Category Archives: labels

Naming Our Poisons

The Buddha taught of the three poisons, the mental states that manifest in unskillful action and cause us and those around us to suffer. They are greed, aversion and delusion. As our minds become clearer through the practice of meditation, we begin to see these three states as they arise within us. We can notice how our actions are rooted in and fed by one or the other of these states.

Right now, for example, I am sitting here feeling greedy for the dharma as I write, hungering to learn more, and the desire to share it in the clearest way possible so that my students may benefit from knowing it. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, and it isn’t. Especially noticing it as it arises is a good thing. But noticing also brings an awareness of a tinge of energetic urgency, panic and fear that are also present in this hunger. Fear of it not being enough, of me not being enough, of my being an imperfect vessel for this information.

At the same time I am noticing a strong aversion to a phone call I am expecting from someone I have never talked with before but who appears to have anger issues as shown in his email. He is not a direct client of mine but is someone my client has to deal with. Suddenly I am ‘having to deal with’ him too. I don’t want to! I’m afraid! I feel the tension in my body rising up. I have held this tension since yesterday when we made this appointment for him to call me. And to top it off, he is already 47 minutes late in calling, which leaves me in this purgatorial state of dread.

Noticing these states, there may be a tendency to work with them, as in ‘fix’ them. That is just another form of aversion arising. I feel aversion for this state of aversion. How does that help? It really doesn’t.

So instead I breathe. Admittedly the breath started out as a sigh, but that reminded me to breathe! I send myself a little compassion. Compassion releases some of the tightness, infusing a sense of expansiveness that allows me to see more clearly. Already my shoulders have dropped an inch. However, I notice my jaw is tight. The buzz in my body is present.

I look out the window, the green and grey morning is calming. The tree outside my window doesn’t see my challenge and yet lives in this world. I don’t want to be the tree, but I am not unlike the tree. I don’t know what the tree experiences, but I can be pretty sure it is not currently dreading a phone call.

The tree is rooted in the earth. I sense my rootedness in the earth. The tree relies on its roots to weather high winds and powerful storms. I am anticipating some high wind this morning, so I sink into my roots, my connection. Thanks tree! Good advice!

The phone call went very well, by the way. A friendly constructive exchange with full agreement and goals achieved all around. Was that just a fluke? Or did my grounding myself help me to remember the humanness of the caller?

Having had a positive experience when anticipating a negative one is something I try to notice, adding it to my learned experiences. I am surprised that with attention, I actually do find I can reason with myself, saying, “Chances are, based on past experience, this will be fine. I will see how I wasted my time dreading an experience that much more often than not is a positive one.”

Noticing when we are operating out of greed or aversion is easier than noticing when we are operating out of delusion. What is delusion anyway? It’s like walking around in a fog and being constantly surprised when things happen. It can be operating as if we are an object being acted upon rather than the subject of our own lives, able to make decisions.

If we are in a state of delusion, how can we notice it? We can’t! At the moment of delusion the mind is enveloped in a cloud or fog, drifting, lost and unaware. But if we have set our intention to be present, then we can notice when it clears a bit. Just noticing that begins the development of awareness of delusion, and that awareness thins the fog. When the fog is thin, we have more options. We can drift or we can stay present. We can notice when the clarity begins to fade and we can take that as a reminder to reset our intention to be present with compassion, to notice the cloud of delusion as it comes and goes. Delusion has a very different felt sense than aversion or greed, but all three take practice to notice.

How do we work with these Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion? I remember when I first started studying Buddhism at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, there was a good deal of talk about how we are generally more inclined to one or the other of these mental states. People would say things like, “I am a greedy personality.” For me this seemed like just another way to label ourselves. We are often attracted to self-labeling, even if it’s an unattractive label.

Defining who we are seems to give us a place in the world, but it locks us in to a false sense of self. While we each do physically fill a finite place in this earthly life, defining it with limiting labels does not satisfy the deeper longing for a sense of understanding our infinite connection, the true nature of our existence.
We have talked before about the shift from the finite to the infinite view. For purposes of convenience in functioning in the world, we see ourselves as finite, singular and separate. But we discover through meditation, or perhaps through spontaneous insight, the infinite view that is always available to us, wherein we recognize that we are not separate at all, that we are a vibrant expression of life loving itself, like a drop of water flying through the sky knowing that it is a part of the sea-evaporation-cloud-rain-river-sea cycle of being which is a part of an even larger circle of life, and that all is one. With this infinite view, more fully discussed in previous discussions in the Eightfold Path, we are able to live more fully and joyfully in the world, even while being able to maintain our seemingly finite path with its various responsibilities, relationships and choices.

In the past few weeks, when discussing our clinging to the rock with our roots believing it to be our identity instead of releasing into the rich nourishing soil and allowing ourselves to grow to the fullness of our being, what we are talking about is letting go of the finite and releasing into the infinite. That shift from finite to infinite comes with our ability to be present and relaxed, releasing the tension that is our body’s way of holding the past and the future. This present moment fully experienced is the portal to understanding our interconnection, our being a part of and being supported by the infinite web of life.

While it may be tempting to label ourselves, it is more skillful to notice greed, aversion and delusion arising in our experience, and not get tangled up in saying, ‘I am an aversive personality type.’ Observing and judging ourselves to be more inclined to one of these three states may seem like it helps but it runs the risk of blinding us to the arising of the other two poisons, for we are tuning ourselves to notice the one above the others. All of us have all three poisons, even if not in equal measure.

The habit of self-labeling can make us passive, as if we have been indelibly stamped with this tendency and there’s nothing we can do. In truth, there’s nothing we NEED to do except be present and compassionate with all that arises in our experience, but that’s very different from a sense of helplessness that there’s nothing to be done about it, as if we are stuck. We are not stuck, we simply perceive ourselves to be stuck. In fact we are quite free, but we choose to pick out new wallpaper for our prison cell, remaking ourselves, rather than simply be present and watch the bars dissolve. We explored the whole concept of freedom in dharma talks quite a while ago. If that word resonates, perhaps you’ll want to read them. If freedom scares you, then that’s important to notice as well. Question in: “What am I afraid of?”

We can fall a little bit in love with even negative labels for at least they give us a sense of definition to cling to. But clinging to the hard rock of who we believe ourselves to be is the essence of what keeps us from opening to our true nature.

In a talk last year on ‘Holding the World in an Open Embrace’ I presented greed and aversion in the form of photos of two little girls, one holding tight to all her toys representing greed; the other with crossed arms and a pouty face representing aversion.

My sixteen month old granddaughter Lucy for the first time in my presence yesterday crossed her arms and pouted! Ah, aversion! This is the first manifestation in this form, though of course she has shown her preferences and dissatisfactions in a myriad of ways. But to actually see her cross her tiny chubby arms and pout with her little cupid bow mouth was quite something!

Where did she learn this particular manifestation? Lucy is my current teacher. I have been learning what is inherently human. When she wakes she does a natural yogi full body stretch, and she has done this since she was just a few months old. Now I try to remember to do that when I wake too. Where did I lose my natural inclination to do so?

And now seeing her pouting and crossing her arms I have to wonder how she developed this classic aversion pose? She doesn’t watch television, and has no older sibling to imitate. Where does she get this little Shirley Temple imitation? It’s a wonder. And it’s adorable and yes a little frightening. Aversion arises in Lucy and displays itself. We could easily go uh-oh and label her an aversive personality and be afraid, very afraid, of what the future holds with this crossed-armed pouty force to be reckoned with. But all that does is fuel our fear, lock her in a box of our labels, a box she will either stay in or break out of unless she can wear these labels lightly, knowing they do not define her true self.

In the past few weeks we have been discussing the inner aspects, what in psychological terms are also called sub-personalities, especially those we keep most hidden from our awareness that make up the shadow. When we are having a skillful inner conversation with an aspect, we might benefit from noticing whether it seems to be fueled by greed, aversion or delusion. I had mentioned Striver and Underminer, two aspects that have resurfaced in my awareness. Clearly Striver operates more from greed and Underminer from aversion, and both are delusional. (As some people might think I am to name inner aspects!! But it is a valuable exercise for the orderly exploration of a very complex lacy-patterned infrastructure of thoughts, emotions and beliefs that form a part of our experience that most influence, and sometime sabotage, our ability to live with awareness and a love of life.)

As a tool for self-exploration, knowledge of the three poisons of greed, aversion and delusion provide insight and clarity. We can use them as clues to see the fear at the root of the aspect we are exploring. These fears — the fear of separation, of exclusion, of not being acceptable, of disappearing, of being overwhelmed and washed away, of being judged, or of failing — are just a few of the ways we forget our connection to all that is and the universal oneness of being.

Pilgrimage: Lumbini

At the end of the documentary “The Buddha” that aired recently on PBS, they mention the four places pilgrims visit to follow the life of the Buddha. They are Lumbini where he was born, Bodh Gaya where he sat under the Bodhi tree until his awakening, Sarnath where he gave his first dharma talk, and Kusinara where he died.

I thought it would be interesting to explore what we learn from visiting, either in person or in our thoughts, these places that supported the Buddha’s physical life and his spiritual practice. And how exploring his life inspires us to learn from our own lives as well.

Today, let’s talk about his birthplace. Lumbini is in the foothills of the Himalaya. It is located in southern Nepal very near the border of India. If you are surprised to hear he was born in Nepal, remember that neither of these countries existed in their modern forms in his time, but that’s where the village is located.
Here is a brief video of how it looks today. There are many versions of the story of his birth but most go something like this*:

Siddhartha Gautama was born in the sixth century BCE to a very wealthy, probably noble, some accounts say royal, family of the Sakya clan that lived in the city of Kapilavastu, 25 km east of Lumbini. His mother’s parents lived in Lumbini and it was (and is) common for a woman to return to the home of her parents to give birth. As she and her party neared the village, they paused to rest in a lovely grove. Perhaps she was already in labor and realized she couldn’t make it all the way, or perhaps she went into labor there. Under the shade of trees, she gave birth to a baby boy. Unfortunately, within a week after his birth she died.
His name Siddhartha, means accomplisher of aims. Gautama was his clan name.
It was predicted — either through dream interpretation or astrology — that he would grow up to be a great conquering warrior or a great spiritual leader. Though the culture of his day had clearly defined career paths for every child, based on the caste system, and of course every parent wants a child to do well, this powerful prediction seems like a lot to put on such a small freshly-arrived package of human flesh!

The Buddha advises us to pay attention to any residue of any of the labels we may have been given. Think back to words and other ways in which parents, sibling, other family members, playmates, teachers and others shaped your view of yourself. To what degree do you still accept some of them, unquestioned? This is a worthy exploration. Sometimes we like the labels we are given, or they grow on us. We can still question them. How much of what we like about them is just a sense of pleasure at being ‘known’ by someone we love?

So what was the effect of hearing about this prediction on Siddhartha’s father, a widower with a newborn son? Not surprisingly, given these two potential futures, he, of a warrior class, desired for his son to be a great conqueror rather than a spiritual teacher who would turn his back on the material wealth of his family.

So, the story goes, the father used every means to create the causes and conditions that he hoped would lead his son to appreciate and defend his possessions and position by pursuing the warrior path. He gave him a very sheltered life, never letting him go beyond the palace walls, and made sure that he was given a strong athletic education to be physically ready for battle.

He gave his son every luxury, but he went further than that. He actually made sure that there were no signs of illness, old age or death within the palace walls. The gardeners must have been very busy clipping off blossoms before they faded! And the servants must have gotten early retirements.

It reminds me of the old airline policies toward flight attendants, getting rid of them when they showed any signs of losing that youthful bloom. They might have been on to something! When air travel was in its early days, when so many of the passengers were new to this idea of flight, perhaps keeping them distracted with youth and beauty, keeping their minds off of the truth of aging and death, might have had some psychological basis, probably not calculated but just intuited.

Siddhartha’s father was protective, just as we are often very protective not just of our children but of ourselves, shielding ourselves from the pain of the world. I was reminded of this recently when someone was telling me how her husband couldn’t stand to be in a hospital room, no matter how much he cared for the patient inside. And I remember that my father, powerful and worldly in so many ways, couldn’t bring himself to go to the viewing of his mother’s body after her death. Until I was in my mid-twenties I used to faint at the sight of a needle piercing skin, even a rhinoceros getting a tranquilizer injection on Wild Kingdom!

To varying degrees we all put up protective palace walls for ourselves and those we love. When I was a teenager my beloved cat died in my arms late one night on the way home from the vets after she’d been pronounced incurable. The next morning I woke to plan her burial, only to find that one of my brothers had already buried her in some still-undisclosed part of our garden. He did this to protect his little sister from pain. He fortified the palace walls of an already sheltered life. It was so sweet and loving, but it was misguided, for it left me no way to come to terms with my loss, no ritual to release my emotions. He wanted to give me a bypass for my mourning. But there is no such thing. Trying to create one may set up a delaying mechanism that can go subterranean in our psyches and comes out in some other way.

As parents we all want what is best for our children, and we all know the impulse to protect them from suffering. The other day a friend expressed just such a concern. She was afraid that her teenage son might be hurt by a girl he had a crush on who didn’t seem to feel the same way towards him. I told my friend, yes, he very well might. And it will be difficult, but if that happens, it will also help to create compassion within him, an awareness of the responsibility of love. And, I added, that girl too will most likely some day be hurt, and it would be the very making of her. Getting hurt in love was the making of me when I was a teenager. Until I felt the pain of rejection for myself, I was at times thoughtless in my casual dismissal of the attentions of some very sweet boys who didn’t deserve my rudeness.

So in each of our lives there is this legacy of being labeled and being sheltered, then in turn we label and shelter those we love.

Siddhartha’s father intuitively wanted to protect his son from the unavoidable truths of earthly life: old age, illness and death. He had the same reasons all parents have, but also this prediction to deal with. He knew that it is these very things that awaken in each of us a spiritual yearning to understand the nature of suffering.

So often our pursuit of a spiritual path is ignited by a brush with serious illness, the death of a loved one, or the challenges of dealing with the process of aging. Think back to when you felt drawn to meditation or another spiritual path. Was there any loss, illness or realization about the nature of life that stirred this yearning within you?

Seeing this connection between brushes with the realities of life and the yearning for a spiritual path, Siddhartha’s father’s reasoning made sense. But, as it turned out, even the palace walls and every opulent delight was not enough to contain the curiosity about the world that Siddhartha, by now a young married man in his late twenties, developed. He implored his father to let him go out and see the world. So his father sent ahead men who would clear the streets of the village of any signs of illness, old age and death. But on his first venture outside, Siddhartha came upon someone who was ill, and asked after him and found out about the pain of illness. Then he ventured forth a second time and saw someone who was old and bent over, and once again he questioned and discovered that youth is fleeting. And when he ventured forth once again, he saw a corpse and discovered that the body and this earthly existence is impermanent. The fourth time he ventured out of the palace walls he met a traveling ascetic, someone who had abandoned material things to pursue a spiritual path, and he felt the call to follow that path, in order to find an end to suffering.

This was the piercing of the veil of innocence and the acceptance of a much more complex world than we at first imagined. Do you remember any point in your younger life when you felt the veil of innocence fall away? For me it was when I was around eight years old and some friend told me about the Holocaust. I could not believe it. But questioning revealed that it was true. I couldn’t understand how something like this could have happened just a decade before and I didn’t know about it. What else were they hiding from me?

Once the veil is pierced, then what? For Siddhartha it was clear that he had to give up his opulent life, leave his wife and baby to go off on his own in pursuit of the answer to how to end suffering for himself and all beings. So-called Christian bloggers who, for whatever reason, feel threatened by Buddhism, love to point out this moment, describing the Buddha as a runaway dad, a dropout and a loser.

We don’t need to make excuses for Siddhartha’s behavior. In the first place he was not yet enlightened or teaching. And he was human, a very important thing to remember that helps us have compassion for the human foolishness and foibles we find in ourselves and others, including the so-called Christian bloggers!

But let’s also put this in the context of the times in which he lived. He was not leaving his wife and child destitute. They lived in a palace with extended family, servants and resources. Does this replace a husband and father? Of course not. But remember that men of his day and class were not expected to consider the personal desires of their wives in determining their own paths. Nor were they expected to rear their own children. So it’s important to keep all this in mind, not to make excuses, but just to keep things in context. Had he been a warrior, he would have been off fighting wars for years on end, and this would have been totally acceptable by his (and our) society. But his choice went the other direction.

I find it interesting that Siddhartha ventured forth into the greater world at the age of 29. I’m reminded of Gail Sheehy’s landmark book Passages, that said that around the age of 28 one goes through a big shift. Siddhartha obviously did. Maybe you did too? Think about that period of the late twenties into the early 30’s. Was there anything expanding in your awareness, some realization that cracked open the world as you knew it?

For me it was the women’s movement, when I woke up to my blind complicity in accepting second class status as the way of things.

If you had an unveiling around that time, did it change the direction of your life? In what way? And if not, in what ways did this new awareness get incorporated into your life?

So you will see in this story of the early years of the Buddha’s life we can also discover lessons we’ve learned from our own younger lives. As a spiritual teacher the Buddha used stories from his own life to teach the dharma. Buddhist teachers today readily use their own lives as fodder for the dharma. And we each can look to our own lives for insight as well.

Next week we will talk about Bohd Gaya and the awakening of the Buddha.

*There are a number of variations on this story in the different Buddhist traditions. Some have more iconic aspects. I’ve chosen to tell the one that contains the most points of agreement and trust that the facts are contained in the core conjunction of these stories. However, if you have the interest, do an internet search for some of the variations of “Buddha’s birth.”
**His mother may have dreamed it, or her dream may have been interpreted to mean it, or astrologers may have predicted it.


Last week I didn’t teach due to my husband’s surgery, but requested that the class meet on its own, and that they discuss what they would like to be learning next.

When we met this week, they shared their findings. They requested that at some point soon we go back and review the earlier dharma talks, particularly ones focused on The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Some of them were not in the class at that time so it would be new for them, and others felt that they wanted to revisit the material now that they have over a year of meditation practice that will give them a new perspective on the subject.

So I plan to do that over the summer, in effect have ‘summer reruns.’ Maybe this will be an annual tradition. Those who are traveling in the summer won’t miss anything new, and it gives me a vacation from prep time to relax and renew. I know, I know, I just got back from Mexico, so how much more relaxation do I need? Hey, I’m just responding to the request of my class!

We also discussed how it seems a time in our lives of needing to expand to hold all the extremes we are experiencing in an open embrace, we had a discussion about how that feels.

Personally, I am currently holding elation, euphoria and relief because I have a new granddaughter, healthy and beautiful, and her parents are finding their way quite naturally, maintaining their own health and equilibrium. Yay! And because my husband had a successful surgery and is now officially cancer-free. I am incredibly relieved.

But I am also holding concern, worry and sadness because just beyond the edge of the immediate family, there is open heart surgery, severe or chronic illness and huge life challenges. I work to be present for all of it, and to hold these feelings in an open embrace without becoming overwhelmed. This involves creating a spaciousness to receive them all: the elation, the sadness, the worry. All are welcomed. None is denied entry. Each is given a turn to express itself, but only awareness gets to sit in the throne and hold the space. Awareness holds all of it with an open loving intention.

Because of all that’s been going on our lives and in the lives of those we love, and because it is natural for our minds to label and organize all this information, we might start labeling these experiences. One sangha member said, “Everyone was so happy to be done with 2009, imagining that 2010 would have to be better, but…”

So we looked at our natural inclination to judge a whole year by the cumulative contents of our experience. It is really just another of the ways we cause more suffering in our lives. When we determine that a year is a lost cause, we feel we are just waiting for it to be over and get to the ‘good’ year that is coming. If we can let these organizational concepts of days, months and years go, we can be more present, allowing each moment its full expression, without having relegated it to being a part of a larger time frame that is already named and blamed.

Our brains are busy organizing information, collecting data and fitting it nicely into some kind of framework. That’s how we created the whole concept of linear time. It’s a filing system, nothing more. Very efficient, but it’s just a filing system. We need to be careful not to mistake these systems for the truth of our experience. It’s like letting the IRS determine what you will have for dinner. The right brain doesn’t have to be in charge of every little thing, and noticing when it is making statements that are causing suffering is a valuable insight.

There’s another set of labels that gets bandied about a lot in my circle of friends. As they increasingly notice that they and those around them are finding their bodies ‘betraying’ them, there is a tendency to say ‘Welcome to old age.’ I have to wonder if this is useful, this labeling all our experiences in the old age file. By association it brings up so much baggage. There is so much we as a society attach to old age, mostly in the form of limitations. So is this label a means of acceptance of the fact that we all will die sooner or later, which is healthy, or is it a kind of trap that takes us out of this moment, this set of actual sensations, and creates an overlay of suffering that only exacerbates whatever challenge we are actually facing?

So this is how the conversation went this week. Lots to think about. Lots to notice in the way we talk to ourselves and others about what we are experiencing. How much is true? How much is really our direct experience?

In the coming weeks, I’ll be doing some dharma talks inspired by watching the documentary on PBS “The Buddha.” If you didn’t get a chance to see it, you can check on for local listings or get it online. It isn’t required watching, but you might enjoy it.

The Pot Hole of Pigeon-holing

My new granddaughter is barely a week old and already she has been pigeon-holed and typecast. Her gender, weight and height have been duly noted and these facts have refined the perception of her parents, extended family and friends. Her physical features have been matched to known patterns. She has her father’s brow, her mother’s ankles, and her great-grandmother’s cheeks.

Like any other mammal, the human is biologically driven to devote itself to its offspring, and the initial ritual of sniffing and checking out to make sure that this offspring is in fact its own, is a natural part of the process of claiming, making the novel and extraordinary understood and ordinary.

The ‘I don’t know mind’ has been tossed aside in the process. Nature abhors a vacuum, and humans abhor a vacuum of solid facts, strong opinions and pigeon holes in which to store them.

But, biological imperative aside, doesn’t that still leave room for this new life to be a wondrous mysterious unknown? Will everything she does in her first week of life have to go on her permanent record? Will all her efforts to come to terms with her environment, skillful or not, be brought up again and again to haunt her?

This is just the beginning after all. She will have a well-documented existence, with photographs, achievements noted in the baby book – whether she is early or late with the various stages of learning to hold her head up, roll over, creep, crawl, walk and talk. Each erupting tooth will be noted, each word learned will be remembered for how endearingly she mispronounces it.

I remember that Josh called a piano a plano and Katie called it a pinano. Josh got his first teeth at four months, Katie at fourteen months – both extremes noted and incorporated into the body of knowledge that attempts to describe their nature. His early teeth got him weaned off the breast earlier than was healthy, thus causing his allergies perhaps? Her late teeth had her used to swallowing food whole without chewing, and she is still a fast eater with indigestion. This is all part of the family lore that weaves a cozy family nest around those who passed that initial sniff test of acceptance into the fold.

But is this who we are? Are we the sum total of our report cards, our teachers’ and fellow students opinions? Are we, as studies often show, a product of our sibling placement, whether we’re the oldest, a middle child or the baby? Are we our grade point averages, our diplomas, our credentials or lack thereof? Are we all living under the weight of our accomplishments, our failures, our faux pas that did not go unnoticed, our favorite music, color, gem stone, animal, genre of book or movie, or our preferred style of dress or home décor?

Will this new life I have been holding in my arms as she sleeps, her dear little mouth and hands in constant movement, be plastered with so many labels she forgets who she is? Will she read the labels as directives of who she should be? Will she struggle to win the affections of her first grade teacher by conforming to the ideal of a good student? Will she struggle to win the admiration of her playmates by being funny or daring? Will she struggle to win the love of a young man by being sexy and willing? Will she struggle to win the approval of her employer by becoming her job title or by foregoing her own moral bearings for the company’s bottom line?

How will she know she is not all the labels put upon her? That she is more than her gender, her ethnicity, her nationality, her preferences, her foibles, her perceived strengths and weaknesses? If she is like most of us, she will come to believe that it is the labels themselves that those around her love. If she is like most of us, it is these very labels that she will love or hate about herself. She will be ready to name her favorite and most hated body parts for the degree to which they conform with those she sees in the media or the most popular girl in class.

Will she feel, as we often do, somehow lost in this naming process?

This is how life is. This is what we do for each other, whether we are parents, siblings, classmates, teachers, coworkers or friends. We mirror each other. Because it’s hard to see ourselves, we rely on the mirroring of everyone around us who, in their response to us show us if we are brave or cowardly, smart or dumb, interesting or dull, beautiful or plain, big or small, fat or thin, old or young, agile or clumsy. We do this in ways overt and subtle, through our words, our expressions and our choice of whom we spend time with and whom we avoid.

When we think about the Buddha’s call to practice Right or Wise Speech in our relationships, we understand the power of our words. In this mirroring process, where we in a word or phrase sketch the whole character of a person, we fall off the Eightfold Path that leads to the end of suffering. Not just the person we are describing’s suffering, but our own. We can feel this, the heartburn that follows a meal of labeling a person, claiming to know them, or to know how they must be feeling in any given moment based on causes and conditions. If a person is in mourning, we assume that in every moment they are in misery. When in fact every moment, every second, has a vast array of fleeting emotions and thoughts. When a person has a new grandchild, we assume that in every moment they are thrilled, euphoric, over the top deliriously happy. And even though these assumptions are not totally incorrect in both cases, they are not allowing for the person to be fully present with the actual feelings that arise.

Perhaps the person in mourning just enjoyed a lovely conversation with an old friend or just took a walk in nature, and in fact was not in that moment caught up in a sense of loss. Perhaps the grandmother had just received news that a friend’s husband had died, had just discovered that her credit card had been used on a spending spree in a foreign country, or was worried about another family member’s health. So even though she is totally over the top thrilled beyond belief at the gift of this new life, it is not for any one else to name or claim to know how she is feeling right now.

We have all experienced this sense of disconnect when someone says, “You must be so…fill in the blank: thrilled, devastated, heartbroken.” And yet our need to label and pigeon hole is very strong, so we find ourselves doing this as well.

When we thrust this pre-determined appropriate emotional response to a situation on those around us, we give the other person the clear message that that is how they should be feeling, leaving them no room to say how they really are feeling. Then they may have a sense of failure or shame of somehow not living up to expectations of others because the named emotion is not the predominate one in this moment.

This is just something we say. It’s the accepted expression of love and concern in our culture. So when we recognize it we don’t have to make ourselves wrong. We can just acknowledge that it’s a product of this need to label, to known, to make connections, to organize the untidiness of life into some semblance of order.

But if we truly want to end suffering for ourselves and others, we can look at it from the standpoint of Right Speech. And what are the three guidelines to determining right speech? The first is “Is it true?” How does this assumption of a particular emotion or this assignment of a particular trait hold up under the light of the truth test? Not very well, we have to admit. Because the truth is that we don’t know. We can’t know how a person is feeling about any given situation. Bringing our assumption into it is not truth, it’s just assumption. Often the truth is that we don’t know. But how often do we believe that? Not often enough!

The second guideline is “Is it useful?” Not really! If it makes the person get caught up in comparing mind instead of being able to stay present with their own experience, that’s not useful at all. In fact, it’s obstructive, veering them off their present course into a quagmire of confusion and emotional discord.

Is it timely? No. Since in every second a person has a panoply of emotions, hitting the mark on naming just one is more chancy than roulette.

So must we always be watching what we say? While awareness of what we say is useful, watching it as if on a fault-finding mission will simply create suffering. Instead, we give ourselves the gift of slowing down, being as much in this moment as possible, and allowing our natural curiosity, compassion and love to guide us. The words that arise out of that state are less likely to be habitual, more likely to be in tune with whatever is going on.

In this state we have less urgency to label and file our experience, feel less rushed to get on to the next exciting thing. Unrushed, we settle down and sink into the experience itself, without the need to label or draw conclusions. We can relax into not knowing, and not needing to know. We can simply be present.

This is just one example of how this labeling process goes on way beyond the realm of report cards and early defining of characteristics. We are constantly providing each other with feedback. But is this feedback accurate? Each of our perceptions are distorted by our own associations and interpretations, our own misperceptions based on feedback we have received from a whole league of equally unreliable sources. What is received may have some truth in it but is not a clear reflection.

This labeling process is like being trapped in a fun house with hundreds of wavy mirrors giving us faulty information about who we are. So the question is not which mirror is correct, or what is the cumulative adjusted equation of all this provided information. The question is: which way out of the funhouse?

Meditation provides a door out of the fun house. By coming into awareness of physical sensation, we access this present moment. In full awareness of this present moment, things can get very simple. Very clear. A spaciousness arises that makes room for the tangle of distortions to be seen, known, examined and perhaps eventually released.

When we talk about No Self, (a concept that this class came upon in studying the book Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson while I was away and has asked for clarification) we are talking about letting go of our attachments to the labels we have been given in our lives. Last year I read to you something I wrote in 1995 called The Dance of the Seven Veils. Since you have been meditating for so much longer now, I will read it again, to see if it answers any questions about this concept of No Self.

The Dance of the Seven Veils
An exercise in letting go

The first veil is the you that is defined by material possessions. These possessions reflect your taste, your financial status and your values. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The second veil is the you that is defined by your achievements, your failures, your badges of honor and your battle scars. The title you hold, the awards you have won, the degrees you have earned, the good deeds you have done, the guilt you bear, the pain you have suffered. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The third veil is the you that is defined by your relationships with others. Your roles as son or daughter, sister or brother, father or mother, husband or wife, friend, lover, student, employee, employer, citizen. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The fourth veil is the you that is defined by your beliefs. Your religion, your political affiliations, your judgments, the angers and resentments that shape your judgments, your assumptions about other people. To the degree that these define you, they confine you. Let them go.

The fifth veil is the you that is defined by your physical, emotional and psychological traits. These are what you were born with: your gender, your race, the fundamental aspects of your personality. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The sixth veil is the you that is defined by your body’s very existence. It is your perception of your skin as an encapsulation and barrier. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you.
Let it go.

The seventh veil is the you that is defined by mind. It is the you that maintains resistance, through fear, in order to exist as a separate consciousness. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you. Let it go.

Now who are you? Beyond the barriers of all your veils of identity, beyond the veils that create shadow, mask and distortion, suddenly all is clear. Who are you? You are One. One with all that is, a manifest expression of the joy of oneness, undefined thus unconfined, free, expansive, beyond the beyond. Yet completely here and now, always in this moment.

Now as you dress in your veils, lovingly drape yourself with these manifest expressions of self, full of richness, full of clues. But never again will you mistake them for you. The authentic you, merged with the all that is, with God beyond personification, you that is light energy source and receptor, transmitter and receiver. You that is released from the limits of fear and knows the infinite power of love. Behold your true self. One with all that is.

You’ll notice that we remove the veils and then we don them again. After seeing the truth that we are not the veils, we can wear them more lightly. Instead of a constricting straight jacket, these labels weave together to make a filmy gown that gives us freedom to dance playfully. We can don the labels with which the world defines us and know that this is just part of the experience of living this existence, but it is not the be all end all of who we are. Who we are is both much more complex and more simple than all these labels would have us believe. Who we are is not how we measure up in possessions or accomplishments or strengths or interests. Who we are is not attached to our stuff, our relationships, our beliefs or our preferences, but our moment by moment experiencing of this gift of consciousness and the spaciousness of not knowing. We can relax and dance in the mystery.

We don’t know much of anything and, as we discussed last week, that is a very liberating acknowledgment. Our brains are busy trying to assess and assimilate information from current conditions and past experience, trying to find a match, so we can plaster a label on it and file it away, because without an efficient filing system, we get easily overwhelmed.

But maybe not all information has to be assimilated and assigned a file drawer. Maybe we can just let ourselves float a bit in the moment and allow our curiosity to run free and our file clerk to take a much needed vacation on a white beach with balmy breezes.

This is the gift of meditation: A step back from the fray of needing to get caught up in the thick of the sniffing, checking and labeling. To just be open to what is.

Through meditation we relax into the mystery a little more, and become more fluent in the language of the I Don’t Know mind. It is the most beautiful language of all, for allowing what is to retain its mystery is a great gift. Allowing ourselves and others to simply exist without labels or expectation grants a certain gracious gratitude for life as it is, however it is – a mysterious gift we are continuously unwrapping in no hurry to end the experience.

Letting Go: Beyond the Labels in Relationship

After reading through the Dance of the Seven Veils in the previous post, it may seem as if we are being asked to give up possessions, relationships, our very skins! But of course that is not the case. Instead we are looking at what it might be like to let go of our habit of defining ourselves by what we own, how we look, what we do for a living, or who we know. We are exposing the lie that all these things are the sum total of who we are. Abandoning the things themselves would serve little purpose, but abandoning our misperceptions about them as our identity could serve us very well.

Let’s look more closely at the third veil: ‘the you that is defined by your relationships with others…. To the degree that these roles define you, they confine you. Let them go.’ We are not giving up our relationships. To the contrary. We are finding a more spacious way to be in them so that the relationships are enhanced and vibrant. By releasing labels of ‘sister’ ‘father’ ‘wife’ or ‘friend’ to the degree that these terms confine us in these relationships.

The first clue to a problem with these labels is that we always use them with that dangerous word ‘my’ in front. My sister, my husband, my child. The word ‘my’ confers a clear sense of ownership. If something is mine, I have a say about it. If something is mine, I think of it as an extension of me, that it represents me in some way.

That sense of entitlement to have a say creates toxicity in relationships. We feel not only entitled but somehow obligated to remake those we own in order that they can live up to our expectations.

We have all felt the pain of being ‘owned’ by some well-intentioned but delusional person who was unable to see us as ourselves. And as painful as it is, we often turn around and hurt others close to us in the same exact way.

So how do we expunge the idea of ownership from a relationship? It would be an interesting challenge to spend a week without using the word ‘my’ or ‘our.’ Would we find a new way to talk about our relatives? Or would we stop talking about them? That would be a very positive outcome indeed!

But even if we don’t speak in the possessive, we still have our lifelong habit of thinking that way. How do we rephrase it to ourselves? Awkwardly, no doubt, but that’s alright. When something is awkward it brings our attention to it, and that breaks us out of habitual patterns and lets us see things anew with fresh eyes.

How would it be to see the person you married with fresh eyes? What if the veils dropped away and you saw the wondrous luminous being with whom you chose to spend your life. (I assure you there is a wondrous luminous being in there! Keep looking!)

If you are not an only child, imagine a person you have known your whole life, who is close to your age and was raised in the same household, who shares a rich wealth of memories from a different vantage point, who in personal traits is unique and yet incredibly perhaps endearingly familiar. Might there be some fresh and wondrous delight in seeing them without the veils of expectation, duty or obligation?

The labels we put on ourselves burden our relationships. The roles we play become who we perceive ourselves to be, and all our accumulated ideas about what it is to be a good wife, mother, sister, husband, father, brother, etc. come into play. We struggle and suffer in the vast field between our imagined ideals and our uneven ability to fulfill them.

For example, I lived with Will for the year before we married. After the wedding I found myself suddenly saddled with a lifetime of images and expectations of what it is to be a wife or a husband, culled from observing my parents’ marriage, from reading novels and watching movies. Of course, Will too had his ideas and expectations, and suddenly a simple loving relationship was floundering in a sea of misunderstandings. It took nearly a decade for us to find a way to be together that didn’t rely so heavily on fulfilling these mostly misguided expectations.

Friendships too can get complicated by our ideas of what it is to be a friend. Our expectations set us up for disappointment. We may say, “A real friend wouldn’t” say or do this or that. What would it be like to let these concepts go? To simply be with someone with whom we share so much and have no expectations and no sense of obligation. How much deeper could the true connection be?

Certain relationships come with contracts. Marriage and parenthood, for example. These contracts are taken on joyfully, and are best kept if that joyfulness is renewed in each moment from our most authentic selves.

Letting go of our identity around these relationships is not necessarily easy because these are ingrained habits of being and perception. But doing so, to the degree we are able, frees us to be fully ourselves, just as we are, with every person we are with. We can allow them to be fully themselves as well, without the drag of our expectations around the role they play in our lives.

Letting go is a gentle process. It is the result of continued compassionate attention. Force has no role here. Judgment is counter productive. Coming into awareness of our thoughts, emotions and sensations is sufficient for the task. The trees let go their leaves when the time is right, and so will we.