Category Archives: Jack Kornfield

Find Your True Intention

What is your true intention?
Jack Kornfield says that setting a long term intention or vow is like setting the compass of your heart. I love that. A compass of your heart. Wherever you find yourself in your thoughts, emotions, decisions and challenges, there’s the compass of your truest intention that can guide you.

In fact all eight aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path form a helpful guide for us to rely on when we find ourselves at a crossroads. And we are always at a crossroads, because whatever our current situation, even if we can’t change the circumstances, we have a choice about how we relate to what’s arising in our experience. We can mindlessly react out of fear and potentially do something unskillful, even harmful. Or we can align ourselves with our truest intention, use our wisest effort, deepen our understanding of the nature of things, cultivate mindfulness and come up with the wise words and actions that make the best possible response to the situation.

And if we have done something unskillful, we can use the Eightfold Path to figure out where we went wrong. Instead of wallowing in misery, guilt and self-loathing, we can actively investigate and then renew our intention. It’s a very handy-dandy guide indeed!

Over the next eight weeks we will explore all eight of these aspects. We begin with intention, in part because it is the first week of the new year, but also because finding our truest intention will help us in our exploration of the other aspects. The other aspects might help us to refine our intention as well.

For now, we can test whatever current intentions we may have to see if they are true. Especially right after the new year when we to one degree or another often create resolutions. Most popular ones are to lose weight, to exercise more, etc. Nothing wrong with either, but they are not our truest intentions. And if our short term goals are not aligned with our truest intentions, they usually fail.

Why do they fail? Because they are rooted in fear. It’s like choosing to run on a gravel road barefoot. How long will you last? The ‘gravel’ is all the negative inner thoughts we have to contend with that force us to constantly question and justify our set intention. There’s another option. One that is full of kindness and compassion, and rooted in a deeper understanding of life. We can choose to run on the Eightfold Path that is truly supportive.

To find our true intention we might start with the intention to meditate on a regular basis. If we follow that intention and develop a regular habit of meditating, we find an opening, an easing of tension, a softening of that harshly critical mind — the one that builds walls rather than bridges, that strives to be clever rather than kind, the one that thinks it has something to prove. We discover that our striving comes from a sense of separation, and that sense of separation is rooted in fear. We discover we have nothing to hide, nothing to prove and nothing to fear from simply being fully alive in the world. And, once we understand that, we discover we have something to give. We can engage in life with a loving generous spirit.

Once that regular habit of meditating is in place, we find our understanding deepening and widening, and our truest intention becomes broader as well.

You might pause for a moment now, or for a few minutes after your meditation practice when your mind is quieter, to see what comes up for you when you ask ‘What is my truest intention in this life?’ And then simply allow whatever response arises to come up. Notice if what comes up is loving, calm, wise and undemanding. That’s your Buddha nature, your wise inner voice, offering guidance. If what comes up is full of shoulds or shouldn’ts or this is a bunch of bs, well that’s just an inner aspect that is rooted in fear, trying it’s best to protect you from the dangers it perceives everywhere. While we offer these kinds of voices respect, we can also respectfully decline to be motivated by them. Make room for that inner wisdom to be heard. It may be challenging amidst the cacophony of more frantic thoughts, full of judgment and skepticism. But if you sit quietly enough for long enough, you will create enough space for it to be heard. Because it isn’t going anywhere. It is always within you. You may not have heard it because we tend to pay attention to what is loudest, fastest and most demanding. Inner wisdom is none of those things. But it is there offering lovingkindness and the wisdom to give you exactly what you need right now. Let it tell you your wisest intention. Then write it down, bring it to mind often, and see how living with that intention shifts the way you relate to life. Maybe you begin to see the gifts rather than only the problems. Then you know you’ve set a wise intention.

For a number of years now I have been living with two intentions: To be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation; and to be compassionate with myself and others. These two intentions have stood me in good stead. Feel free to try them for yourself and see if they are your truest intentions too. I begin my daily meditation practice, and I use them throughout the day as I make choices at every turn. When I’ve forgotten my intentions, I see pretty quickly how valuable they are, and I return to them with renewed appreciation.

One way in which I was not connecting with my two truest intentions was in relationship to my weight. I had a lifetime of thought streams running through me that were pretty compelling. They went something like this: You’re fat. Well, you’re not THAT fat. What’s wrong with being fat? Why do you want to lose weight? Who are you trying to impress? I don’t want to have to buy a larger set of clothes, so I need to diet. It would be fun to look great in that outfit on that model in a magazine. But what kind of attention would I be trying to attract? etc. etc. You know the drill. A lot of inner conversation and very little positive action. Mostly self-deflating sabotage.

Then one summer day I ate my neighbor’s delicious home-grown cherry tomatoes as if they were candy and, because I hadn’t had any oil or bread (I found out later) I developed a horrendous case of heartburn. I’d never had heartburn, didn’t know what was happening, so called the doctor. The advice nurse said get to the hospital pronto. So I did, and ended up spending the night in the cardiac unit under observation. The next day the cardiologist put me on the treadmill and assured me that my heart was in excellent shape. ‘But,’ she said, ‘as a kindness to your heart, you could lose a little weight.’

As a kindness to my heart? Those words sang out to me, so aligned were they with my truest intention. Suddenly all the inner conversation fell away. All my wimpy resolutions to lose weight fell by the wayside. All I had to do was live my truest intention and be kind, compassionate to my dear little heart. I had never ever thought of my heart that way. It was always just a pump. I was grateful that it was reliable, but it was just so much plumbing. Now, with the doctors words, I had something I could work with by simply widening my intention to include my heart.

Just this week I saw a study on PBS News Hour about how important emotion is in motivation. When we look at the experience I had, we can see how suddenly the doctor offered me an emotional connection to my heart, a request to be kind to it. So as we set our intentions, we might consider their emotional content. Fear is a short sprint motivator but backfires and fails in the long run. An intention based in love is a lifelong relationship.

If you set a lifelong intention, you can set short term goals that are aligned with your true intention, and they will be much easier to meet. If they are not easy, investigate!

If you don’t have a meditation practice, establishing one as a kindness to yourself, your family, friends, coworkers, and the world, is a great place to start. (If you don’t know where to begin, start here.)

If you have an established practice, congratulations. You might in meditation find some inspirational insight that guides you to your truest intention that speaks to any challenges you face right now.

I have taught the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path several times, so here’s a link to other posts on the subject: [READ MORE ON FINDING YOUR TRUEST INTENTION.]

Taking Refuge in Stormy Times

Threee refuges“In these challenging times we need this refuge, these ripples of kindness, now more than ever. We are all interconnected. We are all tender-hearted humans who want to experience peace and ease in our daily lives.” – Jack Kornfield

These words were in a recent community email I received from Spirit Rock, just after I wrote out my dharma talk for this last week’s class. A perfect addition, especially about being tender-hearted. May we remain tender-hearted even as we cultivate the inner strength to do what must be done.

The word ‘refuge’ is central to Buddhism. Traditionally, we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Sometimes the idea of refuge has an especially strong appeal. We want to retreat, to nestle, to protect ourselves, and to lick our wounds perhaps. And the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha create a safe place to shelter from the storm.

But the storms of the world are also within us, so we find that we have not so much shut the door on them but created a safe space to be with them. We don’t push away our thoughts or make enemies of them. Instead we allow them to exist within compassionate spaciousness so that they release and eventually dissolve, at their own time and in their own way.

Let’s take the Three Refuges one by one:

The Buddha is not just the historical Buddha whose teachings we explore. The word buddha means awakened one. So we are actually taking refuge in our own Buddha nature, our own potential for awakening. That seed of awakening is within each of us, waiting to be noticed, nurtured and cultivated.

The Dharma is the teachings we learn through Buddhist teachers, but also the truth of being, so that we recognize the value of insights that arise from our own experiences when we are open to seeing clearly and compassionately. And we recognize that nature is the greatest dharma teacher of all, always offering lessons on impermanence and the interconnectedness of all being. We can see how we suffer when we rail against the truth of nature’s lessons. We find joy in being alive when we accept and celebrate it.

The Sangha is the community of practitioners who support each other in meditation practice and exploration of the teachings. A member of our sangha might also be someone who doesn’t themselves practice, but supports us fully in our practice, who doesn’t sabotage our wise intentions and effort.

These are the three traditional refuges. We can take great comfort in them. As we do, we can recognize the many ways we can provide refuge for ourselves in daily life:

  • Be fully present with the beauty all around us, letting go of the veil of harsh judgments and preferences in order to see more clearly what is right before our eyes.

  • Turn off the constant clamor of media frenzy. Be discerning in how we receive news, question its veracity (especially if it confirms what we already believe to be true!) and know when enough is enough.

  • Provide warmth, tenderness, quiet, laughter, kindness in our conversation.

  • Cultivate a regular meditation practice.

  • Create meditative moments throughout the day, opportunities to be fully present with our senses. We might notice the warmth of a cup of tea or the sun on our skin, for example, and feel gratitude and a greater sense of ease in that moment.

  • Cultivate compassion by actively sending metta (infinite unconditional loving-kindness) to anyone or any situation that is causing discomfort. This might not be all we can do, but it is a valuable practice that has surprising effects.
  • Find what you care about and ways you can contribute, then join with others to be the change you would like to see in the world.

Think of ways that in your life you create refuge for yourself and perhaps for others. Have any fallen by the wayside? Rediscover them! Share them here to inspire others.

Please Don’t Call It ‘Turkey Day’!

In class this week, we discussed what deep gratitude means to us. I suggested that it is a ballast in our being. The way a sailboat has ballast that keeps it from turning over though it leans in the wind, when we are deeply grateful for this present moment, whatever is occurring, rather than being only grateful for the blessings we can list, then we stay afloat in the sea of life.

Here is a collection of past posts on gratitude to draw from if you are needing inspiration.

Meanwhile, let’s talk turkey. Or, let’s not! We are so fortunate that our national holiday is focused on something so deeply satisfying as contemplating gratitude, whether it is deep gratitude for being alive or for the wonderful blessings and people we have or have had in our lives.

When we switch the focus to the food we put on the table and think of it as just feast and football, it’s such a downgrade of the holiday. It also leaves out vegans and vegetarians, making them feel as if they are not experiencing the real deal. In fact, one of the most delicious Thanksgiving feasts I ever ate was while on retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center a few years back. It was a vegetarian’s delight of seasonal delicacies, and not a turkey in sight. (Really! Not even outdoors where wild turkeys abound except for that week before Thanksgiving where they suddenly just go into hiding. The day after Thanksgiving they return! Public opinion to the contrary, apparently turkeys aren’t all that stupid.) Being on retreat, we were all in silence. Teja Bell played music for us as we entered the dining hall, and the meal was served by Spirit Rock teachers and their families. How dear to be dished up squash by Jack Kornfield, and how especially touching it was to have Skye, the young son of teacher and author Anne Cushman, dole out a roll. I hadn’t seen him since he was an infant teaching our class how to do a proper up-dog pose in Friday AM meditation and yoga class.

Whether you eat turkey or not, why not give the meaning of the day its due? If you eat turkey, you might try to choose one that had the chance for a good life. If you don’t eat turkey, thanks, but try not to be too self-righteous. Plants are also sensate beings that we eat to survive. But in all cases, let’s take some time to acknowledge with gratitude the bounty before us, the beauty around us and the life-buddies beside us, no matter how flawed we may consider them to be.

Not feeling so grateful? That’s okay too. Just focus on the myriad of physical sensations of being here in this moment. Notice that mound of woes and worries as something that’s just a part of your experience, not the whole thing. Just for now. You are alive and life is full of options, even in this very moment. Gratitude for even the littlest thing can open a world of joy.

After the Retreat

Last Thursday, our first class after our daylong retreat, one student entered quipping, ‘Ah, the laundry,’ referencing Jack Kornfield’s book titled After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.
Once the retreat is over, is it over? Maybe yes, maybe no. We can’t expect the same level of relaxation, attention, appreciation, realization and awakening to the interconnection of being to be sustained far beyond a retreat. This is true no matter how long the retreat is. So why bother going on retreat if the ‘magic’ wears off? Because having experienced that sense of communion, we are forever changed, even if we are not necessarily able to sustain a sense of transcendent bliss. Every retreat I have been on gave me at least one meaningful insight that helps me through difficult times even years later.
For those retreatants who experience a sense of oneness, that brief glimpse is enough to infuse a sense of Wise View. The nature of that experience is timeless. When we sense the infinite nature of being and the oneness that permeates all that is, it indelibly permeates the fabric of our being. This softens our habituated patterns and releases us and those around us from the harshness of our judgments, the prickly, demanding or grumpy qualities we may have had, as well as reduces the occurrence of physical illness. So retreats are important and have lasting value, but expecting that sense of magic or high to last is a set up for disappointment. At our day long several students found that the lunches they brought were the most delicious food they ever tasted. Two specifically talked about how the bread they had been eating for years suddenly had so much more flavor, and the variety of grains could be tasted in a way they had never noticed before. Eating the same meal a few days later at home, it was hard to imagine what was so wondrous about the bread. This is the nature of retreat. I have a reputation in my family for being a speedy eater. When my stepsons were three and four, sitting at the dinner table observing me scarfing down my food, they thought this must be a race, so when my plate was empty, one cheered and said, ‘Stephanie wins!’ How embarrassing! So it was with great delight that I discovered the pleasure of eating slowly on my first retreat, really tasting the food and feeling gratitude for the cooks, the grocers, the truckers, the farmers, the earth, the rain and the sunshine that made this meal possible. I vowed to remember to eat more slowly. Back home, even at my first meal, I was so excited to share with my husband all that I’d experienced and learned, that I noticed my plate was empty and I hadn’t even remembered eating it! But over the years, I see that I am no longer always the first one done. Usually, but not always! The regular practice of mindfulness and compassion for ourselves and others will quite naturally begin to shift destructive or simply mindless habits. We don’t have to make a solemn vow to eat more slowly and appreciate the food. We can simply reset our powerful and ongoing intentions to be mindful and compassionate. Again and again. These two paired intentions are all the ‘magic’ we need to gently and naturally transform mindlessness and misery into awakened radiant joy.

Accessing Inner Wisdom & Compassion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Kind to Ourselves Is Not Selfish

“The purpose of studying Buddhism is not to study Buddhism but to study ourselves.” – Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Meditation is the practice of creating time and space to quietly listen in. Sensing in to our breath and other sensations that arise and fall away, as do all phenomena, we open to the possibility of insight. If we pair our intention to be present with the intention to be compassionate with ourselves as we proceed, then we create a safe way to explore ourselves and the world.

We may feel some resistance to this idea of studying ourselves, just as we do to sending loving kindness to ourselves. It is likely we have been raised to focus on the outer world and to ignore and control emotions, thoughts and physical sensations. This is meant to counter self-indulgence and self-devotion. The practice of Buddhist meditation and psychology is not meant to create a narcissistic cult within us. We begin where we are with our practice, and where we are is entrenched in the seemingly permanent situation of being embodied in a particular form, having a particular series of patterns of thoughts and emotions that we believe define us. So this is what we notice. This is what we study. We develop the ability to hold our inner experience in loving awareness.

If we skip this step, whatever focus we have on the outer world will be tight, rooted in the complex patterns of fear and ignorance we harbor. We leap to the defense of this set of patterns because we believe it is who we are, and we desperately do not want to disappear!  In this fortified, calcified state we will offer up with the best intentions what we think the world wants and needs from us. We will not understand why when we are doing the best we can, these efforts are so misunderstood or poorly received. We will then blame ourselves or blame the world, causing the complex patterns to get tighter, denser and more toxic. We may seek oblivion to blind us to these patterns in the form of overindulgence in alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, overeating and other temporary distractions that do blind us, but also bind us even tighter to the patterns we are trying to escape. We’ve all tried at least some unskillful means of escape and have found them to be lacking. This is why so many people come to Buddhist practice after exhausting all other avenues. They come to the wisdom of ‘no escape.’

In our practice we begin where we are: Here, in this body, in this mind. We set our intention to be present and kind. That’s all. When we do this, there is a quite natural unraveling of the knot of patterns that have stymied us in our attempts to satisfy our idea of how we should be in the world. (Expectation stops the process, so notice and release impatience for a faster pace or greater rate of return on time invested. Let go of comparing mind. Just set the intentions again and again.)

Over time – days, weeks, months, lifetimes — we may notice that we are increasingly able to be in the world with a sense of being fully present, feeling, at least at times, true and universal loving kindness, a connected sense of compassion and much more. As this happens, we see that our practice has not been selfish at all. We practice on ourselves first. We are clearing the way for full engagement in the world.

In recent weeks we have been focusing on metta (loving-kindness) practice. Buddhism provides phrases for sending loving-kindness, as we have discussed previously. We begin with sending metta to ourselves, for the reasons I’ve just given. For a helpful mental aid to remind ourselves why we do this, remember that the airlines direct us to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we put it on our children. What use will we be to our children, or anyone, if we have passed out?

If sending metta to ourselves still feels too difficult, here is an additional instruction I just learned at Jack Kornfield’s daylong retreat on Buddhist Psychology:

Send metta to first one then another person in your life for whom you have unqualified affection, for whom you want all the best. Really spend some time with the feelings that sending this metta brings up for you. Notice the physical effects, the emotional tone, the way you hold these thoughts.
Then imagine these two people sending metta to you. You can draw on moments when they have exhibited loving kindness to you or have looked at you with heartfelt caring. Let yourself stay with this experience. Let yourself receive the metta.

You might try that practice and then notice how it feels in your body, how it feels in your emotions, and how it affects your thought processes. Perhaps it feels glorious. Perhaps it feels uncomfortable. Perhaps you can’t feel it or feel shut down by the process. Just notice what is present in your experience without trying to change anything.

Perhaps you can’t imagine two people who care about you. If so, then you might imagine being in the center of a circle of Buddhist monks with a lifetime of practice sending metta and seeing the Buddha nature in all beings. Imagine them all focused on sending metta to you.

Jack told us about his experience of meeting the Dalai Lama, how no matter how many people are waiting in line to meet him, he takes the time to look deeply in your eyes, holding your hand in both of his, until there is a deep connection, acknowledgement and understanding. So imagine the Dalai Lama sending you loving kindness! (He is doing so every day in any case, when he sends lovingkindness out to all beings!)

One of the students in my Thursday class said that ten years ago she was embraced by Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi is known throughout the world as Amma, or Mother, for her selfless love and compassion toward all beings.) and had that same sense of being held until some deep connection and release was felt. We discussed that feeling of total acceptance, so different from our usual sense of striving to be liked, loved, respected or admired. The nature of loving-kindness is universal, all-encompassing.

No matter what you have done, no matter what a mess you have made of your life, you can receive loving kindness. If you have done terrible things, allowing metta into your heart will give you the courage (from coeur, French for heart) to ask forgiveness and to make amends. If it’s useful, imagine metta as warm flowing liquid dissolving the granules of anger and resentment that have been keeping you from allowing yourself to forgive those you blame for past or current conditions, that keep you from forgiving yourself.

Our practice is to notice as much as we can about our present experience and to be as kind as we are able toward ourselves and others. That’s it. We don’t have to turn ourselves inside out. Whatever changes happen arise simply out of our practice. When a shift happens, it is from tight and fearful to open and loving. But we don’t force it. We don’t demand it. We don’t beat ourselves over the head until we are the ‘right’ way.

Our practice is to notice the arising and falling away of phenomena, including our thoughts, emotions and sensations. Our practice is to be kind to ourselves and others to whatever degree we are able. Sending metta activates our ability to feel deeply connected with all beings. From that sense of deep connection, we naturally become more compassionate.

Spacious Action – ‘It’s not the load that breaks you down’

When we look at our cooking pot analogy of the Eightfold Path, we can see how Right Action or, as we are experimenting with it, spacious action arises as steam out of mindfulness. So, theoretically, if we tend the pot, i.e. hold our consciousness in spacious view, fueled by spacious effort, sparked by spacious intention and stirred by spacious concentration, then spacious action will arise quite naturally. Theoretically. In reality that doesn’t always happen. Why not?

Many of us compartmentalize our lives, so that once we are done with our meditation or our silent retreat, we re-enter our ‘real life’ as if it is something quite separate from what we have just been doing. Thus we quickly fall right back into unconsciousness, back into that murky soup of habituated patterns of thought, behavior and speech. We forget that the practice of meditation is to develop skillful means to stay aware, to stay conscious, and to stay clear and compassionate throughout our lives, not just during meditation. Not just on retreat!

Action, how we conduct ourselves in all areas, is not some separate function but an intertwined co-arising aspect of the Eightfold Path. It can be an entry point to the path if we become aware of how our behavior is impacting our well being and the well being of others. This observation may come upon us at any time with or without the benefit of meditation. The difference is that with a strong meditation practice we have skillful means to see the whole of what is happening. Without the practice, the recognition of unskillful action may be used as just another way to beat ourselves up, another way to blame someone else or some cause or condition for our behavior, another binge, and another sinking into deeper and deeper murkiness. But, sometimes the recognition comes with an insight that leads us to begin meditating, and thus it can be an entry point to the Noble Eightfold Path. Perhaps it was yours.

If so, the next step is still and always to return to our skillful intention to be present in every moment and our intention to be compassionate. Thus we are able to see our actions more clearly and we can look at them without running away.

Through this skillful process, this Eightfold Path of developing more clarity and compassion in our minds, our hearts and our lives, we begin to understand that even though we are fully responsible for our actions, they do not define us. Absolutely we need to rectify any suffering we have caused to whatever degree is possible, but we do not need to defend our behavior. There is no excuse possible. Coming up with one is just another self-protective device, based on the erroneous assumption that we are a unique isolated fortress rather than an intrinsic and beloved part of the rich and wondrous flow of life. Excuses keep us churning in the miasma of misery and foster more and more unskillful action. So when we are unskillful, we own up to it. We recognize the error. We understand that error is part of the human experience, arising mostly out of fear and unconsciousness. Think of anything you have done that you wish you had not done and see if you weren’t afraid of something. It might have been a little something but the ramifications were great, like you were afraid of being late so you were speeding in your car and had an accident. But that little fear of being late might be seated in a larger fear of losing love or respect, of being separate. (Being on time is a show of respect to others, of course, and is skillful behavior that starts well before we get into the car, but once we are in that heavy vehicle with all its capacity for harm, with the responsibility for the well being of ourselves, our passengers and everyone else on the road, then driving mindfully is our highest priority.)

Most of us don’t like to own up to how very afraid we are. It helps to see that it is a common part of the human experience to lose our awareness of our interconnection with all of life.

Through meditation practice, renewing again and again our intention to be present (conscious) and compassionate (sensing our deep connection), we begin to be more skillful in our behavior. We become more even in our behavior, not treating some people one way and others another. We behave as if everyone matters. Everyone does! We relate to people from that deeper more connected source of being, and we respond to that deeper more connected source in them. (Think about the phrase ‘namaste’ — the God in me bows to the God in you.)

We stop worrying about what others think about us, and we find we care more about them as an integral part of life. We lose any desire to impress them and instead gain the joy of seeing them happy, finding that when we stop needing to defend ourselves, to prove ourselves then we can focus on what we can share with others, with the world that brings more joy and awakening.

This is a huge and wondrous shift! And it comes through awareness practice. Not just during meditation, but continuing throughout our day, day after day. The ongoing support of our practice enables us take responsibility for our actions, to correct our errors, to loosen the stranglehold of destructive habits and to feel our actions as a dance of interconnectivity rather than a battle that saps us of our will to live.

So, actions are not automatically wise, skillful or spacious because we see meditation as separate from the rest of our lives. But there may be other reasons as well. Old patterns of behavior, deep seated fears as yet unexplored erupt in ways that create unskillful actions. When they do we may be disappointed and feel that our practice isn’t working. But it is! Because now we are able to see the unskillful action, and begin to see the patterns of fear that are still operative because still unconscious, still stuck in the sludge at the bottom of the pot!

Remember that at first, before we started having a regular meditation practice, we couldn’t see these patterns. We justified the behavior they caused and pooh-poohed that the matter could have been handled any other way.

Once we begin to see our unskillfulness we might feel ashamed and guilty. We might stop meditating because we don’t like what we see. This is a challenging stage because we are still defining ourselves by our thoughts and actions and now we see ourselves as ‘a person who does bad things.’ We are still unaware of but firmly attached to the fear-based patterns that caused the unskillfulness. But at some point, if we can just hang in there and give ourselves as much loving-kindness as possible, we begin to see more clearly and the patterns are much more noticeable because they don’t fit anymore. They stand out against the more spacious experience of our life as the tight and toxic sludge that can still be stirred up by certain events and conditions.

I remember finding myself almost twenty years ago in a shouting match with my then teenage daughter. That had been our pattern for a while, but on that day I saw myself more clearly. I saw my out of control and shouting behavior and I started to laugh. It was so absurd to be once again in this pattern of behavior that in no way expressed my true feelings for this child I loved so much. Needless to say she was a little surprised. I’m pretty sure that was the last shouting match we ever had. We found other ways to communicate, ways that were more accurate expressions of my concerns for her well being and her desires for the freedom to live her own life. This is not to say that we never had misunderstandings, but it was a great breakthrough for me to see a leftover destructive pattern arise in my growing awareness. These kinds of breakthroughs remind us that the practice is working! If they feel few and far between, just keep resetting your intention to be present and compassionate.

At times this kind of exploration and self-discovery is painful. We may simply want to get rid of or bury patterns, but this just fuels them. We might be over-efforting, digging too deep too fast. Insights arise out of awareness. If you have to put on an oxygen mask and dive into the depths, you may be forcing the exploration beyond what is skillful in this moment.

We are simply noticing patterns of behavior as they arise in this moment through awareness, compassion and inquiry. In the light of our growing mindfulness, we can see them for what they are, acknowledge them, learn from them and let them go. (Remember our image of holding the world in an open embrace, neither clutching nor pushing away.) Then our actions will be more spacious, arising from compassionate mindfulness. Until then we use the unskillful actions we notice as information for our inquiry to discover what we are afraid of and what old patterns of fear are still holding such power over our behavior.

Where do we begin this exploration? We start from where we are and work with what we have. Discovering what that is takes spaciousness as well. Chances are we have readymade long-held assumptions about who we are and how we are, but spaciousness allows us to take the time to inquire into the veracity of our assumptions. Many of our assumptions were made when we were quite young, when we were sponges for any information about ourselves and were ready to accept other people’s opinions without questioning the source. Conversely we may have been overwhelmed by other peoples’ opinions and in an effort to protect ourselves we shut out even useful insightful perception.

Either way, we have cobbled together the vehicle of our beliefs about ourselves into a reasonably functional means of getting around in the world. So what if the wheels are square and the ride is painful?

We suffer because we keep relying on this cobbled together transport instead of taking the time to investigate what it is that’s creating the rough ride. For some of us, this investigation might be therapy because what is coming up is too difficult to deal with alone, or because a more formal relationship is useful to keep us on track with our investigation. But even then, meditation is a great aid to the process. Learning how to meditate every day and set the intention to be present and compassionate with whatever arises can be the process or can aid the process. In either case the Eightfold Path supports us by offering the means to discover the source or sources of our misery through spacious inquiry and noticing our patterns of thinking, our patterns of behavior and our beliefs about ourselves and the world as expressed through our thoughts, emotions and sensations.

Lena Horne is quoted as saying, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” This is exactly what the dharma tells us. It is not our mother-in-law or spouse or child or job that is the problem. It is the vehicle of our beliefs, this cobbled together contraption of dispirit malfunctioning parts that causes pain every time we carry our load along. And when we hit a bump or a pothole in the road, an especially challenging time in life, then it makes the load feel even more difficult to carry.

So do we need a mechanic? Maybe! Like a good mechanic we need a keen ability to listen and notice where there is discord in the functioning of these patterns of thinking and behavior.
The literal translation of the word dukkha (suffering) is ‘ill-fitting axle hole,’ so this vehicle analogy has deep roots in the dharma.

In Jack Kornfield’s book called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry he reminds us that meditation is not an escape from life, that it is not about going off and having mind-altering experiences, the ultimate legal high. Yes, in meditation we lay our load down, but after meditation, or after our silent retreat, we pick it up again. If we are grumpy that we still have a load to bear, if we are sad to have our meditative experience over and ‘real life’ back to deal with, if we are thinking ahead to the next time we can get away to the cushion, the retreat center, the walk in the woods or the tropical beach, then we are missing a crucial aspect of the dharma: “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”

I am not a backpacker, mainly because I backpacked across Europe when I was nineteen and it was painful in every possible way so I have had no inclination to replicate any portion of that experience. But I see how backpacks today are designed of lighter materials and designed to carry the load differently, taking into account laws of physics and human anatomy, so that even if carrying the same amount of stuff, the load is lighter. So that’s what we are doing with our spaciously imbued Eightfold Path. We are giving ourselves the means to investigate how we are carrying our load so that we can pick it up again and carry it more joyfully.