Category Archives: inner wisdom

Meditation: Chore or Pleasure?

sweeping.jpgDeveloping a meditation practice may feel like another chore to do, like taking out the garbage or cleaning the kitchen. Both require wise intention and skillful effort to do, and afterward there’s a noticeable positive difference in our lives.

But they are also very different, probably in many ways, but here’s at least one: Chores are things that someone else could do for us if we didn’t want to do them and money was no object. But no one can meditate for us. Just as no one can attend a concert for us or eat a meal for us. No one can enjoy a good book for us or go on a life-transforming trip for us. These kinds of things no one could do for us because they are not chores, but experiences that directly provide us with pleasure, nourishment, insight and edification.

Meditation is a pleasure! This might not be immediately apparent because like many pleasures, we develop our deep appreciation of it through practice and exposure. Though some people find meditating easy from the start, for most it is an acquired delight.

It is similar to acquiring a taste for walking in the woods if we’ve never done it and have only watched scary movies and the woods is where the bodies get buried. We may be afraid of what’s behind a tree or around the next curve on the trail. Just so, someone who has never meditated may fear what might be lurking within their minds. But, as with the new hiker in the woods, practice grows awareness and understanding. The new meditator discovers that simply being present with the senses in silence is a safe place to be. They increasingly find comfort in their growing ability to stay present with all the physical sensations, emotions and thoughts that naturally arise in their field of awareness. They develop the skills to greet all that arises with friendliness, to trust their own inner wisdom to help them see more clearly and experience more expansively being fully alive in each moment.

When it comes to chores, a regular meditation practice helps us to discover that even these tasks can be pleasurable. The pleasure isn’t just the satisfaction of a job well done, but in the doing itself, living life just as it is in this moment with appreciation.

In class, students shared some of their experiences with last week’s exercise working with the question: What are your inherent gifts, interests and skills? It made for an interesting discussion. If you did the exercise, what came up for you? Looking over your list, is there anything you noticed during the week? Did any moments from the past jump out as reminders of something that you could add to that list? Did any of the things you wrote down surprise you? Do any two or more of the skills or interest potentially combine in a satisfying way?

These are ongoing questions. If you didn’t do the exercise, you might want to go back to the previous post and give it a try. If you did it but it feels a little scary or troubling, then go back to the first few questions in this series and work with them around what comes up: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and whatever answers come up, look at them with fresh eyes and ask Is this true?

You might notice a harsh inner voice that devalues the gifts you name. There are often more than just one of these expressions of our fears, whose intentions are to keep us ‘safe’. They can be thanked for their intentions, treated with respect and kindness, but not given the run of the place, because operating from fear is unskillful and potentially dangerous.

In meditation we are tuning in to the still quiet voice of infinite loving kindness and wisdom. It has no sense of urgency. It never dictates. It simply offers guidance in the form of options. When a harried inner voice is sending us with a sense of urgency to the refrigerator for a treat, the wise inner voice might be quietly saying ‘Or, you could notice that you’re not hungry but bored and head out to the garden instead.’  But it takes practice to hear that quiet wisdom speaking amidst the cacophony of all those fear-based thought patterns going on in our brain. The more we listen, the more we recognize that wisdom, the more we operate from it, and though the other voices are present, we don’t feel compelled to act on what they say. (Or at least not all the time!) As we anchor into awareness and compassion, we can even ‘interview’ them, discover their needs, and wisely negotiate some skillful solution that would satisfy them without sabotaging our well being.

I remember my discovery of that wise inner voice in my meditation. It felt like dancing on the head of a pin. I fell off so many times, and the moments when I was there were so fleeting. But over time, with consistent practice, that pinhead grew larger and larger until I was able to be there most of the time, and I was very aware if I was no longer there, and knew how to get back in balance.

It may seem impossible at first. All those inner voices screaming and carrying on and laughing their heads off at the very idea that you could find wisdom within yourself. But the Buddha said ‘Be a lamp unto yourself’. He knew that each of us has the capacity to deepen in our experience, to cultivate presence, and to find that core of wisdom within. One of my students shared an insight she had, but she called it a ‘Stephanie moment’. I called her on that. It was not my moment, it was her moment. Her attendance in class has helped her find her own inner wisdom, but it is absolutely hers. She is learning how to be a lamp unto herself.

But it is challenging! It reminds me a bit of my aunt’s experience with macular degeneration. She had adapted to seeing through just one eye, but suddenly that eye also went blind. She freaked out. But she attended a class, and she was encouraged to really look and to notice that there was a pinprick-size window of sight in the lower right side of her vision. She was trained to see through that tiny window. Over time it felt to her as if the tiny window must have grown larger, but it was her capacity to focus there that had strengthened. That’s the same with the practice of meditation: We grow in our capacity to pay attention, to be aware and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. And to recognize the access to infinite wisdom we each have within us.

In the next post we will look at the final question in this series, and I am very excited about sharing it. Stay tuned!

Beyond Meditation: Inquiry & Insight

ahaIf you meditate on a regular basis, you have probably found many rewards. But there are more rewards to be discovered in the minutes following your practice that you may not be aware of if you immediately plunge into your busy day.  If you sit just a little longer or take a walk, get dressed or do some simple household chore, then the mindful momentum you have created will sustain a period of inner exploration that will provide valuable personal insights. Especially if you are going through challenges in your life, this is just the extra gift you need.

You can also do this anytime throughout the day after you deepen into awareness of physical sensation for a few minutes in a mini-meditation.

Here’s how the investigation works:

If you stay seated after meditation, try opening your eyes if they have been closed, because you might be well-trained in not thinking, and you want to open to thoughts now.

If you are walking, tidying up or whatever, do it mindfully, purely as an activity, not with an end-goal. (You may be surprised how much more pleasant and satisfying mindful activity is than the goal-oriented variety!) Now notice thoughts as they arise with open curiosity. In meditation, we note thoughts but let them pass through. In this investigation period, we encourage a thought to reveal itself more fully.

Naturally there will be practical thoughts that involve daily planning, making lists, etc. But there may also be recurring thoughts of, for example, self-doubt, judgment, anger, hopelessness, etc. These might be the very thoughts you want to ignore, they are the ones that are fertile ground for exploration. Not because they are true, but because they aren’t true and yet you have been buying into them!

Before you judge a thought or yourself for having it, allow the spaciousness you have nurtured in your meditation to be present to hold the thought in an open embrace of compassionate questioning. Right after meditation is the best time to do this kind of inner work because you’ve created the spaciousness and kindness you need.

What kind of questions do you ask?  Not all questioning is skillful, but in that post-meditative state often our natural questions are quite insightful. We might say, ‘Whoa, where’d that come from?’ and then, instead of judging it or pushing it away, actually await the answer. Our deeper buddha nature that we have been cultivating may give us some clues. Another naturally arising question is ‘Why do I feel that way?’ Then open to the various images from the past that rise up to support an erroneous belief.

How can a belief be erroneous if past experience supports it? Maybe the experience was in your childhood, adolescence or early adulthood and your understanding of life and the world was limited as was your power to handle situations. So you came up with the best way to think about things that you could at the time.
And remember, we were also under the influence of people vested with greater power — parents, siblings, teachers, the cool kids, etc. Since then we’ve been busy with life and we haven’t bothered to reexamine our thinking. Why would we? Without inner examination, we hold these thoughts to be true. And even more than true, we hold them to be a part of our identity. Without them, who would we be? And that’s another great question.

Byron Katie is a wise teacher known for this kind of inner exploration using skillful questions: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Who would I be without this thought, belief, idea?

Notice if a thought activates emotion and/or a physical sensation (tightness or enervation, for example). That’s a thought worth exploring. Stay present with it, priming it with skillful non-judgmental questions. Allow it to unravel, revealing clues in the form of memory images that have a thematic thread. Sometimes the answer to your question can be very straightforward in the form of a statement or another question. Allowing yourself to be receptive rather than directive, you open to the possibility of accessing wisdom.

When a thought makes you uncomfortable you know that it is definitely worth exploring. If it makes you so uncomfortable that you can’t look at it on your own, seek the help of a qualified therapist, preferably one with training in or sympathy with Buddhist psychology.

Be patient in this process. Sometimes your questions are answered later in the day or later in the week. A friend says something, words from a book jump out at you or you overhear a conversation, and you have a little aha! moment.

Notice without over-investing what you notice with great significance. We have wisdom but we also have fanciful imaginations and the desire to elaborate. Keep it simple. Stay open. Don’t project. Don’t get all tangled up in your insight. Let it rest lightly in your awareness.

It can be helpful to name what you are discovering, in order to remember it, but be careful not to claim it. Identify it but don’t calcify that noticing into personal identity. So for example, on observing a mental pattern you might say, ‘Ah, there is fear playing out in this particular way.’ This is useful. It’s not useful to then say ‘Oh, okay, so I’m a scaredy-cat. Gotta add that to my long list of personal foibles and failings.’

Noticing a pattern is useful if we recognize it as one of many possible patterns the mind (any mind) can create. Unnoticed these patterns can gain power and cause us to make mindless, often unskillful choices and decisions. But when noticed, we see through them. We see not just the thought but the fear that underlies the thought. If we are practiced in mindfulness, this will activate compassion. Awareness and compassion dissipate the power of any fear-based unskillful pattern that may have been holding court. We don’t have to go to battle, in fact that would cause more problematic patterns. All we need to do is be present and compassionate.

When we allow ourselves this kind of attentive compassionate exploration time after meditation, our journey of self-discovery has rich rewards, for ourselves and for everyone we come in contact with. Awareness and compassion ripple out into the world in rich and wondrous ways.

We give ourselves time to relax and release tension and notice thoughts and emotions, and voila, we find we are softening in some ways, strengthening in others and enlivening our sense of being awake in the world.

How to access your own inner wisdom

tapping-coverTo conclude our exploration of the Wisdom Paramita, I’ll share an excerpt from my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living, on how to find your own access to universal wisdom:

In your hectic daily life where your priorities always seem to be outside yourself, the internal voices you are likely to hear are the ones that speak the loudest. The squeakiest wheel. But when you take the time to listen in — through meditation, nature walks, time alone in a quiet place without distractions — the wise inner voice with its rich deep true resonance, rises above the clamor.

You can be sure it is your wise inner voice because it is calm, loving, positive, and non-judgmental.  Unlike the other voices in your repertoire, it is never hurried or desperate. Next to it the other voices feel jangly, almost caffeinated. The wise inner voice will never tell you to do something violent, unethical or wrong. It will never demand that you do what it says. It is not a master, but a guide. Its purpose is to put you in harmony with your own nature, not to change you into something other than yourself.

Once you have found your inner voice, and it may take time, be sure to continue listening in. Never take your wise inner voice for granted.

The language most effective to stir the inner voice to action is the question. Ask yourself “Why am I so upset?” “What is going on here?” “What should I do about…” or simply “What do you want me to know?”

After each question be very quiet and let your own wise inner voice answer you. Be patient. Your inner voice speaks in many different languages — symbolic, synchronistic, intuitive, and dream. Pay attention. Perhaps the book with an answer for you will pop off the library shelf into your hands. Perhaps you will feel suddenly compelled to call a friend, whose experience will help you with your problem. And always listen when you find yourself giving someone else advice. It is often meant for you as well!

If you listen in on a consistent basis, you will eventually be able to hear your clear wise inner voice speaking in very plain language. It is the voice of the wellspring that feeds you, rooted in the collective consciousness, deeply connected with all that is. Staying in touch with that inner voice will keep you balanced, assure you that you belong right where you are, deepen your sense of connection, and enhance your pleasure in every moment.

That is joyous living.

I wrote this book in the early 1990’s when I was physically incapacitated for almost a year. It is a compilation of notes I took during intensive meditative sessions that I organized in a way that made them readily accessible. I did not change a word of the writing, just rearranged it.

You may notice that, unlike anything else I write, it is written to ‘you’. The ‘you’ was me. I was asking questions and the answers rose up from within. I never considered this channeled writing with some other being or entity. It was just an inner conversation with the universal wisdom available to all of us. Still, I wasn’t willing to claim the words as mine, so on the cover of the book it doesn’t say ‘by’ Stephanie Noble, but ‘from the meditations of’ Stephanie Noble.

I still have a few dozen copies of Tapping left, so I gave each student in attendance their own copy of the book as a gift of appreciation for their practice. Together we read through some of the ‘Roots of Joy’ — the common themes that run throughout the book. Some of the themes are much the same as the Buddha’s teachings, even though this was before I ever attended a Buddhist class or studied Buddhism. For example, ‘All is one’, ‘Be Present in the Moment’, and ‘Meditation as Connection’. But a few, while compatible with Buddhist thought, are very specific to chronic challenges women in particular face. Here is one such example:

Be the subject of your own life

If you are not the center of your own universe, who is? And why? Of course you are the center of your own universe. Each person, animal and plant is the center of its own universe. You must hold that perspective, or no one will. That is the perspective allotted to you in this life. That is where your consciousness seeded and grew. To pretend that you are not the center of your own universe is to go against nature. And who will thank you? Who are you expecting to fill the void you have vacated? Where have you put your consciousness? And isn’t it crowded over there? Is that person thanking you for moving in on his or her space? Of course not.

To be in a subject mode does not exclude developing empathy and understanding. Quite the contrary. It gives a piercingly straight connection to others, a direct line into their hearts. When you are subject, you are residing where others expect to find you. It is like having an ‘Open’ sign on the door to your heart. When you are object, your sign reads ‘Out to Lunch’ and no connections can be made. Because you are out trying to guess what others are thinking of you. Always of you. The object mode spends a lot more time thinking about the self.  The derogatory term ‘self-centered’ refers to people who are being objects, always looking from the outside in, imagining what the world thinks of them, and adapting themselves to suit.

Climb back inside yourself. Explore who you are, what you like, what you care about. Learn what activities and experiences replenish your inner wellspring, and take the time to give that to yourself.

Then, from that centered grounded position, that great sense of belonging and completion, look outside yourself, tap into that infinite bounty within you and share your talents with the world.

Only as the subject of your own life can you function effectively in the world.

My women students nodded their heads to the shared challenge we face in being there for everyone we care about, sometimes almost or completely forgetting our own needs and preferences.

The body of the book is ‘Topics of Concern’ arranged alphabetically. Readers of the book often told me that they just open to any page and find just what they need in that moment. So we tried that in class, and there were several ahas of understanding as to why the topic on that page was relevant for each person right now. One student awoke to her calling! So who knows what riches are possible when we open to the wisdom available to us all at any moment?

If we practice quieting down and being open to it, wisdom shines through with a warm loving light on all that had seemed dark and scary. Learning to listen in is part of what we do in our meditation practice. That’s why it’s called Insight Meditation. Aha!

Thoughts? Comments? (I appreciate all the emails I receive, but even more would appreciate comments right here, where we can all appreciate them.)  – Stephanie

 

 

Accessing Inner Wisdom & Compassion

Following up on last week’s post about Jack Kornfield‘s description of being greeted by the Dalai Lama and one of my student’s sharing of her experience of being held by Amma, I want to emphasize that we do not have to track down the Dalai Lama or wait for Amma to come to town in order to feel completely loved and accepted for who we are.

We have within ourselves the capacity to hold ourselves in the deepest loving kindness and compassion so that we experience a sense of union and release. We have access to universal compassion, just as we have access to universal wisdom. It’s right here, ready and available to us, just waiting for us to take a pause — a pause to be held, to open, to listen, to be fully present.

In a recent retreat on Buddhist Psychology, Jack emphasized how available this universal wisdom is by leading us in an exercise where we encountered a ‘luminous being’ in whatever form that took for each of us. With the aid of this luminous being we were able to face a personal challenge in our lives. Just by closing our eyes and pausing with intention and open-hearted inquiry, we accessed infinite wisdom and compassion with good advice. (I believe this guided exercise is included in one of his recent books. I’m sorry I don’t know which one.)

This luminous being exercise reminded me of my experience many years ago when I was suffering from an extended illness and had lots of time to meditate. I found a luminous being of light in my meditation. She was dancing in a bubble of light, so joyfully I was entranced. She had close-cropped hair, wore white Chinese style pajamas and radiated pure joy. Because of this pure joy, so different from my experience at that difficult time of my life, it took me awhile to realize that she was me!

Over the course of many meditations during the months of my healing, I asked her questions and she had wise answers without agenda — no shoulds, musts or oughts — just a quiet clear message that helped me heal. I wrote down her words and when I shared some of them in meditation class at College of Marin, fellow students would say ‘It’s like she’s talking directly to me.’ Our teacher insisted that I publish her words in a book. I did, and that book is Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.

Whenever I didn’t have a specific question to ask this wise inner voice, I would just say, ‘What do I need to know?’ And unless there was some other answer to a question I had left unasked, the answer she gave me was always this: ‘You need to know that I love you. I have always loved you. I will always love you.’

Well, that is a lot to know! Feeling the power of this statement, unbidden, rising up from the universe, holding me in its warm embrace, is a very heady experience. It is the experience we each are capable of having any time we simply sit quietly and allow ourselves to access this universal wisdom and loving kindness in whatever form it takes for us.

So although we can avail ourselves of very special experiences of being greeted by a human who is so in touch with this universal wisdom and love, we want to be careful not to assume that they have access and we do not. No such person would want that for us. With their luminosity they want to light the way to show us how to find it for ourselves. We may find it without imagining a luminous being, but that imagining may help us to see how readily available that universal wisdom and compassion is.


Sometimes we accept wisdom only from outside ourselves. That’s what this luminous being told me when I asked her about herself. She explained that I totally discounted anything I might have to say as worthless, so my subconscious created this seemingly separate being so that I could receive, as if from outside my own experience, the words I needed to hear in order to heal myself. 

It is not at all unusual to discount our own ability to be wise or access universal wisdom. It is for this very reason that we turn to exultant beings that radiate wisdom and compassion. So why did I not see Jesus or the Virgin of Guadalupe in my meditative vision? I guess this kind of work is done with what we have within our own experience. Even as a child I had glimpses of insight into the nature of oneness. I used to chant to myself ‘ God is in me and I am in God,’ over and over until a dizzying sense of the power of that statement overcame me and I understood how it was possible for all that is, God, to permeate all matter so that this essence was inside me, and I inside it. This ‘unified field theory’ at the age of four has informed my life, at least when I let it. 

I did forget for awhile, and that’s what had led to my illness. I had been so busy, so caught up in my job, raising kids and helping my ailing parents, I felt totally separate from myself, from the me that understood the nature of being. I had to come home to it again in a way that had meaning for me. In those days the only ‘retreat’ readily available to the general public was illness. It was a way to have time out to treat not just our physical well being but our spiritual well being as well. Now we are so fortunate to have places like Spirit Rock where we can take the time we need without having to get sick to take a time out from our busy lives.

When we realize that we have this capacity to access a feeling of being totally loved and unconditionally accepted, then we stop looking outside ourselves for validation. We begin to radiate that universal loving kindness to the world. We become conduits and amplifiers of this universal energy.

So how do we go about this? In Buddhist practice, sending metta is the tried and true means of accessing this inner loving kindness. This begins with sending metta to ourselves. Last week I shared an extra practice to do that I learned from Jack, and I hope that if you have trouble sending metta to yourself that you tried it and it helped. If you weren’t here you can read about it in the previous post.

Recently we’ve been noticing how we talk to ourselves. Are we name-calling? Are we denigrating ourselves? Are we being outright rude? The benefit of meditation practice is increased awareness that could be seen as adding a witness to our experience. We don’t become a bystander of our own lives, but we do begin to hear more clearly the words we use to accuse ourselves of something, among other things.

Meditation practice begins with anchoring in physical sensation, noticing what is occurring in this moment. Bringing body awareness into our exploration gives us way more information than just staying stuck in thought. We notice where we feel it, what tightens up, what feels agitated. In the past these sensations may have created an overall sense of discomfort that led us, without our even being aware of it, away from exploring any further. Opportunity lost!

The sensations that we notice in the body can tell us not just that this experience is painful. They can also activate images, memories and emotions that can further inform us about the source of some of the negative beliefs we hold that result in such rude self-talk.

Exercise
Bring to mind something you have done recently, perhaps even today, that didn’t meet your standards of behavior or speech. Perhaps you misspoke, forgot something, were late somewhere, over-indulged or any number of other possible ways we tend to disappoint ourselves.
When you have something in mind, then just let yourself think about what you did in your normal way. Don’t miss this sanctioned chance to engage your mind in the past where it loves to linger! As you think about what you did or said notice what arises:

  • With the memory fully in mind, notice the thought-words you use to describe yourself as you focus on this memory of a recent behavior.
  • Notice any physical sensations that arise as you spend time with this memory of action and reaction…. Is there some place in the body that clinches up, tightens, clamps down? …Really spend some time noticing where this is happening and how far it radiates out into the field of sensation…. Don’t make any effort to ease the tightness as we do during meditation. Instead let the tension inform you….You may feel uncomfortable and want to release the tension or turn away from this exercise. But you can gently and kindly encourage yourself to stay with it. Imagine all of this happening in a very spacious, kind loving field that can hold it all safely.


  • What information does the tension carry? Allow any associative images, memories or emotions to arise, This is how the body communicates.
  • Acknowledge them as messengers and hold them with the same spacious loving kindness and curiosity.
  • If you are not feeling a naturally arising stream of information, ask a question: ‘Why am I so hard on myself?’ perhaps.
  • Allow any insight to arise.This might be the image or the voice of the original source of this rudeness — some mean thing a schoolmate, teacher or parent said to you as a child, for example. You trusted their judgment because you were young and vulnerable, ready to accept whatever anyone told you, hungry as you were — as we all are — for self-knowledge. But now we are adults, we have the capacity to see that the careless words of another person, regardless of their position, were more the result of their own fears and concerns, that these words were not aimed at us. We just happened to be in the way when that person was trying to cope with suffering the best way they knew how at that moment.
  • Hold the whole experience in loving kindness. Send metta to the person: May you be well, may you be happy, may you be at ease, may you be at peace, wherever you are.
  • Send metta to the body using the breath to release any accumulated tension.
  • Send metta to yourself: May I be well, may I be happy. May I be at ease. May I be at peace.
  • Allow a few minutes to transition from this experience into discussion or, if on your own, perhaps making notes about your experience and insights, if you wish.


How was that experience? If any insights came, you might consider making note of them. Throughout the week, be open to the possibility that more answers will come in different forms — a book leaps out at you, a friend says something particularly wise and needed, etc. We offer ourselves up what we need to know only when we have opened our ears and our hearts to listen.