we’d be happy. Or perhaps it’s wrinkles that worry us, and we invest in fancy creams, facials or surgery. Or maybe it’s fame or wealth that we believe will finally make us okay. Whatever it is, there is no end to the wanting. Achieving the perfect weight, flawless skin, rave reviews or mountains of money — none of it is ever quite enough. It doesn’t deliver on promised results. If we can check off a goal reached, we just reset the goal. It still leaves us in a state of ‘if only’.

Of course, there’s practical wisdom in maintaining a healthy weight, in taking care of our bodies and creating financial stability. But we are talking about the craving for perfection, the striving for some ideal that will right all the wrongs in our life. We expend a lot of energy chasing those ‘if only’ goals without seeing that none of them address the core challenge we face.

The core challenge is that barnacle behavior, the way we cling to the erroneous idea of self: that we are separate and must create the most appealing or impressive identity in order to navigate life’s dangerous waters.

Our meditation practice gives rise to insights that tell us something quite different. We begin to understand in an embodied way that we are natural expressions of life, interconnected to all life. We understand that all life forms a pattern — a dance, if you will — of ongoing cycles of birth, growth, death and decay that nourishes new life. What we thought was solid and permanent is instead processes, systems and patterns. Perhaps we watch a murmuration of sparrows in the sky at dusk and we realize our true nature is a dance of life, not an isolated fortress we need to defend. We no longer believe that our job is to keep repackaging ourselves to be the most attractive gift under the Christmas tree or the most impressive accumulator of stuff, power and experience

But it’s not just in our meditation practice that insights come. At any time, especially if we are troubled, we can ask skillful questions that help us see more clearly. We listen to what we are telling ourselves, and we ask, ‘Is this true?’ and ‘How do I know this is true? Another useful question is ‘How am I in relationship to this?’ Instead of running around in mental circles, telling ourselves a story about a situation, person or belief, we can examine the way we are relating to them. Can we recognize that we are grasping, clinging or pushing away? Through meditation we cultivate awareness and compassion. Then we can skillfully investigate what’s going on in any moment and gain insight. Aha!

Through the regular practice of meditation we don’t necessarily lose all the various elements of identity we believed ourselves to be. We just see them for what they are and we can hold them lightly. We let go. We un-barnacle. And in doing so we reveal the beauty of all life.

We awaken to our passion and purpose, not to claim it as ‘our thing’ or wear it as a badge that defines us, but to participate more fully in each moment, blooming where we are planted with naturally arising kindness, compassion, freedom and the grace of a dancer who’s attuned to the rhythms of life.

‘Am I defined by my preferences?’

Last week we began an exploration of the Buddha’s Five Aggregates. We explored the First Aggregate, material form. We considered whether the answer to ‘Who am I?’ is my body. We observed how the body by nature is impermanent. It grows, it ages, it dies, and it is subject to illness and injury. We observed that the body is inseparable from the rest of the physical world on a cellular level. And we observed that, for the most part the body is beyond our control, as we had no say in most of its dimensions, coloration and distinctive features, and it operates independently of our will for the majority of its functions. Impermanent, not separate, and beyond our control in many ways: These are the qualities that tell us the body doesn’t define us. We apply this same kind of inquiry around these qualities to the four other aggregates.

This is an experiential exercise, as are all of the Buddhist teachings. The teacher offers a little guiding light in a certain direction, but it is up to each of us to explore whether it is true. We ask questions of everything that arises — questions about the teachings and questions about the assumptions we find we have been making. We come to the truth in our own time and in our own way. So simply be present and compassionate with yourself as you do this investigation.


I imagine that few of us who would take a meditation class or follow a meditation blog would ever believe the answer to “Who am I’ is as simple as ‘I am my body.’ We may have believed it to be a part of who we are, but certainly not all of it. So maybe letting go of the idea that the body is who we are is quite natural, even a relief.


We might say, ‘I am more than my body. I am also a person with certain preferences and ways of being in the world. Even if I forgot my name, even if there was no one around to identify me, I would still be here, still be me, still enjoy chocolate, still find high temperatures unpleasant, etc.’ You might pause now to jot down some of your likes and dislikes. You might magine you are writing a personals ad and these are the things any interested party should know about you. Once they’ve seen your photo of your material form, the next thing they need to know to answer the question of who you are is your preferences, right?


Thus we come to the second of the aggregates. The belief that we are the feeling tones, the way we experience things as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We all have preferences, but when we begin to think that they describe us, we run into trouble. We might say, ‘I am the kind of person who likes chocolate’ rather than ‘This tastes good.’ You can see the difference between these two statements. ‘This tastes good’ is very much in the present moment. ‘I am the kind of person who likes chocolate’ sets us up to mindlessly eat chocolate at every opportunity. We may be so of the belief that chocolate is an indicator of who we are as a person that we can skip the noticing, the simple experience of discovering, as if with new taste buds, what this experience is in this moment.


As a person who has long identified with being a ‘chocoholic’ and bonding with friends over that belief, I can attest to the fact that if I am truly in the moment tasting in a meditative way, the sensations of eating chocolate are not in and of themselves always as satisfying as I believe them to be.


This is not to take the fun out of a simple pleasure. In fact, by being in the moment and not caught up in attachment, the pleasure can be exquisite. If we let it be momentary, acknowledge its fleeting nature, enjoy it while it lasts, let it go with ease as the next moment brings another experience, then we are not suffering.


We do suffer when we believe ourselves to be our preferences.

As we found in the Third Foundation of Mindfulness, those simple feeling tone ‘seeds’ of pleasant or unpleasant can grow into a jungle of thoughts and emotions, with vines that strap us up and even strangle us. Now we look at how many of those thoughts and emotions are caught up in identity-building. In the process of believing “I am the type of person who likes this, who doesn’t like that and couldn’t care less about that other thing,’ we build an impressive historical reference library of these preferences. We expect those who know us to have studied that library. We even give tests!


Think about how we feel when someone gives us a present that really shows us they know our preferences. Then think how we feel when the reverse is true, when we are given something that we would never choose for ourselves in a million years. In the first case, we feel known and loved. That person really gets us! In the second case, if it’s a person we thought knew us, we may suddenly feel a little bereft, in doubt of their feelings for us. That person we thought knew us apparently has no clue who we are.


As we did with exploring whether the body is who we are, we can look to see whether these feeling tones are impermanent, insubstantial and ungovernable.


Impermanent? Absolutely. Our preferences change throughout our lives, dependent on so many variables — what we are exposed to, what experiences we have had with them. A year ago my granddaughter was so excited to see broccoli on her plate she would sing a song about it. An ode to Bahkalee. Now she turns up her nose at it. Tastes change.


Talking about impermanent preferences, just think about style! Look at some pictures of you at various phases of your life. Would you wear that outfit or that hairstyle again? Not in a million years, you might say. But at the time we all believed that look to be quite the thing.


I will never forget the day in the mid 1970’s when I was walking down Fourth Street in San Rafael wearing my favorite mini-skirt, when suddenly I felt naked! I could not take a step further. I had to go back home and change. One minute the fashion I had been wearing happily for a number of years was fine, and the next minute it was a total embarrassment!


For those who don’t change with industry-promoted fashions, there might be a certain smugness to having a personal sense of style. But this too can become a ‘taking ourselves to be our preference.’ That style so much defines us that we can’t let it go. There is nothing wrong with our preferences. We only get in trouble when we believe that our preferences define us.

How much trouble can a preference cause? My mother smoked for most of her life. Certainly she was addicted, but she once told me that if it were just a physical addiction she could have kicked the habit years ago. What she couldn’t kick was her idea of herself as a smoker — how sophisticated she believed herself to be. If she quit smoking would she be as intellectual and cool? Well, she finally did quit and she was as cool and smart as she’d ever been, of course. Unfortunately it was too late to save her from the emphysema that killed her. She paid a huge price, and all of us who loved her paid a huge price, for her belief that smoking defined her.


Our choice of cars is a powerful preference that for most of us has to correlate with our belief about who we are. I drive a Prius. Enough said! Because I drive a Prius, I am automatically putting out a statement about my core values. My daughter is making her statement with a monster truck you can hear coming from two blocks away. She wouldn’t be caught dead driving my car. I wouldn’t be caught dead driving her truck! These hunks of metal are very much tied into who we believe ourselves to be. Next time you see an ad for a car, notice how the message is geared toward your identity.

Which brings up whether our preferences are all that distinct and individual. In fact my mother’s belief that she was cool when smoking was suggested to her by those 1930’s black and white movies where smoking was almost a fine art. Our choice of fashions, cars, homes, etc. are only ever in part our own. We share them with the rest of our culture, or certain groups within our culture with whom we identify. So they are not uniquely us.


When we are so caught up in the belief that we are this preference, we suffer. If, for example, we are assigned a rental car that doesn’t match our personality, we might struggle with the discomfort of being seen in something that so ill suits us. If we believe our preferences to be who we are, we will suffer. If we allow ourselves to notice the discomfort and question it, that rental car might actually be a source of liberation. It doesn’t mean we go home and buy one like it. It just means we recognize that we are not our car, our house, our clothes, etc. We are not defined by the things we like and the things we don’t.


So these preferences are impermanent, changeable, sometimes even fickle. But are they ungovernable, out of our control?


Yes! Just try to be sexually attracted to someone you’re not. Just try to eat a food you find disgusting. Some of our preferences seem to be hardwired. Even though they may change, they seem to change on their own, not because we mandated the change. And when they change, we might feel uncomfortable, as if we’ve lost a bit of who we are. But if it is

not within our control, how can a preference be who we are?


We have preferences galore, enough to keep all kinds of industries in business for many years to come. But is feeling tone, this liking and not liking, the ‘I’ we are seeking?
Impermanent, insubstantial and out of our control — so probably not.

There is a great simile from the Buddha’s teachings of the Five Aggregates of a dog tied to a post. The post is the Five Aggregates we believe ourselves to be. When the dog walks, it can only walk circles around the post. We can’t wander beyond the edges of who we believe ourselves to be. We are chained to these beliefs just as that dog is tied to the post.


Notice for yourself over the coming weeks the degree to which you take your preferences to define you. Then come fully into the moment; be present with the fleeting nature of whatever is happening. With awareness you might find a freedom from the tight leash of the belief that you are your body or your preferences. See how that feels.


In this process, remember that we are not trying to wipe out anything. We are not trying to erase preferences, become clean slates, devoid of all likes and dislikes. Striving for that would be just another preference. We do have to wear something, eat something and live somewhere. But we might find we are much happier if we vest less in our preferences and simply be in the moment, wherever we are.


At each stage of looking at these aggregates, these states of experience that we believe ourselves to be, we not only look more clearly, with more spaciousness, but also with great compassion. We are holding the child of our nature in a loving embrace. We are saying maybe you are not this and you are not that, but there’s nothing to fear. You are here. And it’s okay.

‘Who Am I?’

(The Buddha taught the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in a certain order for a reason. If you are reading this without having followed along previous posts in this section, please begin at the beginning with Introduction to Four Foundations of Mindfulness.)

We have come to a place in the Buddha’s teachings of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness that has been there all along, deeply embedded in everything we have looked at so far. And yet it can still come upon us as a surprise.

We ask the simple question, a child’s question really, but also the question that forms the foundation of many philosophical discussions throughout the ages: Who am I?

Pause for a moment, close your eyes, sense into physical sensation, and ask it again, as if for the first time. ‘Who am I?’ You might say it over and over like a mantra that goes deeper and deeper.

Where is this solid, dependable sense of self that we call ‘I’ and ‘me?’

The first thing that might suggest itself is this physical body, this material form. This is me. This is who I am, or at least it is part of who I am.

Is this true? What are the edges of the self defined by this body? Is it the skin that is so porous, letting in and out moisture all day long? That very skin sheds itself constantly. Is it still ‘me’ when it’s dust being vacuumed up off the floor and carpet?

What about the breath? Is it ‘me’ when it is in my lungs, but then no longer me when it has been exhaled?

The cells in the body are totally different than the ones that were here seven years ago. This seemingly permanent body is neither solid nor separate from the rest of life.

This is an experiential exercise for each of us to investigate for ourselves. The Buddha wasn’t interested in philosophical discussions about it, only that each of us has the opportunity to explore it and make our own discoveries.

This exploration of ‘body as self’ is the first of five ‘aggregates’ that the Buddha asks us to experience in our own way and own time. We will explore the other four in subsequent weeks. But for now let’s look more closely as this sense of self as being the body.

The body is impermanent. We know this, having lived with this body this long, having seen it grow, having seen it ill, having seen it recover, having seen it scar, and having seen it age. We know this because other bodies we have loved have also changed, and some of them have disappeared. This impermanence we know so well tells the lie of the body being a solid substantial self. 


The other aspect that tells the lie is the fact that we have so little control over any of this. Yes, we can gain or lose weight, we can dye our hair, have plastic surgery, we can do things to sustain our body or abuse it, but for the most part, for the most identifiable part, we have no control. Tall, short, square, round, dark, light — most characteristics of the body are simply as they are. If we accept our lack of control over them, we are less likely to suffer. Suffer? Yes, we suffer when we compare this body with others. We suffer when we get caught up in stories about who is to blame for things that are beyond our control. This is dukkha, the unsatisfactory nature of existence that is caused, in part, by the believe that this body is who we are. If we can let go of the mistaken belief, then we are simply grateful for this vessel of experience, however it is shaped, colored or outfitted. It is not who we are, but it is a means to experience this fleeting gift of life.

So this body is not the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ As we explore the other four aggregates of feeling tones, cognition, volition and consciousness, we will have the opportunity to test whether any of these are who we are.


With dedicated meditation practice, we gain the naturally-arising insights that are called the three marks or characteristics. They are: annica (impermanence), dukkha (self-manufactured suffering) and anatta (no permanent separate self.) 


No one else can tell us ‘this is so.’ We have to discover it for ourselves at our own pace, in our own way. A teacher can spark a line of inquiry that leads to an insight, but the insight can’t be taught. It has to be experienced. (The Zen koan practice exists for this very reason. We don’t have koans in our tradition (Theravada, Vipassana or insight meditation,) but a teacher can seed a question that leads to a rich inner exploration.)

Anatta, no-self, may sound scary, but saying there is no self does not make us disappear. It is not a magic trick. It is a way to stop grabbing at straws of who we believe ourselves to be and clinging for dear life in the hopes that that straw belief will sustain us. It won’t. It is unreliable.

The need to name and claim a separate permanent identity just cuts us off from our deep sense of being connected with all that is, whether we choose scientific terms or see it as being an expression of the infinite that is God. In this state of deep understanding we can recognize that we have no identity we need to shore up. 

Thus liberated, we can recognize that we have nothing to prove, nothing to hide, nothing to fear. We can operate from pure joy, and offer up whatever we have to give with open generosity.

Inner Aspects are not real! and other things we need to remember

We have been looking at our various inner aspects, the fear-based thoughts and emotions that form patterns so seemingly solid that most of us have taken them to be who we are. Through meditation we begin to see that we are not our thoughts, our emotions, our bodies, our quirky behaviors, beliefs, accomplishments or failures. Yet all of these are still part of our experience. We have simply shifted our relationship with them, shifted our vantage point to Wise View, as we discussed in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. We see more clearly because we have given ourselves this quiet time to access the calm, loving, timeless inner voice.

By continually accessing, listening to and aligning with that loving font of universal wisdom, we come to a reliable place of insight and understanding about who we are. This alignment requires only our whole-hearted intention to be present and compassionate. To strive to do more than that is not only not required but would undermine our ability to be present and compassionate.

Meditation is called a practice because we repeatedly come back to our set intention each time we find we have gotten lost in past or future thinking. Being present – here, now, relaxed — is the access point to universal wisdom, and being compassionate with ourselves and others creates the spaciousness for the wisdom to arise within us. Developing the ability to guide our attention back to the present moment again and again is all we need to do. At some point it becomes more natural. At first it may feel like dancing on the head of a pin to stay in the present moment, but as our practice continues we feel more stable and more present more of the time.

Once we are able to be present for extended periods, noticing what arises in each moment, we quite naturally become curious and find we can skillfully explore our discoveries. The interest we take in the inner workings of our own way of being in the world and in the world itself, is very different from the greedy mind that wants to acquire knowledge, to shore up a sense of self, to protect against someone calling us ignorant. Accessing inner wisdom stimulates beginner’s mind and activates our innate curiosity. Not knowing is no longer scary but delightful! We are invited to dance with life in all its mystery, and not a one of us was meant to be a wallflower.

If this idea of not being our thoughts and emotions doesn’t make sense, give it time and meditation. It is not something that is easily explained and everyone discovers it differently. Here is one ‘explanation’ that could offer some understanding.

Think of the child who takes a clock apart to see what makes it tick. Once all the pieces are laid upon the table, is it still a clock? Is a clock a bunch of small metal objects in various sizes and shapes, each of which could perhaps be used to make something totally different? No, I think we can agree the parts are not the clock.

In this same way, we can look at our thoughts, our body, our personality, our emotions, our skills, talents, achievements or preferences, and see that as valued as they are, they are not who we are. When we try to answer the question of who we are by holding up any of these and saying, “This is me” we are like the child holding up a small metal gear and saying this is a clock. The child knows this is not true. And we inherently know that we are not our passing thoughts, our behaviors or our physical features.

Meditative self-exploration is not a scheme to create a new self that will be more acceptable. This is extremely important to realize and remember. We often believe that if only we were different, everything would be better. Meditation is not a makeover! It is being present with what is. We are present to notice a recurring pattern of thought or emotion arising out of fear. We may notice a reaction to this discovery in the form of a desire to throw out, deny or remake what we have discovered. But this reaction is just another fear-based aspect trying to make things right. Each time we notice this desire, we simply renew our intention to be present and compassionate. There is nothing we can find here that we can replace with something better. There is no recycling center, dump, prison or graveyard for what we have discovered. What we discover is a facet of the is-ness of being. Doing battle with it only activates aggressive inner aspects that create further disruption. Instead, we stay steady with our deep-rooted awareness, and compassionately explore further.

Self-exploration is not for the faint of heart. Many people are terrified of the idea of really finding out who they are. I know I was! I was quite sure that whatever I would find would be so loathsome I would die of shame. Like many others, I came (in my case returned) to meditation out of desperation. I felt I had no choice because things had become so intolerable and I was in such pain.

However we come to this process, we learn to notice, be available for, and then align with universal wisdom, our Buddha nature. We develop a perspective that allows us to see our discoveries in a way that no longer threatens our existence. When we truly relax into the here and now, we feel supported by the infinite web of life into which we are intrinsically woven. Nothing we can find is alien to this is-ness of life, even patterns of thought, emotion and behavior that are steeped in fear, hoping to stay alive by the unskillful means of dividing, judging, name-calling, and trying to make what we encounter into something ‘other,’ in order to survive. None of us invented this pattern and all of us experience it. But by continually making sufficient quiet space to hear that quiet non-demanding voice of infinite wisdom each of us has access to, we find that we are less and less driven by these fear-based patterns.

The more we notice and come to recognize these aspects or patterns, the less powerful they become. Thus we are more willing to look closer still. Ultimately we find a joy and delight in the exploration. When we come upon something ‘awful’ we say ‘Aha!’ rather than ‘Oh no!’ We no longer feel we have discovered the ugly truth about ourselves, but that we have discovered a heretofore hidden fear-based aspect or pattern. As we have explored in past talks, we know that once it is recognized, we can skillfully dialog with this aspect, resulting in an improved life experience. With each exploratory insight, we find more spaciousness, more aliveness and more sense of connection.

Perhaps this explanation leaves you with many questions, such as:

How do I know when I am ready for self-exploration?
You are ready when you have developed a strong meditation practice that enables you to stay present and compassionate for extended periods of time. Without this alignment with inner wisdom, your inner dialogs will be conversations between two fear-based inner aspects. When fear meets fear any conversation becomes a duel or a battle. There will be a supposed winner and a loser, and that’s a lose-lose situation.

Another question I have heard expressed is ‘Why can’t I just kill off inner aspects I don’t like?’
The ‘killing’ is done by another inner aspect that is then empowered to do more harm. Aligned with infinite inner wisdom, we recognize that love is more powerful than violence because violence is just the expression of shallow-rooted fear. Love is deeply rooted and all-encompassing. There is no aspect or pattern that is not held in this loving web of life.

Also it’s important to remember that aspects can’t be killed off. They will just go underground and morph into something else, so to do battle with them is hopeless. Our reaction to that news might reasonably be, ‘Well then, there’s nothing I can do, I’ll just surrender and continue to let my life be dominated by these fear-based aspects. That’s just the way it is.’ What we are learning here is a skillful and successful way to deal with these aspects so that we will not be victimized by their behavior.

So are all aspects acceptable?
Yes, all are acceptable, just as all children are acceptable, even the bully, the whiner, the pouter, and the sour-puss. All are acceptable but all need love and guidance so that their fears are addressed and they feel safe. Only then will they have no need to cause harm to themselves or others. It isn’t their intention to harm anyone. It is their intention to protect us, but their means are unskillful and cause problems and damage.

What if I don’t have access to this inner wisdom?
The fear that you don’t have access is just an inner aspect trying to protect itself from disappearing. If it only knew how nonthreatening this access is, it would help you find it! But that’s not the nature of fear-based aspects. They are the dragons at the gate of enlightenment, the ones that we must acknowledge with awareness, kindness and patience. Just when we have given up the goal of gaining access, the dragon relaxes its stance and the gates are opened. So sit with the fear that arises within you with kindness and compassion. Anchor into physical sensation, release tension whenever you notice it, and bath yourself with loving kindness. This is what your wise inner voice would do for you, so do it for yourself.

Another question arises out of a concern that all this talk of inner aspects makes it sound like we’re schizophrenic. Why speak of it in this way?

It’s extremely important to understand that this is just a technique for inner exploration. It would be magical thinking to suggest that we actually have inner aspects with cute names! But it is a very effective way for many of us to recognize our patterns of thought, emotion and behavior.

This particular method I came up with on my own, loosely based on something my original non-Buddhist meditation teacher suggested. He was a believer in the value of creating natural easeful mindscapes to rest in during meditation. He taught that if a person or animal came into our natural setting, we would do well to ask it questions, because it would have a message for us. Soon after he said that, I came upon a figure in one of my meditation sits — a woman with close-cropped hair and white Chinese-style pajamas was dancing in a glowing orb of light. She was so joyous I didn’t recognize her as having my features until later. But I asked her questions and she started talking with such deep-rooted wisdom that I took notes. When I shared my notes with the class the students said, ‘Oh it’s like she’s talking directly to me!” and my teacher insisted I publish the collected notes. The result was my book ‘Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.’ It was my wise inner voice, who introduced me to the fear-based cast of characters within me and taught me how to respectfully dialog with them in a way that all needs would be met.

A few years later, when I began to study Buddhism, I heard that this technique of naming inner aspects is done in some Buddhist traditions as well. These kind of techniques work with the natural tendency we humans have to personify, label and categorize. Biologically we are dealing with neurotransmitters, brain waves, hormones, etc. that together form the patterns of thought and emotion that fill our experience of being alive. But most of us are more comfortable with thinking in terms of a cast of characters in a novel or play than brushing up on scientific terms.

When we think about human culture throughout history, how we have told ourselves involved stories, often using iconic figures, such as the panoply of gods in Greek, Hindu, African and Native American mythology, what is this but our way of coming to understand ourselves better? So this inner exploration is much like that. We are getting to know an inner cast of characters, understanding that they are iconic in nature, not actual people living inside our heads. Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Clarissa Pinkola Estes made their life work noticing and working with these symbols, icons and personifications of these patterns and traits. This is rich exploration!

It would also be human nature to take these characters to be real, to get caught up in all their shenanigans, to root for one or the other. So we do this inner exploration only when we are aligned with our ability to see that it is just a play. Then we can have fun with it and learn what we need to know at the same time.

It is my belief that the shift from many gods to one god was brought about by enlightened beings throughout history who discovered for themselves and shared with others the realization that all is one, and joy can be found by aligning with that loving all-inclusive oneness rather than any single fear-based iconic character. But human nature being what it is, this enlightened information was received and celebrated and then over time degenerated into this ‘one’ god against others. Thus religions become dangerous rather than helpful. Meditation has the capacity to help us understand that all of this is just a way of exploring ourselves and the world more skillfully. Yet meditators are not immune to the tendency to be divisive, to declare one school of Buddhism, for example, better than another. If we remember that we are diverse in how we receive information, we can understand why there is a need for so many different ways for the access to universal wisdom to be taught. The key is whether the core wisdom is sustained or whether it is lost or diluted in the fray.

A very important question is how do we recognize our wise inner voice. After all there have been people throughout the ages that have believed themselves to be acting under the instructions of a wise inner voice. How can we know we are not delusional?

When you think about some of the things that have been done in the name of God, for example, that are ruthless and destructive, you can be sure this was not accessing universal inner wisdom. Here are some distinctions:

The wise voice will NEVER say words like should, must, have to, right now, hurry up, the only way, I’m warning you, you better watch out, do what I say, don’t question me, I’m right, you don’t need to understand why, urgent, immediately, don’t! do!

The wise inner voice is very quiet, never loud, urgent, or demanding.

The wise inner voice is very calm, never caffeinated or rushed.

The wise inner voice loves you now and always. If you say ‘What do you need me to know,’ the first thing this voice may tell you is ‘I love you, I have always loved you, I will always love you.’ And nothing else that it will say will ever be in contradiction to that.

The wise inner voice is patient. There is never a sense of urgency to it.

You don’t have to search for your wise inner voice. In fact the search itself may take you off course. Simply be present, here, now and relaxed, and like a pond clearing after a storm, access to inner wisdom will become available to you.

Is self-exploration self-indulgent?
Remember we are not talking about going on a search. We are talking about dealing with what arises in this moment. When something arises, it may be something we hadn’t ever noticed before because we were busy thinking about things in the past and future. All we are doing is looking more closely with curiosity at what is present in our experience, noticing associative thoughts, images, emotions and physical sensations. These are clues that are right here, but only apparent to the mind that is right here as well. We don’t need to pursue an aspect to dialog with it. Whatever aspect would be most valuable to dialog with is present right here and now. It is their disruptive presence that makes the dialog necessary!

By calling this process self-exploration, we bring to mind a search or a quest. Holding this view can be a distraction, a distortion and just another habituated pattern of future thinking, as if life does not really begin until we find the holy grail of who we are. A person on such a quest is not present, but is caught up in addictive or obsessive patterns that give them a myopic or astigmatic view of themselves and the world. This we could call self-indulgent, but why name it in this pejorative way, as if the person is having a great time at our expense? They are not! They are suffering because they are caught in a whirlwind that keeps taking them out of the present moment through unskillfulness.

What’s up with the cutesy names?
Just as this process of defining aspects works with our human tendency to like story and character, the naming of characters works with our tendency to label and organize information we come upon in order to retrieve it when we need it. We run into trouble with this tendency when we take our labels to be reality rather than a useful organizing tool.

It is useful when we come upon a fear-based thought or emotion to personify it. We are organically set up to notice human features and characteristics, so if we attribute features and characteristics to a pattern of behavior, based on what it seems to be concerned about, we will recognize it next time we see it much more easily than if we tried to assign it a dry scientific term that was difficult to remember and not very interesting to us. We are simply working with what we have: our natural tendencies! By creating an easy way to recognize them, we can first and foremost know that their suggestions or demands are not those arising out of love and wisdom but out of fear. At any given moment it’s important to know that so that the choices we make in life are skillful.

But as part of the process of exploration, this naming makes it easy to have a dialog. A ‘cutesy’ name reminds us to approach this aspect with compassion and respect. If we are not able to give it compassion or respect, then we are not aligned with our inner wisdom and need to sit quietly and come into the present, let the inner pond clarify a bit, before we dialog. If that’s not possible, then this isn’t a useful practice at this time as the results will be a dueling dialog between two aspects.

So there’s a good reason for the names. But it is extremely important to be clear that this is just a useful system because otherwise we run the risk of taking it all very literally. There are no little people running around inside our brains! I say this because it seems to be human nature to convert these kinds of systems into literal truth. We are susceptible to believing the cast of characters we create to be real! We may fall a little in love with them, become enchanted with their behavior and forget that this is simply a useful means for exploration. So don’t get attached to the adorable mischievous aspects within you! Instead stay present and attuned with inner wisdom so that you can see them with clarity and compassion.

So these are some of the questions I’ve received. I would be happy to hear any others and respond as best I can.

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.

Goody-Goody!

Last week we talked about the value of doing self-exploration and inquiry when we find ourselves in a state of feeling threatened. Fear and contraction are the experiences through which the compressed hard rock of our false identity was formed. Practicing being in the present moment, which is what meditation is, develops the ability to begin to see this process of false identity creation in action, as if we have slowed down a video of complex activity and can actually see a step by step demonstration.

If we take the time to inquire within, to be patient with the process, and to release our vested interest in the outcome, then we will be able to release our tight hold on this lie we believe ourselves to be.

We live in a culture that discourages being present with what is actually arising in our experience in the moment. Instead we are encouraged to plaster over anything unpleasant with a veneer more suitable, more comfortable for everyone.

In some ways it’s better than it used to be. I’ll never forget my mother’s response when I would tell her how I felt. She would simply tell me I shouldn’t feel that way. This was not a stance unique to her and I don’t blame her for it, though it was frustrating for me. It was the way she had been raised. It was the way most everyone she knew felt one should deal with emotions. But it wasn’t the response I needed, and it was a real conversation stopper, leaving me feeling stuck with the added feeling of being judged for how I felt.

Since then there has been a collective growing awareness that emotions matter, that feelings matter, and even though we may feel we are being overloaded with too much information from other people’s stories, how much better it is for us to see that we all suffer from the same emotional states rather than to think that we are freaks of nature who suffer alone.

But there is still within us this desire to name our experience ‘a problem’ and then rush to come up with a quick fix. Society tells us, ‘Yes, meditate, do what you need to do, but come out of it upbeat and cheerful please!’ We get caught up in spiritual striving. We struggle for release from what torments us. And as long as we are running, searching and seeking solutions to the problem of us in this state then we are doomed to keep chasing our tails. Our inability to come up with a solution causes more feelings of unworthiness and failure.

We are often told to focus instead on the good bits within our identity, to see how really nice and generous and loving we are. In fact, all the positive things we have been told about ourselves can be just as problematic as the negative, especially since we are likely to cling to them all the more tightly!

This false identity may seem less like a hard rock and more like a golden nugget of goodness that will sustain us, but our relationship to it is exactly the same as to any negative view we may have of ourselves. We are naming and claiming something we perceive to be solid about ourselves, creating something we must in turn defend.

For most of us we recognize that we feel we do have something to defend and at the same time we may bristle at being told we are defensive.

As self-explorers we find ourselves often more reluctant to venture into the areas where we feel good about ourselves. If we feel good about ourselves then we figure that part is resolved, right? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! But we are not on a fix-it mission. We are on an awareness and loving-kindness mission, shedding both light and compassion wherever we go in order to loosen the tightness we hold in our bodies and in our minds. We can notice how our believing ourselves to be nice or smart or good also causes a tightening of our grasp on our perceived identity.

We do ourselves such a disservice when we embrace these labels for ourselves. Positive or negative, they are all limiting. We find we are packaging ourselves like a product instead of allowing ourselves to be the rich and wondrous process that we are, intricately woven in the infinite web of life.

As meditators we run the risk of contracting around a new identity of being wise, calm, present and compassionate. It’s very easy to simply add developing skills to the list of accomplishments that make up our sense of who we are.

Often non-meditators who know that the practice might have value for them but who can’t bring themselves to do it may be inhibited because they have met meditators who seem to be caught up in this false sense of identity. Whether it is the meditator who has fallen a little in love with this idea of themselves or the non-meditator who is projecting this on them, the effect on the non-meditator is the same. They believe that to be a meditator is to be holier than thou, full of oneself and a goodie-goodie – not someone they want to invite to their next party!

Beginning meditators may expect more advanced meditators and certainly someone who teaches meditation to be the perfection of all positive qualities, and so are aghast when it is revealed they are human and flawed. They may take on the practice and the study of Buddhism as a way to be good: A good Buddhist, a good person. If I’m on the Eightfold Path then I am good, end of story. But this approach to meditation leaves us high and dry, only noticing what we want to see, not acknowledging all of what is occurring in any moment.

So creating a gold plated rock of false identity is just as self-destructive as a negative one. Perhaps the person with the positive self-view can accomplish more in life, take more risks, look on the bright side, make lemonade out of lemons – all of the things that we praise in our culture, BUT there’s a high price on the upkeep of a gold-plated or diamond -encrusted rock. The security costs are immense and the isolation can be painful. If we must always be this paragon of perfection, we are cut off from acknowledging much of our human experience.

While virtue is its own reward, being a paragon of virtue, a poster child for virtue, which is what we become when we contract around that false identity, is hazardous. The culture we live in holds these paragons up as if they were gods, has a feeding frenzy of delight when they act out the suppressed shadow side created by that solid rock of virtue. It seems every other week the news is so full of the fall of these paragons that anything that might be of value to know is side-lined, in order to ‘give the people what they want’ and fuel the feeding frenzy.

Why do people love to see paragons of virtue fall off their pedestals? So much of it has to do with this hard rock of false identity that we protect and nurture within ourselves and project onto the people we see in the news. Something inside us yearns for balance. We feel a little righteous come-uppance for those who hold themselves too high and conversely we feel warmed by rags-to-riches stories. High brought low, low bought high.

Through awareness practice we begin to see that two extremes do not create balance, as we explored when we studied the Buddha’s Middle Way. We learn to develop a sense of connection, compassion and spaciousness that makes rooms for all beings and all the emotions we experience, even the uncomfortable ones brought up by the news we hear. We are human with human thoughts and emotions. Our ability to accept that fact gives us the opportunity to see more clearly how our emotions affect us. If we pretend to be devoid of anything negative, we are disempowered because only when we are fully present with all of what arises in our experience are we able to see connections, causes and conditions, and make wise decisions. Being present with all of it is the way to keep it in the light so we can see more clearly. We are not donning an outfit called ‘meditator’ that makes us wise and honorable. No one, not even ourselves, will benefit by it.

We can be virtuous without having to cling to a prefabricated identity. We can be smart, strong or independent without having to label ourselves or let others label us. Releasing our attachment to a particular identity allows us to fully inhabit this rich gift of life. Why limit ourselves to pre-packaged frozen dinner identities when we can live a farmers’ market life, discovering new things about ourselves and life in every season, and we can create a fresh meal, a fresh life experience in every moment? Then whatever we make of our lives will be truly nourishing.

The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth says that it is our grasping and clinging that causes our suffering. Our grasping and clinging has created that hard rock of negative and positive beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. But through the practice we begin to notice that the rock we have compressed through our grasping and clinging is only a small part of our experience. We can notice the rich soil of life that is there to support us.

Think of the earth. Think how receptive it is. We can feel whatever arises, we can be present with every experience, and the supportive earth will receive it all without judgment like rain water. We think there are parts of who we are that would poison the earth, but these toxic emotions are only poisonous when compressed and turned on ourselves and others. Of themselves, they are simply human emotion and can be noticed, questioned and released in a natural way, and the earth will receive them like rain water.

All of life – the earth, the sun, the rain – nourishes our well being and speaks to our deep interconnection. We can rest in the infinite web of life into which we are intrinsically woven. We can celebrate the sweetness of being alive with all its joys and sorrows, and savor every moment of this amazing gift in all its variety.