Category Archives: loss

What role does ritual play in your life?


Ritual is an inherently human activity. Rituals are created, repeated and relied on, as are habits. Yet rituals are almost the opposite of habits! Instead of making life conveniently manageable as habits tend to do, rituals bring full attention to the moment and the occasion, seeming to slow down time so that what is being experienced can be fully processed in a way that makes a deep and lasting impression.

When I was a teenager, all the formal rituals of life I saw around me seemed inauthentic, just empty gestures. I felt everything should be questioned, and all actions should be done with a freshness of thought and creativity, certainly not by rote. There was a lot I didn’t understand. The rituals I observed seemed dictated by an authority like the church, and I assumed people were just going along out of fear of going to hell. Perhaps some were, but for most there was deep comfort in the rituals they had probably been doing all their lives. I didn’t yet understand the value in that.

Especially at times of overwhelming emotion — at the death of a loved one, for example — long-established formal rituals provide valuable guidance, steps to follow through the maze of grief. Our family didn’t have that when my mother died. We stumbled around the empty space and muddled through somehow.

When it came to such things, we lived in the long shadow of my father’s rebellion against the church where his father had been a minister, and where Dad as an adolescent had to teach Sunday school for seven years. He became what we affectionately called a ‘raving’ atheist’ — probably one of the few who could quote scripture. 

He refused to allow us to put together any kind of memorial gathering for Mom. But he couldn’t refuse her one request she left with me (she didn’t trust Dad to remember!): to scatter her ashes in the wild azalea glen she loved. So I organized the immediate family, including my reluctant father, and we walked the trail to the bridge over a creek where the azaleas bloomed most densely. My brother and I clambered up off the trail and together scattered her ashes. In that moment, time stood still. There was awe and wonder. My nephew said, “Grandma would have been thrilled to death!”

I craved more ritual on that outing. I wanted words from all present, spoken from the heart of that moment. I wanted a picnic afterwards to just be together with our shared emotions and memories. But what we had was a father in not great health in a deep state of mourning saying, ‘Okay, that’s done. Let’s get the hell out of here!’ So we did.

When he died five years later, we had a memorial for them both, in their home surrounded by masses of plum trees in perfect bloom.

Death and marriage have become major industries, monetizing the rituals to extreme degrees. But regardless of how much one spends on a funeral or a wedding, every coming together to release or unite loved ones has that moment of ritualized acknowledgment of what is really happening here. And that is what lives on and sustains us.

Birth too brings celebration in one form or another, though the main participants are often too exhausted to appreciate it. They are living in a world of new tiny rituals that have not yet become habits: nursing, burping, changing diapers, singing lullabies, and gazing deeply into their uniquely amazing child’s eyes.

But what about daily or weekly rituals? What role do they play in our lives? They may provide something seemingly permanent and reliable in a whirl of a constantly changing world. Perhaps it is a place to rest, to renew, to feel connection and to feel supported. Coming together every week in community to meditate, pause, ponder, reflect and share is a valuable ritual to me and my students.

Are there any rituals in your life? Maybe there are but you don’t see them as such? Here are some things to consider:

How would your primary relationship(s) be different if you instilled a little more ritual. My hair stylist said that over the past few months she and her husband had instituted a new tradition of having one glass of wine before dinner and sitting together to talk. Their relationship has improved because they are unplugging from habitual activities and taking that time to practice a little ritual that celebrates themselves as a couple. (Note the only one glass, and of course, the wine could be replaced with something else, as suits your situation.)

Friendships can also have rituals, even if they are just things you enjoy doing together. Making them more regular and giving them your full attention will sweeten the experience. Longtime friendships often have shared language, stories and jokes that are rituals too in their way, even if no one else would consider them so.

If you, like me, struggle with being mindful while eating, take a tip from one of my students who started treating her meals as rituals, from the gathering of simple quality ingredients, taking time to prepare the food, pausing before eating to thank all who shared in this offering to your well being. Then doing a tasting, chewing, swallowing ritual that lets all the flavors and textures come fully alive, pausing to put the fork down and appreciate your surroundings, sensing in to your body to know when you have had enough. Ah, life!

And, ah, death! You might give some thought to how you would like to be commemorated, and make notes. Had my mother made a few more notes, I’m sure she would have added in a picnic. And then we would have had to have one, regardless. So be thorough, but be considerate. This is for those who love you, not for you.

Ritual slows us down, clear our minds, and capture a sense of exaltation, infinite beauty and mystery. One of my students has a ritual of blessing her house, especially when she has been away from it. We could ritualize our daily chores, blessing the floor we are sweeping and the dishes we are washing. Ritualize self-care! Imagine a brushing and flossing ritual that attends every nook and crannie with full attention and lovingkindness, not just out of fear of the dentist.

Fully present, life can be a series of rituals instead of chores to be gotten through in a habituated mindless way. Bringing mindfulness and compassion to everything we do, we stay attuned to the infinite sense of life loving itself.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

But then I remember

Amidst all the conflicts going on — the mental illness that leads to massacre, the fear that leads to hate, the anger that leads to violence, the centuries old ill will between whole groups of peoples, the bristling at even listening to the views of the ‘other side’ — how are we to find even a smidgen of happiness? And is that even something we should care about at times like these? Are we like small children crying for lack of something fun to do when the whole house is burning down around us?

After a difficult night’s sleep, this morning I woke to just that sense of despair. So much sorrow, so much injustice, so much hopelessness in the world. And I felt disdain for my feeble attempts at personal happiness when the world is crumbling around me.

But then I remembered.

I remembered that I can’t help anyone else if I am drowning. So it’s not just okay but imperative that I be sure I keep my head above water, able to breathe.

Ah the breath. Yes. I come back to the breath, just noticing, but also appreciating that it is still there, still breathing me, that it is my greatest support. Gratitude arises. Appreciation. Deeper noticing. I find my footing. I feel grounded. I’m not drowning in despair.

Just like that, I land fully in this experience of life. This here right now is all I have to work with for whatever I want or need to do. This moment, this breath, this sense of connection: This is my personal point of power. I am anchored by the breath the way a tree is anchored by its roots — supported in all the ways it grows. I grow where I am planted, branching out in all directions, responding with the wisest intention and wisest effort I can manifest to the ever-changing causes and conditions of life.

In what other ways can I learn from the trees? Just like the tree, sometimes our greatest offerings are hard for us to see. Does the tree know that it offers a way for the squirrels and birds to navigate, feel safe and nest? Does it know it provides shade for the weary wanderer to rest?

What do each of us offer the world around us that we aren’t even aware of providing?

under-tree.jpg

My brother John and me under a tree

I think about that in relationship to my brother this week in particular, as the days lead up to his life celebration and I will briefly speak about him. What will I say? How will I say it? What will help those gathered? What is better left unsaid? We are all so tender in our own grief. But we also need each other at this difficult time of shared loss.

The moon is getting so full, and my heart with it. The clear night bright light keeps me awake. But in my sleeplessness, trying to wend my way back into dreams, I find myself instead re-inhabiting those last difficult days of his life, and how helpless I felt to save him as he slipped away before our eyes. I think about what I might have done differently, but nothing would have made a difference in the outcome. And I think about his life, what a difference he made every day in the lives of those who knew him. Like most of us, his life at times took dead end roads and contained some actions with painful consequences. Yet he died surrounded by loving family and life-long friends who have gone on to create beautiful memorials for him. He touched so many lives in so many wonderful ways, just by being his kind funny generous self. 

They say there are no failures, but that’s not true. There’s the failure to understand our own intrinsic value and the value of every being we encounter in our lives. We can take lessons from the trees. We can stay present, stay rooted, keep growing, keep providing for ourselves and others whatever it is in our nature to offer when we release our fear and rest in awareness and compassion.

Swinging Limb
for my brother John Culler, 1942 – 2017

Out beyond the field
that edged our neighborhood:
A tree we kids called
Swinging Limb.
Upon it we would climb
to laze the summer days away,
at rest in its dip and rise.

— Stephanie Noble

The Practice Put to the Test

In recent weeks my meditation practice was put to the test. Together with my husband and five visiting family members, I hosted my brother’s hospice care in our home.

While I won’t go into detail about our experience, I do want to share the ways in which the regular practice of meditation supported me throughout that time and continues to support me now in my mourning of my beloved brother.

Understanding Impermanence
My gratitude for the practice started long before this intensive time in my life. I have been meditating for many years, and for many years I have been aware of how precious and finite our time together on this earth truly is. I bring this awareness into every relationship, and it deepens my appreciation and compassion.

At a recent poetry reading, while my brother was in the hospital, I read a poem I had written many years ago about our relationship.

Humming

We used to hum ourselves to sleep, my brother and I,
in the back of our old black ’54 Ford station wagon
where our father had fashioned us bunks upon the luggage,
or when we were lucky, in a real bed in a motor court,
or in a heavy green canvas tent by the bank of a stream where we,
with the industry of beavers, had built an unneeded dam.

Humming began low on the scale, each breath carrying us up a note,
until we reached the dizzying heights of our range
and plunged to the bottom again, that deep bass rumbling in our chests.

Humming was voodoo, ritual magic, a place where the day’s teasing died,
where small dark spaces relaxed into the boundless arms of the soft summer night,
and we were lured into dreaming by our own hypnotic drone.

Humming we greet each other now, tender huggy hums of delight,
hums that pour into our embrace all the precious frayed treasures
of that fragile someday-to-be-forgotten world of our beginnings.

– Stephanie Noble 2003

Written twenty-five years ago, that poem contained the seed of this moment, the understanding of the fleeting nature of life. I am grateful that I have always treasured every moment we’ve spent together in person and talking on the phone over the years of our adult life.

Dependent Co-Arising
Recently I taught about the Buddhist concept of dependent co-arising, and during this hospice experience it helped me immeasurably to recognize that ‘this is like this because that was like that’. It seems so simple, so obvious, but how often in life do we get caught up in hurt feelings and blame because we are in the habit of not seeing or acknowledging all the causes and conditions that created the actions, words and current state of being of those around us?

In his last days, in pain, confusion and delusion, my brother sometimes lashed out with his words at times. It hurt, and is painful still when I think of it, I won’t lie. But I was also able to see how he was reverting to a childhood pattern we shared, one that we had grown out of (with help from his first wife who took us each aside and said ‘You know your (sister/brother) loves you, don’t you?’ We apparently didn’t! We had been so caught in a pattern of teasing and scolding and hurt feelings.) But here it was again, that old pattern arising. He would say my name in the same stern way he did when he was my twelve year old big brother: ‘Stephanie, sit down!’ I began to fear those words, to tremble the way I did as a child. I felt vulnerable because of my deep love, my anticipated loss and my exhaustion as all of us stretched ourselves to the limit of our capacity to learn how to be medical providers on the fly.

At times I cried and was comforted by the team, I could feel their upset on my behalf. What an ungrateful bastard my brother was when I was providing him with the best damn sendoff anyone could ask for. Yeah! I appreciated that support, believe me. At times it felt like we were in a British aristocratic soap opera, with the cranky lord making all kinds of unreasonable demands and harsh judgments, and we, the underlings huddled together around the kitchen table to regroup. Then whoever was on call would descend once more into the fray.

But much of the time he was the loving, funny person he had always been. This experience gave me a deeper understanding and cultivated greater compassion for everyone in relationship with difficult people. If this were not a limited period of time situation, I would not have continued to subject myself to such behavior. After he died, each day those painful moments have softened and have begun to find their very small place in the greater context of seven decades of love. They diminish and may even dissolve. (Not quite yet, perhaps, but in time.)

Practice First and Foremost
As we embarked on this hospice care adventure together, I claimed my regular daily meditation time and quiet private space throughout the experience. This was crucial for maintaining my own stability and endurance. In this way I gave everyone on our team of seven family members encouragement and permission to claim their own time and space for self-care, in whatever form that took for them — runs, yoga classes, an evening out. We made the schedule work as well as possible, taking into consideration everyone’s needs. There was no telling whether we were doing a sprint or a marathon, so we had to take care of ourselves to sustain a marathon.

Especially as women, it is so easy to give up self-care when the needs of others arise, forgetting that when we claim what we need we are always better able to meet the demands of life. So it is a kindness to all to put our meditation practice first. It is the seed that grows the support we will need to balance all that arises. This is no time for skimping!

No Need to Proselytize
Buddhism, at least as we practice it in Insight Meditation, is not full of dogma. It’s full of living wisdom (dharma) that arises from our own practice and experience. Every experience, when met in the moment, contributes to our understanding of the nature of being. And we are so grateful for the teachings, the practice and the community of practitioners. If anyone were to ask us, we would happily share our understanding, and encourage them to take the time to learn to meditate, to develop a practice and to see for themselves.

But if no one asks us, we don’t push our views. We don’t knock on doors to spread the good news. For some this might seem selfish, but if someone is ready, they find a teacher and find a community. And nowadays meditation is on offer everywhere in one form or another. It’s in the air!
A distant ex-relative of my brother’s very much wanted to visit with him ‘to see if he was going to heaven or hell’, and I assume to set him on the straight course. This was done out of deep belief and caring, but it was not anything he was open to, to put it mildly. It was not part of his belief system. It was probably very painful for that distant ex-relative to deal with, and I send her great compassion. How I would have loved to meditate with my brother, to help him handle the physical pain he was in, perhaps even to share some dharma that might have helped. But even knowing I am a Buddhist meditation teacher, he never once asked me to help him in that way. So I didn’t.

On my own I quietly sent him metta, infinite loving-kindness. This is something we can do for ourselves, for our loved ones, for difficult people in our lives or the world, always ending with sending it out to all beings everywhere. This is non-invasive. It helps us. And it helps relationships.

Resting in the ‘I don’t know’ mind
My brother did at times ask me questions. When I would take my turn after dinner sitting alone with him, several times he asked me ‘So what’s next?’ I wasn’t sure if he was asking, whether he was in a lucid state of understanding he was dying, or in his delusional state where he would tell friends on the phone that he was on the mend.

My answer to both questions would be the same: ‘I don’t know.’
But even though I had to say ‘I don’t know’, I was also able to tell him the truth of the present moment: ‘I don’t know what will happen next, but whatever happens we are all here together. You are surrounded by family and friends, and we are filled with love. And we will take care of you.’ That seemed to put his mind at rest. In the moment.

The not knowing was not just an answer to give my brother, but something we all had to grapple with. No one could tell us exactly how long this hospice care would go on. We had all put our normal lives on hold to whatever degree we are able. Living with not knowing, embracing uncertainty, is an important part of Buddhist practice. For after all, none of us knows the hour of our own death. None of us can read the future. Situations arise that we could never have imagined. Although there is value in planning, it is always with the understanding that we have no idea what will come.

Planning with impermanence in mind
Sitting in my brother’s world temporarily replicated in a room in our home, with the television news on 24/7, I spent a few minutes pondering what my own final days and hours might be, if I am given the choice, as he was. I know I will want peaceful and beautiful surroundings. I imagine quiet conversations, hand holding and deep gazes and hugs, and simply sitting together in silence. Perhaps this is a fantasy. But it’s also a possibility.
All of us who were caring for him dearly wanted to know what his wishes might be, but we were left guessing for much of it. He hadn’t done any planning. He didn’t like talking about death. He intended to live forever, or some reasonable facsimile, in spite of having been a smoker since the age of thirteen. He didn’t have one document and barely one forced conversation with an old friend who said, so just on the off chance you ever die what do you want to have happen with your remains? In a moment of lucidity he gave his answer, one that we would have guessed, but without his own stamp of approval, how could we know we were fulfilling his wishes?

Wise Speech
My brother’s words were sometimes so hurtful that I wanted to put up a sign in his room reading ‘The words you use now will be emblazoned on the hearts of your loved ones forever, so choose wisely, kindly and with love.’ But I didn’t do that because it would have been unkind.
But in my own life I aspire to remember that, not just in the moments we know are the last we have together, but in every moment, because it could be the last, to use wise speech and speak from love not from fear, anguish and pain. That is an intrinsic part of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, a core teaching.

Gratitude
There is a value in recognizing the opportunity to practice being fully present with all the arising emotions of difficult times. Though we certainly wouldn’t wish for them, when they arise, we can recognize that we now have something significant to practice with. We can grow substantially in our understanding at these times. Or we can forget to practice, forget all we learned, and plunge into mindlessness. If we do, may it only be a temporary plunge, rising into greater awareness of the gift of this moment, whatever it brings.

buddha-deathMy brother sank into a deep sleep where he no longer needed to have his suction machine running or the television on. In this unusual quiet and calm, I did my meditation at his bedside, watching him breathe a slow ragged breath. I could see that every ten minutes or so he would grimace with pain. By taking that time, not distracting myself with a book or email, but just sitting watching, sending metta, following my own breath, I was able to see that he needed more medication. It felt like a gift of the training to simply sit and notice all that is arising in the moment, to be able to give him comfort by calling Hospice and getting a nurse to come out and up the morphine drip.

The next afternoon he died, surrounded by his oldest friends and closest family. I sat again with his cooling body as we waited for the mortuary van came, sometimes alone, sometimes with my niece, husband and other brother.

Sitting with death is an important part of Buddhist practice, but even though I had been a caregiver at the end of both my parents’ lives, I had not experienced this before. The only dead bodies I have seen have been embalmed and presented in a box at a funeral. They didn’t look like the relatives I loved. My brother looked exactly like himself, just at complete peace. My grief found a natural home by his side.
I am so grateful for all the well-wishing from friends and extended family. Everyone who knew him loved my brother, and were appreciative of the efforts our team had made on his behalf. I too was grateful that we had the opportunity to give him as loving and beautiful a goodbye as possible. Throughout, as difficult as it was, I was so grateful that he was in safe harbor, here in our home, not on his own in some distant place, struggling to hide his condition from those who love him.

Meditation is not Immunity
In some of the well-wishing messages, there seemed to be an assumption that because I meditate, this experience must be, if not a breeze, then at least far easier.

Although our practice does help us to stay present and to hold whatever experience that arises with more spaciousness and compassion, meditation does not make us immune to pain. Loss is still loss. Grief is still grief.

No one gets through life unscathed by pain. It is a built in feature of earthly existence. But it is how we are in relationship to it that makes all the difference.  My practice has kept me present with my emotions and made it possible to hold them tenderly. The grief is there, and I am able to see it take various forms as the days pass. Even amidst all the practical matters to deal with after his passing, I stayed present. And that is a gift. Now that those responsibilities have been taken care of, my feelings, twelve days out, shift again and again, and I notice them as they arise and fall away.

I also recognize that my grief is not all that is arising. In every moment there is also great beauty, simple pleasures, deep joy, and potential for laughter. They do not erase the grief. They co-exist in the space of my awareness.

I see the nature of my thoughts, too. I see how, like a tongue rubbing against the empty space of a lost tooth, I circle round again and again to that volatile time of caring for my brother at the end of his life — sometimes with smiles, sometimes with tears, sometimes with regret at things said or left unsaid, done or not done. This is a natural course for the mind to take. But I gently encourage myself to also stay present in this moment, not pushing anything away, but opening again and again to all that is arising.

I hope these findings are of value to you, and remind you of the value of the practice.

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?’ 

‘Yes.’ 

‘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!