Category Archives: inquiry

Inquiry Series: Question #5

tool-collection.jpgIn this inquiry series, we’ve practiced using questions that help us deal skillfully with what arises in our experience: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? Is this true? We then looked at our inner landscape and asked: What am I cultivating here?  To the degree we incorporate these questions into our lives, they continue to be useful tools to find greater peace of mind, strength and equanimity.

Beyond the shared beneficial qualities we cultivate, we each have other gifts as well: The particular skills and interests that activate wholesome energy, aliveness, meaning and purpose.

What are these gifts? There is something inherent in each of us that draws us to different things. We can observe this in very small children. Beyond the fun things most children enjoy, any individual child will be more excited about spending time in one or more activities and less interested in others: Drawing, writing, cooking, doing math, solving puzzles, singing, playing instruments, listening to music, attending performances, taking things apart to see how they work, playacting, taking photos, doing science experiments, inventing things or walking in nature, for example.

But even though the adults around them may notice children’s natural bents, gifts and interests, often the children themselves do not see them or do not understand that all kids aren’t equally as interested in these things. Especially in decades past, the adults around them were likely a little blind to these gifts as well. And so the child grew up feeling a little lost, wondering where they fit in.

I was a shy little girl who had a spiritual bent that manifested in little chants I would make up to feel my connection with the divine. (“I am in God and God is in me” over and over again until I would fall down on the lawn laughing, because what made no sense at all suddenly made all the sense in the world to me.) I also loved to write poems and short stories. And I enjoyed making dollhouses and drawing floor plans. Bringing that little girl to mind now, if I were her parent, I would encourage all of those things, and maybe make sure she had access to materials, classes and kind mentors.

But instead of wishing I’d had different kinds of parents (my parents were wonderful, thank you very much!) I only need to remind myself that as an adult, I can parent myself in whatever way I need. I can provide whatever encouragement and guidance I may have craved growing up. Perhaps you have some dormant, underappreciated or hidden interests or skills that might be brought into the light of your increasing compassionate awareness. No matter what our age or situation, we can actualize all of the gifts we’ve been given in this fleeting experience of being alive in this oh-so impermanent body-mind.

EXERCISE

After meditation or after a few minutes of quieting the mind, ask yourself these questions and write down the answers that arise — as many as come up. Take your time. The first answer may be the best answer, or it may be a toss off answer and there’s a deeper, shyer, truer answer waiting to be heard. All are fine. Bring them on.

Notice any resistance that comes up, either in the exercise or in anticipation of an exercise. You can use our core questions then: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? And, when stories arise about why you can’t pursue a certain interest, look more closely at those stories and question them: Is this true? It may seem true, and it may seem important to hold onto the story, but look at every aspect with a kind but inquiring mind.

Okay, ready? Here we go:

  1. Think of moments during your day, week and life when you were filled with delight, contentment, purpose, enthusiasm — a sense of being in the right place, doing something satisfying. These will probably be very small seeming things but try not to judge them, just note them. List as many as come naturally to you.
  2. Look over your list of moments of delight and think of them as belonging to someone else. Bring your most compassionate, least judgy self to this task. By observing the list as someone else’s we are generally clearer and kinder, more willing to see latent gifts we might deny in ourselves.) Then ask, what interests this person? What does this person love to do? If a clear picture comes to mind, write it down as a little summary.
  3. Acknowledging that this is your list, not someone else’s, notice any emotions arising around this list as you read it. Notice any resistance to anything you have discovered. Notice any stories that come up to explain why, even if true, these interests and skills are for whatever reason not sufficient or not useful. Several people in class felt they probably weren’t doing this exercise ‘right’. A couple thought their moments weren’t sufficiently ‘lofty’. This is not about being lofty! And it is not about defining yourself and presenting yourself to the world. It’s more like the way a cat or dog might circle around to that just right spot of perfect contentment. Trust that whatever comes up is right for you in this moment.
  4. If you are judging yourself, finding fault or feeling resistance, ask ‘What am I afraid of?’ This is not a challenge, not a dare, but a heartfelt compassionate investigation. 
  5. Send metta, infinite loving-kindness to any fearful aspect that speaks up or hides out within you. The inner critic may be powerful and cruel, but it is not your enemy. It is only afraid and unskillful in the ways it tries to protect you.
  6. Looking at the summary you’ve made, do you feel that you are living your deepest most heartfelt interests?
  7. If not, set the intention to give more time to them, incorporate them more fully into your life and whenever you are in such a moment, to not feel rushed but really allow yourself to experience it fully with deep appreciation.
  8. Underline, circle, star or rewrite any core interests that you would like to explore more fully. This is not about ‘becoming’ something new. This is not a makeover. It’s recognizing what is already central to your way of being in this life, yet for whatever reason not actualized fully.
  9. Set the intention to be compassionate with those aspects of self that are fearful, but don’t let them run the show!
  10. Save and revisit this list, try the exercise again another time, and consider rewriting it as a note to yourself to keep close as a reminder.

If you do this exploration multiple times, you may find different answers each time, but a pattern will arise that will hopefully inspire you to honor your natural gifts, interests and skills.

If you discover powerful resistance, that is definitely worth exploring and challenging. I am reminded of the Marianne Williamson quote:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” — Marianne Williamson

Like many, I suffered from great doubts about my abilities. I kept my writing very private and never thought to share it with anyone. If I did share them, any compliments were like water off a duck’s back. I have no memory of them. But even the slightest suggestion or critique cut me to the core and the scars were a constant reminder of my lack of talent. It’s amazing I kept writing, but my writing was for me, and it was safe as long as I kept it private. And that’s fine. Writing and all the arts — music, visual arts, drama, crafts — all have the capacity to be cathartic. We each have our way of processing the traumas of our lives. I imagine that working out mathematical equations might be cathartic, too. Can we find our way of skillfully processing and coping with all that arises in our lives? Hint: It will never be a distraction from what we are going through. It will not make an enemy of it that we push away. There’s that old hymn: ‘It’s so high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it, so wide you can’t get around it, you’ve gotta go in through the door.’ The door is being fully present and compassionate with ourselves and others, finding that inner wisdom that is within each of us, by whatever name we might call it. But each of us also has one or more very personal ways of savoring life and processing what arises. And that’s what we’re exploring through this exercise.

Allowing ourselves our fullest expression is not a big ask. It is our birthright. It is our place at the table of life. That is such a hard lesson to learn, especially for women raised to always put others’ needs first and to be ‘demure’.

I will leave you with a personal experience: I had been teaching for a number of years and then writing blog posts from my dharma talks. After a year of teaching the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness, my students asked me to compile those posts and publish them in book form. I mentioned this to my teaching mentor and she said there are more than enough books in the world. (There were no comparable books on that subject at the time, and even still none that addresses women’s specific challenges, but that’s beside the point.) After I left our meeting, I felt like a daisy bush being told not to bloom, to stifle myself, because there are already too many daisies in the world.

Please, please, please, whatever kind of plant you are, feel free to bloom fully and radiantly! And don’t waste your time envying the rose or the lilac. You do YOU!

Cultivating with the core insights

rainbow.jpg

In exploring the question What am I cultivating here? we have been working with a gardening analogy. In this analogy we haven’t yet looked at what is represented by the soil, the rain and the sunshine. This seems a pretty big oversight! So let’s look at these most important aspects now:
The Buddha identified three characteristics of existence that, if understood, transform our whole way of being in the world. They are the underlying wisdom upon which all the rest of the teachings rest, and to which all the rest of the teachings point. On the graphic chart of the Buddha’s teachings, these three ‘marks’, as they are also called, are at the very center. They are the core of the teachings. Every insight that you will have in your meditation and your life will lead you to one or more of these three core understandings of the way of things. I know that’s a major claim, but try it for yourself, as the Buddha says, and see if it is true.
So what are these three characteristics of existence? In Pali, they are anicca, anatta and dukkha. Unless you plan to be a Buddhist scholar, or you just like to know terms, it’s not really necessary to remember those Pali names. But it is helpful to understand the concepts, which are:
Anicca: Understanding the nature of impermanence and our inability to maintain anything to our satisfaction. Things change and we don’t like it. Things don’t change enough and we don’t like it. Things change, we like it and assume now we will be happy forever, but we change in relationship to the thing that doesn’t seem to be changing, and we’re not happy. You get the picture. Impermanence is a fact of life, and how we are in relationship to it, to a great extent, determines our ability to be happy.
Anatta: Understanding that there is no separate self that needs constant shoring up and defending. The separate seeming nature of being is useful for practical purposes in this life, taking responsibility for this particular body, family, finances, commitments, etc. But taken to be complete reality, believing ourselves to be isolated individuals separate from the rest of being, causes suffering.
Dukkha: Understanding that, while there is pain that comes with birth, illness, aging and death; the greatest suffering we experience is created by grasping at, clinging to and pushing away all that arises in our field of experience.
For the purposes of our garden analogy, we could say that dukkha is the soil. The quality of suffering is very earthy. We can get caught up in it, ‘dirtied’ by it and buried in it. Yet when we understand dukkha, we can plant roots and draw nourishment in our deep understanding of its nature.
One student in class had a problem with planting her roots in suffering. Another student pointed out that we are planting our roots in the insight about dukkha. Since class, I have gone around in my mind whether this is an apt metaphor or not. What I’m thinking now is that earthly life, full as it is of suffering, is where we are planted. It’s not always an easy place, but as we put down roots, we become better able to sustain ourselves in it. The Buddha taught that birth, illness, aging and death are the four messengers. So there is something in the soil of dukkha that we need. When we are experiencing pain in our lives, can we be fully present for it, rooted in the experience — not grasping and clinging or pushing it away, but simply here to receive its nourishing message? I will never forget one time when I was younger and my back went out, and suddenly I understood that old people walk slowly because they are in pain! My pain nourished me, didn’t it? It cultivated an insight and compassion that has been of benefit to me in all my relationships.
This extended metaphor is a work in progress, so I’m open to ideas to make it better. Comments?

Anicca, impermanence, we could see as water. Rain comes and goes. There are droughts and floods. There are clouds and clear sky. Water is constantly transforming: Now it’s ocean, now mist, fog, cloud; now rain, snow, sleet or hail; now puddles, rivulets, streams, lakes, rivers, seas and back to the ocean. It’s also present in all life, including our bodies.

Anatta (no separate self) could be represented by water too — I often think of this fleeting life as a droplet of water flying over a waterfall, soon to rejoin with the flow of the river to the ocean. I also love the phrase ‘The ocean refuses no river’ which repeated over and over again is such a comforting message of self-acceptance. But since we’ve claimed water to represent the nature of impermanence, we will let sunlight represent that sense of no separate self: We are all energy, inseparable, radiant light.
One student asked, since we are applying the elements to aspects of the teachings, what of air? Ah, air! Well let’s let air be air: The breath at the center of our practice that is both a focus and a way to shift energy (releasing excess on the out-breath, bringing in enlivening energy on the in-breath). With breath we cultivate spaciousness, putting ‘air’ around our thoughts and emotions as they arise in our awareness so that they don’t overwhelm us. Every plant in the garden needs sufficient air to thrive.
Through our meditation practice (sitting in our garden enjoying simply being alive?), the support of the teachings (all that wise gardening advice?) and our community of practitioners (fellow gardeners who support us?), we create the conditions for the qualities we explored in the two previous posts (generosity, lovingkindness, resolve, etc.) to grow and flourish.

The Finite Balcony vs. the Infinite Garden
Without being rooted in the infinite wisdom of the core understandings of
anicca, anatta and dukkha, you can still cultivate these qualities, but it’s as if they are planted in little pots on a balcony, finite and contained rather than rooted in the infinite, and you need to attend them constantly. They will not spread and propagate, and they are not connected to the vast web of interconnecting gardens full of birds, butterflies, etc. that help keep the garden healthy. (If you are an apartment dweller and like your potted plants just fine, or if you have no interest in gardening whatsoever, remember this is just an analogy!)
As we practice and have naturally arising insights in our lives, we recognize the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. We don’t adopt them or accept them because the Buddha was an enlightened being and who are we to question what he taught. He asked us to see for ourselves the truth. That’s the heart of our practice. Being at ease in the practice, we create fertile ground for insights to arise. As arising insights do indeed confirm the Buddha’s teachings, we release any self-sabotaging doubt we may have had about the value of our practice and our path. Our practice itself becomes a celebration of gratitude where we can delight in the garden just as it is, ‘weeds’ and all.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? But don’t let it become a distant ideal. If you feel stuck on the balcony tending little pots, hey, you are still creating more beauty in life! But every day in your practice notice your inner ‘balcony’ expanding until it becomes an inner garden.

Cultivating your chosen quality with wise inquiry

e5f00-planting-seedIf you did last week’s exercise, then hopefully you chose one quality that you feel needs cultivation right now. (If you didn’t do the exercise, why not go back and give it a try?)

Once you have your quality, here are some more ways to explore. Keeping the quality in mind, ask yourself each of these three questions that will look familiar because they are the first three questions of this inquiry series. They serve us well again: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? Is this true?

What is my intention here?
In regard to your chosen quality, sense in and ask yourself this question.
Since I have been working with the quality of generosity, I will use it as an example for this exploration. I propose that the intention of generosity is to give wholeheartedly. Okay, this sounds good, right? Halfhearted giving sounds pretty lame and worthless. But does ‘wholehearted’ put out the expectation that I should give all of myself away?

When we come up with an intention that can be ambiguous, it’s worth noticing, because it could give insight as to why this quality has not been fully cultivated. And we can see how we might have fears that come up. If I perceive generosity in terms of some finite gift that will run out, that through my giving I will be depleted, and maybe I already feel depleted, then clearly there is a misunderstanding here. And also fear.

What am I afraid of?
You might feel the tension that sets in at the very mention of fear. We are often afraid to look at what we are afraid of! But with loving-kindness and resolve we can look clearly at what’s arising in our experience. Images may also come to mind. The fear may feel like a shield of self-protection, but it’s actually a distorting lens that makes us more vulnerable. The question ‘What am I afraid of?’ might bring up thoughts about potential outcomes. ‘I am afraid of going broke’ might be one answer when exploring the quality of generosity. There might be specific examples in our lives of some generous person we know who lives ‘closer to the edge’ than we would be comfortable doing. I certainly do have such an example in my life. A person who gave of himself quite freely and in turn relied on the generosity of others to see him through difficult times. Standing on the sidelines watching, I feared for him. Of course this experience affected me. It’s not the only influencer of my more cautious approach to generosity, but it is one.

Beyond how being generous might affect our bottom line, there is usually some other justification that has to do with those we might be generous to: ‘They’ll just fritter it away.’ ‘I worked hard for that money.’ Strong opinions and harsh judgments can be very effective in deterring acts of generosity. For myself, I would notice generous impulses, the desire to give, but then the ‘recoil’ opinions and judgments that would talk me out of the impulse, or at least lessen it.

This would work with any quality. Say, the quality of Letting Go. There might be the initial impulse to clean out the closet, but then some fear, some inner opinions, arise to shut down the impulse. But even just noticing the impulse is a big step toward cultivating the quality.

Noticing is vital. You don’t have to ‘do’ anything right away. This is not a makeover where we are looking for instant results. Instead, very gently, kindly and persistently we sense into physical responses, emotional up-welling, images from the past and imagined futures, with all their accompanying stories.

Is this true?
Once we are exploring the realm of stories that come up when we think about our chosen quality, we can listen respectfully, and then ask ‘Is this true?’ This is not to make the story an outright lie or to call ourselves liars. Instead it is a loving process of acknowledging that we are not our stories, that we will not fall apart if our stories don’t hold up to the light of truth.

None of our stories are writ in stone. They were all woven on the fly by ourselves and others at vulnerable moments. At first this realization can feel threatening. If we believe our identity is our stories, of course we will hold onto them tightly. But with the practice of meditation over time we soften into a deeper understanding of our nature, and these stories no longer form the fabric of our being. As we are freed from the weight of them, we can feel as if we are standing in sunlight for the first time. We discover that it was fear that wove the stories we’ve clung to all this time. We’ve taken them for granted, and now we see they were not serving us. Discerning the fear allows us to see with greater clarity and compassion.

See if working with these three questions, at times when you feel your mind is quiet and compassionate, helps you to see more clearly what has kept you from cultivating the quality you have chosen.

The Seed Catalog

As we continue our exploration of the valuable question ‘What am I cultivating here?’, wouldn’t it be nice to have a seed catalog for our inner garden? We could peruse through all the pretty plants and pick one we’d like to add. Well, hooray, there actually is one! It’s called the Ten Paramis (aka Paramitas) that we studied for a good part of 2016.

The Paramitas are qualities that are intrinsic to our nature, but not necessarily growing strong right now. In the following exercise, we can notice what we have nurtured and perhaps what is in need of more conscious cultivation. Ready to give it a go? Great!

Get something to make notes on, and take at least a few minutes to quiet down and center in. This would be a good exercise to do after meditation, but even a few minutes of quiet will help make it more meaningful.

Now, one by one, take your time looking over the list below. With each quality, pause. Sense in and see how it feels in your body. Does it bring pleasure? Then you probably have already cultivated this quality. Does it bring tension or anxiety? Make note of that. Discomfort may indicate a need for more attention in this area.
If you are not sure what the quality is, just put a question mark for now. Each paramita has a ‘READ MORE’ link to a fuller exploration.

In class, when we did this exercise on handout sheets, there was a place beside each quality to mark whether it needs cultivating or whether it is ‘sufficient for now’. One student appreciated the ‘for now’ because as long as we are alive we are cultivating something. Our garden is always in process.

Students developed their own little ‘rating systems’ with, for example, one, two or three stars, to rank qualities in some need or dire need of cultivating. Since we would like to cultivate one at a time, it’s helpful to rate them so that at the end of the exploration, you can see which one quality stood out.

EXERCISE: Paramitas — Seeds to cultivate in your inner garden

Generosity
This word may bring up examples of ways in which you have been generous with your time, your money or other resources. If so, you probably can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If it brings up feelings of tension, anxiety or shame for a pattern of withholding even when you want to be generous, give it a ‘star’ as something that may need more attention and cultivation. Recognizing our innate generosity, we can compassionately explore any fears that arise from past experiences of scarcity, of being taken advantage of, or of giving to exhaustion. [READ MORE.]

Ethical Conduct
This quality may bring up examples of times you have been fair, considerate and how in general you operate from your inner moral compass. If so, you can probably mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If it brings up feelings of anger, justification, annoyance or shame reflecting on examples of unethical behavior; or if your ethical behavior relies heavily on words like ‘should’ or fear tactics to keep you in tow, mark this one with a star.
It is only when we contract in fear, believing ourselves to be isolated and separate, that we think up and justify to ourselves unethical solutions to the challenges we face. It is skillful to see how these unethical solutions ricochet in our lives, causing pain and confusion. This reminds us to choose the simpler, clearer and more compassionate path of ethical conduct. [READ MORE]

Letting Go
This quality may bring up memories of relative ease with releasing objects, transitioning out of even the most pleasant experiences, and holding all relationships in an ‘open embrace’, loving without smothering. If so, you can probably mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If, on the other hand, you feel threatened by the idea of letting go, and recognize that you hold onto objects, roles, habits and relationships in a very tight way, then you will want to mark this with a star.
We are naturally fluid in our nature. But we can get rigid and clingy when we vest our identity in our attachment to people, roles, habits and objects. Our clinging makes us rigid and even more fearful. Then we believe that this fearfulness is who we are and the only way to remedy it is to cling harder, making ourselves and others miserable. But it is not our true nature to cling. It is our true nature to dance the fluid dance of life, a celebration of coming together and falling away, all of a piece. [READ MORE]

Wisdom
(Wisdom in this context is the deep understanding of the nature of impermanence, the sense of there being no separate self, and how we cause ourselves and others suffering through grasping, clinging and pushing away. If you have been meditating awhile, you may have had insights that can fall in one or more of these three categories of ‘Wise View’.)
If you feel you are firmly open and receptive to life’s ‘teachable moments’ that spark insights, if you see how they benefit your sense of well being, and if you are comfortable with not knowing all the answers but are happy to live with the questions themselves, then you can mark this one as ‘sufficient for now’. This is not to claim to be wise. It only means that you are growing it in your inner garden. It is taking root.
If this all sounds like gobbledygook to you, you might want to mark it as something to cultivate! [READ MORE]

Energy | Strength
This quality may bring to mind ways in which you readily meet the challenges of life, bringing a balanced physical and mental strength to handle whatever arises. If so, you can mark it ‘sufficient for now’.
If these words feel like challenges in themselves, if you find yourself often times lethargic and overwhelmed, then this might be a quality that needs cultivating. Conversely, if you often feel restless, driven, supercharged, and need to be always on the go, cultivating more balanced energy might be for you.
We come into the world with a natural understanding of the need to be active, the need to rest, the need to nourish. This understanding cultivates our innate balanced energy and strength. When we lose that understanding, striving or shirking, then we forget that we are strong and have the energy to do whatever we need to do in life, if it is wise, ethical, loving, generous. [READ MORE]

Patience
This quality may bring up examples of how you can easily wait without getting flustered or upset. If so, mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If the very word ‘patience’ has you in an inner tantrum, and you can think of many ways in which you are thwarted in life by slow drivers, busy doctors, long lines at the grocery store, being put on hold on the phone, planes not taking off, people not understanding what you’re talking about the first time you say it, people not getting to the point when they’re talking, etc., well, this is the quality for you!!!!!
We get impatient when we are trying to escape from our current experience. We want to escape when we are not open to seeing life as it is. We become blind to beauty of every moment unfolding. We become more patient through being fully present, aware of all life’s gifts, and through compassion. [READ MORE]

Truthfulness
This quality may seem to be about not lying to people, but it is also about noticing and questioning the long-accepted stories we tell ourselves. We explored together the question ‘Is this true?’ and discovered that we in fact often do inadvertently lie to ourselves by accepting without question our long-held opinions, etc. None of us are completely truthful in this way, but as long as we are aware and ready to question ‘Is this true?’ we can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If, on the other hand, you find it difficult to be truthful with others or you are unwilling to question the truth of what you tell yourself, you might want to give this one a star.  [READ MORE]

Resolve
If you are able to follow through on the intention(s) you set, then you have a strong sense of resolve. You can mark this ‘sufficient for now’.
If you find it very difficult to follow through on intentions, and you have checked in to make sure the intentions are wise, then Resolve might be a quality you want to cultivate more of.
When we find our true intention, we are innately able to stay true to it. We recognize and respect any dissenting voices within our patterns of thoughts and emotions, and find means to skillfully resolve the dissension within us so that our resolution rings true. [READ MORE]

Loving-kindness
If you practice loving-kindness to yourself, others and ultimately all beings, and truly feel the welling up within you of that infinite quality so that you radiate it, then you can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’– even though of course you continue to practice it.
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of giving yourself loving-kindness, or sending loving-kindness to even the most difficult people; or you are caught up in feeling there’s only so much loving-kindness to go around and you’re going to reserve it for those who are near and dear to you, then mark this as something you’ll want to cultivate in your inner garden.
If we recognize the infinite nature of loving-kindness, we attune to it and allow it to flow through us. It is our true nature when we are not caught up in believing ourselves to be separate isolated objects in a finite situation.  [READ MORE]

Equanimity
If you can think of all kinds of ways that you are balanced and resilient in life, how causes and conditions rarely throw you, or at least not for long; and if you can be present in the moment for each experience that arises, then you can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If you struggle and feel overwhelmed by what feel like ever-changing demands of modern life, and many times you’d like to just be on a beach somewhere, then this might be a quality for you to cultivate.
Our true nature is spacious and able to hold all of life in an open embrace. If we feel out of balance, coming home to our true nature allows us to rediscover that sense of being able to be in wholesome relationship with all that arises in our awareness. [READ MORE]

I hope you were able to really take time to look at each of these and sense in to sensations, thoughts and emotions that came up around each. If not, if you just perused them, make a point of trying this exercise at another time.

If you did the exercise, take a look at your notations and see what you’ve come up with. Notice those you’ve marked in need of cultivation and see if you can sense which one is in most need of attention right now. You might ‘rate’ them as to which ones activated the most difficult sensations, thoughts and emotions. Which one is causing you the most suffering right now?

All these qualities are interrelated. You might find you have marked two or three. As you look at them you may see a relationship between them. You might also recognize that you mistook one for another. For example, Resolve and Energy could easily cause some confusion. Look more closely. Is it really that you lack energy to do something? Or is it a lack of true resolve? That’s an interesting exploration in itself that you can pay attention to next time you’re feeling like a couch potato.

Exploring any one of these Paramitas could be a life’s practice. They work together to bring about awakening to our true Buddha nature.

Once identified, how do you go about cultivating your chosen quality?

One way to incorporate a quality into your life is to use it in your metta (infinite loving-kindness) practice. For example, you might say silently to yourself, ‘May I be well. May I be at ease. May I cultivate my natural generosity. May I be happy.’ See how I slipped the quality of Generosity in there? You can do metta practice at any time during the day, and at the beginning or end of your meditation practice. Or do the metta to yourself at the beginning, then metta to all beings at the end.

Another way to work with your chosen quality is whenever you find you are struggling, upset or conflicted. Instead of trying to change anything, see if you can cultivate your chosen quality to help you face the challenge. You might be surprised how well it applies and how it provides a kind and loving solution. If it doesn’t, then perhaps the quality you’ve chosen is not the one you most need to cultivate. Choose another! But I recommend you work with planting one quality at a time.

Abandon all ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’, ye who enter here!
Please do not take this list of qualities, these wonderful seeds to plant in your garden, as a to do list of ‘shoulds’. It would be very easy to give yourself a hard time about not already having grown these qualities. But that would not serve to grow them. It would only send you out of the garden altogether, saying ‘I’m no good at this kind of stuff.’ Instead, when you find yourself being unkind look at which quality would most help you here.

I would very much appreciate your letting me know how this exercise was for you. Feel free to ask questions and share your own findings.

Wise cultivation sometimes calls for transplanting!

I was traveling this week so there was no class. Still wisdom teachings are everywhere if we are present to notice. Visiting family and friends, it’s been a joy to see so many examples of skillful cultivation. To protect their privacy, I won’t name them or claim our relationship, but over the course of a few days my husband and I spent time with:

  • A man in his early fifties, whose professional life has been exemplary and satisfying, but who over the past couple of years has found his work situation untenable due to changes that were beyond his control. He worked hard to shield his employees from the harsher environment but found that the situation was taking a toll on his own health. He also recognized that for most of his adult life he had been living it in the way he thought was expected of him. Now, with children raised and out of the house, he could assess what was working for him and what was not, and he found the strength to make changes. We have never seen him happier.

Buddhist teachings encourage us to see that causes and conditions are not the source of our happiness or unhappiness. Believing otherwise entangles us in cycles of desire and aversion. Through our mindful compassionate practice, we befriend whatever arises in our experience. But the teachings also encourage us to maintain healthy community and to steer clear of those who, for whatever reason, seem to thrive on toxicity. So, when we consistently greet our current situation with friendliness, when we do our best to collaboratively create a life-affirming communal experience, and yet at the end of each day we are miserable, the Buddhist answer is not to ‘put up and shut up’. We are fortunate to live at a time and in a place where we have choice and the power to change our circumstances. All that potential can feel overwhelming and often it’s better to practice being with what is. But not always.

In the last post we explored the ‘lay of the land’ of our lives with the question ‘What am I cultivating here?’ If we have been mindfully cultivating our metaphoric garden, yet nothing beneficial grows, then we may need to make some skillful adjustment. Recently my husband, the gardener in the family, noticed that the bougainvillea he planted last year was not looking healthy even though it was in a sunny spot with regular watering and feeding. With a little research he discovered that this plant wants to be completely dried out and then soaked, and it wants a different combination of nutrients. So he made adjustments, and is hopeful that it will flourish.

Just so, the people we visited on this trip have been noticing, researching and adjusting their lives.

  • A woman in her late thirties was so stressed out at work that she went to a nearby therapist, who assured her that she was not alone, that he could write a book on all the patients he saw who worked for her company. This made it clear to her that no matter how much she tried to adapt to her circumstances, it would still be an ongoing challenge because the company’s culture was set up that way. Knowing her, I’m sure she did her best to brighten the lives of her coworkers, but she wasn’t in a position to completely change the culture of the company. So, like any wise gardener, she decided to transplant. She found a different position where conditions are more attuned to her nature, and where she feels valued.

It’s important to note that in both these examples, neither person is in the habit of blaming external conditions for their own unhappiness. They are collaborative cultivators of creative solutions. Only after careful self-examination and a clear eye to all that was going on, did they come to the conclusion that external change in the form of a transplant needed to happen. Of course, we hope our initial seed was well planted.

  • A man in his early twenties is so passionate about what he is learning in his last semester of college, and the ways that he is applying it to the internships and part time jobs, that he is a creative inspiration to us all. His girlfriend is equally passionate about her chosen profession. Their enthusiasm is infectious and we all look forward to seeing what they do in their careers. They have put down strong roots in an area that has all the right conditions for them to thrive. The future looks bright!

But you don’t have to be an about-to-be college graduate to have a bright future.

  • Another woman in her early forties has been working for a decade at a job that leaves her drained at the end of every ten-hour day. Even so, she has managed to pursue her creative passion in her spare time with stunning results. But she couldn’t see how to transition smoothly into a career that makes the best use of all her natural talents and abilities. A transplant was needed. But just as a plant may need to be trimmed up to put energy in the roots, she has now rearranged her life to lower her expenses and create enough space to pursue what she loves and get paid to do it. She hasn’t chosen an easy path, but it is one that makes her wake up eager to work every day.

How do you know when it’s time to transplant? When you’re leaning so far over to get a little sunshine that you’re practically flat on the ground. When new leaves wilt before they have a chance to open. When you feel choked, stressed from the heavy competition of more aggressive plants. Transplanting is not running away from life. It’s getting a clearer view and making needed adjustments.

Of course, it would be great if transplanting wasn’t necessary. A well-planned garden takes into account the nature of the plants and all conditions. But life isn’t always like that. Okay, life is rarely like that. Maybe a little initial research would have revealed that a plant would eventually overshadow its neighbors, or that it has runners that make it invasive. In our lives we can choose our next move wisely, but there are often things that we couldn’t have known: companies get bought up and the climate no longer suits us. But instead of giving ourselves a hard time, complaining about the situation, or distracting ourselves with mindless entertainment and overindulgences to compensate ourselves for our misery, we instead wisely assess, research, do some inner inquiry and see what needs to happen. Then we make it so.

Jon Kabat Zinn’s book title ‘Wherever you go, there you are’ is a reminder that all the changes in the world will not correct a habitually unfriendly way of relating to the world. If we make a big life change, hoping it will solve all our problems but then neglect to put in the time to cultivate spacious ease and compassion within ourselves and in all our relationships, the results will be a disappointing repeat performance of our previous experience.

But in these examples, there was skillful cultivation, skillful inquiry, and skillful adjustments made. I am excited for them all, and I trust that they will bloom!

What does this bring up for you and your life? Comments welcome.

 

Inquiry Series: Valuable Question #4

21618.jpgThe first three questions in this series — What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and Is this true? — are useful any time we are feeling we are on the verge of being unskillful in any way. Or we can use them if feel we may have been unskillful and are trying to see how that happened and how we might not repeat that unskillfulness.

The next questions in this series are more for insightful overview of our lives as they are now. This is not a historical reflection, but really looking at the lay of the land, this inner and outer landscape we have created, whether we realized we were creating it or not. We can look both with appreciation for the beauty and with a gardener’s eye to what changes we might need to make in order to live with greater ease, harmony and joy.

Consider that in every moment of our lives we are planting seeds and nurturing them, so it pays to be mindful of what exactly it is we are cultivating. So our fourth valuable question is:

What am I cultivating in my life? After meditating or a going for a quiet walk in nature, we can take a few moments for this inner inquiry. We can notice whether we are cultivating ease, compassion, equanimity and joy. Or are we cultivating fear in all its variations and manifestations?

Cultivate is also a very accurate and satisfying word for what we do in meditation. We cultivate spaciousness. We cultivate ease. We cultivate kindness and compassion. We don’t push anything away. We plant the seeds of wise intention and wise effort and wise concentration, and what we reap is wiser mindfulness, wise, view, wise action, wise speech and wise livelihood — all in direct measure to our skillfulness in cultivation.

When we are working in the garden, we discern between plants we have purposely planted and ones that as seedlings may seem pretty or benign but in no time take over or shoot off seeds that root everywhere. So we make (sometimes difficult) choices. And so it is in our lives. But using the first three valuable questions will help us to make more beneficial choices.

You reap what you sow
I like the word ‘cultivate’ because it reminds me to recognize how responsible I am for the way things are in this moment and the way things will be in the future in my life. At the same time, just as a storm will come in and reek havoc in a garden and then there’s a period of recovery, I can recognize that it is not all up to me, that sometimes causes and conditions are such that I need to learn how to live in skillful relationship to great difficulty, great pain, loss and the ongoing unavoidable truth of the nature of impermanence. Can I be resilient? Can I find beauty in the storm? Can I find pleasure in the small sweet moments amidst the storm?

While I have no control over when the sun will shine or the rain will fall, I do have the ability to adjust my plantings accordingly: ferns and azaleas in the shade, roses in the sunny places. I can assess the soil and the average rainfall and choose accordingly. I can recognize that conditions change. A tree dies and is removed and now this shaded area is sunny, so some adjustments need to be made. So too in life when I come up against the loss of some ability to do something I love, can I find some other activity that will be more suited to current conditions? Or will I feel helpless? Will I wish things were the way they used to be, and wallow in the mud of a garden that hasn’t been lovingly tended?

In my life, there may be events and conditions beyond my control, but by being present and noticing, I can make skillful adjustments to accommodate changing conditions so that the seeds of my wise intentions have the best chance to grow.

Does this make sense to you? Are you cultivating the seeds of your wisest intentions? Or are you just letting your inner garden become an impenetrable jungle. Beautiful in its way, but when difficulties arise, as they will in any life, it’s a more than a bit daunting to try to navigate amidst the tight tangle of vines, the poison oak, and the possibility of slipping into a slimy swamp where who knows what is lurking. Oh my!!

What foolhardy soul would go there? So instead of spending time in the garden you get up to all kinds of distracting, dulling and even dangerous activities to avoid the whole mess. Sound familiar?

Another pitfall is to fall in love with the jungle, believe it is who you are, cling to that identity, as painful as it may be.

Another pitfall is to hate the garden unless it’s perfect, willing everything into orderly rows, just so, losing touch with any understanding of the necessary collaboration of the gardener and nature’s own awesomeness. The true green thumbed gardener is attuned to nature. They are nature, too.

That’s why a regular practice of meditation is so immediately useful. It naturally creates spaciousness in the inner garden. Over time we become more skillful at cultivating compassion, balance, ease and joy. We plant a seed in fertile soil enriched by our practice and trust that with the regular watering of our daily practice and our intention to be mindful in our daily life,something will grow. There is no immediate expectation. Seeds take time to sprout. We’re involved in the process, but is not completely a product of our will. We are tapping into the nature of things. It is the nature of things to grow. It is within our nature to be peaceful, to have more clarity in our minds and more compassion in our hearts.

I sometimes use the phrase ‘cultivating spacious ease’ in my meditation practice. I find it helps me to develop wise balanced effort. If I find myself lost in judgmental thought, I might use the phrase ‘cultivating kindness’ or ‘cultivating compassion’. Notice how different these phrases are from ‘I should be kinder’ or ‘I should be more compassionate’ or ‘What a mean rotten person I am.’  The word ‘should’ is a clue that I’m not being skillful, that I’m looking through a faulty lens of fear at myself and the world.

Thinking of it as cultivating these qualities accepts that I am not necessarily being kind or compassionate right now, but I am cultivating those qualities and with steady attention and patience they may grow within me.

As inner gardeners, we can look at all the areas of our lives and ask:

Am I cultivating health?
What am I cultivating here when I mindlessly eat more than the body needs in this moment? When I over-indulge in things that don’t nourish? When I don’t listen to the body’s need to move, relax, sleep or eat?

What am I cultivating when I let a complex pattern of thoughts and emotions around self-image get in the way of attending the body’s wise messages and taking care of its simple needs?

Am I cultivating healthy relationships?
In each family, friend and workplace relationship we can see patterns at play in the way we interact. We can see how we have cultivated warmth, caring and kindness. And perhaps where we have cultivated relationships that are thornier and difficult.

We may feel we are helpless to change a relationship, but it is worth experimenting to see. I know from my own experience and from reports from students that when we let down our defenses and instead send infinite loving-kindness in our thoughts to even the most difficult people in our lives, the energy shifts. This can be done from a distance. Any time that person comes to mind, just think ‘May you be well.’ This can be done not just with people we know personally but, for example, people in power with whom we disagree. This sending of metta doesn’t condone their decisions. We can still write, phone and march to let our positions be clearly understood. But if our words are venomous and our actions are violent, then what are we really cultivating?

While we wish all beings well, some relationships are potentially toxic for us, and it’s important to notice if when hanging out with someone, we revert to unhealthy habits that don’t support us — overindulging in food or drink, smoking or doing drugs, engaging in malicious gossip, spending beyond our means, etc.

There’s no need to blame the friend. He or she is caught up in painful cycles and is deserving of our compassion. But we don’t follow them into those cycles either. If we feel susceptible to temptation, we compassionately pull back from spending time with that person. Instead we send them infinite loving-kindness from a distance. May you be well. May you be happy.

We don’t proselytize or try to fix anyone. We are each on our own journey here. But we can trust that if we live true to our own wise intentions, we may without realizing it, offer inspiration to others. And that is a greater kindness than giving ourselves away and losing ourselves in the process.

Am I cultivating a healthy work life?
The practice of meditation over time puts us in touch with our deepest wisest self. Our fear-based efforts to be seen in a certain light fall away, and we grow into the fullness of simply being. The result is that we are authentic and accessible. Ambition to be seen as ‘a success’, however we define it, falls away. Our work is a contribution to the world, a valued and necessary activity that stems from our abilities and interests.

Often in work situations, we might find we have patterns of over-exertion and exhaustion. Seeing what we are cultivating with unwise effort — the quality of the work product, the effect on our health, the effect on our relationships in and outside the workplace — really helps us to develop more skillful balanced effort.

Am I cultivating a healthy planet?
Acknowledging our power includes taking responsibility for how our actions impact all life. If we belittle ourselves, we feel our actions don’t matter. But they do. If we get caught up in guilt we become paralyzed and unable to make simple choices to leave only footprints, not poison the communal garden of our planet. So now that it is not only possible but easy, and even fun, to live more responsibly for the benefit of all life, why not do it?

These are just a few examples of areas you might explore with this question. See for yourself if asking ‘What am I cultivating here?’ gives you a valuable way of looking at your life. And whenever you can, practice cultivating spacious ease.

Cultivating spacious ease makes room for wonder in our lives: Both the questioning kind of wonder and the awestruck kind of wonder. We make room for our buddha nature, our own access to universal wisdom, to whisper its truth to us in our most quiet, relaxed and attentive moments of meditation.

Inquiry Series: Pause in place and set a kinder pace

Over the past weeks we have been looking at three valuable questions — What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and Is this true? These are particularly helpful when we feel something’s not quite right in our lives. For example, when we:

– have difficulty in a relationship
– get hurt feelings
– feel stuck or frustrated
– can’t appreciate the goodness in life
– get caught up in thoughts of the past or future
– are hard on ourselves and/or our loved ones

Noticing when something’s askew and asking What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and Is this true? allows us to see more clearly what’s going on. We may see where we are misunderstanding the true nature of our experience. This is not a fault-finding expedition, but a compassionate look with some clarifying tools we may never have realized we had readily on hand to help.

Already happy?
It’s good to know about these tools, these valuable questions, even if we are feeling fully present in our experience, not caught up in endless thoughts about the past or future. We can save them for the proverbial rainy day when they will come in handy. Most of us do have at least occasional bouts of troubling emotions and circular thoughts, so these questions can be packed in the emergency kit for just such occasions.

Wise Effort
When we undertake this kind of inquiry, it’s important to do so with wise effort. The answers can’t be mined with a pick ax. Instead they arise in the space we create with our compassionate attention and gentle inquiry. This is only possible when we give ourselves time to quiet down, pause and unplug from our to do list and our devices. A regular meditation practice helps create the spaciousness needed, but the inquiry and the answers come afterwards and at other times during the day if we are open and receptive to them.

This is quite a different experience than the ‘Let’s DO this thing!’ attitude we may take when confronting a big project. There’s no charge of adrenaline and no goal to aim for. There is no urgency in our inner investigation. If you sense an urgency, that’s just a fear-based aspect wanting to get ‘fixed’ and done. But this is not a one-off project. It’s a rich and rewarding habit of a lifetime. Be compassionate toward that urgent aspect, but don’t let it dictate the agenda here.

Clarification on the word ‘story’
Last week in our exploration of the question Is this true? I used the word ‘story’. This usage of that word is easily misunderstood. Calling our long-held patterns of thought ‘stories’ is not to discredit them or throw them out. It is to allow some light in so that we can see more clearly. If we’ve always accepted the story whole-cloth, how interesting to look more closely and see the distinct threads woven together to create the pattern.

When we ask ‘Is this true?’ it is not to get rid of the story. It is to look with compassion and clarity at all the assumptions within the story. Most of our stories have aspects of truth and aspects of misunderstanding or misinformation within them.

The teacher/author Byron Katie has made it her life’s work helping readers and students question Is it true? How do I know it’s true? and Who would I be without my story? That last question helps us to see how tightly we hold onto even the most painful stories. The story might be ‘I’m a total klutz’ or ‘I’m the kind of person who could never do…’ something we very much would like to do. These self-defining belief-stories are hard to challenge. We’ve built a lifetime of ‘proof’ that backs up our story. This kind of inquiry can seem threatening. If I’m not this story I so firmly believe in, then who am I? And yet some deeper wisdom within us encourages us to explore, to question, to open to the possibility that we are quite possibly not a total klutz at all.

This inquiry is a gentle and incremental process, not a tearing up of the book of our lives and writing a whole new version. It’s an invitation to be present with what arises and be willing to look with open eyes and open heart. We hold ourselves in kindness. May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be at peace. May I be happy.