Category Archives: insight

The problem with preferences

 

 

One of the core insights we come to through the regular practice of meditation is recognizing the nature of impermanence. This insight is valuable because it helps to free us from the suffering caused by grasping and clinging and wanting things to stay the same.

One of the easiest ways to have such an insight is to observe how a tree loses its leaves. But for many of us, seeing a tree lose its leaves sets off an inner complaint: Oh, winter is coming and I don’t like winter. Why can’t it stay warm and light always?

Whatever our personal preferences are, they get in the way of simple observation, and the gift of insight into the nature of being.

We don’t need to make an enemy of preferences — in fact, doing so would be just another barrier to awakening — but it is helpful to recognize preferences when they show up and see their nature. We can see how they can take any moment or situation and find fault with it. It would have been a perfect vacation but it was too…(fill in the blank). One small preference unmet can sabotage the whole experience. It gnaws at us so we become blind to all the beauty and wonder that is there for us in every moment.

We all have lots of preferences; so many, in fact, that we don’t take the time to see if they are true. Sometimes our preferences go so long unrecognized that when we do take the time to notice, we might discover we no longer ‘love’ or ‘hate’ the food or condition or whatever we have been claiming to feel so strongly about.

Let’s take the example of some treat we claim to love. Perhaps we describe ourselves as a chocoholic or addicted to ice cream. Because our thoughts are so full of attachment to this idea of ourselves, with all judgments we may have about this long-accepted preference, we are often so mentally embroiled in anticipation, anxiety, guilt, etc. as we approach the food itself, that we can’t taste it. We devour it to be done with it and past this complicated set of thoughts and emotions.

Can we slow down really taste the treat we claim to love. Is it really delicious? Great! Or when mindfully attended, without the urgency and all the entangled thoughts and emotions, is it not quite so delicious as we assumed? Perhaps there are even some aspects of the flavor or texture that are actually unpleasant. If the food is not the best choice for a meal, then this may feel like a wonderful discovery to recognize that we are addicted to the mental and emotional patterns of anticipation and the nostalgia of foods and experiences often more than the food or experience itself.

When we pay attention, we see how preferences, like everything else, change. That may feel discomforting if we believe that our accumulated combination of preferences define us. And we feel unloved if someone forgets our preferences. Is that true? Well, let’s check. Are your feelings hurt if someone who professes to love you forgets that you don’t like, let’s say, mushrooms? If so, then you are entrenched in the idea that your preferences are intrinsically you.
They are not! The Buddha put together a whole list called the Five Aggregates that gently but firmly walks us through all the things that we are not, and our preferences are second on the list. [READ MORE]

We don’t have to get rid of our preferences, but it really helps to notice and question them. Preferences are often rooted in fear. If we have a preference for a certain temperature or kind of weather, we may have positive associations, sweet memories, nostalgia super-charges our preferences. We can be closed off from many experiences because they are unfamiliar, so there may be something to fear, something to make us uncomfortable, something to make us feel insecure.

Fortunately, we don’t have to do anything new to have insights. We just come to our senses: to see, hear, taste, smell, touch as if every moment is new. Because it is! It may seem the same, but because of the nature of impermanence, the world presents itself fresh to us in each moment, never to be replicated! The Symphony of Now.

Since this is the way of things, and nothing we do can make it stay exactly the same, why not acknowledge and even celebrate impermanence.

Certainly when we have a great loss, impermanence seems cruel. But that same impermanence helps us to survive the loss, and over time to ease our grief and heal from the wound of what may feel like an amputation.

Impermanence delights us when it brings on something we enjoy: blossoms in the garden, a beautiful sunrise, etc. But if we are not open to all of impermanence, even those moments are tinged with sadness because we can’t keep it like this forever.

Our extreme preference for certain aspects of impermanence and our loathing of others is something to notice. Can we be compassionate with ourselves when we feel the dread of changes we don’t like? Can we be tender without being indulgent? Can we practice being present with whatever arises just as it is, and greet it as the wonder it is?

Think about your own preferences. See if you can notice them when they arise. See whether they are as true as you thought. See if you cling to them as an intrinsic part of what makes you you. See if your preferences cause you to suffer in any way. And then see if you can hold your preferences more lightly.

Inquiry Series: Valuable Question #3: Is what I am telling myself true?

In this series on self-inquiry, we have been posing powerful questions like ‘What is my intention here?’ and ‘What am I afraid of?’ The answers that come up are observable patterns of thought that form the stories we rely on to navigate a complex inner and outer world.

Stories? Yes, the mind weaves stories out of what we experience with our senses, stories still full of the emotions we felt at the time the story was formulated or first encountered. Scientists now say that the most distinctly human trait is the way we organize our experiences into stories that we then tell ourselves, each other and our descendants. Over thousands of years we have co-created a variety of cultures based on the collective stories that guide, enrich, enrage and entertain us. These shared stories greatly influence us as we each create our personal stories to interpret and understand what we are experiencing.

Think of any strong experience you have had recently. You have most likely ‘gone over it in your mind’ a number of times. Each time, maybe without realizing it, you refine and revise how you tell the story of that experience and how it fits in your life. This is the way the mind works. It processes experience. This may be a tale of some wonderful experience, but more often than not the stories we weave are the ones based on difficult challenging experiences, ones full of strong emotion, because they most need our attention to fully process.

I will use a personal example: I recently lost my brother. I have found myself rethinking the whole traumatic experience of the last week of his life when loving dedicated family and friends gathered in our home to give him hospice. At the time I couldn’t help noticing that while on the calendar it was a week for me it felt like ten years. So much emotional content paired with physical exhaustion can alter our experience of time, trying to make room for it all. This sense of time being elastic, of expanding when what we are going through is too much to immediately process, feels odd but is normal. It means we need to give ourselves time and compassion.

A few months later, I attended a writers’ retreat. In that safe dedicated space I was able to process more of my experience through writing poems. (Poetry has always been my most reliable means of inner exploration, but it’s certainly not the only form to be useful in this way.) The retreat teacher, Kim Stafford, encouraged us to go deeper, to tell the hidden story. So often our instinct is to make our story ‘nice’ and inoffensive. We are in such a rush to resolve our feelings, get past the discomfort and get on with our lives. It’s as if we want to just put it all in a blender to make a smoothie so that it will be easier to swallow. But that doesn’t work in the long run, does it? We need to take the time to digest experience. This is not to dwell on things or mull them over incessantly, but to give trauma — where there was so much to process in so little time — the chance to settle into not just a story we can live with, but the most honest account as we understand it in this moment.

Which brings us to this week’s question: ‘Is this true?’, a powerful question we can use in every situation. When we assess incoming information about the world around us, for example, do we just accept what we read or hear? Are the filters we use to process the information prefabricated, so things we hear that resonate with our biases are accepted without question, and things that go against our biases are rejected without question? This is obviously an important use of the question.

But ‘Is this true?’ is also a way to look at the stories we are telling ourselves, the stories we have stirred up with both the skillful ones (What is my intention here? What am I afraid of?) and the toxic ones we examined in the first post of this series, (like Who am I to think I could do this? or Why am I so stupid?)

At first the inner story we uncover might be full of remorse, self-blame or anger at someone else, imagining what we or they could have done differently. Or it might be full of self-righteousness and an unwillingness to look at more aspects of the events upon which the story was based. A gentle but firm ‘Is this true?’ can soften up the calcified shards of painful story we have been clinging to without realizing how much the story has been coloring our perception of the world, perhaps blinding us to a simple truth that could help us see more clearly and compassionately. How does this happen?

messy-files.jpg

The Faulty Filing System
On a daily basis story-making is a handy way for us to file new information to make room for the next experience. For example, we pass a tree and instead of really looking closely, we instantly file it away under ‘tree’, often so quickly we can’t remember seeing a particular tree at all. If we are interested in trees our filing will be a little more refined noting its species, for example, and feeling perhaps a little pleasure in the knowing. But chances are we don’t pause in our thinking mind and our busy day to ponder the tree, to questions our assumptions about it (unless we’re on a meditation retreat where such slowed-down noticing is a naturally-arising valuable experience.)

Back in daily life we might pause only if it’s something we’ve never seen before. We may be curious, often not so much to explore it, but to be able to label it so we can file it away. Perhaps it’s similar to something else we feel we know about, so we say, ‘Oh, it’s a type of _________.’ Then we have preset stories based on culture, family and personal experience, that we rely on to guide us in all matters of internal filing.

Do you see any potential flaws in this system?
Here are a few that I can see:

  1. If we are on autopilot as we process experience, the information is not properly vetted, is it? ‘Garbage in, garbage out.’ How could it be otherwise?
  2. If the system is overloaded it doesn’t always file things correctly.
  3. If the original formative stories were faulty and have never been questioned, then how can we expect this filing system to work at all?

To avoid ‘garbage in garbage out’ we stay as present as we can with our senses in each moment so our experience is processed without building up a backlog. We notice assumptions arising with the rest of what is going on, and we can question their veracity. This is not to undermine ourselves, but to cultivate spaciousness in our awareness so we can see clearly.

To assure things don’t get so overwhelmed that the system misfiles information and takes shortcuts, we take good care of ourselves: Get a good night’s sleep, pace ourselves, meditate regularly, spend time in nature, all with a receptive, responsive, compassionate sense of aliveness that helps us to make wise choices. When we are able to find balance in our lives so that we have sufficient alone time to process our experience, we stay ‘caught up with the inner paperwork’, so to speak. And we discover the joy possible in every moment.

Going through an emotionally stressful time puts this filing system to a real test. If we don’t recognize that we need to give ourselves more time to process and catch up, the system overheats and short-circuits. If we are paying attention, we can sense when we need to pause, spend time alone, take a walk, journal, have a conversation with a trusted friend or seek the guidance of a counselor or therapist.

Now let’s look at the third potential flaw in our filing system: How the original setup of our filing system may be flawed. Uh oh! That can’t be good. But it’s not life-threatening. We just have to be willing to look at what arises in a friendly way.

Think about those toxic questions we have been posing most of our lives. We don’t have to struggle with them. We simply set the intention to stay present, noticing and gently questioning the veracity of the stories we received whole-cloth without question as children and the stories we have constructed over the years to attempt to make sense of the world.

I have had the joy of watching close up the way a child’s brain processes information. as part of the care team for our young granddaughters. Oh my, as bright as they are, how easily they can misunderstand things! For example, when I asked the four year old attending a Lutheran preschool what she was learning about Christmas, she said ‘Well, Grandma, there was this lake of flames.’ Wha’? I’m pretty sure that’s not what they were telling her about the birth of Jesus. That misunderstanding, and the confidence in what we believe with all our heart to be true, is emblematic of the way all our brains received and processed information as children. Then we get busy with our lives and never question our misinformed perceptions again. No wonder we get in trouble!

I hope this little story helps you to be a bit suspicious of the stories you tell yourself and accept as not only true but perhaps sacred in some way. Questioning them might feel like a threat to tear down your whole being. Think of it more like spring cleaning, lightening the load of the useless and often painful clutter of misinformation we all carry around. If not tossing it out, at least holding it more lightly and seeing it more clearly.

We all have a lot of stories. Our purpose is not to replace one story with another one. The question Is this true? allows us to soften the rigid stance that hasn’t supported us very well. By exercising the mental muscles of compassionate and clear-sighted inquiry, we become more authentic and fluid. If we can allow for the possibility that a thought we’ve held for a long time is just an unexamined habit of mind, then we’re not bogged down in defending the fortress we hold ourselves to be.

For a little inspiration, it seems appropriate to leave you with a story! This classic Buddhist tale challenges our habit of reacting to life by fabricating stories about things that can’t be known.

A farmer’s horse gets loose from the corral and disappears. The farmer’s neighbor says, ‘What a calamity! Poor you, stuck without a horse to plow your fields.’ He was surprised when the farmer shrugged and said, ‘Maybe yes, maybe no.’

A few days later the horse returns with six wild horses in tow. Wow! Now the neighbor said, ‘That’s fantastic! What great luck!’ The farmer again says ‘Maybe yes, maybe no.’

Then the farmer’s son falls off the horse while trying to tame it, and he breaks his leg. ‘How terrible!’ the neighbor sympathizes. The farmer seems heartless in his unwillingness to claim this as a catastrophe. “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next week the army comes and takes all able-bodied young men, but not the son hobbling around on crutches. The neighbor cannot believe the farmer’s good fortune.

We stop the story here but you can see how it could go on and on in this way. The neighbor is weaving stories based on automatic assumptions, while the farmer is allowing himself to be open to the possibility that the story is at the very least incomplete, even when it seems patently obvious to the neighbor what the truth of each situation is. If you relate more to the neighbor, you are not alone! Most of us run with these stories, reacting to every change of fortune as a disaster or a stroke of luck. But there is a gift in allowing ourselves to pause in our automatic reactions to ask ‘Is this true?’ and to see that the verdict is never in. We all have stories of misfortune that turned into great gifts. So rushing to judgment is always premature. We don’t know! And far from being scary or weak in some way, living in the ‘I don’t know’ mind a most joyful state, opening a world of wonder.

Again and again the Buddha invites us to ‘not take his word for it’ but to explore for ourselves. It’s rich invitation. Take him up on it!

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.

Coming home

spirit-rockWhen I first arrived at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the early 1990’s, it felt like a homecoming. Home to the lovely woodsy canyon surrounded by oak-studded hills. Home to the easy warmth and openness of the people — the teachers, staff and fellow students — the sweetness of sangha, the community of supportive fellow meditation practitioners. And home to the Buddha’s teachings that give me a framework to look at my own experience and insights. This was a place I could belong without ‘buying into’ some belief. Instead I was offered room to grow in my own way, at my own pace. It’s what teacher and Spirit Rock co-founder Jack Kornfield so aptly calls a path with heart.

So that’s what I want for my students when they come to my weekly class: To feel they have come home, and that there is room for them to grow into their true selves, aligned with their own inner wisdom. Together we cultivate spaciousness to be present with whatever arises in our moment by moment experience, and we meet it with friendliness, respect and curiosity. We learn that we have nothing to defend, nothing to hide and nothing to prove. We come home to ourselves as we come home to our breath in each moment.

Our purpose when we come together is not to learn about Buddhism, although we do become increasingly familiar with the teachings. We are not accumulating knowledge to become Buddhist scholars. We’re not here to accumulate anything. Instead we’re learning to gently let go of a lot of previously unexamined opinions, beliefs and judgments that cloud our view and keeps us from experiencing the joy and beauty of this life in every moment, no matter what our current experience. We are using the wise teachings of the Buddha as a framework, map or guide, so that our own individual explorations can be understood in greater context.

The Buddha told his students, ‘See for yourself.’ So that’s what we do here. If you give yourself the gift of meditation practice — on a daily basis, in a weekly class and in the extended silence of an occasional retreat — you can see for yourself how the practice benefits your life. All we are doing really is offering own inner wisdom what it needs in order to bloom within us. When that wisdom is heard and valued, there are gentle and sometimes remarkable internal shifts of perspective that are liberating.

Why Insight Meditation?
There are approximately 500 different schools of Buddhism. Not all of them have made their way to the US, but even here we have many choices, such as Zen, Tibetan, Shambhala and Vipassana/Insight Meditation. So how does one decide the one that’s a good fit? Since Spirit Rock was my first real experience of Buddhism, I can’t speak very knowledgeably about other traditions, but recently, at the Buddhist Insight Network conference I attended, Gil Fronsdal gave a dharma talk that included a helpful overview. He asked us to imagine a spectrum of Buddhist traditions ranging from very religious to totally secular. On the very religious end are deities, supernatural beings and ghosts, rituals, devotion, faith — all the makings of what we think of as religion.

Insight Meditation, especially as it is taught in the West, falls on the far other end of the spectrum. It is as secular as you can get and still follow the Buddha’s teachings. There are no deities, and the Buddha is not a god, but an enlightened teacher and inspiration. For those of us on this path, the more secular approach closely follows the Buddha’s own path 2600 years ago, since he kept it all very simple. He was an enlightened teacher generously sharing concepts that helped people to awaken to their own Buddha nature.

The Buddha’s interests were psychological rather than religious. Nothing that has been recorded of his teachings indicates any interest in whether there is a god — and if so how many — or what happens to us when we die. Those kinds of questions are at the heart of all religions, but the Buddha, the great investigator, seems to have had no interest in investigating such questions. He accepted reincarnation as true, it wasn’t the focus of his personal investigation or his teachings, and a Buddhist practitioner, at least in this tradition, can rest in the ‘I don’t know’ mind around that and pretty much anything, really. That resting in not knowing is at the heart of our practice. Like the Buddha. we can focus our interest on this life, right here, right now, and how to live it in a way that does not create suffering for ourselves and others.

As his wise teachings spread to different countries, they were incorporated into the already existing religious traditions, and became new schools of Buddhism. All forms of Buddhism adhere to the original teachings, but they emphasize different aspects and amalgamate the teachings into their cultural comfort zones. As Buddhism arrived in the West, the same thing is happening.

So we have a wide variety of traditions. Which one draws us? Which one, if any, feels like a homecoming?

The Insight Meditation tradition appeals to those who are not looking for God or a religion — either because they already have one or because they have no interest in one. Instead they are looking for ways to cope with life’s challenges. Even though we have a lot of fun in our class, nobody comes for the fun of it. The original impulse to find a meditation group comes more from heeding our own inner wisdom’s call to pay attention, and to develop the skills to do so.

You can see why this is the tradition that has been readily adopted by mental health professionals in the West. It has come to be taught in hospitals, schools, prisons, etc. without reference to the Buddha, just taught as Mindfulness.

There are scholars in this tradition, who study and translate the Pali Canon, the written record of the Buddha’s words as recorded 500 years after his death. (Before that it was an oral transmission down through generations of monks.) These scholars perform very important work. But this is a living tradition, and it is in the practice of meditation, in each of our own inner investigation and aha moments that the Buddha’s insights and wisdom lives on.

When I first ‘came home’ to Spirit Rock, I was already leading a meditation class a few miles away, having had my own deep experience of a series of insights that helped me recover from a debilitating illness. I had written a book and had been asked to teach. When my class went on a field trip to Spirit Rock, I had no idea it would change my life.

I really appreciated the way the Buddha’s mind worked, and how all the insights I’d had in my own practice fit so nicely within the framework he created. I could see how all that I had experienced was just a normal arising of a mind that has had the opportunity to quiet down and be present with compassion. What a relief! And what an inspiration! I decided to stop teaching for awhile and simply open myself to the teachings of the Buddha by attending a weekly class at Spirit Rock. Then about ten years ago, I was asked to teach, and I have been teaching ever since.

Rituals
I don’t want to give the impression that Vipassana has no rituals. It comes from the monasteries of southeast Asia, and if you go there, certain rituals will be very apparent. But at Spirit Rock, IMS in Barre, MS; and in the many other smaller sanghas throughout the US and beyond, you will probably find just a few:

  • In general, shoes are removed before entering the meditation hall.
  • Silence is maintained during meditation periods and may be requested by the teacher at other times.
  • Bells are rung to end the meditation, sometimes at the beginning, and on retreats as calls to practice. (My favorite of all rituals!)
  • There is usually some kind of altar with a statue of Buddha on it.
  • And there is bowing. At first it was difficult for me to be in a room with an altar and to bow to it. How is this not bowing to a god? I wondered. But then I heard somewhere that when we bow we put our head below our heart, and that helped me to recognize the benefit of releasing the churning patterns of the thinking mind and allow the heartspace to inform me.
    Mostly we are not bowing in this deep way. We simply press our hands together at the end of meditation, which I see as a way to acknowledge the experience, and to thank myself for taking the time to meditate.
    If we bow to the Buddha, it is out of deep respect and gratitude to a great enlightened teacher.
    And we may bow to our own teachers as well, not because they are ‘masters’ but because we are grateful for their taking the time to practice, to learn, to awaken to whatever degree they are able, and to generously share their wisdom.
  • On retreat, depending on the teachers, sometimes there is chanting, especially in the evening after the dharma talk. Very lovely and deep.

Gil’s talk about where our tradition fits on the spectrum from religious to secular was very freeing for me. Not only did I see that I was in the right place for me — no surprise there — but I realized that I had felt I should know all about the other traditions. For example, I had felt I should know the names of the deities represented in Tibetan Buddhist art. ‘I should, I should’ — that’s always a clue. That word ‘should’ comes from a place of fear, of insufficiency, not-enough-ness, of craving to be accepted, to shore up my identity as a ‘true Buddhist’ or whatever idea I might have had. But now I could see that feeling I need to name all the deities of another tradition makes as much sense as a Presbyterian thinking there is some failing in their not knowing all the Catholic saints!

The real key is to practice wholeheartedly in the path we have chosen, the one that feels aligned with our truest nature. And for me that is this very secular, very portable practice of Insight Meditation.  What about you?

A very different kind of retreat

spiritrockI have just returned from a three day conference/retreat of Intersangha, the annual meeting of the Buddhist Insight Network held this year at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

It’s always wonderful to stay on retreat at Spirit Rock: to be there when the sun sets, to go to bed after an inspiring dharma talk and a walk under the stars, to wake to a bell, to walk in the still dark morning to meditate wrapped in a shawl or blanket, and then to walk together in silence down to the dining hall as the sun rises.

On this retreat we had the most crystal clear blue sky with the hills as green as I’ve ever seen them, especially appreciated after our years of drought. I wasn’t taking photos but this one is a near approximation of the green we experienced.

Every retreat is different, but this gathering was a conference, held in the envelope of a retreat. We went into silence after the evening dharma talk as we went into the last meditation sit, and we stayed in silence through breakfast in the dining hall, which was especially sweet for me. Years ago I wrote this poem about the symphony of eating breakfast on retreat at Spirit Rock:

Breakfast, Day Four

The dining hall clatter becomes symphonic.

The ecstasy of scraping chairs and utensils!

I have never heard anything so beautiful

as the sound of a sangha in silence

earnestly clearing their plates.

                                                 – SN, June  2006

Happily I was able to re-enter that state of awareness on the first morning since there was no ‘Day Four’ this time!

Just like every other retreat we all had our yogi jobs to help maintain the space and to help the seven cooks keep us well-fed. I try to have a different yogi-job on each retreat, so over the years I have vacuumed dormitory halls, scrubbed showers, swept decks, cleaned bathrooms, washed vegetables, and cleaned the Council House. This time I maintained the foyer of the main meditation hall, washed glasses and refilled water for the teacher-presenters. 

The Buddhist Insight Network is a community of mostly North American sanghas (communities of meditation practitioners) in the Vipassana/Insight tradition. (There are over 500 schools of Buddhism, all on a wide spectrum from religious to secular. Our tradition is the most secular.) Those attending were teachers, community leaders and board members of their local sanghas. Some of what was shared were the practical aspects of how to best manage the challenges of administration of these non-profit organizations, but the formal talks were deep sharings of Buddhist teachings to a group of advanced meditation practitioners. Dharma teachers Rick Hanson (for whom I guest teach), Gil Fronsdal (founder of Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City and Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz), Kevin Griffin, Matthew Brensilver (who ran the conference) and Lori Wong, among others, gave inspiring talks. To share them now would be to parrot what was taught. I’d prefer let the teachings percolate within me, then let them influence my own explorations and sharings over the coming weeks and months. Such a rich experience, I definitely need time to digest!

 

The Intersangha was a group of 65 people adept at practicing wise speech, so even though this was not a silent retreat, the talking was skillful, supportive and inspiring. Even so, after so many talks, discussions and conversations, I felt full to bursting, like I couldn’t take in one more drop of information. And when I got home, I took a long deep nap.

With my class the next day, I shared the experience of being on retreat and encouraged them to give it a try. I asked them, and now I’m asking you:

  • Have you been on a silent meditation retreat? If yes, take a moment to reflect on the value you received. Remind yourself of that value from time to time, so that you may be inspired to attend again, perhaps once a year as a regular part of your practice.
  • If you haven’t been on a retreat, is it something you consider but then reject? Reflect now on any thoughts that come up in considering going on retreat. ‘Can’t afford it.’ ‘Don’t have the time.’ ‘I have too many responsibilities I can’t hand off.’ Or something else. For each of them, ask yourself: Is this true?
  • Is there something else that keeps you from attending? Perhaps fear of what the experience might entail? Perhaps the belief that you couldn’t possibly maintain silence, or maybe you’re just unwilling to do so? Maybe you’re worried that it will be a bad experience and you’ll feel stuck there. These are all typical concerns. And I certainly can’t guarantee that you won’t have a bad time. But if you do, it’s another opportunity to explore the nature of mind, of expectation, of preferences. And you can always leave. (Just be sure to tell the retreat manager!) Most attendees have some moments of discomfort amidst many moments of delight, awe and contentment. I encourage you to explore the possibility of going on a retreat. Find out for yourself!

Spirit Rock Meditation Center is a main retreat center but there are others as well. If you prefer something on the East Coast of the US, then check out Insight Meditation Society in Barrre, MS. Other smaller retreat centers are also worth checking out. You can go to the Buddhist Insight Network listing of residential retreats.

My experience with retreats deepens more and more each time I return to the sweet silence. What a relief from all the talking I normally love to do! Like anything else, it is something that needs to be tried in order to be understood. Resistance is typical. But attendance is so fruitful!

I am happy to answer any questions you may have about the retreat experience at Spirit Rock. Although I have been on retreats elsewhere, that is the only one I feel I have sufficient knowledge of to be able to provide information.

I have promised my class that I will set up a time for us to go on a field trip to Spirit Rock when no retreat is in session. Sometimes just being able to see exactly where you will be sleeping, eating and sitting helps to motivate a meditator to sign up for a retreat. If you are in the Bay Area and would like to join in the field trip, contact me and I’ll let you know when it will be.

I occasionally offer daylong retreats here in my home in San Rafael. We are most fortunate to have a beautiful space with views of Mount Tamalpais and garden paths to wander. We maintain silence throughout, alternating between sitting, walking and eating meditations. It’s a very deep and transformative experience. If you are interested in attending a daylong with me, let me know.

—-

A final few words about yesterday’s class: For my students coming from one direction there was a challenge of a road closure. I had alerted them and offered alternate routes, one of which was quite a maze of small roads (It would have helped if I’d mentioned whether to turn right or left!) Everyone got there, but one student was late. At the end of class she shared that she did get utterly lost, but she remembered to stay fully present with the experience and had the most beautiful ride.

A beautiful example of one of the reasons we practice!

 

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