Category Archives: insight

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.

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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

What have you been telling yourself lately?

We all have phrases we tell ourselves to put things into perspective. ‘This too shall pass’, for example. These words realign us with our understanding of the world and how things are.

Pause for a moment to think of one or more phrases that you tell yourself when you are in a funk. Maybe your inner Doris Day rises up and sings ‘Que sera, sera’ as mine does. Whatever inner advice come up, just notice.

If something came up for you, remember it, because we will do a little exercise to assure that this inner advice is helpful, effective and wise. But first, a little background.

We’ve been exploring over the past weeks the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. We’ve set wise intention, examined whether we are using wise effort, practiced wise concentration with which we have cultivated wise mindfulness — the ability to be present in the moment and hold what arises with compassion. (If you missed any of those, go to the bottom of the page and click on the left-side link to the previous post.

After meditation practice, we find that during our daily life, we can cultivate mindfulness as we do our chores, have conversations, go for walks, etc.. Thoughts freely come and go, but our practice of mindfulness — just feeling the earth under our feet as we walk, for example — keeps us present. And that sense of presence makes us more receptive to insights that may arise. These aha! moments are our own inner wisdom’s way of giving us guidance and perspective, helping us cultivate Wise View in our daily lives.

So how do you know if an aha! moment is revealing wisdom?

Here are some clues.

An insight is wise if it:

  • arises out of the practice of gently listening in to your own inherent wisdom.
  • makes you feel more connected to all beings and all of life, instead of isolated and in need of shoring up your identity, proving your worth.
  • helps you see the suffering you are creating through some habitual pattern of thought and behavior.
  • helps you soften your tight hold on what you love and your tight fist against what you hate.
  • helps you understand the nature of impermanence and how railing against it causes suffering.
  • helps you have compassion for someone beyond your immediate circle of friends and family.
  • takes you beyond resignation into an open embrace of this moment just the way it is.
  • makes you less reactive (as in knee-jerk) and more responsive (engaged in a wholesome way).
  • allows you to see that you are not your story.
  • puts things into perspective so that you see that one painful thing isn’t the only thing that is going on in this moment.
  • keeps you from comparing your insides to other people’s outsides.
  • inspires ethical behavior not because you might not get away with some action but because you feel connected and compassionate for all life.
  • makes you realize that you can be open and inquisitive about life, rather than being acquisitive, amassing information to shore up your sense of a self ‘in the know’.

I could go on, but you get the idea. At the very core of the Buddha’s teachings are three deep understandings: That there is no separate self; That everything is impermanent; That not accepting the truth of these first two causes suffering because we want things to stay as they are and grasp for and cling to things, relationships and experiences to build up our sense of being a (very special) isolated being.

If your aha! moments have given you such insights, then that’s your wise inner voice, your inherent awakened nature finally being given a chance to be heard. You cultivated the space, time and willingness to listen in. Congratulations!

Insights are often very simple, but just what we need to remember. They often come out of moments of difficulty when you are following a familiar pattern, but your increasing mindfulness lets you see it afresh. ‘Aha! Here I am aggravated at a stoplight, when really it’s just a reminder to pause and be present.’

Where I used to live, I had to drive by a hospital on the way to and from home. I couldn’t believe how many crazy drivers there were! Then I realized that on that stretch of road a higher percentage of drivers were dealing with a crisis, a dying loved one, a lack of sleep because of the birth of their new baby, or the receipt of the worst news of their lives. Suddenly my heart opened and I felt great compassion for everyone on the road.

It wasn’t too big a leap to extend that compassion to other roads and out on the freeway. There is a saying that everyone is carrying a great burden we know nothing about. If we live with that understanding, our harsh judgments and irritations fall away. We may wish they wouldn’t drive a two ton lethal machine when they are not fully present and able to do so, but we take it more as a reminder to ourselves not to do so, rather than blaming them for their temporary mindlessness. That’s compassion.

viewWalks in nature in silence — at a speed that allows us to really look, smell, feel and notice all that is present in the moment — is one of the most likely ways to come into Wise View. If we are finding it hard to deal with change, nature reminds us that all life is ever-changing, and yet the cycles continue on and on. Can we allow for the release of whatever in our lives needs letting go with the ease of a tree whose leaves drift off in the autumn wind?

All of our practice is really a way to quiet down enough to allow our inherent wisdom to be heard. We can hear wise words from others and appreciate the thought, but it’s only when we come to an insight in our own experience that we really wake up. I have heard countless dharma talks and read many wise books over the past decades, and they have been interesting and helpful in keeping me practicing. But moments of personal insight transform me and mark me indelibly.

So we practice with dedication and patience, not waiting so much as being open to the possibility of aha! moments arising out of the most mundane experiences.

One caveat: Of course, there are people who are delusional, whose ‘insights’ are not wise at all. How do we distinguish between them? A delusional insight will be harsh and demanding, will want some action right now and won’t take no for an answer. This is not inner wisdom but the supercharged fear-based pattern of destructive thought. We all have these needy fearful aspects, but if a person is so out of balance that some inner voice feels like a vengeful god talking, and the person feels they must do what they are told, then, that is a call for immediate help from a medical professional.

But for most of us, these inner aspects are simply annoying patterns of thought that sap us of joy, upset our sense of equanimity, cause us to be harsh in our judgments, quick to anger, restless, sluggish, anxious, self-doubting and depressed. This is the mind bouncing off the walls of causes and conditions of life without the help of a meditative practice. And this is exactly why we practice! Because our mind without meditation is like the worst party we ever attended. And we keep expecting someone more interesting to arrive and change the music, the lighting, the food and the conversation.

But we actually ARE the change we’ve been waiting for! Dedicating to a regular practice of meditation, even if for only ten minutes a day and a class once a week, can turn that inner party around very quickly. And one person being fully present can change the energy of any real gathering — even a family dynamic or a workplace dynamic that feels very locked in — just by being present and compassionate. If you are practicing meditation regularly, and you are awakening to the wisdom within, then don’t under-estimate your own power to radiate presence into a situation, and cause a softening, warming effect. Watch out for the temptation to be ‘powerful’ in the limited sense of having power ‘over’ someone. This is a loving power that is contagious when it arises. 

Wise View is usually not arrived at all of a piece. Instead it arises in incremental insights that come from dedicated practice, and the willingness to compassionately question the veracity of the ongoing thoughts that we have taken for truth for so long.

So look at that phrase you tell yourself to make you feel better and see if it is offering wisdom. If not, quiet down, be present and let your inner wisdom — that quiet, patient, loving voice — offer you its precious treasure.

Read more that I’ve taught over the years on Wise View:

https://stephanienoble.com/2009/01/14/eightfold-path-right-view/

https://stephanienoble.com/2011/02/04/eightfold-path-spacious-view/

https://stephanienoble.com/2013/09/08/wise-view-seeing-what-blinds-us-to-seeing-what-is/

https://stephanienoble.com/2015/02/01/what-does-wise-view-do-for-you/

https://stephanienoble.com/2015/02/08/how-to-find-wise-view/

 

Beyond Meditation: Inquiry & Insight

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

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

Here’s how the investigation works:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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