Category Archives: loss

How to Sit with an Elephant in the Room


elephantSometimes in life we are faced with great challenges and difficulties that, when we sit down to meditate, simply refuse to be dismissed. Even though this is obviously a time when meditation would be most helpful, it would be easy to say ‘I don’t have time for this’ or ‘This won’t help because I can’t stop thinking about what’s going on in my life right now.’

I am sitting this morning with a mind that is processing new and devastating news about the health of a close loved one. It fills my mind to capacity. It’s like a huge elephant taking up all the space. So what can I do? Give up? No, of course not. It is times like these that I need my practice the most!

In this tradition we stay present with what is, cultivating spaciousness and compassion. So I do that now, staying present with a mind that is reeling and a heart that is breaking. I have practiced meditation in order to be in the moment, no matter what the moment brings, and especially when it brings something that seems too difficult to bear.

Even in a moment when I’d like to run and hide, I know that awareness is more helpful than hiding. By not putting the pillow over my head, turning away from the experience, trying to drown out the experience with distractions, pushing the experience away, I am infinitely more well-equipped to find solace. I am not making an enemy of anything that arises in my experience. In this way I don’t have to get defensive, don’t have to do battle, don’t have to build up a fortress. I cultivate compassion, and in this way I take care of myself. Then, by extension, I am better able to be of use to others, in this case my loved one and our family and friends who are also affected.

There is this erroneous idea that meditation is a practice of perfecting certain states that lead to nirvana. With that in mind a situation like this — where the elephant is filling all the space in my mind — would be deemed a failure. I am not in nirvana here. I am just this side of a blubbering mess. But, I am very aware of what is arising, and I am holding myself in a tender way.

I can come into friendly relationship with the elephant — not developing an attachment by getting caught up in the story of the causes and conditions of my current state, making a special pet of the elephant — but simply allowing it to be present, just as it is, for as long as it stays.

I am noticing how when I close my eyes to meditate, when I follow the breath, that my chest is heavy. I notice that the sensations in my body are different than usual, and hard to describe. While it’s skillful to notice and even describe it to ourselves, in this case If I get too caught up in finding the right words to share with you, it takes me out of the body and into my writer’s brain. So I return to simply noticing, sensing in, sensing in, sensing in.

Being present with these sensations, however they present themselves, is enough. I am not trying to change anything. If I find tension, I might relax and release it to whatever degree I’m able, but again, I’m not making tension an enemy.

At times the mind is racing, planning, trying to solve the problem, and yes, at times it becomes so entangled that I can’t quite hold it all in awareness. I am caught up in it. But then just enough awareness comes in that I can reset my intention to hold it all with spaciousness and compassion. I am shining loving light on all of it, and with that a certain lightness and softening occurs.

And then things shift and change again. And that too is the nature of mind.

This is also an especially good time for metta practice, first for myself, because I can’t share what I don’t have; and then to my loved one, envisioning healing light, and then out into the community of all beings. May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

In class after practicing together, and after giving this talk, I invited anyone who wanted to do so to share a little from their own lives in the realm of meditation and coping with overwhelming emotion. As you might imagine it was a rich class, with everyone having something to offer.

Then we did walking meditation in the garden on a beautiful spring day, noticing everything in a deep way with great gratitude for life and for taking the time to be present.

What does this bring up for you?

Great Gratitude Retreat

I just led a daylong Great Gratitude retreat that seemed to leave everyone in a state of bliss and yes gratitude, according to their end of the day sharing.

Going into silence is such a delicious thing to do, although people always think it sounds scary. ‘How can I possibly not talk for hours (and in the case of longer retreats, days) on end?” Easy! One student at the end mentioned how surprised she was at how pleasant it was to be quiet, to not have to think of something to say, and to be together as a sangha in mutual appreciation without needing to communicate orally or even by eye contact. This lovely interior experience is fully supported by the community, and that’s something people forget when they think about going into silence.

We did a traditional Vipassana Buddhist style retreat: sitting meditations alternated with outdoor walking meditations. The decks with their boards set the natural walking meditation aisles for formal walking meditation. The gardens were for less formal meandering and communing with nature. At different points throughout the day meditators would take a seat by the waterfall to do a listening meditation. One meditator kept returning to the base of an old oak. At the end of the day sharing she said it helped her feel her roots. One meditator took note of the great number of species of animals that share the garden with us, sensing community. Another noticed her comparing mind, how enjoying the garden got infiltrated by thoughts of ‘Why isn’t my garden like this?’ One meditator developed gratitude for her feet as she did walking meditation, and recognized what a gift they are, how some people don’t have the use of their feet or their feet are in pain. One meditator felt the flush of creativity that being fully present can provide.

You might say well of course it is easy to be present and grateful in a garden on a beautiful spring day, but what about being present amidst life’s difficulties? What about being present with pain and hard choices?

We practice in the garden so that we learn the way to the present moment in any situation. We learn here and apply what we have learned out in the busy world. Since so much of what we struggle with in life has little to do with conditions in the world but much to do with how the mind grasps for, clings to and turns away from whatever arises in our experience, it isn’t necessary to provide unpleasant situations to get the mind to struggle. The mind does this with everything, until we recognize it and find that we can make room for all of life experience if we simply expand our spacious open embrace.

Even in a lovely setting we can find something to bother us. As I walked on the cedar decking, I couldn’t help noticing how shabby it was, how mottled, how in need of repair. But after a few periods of seated and walking meditation, I walked the same course and found the same boards to be beautiful pieces of natural art! That’s how the mind is. It finds fault in conditions and situations, and then when it settles down — when the tuning fork of meditation has brought it into balance — it sees beauty everywhere. So if we took this retreat on the road, if we transported it to a slum in Mumbai, at first we might be overwhelmed by the squalor, but after a period of meditation we would begin to see the beauty of the people, the colors, the patterns, the sounds and the energy of life being lived. We would, as people often do, fall in love with something that we had felt such aversion for just a few hours before.

Another example: I used to go on a wonderful Buddhist women’s retreat up above the world famous Muir Woods where towering redwood trees fill a deep canyon. During each day of my retreat I would walk down the trail into the canyon and enjoy the quiet of the areas away from the tourist-trodden trails. Towards the end of the retreat, I decided to venture into the populated areas. In that state of mindfulness, my heart filled with such love for the flocks of this colorful species with their bright t-shirts and hats, each little grouping a family or fellow-travelers having its own little world of interaction. What a falling away there was for me of the attitudes, opinions and cynical judgments I carried about my species, especially in crowds. This is the gift of meditation. It doesn’t turn us into zombies. It removes the dust-trapped veils that have prevented us from seeing clearly and experiencing great gratitude for this gift of being present, wherever we are.

So what is ‘great gratitude’ and how does it differ from plain old gratitude? Plain old gratitude is counting your blessings, and that’s a lovely thing to do. What kind of unfeeling ingrates would we be not to be grateful for the good fortune we have? People who have less health, wealth, love and beautiful surroundings would say, ‘Hey, if you’re not grateful, then step aside. if I had what you have I would be soooo grateful.’ How often have we been in that position ourselves, thinking ‘if only’ we had the blessings some other person has, we would be so incredibly grateful? (That ‘if only’ is a very painful place, one that doesn’t disappear with acquisition, but sets the stage for more ‘if only’ desires.)

So we count our blessings. Of course we do. We are not automatons that don’t feel pain at the loss of these kinds of blessings. But when a loss happens, through our meditation practice, we stay present with the experience, noticing what arises. We might notice the heavy pressure in the chest that is so often associated with loss, for example. We stay present enough to hold ourselves with tender compassion. We are willing to feel what we feel and not rush to get past it. We understand that the dark valleys of our lives are where the fertile soil is. Instead of wallowing in the mud, getting stuck in our story of loss, we nurture ourselves, have patience with the process, and grow from our experiences.
One thing we learn from loss is that the blessings we can count on our fingers are conditional: our health, our wealth, our homes, our loved ones. These things we are grateful for are finite, changeable and undependable — all the things that make being attached to them a sure fire way to cause dukkha, suffering.

Is there anything that is infinite that we can be grateful for? Yes! We can feel great gratitude for this very moment just as it is, with all its joys and all its sorrows. As long as we are conscious we always have this very moment. Pleasant or unpleasant we have the experience of being present.

In moments when our conditional gratitude falters, when we want things to be different from the way they are, or we want things to stay the same and we dread change, can we open to that infinite quality of gratitude for being present simply to experience it all? And in that way can we soften our tight clinging and our fear-based belief that without these things we could not go on?

The practice (for the retreat and perhaps for you if you choose to do it) is to notice both the finite gratitude for specific blessings we can name, and then expand into infinite gratitude for this very moment just as it is. There is room for it all if we are present and compassionate.
We feel gratitude for being conscious in each moment as it reveals itself. We learn the fine art of holding it lightly and savoring it. This devout gratitude sheds light on the darkest despair, allowing us to discern the treasure buried deep within. It allows us to experience pain as a symphony of passing sensations. Deep unconditional gratitude can be a constant companion that opens our eyes and our hearts. And ultimately, at the moment when we breathe our last precious breath, we are grateful even for this.

We can simply let the great gratitude breathe us, illuminating our lives.

The Buddha’s Eight Worldly Winds

It’s been really windy lately. I notice that I get anxious in high wind, imagining how it is sucking the moisture out of the already dry landscape. I notice worry that the wind will topple a tree. Indeed the oak across the street just fell so my worry finds reason and grows stronger. I see how my mind gets caught up in imagining how if there were a fire right now, this wind would turn it into a fire storm. My thoughts travel into the past remembering all the times the wind has beaten against the house like this, causing any present discomfort to be compounded. My thoughts travel into the future, wondering whether with global warming, this hard wind will become stronger. Images from newscasts of the devastation caused by tornadoes in the midsection of the US rise up to remind me of the impermanent nature of these structures we call home.

I notice too how with the wind blowing so hard, everything else going on in my thoughts and emotions is tinged with my distressed reaction. Something that wouldn’t normally bother me now causes aggravation because I am already a little on edge. 

This clear noticing of what is really happening in my experience is not to whine about the wind, or to judge myself for making a mountain out of a molehill, but to compassionately notice how the mind takes me on an unskillful journey away from this moment, how it spreads misery in its wake and compounds the potential for suffering. The noticing and compassion are skillful, and as I focus I feel the tension in my body releasing. This is the practice of mindfulness.

The Buddha created a whole set of teachings based on the changeable nature of wind. The Eight Worldly Winds* is a set of eight paired experiences — pleasure & pain; gain & loss; praise & blame;  fame & disgrace. Like the wind they arise and fall away, then arise again and fall away again. All of life experience is like this.
Here is a drawing I did of the Eight Worldly Winds.

8 worldly winds.jpg

Now let’s look at them one by one.

We seek out pleasure, and don’t want it to end so we cling to it. Why would we not?
Here’s one reason: When we are afraid it will end, we are not really in a state of enjoyment. Instead we are caught up in the suffering of grasping and clinging. The only way we can truly enjoy pleasure is to let go of the fear of losing it. If we allow it to come and allow it to go, the way we might enjoy spending time with a butterfly who has alighted on our extended palm, we savor the moment. We know it is fleeting.  
We recognize that while we may have the power to capture the butterfly and keep it, if we did so the butterfly would no longer be what it is, would no longer be able to give us the pleasure of seeing it flit and fly from flower to flower. To keep it, we would have to kill it. If we did so, we could still admire the colors, shapes and details of the wings, but the essence of what makes it a butterfly is gone. 
In this same way we can notice how pleasure disappears if we hold on too tight, wishing it would go on and on.

We dread pain. Why would we not?
Here’s one reason: When we have a pain and get caught up in how much we don’t want to be in pain, we compound it with self-inflicted suffering. When we are able to fully be present with pain, we can see how it becomes a series of physical sensations that change constantly, diminish over time and eventually pass away.
One of my granddaughters who is an adult now was terrified of bees when she was little. She wasn’t allergic to them but she was still afraid of being stung, so she refused to go out in our garden. I sat with her and asked her, ‘What are you afraid will happen?’

‘I’m afraid a bee will sting me.’  

‘And if a bee did sting you, then what would happen?’ 

‘It would hurt.’ 

‘Have you ever been hurt before?’ 


‘And what happened when you were hurt?’ 

‘I  cried.’ 

‘And then what happened?’ 

‘The hurt stopped after a little bit and I stop crying.’

‘And then what did you do?’

‘I went and played.’

And with that statement she smiled at me with the light of recognition. Then she hopped off my lap and went straight outside to run around the garden with great joy and abandon.
We can do this for ourselves as well. We can come into skillful relationship with the Worldly Wind of pain, and not let the fear of it rule us. We use common sense, but we don’t stop living just to avoid pain, because that state of avoidance is ongoing pain.
It’s one of the ways we create dukkha, the chronic suffering that comes from our grasping at, clinging to and pushing away these Worldly Winds.

We like to gain a new friend, strength, ability, knowledge, health and wealth, and we are determined to hold on to what we’ve got. Why would we not?
Here’s one reason: While opening to the wealth of the world is a delight and there is maintenance required, when we cling to a it we strangle it, whether it’s a friendship or strength, ability, knowledge, health or wealth. When we experience the naturally occurring changes of life, we suffer much worse than simple disappointment. We fall into a sense of diminishment that sucks the joy out of every moment spent with the gains we have made.
We fear loss of loved ones, of health, wealth, strength, ability and anything else we value. Why would we not?
Here’s one reason: We create an ongoing state of suffering that precedes the loss. When the loss occurs, as it will, we can’t be present for the experience because we are still struggling, trapped under all the layers of fear we have created. If we can’t bring ourselves to be present with the loss, then how will we ever recover from it?
As women of a certain age, my students and I have all lost some of the people who mattered most to us in the world. So we know about loss. This knowing informs us. We would never wish for it or wish it on anyone, and yet when we are present with the loss itself, when we feel the physical and emotional impact of loss in each moment, we notice how it shifts and changes, arises and falls away. This noticing makes us wiser and more resilient. It carves within us the capacity to hold more love and deeper compassion.

We enjoy praise so we do things to earn it. Why would we not?
Here’s one reason: Chasing praise from another person throws us out of balance. We can’t be grounded or authentic if we are second-guessing what someone else would like us to be. Ironically, we can’t hear the praise when if it comes because we are caught up in our hopes, fears and expectations.
As women we may be more prone to make choices in order to get praise. Our feelings may be hurt if our mate doesn’t compliment a meal we cooked. And heads up to husbands: silence is often interpreted as criticism.
Of course we want whoever eats what we cook to enjoy it. But can we live enough in the present moment to arrive at the dinner table having so thoroughly enjoyed the process of cooking that we are not hankering after praise? Can we be so present with the experience of eating the meal, and with the pleasure of the company, that we are not waiting to hear ‘Wow, you are the greatest cook on the planet!’? Expectation sours our own enjoyment. We can’t taste a thing.

We so dread blame that we’re careful to do everything we should and nothing we shouldn’t. Why would we not?
Here’s one reason: While it is wise to lead a blameless life by living with integrity, honesty and kindness, sometimes we fail. In a moment of oblivion or distress, we do something that causes harm.
If we are tied up in knots of fear of being blamed, we will be more likely to do something unskillful, since our intention is not aligned with being present and being compassionate, but with some future scolding we might receive.
When blame falls on us can we be skillful in how we deal with it? Can we acknowledge our error or misjudgment? And if the blame is unjustified, can we see it as simply an error and not an indictment of us?

We crave recognition, maybe even fame. Why would we not?
Here’s one reason: Because the longing for recognition drags us out of the present moment. We live in our minds in some future moment when we will receive the recognition we so deserve. If that moment ever comes, we won’t have the practiced skill of being present in order to notice it. We will be craving greater and greater recognition.
Even if we don’t relate to the word ‘fame’, we each have our reputation. Among our family, friends and work associates we become known for certain qualities, traits and behaviors. While praise is a one-time thing, reputation is cumulative, and colors how we are perceived for years to come.
We want to avoid disgrace. Why wouldn’t we?
Well here’s one reason. Disgrace can become such a terrifying outcome that people in certain cultures would rather die than be disgraced. But even if that is not the case, allowing the shadow of potential disgrace to loom over us can really throw us out of balance, blind us to the rest of what is going on in the present moment.  
If we live mindfully, aware of our connection with all life, aware of the impact our choices have on ourselves, those around us and the world, while we will not be impervious to failure or error, we will be more likely to have the wisdom to know how to make amends and assure we don’t make that particular mistake again. We can recognize the universal nature of this and all the Eight Worldly Winds.
Our feelings around reputation can extend beyond ourselves. One student pointed out that if we identify with groups — a favorite team, a political party, a country — we feel connected and affected by their triumphs and stardom as well as their failures and disgrace.
With our previous exploration we can see how we might, through awareness, temper the effect of these Eight Worldly Winds. If notice them, we notice that they pass.
If we note ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’ for any experience, we strengthen our ability to see clearly the strong lure to get caught up in a story about the pleasant or unpleasant experience, and the emotions that are ready to rise up to further entangle us in associated memories, planning, worry, regret, daydreaming, etc.
At any moment during this entanglement of the mind, we can recognize it, and reset our intention to be present rather than lost in the past or future. When we do this, we begin to see the nature of what is. If we see in this moment one of the Eight Worldly Winds arising, and we stay present to observe it, we will see that it is insubstantial. Under observation it breaks down into component parts. We can see the desire or the fear underlying it. Recognizing the underlying longing or fear, we can be compassionate with ourselves, and that quality of kindness offers a release from the attachment to the Worldly Wind. As we stay present, we see that the worldly wind changes over time. It is impermanent. It arises and falls away.  We can simply be aware of this big wind passing through our field of experience.
If we can open our view wide enough to see the nature of how they arise and fall away again and again, we can find ease in simply being alive and present to experience it all.
Remember the story of the farmer who lost his horse? It applies very well here, so I’ll tell it again.

A farmer’s horse got loose from the corral and disappeared. The farmer’s neighbor said, ‘What a calamity! How will you plow your fields without your horse?’ A few days later the horse returned with six wild horses in tow. Wow! Now the neighbor said, ‘That’s fantastic! What great luck!’Then the farmer’s son fell off the horse while trying to tame it, and he broke his leg. ‘How terrible!’ the neighbor sympathized. The next week the army came and took all able-bodied young men, but not the son hobbling around on crutches. The neighbor could not believe the farmer’s good fortune. At every turn the neighbor reacted as if tossed around on the winds of fortune. But each time, whether the neighbor commiserated or congratulated, the farmer simply said he didn’t know whether this was good or bad fortune. Maybe yes, maybe no. He couldn’t say.

 The farmer was wise. He recognized that none of us know the outcome of any given event, that all things and all experiences are insubstantial, impermanent, and beyond our control. He recognized the nature of the Eight Worldly Winds.

In moments of clarity, when we are fully present, we recognize this as well. We can simply be present with the experience as it arises and falls away. Arises and falls away…

*  ‘Eight Worldly Winds’ is one translation. Others are ‘Eight Worldly Dharmas’, and ‘The Failings of the World’. This is from the Lokavipatti Sutta of the Pali Canon, the earliest scriptures of the Buddha’s teachings, which had been passed down orally from generation to generation of monks for 500 years until in 1 BCE, they were committed to writing.

Transitions, Loss and Discovery

We are in the few weeks between the ‘end of summer’ marked in the US by Labor Day and nature’s end of summer on the upcoming Autumnal Equinox. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s worthwhile to notice any feelings that arise out of this sense of an ending with the days growing shorter and the air cooling. Whenever we are in transition, it is particularly kind to give ourselves a little extra time and space to process our experience.

In Thursday’s class we had a discussion based on questions and comments within the sangha circle. At the end of class, I commended the circle for collectively creating a dharma discussion that was skillful in the ways I discussed previously in What Makes an Effective Sangha Discussion?

Though there’s no way to recapture all of what was shared, here are some of the areas we explored.

Noticing our Emotions
One student asked the difference between ‘noticing’ our emotions and ‘feeling’ our emotions. Although this could just be a matter of semantics and personal choice, for me the word ‘noticing’ — which is what I encourage my students to do — creates more spaciousness around the emotion to allow it to exist without our having to act upon it. We have the capacity to develop a spacious field of loving awareness where all manner of experiences arise and fall away. If we do get caught up the urgency of an emotion’s call to action, then some portion of our awareness is noticing this as well.

Our practice of noticing is not to develop a distant detached observer avoiding the experience of life. This is more likely to be a judgmental aspect of our personality rather than an access to Wise View (aka Right View, from of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.) We didn’t come into this life to sit on the sidelines and watch! In our practice we are developing the ability to be in the stream of life fully present and awake. There are many posts on this blog that address what being in the moment entails, and I encourage you to read in the archive of posts to find ones that have meaning for you and help to answer or at least explore what’s up for you at this time.

As an example of noticing an emotion, we explored anger a bit. We can ‘feel’ anger but then what? What is the next step? What are we to do with this feeling? With noticing, we look closer, activate curiosity, discover related physical sensation and associative images and memories. Noticing is an opportunity to use a strong emotion to learn something about ourselves, something that might have been hidden or ignored. It also allows us to see that emotions, thoughts and physical sensations are in a constant state of flux. This in turn helps us to see that they are not who we are. We can’t pin our identity on waves of activity that arise and fall away and are experienced by everyone, depending on the causes and conditions they experience.

This is an open-ended discussion and in no way discourages us from feeling our emotions!

Coping With Loss
One student shared the relatively recent loss of a loved one. We are a group of women of a certain age, and there is not one among us who has not lost someone we love. But even though loss is universal, all our experiences of loss are not the same, and that’s important for us all to remember.
In our mindfulness practice, we focus not on the experiences themselves, telling the story of the event again and again, but on how we in the present moment are reacting, responding or relating to them. Are we being present with the pain we notice, or are we compounding this pain with more suffering by grasping, clinging, pushing away or denying the experience? Can we create a spacious field of loving awareness in which to experience whatever arises? Can we hold it all in an open loving embrace, making room for the ebb and flow of our experience?

I shared an analogy that students have told me has been most helpful with loss or a traumatic event:

Imagine a mountain lake, beautiful and pristine. Then imagine out of the blue a large rock, maybe even a boulder, maybe even a meteor falling into the middle of the lake. This is the traumatic event — the death of a loved one, the break up of a relationship, the loss of a career, health or an ability, for example.

When the boulder falls, the point of entering the lake is chaos. The water is churned up, huge splashes, bubbles, waves — all is thrown out of balance. Everything is upside down and out of control. If we are practiced at being aware and noticing, what we notice is this sense of being overwhelmed by huge emotions. We may be too overwhelmed to notice. We may rage against the very practices that have supported us because they are insufficient to protect us from this sense of being overwhelmed. I remember in the documentary ‘Fierce Grace’ when Ram Dass suffered a stroke and was being wheeled into the hospital, he wondered what was the point of all his meditative practice if at this moment it wasn’t there to make everything okay. (I’m paraphrasing.) He who had a strong spiritual practice all his life lost it in that moment of great loss and anguish. In that moment of incredible pain and turmoil, there feels as if there is nothing to hold onto. So we let go. We experience the pain of it. We do the best we can. Maybe we get lost, but just as we come back to the present moment and our breath in meditation after our mind has wandered, we come back to that which supports us. For meditators, it is our practice, our access to a sense of spacious oneness.

To continue our analogy: In the following days, weeks, months and years after the event, what we notice is periods where life goes on relatively normally, and then periods where we feel thrust ‘back’ into the churning emotions. For many of us, especially after a good deal of time has passed, we may see this as ‘losing ground,’ as if we are supposed to be making some kind of linear progress away from being affected by this event.

But remember the lake, the boulder falling, and what is the naturally arising result? There are ripples. Long after the boulder has settled at the bottom of the lake, the water radiates from the point of impact outward in widening circles. So too with a traumatic event. The calm spaces between the ripples grow wider, and the ripples grow smaller, but they still exist, quite naturally.

Just so, it is quite natural for us to wake up one day and feel quite strongly the emotional ramifications of that event, however long ago it was. Yesterday we were fine and today perhaps our heart aches, as if the boulder is sitting on our chest. At these times it is most skillful to acknowledge that this is natural, no matter what anyone says, and to give ourselves whatever kindness we can, not to make the feelings disappear, but just to create enough spaciousness in our awareness to experience them, to allow for them.

This is an important lesson for all of us, whether the loss is our own or someone else’s. We can remember this image when a friend seems to be ‘slipping back’ into grief or depression. These feelings are amplified by misinterpreting them as failings to keep up the time-lined task of healing. At these times a true friend doesn’t say, ‘It’s been x amount of time. Get over it already!’ or words that sound like that to the person addressed, even when put in a nicer way. This brings us back to remembering that even though loss is universal, we each experience it in our own way, and no one else can tell us how we should be feeling.

Mindfulness Practices We Might Already Have
We also discussed if one doesn’t have a daily meditation practice and doesn’t feel there is time in the day to create one, how to take an existing activity and make it a mindfulness practice. Being more mindful — in the moment — as we walk, for example, instead of using it as a time to make a to do list or put buds in our ears to listen to someone elses words. Swimming also is a natural for mindfulness practice, so full of sensations to draw our attention. So that is something to consider if life just feels too full to add a meditation practice. I work with people one on one to help them develop space for daily practice in whatever form it takes. Contact me if that is something you would like to explore. But let me still put in a plug for at least some sitting practice!!

So that’s some of what we explored in our sangha discussion. If you weren’t there, I hope I’ve given you at least of taste of what you missed!

Buddha’s Eight Worldly Winds

In exploring the Buddha’s teaching stories and analogies, I find myself elaborating and embellishing. It feels to me as if I am re-hydrating sharings that over the years had become single sentences or bare-bones concepts without sufficient details to make them juicy and alive for us today. It is up to each of you to decide whether these embellishments add or take away from the value of the teaching, but I want to be sure that it is clear what is received teaching and what is elaborated upon by me. I think the most important thing in learning and sharing teachings is that we each return to the well of our own inner wisdom, our own ability to question the veracity of any teaching. If it rings true, we draw from it; if not we let it go.

Having said that, I continue my exploration of the Buddha’s river analogy which students are telling me has been so helpful throughout the week. This time I am adding in another of the Buddha’s teachings, because I see within this river analogy an opportunity to discuss the Buddha’s Eight Worldly Winds.

The Winds are four pairs of opposites. They are: pleasure and pain; loss and gain; praise and blame; and ill-repute and fame. These paired opposites are worldly winds because the winds blow and we are all affected in some way.

We have often talked about how it is not the causes and conditions of life but our relationship to the causes and conditions, the things that happen to us, that we focus on and can skillfully affect. So here are these eight causes and conditions, these eight worldly winds. What is our relationship to them? How do they affect us? Or do we react to them?

Returning to the Buddha’s river analogy of the Middle Way, we can see that wind is definitely something one considers when one is on a boat. Understanding the nature of the winds is important for skillful navigation. So understanding the nature of these Eight Worldly Winds is skillful for our navigating along the Middle Way.

With these four paired opposites, we can see how they could easily blow us toward one shore or the other. (Remember that one shore is over-indulgence, the other self-denial. We are through our meditation practice, maintaining our course on the river, finding the rich nourishing infinite river that courses through our being.)

First there is the wind of pleasure. We experience pleasure and if we are skillful we accept it for what it is, appreciate it as one of the gifts of life, and let it go when it passes. As if a butterfly briefly alighted on our outstretched palms, we hold the pleasure in an open embrace, neither crushing it nor shooing it away.

But the World Wind of pleasure can blow us off course and leave us stuck aground on the shore of self-indulgence. How does this happen? Maybe the first thing we do is wonder why we don’t give ourselves this pleasure more often? And then we start planning just how we will do that, or beating ourselves up for never doing it. Thus we have fallen out of the moment and into the suffering on one shore or the other.

We can easily get habituated to pleasure, begin to feel that we deserve it, then can’t possibly live without it. Once we’ve slept on luxury sheets, maybe we say we’ll never go back to 200 thread count again! Thus we tighten the limits of our experience more and more, the borders of what we are willing to tolerate.

So what is skillful here? Pleasure comes, we are in the moment with the pleasure, appreciative, and then the pleasure passes and we are ready for whatever happens next. But even if we have missed the opportunity to have that straight-forward a response, we can, whenever we realize where we have gotten lost, come back again to the river, to the awareness of the present, with compassion for ourselves. We can also use our skillful questioning to explore our assumptions, thoughts and feelings that we notice arising. “Is this true? How do I know this is true?”

Pleasure’s counterpart is the wind of pain. Which shore does it blow us toward? Pain can feel deserved and thus blow us toward extremes of self-denial or we can fight to mask the pain with seeking the shore of self-indulgence, hiding out in that bottle, that pill, that comfort food or that mind-numbing activity.

As we practice, we learn that we can stay with the experience of pain and notice how what we believed to be one giant sensation is really a symphony of smaller sensations arising and falling away. This level of noticing makes it possible to be present, to let go of our thoughts that compound the pain, the ones that say ‘Oh no, not this pain again!’ or ‘How long will this last? I can’t stand it if it goes on like this forever!’ Thus staying present with it, we discover the joyful aspect of impermanence because we see that the sensation changes from moment to moment if we are being aware.

Someone says something devastating to us and we feel pain. Perhaps it blows us way off course, but once we are able to be present with the pain, we can use compassion to bring us back to the river. First compassion for ourselves as we hold ourselves in tenderness as we would a child who is in pain.Then we extend compassion to the other person, because in order for them to to inflict pain on someone, they must be operating out of fear and be in pain themselves. That fear has made them either mindless so they are unaware of the power of their words to harm, or it has made them feel they need to wield cruelty as a protective mechanism. Being able to find compassion for them softens the blow of our own experience. We understand that it is not all about us, any more than the wind is purposely trying to topple us.

Then skillful questioning is needed. We can certainly look to what role we may have played in provoking the hurt. We hear our thoughts and we can ask if they are true, without feeling the need to defend them. We can also question whether it is healthy for us to be near this person. Perhaps we are in a vulnerable state and need to put our own well-being as a priority. Compassion is not meant to enable other people to treat us badly. So there is a level of wise discernment necessary, and being fully in the moment, ‘on the river,’ helps us to see more clearly than when we are stuck deep inland, wandering lost.

Next there are the paired winds of gain and loss. When we gain something in life, does it throw us off course, like a wind pushing us to one shore or the other? Think of the lottery winner who goes on a spending spree of indulgence. But again, gain could cause one to feel uncomfortable, as if we don’t deserve what we’ve received, and cause us to go to excessive self-denial. I think of when I ‘gain’ a batch of cookies I have baked. For reasons I am still exploring for myself, I just can’t rest comfortably until they are all gone. For now, I don’t bake. If I want a cookie I go buy one cookie. This is sad because of course homemade cookies fresh from the oven are so much better than store-bought. But if I feel this way about cookies, I can imagine how a recipient of a great windfall might feel the same: that this money, ‘undeserved,’ must be squandered. That quality of undeserving is best explored from the vantage point of the river, the breath, the present moment, with compassion and a willingness to question in.

Gain’s counterpart is the wind of loss. Loss happens to us all. Loved ones die. We lose a relationship, a job, an ability, a home. And where does this wind blow us? Do we seek the shores of self-denial, blaming ourselves for the loss, beating ourselves up, denying ourselves comfort? Or do we seek mindless pleasures, addictions, something that can at least temporarily mute the loss through oblivion?
Again, once we are conscious enough to remember the river, we are back on it. We can be instantly present, anchored in physical sensation, feeling this moment in all its fullness.

The winds of praise and blame blow and what happens? Does praise roll off like water on a duck’s back but blame sink in deeply? Or does praise give us a big head so we get lost in self-indulgent thinking, hearing echos of the praise in our thoughts, becoming addicted to recreating conditions for more praise to come? Having done volunteer stints of teaching art to children, I know that comments, even praise, can throw a little (or big!) artist off track during the process of creation. The desire to please the teacher or the parent or the friend starts to change the simple joy of creation into a goal-oriented process, and the artist loses their way. This is true in any area where we are hoping to simply live our own lives as authentically as possible, to be the most honest expression of the gift of life in this form, as it has been given us. But if our parents have different ideas of what is a proper career for us, we may be thrown off course for years, maybe for our whole life, because we want to please them, we crave their praise and approval.

Conversely, rather than seeking praise, we can be so uncomfortable with praise that it can send us into self-denial, reminding ourselves of all the ways that the praise is undeserved.

And then there is blame, the opposite of praise. How to we relate to it? Are we able to stay present with the experience? Can we breathe and not feel under attack, as if our life was at stake? If the blame is justified, can we take it in as useful information, make the necessary apologies and amends, make note to self not to do that again, to be more mindful and wise in our behavior? Or do we race into mindlessness, on one shore or the other, seeking the oblivion of compensatory pleasure or the deserved pain of a bed of hot coals?  How does our reaction change when the blaming is unjust?  Say you get an email from the library that a book is overdue, a book that you returned weeks ago. What is your reaction? Do you simply call or go to the library and ask them to check the shelves, or do you go to some dark internal ranting place, expressing outrage at the ‘accusation?’ Which is more skillful? More mindful? More effective?

The last pair of opposite Worldly Winds is fame and ill-repute. Most of us feel this is not something that concerns us. We are neither famous nor infamous, so we can just let this one go. But let’s see it on a more human scale. We all have a reputation for certain qualities in our community of neighbors, family, friends and coworkers. Are we known for being trustworthy, dependable, compassionate, etc. or have we got a rep for being always late, or not to be trusted to follow through on what we promise? And how do we relate to this reputation, whatever it is? Do we go mindless, getting lost in believing ourselves to ‘be’ this reputation, thus hang on tight to our labels, even if they seem bad to others, for without them, who would we be? Is our behavior blown by the wind of our reputation? Do we modify our behavior in order to be seen in a certain way? ‘What would the neighbors think?’ is a typical expression of this being blown by the wind of fame or ill-repute.

And yet of course we live in communities. Hopefully we can be present and compassionate enough to say and do what is wisest for ourselves and those in our community. Both through awareness practice and through Wise Intention we live mindful of our impact on the whole web of life, knowing that we do not live in isolation. Through the practice of meditation, generosity arises, as do other virtues. This is a natural part of the releasing of the tightness of operating out of fear. If we are practicing being in the moment, we will be less likely to live in a way that is adversely affected by these Worldly Winds.

Wind could be thought of as an element of communication, the media, the way information travels on the airwaves, sometimes emitting a lot of hot air. We are often buffeted to one shore or the other by the news we receive and our reactivity to it; the face-to-face comments, emails, phone calls; radio, internet or television news; texts and twitters we receive and our reactivity to those as well. Notice how the next piece of news you read or hear affects you. What emotions arise? What defenses? It may help us to think of these received words as one of the Worldly Winds, capable of blowing us toward one shore or the other. With regular meditation practice, we develop this ability to stay or easily return to the center of the river, the calm center of our being. Meditation doesn’t make us impervious to anything, but it does help us to recognize where center is and how to get there.

Sometimes these winds are hurricanes, tornadoes or typhoons. It is not surprising that we then find ourselves deep inland on one shore or the other. Perhaps we have been unconscious for a time, but whenever we do become conscious, we are able to remember the river. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, who after being misguided to follow the yellow brick road discovered that by simply clicking her shoes she could return home, we can ‘click’ our paired intentions to anchor into physical sensation to bring ourselves into the present moment, and to be compassionate with ourselves so as not drag ourselves further inland. And just like that we are back on the river, back in the center of our being in this moment, whatever this moment holds. And when we are truly in it, not caught up in planning the future, regretting the past or worrying about something beyond our present control, we find that this moment is maybe not so bad, maybe even absolutely stunningly alive, rich, multi-layered; and we find ourselves feeling an incredible gratitude for the unique fleeting gift of this moment.

Karuna, Accessing Deep Rooted Compassion

Have you ever been in a situation where people were feeling sorry for you? Perhaps you had suffered a great loss, had a serious illness or experienced a big upheaval in your life. Suddenly people’s eyes seemed full of pity or sympathy. And how did you feel? Like you couldn’t get away fast enough?

Why? One possible reason is that, much as they might try, others cannot imagine exactly what we are going through with any accuracy, even if they have experienced something similar. From moment to moment our emotions are changing, so if someone claims understanding, they are projecting their own ideas of what they think we must be going through onto us. As well meant as they are, these projections just add to our challenge. They muddy up our ability to sense into our own direct experience and be present with it.

So then when someone else is going through a difficult experience, we may feel paralyzed with the fear of saying or doing something wrong ourselves. We are afraid that our heartfelt empathy will come across as pity. Yet we feel antsy in our wanting to do something. And of course anything we do is better than doing nothing, so we call or send a card or bring a casserole, but all the while we are not sure if we are truly being helpful, if we are doing enough or if our words will be misunderstood.

As discussed in previous posts, when we are operating out of the shallow hard cake of fear, the results of our efforts are distorted and fail to nourish us or those around us. And now here we are again, rooted in fear, terrified of doing the wrong thing but wanting very much to help.

Here is a moment to center in to ourselves, to focus on the breath. The fear may exist. We see it. We know it. We can feel where in our body it grips us tight. And that simple acknowledgment allows us to relax a little. Through relaxing into this present moment fully, it is possible to release our fear. We don’t push it away, overcome it, conquer it or ignore it. That is just fighting fear with fear – a battle without end.

Instead we notice the fear, notice how it feels in our body, notice all the sensations that accompany it. As we breathe into these sensations we can eventually find a quiet center within ourselves, a shift of perspective from which we can see the fear more clearly. With great tenderness, as a mother would do for her baby, we hold the fear in an open embrace until it settles down, dissapates or disappears. This open embrace is expansive – a vast and loving awareness. We become aware that we also are like a babe being lightly held in an infinite loving open embrace.

When we are able to rest in this vast and loving awareness, the compassion that arises is karuna.

The difference between mere sympathy and karuna is the difference between ‘There but for the Grace of God go I’ and ‘I am you, and you are me and we are all together’ – an awareness of the seamless oneness of being. In the first sentence there is well wishing, but there is also the relief that it is not happening to us, and the fear that it might someday. So there is a part of us that wants to run away, fearful of contamination. These added fear-based emotions communicate loud and clear to the other person.

In the second sentence above, there is no where to run away to. Karuna is rooted in the knowledge that if it is happening to anyone, it is happening to us. And instead of ‘offering sympathy’, we sit by their side or hold them in our arms, listening with our full attention when they want to talk, and resting in the deep silence when they don’t, all the while surrounding them with loving compassion in our hearts. We keep in the present moment, instead of dragging our own past experiences in to bear, or our fears for the future. In this way, we can stay along for the ride on the roller coaster of their emotions, wherever it takes them. We can let go of our desire to have an agenda or a playbook.

When needed, we may do whatever practical things we can to ease their burden, freeing them for a while to be with their own experience. We don’t pretend to know what that experience is, but we stand with them as witness to it. We ‘have their back,’ lending our strength to their present needs.

Like all the Brahmaviharas, karuna is naturally arising, most often a result of the regular practice of meditation. It is a state of being that cannot be donned like a costume and acted out. Still, it is good to be aware of it so that when it arises within us we can know it and feel gratitude for such a bountious gift in our lives.

Painters savor the ordinary moments. Do You?

Before Dinner by Pierre Bonnard.
Robert Lehman Collection,
Metropolitan Museum of Art

At the Automat by Edward Hopper
Permanent Collection,
Des Moines Art Center, Iowa

Most of us prioritize and rate the moments in our lives. We look forward to a party and reflect on a special performance we attended. These peak moments stand out against a backdrop of our regular lives full of moments we don’t consider worth noting: Going to the grocery store, walking the dog, ironing a shirt – you know, the necessary but not very interesting events in our lives that make the peak events possible.

A major event in the future can flavor, or even dominate, our present experience. Usually we have mild anticipation or anxiety that occasionally floats through our present experience. And then there’s the phenomenon of being totally driven by some future event. We’ve all met bridezilla, the woman whose wedding day looms so largely over her life that she is practically consumed by it. To varying degrees we all go a little bridezilla at times about an upcoming event, whether it’s a gathering, a trip, a speech or a surgical procedure.

Events in the past can dominate our lives as well. Some traumatic events drop like rocks into the pools of our lives and make a huge splash that ripples out for a long time into the future. If we are aware of the ripple quality of such events, we can cope with the occasional ripple of emotional turmoil when it passes through our current experience. At these times we can compassionately give ourselves a little down time to be with whatever thoughts or emotions have come up.

But if we don’t understand the ripple nature of traumatic pain, then when it comes along we may think we are back in the splash of the original experience. And in our panic at ‘being back there again when we thought we were past it’ we start flailing about, creating much bigger waves and much more suffering.

Past and future events often do flavor the present moment, but if we live for that future moment we develop a pattern of leaning into the future, so that when that crowning moment comes, we don’t really know how to be present for it. Our mind is habituated to focus on the future, and we miss it – that one perfect moment we had been waiting for!

Some of us dwell in the past, only able to enjoy moments as memories, storing them away like a squirrel with nuts to be savored later. Or we dredge up past pain as if we don’t deserve to have a moment free and clear to savor right now. Thus we miss the only moment we truly have to live with all our senses. This one. The only moment that actually exists!

But even if we are not living in the past or the future, we tend to value some moments more than others. And so I wanted to bring to your attention to the fact that painters rarely are interested in painting the peak moments. Very few paintings are done of weddings or parties in full swing, those moments we tend to value most. Instead they find beauty in the none-peak moments, the preparations for an event, staring out a window, reading a book, sitting — quiet moments where nothing much seems to be happening. Why is that?

Because the real treasure is right here and right now. For you, in this moment, sitting in front of your computer, the screen, the room, the light and shadows, the temperature, the feel of your body on the chair, the sounds, the smells, whatever is happening right now. Let yourself sink completely into this moment. As if it were the subject of an artist’s brush. This moment is most definitely worthy of being painted. And worthy of being lived with full appreciation and awareness.