Category Archives: Mark Coleman

Beyond meditation :: Doors to tranquility



Photo by my friend Marita King who says this is where she finds tranquility.


In our ongoing exploration of the Seven Factors of Awakening, we’ve been looking at the factor of Tranquility, which sounds heavenly but can be elusive. In this post I will share a list of  easy ways we can access tranquility.

How we think about tranquility can get in the way of experiencing it. For example, tranquility is not about having everything under control. It is more like being able to rest at ease in a sea of uncertainty. That’s quite a shift of mindset! When we think everything has to be ‘just so’ in order to ‘get to’ tranquility, we never get there. In the first place, life’s not like that, is it? But also, our belief that tranquility is a place to get to or something to achieve sabotages us. We get stuck in an ‘if only’ state of mind, wishing for a fantasy idea of a tropical vacation that’s going to deliver us ready-made peace of mind. Tranquility is cultivated in life just the way it is, as we soften the way we are in relationship to all that arises.

We have been exploring those mental knots that continually cause us trouble, like long-held grudges and pet peeves. One of my students just sent me a fascinating article on the science of grudges, with a focus on revenge and resulting feud mentality. Revenge? Feuds? Yikes! I had not even thought about that. But ultimately, the article says, it’s best to just get over the grudge. So that leads us back to where we are in our practice, noticing when grudges exist, questioning if they still have any basis in fact or serve us in any way, and then gently releasing them, as possible.

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you may notice that I often put concepts into visual metaphors — the idea of grudges as a type of ‘tangled knot’, for example. But then the metaphors can expand and shift for me. So now in our inner mental landscapes, these tight knots can feel so solid that they form the land itself. This is distinctly different from the storms of thoughts that pass through our mind as we cope with current challenges — event planning, problem solving, etc.

Though these passing storms are not knots that need to be untangled, we might notice how the inner landscape of accumulated knots shapes the storms, perhaps making them more frequent or intense. So as you notice and gently release the tight tangle of long-held angry feelings, you may discover that passing inner storms fall less heavily upon you. Causes and conditions have not changed. But you have softened the lay of your inner landscape.

Have you been noticing your pet peeves and grudges? I continue to be surprised at my own. Some are easy to assess and release just by thinking about them and seeing that, though I was upset at first, on reflection things turned out for the best. If we don’t notice and question our grudges, how would we realize when that’s true?

It seems that when we make a point of practicing anything, the subconscious offers up clues, perhaps in our dreams. For example, this week I had a dream about my maternal grandmother who died over fifty years ago. I’ll spare you the details, but the memorable feature was her face looking at me with the warmest loving smile, her eyes twinkling. This was particularly memorable because it’s not at all how I remember her. And thinking of her, I realized I have a huge old grudge against her!

You be the judge of the grudge: One time when I was fourteen I was drawing and she took my art without asking, erased parts and ‘corrected’ it. I’ve held that grudge for most of my life! Good grief.

Clearly, although she was a talented artist, she was not a particularly skillful arts educator. So what? The very thought that any of my grandchildren would hold a grudge against me for one of my unskillful moments breaks my heart. So I will see if I can attach that warm twinkling-eyed smile to my memory of her, and let the grudge go. Again, I’m not making light of it or pushing it away; just acknowledging and looking at all sides of it with as much compassion as possible.



Doors to Tranquility
Now onto sharing some of the many ways we can bring tranquility into our lives beyond our regular meditation practice. A little caveat: Any of these could be done with a frenzied aggressive mind and would not result in tranquility. So clearly something is required of us. The expression ‘you can take the horse to water but you can’t make him drink’ applies. We can provide ourselves with the nourishment of tranquility, but our mind needs to open to it, receive it and welcome it in a gentle way. If we pursue it ambitiously to accomplish something, or if we rush through it in order to get to the rest of our day, then we are like horses who gallop through the river rather than drink from it.

I am referring to these ways of accessing tranquility as ‘doors’. And if they are doors, then the universal key to all of them is through the senses. We learn how to attend the senses through meditation. None of these doors replace our regular practice, but they offer other opportunities to weave tranquility into our lives.

The Nature Door
Being in nature, unplugged, fully present and engaged with all the senses. This can be a walk in a forest, sitting on the beach listening to the waves, looking out the window at a bird, lizard or squirrel, or even a spider on the wall.

Let go of all thoughts, plans and goals of getting anywhere or accomplishing anything, like learning the names we have applied to what you are seeing. The deeper you go in nature, especially if you don’t get cell phone reception and no one expects anything of you, the more engaged you will probably be. Can you discover that you are nature too? There’s a great release in that, when we recognize that nature is not everything except us, but us too.

If this is a door that appeals to you, I highly recommend the teachings of Mark Coleman, an insight meditation teacher who wrote a wonderful book Awake in the Wild: Mindfulness in Nature as a Path of Self-Discovery.

If you like to hike in a group, consider agreeing to do at least a section of the hike in solo silence. Years ago a small group of us formed what we called a Spirit Hike, where we would walk and talk for awhile, and then when we got to the deepest part of nature, the appointed leader would have us stop and space ourselves at least thirty feet apart to proceed walking in silence for at least twenty minutes, each of us having our own private communion with nature. Then we would gather and begin to talk again, but the quality and rhythm of that conversation was so different, so much deeper, so much more connected, and tranquil.

The Mindful Movement Door
Many people exercise with the goal of becoming more fit. Nothing wrong with that, but there’s a missed opportunity to develop mindfulness and cultivate tranquility in the process. Any exercise can be done in a meditative sensory-aware way, letting go of extraneous thoughts and goals; but certain movement traditions are based in mindfulness, like yoga, tai chi, chi gong and many others.

The Arts Door
Any of the arts can be an entry point to tranquility, again depending on how you go about it. Listening to music that is soothing, of course, can attune our minds to tranquility. I imagine playing an instrument, if you are not caught up in demanding perfection but just being with the experience, could cultivate tranquility. Singing in a group or solo could bring tranquility. There’s something so nourishing for the soul to join a choir, for example.

Creating visual art without trying to achieve anything would do the same. And dancing, where it’s just your body responding to the music, can certainly be soothing. And then there’s creative writing, especially poetry. Writing can be a very left brain activity, reporting factual information, but when the right brain gets activated, a sense of tranquility can result.

Entering a museum or gallery space can shift the mind into a spacious receptive state. Many people find that while it’s pleasant to view art with others, it’s especially rich to give yourself the time and space to go at your own pace, lingering at any piece that draws you.

The Ritual Door
Personal ritual, where you, for example, brew and sip a cup of tea with mindfulness, is a way to cultivate tranquility. You can do this with any aspect of your life: Bathing, dressing, cleaning the house, organizing, reading inspirational words, playing with or reading to a child. The list is endless because anything can become a ritual, not because it is repeated but because it is done with mindfulness and loving-kindness, given whatever time it takes to do it.

The Chore Door
If you life is full to the brim with commitments and appointments, then it may seem all very nice but near impossible to find tranquility. But begin where you are. Take that next commitment or appointment and be fully present for it. Be fully present as you go wherever you need to go, not plotting and planning but just driving or walking in a mindful way. This will prepare you for wherever you are going because it will help develop the habit of being present.

The Ethics Door
It’s near to impossible to be tranquil if you are in a state of regret for unskillful words and behavior, or are unclear what is and what isn’t skillful. In Buddhism, there are the precepts of non-harming that make choices clearer, as well as the Noble Eightfold Path which offers insight into where the quandary might have arisen. When we live in a way that is kind to ourselves and all beings, tranquility follows.

As you can see, there are a lot of ways to enter into tranquility. But the most important part is to incorporate it into your life in every moment rather than thinking of it as an escape from a frenzied reality.

Doors to Ignore
As mentioned in the beginning of this list, the key to all the doors to tranquility is the senses. When you pay attention to physical sensation, not only does it center you to be receptive to tranquility-producing experiences, it also helps you to recognize when you have opened a door that will take you far from tranquility. This might be entertainment full of violence and horror, scaring you senseless or making blood and gore seem normal. When you notice extreme tension, an adrenaline rush, your heart leaping, you can remind yourself that this is pulling you away from any possibility of cultivating tranquility. And, if you’re really paying attention, you might notice the rippling effects of exposing yourself to such things.

This is not to put up a wall between ourselves and the world we live in or turn a blind eye to what goes on. It is to question the value of finding entertainment there, so that our hearts are more able to be compassionate and recognize the nature of suffering.

Are there are doors you have found to tranquility? Perhaps stroking the fur of your beloved pet? Whatever door you find, keep it as a presence in your life, not some distant destination, always on the horizon, that you’ll get to when you’ve got the time.

Make the time right now. Open the door!

You have the answer!

Always we hope
someone else has the answer,
some other place will be better,
some other time
it will turn out.

This is it.
No one else has the answer,
no other place will be better,
and it has already turned out.

At the center of your being,
you have the answer:
you know who you are and
you know what you want.
There is no need to run outside
for better seeing,
nor to peer from a window.

Rather abide at the center of your being:
for the more you leave it,
the less you learn.
Search your heart and see
the way to do is to be.

— Lao Tzu

This poem was read by Mark Coleman at the end of the first sit of the third morning of the Mindfulness Facilitators retreat I recently attended at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. The poem filled me with such a shiver of delight. It’s true! It’s true! No one has my answers! Yet I am chasing here and there looking for permission and approval, looking for the green light, instead of trusting my own inner wisdom.

And yes, how often have I thought a change of location might be a solution to some perceived problem, as if it is this place and not the patterns of my thinking mind that are causing my current my unhappiness.

And wanting to get past this difficult time into some other future time when it will ‘all turn out.’ Oh yes, I’ve been there. I have lived whole portions of my life, especially my younger years, almost completely in the future, daydreaming about when things will all work out.

I’m guessing by the request of co-retreatants for Mark to please please please post this quote, that it touched them too, and is a common human experience, this reaching out for answers from other people, other places and other times.

So I share this quote with you in case it also speaks to you, addressing some deep-seated yearning you may or may not have noticed before.

The poem takes us back again and again to this moment, this one and only moment, this point of reality where all the power resides. We see how the practice of meditation strengthens our ability to be present, to live fully right now. We can notice how we want things to be different, but we are less likely to be deluded to believe that someone else has our answer, somewhere else is the solution, some other time things will be better than they are right here right now.

We carry our patterns with us. If we have a pattern of discounting our own ability to access wisdom through quieting down, centering in and opening up to the infinite clarity of being, then we will always feel the need for others’ confirmation before we trust what we know.

If we have a pattern of believing that another location will miraculously resolve all that is restless and disgruntled within us, then we will always be daydreaming about other houses in other cities, other jobs, other partners — and we will never deepen our connections right where we are. We won’t plant our garden and then we’ll tell ourselves how ugly it is.

If we have a pattern of believing that someday we will be happy, then we won’t bother to notice the joy possible in this very moment, if only we would open our senses to it.

This poem truly captures the heart of what we learn from meditation practice. And when it was read at 7 AM in the meditation hall at Spirit Rock after 45 minutes of sitting, it was like a rock dropping into a still pond, creating a huge impact and lots of ripples within me. Ah!

Spacious Mindfulness & Inquiry

Continuing our discussion of the mindfulness aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, using the word ‘spacious’ instead of ‘right’ or ‘wise’ to explore how that affects our understanding…

Spacious Mindfulness is opening into the fullness of this moment, fueled by our spacious intention to be present and compassionate, supported by our balanced spacious effort, and held by our spacious view that perceives the interconnectivity of all that is, and stirred by our practice of spacious concentration. Out of the opaque or murky miasma of our consciousness comes clarity. Through the skillful practice of meditation we develop the clarity to see our thoughts as they pass through the mind, to see our emotions as they pass like waves through our consciousness, and to begin to see associations between the thoughts, emotions, tension or other sensations we may feel in our body, images that arise unbidden, glimpses of dreams, and long-held beliefs and assumptions never before noticed or examined.

This clarified consciousness, this mindfulness, can hold whatever arises with compassion, understanding and the curiosity that come with beginners’ mind. With beginners’ mind we experience all our sensations fresh, without labels, boundaries and judgments. We are simply present with what is, noticing.

Yesterday, something mentioned in a conversation among sangha members before the beginning of class brought up some anxiety in one of the meditators. That something haunted her meditation, but she had the mindfulness to recognize the cause of the anxiety she felt and to watch how the thought impacted her physically, emotionally and mentally. She recognized a recurring pattern of reaction in her life. She felt gratitude for having the opportunity to witness this pattern in action, as it unfolded. Later during discussion, she shared this experience and thanked the student whose words had stirred up the anxiety for this teaching.

This kind of clarity is the result of a regular meditative practice. We might have glimpses of clarity in our lives that arise spontaneously, and some people are just naturally more present than others, but the practice of meditation develops a more dependable state of mindfulness. In general this clarity is commensurate with the skillfulness and dedication to practice. But of course it varies a great deal, and expectation will sabotage the whole process!

As we notice the workings of our mind, we will quite naturally exercise our curiosity. We will see a pattern and wonder about it. ‘Why do I feel that way?’ ‘Why do I believe that’s true?’ It is our basic human nature to wonder and to explore. And we have had questions rattling around in our minds forever, but perhaps we weren’t aware of them, or didn’t recognize them as questions.

Without clarity, compassion and awareness these questions may feel more like statements we perceive as truth about ourselves rather than questions that might have answers. Do any of these sound familiar: “Who am I to do such and such?” or “Why bother trying, I’ll only mess it up as usual?” or “Why me?”

When we begin to recognize these kinds of phrases we can begin to explore their roots. So many self-doubting questions are rooted in the unkind fear-based words of someone in our past, our childhood most likely, who loved us the best they could, but was operating from their own murky consciousness and splattered us with the mess of it. We can’t go back and do an un-do, and there’s no reason to try. Through clarity we can see the causes and conditions of these negative questions, and knowing this, their power over us is lessened to a great degree. Once exposed to the light of day and our compassionate common sense we are released from their relentless grip.

This doesn’t mean they will automatically disappear. But it does mean that as long as we have an awareness practice, we have the ability to explore, discover and recognize them. As Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree on the dawn of his awakening, he was repeatedly taunted by Mara – all that tempts and taunts us – and each time he would say ‘Oh Mara, I know you.’ It is this recognition that frees us. He did not go into battle with Mara. We do not need to go into battle with these patterns of mind. Recognition itself will begin the de-tangling process, so that we are not being strangled by them.

As we develop clarity and a sense of being present in the moment, we begin to see the associative patterns of our thoughts, emotions, memories that rise up unbidden, and we will have questions. A well-formulated question may illuminate patterns of powerful but foundationless beliefs and assumptions.

Just such a question was posed to me by Mark Coleman in a class at Spirit Rock about eight years ago. He asked us, “What is it that is holding you in bondage?”
Read more about the journey toward freedom that question began in me.

In the archive you will find a number of postings on questioning and inquiry. If you are curious, check them out!

Spacious Mindfulness is the clarity that arises out of our dedicated practice of meditation. It is a sense of presence, of being in the moment, of noticing and then getting curious, posing a well-formulated question and being fully present for the answer when it comes.

Awake in the Wild, a book by Mark Coleman

I am on hiatus for a month while in Mexico. The class continues meeting to meditate together and to read and discuss a book of their choice. From several options I gave them, they chose Mark Coleman’s Awake in the Wild. Since this is a book worthy of rereading, I plan to read it too. Possibly there might be some related posting, but no definite plans to do so.

Meanwhile, you might want to take this opportunity to read or reread posts on topics of specific interest to you. There are over 120 posts, and some may be from before you began reading this blog. You can see on the right side of the blog there are several ways to find something that calls to you.

I suggest reading one post before or after meditation as a daily inspiration to self-exploration and insight.

May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you know peace.
Hasta luego!