Category Archives: inquiry

Are you imprisoned by your preferences?

In the past four posts, I’ve written about the mind states of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity: the Brahma-viharas, heavenly abodes, that we cultivate through our practice of mindfulness.

But part of cultivating any mind-state is noticing what obstacles arise, causing disruption. One of these obstacles, easily discernible, is our collection of preferences and our attachment to them. So let’s take a look at preferences. We all have them. I certainly do. Most of my preferences I earned the hard way, by trial and error. Why would I even think to question them? I feel resistance at the very idea. Perhaps you do too. But because we know there is value in those four expansive mind states, let’s just open to the possibility that there is something worth examining here.

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Darlene Cohen

Recently I was rereading an essay by Darlene Cohen, a Zen priest at Green Gulch who died in 2011. She compared her experiences of going through two surgeries twenty years apart. In the first, she felt that the period of surgery and recovery was completely separate from her normal life. I can imagine how she wanted to ‘get back to normal.’ But after years of Buddhist practice, when she had the second surgery, she found there was ‘no rent in the fabric’ of her life. Her days were ‘all of a piece’. She wrote, “I see students, I get cut open, I eat Jell-O, I receive visitors, I feel as sick as a barfing dog, I pace the corridors, I ride home with the passenger seat all the way down, and so on, to the experience of golden apricot colors, helplessness, dread, and being borne on a sheet carried by angels.’

(In class I was able to read more extensively from her essay, but because of copyright laws, I can only offer you brief quotes. If you are a woman living in Marin, I encourage you to attend the Thursday morning class so you don’t miss out on the wholeness of experience. There’s a lot that doesn’t make it into the blog post. And I encourage all readers to consider purchasing the book of essays: Buddha’s Daughters, Teachings by Women Who Are Shaping Buddhism in the West. My copy is filled with post-it notes, so as I revisit those pages, I expect to draw inspiration from other Buddhist women in the West. And you might too!)

Darlene Cohen found for herself how her preferences created obstacles. Without making an enemy of the obstacle, we can notice how when we get caught up in preferences, we grasp at and cling to some experiences and push others away. That is the Buddha’s very definition of the cause of suffering.

Attached to our preferences, we become calcified in our little ruts of what is acceptable and what is not. Something as simple as a favorite flavor of ice cream can be an experiment in preferences. Darlene wrote that she dared herself to go beyond chocolate and chose blindly, ending up with a flavor she never would have chosen. But she discovered it was amazingly delicious. I know I certainly don’t stray far from my preferences. But what am I missing? Is it true that my life is dictated by preferences? And aren’t some preferences valuable?

At least some, hopefully many, choices we make in life are rooted in Wise Intention: Doing no harm to ourselves and others. Aren’t these choices preferences? It seems skillful to look to the source of our preference when we come upon it. Is it rooted in fear? Or is it rooted in kindness, compassion, awareness? Is it a habit that allows us to go mindless? These questions and more can help us understand the nature of how we are in relationship to the world around us. And how our world is shaped by our preferences.

I came across this quote the other day that fits in well here:
“What is freedom? It is the moment by moment experience of not being run by one’s own reactive mechanisms.” – Ken McLeod, Freedom and Choice

Preferences could certainly be called ‘reactive mechanisms’. They establish a set of reactions that may cause stress, distress, discomfort and dissatisfaction. Even the positive experiences are a little numb. Darlene mentioned ice cream, so let’s stay with that tasty subject about which most of us have strong preferences, one way or another. I have a preference for chocolate ice cream so that’s what I order, and in repeatedly choosing that over other flavor options, I enter a habituated reaction to the experience of having a chocolate ice cream cone. Is my mind even in the experience, sensing the taste, texture and temperature of what’s in my mouth? Or am just ‘happy’ to have something I craved? Is that truly happiness? There’s often some mixture of regret in having succumbed to temptation and fear of adverse effects. Whatever happiness there is certainly doesn’t last very long. It literally melts away!

We can look at where our preferences come from. Are we really still anti-brussel sprouts or is it just because the one time we tried them the cook didn’t do them justice? It’s worth questioning every preference we come upon, even those that seem benign.

Living in the rut of our preferences, we don’t recognize the freedom we have to reshape our experience. And if we are in relationships, we may be limiting others as well. In Darlene’s essay, she used the example of how her preferences shaped her younger life and the life of her small son. There was no way was she going to attend a ‘stupid Muppets movie’ or go to Disneyland, leaving her son to rely on other parents for those activities. Looking back, she regretted how much she missed by letting her preferences rule her in that way, saying, ‘What kind of twit chooses her aesthetic tastes over spending exuberant time with her child!’

Indeed! We can each look at our own choices and see if we are letting our preferences limit our ability to live fully and openly. Yes, perhaps some unpleasantness may occur if our preference filters are dropped. But in our practice we learn how to be present with unpleasantness, don’t we? We simply notice all that arises in our expansive field of compassionate awareness. If there is a pain, we stay present with the whole of the experience, noting all the small ever-changing sensations within it. We notice how our thoughts lurch into the past and future — ‘Oh no not this again!’ or ‘How long will this go on?’ We notice also whatever pleasant or neutral sensations are also present in this moment, so that we are not stuck in our automatic negativity bias. Imagine how liberating it would be to be able to be open to whatever comes. How much do we live in fear that things won’t be just as we want them to be. How attached are we to the belief that our slightest discomfort is intolerable?

In noting our preferences, we might also see to what degree we allow them to define us. This is especially noticeable if you or someone you know gets upset that a purported loved one doesn’t remember their preferences. ‘How could he not remember that I hate yellow! He doesn’t really love me.’ As if the preferences are the person. If you feel this way, it’s worth examining! Do you really believe that what people love about you is your preferences?

As we practice being fully present with whatever arises, we tap into a powerful freedom. We can be in situations where we have little control and still have equanimity and the resilience to respond skillfully to changing situations.

The past two weeks we have seen how natural disasters can play havoc with our nice ordered life, rooted in preferences. None of the people affected by hurricanes and earthquakes were consulted as to their preferences before finding themselves in those situations. And the more entangled they are in preferences, the more they suffer.

Of course, no one would actively choose disaster, loss of home, loved ones, power, communications, food, water, health care, etc. So doesn’t everyone suffer in these situations?  Everyone experiences pain, but there is a distinction between the pain we experience being alive in this life and the suffering we cause ourselves, compounding the pain many times over. If we are actively practicing being fully present and cultivating skillful ways of being in relationship with all that arises in our experience, then that experience shifts dramatically.

My heart goes out to all who have been affected by these natural disasters. As I watch, helpless to do anything but send metta and money, I am awed by the instantaneous outreach and self-organizing rescue aid that arises at times like these. It reminds me that a person at the mercy of their personal preferences may not be able to respond skillfully to changing circumstances. They are so caught up in a tight knot of reactivity that setting their personal preferences aside to meet the needs of the moment could be a huge challenge. It might be a moment of awakening, of breaking out of that dull deadening rut, but just as likely their reactivity to things not being the way they want them may make them turn away, rushing to find solace in something familiar, perhaps something self-destructive.

In Darlene’s essay she says that “a life lived openly without filters includes pain, heartbreak, Disneyland, and unpleasant occurrences. But you do have a satisfying feeling of being infinitely approachable; the universe gets through to you, whatever scenery it’s hauling.” Infinitely approachable. I love that!

So just as an exercise, perhaps as a little homage to Darlene Cohen and her wise teachings, but also as a gift to yourself, try opening to something beyond your habituated preferences, and see what happens. If you give it a try, please report back. And I will be taking note of and challenging my beloved preferences. Oh dear!

 

Exploring our relationship with the ‘enemy’

On especially hot days I am reminded of the summers I spent in Philadelphia when I was in my late teens. My parents had moved there from California, so when I went ‘home’ for the summer it was to this place that didn’t feel like home at all. It was a brick oven of a place, a sauna — so different from the San Francisco Bay Area where ‘nature’s air conditioner’ rolled in from the ocean most evenings. And yet there was something wonderful about a ‘hot town summer in the city’ experience, walking about Center City in the warm evening and meeting up with other young people in Rittenhouse Square. I made friends with a girl who lived around the corner and she was my guide. She taught me, for example, that how you walk across town when you are a young woman is not always a direct route. If guys are out cruising and start saying ‘Hey baby’ etc. and won’t let up, then how convenient that Philly has lots of one way streets. You just turn up the next street that goes in a direction his car can’t go. Oh yes, she taught me the ropes.

Upon returning home we’d often spend the night at each other’s homes, and finding it difficult to get to sleep in the oppressive heat, even at midnight, we’d make up lists. Our favorite list was of all the things we would get rid of if we had the power to do so. We could easily get to one hundred, taking turns naming, for example, people who do obnoxious things. We would get very specific. So, ‘boys who won’t take no for an answer’ might be on the list. Or ‘people who leave gum on the street’ or ‘girls who wear…’ whatever fashion we didn’t find becoming. I don’t remember the details of the list, just that we made one and that we were perfectly ready to wipe them off the planet for their offenses.

In retrospect, of course, this seems at the very least harsh, and at most horrifying. It was all in good fun, a shared complaint about the state of a world over which we had no power.

As a mature woman, I recognize that there is still an internal list, not as lengthy and not of people I would wipe off the face of the earth, but of things I perceive as a threat. And I know for a fact I am not alone in this regard.

At a time when so much saber rattling is going on in the world, it’s worthwhile to take a look at what we identify as ‘enemy’. We don’t have to be at war to have an enemy, do we? Throughout the day we find ourselves at odds and finding fault with all manner of people, situations and aspects of ourselves.

In the Buddhist tradition, we practice kindness, but not ‘nice-nice’ in the way of my mother and perhaps yours, who if I said I felt a certain way told me I shouldn’t feel that way. No, in this tradition we look at what is arising with as much compassionate awareness as we can. If we can look honestly at our thoughts and our fears, we can cultivate a more loving skillful relationship with all that arises in our lives, recognizing its true nature.

So if you are game, take a moment to bring to mind someone or something that you react to as an enemy. Take note of the physical/emotional reaction as your body tightens up and fear or anger arises. This enemy may be a specific person or group of people. It may be a concept. It may be something that causes you pain. Just whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t need to be just one thing. It can be a list! Feel free to write them down if you want.

Now, assuming you were able to come up with at least something that feels threatening to you, let’s look at some common traits that things we perceive as ‘the enemy’ have in common, and see if this is true for yours.

The enemy causes a visceral reaction. We can feel ourselves tensing up and/or negative emotions arising when we think about the enemy. If there’s no visceral reaction, then it’s just an opinion, not something that feels threatening.

The enemy takes up a lot of space in our thoughts and emotions. It’s not just a passing thought. It’s not just someone with whom we disagree. If you doubt it takes up a lot of space, then how did you so easily come up with one or more ‘enemies’? They were right there, readily accessible.

The enemy has power. For example, an enemy might be:

  • A leader with whom we strongly disagree feels threatening, while a past-leader now ‘ordinary citizen’ doesn’t. Yet perhaps we can remember when they felt threatening to our well being, back when they had the power.
  • Pain has power to lay us low, sometimes change our personality and even cause us to feel life is not worth living.
  • Age has power to diminish our abilities in a number of ways.
  • A boss has the power to fire us.
  • A coworker has the power to make us miserable forty hours a week.
  • A parent can feel like an enemy at times simply because when we’re in their care they have power over us. (Any power we give them after we become independent is an unexamined patterned response worth taking time to investigate.)
  • Disease in ourselves or in a loved one has the power to kill, disable and break our hearts.

What power does your ‘enemy’ have over you?

The enemy has volition. We are more inclined to perceive as ‘enemy’ someone who made a choice rather than, for example, an act of nature. There is a classic story of a man rowing his boat on a misty morning when he sees another boat heading towards him. As it comes closer and closer he gets more and more upset. Why is that person not watching where he’s going? Is that person purposely aiming for his boat? Who is it? What did I ever do to him? etc. etc. Enemy alert to the max. And then the boat bumps against his and he sees that it is empty, just a lost boat adrift in the water. All his anger vanishes. The boat is not the enemy. It is just carried on the currents. There is no enemy with whom to be angry.

Abstract concepts are not as powerful as personal experiences. We might be against violence in general, but it isn’t a palpable enemy unless it is happening to us (or did happen to us and we are still processing it), or it happens or happened to someone we love, or to someone right in front of us, whether in person or on a video or in a book. Abstracts do not activate our emotions in the same way.

Those are some things I have noticed as common traits of ‘the enemy’. What else do you notice? This is an exploration. Feel free to check it out for yourself and report back by commenting. (Click on reply at the top of this post.)

HOW TO COME INTO SKILLFUL RELATIONSHIP WITH ‘ENEMIES’

NOTE: If you are in a situation where you are in that moment being threatened, you will do whatever you feel in that moment that you need to do — your flight or flight response will likely kick in and nothing we discuss here will make a bit of difference. However, regular meditation practice will help you to be more mindful and better able to see the situation clearly, and perhaps will have cultivated some compassion that could help to ameliorate certain threatening situations. But street smarts and a call to 911 may be what’s needed. Just sayin’.

But, assuming we are talking about someone or something that is not holding a gun to our heads in this moment, but which satisfy the definition of ‘enemy’ for our purposes here, let’s proceed.

All of this ‘other’ making, this ‘me’ against the world or ‘us’ against ‘them’ thinking, takes a serious toll on our mental and physical health. It depletes our capacity for ease, joy and kindness to ourselves or anyone else. But it isn’t skillful to push these thoughts away or pretend they don’t exist. It is equally unskillful to actively antagonize an external designated enemy. This only adds to their power by fueling it with similar energy. So what are we to do?

Know your enemy
We’ve already made a first step by defining who or what we are perceiving as enemy. We have ruled out anything that’s just an opinion and anything that is abstract. Now we can focus on something that does activate a visceral reaction, that does cause us to feel threatened in some way. We get to know the enemy not to strategize how to defeat them, but in order to understand their true nature and the nature of our own mind.

Here are some ways to come into a more skillful relationship with the enemy or enemies we have named.

Expand awareness
We tend to get caught up in the story or the rant about whatever we perceive to be enemy. We probably don’t even listen to ourselves anymore, we just blather on in a habitual way. But we have a choice. Without pushing the enemy away, we can notice all else that is going on in this moment. We can come into an awareness of our senses — sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.
We can notice pleasant sensations also going on right now. The enemy may still be present, but we see that it is just one part of all that is happening in this moment, a slender thread in the whole fabric of being. We can take in all of this moment with gratitude for being alive to experience it, enemy and all.

Interview, inquire, investigate
When we feel up for it, perhaps after meditation, we can invite the enemy into our thoughts for clearer observation and investigation. We can breathe into the discomfort. We can take care of ourselves. We can remind ourselves that the enemy in this moment is just a pattern of thought and emotion. It is safe to look more closely and to do some insightful investigation.
Part of this investigation might be actual fact checking. When we perceive something or someone as ‘enemy’ we might not be able to talk ourselves out of it, but it is worthwhile to know at least whether it is as dangerous as we think. So, for example, if we have a fear of flying, the fact that it is statistically much safer than driving may be little comfort, but it is an important fact to keep handy. Other typical fears — spiders and snakes, for example — can also be aided by discovering their benign and helpful aspects, and perhaps how unlikely it is that we would encounter a dangerous variety in our area. Some things are easier to fact check than others. We need to be sure our sources are reliable, that our enemy is not the product of some random thing read online or the irrational ranting of some pundit with an ax to grind and bills to pay.  We might notice how willing we are to believe someone who reinforces our existing view, and let that be a red flag for us to make further inquiry rather than getting more entrenched in our position which is causing us, and perhaps others, such suffering.

Consider whether the enemy is a projection
We can recognize the possibility that what annoys us about another person is the very thing that we are either suppressing or judging in ourselves, especially if it’s always the same ‘type’ of person who annoys us.

Back when I was too shy to speak my own truth, I found I was often judgmental toward powerful women. ‘Who does she think she is?’ But it was just my own insecurities and my own desire to feel that freedom to speak up that was making enemies of perfectly nice people who were more worthy of admiration than condemnation.

If the ‘enemy’ that you defined is not necessarily powerful, then there’s an even stronger reason to look at the idea of projection. Perhaps you’re annoyed by people who are virtually powerless. Then what part of you feels powerless? This is not an accusatory investigation. We inquire with respect and kindness.

enemy-as-messengerRecognize the enemy as messenger
We can look at the possibility that what we have taken to be an enemy with a weapon to harm us is in fact a messenger with an offering that has the potential to heal us. The image shown here could be carrying a weapon or a scroll with an important message for us. We won’t know until we take the time to look.

Let’s take tension, for example. It is the one thing we actively work to diminish in our meditation practice. So it is easy to see it as the enemy. But in fact it is the messenger. It tells us that our thoughts are caught up in the past and/or future. When we befriend the messenger — come on in, take a load off, care for some tea? — then the tension releases to whatever degree is possible in that moment, and we can be fully present with what is arising in that moment. Noticing the tension, we recognize where our thoughts have wandered. The tension is the messenger.

Let’s look at some other ‘enemies’ we might encounter and what their message is:

If you experience any degree of impatience or even road rage, then your ‘enemies’ may be:

  • Someone driving slower than you want to drive. The message is to cultivate patience and to stay more present in the moment rather than rushing to be somewhere else.
  • Someone cutting you off, being discourteous. The message is to cultivate compassion, to recognize that everyone is carrying a burden we are unaware of.
  • Someone driving recklessly, putting you and everyone else in danger. The message is to be mindful ourselves, to be aware we have great power to do harm as we drive around at high speeds in these metal ‘killing machines’.

You get the idea. So what we’re learning is how to be present with someone or something we perceive as enemy by cultivating a spacious field of awareness to hold whatever is arising.

As we stay present with the enemy in that spacious field of awareness, we can inquire about the message it is bearing. We can ask ‘What do you want me to know?’ for example. This would be very skillful in post meditation inquiry if a challenging ‘enemy’ is present.

Practice meditation on regular basis. By doing so we become more and more attuned to recognize the infinite interconnection – all one, that there is no separate self that needs to be defended against some outside enemy. In that way we are able to see through the faulty filter of fear that has named something or someone ‘enemy’.

Feed your Demons This is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that can be very skillful in working through a difficult relationship with an aspect of self that presents as enemy.

Send Metta  A powerful practice is to send metta, infinite loving-kindness, always beginning with ourselves and always ending with sending it to all beings. In between we can send it to a difficult person. I have heard so many first-hand accounts of the power of metta practice — May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. May you be happy. — to shift a relationship and reveal that in fact the ‘enemy’ is a vulnerable suffering being, worthy of kindness and compassion.
Here’s a recording of me leading an extended metta practice.

Speak our truth to whomever is in power, whether in government or in our private lives. Once we have cultivated compassionate awareness, we are ready to use wise speech to address any concerns we have. Instead of aggravating the enemy, turning off their ability to listen to us, we touch a deeper place and inspire their own inner wisdom to look more closely at their own way of being with difficult emotions.

I hope that these suggestions help to whittle down your enemy list, and create some powerful positive changes in the process. Let me know!

After meditation, gentle investigation

investigationInvestigation as an important part of the Insight Meditation experience. After the practice of meditation, chances are we have cultivated a more spacious compassionate awareness that allows us to look at the nature of mind with less fear, judgment or expectation. In meditation, we practice just being present with physical sensations, thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away. After we meditate, when our thoughts ramble, rather than reminding ourselves to return to the breath or another physical sensation, we can add in some curiosity and follow the thread of that curiosity.

At some point we might notice that we keep having a recurring thought. Instead of simply accepting this thought as true, blocking it out or dismissing it, we allow ourselves to look more closely. I’ll talk a little bit more about the content of the thought shortly, but it is probably pretty mundane and easy to overlook. What makes it worthy of investigating is its repetitive nature. It’s a central player in the pattern of our thinking mind. It might even be driving the inner conversation.

So we do a little friendly interrogation, using simple questions — not to find fault or place blame but to shine a light on what is really going on. No crime has been committed here. There’s no need to rough anybody up.

As examples, I will use two types of repeating thoughts. Yours might be quite different, but the process is the same. One typical thought is a self-judgment or a judgment of a situation, as in ‘I am so dumb’ or ‘This is so lame.’ Another typical thought begins with ‘If only…’ as in, ‘If only I had/didn’t have/didn’t have to (fill in the blank) then I’d be happy.’

So, if you are reading this in a spacious state of mind and with a relaxed body, then I suggest you pause and think about something else (how often does a writer ask you to do that?) Just let yourself think your regular thoughts — what you plan to do today, what you did yesterday, letting your mind wander, even as you continue to pay some attention to overall physical sensations.

In this way you might notice if you start tensing up somewhere in your body. Now see if you can identify what thought or emotion is connected to that tension. What were you thinking about that seems to have caused your jaw or shoulders or some other body part to tense up? Spend as much time exploring this as you need. Even let it go, relax and release, and then return to allowing your mind to wander.

If nothing comes up for you, you might try triggering a thought pattern by completing one of the sentences:

“If only…”

“I am so…”

“_______ always happens to me.”

“He/she/life is always so…”

When a thought causes some tension and feels familiar, you can use it for your exploration, even if you think you might find a better one if you keep looking. This is just to give you the experience of how to do the exploration. You can do it again whenever you want.

The funny thing about the thought is that you might not even recognize it as anything but just the truth. Thus it is hard to spot! It is hidden in plain sight.

Naturally our first inclination is to agree with the thought, to build a stronger case for it with numerous examples that support it. It becomes what feels like a very solid part of our perceived identity. It is our story, and we tell it again and again. Even if it’s very negative, we still may cling to it. It’s not much, but it’s ours.

This well-developed story probably affects everything else we think or feel, the way a small amount of dye can tint a large body of water. Thus we are most likely making ourselves miserable, and quite possibly spreading that misery in all our relationships.

What to do, what to do! Having identified the recurring thought — and congratulations if you have! — we now can greet it with respect and kindness, as we ask “Is this true?”

“Is this true?” Hmm. There is likely to be some discomfort in questioning something we have taken for granted for so long. But at the same time we may begin to see that our tight clinging to it is uncomfortable. Just look at the way it causes tension in the body, and that’s just a part of the discomfort.

“Is this true?” Right off the top of our heads, we say of course it’s true. After all, we’ve bought into it all these years. Why wouldn’t we believe it to be true?

So we kindly and respectfully ask again. “Is this true?”

The investigation continues in this way, focusing more on the question, repeating the question again and again,  so that we are revealing layers of easy assumptions, smart-aleck retorts, grumpy mumbles and all the rest.. To each we say a silent respectful ‘thank you’, and return to our investigation. To respond in any other way is to simply get caught up in the tangle of thought we’re examining. (If this exercise is difficult to do on your own, find someone who is interested in doing it with you, preferably someone who has also just meditated.)

It can be challenging to remain respectful and kind. When we ask the question, we tap into our deepest wisdom, our inherent Buddha nature that we have accessed through our silent practice. In this way we can stay present with the experience. We may notice a rigidity setting in, a defensive posture, or another way that our fear of upsetting the status quo keeps us in its grip. We simply note the fear and give ourselves a little loving kindness and encouragement from our inner wisdom. (However, just a caveat that if this is too powerful and too scary, then find a qualified therapist, grounded in Buddhist psychology, to accompany you on this journey.)

Eventually there may be a slight shift and a different response comes up from someplace a little deeper, a little more heartfelt, a little more true.

We can also shift the questioning by going a little further and asking ‘How do I know it’s true?’ (You might recognize these questions as the core of the work of Byron Katie, a wonderful Buddhist teacher/author.)

This second question really challenges us to look at our assumptions. It makes us see the statement in full context. Where did this idea originally come from anyway? In this state of compassionate awareness and gentle investigation it is possible to see the thread that connects the recurring thought to something or someone in the past. We may even be able to hear in our heads the voice or the exact wording of the person who originally gave us this idea. Or we might recognize the traumatic experience in the past that continues to make us fearful. One member of our group said that she recognized the source, but that the original was even more insidious, that she had modified it to fit her better, but the content was still clearly there.

If we can identify the origin of the thought, then that’s a big leap forward in our understanding. If you can’t, It’s totally fine. Let go of expectation. But be open to the possibility that the origin might just waft up from the subconscious, sparked by something you see, read or hear over the next few days or weeks. And keep noticing that recurring thought, and each time it comes up, question it again in the same way. “Is it true? How do I know it’s true?”

If you do see the connection — immediately or much later — then there’s another opportunity to question with spaciousness, respect and compassion, whether that original source was reliable. Whether it came from a parent, a teacher, a friend, an ex or a schoolyard bully, you can recognize in retrospect that they were not omniscient possessors of all wisdom. They were human with all the foibles of any other human. Chances are, if the statement being examined is painful (as in ‘I’m so dumb’) or circuitously sets us up for pain (as in ‘if only’ statements), then the source of the statement was also in pain.

Sometimes the origin is not some specific person but just seems to be part of the culture. Advertising activates a lot of fear-based ‘if only’ thinking. (I used to be in advertising. Talk about insidious!) There are a lot of people banking on us feeling badly enough about ourselves that we will succumb to their assurances that their product or service will fix us up.

We are often so busy in our lives that we just don’t take the time to make such investigations. We might judge it as self-indulgent navel-gazing. But wait. If we are telling ourselves something that is not true, that is from an unreliable source, and we are making ourselves miserable in the process, then isn’t it worth a few minutes that we otherwise might spend watching a ball game or reading a novel — trying hard to escape from that harsh judgment or nagging thought?

Of course it is. So if you have already developed a daily practice of meditation, you are cultivating awareness and compassion, that likely is improving your mood, providing more balance, and softening the way you interact in relationships. Now, consider making good use of that time right after meditation — while you do some exercise or simple quiet household chores or personal hygiene perhaps? Whenever you happen to notice a harsh thought arising, a put down, a wish for this moment to be different, celebrate that noticing! And investigate!

Why I teach a women’s group

kwan yinWhen I guest teach elsewhere people often come up to me afterwards and ask where else I teach. When I tell them I lead a weekly women’s group, the women smile and seem to completely understand why that would be a good thing. If their schedule allows, they want come on a Thursday morning and give it a try.

But, not surprisingly, when men hear my answer they have a very different response: ‘Isn’t that sexist?’ ‘Why exclude men?’ And I agree with them, or at least I did until relatively recently.

When I began teaching insight meditation ten years ago, it was at the request of a few friends who happened to be women. There was no particular intention to create a ‘women’s meditation group’, but as the sangha grew by word of mouth, the members invited women friends, sisters and daughters. For whatever reason, they did not invite their husbands or male friends to come along. After a few years, the students started asking if we could call it a women’s group and limit it to women. I repeatedly said no, explaining that I felt strongly it should be an open group, even if no men show up. These teachings are universal, I told them, and it would be wrong to withhold them from anyone who wanted to learn them.

Then I spent a couple of weeks traveling around Morocco. It was my first exposure to a culture where women are truly hidden away. We saw men everywhere but very rarely did we see women walking about or filling any jobs in public places. It was a big deal when we saw a lone woman in the countryside carrying a bunch of firewood on her head. The tour arranged for us to be invited into people’s homes for occasional meals, which was lovely. But where were the women? The men sat at the table and engaged us in conversation, while the women were off in the kitchen cooking up dishes that they served us before disappearing again. They didn’t set a place for themselves at the table.

Hmm. There was something both sad and familiar in this. My mother-in-law often did the same, saying she had already ‘eaten’ while she was cooking and tasting. And I recognized that many women everywhere have some degree of this feeling of exclusion, an ingrained sense that we don’t have a seat at the table of life, that we are meant to remain in the background.

What does it take for us to awaken to the realization that we do have seats at the table, just by virtue of having been born? Our seat has always been there for us. We just didn’t know it was ours. We’ve been waiting around for an invitation or for someone to pull out a chair. Well, hello, we don’t need an invitation! It’s our table, too! We can sit down and enjoy the fruits of our own labors, whatever they may be. Why is this so difficult for so many of us to do?

When I returned from Morocco, I finally understood in a deep way how important it was that in our meditation group we are always actively addressing these issues, applying the Buddha’s teachings to the specific challenges we face as women. And yes, okay, let’s call it a women’s group and acknowledge the importance of creating a safe haven for directed exploration of our own experience. That is, after all, what we had been doing all along, but finally I could see the  value in naming and claiming it, something I had not understood until that journey to a land of invisible women.

It’s important to create a safe space to question these long-held assumptions of who we are in the world. This is not a gripe session or a victims’ support group. But it is an opportunity to look at the whole of our experience, and not just the subset where it overlaps the experiences of men.

But why do we still need this? Sure, women have made great strides, but look around! The challenges are ever-present. And even if the world were a perfect place where girls and women were no longer objectified, belittled and dis-empowered in a myriad of ways, gross and subtle, we would still be living with the cultural ripples, the patterns of thought and emotion that have been embedded in our psyches, handed down from generation to generation for millennia. Acknowledging this is empowering and crucial right now because we can see that our passive acceptance of male domination has put not just us but all life on this planet in jeopardy. Not only do we have a seat at the table if we feel like it, we need to take our seats and speak our truth out of love for all beings. Now more than ever!

Speaking our truth can be scary. I am fortified again and again by the insight I had on one silent retreat. I realized that “I have nothing to hide. I have nothing to prove. I have nothing to fear. I have something to give.” This helps me counter the shy little girl inside who doesn’t want to make a fuss. Forget that! Let’s make that ‘fuss’! We can let go of our fear of being seen and judged.  (I also need to give a shout out and a recommendation to check out Toastmasters if you are afraid to speak your truth in public. Participating in a local club can change your life! It did mine.)

It’s a huge awakening to realize that we are not objects. We are the subjects of our own lives, and co-creators of life on this earth at this time. (In general men do not need to be told they are the subjects of their lives. Of course they are. They look completely baffled when confronted with this idea. What else would they be?) But we women have historically been taught to be completely focused on the needs of others before even wondering what our needs, interests and desires might be. To that end we continually reshape ourselves to suit each role, to be the best daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, employee, co-worker, employer, etc. that we can be so we will be loved, needed, appreciated, respected — safely held in the reflection of other people whose opinions we deeply care about. We can arrive at a point, as I certainly did years ago, where we totally lose sight of whoever it is we are outside of the roles we play.

In the Buddha’s teachings there is a strong focus on letting go of shoring up identity. Yes! It’s very important to recognize that we are not some isolated being encased in a bag of skin. But often for women there needs to be a period of discovery of who that person is even in the most common sense of the word — to develop a healthy ego — before we can soften our attachment to it. Could you give a moment here, guys?

In the previous post we looked at why I practice and teach insight meditation instead of some other form of Buddhism. A big reason is the post-meditative explorations that are part of the practice. That focus of interior investigation plays a big role in why we have a women’s group. If all we did was to sit together, then went out into the world refreshed, there would be no particular reason to have a gender-specific group. But there’s much more to an insight meditation class than that, isn’t there? We go deep! And in that depth are discoveries that are personal in nature, and we may, at least at times, feel safer to explore them in the company of people who understand from their own experience what we are talking about. It is about vulnerability. This is not about making men — or anyone — the enemy. Quite the opposite! Instead it is to allow for hidden truths to arise within us, and to support each other in that investigation. Perhaps later we can share our findings with the men in our lives so that they can understand us better. But in the investigation itself, in that vulnerable place, the shared experience and understanding is vital.

If you look at a Spirit Rock Meditation Center schedule, you’ll see that there are a number of classes and retreats specifically for certain groups: People of Color, LGBTQ, women, men, parents, teens, families, elders and more. At first glance it looks like segregation and my initial response to it was feeling confused and even fearful: Why am I being excluded? Am I perceived as a threat by that community? I don’t feel like I’m a threat. Aren’t we all made of the same stuff? What are they talking about in there? Are they making me the enemy? So, believe me, I understand when men pose the same question to me about teaching a women-only group.

To calm my sense of feeling excluded, I remind myself that when I first started going on retreats, I chose women-only retreats because I felt I could let go and be completely myself. After a few retreats, I no longer felt that having men around — all in silence and with no eye contact — was a problem. We were all there being very interior, dealing with our own thoughts and emotions, not interacting with others. One day sitting in the meditation hall, I heard a man weeping. It cracked open my heart to realize how much alike we all are at the core. I was grateful to be sitting in a sweet sangha of brothers and sisters, all vulnerable together.

But at first and still at times, I need to be with just my sangha sisters.

Of course, we all hope for a world in which everyone feels equally empowered, and that is part of what we are learning through meditation and investigation. But we don’t get there by denying what is true in this moment. We look at whatever is arising — the good, the bad and the ugly — and then, in a respectful and friendly way, question it. Is this true? How do I know this is true? How am I in relationship to whatever is arising? What am I afraid of here? And then we patiently listen in.

This is a universal investigation. We all have incorporated the harsh messages of our culture into the ongoing unquestioned messages we tell ourselves. But women, simply by virtue of being women, have different messages that keep coming up, and different ways of dealing with them.  Whether our brains are fundamentally different from men’s is a matter of scientific research, and some findings indicate that there are over 100 ways brains have physical, hormonal and chemical differences between the ‘average’ male and ‘average’ female. None of us are average, of course! We each fall somewhere on a spectrum between what have traditionally been considered masculine and feminine traits. And anywhere we fall on the spectrum is just fine. But what we can see clearly is that we have been and continue to be treated differently, creating within us some special challenges when it comes to awakening to our true natures. So we come together as ‘just us girls’ to ‘let our hair down.’ And we encourage the men to create community together, to explore through compassionate self-inquiry how personal and cultural messages have shaped previously unquestioned beliefs that may be causing them suffering.

In this way, we can all come together with greater understanding of ourselves and the nature of being alive in this moment, and recognize in a deep and meaningful way that we really are all made of the same stuff.

Working with the Eightfold Path

For eight weeks we have been exploring the Buddha’s Wise Eightfold Path in order to incorporate it into our lives in a way that truly serves us.

At any moment we may find ourselves distressed about something. When we recognize the turmoil in our minds, we have options: We can take ourselves into full freak-out mode, distract ourselves with mind-numbing addictions, climb back in bed and pull the covers over our head, mull the problem over endlessly in our thoughts and in conversations with our declining number of friends and family willing to listen, OR, here’s an idea: We can turn to the Eightfold Path to see how we got here and what to do about it.

For example:

If I just got some sad news and my heart is heavy, I can remember Wise Mindfulness and simply be present with what is arising. I can acknowledge that, as uncomfortable as the thoughts and emotions are, there is nothing to fix here. This is part of life loving itself. I can attend all that arises with the compassionate awareness that the pain will shift, change and diminish in time, as all experience does.

Or maybe I feel guilty about something. Can I greet guilt as a useful messenger? Can I open to receive the message, deal with it and then let the messenger go? Yes I can, if I stay present and do some inquiry: Do I feel guilty because of something I said? Then I can look to Wise Speech and see where I misspoke. Was it something I did? Then I can look at Wise Action. In either case, if I am being honest, I can see just how I got myself into trouble. If I can be more conscious of how my words and actions have an impact, I can make apologies and reparations to whatever degree is possible. Then, and only then,  I can let go of the guilt. It’s served its purpose.

Am I feeling ashamed for the way I’m making a living, investing or spending money? Then I can look at Wise Livelihood and see how I might make some adjustments. Sometimes it seems so challenging to make big changes, but the biggest change comes afterwards, with the sense of inner freedom attuning to Wise Livelihood brings.

When looking at any of those three — speech, action and livelihood — I can ask ‘What was my intention there?’ I might discover that my words and actions weren’t aligned with Wise Intention. I might say, ‘Oh, yes, I see that I wasn’t present in the moment. Instead my mind was elsewhere.’ And I might see that I wasn’t being compassionate, either with myself or another.

And if I wasn’t being present, wasn’t activating Wise Mindfulness, then I need to use Wise Concentration practices more in my meditation. So I rededicate my daily meditation practice, consider going on a silent retreat, and make a point of noticing in each moment all the beauty around me, with deep appreciation for this gift of life — even when it feels difficult, painful and challenging.

If I notice myself striving, so focused on some goal that I’m blinded to the moment, or if I see that I’ve fallen into a habit of mindless boredom, stuck on the couch with the remote, never getting the things done that I say I want to do, then I can revisit Wise Effort to see how to bring myself back into balance.

If I feel isolated, defensive, judgmental and am more concerned with how people see me than how I can contribute to the general well being, then I can look to Wise View. I can recognize how my skewed perceptions are causing me misery. Over time, through mindfulness practices, my view naturally shifts into deeper understanding of the way of things. But even without that, I can at least identify that this is where my current challenge lies, and that will inspire me to keep meditating, to do compassionate self-inquiry, to spend time in nature, the greatest dharma teacher of all.

 

See how all of the aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path work together to guide us back to being fully present with joy and gratitude? What a useful tool! But the challenge for many people is how to remember all the aspects. How to become so comfortable with them that we can turn to them in our greatest need. For me, and for many of my students, a list is a hard thing to commit to memory in a way that is meaningful. So a number of years ago I came up with what I call the ‘Cooking Pot Analogy’. I have used it to teach the Eightfold Path over the years, and students agree it makes it so much easier to remember and work with.

31eb9-cooking-pot-analogy-8fp-tifHere is a downloadable copy of the Eightfold Path Cooking Analogy Sheet: 

eightfoldpathcookingpotanalogy 

for you to have on hand for any moment you feel you need it. Keep it handy! Feel free to share.
– Stephanie

Are you asking the right question?

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[This is the transcript of a speech I gave this week.]

When I was about eight years old we were living in Evanston, Illinois, and I remember one day after playing with my girlfriends, I burst into the kitchen where my mother was cooking dinner, and said, ‘Mommy, mommy, where do babies come from?’

She stopped and turned off the burners, grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil and started drawing little diagrams with stick figures, explaining really fast in that way she had that could make my brain freeze up.

Finally she looked up at me with earnest hopefulness and said, “Understand?” I nodded yes, even though I had no clue what she had just told me. She looked relieved and said, ‘Oh good, sweetheart, I’m glad we had this talk. Now go wash up for dinner.” As I sped out of the kitchen I felt befuddled, but mainly frustrated because I still didn’t have the answer I needed to weigh in on my friends’ argument about whether you can just go a few blocks over to the Northwestern University Hospital to get a baby or if you have to take the El and go all the way into Chicago to get one.

Mothers! Oh well.

We humans are naturally inquisitive creatures. Asking questions is the way we come to understand the world around us, each other and ourselves. The survival of our species and the creation of our cultures, civilizations and technological advances — all of this began with someone somewhere asking how or why or what.

But as you can see from my childhood example, it’s really important to formulate your question in a way that gets the answer you’re looking for. Nowadays we are learning how to formulate better questions for fact-finding missions on the internet because otherwise we end up with pretty wild answers. So we are perfecting our abilities to ‘refine our search’.

When it comes to the more personal questions we use in our lives on a daily basis, we need to be sure they too are effective, not just autopilot things we say, which is often the case. Some questions can be downright destructive, yet we use them all the time.

For example, when something’s gone wrong at work or at home, instead of collaborating and asking ‘How can we resolve this?’ and ‘How can we assure that this doesn’t happen again?’ we are often more likely to reach for our handy pointer finger and take aim at everyone but ourselves, asking ‘Who can I blame for this?’ Unless this is a criminal investigation, that is generally an useless question that can destroy relationships, and is better left in its holster.

Another destructive question is ‘Why me?’ We ask this question when we are feeling vulnerable and victimized. The world is against us, it seems. But asking ‘Why me?’ just digs us deeper in the hole we’re in. It makes us feel even more isolated. It seems as if everyone else is frolicking happily in the meadow of life while we are stuck in a bog. Sure, logically we know that everyone has their burden to bear, but we can’t see that from this ‘Why me?’ perspective. And when we ask ‘Why me?’ we feel kind of mean-spirited for wishing that someone else was experiencing our miserable situation instead of us.

Noticing when we’re using these kinds of destructive questions, and letting go of them as much as possible, makes rooms for questions that really can make a difference in our lives.

I’ve been working with just such a question lately. When I notice that I’m stressed, worried, fearful or angry, I pause and ask myself, ‘What am I cultivating here?’

Just last night I woke up and found myself thinking about giving this speech today. I felt tense and stressed, so I said, ‘What am I cultivating here?’ And I could see that I was feeding and fueling nervousness and worry with stories about how long it’s been since I’ve given a formal speech. Sure, I’m speaking to groups informally on a regular basis, but a prepared timed speech seems so very different. Look how I’m stumbling as I practice. Oh, I’ll never get this right. Oh, I’ll make a fool of myself.

What am I cultivating here? See how that question shifts perspective? It’s not an ‘oh, woe is me’ kind of stance but an acknowledgment that even though perhaps this emotional turmoil may have been sparked by external circumstance, I am the one who is creating it now. This is not to blame myself for my feelings or to make them wrong. It’s just a way of seeing more clearly what’s actually happening.

What am I cultivating here? is a question that reminds me that I have the power to cultivate other qualities as well. I can cultivate compassion for myself, lost as I am in these feelings. I can cultivate ease in my body to release any pent up tension. I can cultivate spaciousness to hold all the emotional content, the stories, that gives me perspective. I recognize my power. I am not pushing anything away, I am making room for it all in a way that frees me to see it more clearly.

What am I cultivating here? is an important question, too, because these emotions impact others, not just ourselves. You know if you’re around an angry person or a nervous person that you feel that energy and are made uncomfortable by it, or maybe you catch it, like a virus. So our ability to see the power we have to impact not just our own lives but the lives of those around us is huge.

Asking ourselves what we are cultivating at any given moment helps us to clarify our intention in life, helps us to contribute in ways that are meaningful and helps us to find how to hold all that arises in our experience.

This is just one of many beneficial questions you might ask yourself.

We humans are naturally inquisitive, and our questions are the way we can either create a path of destruction or illuminate our life and the lives of those around us. So next time you find yourself asking a question, see if it’s the kind that will bring you the answer you seek.

Wise Speech arises out of silence

Wise Speech rests in and arises out of a spacious peaceful, deeply connected silence.


So I want to begin our exploration of of this aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path with that silence. In class we rested in the silence of our meditation on a foggy morning that lent a cozy muffled silence to our practice.


What comes up for you when I say ‘silence’?


For many of us silence is not a welcoming, deepening sense of connection at all. Perhaps we are uncomfortable being left alone with our thoughts, so we fill our minds and our environment with noise to mask them.


We may have had to learn to navigate in a dangerous world of potentially violent silences, developing hyperactive skills on reading the body language of parents, boyfriends or spouses, in order to protect ourselves or our children. This is a sad skill that so many women, in particular, have had to develop. The CIA has found that women have the heightened ability to read men’s motivations, to read the silences and see beyond the words. So women make up 50% of the staff at the CIA and the majority of its leadership. Some pretty hard-earned early life training those women had, no doubt.


We may have been silenced, told to know our place, to stuff down our words, to hold our tongue, or to “stifle” ourselves, as TV character Archie Bunker so often said to his wife Edith on the sitcom ‘All in the Family’. More insidiously, we may have been asked to be silent and keep secrets we now know we should have reported to the nearest responsible adult. (If any of this brings up personal memories, please pause and send some metta, loving-kindness to that young person that was you, and to that aspect of self that may feel to blame. Then if you are able to do so, send loving-kindness to the person who put you in that position. May they be well. May they be at ease. May they be at peace. Metta practice is not always easy, but it is always powerful in its healing.)


Here are some traditional sayings from a variety of cultures that remind women to curb any inclination to speak up:


Women’s tongues are like lambs’ tails – they are never still. – English
A dog is wiser than a woman; it does not bark at its master. – Arabic
The tongue is the sword of a woman and she never lets it become rusty. – Chinese
Where there are women and geese, there’s noise. – Japanese
Nothing is so unnatural as a talkative man or a quiet woman. –Scottish
When both husband and wife wear pants it is not difficult to tell them apart – he is the one who is listening. – American
The woman with active hands and feet, marry her, but the woman with overactive mouth, leave well alone. – Maori


While a group of women together can certainly carry on a lively conversation, studies show that in social settings with both genders, women talk less. Women often hold back. Women often stifle themselves without men needing to request it. The culture has historically required it, and women, especially women of a certain age, still feel that unspoken demand to stifle ourselves.


Why does this matter? The person who holds the proverbial talking stick is the one who directs or at least influences the action of the group. To be quiet is to go along with the program. To speak up is to take charge, to be a leader. Women of the 21st Century have at last taken the reins of leadership to a much greater degree than women have for many millennia! Hooray! Given that newfound sense of expression, why would we want to be silent?


We can see why our attitude toward silence is plagued with distrust, discomfort and fear: Silence is repression. Silence is a scary emptiness that will let the inner demons out.


I understand this, believe me! And yet I keep championing silence, particularly a long silent retreat! Why? Because a silent retreat is a key part of the insight meditation experience. A daily meditation practice gives us a grounding in the skills to be present and to quiet the mind, but on a silent retreat, even the periods of not meditating are in silence and attentive to the present moment.


In those periods when we are not meditating but are still very much in silence, there is a unique opportunity to see the nature of our thinking mind, to see the thoughts that repeat themselves ad nauseum.


We can rail against the thoughts or we can develop a compassionate, curious but clear relationship. We might address a recurring thought with, ‘Oh you again! Haven’t heard from you in, gosh, twenty-two minutes!’ We can think about Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi Tree greeting Mara again and again, saying, “I know you.” These recurring thoughts are Mara too. We can recognize them without going to battle with them. A simple noting is sufficient, and can short circuit the train of thought. If the thought is a plan, we note ‘planning’. Likewise, ‘memory’ or ‘regret’. We might develop our own little creative ways to cease struggling with thoughts and yet curtail them. For example, I sometimes think of the thought as a ribbon I tie into a bow that turns into a butterfly and flies away. This keeps the process light. We are so prone to being punitive, it helps to have a light-hearted method that keeps us from succumbing to antagonism.


Only when we give ourselves an extended state of silence without much external stimulation do we begin to really see clearly the nature of persistent thoughts. We see their associative connections. We might notice that a sight or smell or texture triggered a particular memory that brought forth an emotion that caused a physical manifestation, such as tension in a certain area of the body. What useful information! We can apply compassionate inquiry and discover we have been operating on a totally erroneous assumption. This can be big life changing news that can liberate us and end suffering.

Silence allows us the spaciousness of mind to see the weave in the fabric of our mental processes. That spaciousness in the environment, in the silence, the stillness of being, the easing of physical tension, the simple structure of the retreat schedule that takes away the constant need to make decisions or to get things done, all helps to settle our minds and open our hearts to the sweet rich quality of being. With that clarity of mind and compassion of heart, we are inclined to have insights that awaken us.


So as scary as silence may seem to us, in fact when we give ourselves to it in this way, it proves to be the greatest gift we have ever received.