Category Archives: identity

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Apparently 3000 years ago Greeks would think you were delusional if you claimed the thoughts in your head were your own. Thoughts were the voices of the gods. Today if you claim the thoughts in your head are the voice of God, you would be deemed delusional. That’s just one of many examples of how thoughts, individually and collectively, change all the time.
In today’s western culture most people believe their thoughts are their own AND that they reflect who they are. This belief goes pretty much unquestioned, but if we pause our assumptions for a moment and take a look, we can see where this kind of thinking could lead to trouble: I have a bad thought; therefore, I am a bad person. My bad thoughts make me unworthy of happiness. I deserve to suffer.
Laid out so plainly, we might balk at that line of thinking, but when we notice the pattern of our own thinking, we might discover thoughts seasoned with just such unhelpful reasoning in one form or another.
In coming to Wise View (the first of the eight aspects of the Eightfold Path that the Buddha prescribed to end suffering), it helps to unload the erroneous belief that we are what we think. Taking our thoughts to be who we are traps us in a hoarder’s house, constantly tripping over the clutter. No wonder we get depressed.

What are thoughts anyway? 
Thoughts are electro-chemical reactions from neurons interconnected by synapses, a cognitive process of receiving input from all the senses, assessing, categorizing, then retrieving similar experiences from the inner data bank for review and evaluation. Very cool tool, right? But can we claim the process or the output of them to be uniquely ‘me’?

As we observe thoughts arising and falling away — painful or pleasurable, creative or destructive, organized or chaotic, insightful or deceitful. We can see how they recur and how they can get entangled like twigs and leaves in a stream, stuck in a swirling vortex, sucked down and then spring up later or decay and get flushed downstream. Thoughts (and emotions) are the results of biological activity reacting to past and present causes and conditions.

Whose thought is this thought?
Someone else could have the very thoughts you are having right now, given the same causes and conditions. This is especially true if there’s something going on that activates pleasure or fear — watching a movie together, the members of the audience will experience very much the same thoughts and emotions. In general people thrive on that collective experience, but then walk out of the theater and reclaim individual ownership of their reactions.

Even without being part of an audience or other collective experience, thoughts are pretty predictable. If you were visiting briefly in a neighbors brain, how surprised would you really be to find they have dreams, fears, anxiety and curiosity just as you do?

While you may feel blessed or victimized by the causes and conditions of your life, and they do tend to shape your view, they are not the stuff to make a solid object called ‘I’ or ‘me’. This may come as a great relief, because thoughts are often contradictory, stubbornly opinionated, flighty, gullible, infatuated with infallibility, sometimes cruel, sometimes incurably romantic. Who would really want to lay claim to all that?

Contemporary literature often focuses on personal identity and self-discovery, exploring ancestry, misunderstandings and family secrets. But — spoiler alert!! — the resolution comes when the characters are liberated from the captivity of the very chains of belief they are exploring. They discover that what they were looking for was there all along. Think of Dorothy on her search for answers from the Wizard of Oz when it turns out she only needed to click her heels three times to come home to herself. This is not to negate the enjoyment of a grand adventure and the riches there are to savor in the process. It just lets us hold it all more lightly, appreciating each moment as it arises, appreciating the rainbow itself rather than seeking the illusory pot of gold hinted to be at the end of it.

The Buddha taught: You are not your thoughts or emotions, and if you spend a little time paying attention you will undoubtedly find that is true. Thoughts and emotions are impermanent, insubstantial, transitory, unreliable and uncontrollable. You might remind yourself of that the next time you notice you are entangled in them.

Thoughts are useful, of course. Thinking is a part of the human experience. All the categorizing and filing is efficient but it is not infallible. We need time out from active thinking for the brain activity to catch up with itself. Without that we can expect malfunctions and hampered judgment. Sleep, relaxation and meditation are all important ways to help the brain function optimally.

“You don’t know me”
In class students commented on how limiting it feels when people tell them who they are from their observations. I’m sure you’ve had that experience: Someone sees you do something and forevermore labels you a something-doer. It’s just the way the human brain functions – categorizing, labeling, filing away for future use. Registering how it feels to be labeled is a good reminder to notice when we are using that kind of shorthand labeling on others. It takes skillful effort to countermand the autopilot nature of that process and leave room for people to remain unlabeled. When we resist categorizing people, we keep our relationships more vibrant, loving and unlimited.

We can offer ourselves that same generosity of un-labeling. If we are not defined by our body, our preferences or our thoughts, how free we are to be alive in this moment just as it is! 

“But I like my labels”
If you feel threatened by the idea of becoming untethered from the labels you believe define you, that’s useful noticing and an invitation for more inner exploration. 

Liberating ourselves from the belief that we are our thoughts comes naturally when we give ourselves the gift of a regular practice of meditation — a little time out from the busy thinking-thinking, but also the ability to be more present in all moments of our lives. We begin to see the patterns of thoughts arising and falling away, and we understand that they are not unique. The person next to us could easily be having that same thought, given similar causes and conditions. When we experience a trauma we are drawn to others who have experienced it as well, feeling the bond of shared experience and a sense of being understood. There is real value in that. But there is also the potential to define ourselves solely by that experience, labeling ourselves, clinging to an identity that is no longer offering a complete sense of who we are. Staying present in this moment allows us the fullness of being alive however that presents itself right now.

All of us can notice that the thoughts we have today are often very different from the thoughts we had when we were young. Those thoughts don’t define us. To the degree that we allow them to define us, they confine us. Can we let them go?

What thoughts did you used to have that you don’t have anymore? If you are your thoughts, then changing your mind on anything would be threatening. I am the kind of person who believes ‘x’. Without that thought, who would I be? But if you are not your thoughts, then you are free to explore the wondrous world of thought. Often we adopt the thoughts of others whom we want to befriend or model ourselves after. When thoughts change, we may resist their natural flow for fear of losing connection with others. But if there is no room for inner growth and change, then that’s not a true friendship. And while role models might give us ideas of valuable qualities we might aspire to, no one is infallible. The Buddha himself said, “Don’t take my word for it. Find out for yourself.”

“I can’t afford to be wrong”
One of the most rewarding discoveries is the freedom from needing to be right. This one insight really helped me in my relationships. Making room for human fallibility in ourselves frees us from the drudgery of constantly having to shore up the miserable and isolating fortress of ‘self’ that we have built. Suddenly we can see how that fortress was just causing suffering. Without needing to build a fortress, we are free to be a natural expression of life loving itself into being. The ‘I don’t know’ mind is a wondrous way to live.

“Nothing to fear, nothing to hide, nothing to prove”
When you go on retreat at a meditation center, insights naturally arise as you sit and walk in silence. Each insight is valuable with potentially lifelong lasting benefits if we can keep them alive. On one retreat I suddenly realized I had nothing to fear, nothing to hide and nothing to prove — but I did have something to give.

The beauty of insights is that they are universal, so I can confidently share with you that you can bloom right where you are planted knowing you have nothing to fear, nothing to hide, nothing to prove, and something to give.

What is that gift you quite naturally share when you’re not afraid, not hiding and not trying to prove anything? It helps to discover that it is not something that defines you but something that makes you happy to wake up in the morning, ready to engage for the benefit of all beings. This sounds like a big thing, but skillful things we do just for ourselves or for one other person are for the benefit of all beings. Don’t think quantitatively. Remember how things ripple out from each thought, each word and each act from each of us.

Can we let go of our clinging to a solid and certain-seeming identity, and in the process awaken to awe, discovering this moment just as it is?

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Who’s your tribe?

A prime motivator of the human species, right up there with safety, is comfort. Over millennia we have developed creative ways to provide ourselves shelter from weather extremes, food at our fingertips, soft places to sleep and sit, and ways to travel great distances with ease. Ah, comfort! 

Conformity is comfort, too. We feel safer if we make the same choices as people we respect.  We may define ourselves by our choices of brands of clothing and technology, for example. We are drawn to people with shared interests or outlooks, for both the stimulating exchanges and the sense of being at ease with shared viewpoints. In this way we have a sense of tribe.

We are tribal by nature, so when our ancestors migrated around the globe in search of food, safety and freedom from persecution, each generation had to expand its understanding of tribe. Nations arose not just to define physical boundaries but for a sense of belonging to a tribe. A tribe might have shared physical attributes, but as our sense of tribe grows, it is more dependent on a sense of shared experience, regardless of whether we look alike. For example, the shared experience of surviving a war, a famine, a drought, a depression or the assassination of a leader, will bind people together in a sense of a tribe. 

Each of us longs to be part of a ‘we’, however that ‘we’ is defined. Think about the word tribe for a moment and see how you feel it in your own experience. You might start with your family, then your friends, perhaps your coworkers, the people in your community, the citizens of your country, people with shared beliefs or practices around the world, etc. See where this exercise takes you and take your time with it.

When we look at the past century in the U.S., it’s easy to see the patterns of comfort-seeking conformity. Mass media set the standards of what was ‘in’ and all anyone had to do was dress the part. When I was an adolescent we read magazines like Seventeen and Glamour and followed their cues like maps to happiness, not just what to wear, or how to style our hair, but how to be in the world and in relationships, how to find true love and meaning. The boys read Sports Illustrated, Popular Mechanics, MAD magazine and Playboy, finding comfort in shared interests and opinions.

But some didn’t find mass market media comforting at all and felt alienated from it, so revolted against it and appeared to be non-conforming. 

If it is our nature to seek conformity, how can we explain the non-conformists? They are still seeking comfort. They just have a different tribe, a tribe that seeks itself out. Look at all the gatherings, festivals and conferences that draw like-minded people together.

Recently I saw the PBS documentary Woodstock. (It is not the original Woodstock movie, which was also great but was focused more on the music. This one focuses more on how the festival came about, how it was received by the locals (the kind and generous townspeople of Bethel, NY and environs) and how 400,000 managed to be fed, etc.. Fascinating.)

Festival attendees from all over the country and the world were so elated to find their tribe, a tribe they couldn’t be sure existed beyond their own immediate experience since they only had a few newspapers like the Village Voice and Berkeley Barb. They looked bizarre to the majority of society, but together they looked much the same, their hair and clothes an expression of their desire to be free from the predefined conformity of their parents’ generation. They conformed to their own tribe.

The beatniks before them also found their tribe. I remember how happy I was when hippies happened because the beatniks that some of my school friends aspired to imitate in the early 60’s were just too dreary and depressing for me.

There have always been non-conforming tribes. I recently read Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel, about the tribe of artists in New York in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, with Lee Krasner, Elaine DeKooning, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. at the center of it all. They painted all day in studios that often failed to provide even the minimum of comforts, some lacking heat or electricity. Their diets were so minimal that some struggling artists died of starvation. They would rather die than give up their art! I was fascinated in part because my father was one of them in the late 1930’s and I remember him saying that he and his friend figured out that a diet of dates and peanut butter was the cheapest and most nutritious way to survive. I wish I had asked him more about his time in New York back then.

According to the book, what kept the group of artists going, were the late night co-mingling with their tribe of artists and poets while nursing cups of coffee that had to last all night at the cheapest cafeteria in their down and out neighborhood. That is the strength of tribe and the powerful comfort of conformity, even when the tribe seems from the outside to be non-conforming, even when all creature comforts are sacrificed for the greater comfort of self-expression and the community of likeminded people.

What has described tribe in our massive culture is often generational, defined by the music we listen to, the entertainment we enjoy, the clothes we wear, the way we groom our hair, and what we are upset about — the Vietnam War, gun violence, student loan debt, climate crisis, etc.

Adults choose communities, a particular style of home, kinds of food, the online communities to join, but whatever we are doing, we are always seeking the comfort of our tribe.

With the advent of the internet, geography has ceased to play a role in this tribalism. Every morning after I meditate, I am greeted with ‘Thank you for meditating with me’ notes from all around the globe on the Insight Timer app. Reviews on my guided meditations also remind me that this is a worldwide community. How comforting! How supported I feel in my personal practice!

At its best, the internet has provided the possibility to be a true world community, to overcome fears and perceived barriers, to celebrate the wonder of being alive on this beautiful planet. At its worst, it has made it easy to self-define tribes of fear-based hatred, emboldening incivility and violence. If we succumb to the negativity, perceive our tribe as under siege and in need of protection, then we have tribal warfare that destroys us all.

So what we are doing in meditation is making internal peace, recognizing the fear, listening with respect, and then giving comfort, kindness, compassion to all aspects of our inner world. In this way we allow a spaciousness of mind that can hold all of what arises in ourselves and in the world in an open and loving embrace.

And what our practice leads to is an awakening to a deep understanding that we are intrinsically interconnected with all life, that our sense of ‘tribe’ does not have to be limited to just those whose opinions match our own or those who look like us. All the world’s great religions lead to the same place of deep understanding that there is no ‘other’. We are unique expressions of all that is in its infinite loving variety. We are not alone. We are all one. Our tribe is here and now and infinite, interconnected and inseparable.

Image by Speedy McVroom from Pixabay

The Incredible Shrinking Man

That’s what my husband called himself after his annual physical. He’d lost two inches in height. Not overnight, of course. Two inches off of what he had stated as his height all his adult life.

I remember when I started shrinking. It was a little disorienting, but also fascinating to see how attached I was to what I’d considered my natural height since I was fifteen.

Height is just one of the many ways we identify ourselves. When things change, as they inevitably do, we may have trouble adapting. We have become attached to thinking of ourselves in a certain way with particular characteristics. This is who we are. So when our body changes, mental adjustments need to be made as well. And that’s not always easy, is it?

We tend to pin our sense of self on impermanent aspects of being. And even the most permanent seeming aspects — our aliveness, our very breath, are transitory too. We may avoid thinking about such things, and we don’t need to dwell on them. but we can be aware of how life is like this. We can see change everywhere: the changing of seasons, family and friends grow up, grow old and yes, die. So why are we so surprised that time, gravity, stress and life events impact our bodies, too? Despite all evidence to the contrary, we often choose to see ourselves as the exception. We may worry that any changes in how we look will jeopardize our lives, our relationships and perhaps our livelihood. But deeper than those concerns is the discomfort of being reminded that life is fleeting, and that what happened to that autumn leaf that was once so supple, green and fresh, will also happen to us. Change will happen and life as we know it now will end. And whatever follows none of us can know for sure.

This attachment to a particular identity is a deep source of suffering. It can be challenging to see that it is the clinging — much more than the changes themselves — that causes suffering. If that sounds odd, pause to consider any pain you may feel at any physical loss either in looks or ability. Is it the loss or change itself that is causing discomfort? Or is it your thoughts and emotions around it? We create obstacles out of our attachment to identity, and it is part of our practice of being present and compassionate to see those patterns. Fortunately, like all things, those patterns are insubstantial and subject to change.

When we free ourselves from needing to ‘be’ the way we have always seen ourselves, and all the work that comes with reclaiming that vision, we come truly into the celebration of this life — a momentary gift to savor, like the first taste of a delicious dish. Switching our attention from how we look to allowing all our senses to open to this moment just as it is enables us to be fully alive, fully present, instead of lost in clinging to some sense of self that was never accurate anyway. Breathing in, breathing out, here and now, alive and ready to embrace with gratitude this fleeting gift of life with all it’s joys and sorrows.

(If you are interested in this idea of identity and would like to look more in-depth at the Buddha’s teachings about it, look at past posts about the Five Aggregates. Look over all of them and read them in what feels like a sensible order, which might not be the way they are presented in this link.)

Thanksgiving, a look at the tradition

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Illustration by Elroy Freem, Scholastic Books

I don’t know about you, but I am feeling especially thankful this year, especially for the rain yesterday and the fresh air that is pouring in every window and door after two weeks of stale air as we holed up from the smoke in so much of California. May the rain fall gently on fire-scarred hills to put out flames and not cause debris flows. I am also especially personally grateful that our daughter and her home in the area of the Camp Fire are safe. And so much more.

I am sure you also have much to be grateful for, no matter what difficulties you may be facing. Over the years I have written quite a number of posts on gratitude, but this year I’d like to look at the American tradition of Thanksgiving.

Yesterday in poetry class at College of Marin, the assignment was to write about Thanksgiving memories, but, the teacher requested, ‘not the ‘Brady Bunch’ ones’. Few were able to comply and the poems were full of memories of the traditional table laid with the best china and polished silverware, white napkins and all the typical fare of a feast made by mothers in the pre-potluck days of singular devotional exhaustion and no doubt dysfunction, because Thanksgiving was only the beginning of the most grueling season of laborious maternal love, and living up to expectations that could never be met because sugar plums are not prone to dancing.

One poet in class did say what the rest of us had not but might have: That most everyone at the table described has since passed into the great beyond. That’s true in my case as well. But still, what great good fortune to have memories to cherish and an opportunity to share them. If sweet memories don’t make good poetry, they might be treasured by descendants, as traditions change a bit with each generation. Yet with no less love or gratitude.

The way we think about the first thanksgiving also changes. On PBS Newshour, there was a piece on how that historical event is being taught in many schools. Teachers are trying to be honest and inclusive of all perspectives of the peoples who were there. Doing so might rattle some Eurocentric Americans who prefer their hand-me-down version, even if it is myopic. Tradition for tradition’s sake is an empty tradition for those who carry it on, and a painful tradition for those who were central to the original story but whose perspective is excluded in its telling.

Why should Euro-Americans of today feel threatened by an honest exploration of our ancestors actions? Does personal identity rely on one’s ancestors being perfect? If so, good luck with that! Those early immigrants were fleeing from persecution and struggled to stay alive in a wilderness very unlike what they had left behind. Many didn’t make it. And many were helped by the inhabitants of the land that was not ‘new’, yet a new experience for the immigrants. The history of the devolution of that relationship has been and will be researched and wondered about, and enriched by looking at it from all perspectives.

In our personal meditative practice, we make room for the possibility that things we have held to be true are not necessarily so. If there is a sense of feeling threatened, then we notice that. But in time we might notice that there is freedom in accepting that we don’t know, that we don’t have everything locked down and figured out. There is joy in letting go of reliance on our ‘story’ to be who we are.

That is just as true in this case. It is our shared story, but we are expanding the narrow idea of who the ‘we’ is, making sure all voices are heard, and collectively recognizing that history does not necessarily define who we are. There is room for investigation and joy in discovering that we are not personally responsible for the deeds of our forebears or for defending or condemning them. But we are responsible for shining a light in the darkness of our own lives, our own unquestioned beliefs and our own fears. And when we do that wholeheartedly, we make room for everyone at the table.

Happy Thanksgiving – today and in every moment of your life. I am most thankful for you!

Disguises can sometimes help discover authenticity

Halloween has come and gone and that’s just fine with me. Except for the adorableness of little trick or treaters and the creativity of some neighbors, it’s a holiday I could do without. I don’t enjoy being scared on purpose and I’ve never been into donning costumes.

But I do remember a time when I accompanied my then teenage daughter to the wig store. She wanted a straight long hair option to her shorter naturally curly do, and I was along for the ride. Or so I thought. It was too much fun not to at least try on a few wigs. My hairstyle at the time was a cap of mousy curls, so I tried on a straight blonde bob with bangs. I looked in the mirror and thought Whoa! Whozzat?

gertaIt definitely was not me, or at least not the me I knew. Whoever she was came to life full-blown, and claimed her name was Gerta – pronounced Gair-ta. And she demanded I buy that wig. So I did.

Much to my husband’s dismay. I had always heard that husbands like a little variety to spice things up, but not mine. And certainly not this cheeky chick. Wearing my Gerta wig, I would utter things I normally wouldn’t even think, let alone say. I’d been taken over by a whole different persona, and it was kind of fun.

I was normally shy in unfamiliar situations, as if a whole swarm of butterflies lived in my stomach. But wearing that wig I remember one time arriving late at a coworker’s birthday dinner with a large group of friends I didn’t know. Instead of sneaking in and quietly finding my seat as I would normally do, I made a grand entrance down a circular staircase, and somehow had them all in stitches. Maybe at first they thought I was hired entertainment until I sat down at the table.

Another time, a group of us was asked to sing a few personalized oldies at our friend’s 40th birthday party, and while normally I would stand in the back and mouth the words, that time, with my Gerta persona in place, I belted the lyrics out and had a great time.

Though I rarely wore it, I kept that wig around for a number of years. But more importantly, having had that empowered Gerta experience showed me that my seemingly ingrained shyness was not necessarily ‘me’.

To build up my self-confidence in order to be able to do things I wanted to do, I got up the nerve to join my local Toastmasters club where week after week I stood in front of a group, making every effort to speak coherently. With practice and kind encouragement, I found my voice. Now I can speak to large groups and be completely at home — not playing a role, not taking on a persona, like that cheeky Gerta — just unafraid to be seen with all my vulnerabilities and variations.

Have you ever had that freeing experience of a costumed transformation? A Halloween costume? A role in a play? What did that persona have that you think you don’t? Did you like her or him?

In class one student shared an experience of getting together with a group of friends to create some festive craft for a member of their group who was seriously ill and in need of good cheer. That sense of love for this friend, and the support of the group, let her discover the unknown delight of letting herself enjoy being outlandishly silly.

Another student told us how she came into a leadership role, something she had been averse to all her life. Again, it was in having a strong purpose — a cause she cared about, and having the encouragement of others who shared that sense of purpose and saw the latent leadership qualities she had within her.

Both these experiences parallel my own of joining Toastmasters, where I received so much support.  But what was my purpose? What drove me to want to speak in the first place? Decades ago I had had a life-transforming experience through developing a meditation practice, and I wanted to help others, women especially, who may find themselves overwhelmed with wanting to please others, focusing exclusively on the needs of all who relied on them, and in the process losing any sense of their own needs.

So adding these three personal experiences into the mix, let me ask you again if there is any unexpressed part of you that is being kept down for lack of a sense of purpose, love or calling, and/or a lack of support and encouragement from those around you?

Another student in class who had been feeling somewhat stalled and ambivalent in her recent decision to pursue a particular career, came to tears when she realized this was exactly where she needed to put her focus: Finding that passionate sense of purpose — why and for whom was she pursuing this line of work — and connecting with those who support her in that effort.

It seems sometimes we need a little playful exploration outside our comfort zone in order to expand our understanding of our most authentic self.

Getting past perfect
We all have assumptions about who we are, who we want to be or ‘should’ be. Our practice of meditation is in part about letting go of the need to establish a polished identity to present to the world. We are present to notice the desire to remake ourselves and perhaps investigate where it comes from.

There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by other people. But it’s important to see them as the humans they are. It’s so easy to get caught up in comparing mind, lost in the painful disparity between what we judge as our messy insides and what we perceive to be their perfect polished outside. Chances are their insides are messy, too. Can we allow for that? Chances are others see us as a lot more perfectly polished than we feel. Can we make room for that likely possibility?

Even if we are content with our identity, we may feel it’s important to be clear on just what that identity is. We may feel that in order to be liked, loved, respected, etc., we need to be seen in a certain way, so we go all ‘if you like pina colada and getting caught in the rain’, trotting out our likes and dislikes, hope and dreams, accomplishments, opinions, phobias, etc., looking for the safety of being seen for who we believe ourselves to be.

But our need to establish identity based on our preferences, how we look, how we think, etc. sets us up for very shallow and limited connections. It locks us in to choices and opinions that we may have made when we were seven or seventeen or thirty-seven. It creates a tangled knot of unexamined and probably inaccurate detritus that blocks our view, and others’ view of us. It fortifies a separate seeming identity that keeps us isolated and unhappy.

How liberating to simply exist in this moment and respond to whatever arises in whatever way feels natural. We can be vulnerable and honest and fluid. This is not to hide or obscure any current preferences, etc. that we may have; it’s only to understand that they do not define us. And, as practicing meditators, we use awareness and wise effort to be kind, truthful and timely in our responses.

We can succumb to the idea that in the practice of meditation and the study of Buddhist teachings, there is a goal to ‘become’ a better, wiser, kinder person — as if this is some grand makeover we are doing here. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to build a superpower of wisdom and compassion, to become some charismatic being with the ability to withstand a gazillion traumas at a single bound.

But that’s not what we’re doing here. We’re not trying to ‘be’ anything. We’re not donning a new persona. We are not taking the wisdom teachings, and constructing, as if out of Legos, the ideal persona of an enlightened being. Instead we rest in the understanding that we are all fleeting expressions of life loving itself — a complex ever-changing stream of patterns of being. Just noticing what’s arising in our experience with curiosity and compassion, releasing assumptions as we find them, to rest in a joyful state of being. We set and reset our intention to be present in this moment just as it is, holding it in an open and loving embracing. That’s our practice. Even as we live our intention to contribute to the well being of all life, in a way that is, quite naturally, our own unique expression of that love.

In our exploration of the Seven Factors of Awakening, we have been looking at Equanimity.

As with all of the factors, any attempt to appear to ‘have equanimity’ will not be authentic. The whole of our exploration, investigation and practice are undermined when our core intention is to be seen as wise, mindful, etc. We do ourselves a great injustice when we don’t allow for all of who we are to simply be a presence in our experience, to acknowledge what is arising with as much kindness and compassion as we can.

If we have been trying these factors on like wigs at a costume shop, seeing how we can bluff our way through and do a convincing caricature of a person who has it all together, then we might be intrigued and inspired in the short run — as I was with Gerta, discovering the possibility of such a way of being within me — but in the long run the wig will get itchy and irritating, and we’ll come to understand that to truly awaken takes the regular honest challenging practice of simply being present and allowing ourselves to grow, learn from the dharma and our own insights without the need to become anything or anyone.

 

Trying to capture an experience is not the experience itself

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The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

I recently had the good fortune to stand in front of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting ‘The Starry Night’ while visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was an ordinary fall weekday but there were at least a dozen people standing in front of this one painting. I could deal with that. But almost everyone but my husband and me had their phones held above their heads to take pictures of the painting. This is quite different from standing with a group simply admiring the work in quiet shared appreciation. We couldn’t even see the artwork through the sea of cellphones.

Why were they taking photos anyway? There are thousands of photos of this famous painting readily available on the internet, including this one, so I’m not sure what they gained.

But I do know what they missed. They missed the opportunity to be fully present with the painting itself, up close and personal, not through a lens trying to frame it. They missed the chance to simply gaze and allow their eyes to travel around it, to appreciate each element, to notice details of color, texture, imagery, contrast and other choices the artist made. They missed the chance to really open to the gift of seeing close up those swirly brushstrokes (something no camera can replicate), to allow themselves to be immersed in the experience of its creation, to let go and enter a world not of their own making. A painting has the capacity to move us, but only if we are present to experience it.

This is not a complaint or a request for museum etiquette, as much as it may sound like one. It was for me, and perhaps for you, a dharma lesson. Because it’s an example of how we miss living fully in the moment when we try to ‘capture’ it for later enjoyment. We can’t capture a moment. A moment is fleeting. And we can’t relive an experience, especially one we weren’t present enough to fully live in the first place

What is it to be fully in the moment? I encourage you right now to pause and look around you. Let all your senses fully explore this moment. Notice patterns, the interplay of light and shadow, color. Go beyond making a mental note of objects you can name. Notice their shapes and the arrangement of them in space.

Now use your hands to rub and touch the texture of things within your reach. Feel the inside of your mouth, the slippery sliding, the wet warmth.

Then listen, hear whatever there is to hear in this moment. And whatever else you notice in this moment, without getting caught up in a lot of thoughts about it.

For me, right now as I’m writing this, there is the sound of footsteps on the stairs, the clearing of a throat, the sound of the dishwasher — ordinary. Yet held in an open embrace, life being lived and loved, just as it is.

Can you be that present all the time? Probably not, and that’s okay, but what a wondrous thing to aspire to. Can you see how when we try to re-live memories of ‘special’ moments it dishonors this very moment. Everything in the whole universe fell into place in a particular way to bring this moment into being. Let’s have some appreciation for this, just this, just as it is.

Another lesson from this same experience of standing in the crowd in front of that painting: A few of the phone-photographers actually turned their back on the painting to take a selfie — ‘me and Vinnie, we be buds’ —  for sharing on social media. This is a perfect example of how we try to shore up our identity, fearfully putting together and promoting the self as an object to be admired, respected, loved and seen. Great compassion to that suffering being who fails to feel how supported and appreciated they are by the whole universe. How the whole universe came together to create them, just as they are.

Buddha discovered for himself and shared how there is no separate self. Sure, we function in this life as if we are separate — just as a drop of water flying over a wave seems separate, but it’s not. And we’re not. We are literally all stardust. Each body-mind is a unique but inseparable manifestation of life loving itself. Life is a complex system of ever-changing patterns of being, arising and falling away, forming and dissolving. There is nothing to prove on social media. There is no reason to feel isolated. We are all of us in this together.

So can we put down that phone and simply enjoy what is present in this moment? Ah. Welcome home.

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