Category Archives: meditation

Cultivating my mama bear energy

Happy Mother’s Day! Thank you to all of you who are mothers — birth mothers, adoptive mothers, step-mothers, foster mothers, mothers-in-law, and to all who bring forth loving protective energy in the care of what you love.

Of course I am remembering my own mother. Lately I have been thinking most about her passion for world peace and the energy she put into working toward it, using her particular skills to create a better world.

She inspires me as I bring more sharply into focus my attention to my lifelong passion for preserving and protecting the earth and all its inhabitants from environmental destruction. I am reminded of the chant ‘The earth is our mother, we will take care of her’*. So Mother’s Day is also Earth Day. And every other day needs to be Earth Day too, if we are to develop the healthy habit of taking care of the earth instead of mindlessly and callously destroying it.

Mama bear energy is exactly what the earth needs from us now: Attention, love and protection, in order for our species and all life, to survive.

It’s pretty easy to activate the sense of protecting the earth if you have children and grandchildren who will have to cope with the exponentially increasing devastation in the wake of the many poor choices made in the distant past out of obliviousness, and then for the past many decades overtly and covertly but in any case knowingly continuing, out of greed and shortsightedness.

The idea of our offspring suffering in the future for what we fail to do now is, well, insufferable. Yet somehow there are people in power with grandchildren, perhaps even great grandchildren whom they profess to love, who lack the foresight or concern for their futures. Perhaps they believe that amassing fortunes and favor will save them. Last I looked, climatic chaos doesn’t check bank accounts before wreaking havoc. Just ask those whose palatial estates have been decimated by flames, debris flows, floods and other disasters.

Maybe in the past people could convince themselves that it made sense to believe that ‘as long as I’ve got mine and my family’s okay, why should I care about the rest of the world?’ But we are beginning to see ever more clearly the truth of our interconnection. Just the way when one thread in a sweater breaks and gets pulled, pretty soon you have a jumble of yarn and not a sweater that can keep you warm. The interwoven nature of all life is like that. It’s crucial for us to recognize that dying coral reefs or melting glaciers cause universal changes that affect us all. We are all of us, without exception, interdependent, and the most tenuous of connections can be the very broken thread that unravels it all.

Our regular practice of quieting the mind and cultivating awareness and compassion, increases our ability to sense the inter-connectivity of all life. Practicing in nature deepens our understanding of interconnection and the nature of impermanence.

It is important to learn both of these universal truths together. If we come to terms with the nature of impermanence but don’t sense the connection of all life, then we easily fall into depression, hopelessness, unrelenting grief and loneliness. We forget our vital role in the scheme of things. When we grow in our delight of life, just as it is in this moment, and feel this fleeting body-mind we call ‘I’ and ‘me’ as one expression of it, then we are able to openly embrace whatever arises with interest and compassion. Instead of fear-based cravings and aversions, making an enemy out of everything, we can recognize the ways we are impacting all life through our behavior — both beneficial and destructive. We are not insignificant. We are crucial, as all life is crucial.

This is not self-puffery. it is recognizing the importance of taking responsibility for our actions. We are earthlings and our current behavior as a species is causing massive destruction and extinctions of species important to our own survival. Because this is us. All of us. Together.

There has always been a resistance to making changes in our daily life in order to live in a way that at least minimizes harm. For some it just hasn’t felt all that important. For some it’s important but it falls to the bottom of the ever-growing to do list. For others there is a sense of guilt that is so uncomfortable, they put off thinking about it. There are those who feel such a sense of hopelessness that there seems no point in doing anything. Others feel so small and insignificant, they can’t imagine anything they would do would matter. Some think that we are fooling ourselves to think that what we do makes any difference, that what we need is to wait for some brilliant new savior technology that will take care of it all. And there are even some who look forward to the end, forgetting that before extinction comes a lot of suffering.

Pause for a moment to consider where your focus lies, and whether making a significant reduction in your carbon footprint and/or actively working on behalf of the earth and all its inhabitants, is a priority for you.

If you have done all you can do to date, and are willing to do more as part of your ongoing loving practice, I say thank you! Deep bows.

If you feel that the environment is not really your issue, I say, um, yup, it is your issue! All the other issues depend on this issue being addressed with full and unwavering attention. For example:

Are you concerned about immigration? Wait until you see what climatic chaos will cause, and is already causing, in the way of massive populations needing to migrate because their land is disappearing or depleted of the ability to produce food to sustain them.

Is your issue gun violence? Then surely you can see how much more of it there will be when people are fighting over resources.

Any issue you can name, if you really look at it, will reveal its deep connection with the earth — the air, water, soil. If your issue doesn’t rely on any of these for your ability to breathe, to have health and nourishment, then what planet are you on?

As I mentioned, my peace activist mom was an inspiration to me, but she was also at times a cautionary tale, because she would get burned out and fall into despair. The world seemed always on the verge of or actively involved in war. Her children were being told to hide under their desks in case of nuclear attack. She saw young men her children’s age drafted into a senseless war in Vietnam. Her own government was inclined to warmonger. She would be saddened to see, thirty years after her death, that the US is still actively engaged in war, and has a president who thinks saber rattling is a reasonable tactic in world affairs. Ah me. But even so, one aspect of Mom’s volunteerism helped to put someone in congress who made a major difference for many years. And who knows how things would have turned out without her effort? We never know. We can only put forth our wisest earnest effort, living our lives with loving purpose.

In that way, we rise above hopelessness. The current administration pulled us out of the Paris Accord (the agreement by the majority of world nations to reduce carbon and do whatever possible to at least slow down and avert the worst of climate change destruction), but many state and local governments have stepped up to meet and exceed the original agreement. For this and many other reasons — electric car sales have jumped 81% this year and the auto industry is manufacturing many more model. Many corporations are stepping up to the plate, even if the federal government won’t, And the nonprofit Earthjustice (because the earth needs a good lawyer) has won 90% of its cases against the president’s unwise anti-environmental decisions. The current crop of presidential candidates are making the environment an important part of their positions, when four years ago it was barely mentioned. So let’s not fall into despair. Instead, let’s stand strong and visible, like a mama bear protecting her cub. We need to show our power, individually and collectively.

At the very least, we need to be vigilant in our personal choices and work to significantly reduce our carbon footprint. As citizens we need to inform ourselves, spread the word and vote wisely, making the planet’s (and therefore our own) well-being a central issue for all potential elected officials. Then we need to follow through and hold our leaders accountable so they make wise environmental decisions. And to whatever degree we are able, we need to use our unique skills and gifts, as well as our time and energy to save the only planet we have to inhabit.

Because the earth is our mother, and she can’t take care of us if we don’t take care of her.

*Song credited to the Hupa tribe of Northern California and Southern Oregon.

The Incredible Shrinking Man

That’s what my husband called himself after his annual physical. He’d lost two inches in height. Not overnight, of course. Two inches off of what he had stated as his height all his adult life.

I remember when I started shrinking. It was a little disorienting, but also fascinating to see how attached I was to what I’d considered my natural height since I was fifteen.

Height is just one of the many ways we identify ourselves. When things change, as they inevitably do, we may have trouble adapting. We have become attached to thinking of ourselves in a certain way with particular characteristics. This is who we are. So when our body changes, mental adjustments need to be made as well. And that’s not always easy, is it?

We tend to pin our sense of self on impermanent aspects of being. And even the most permanent seeming aspects — our aliveness, our very breath, are transitory too. We may avoid thinking about such things, and we don’t need to dwell on them. but we can be aware of how life is like this. We can see change everywhere: the changing of seasons, family and friends grow up, grow old and yes, die. So why are we so surprised that time, gravity, stress and life events impact our bodies, too? Despite all evidence to the contrary, we often choose to see ourselves as the exception. We may worry that any changes in how we look will jeopardize our lives, our relationships and perhaps our livelihood. But deeper than those concerns is the discomfort of being reminded that life is fleeting, and that what happened to that autumn leaf that was once so supple, green and fresh, will also happen to us. Change will happen and life as we know it now will end. And whatever follows none of us can know for sure.

This attachment to a particular identity is a deep source of suffering. It can be challenging to see that it is the clinging — much more than the changes themselves — that causes suffering. If that sounds odd, pause to consider any pain you may feel at any physical loss either in looks or ability. Is it the loss or change itself that is causing discomfort? Or is it your thoughts and emotions around it? We create obstacles out of our attachment to identity, and it is part of our practice of being present and compassionate to see those patterns. Fortunately, like all things, those patterns are insubstantial and subject to change.

When we free ourselves from needing to ‘be’ the way we have always seen ourselves, and all the work that comes with reclaiming that vision, we come truly into the celebration of this life — a momentary gift to savor, like the first taste of a delicious dish. Switching our attention from how we look to allowing all our senses to open to this moment just as it is enables us to be fully alive, fully present, instead of lost in clinging to some sense of self that was never accurate anyway. Breathing in, breathing out, here and now, alive and ready to embrace with gratitude this fleeting gift of life with all it’s joys and sorrows.

(If you are interested in this idea of identity and would like to look more in-depth at the Buddha’s teachings about it, look at past posts about the Five Aggregates. Look over all of them and read them in what feels like a sensible order, which might not be the way they are presented in this link.)

What’s the difference between empathy and compassion?

(Following up on a comment on the last post.)
Empathy is inherent to brain development. From a very young age most of us are able to pick up on the emotional states of others. This ability is a benefit to the development of relationships, but it can also be problematic if a child is surrounded by significant distress.


Image by James Chan from Pixabay

With empathy we can relate to another’s experience, but empathy alone doesn’t activate the desire to help. In fact empathy can be used to manipulate people. As an example, in my long-ago advertising career, the more empathetic I became to the ‘target audience’, the people who might use my clients’ products, the more able I was to create ads that addressed their concerns. The ‘better’ I did, the worse I felt! I wrote an eight-page treatise on the evils of advertising, and then I quit.

It’s easy to see how unscrupulous politicians use empathy to shape their rallying cries to fuel the fears of their followers. It doesn’t matter whether the fear is based in reality to be effective.

Empathy is relatively neutral but endows great power. Buddhism is concerned with what we do with that power. It is not enough to understand how someone feels. What do you do with that understanding? Do you manipulate their minds to your own greedy ends? Or might you cultivate compassion for the benefit of all life?

In order to cultivate compassion, we can’t begin with other people’s feelings. We have to begin with our own. This may sound selfish, but we are refining our ability to give. Without compassion for ourselves, our intentions will be unwise and our actions unskillful. The regular practice of mindfulness helps us see the fear that sparks the unskillfulness. Self-compassion doesn’t offer an excuse for bad behavior. Instead, it heals us by reminding us of our intrinsic belonging to the family of beings, so that our intentions are loving and our actions are wise.

Compassion stems from the practice of infinite lovingkindness. We say blessings like: May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be peaceful. May I be happy.

When we feel loving kindness for ourselves and understand that it is infinite in nature, then we can share it out of the undepletable fullness of lovingkindness. So we extend our blessings to include family, friends, community members, people we have difficulty with, and ultimately all beings. As we allow it to fill us, it overflows. We become conduits for it and can send it out in all directions, without exceptions, shining its radiant light into even the darkest places. How empowering is that! Instead of giving ourselves away, the metta fills and supports us, so that we are able to be loving and compassionate.

Without compassion, the empathetic person is often uncomfortable because they are reminded of painful experience of their own. And in order to make themselves more comfortable they either tell their story or spout platitudes that help them get past their own discomfort. A good place for skillful empathy is in a support group with the specific purpose of being with others who are going through similar experiences, are ready to discuss and feel the permission to face their emotions fully.

Compassion does not rely on having a shared experience. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t walked in your shoes or know firsthand what you are going through. We are both living beings, deeply connected in ways beyond measure.

My husband can attest that I have spent lots of time carefully ushering spiders safely outside, and more recently I have been experimenting with syncing my mind with flies saying, “If you go by the door right now I will let you out (to save you from the guy with the flyswatter)” and often the fly will go by the door and wait, then fly out when I open the door. Wow!

To my knowledge I have never been a spider or a fly. I do not know what that experience is like. But I don’t want them to suffer. I want for them what I want for all beings: a joyful life.

Now as I tell this story on myself, I can also think of all the ways that my compassion is stunted, limited, blinded. It is fairly simple to usher an insect out into the world, and it is in perfect harmony with my wish to not have them inside the house creating cobwebs and multiplying.

But let’s talk about the man on the street corner with a cardboard sign that says ‘Anything helps. God bless.’ Dealing purely with empathy, one might react generously or look away out of discomfort.

There is no easy answer to the ‘right’ thing to do. The quandary of anyone being in that situation in a world of so many resources is a stumbling block for me. But my lovingkindness practice kicks in and enables me to at least look at him and mentally send him every good blessing. May you be well.

The man on the corner might say, ‘Well, now isn’t that nice, but you can’t eat blessings. How about a $20? That would go a lot further.’ And it’s true that $20 would mean a lot more to him than it means to me at this point in my life. Yet I can still remember the anguish of a lost $20 fifty years ago. I still remember the exact spot I lost it, outside the veterinarian’s office in Fairfax. So there’s that bit of empathy kicking in. But, hey, don’t underestimate the power of lovingkindness to provide something palpable: Perhaps an energetic emotional shift from a sense of being seen.

When I ponder how to have a practical beneficial impact on this person’s life, I am inclined to give money to one of the many excellent services that might help him build a sustainable life, find healthcare, housing and maybe even happiness. I may give a dollar here and there, for the pleasure of giving, but I don’t pretend it’s making a difference in someone’s life. Unless in that exchange, I also offer respect, acknowledging their perfect right to be here on the planet just as they are with all they are going through.

People can become a bit addicted to finding empathetic connections and building relationships on them. People bond over shared experiences all the time, often with very positive results; and sometimes the reverse, as when people bond over and reinforce detrimental behaviors. Compassion is not actively looking for connections and seeking cues. It is being fully receptive, providing a safe space for the other person to say whatever they feel. The sense of connection is preexisting in compassion, the understanding that all life is deeply connected.

While there may be some comfort in being with other people who are  experiencing something similar to what we are experiencing, it becomes clear quickly that their experience is not our experience, and the way they process experience is different from ours, each based on personalities, tendencies, and all the other situations in our lives and our feelings about them that come into play.

One of my students coined a phrase on the spot in class this week: ‘arrogant empathy’ — assuming that similar experiences bring accurate understanding of what another person is going through. Since she immediately used the new term to beat herself up for her own perceived ‘arrogant empathy’, we’ll let that phrase, however accurate, go. Who needs more ways to beat ourselves up? Still, pretty clever.

Empathy is situational while compassion is universal, making no assumptions.
Compassion understands that all beings suffer in some way. Being alive is a challenge for every creature, whether it’s a butterfly that flies thousands of mile, a polar bear in search of prey, or being prey for a bear. None of us floats through life in a state of pure bliss. If we do, we are likely in a state of delusion. This motley experience full of joy and sorrow is the nature of being incarnate!

With all those joys and sorrows, empathy can help in certain identifiable situations, but in other it can’t get a foothold. Compassion holds the whole world in an open loving embrace.

Empathy sees divisions, compassion sees the whole of being.
Studies show that people of all backgrounds and ethnicity have a harder time feeling empathy for someone with different skin color or features, speaks differently or has a different cultural background. Again, compassion makes no such distinctions. It is the deep understanding of the interconnection of all life, how there is no ‘other’.

WIth compassion for ourselves and all beings, we can hold the challenges of others in a loving way without losing ourselves in them. We don’t have to bring out every miserable moment of our own lives to be all matchy-matchy. Instead we tap into the deepest resource we have and offer it up in whatever way is of benefit in that moment. That’s compassion.

The earth teaches us true compassion

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is earth-blue-planet-globe-planet-87651.jpeg

The earth provides us with everything we need to live. It’s a model of compassion. How different is the earth’s compassion from the way we fashion our own?

First, consider that the earth is there for all beings. It doesn’t pick and choose who is worthy to walk on it. And you never see the earth running around assessing needs, trying to be all things to all people. The earth is just there — here — fully present and supportive.

Can we be compassionate like the earth? Can we relax and simply be present for those around us? Can we be solid enough for them to lean on, receptive enough to listen to what they have to say, to accept their tears, without trying to be two steps ahead, figuring out what to do for them? Compassion definitely isn’t about telling people what they should do, is it? But that’s how it comes across when instead of listening, our thoughts leap ahead to how we will save the day with our oh-so-clever solutions. Oh stop! Relax. Let the earth support you and model good behavior.

This may be a real challenge for us if we are used to being in charge, putting our agenda first, thinking we can fix everything. It may be hard to let go of that identity of hero-savior-problemsolver, in order to tap into deeper, more effortless compassion. It helps to realize that our urgent need to help is often rooted in aversion. Except in emergency situations, it’s usually our discomfort with how things are that makes us rush around to implement changes. We cannot bear for a loved one, or maybe for anyone, to be unhappy, so we do everything in our power to alter the situation. How can this not be a good thing?

If we pause to be present with our own experience, we may be able to notice aversion there. Recognizing it allows it a voice in the conversation but not a dictatorial role in what words and actions we choose. It’s just an unpleasant feeling that wants to change the channel ASAP.

True compassion doesn’t try to change the experience of another person. It definitely doesn’t say Look on the bright side. It doesn’t try to take their mind off what they are experiencing. Can we pause to recognize that the impulse to impose that on them is just our own discomfort trying to make the unpleasant experience go away? True compassion is patient, allowing for what is arising to exist without commentary or re-configuring.

True compassion is infinite in nature. It has nothing to prove to anyone. It doesn’t have a to do list. It isn’t trying to gain points or likes on social media. When we feel compelled to solve other people’s problems or prove our love for them by taking on their burdens, we are likely to be operating from a shallow fear-based place, and our energy will soon be depleted. We will exhaust ourselves and the person we are trying so hard to help.

The caregivers among you know full well how challenging it is when another person’s needs dominate your life. How does this sense of earthy infinite compassion help parents of small children and family members of those who are unable to take care of themselves? As a young mother and later a primary caregiver for both my father and brother in their passing, I have experienced the stress of losing myself in trying so hard to do all that was required. But, thanks to my regular practice of meditation, I also found precious moments of being fully present with them. I noticed with my father how the more I relaxed into a receptive mode, letting him have his experience, the more he relaxed his natural defenses. I reminded myself not to exhaust him by making ‘helpful’ suggestions or trying to direct or commandeer what he was going through. He needed every bit of his limited energy for the huge transition he was making.

For perhaps the first time, my love made no demands on him. It was way too late to ask for anything more than he had ever been able to give me. For this time together, I let myself become like the earth, receptive, ever present, available to meet his needs, to let him set the tone and decide whether to have a conversation at all. This quiet way of being with him allowed him his own space for his experience. Behind the scenes I was making sure he had everything he needed to take care of him, but our time together was restful.

While my father’s care was relatively easy and I could provide all that was needed without disrupting his life, my brother’s care was much more intense. It took a whole assembled family team, and visiting hospice professionals, to meet his many needs. And he had needs that could not be met, which was painful for us all. He didn’t like us rushing around, tending to the requirements of the noisy equipment that kept him alive. He wanted us to sit and just be with him. As much as we could, we each found sweet moments of just being there. Giving that kind of compassion also feels like a gift to ourselves.

And that’s an important thing to remember: Cultivating earthy compassion, that sense of just being a supportive receptive presence, also gives us the ability to provide that same compassion for ourselves. When we can support ourselves in this way, we are able to provide for others. When we beat ourselves up over the many ways we have not ‘measured up’, who benefits? No one. Ever.

We can’t offer what we don’t have to give. By becoming aware of the way we treat ourselves, and accessing that deep stillness within, we can become the very earth under our own feet. Through our regular practice of meditation and living mindfully, we come to a level of deep compassion that is infinite and accessible.

And while we are embodying the earth’s compassion, can we develop deep compassion for the earth? Can we stop poking, prodding, fracking, paving, stealing, degrading and destroying this wondrous compassionate place we call home before we render it uninhabitable?

Happy Earth Day! Today and every day.

Hey, hey, what’s that sound?

“The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.” – Abraham Lincoln

El Jardin, San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX

What noises irritate you? I was asked this question by a recent survey about ‘noise pollution’ so it brought up a lot of thoughts about our relationship with sound. In Mexico a local once told me that when you don’t have much stuff, noise is stuff. It’s free and you can make as much of it as you want. It fills you up.

Huh! I had certainly never thought about it that way, but it was a kind of invitation to open to a different way of relating to sound.

It was challenging because, especially as a meditator, I think of silence as nourishing. In my culture, personal music is enjoyable, while other people’s choices may be perceived as an intrusion. Wealth is not a bounty of noise but an ability to build a buffer from noises made by others. The richer we are, the thicker our walls, the more panes on our windows and the more acres between us and the world around us — all that traffic and other aggravating noises. So when an American university thinks up a survey, they title it ‘noise pollution’ without even considering that not everyone has a negative bias against sounds.

How we are in relationship to the sounds all around us is an important indication of how we are in relationship to all that arises in our experience. Are we making an enemy of it? And if so, how does that affect us?

In meditation, silence is something we cultivate within. It’s not useful to expect that the world around us should comply with our decision to be quiet. Outside life goes on. Noise goes on. When leading a guided meditation, I suggest allowing a sound to be experienced as pure sound, as if it’s a note or an instrument in a symphony: The Symphony of Now — this unique moment of never-to-be-repeated-in-just-this-way sounds. Can we simply be with the experience of sound instead of getting caught up in thinking about what is making the sound — someone slamming a car door, hammering, talking, barking, playing loud music, etc.? If so, we can be more at ease and less likely to tense up with displeasure. We don’t have to get caught up in thoughts about the source of the sound, who’s to blame, why are they making that sound, there ought to be a law, and how long will this go on.

Even if it’s a pleasant sound — bird song or gentle rain, for example — can we allow it to simply be sound? Can we be present without getting lost in trying to identify the type of bird, scolding ourselves for not being able to, or getting caught up in thinking about how the local cats are decimating the bird population?

In Mexico I brought my meditative attention to listening to all the sounds as I sat in the town square. At different times of day and evening so many sounds happen all at once: several Mariachi bands playing on different corners, teenagers with their own music for break dancing, hawkers calling out their wares, children yelling and laughing, lots of conversations, and the church bells ringing at the quarter hour. So much sound everywhere! But as I sat and allowed myself to really listen for fifteen minutes más o menos every day over the course of a few weeks I began to be able to hear the various sounds as if tuning into multiple channels at once, each one distinct and clear, and together a wondrous symphony. This exercise completely changed my relationship with sound. And in changing my relationship, I noticed a difference in my whole body — a release of tension and a rising of ease and contentment.

Since the people in the square don’t make an enemy of sound, it is reasonable to assume that it doesn’t cause stress in their bodies, and therefore, that noise in and of itself is not necessarily bad.

While I believe that to be true, there are situations when I am not able to be so blissful, especially if I am trying to sleep. I didn’t catch a wink in a midtown Manhattan hotel with 24 hour construction right across the street. I tossed and turned and got sucked into thoughts about who’s to blame for this and how could they be so rude? How could the hotel put us in this room? How could the city allow for this noise in the middle of the night? But then I would get moments of recognition that I was the one who was caught up in angry thoughts. I was the one who was making myself miserable. But hey, I’m not the enemy either. And my mindfulness training was insufficient to the task of overcoming a lifetime of discomfort with ‘noise pollution’ in certain situations.

The pattern of thoughts we experience when something’s bothering us happens not just about sound, but about anything that we make the enemy. Anything, anyone or any idea that causes tension, sets us on edge, and fills our thoughts with hatred, is a perceived enemy. Big or small, we all have them. Maybe they are pet peeves or maybe they are major threats to our well being. Or maybe they are convenient scapegoats for something else altogether. But whatever they are, they affect us. We internalize them. We suffer from how we are in relationship to them.

Billboard Blues
In the 1980’s I worked in advertising. Some of the time the work felt like play because I got to use my writing and visual design skills, and my colleagues at the agency were fun to work with. But over time, as I became more and more skilled at developing campaigns, I began to see how insidious advertising is. What skill was I developing? The ability to use psychology and an understanding of human’s innate negativity bias to activate fear and craving, and to promote our clients’ products and services as miracle cures to assuage that fear.

I remember preparing for a presentation to a well-known manufacturer of locks. Given the nature of the product, the proposed campaign had to be rooted in fear — the fear of someone breaking into your home — otherwise why would you bother buying a lock? And even though I understand that these are needed devices and that this manufacturer is very good at making them, I felt a lot of resistance to taking the company on as a client. I did not want to be a purveyor of fear. So when we didn’t get the client, there was definitely some relief mixed in with agency-shared disappointment of not getting such a prestigious client. Then I began to see how promoting even pleasant products, was actively playing on people’s fears. Not the fear of home invasion, but the fear of not being enough, not looking good enough, not being perceived as successful, etc.

By the end of my time at the ad agency, which I had to leave because I had become physically ill with an autoimmune disease, I had written for myself an eight-page treatise on the evils of advertising. I tossed it after writing it, as if it was toxic. I just needed to get it out of me as catharsis and the beginning of my healing. But it’s easy to see and reasonable to conclude that my perception of advertising as evil, as enemy, put such stress on my body, so much tension day after day, that it was at least partially responsible for my illness. Through rest, meditation, self-discovery and a good doctor, I recovered within a year. Mine is a cautionary tale about having your work align with your core values, but also about how enemy naming and the resulting internal discord can make us sick.

It’s important to notice what happens when we make an enemy of anything. Our thoughts get locked, frozen and unyielding, whether we are defending something or finding fault with it. We lose sight of our common humanity and our shared desire to live together in peace and harmony.

In our meditation practice we are encouraged to greet all that arises with friendliness, and this applies to everything that arises, not just who or what we like or agree with. It’s skillful to notice when we have shaped an enemy, and skillful to notice the form it takes, how this enemy-making tendency needs a target. We identify a person or group of people who we deem responsible for whatever it is that we are opposed to. Tension rises up and strangles us. Our bodies react as if threatened, and over time reach a breaking point, because the enemy we have created is not fleeting but has taken up residence in our ongoing thoughts.

So then is making enemies the enemy? There’s got to be an enemy!
Or does there?
Can we allow for the possibility that all life is deeply interconnected and there is no ‘other’? Can we see how lashing out against a perceived enemy ends up harming ourselves even worse?

And yet there’s so much in the world that needs our attention! Can we find a way to attend it without aggravating the situation? Can we develop the ability to notice in a deeper and wider way, the way I learned to listen in that square in Mexico? Can we see the overall complexity of life ever changing, and learn to love life instead of constantly being in battle with it? If there are grievous wrongs being done, can we come forward with wise intention and wise effort, grounded in awareness and compassion, using wise speech and wise actions, to greet it?

If not, we are entangled in the thrall of blind misery, entangled in confusing thoughts that cause us terminal tension.

Exercise

  • Close your eyes and imagine someone or something you think of as enemy, even if you might not use that word. It might be some annoyance or aggravation. It might be a person. It might be a concept. It might be people in general who do certain actions that drive you crazy.
  • Now do a little inquiry: When I bring this enemy to mind, how do I feel in my body? Is that feeling sustainable? Do I make wise choices from this feeling? Or do I spiral down into stronger negative emotions? Do I imagine doing harmful things? Do I become someone I would steer clear of on the street?
  • Notice any tension in the body and relax and release it to whatever degree you are able. If you are comfortable doing metta – lovingkindness practice, send metta to yourself and then to your perceived enemy. May I be well, etc. May you be well, etc.

When we make an enemy of someone, aren’t we just adding to the suffering that makes them behave as they do?

When we make an enemy of an idea, do we make it too scary to look at closely? It becomes locked in and casts a huge shadow in our minds.
When we make an enemy of anything, aren’t we assuming we have an all-encompassing view of all times and places, that we know exactly how things will turn out. Can we make room for the possibility that all that arises has a role to play and that we don’t know for sure if what we label enemy may be what needs to happen to stir up an awakening of consciousness.

How often have you been surprised by the way things turned out? We rarely see things coming. We’re often caught off guard, even though we were so busy watching out for the enemy.

But it’s equally important to remember that our healthy desires for peace, justice, fairness and well being for all life are also part of the ongoing unfolding of life, so engage! But see if you can do it from the fullness of your heart rather than the tight knot of your fear. Perhaps together we can gently but powerfully creating a loving consciousness that is so needed right now, and always.

I leave you with an example of a very creative non-enemy-making way to shed light on something without making an enemy of it. This is not to promote this politician, but to simply share her fresh take on how to engage productively.

You are not broken and you don’t need fixing.

This YouTube video of two teenagers who have never seen a rotary phone before is fun and fascinating to watch. For those of us who grew up using rotary phones dialing is just second nature. Even if we haven’t used one in years, we know without question what to do. Kids today think of smartphones, tablets and computers in the same way, so it’s difficult for many of them to be patient with elders when they struggle to learn new technology. They don’t get what the challenge is. Now these two boys, trying to use this earlier technology, get it for sure!

Watch and enjoy!

After you’ve watched the video, here’s a question for you:

Is that rotary phone broken?

No! It works perfectly well. But there’s no operating manual for it and these young users had to figure it out on their own, naturally making lots of mistakes along the way. Sound familiar? We are not broken. We function perfectly well. But none of us came with manuals. We are all doing the best we can to figure out how to function. Hopefully we are willing to spend more than a few minutes at a stretch. Hopefully we don’t give up and decide not to bother.

If you are a parent you may remember leaving the hospital with your first child, feeling some degree panic and astonishment that the nurses allowed you to leave without your knowing how to take care of this tiny fragile bundle of vulnerable living breathing (for now!) being.

Of course there are books on child rearing and no doubt most prospective parents read them, but it just doesn’t prepare you for the real deal, does it? And advice changes from generation to generation, from ‘let them cry’ to ‘pick them up’, from benign neglect to helicopter parenting. There are also lots of relatives and people in the grocery store all too happy to give advice. But it’s all conflicting advice! And it often feels like it comes with so much judgment. Finally you just have to find your own way and do the best you can. Right?

Without that operating manual, it’s no surprise that many of us grow up befuddled with this assignment called life. We may feel unlovable, unseen and misunderstood. We may have a difficult time finding contentment, connection, meaning or even a sense of safety in our lives.

When we seek help we find advice that tells us how to fix ourselves, change ourselves, transform ourselves into some ideal version of a human being. We wonder “What’s wrong with me?” and then, to top it off, people around us may be happy to make a list!

But we are not broken and we don’t need fixing.
It’s more useful to think of ourselves as a mysterious technology we’re learning how to use. We may fumble a lot, but over time, by paying attention we get little insights and we begin to have a clearer sense of how we function. There is help available from wisdom teachings, like the Buddha’s, but he’s most famous for saying something to the effect of ‘Don’t take it from me! See for yourself.’ But he taught us how to sense in and see, and to have self-compassion. And that makes all the difference.

Practicing mindfulness we start to notice how much better we feel when we meditate regularly, and we notice a falling away of that sense of equanimity when we forget to practice for a while. We are each learning our way, writing our own little operating manual, seeing what works for us and what doesn’t, what helps and what harms us.

We learn how to greet what arises with friendliness and an understanding that this too shall pass. We notice the patterns of our thoughts, thickly woven with the stories we tell ourselves about our personal histories. Instead of getting paralyzed with fear, we gently shine the light of awareness and compassion.

We are not broken.
Just like that rotary phone, we work perfectly well. But we may be unclear how to dial up the connection we crave, that sense of being fully present in this moment, full of compassion for ourselves and others. Ring! Ring! This present moment calling! May we remember to come back to simply paying attention to whatever is arising with patience, curiosity and gratitude for this gift of life.

When things trigger painful memories

When I’m studying French on the Duolingo app, sometimes I find myself thinking about a restaurant where we recently met up with family members. Why? I was early and used the time to finish up my lesson while we waited for them, and now the restaurant and Duolingo are linked in some mental thought thread in my head.

Why am I telling you this? Because we all have lingering thoughts in our minds that come up in certain situations, and it’s skillful to notice what they are and if they are upsetting, which this example was not, to find a way to process them.

You are probably familiar with Marie Kondo and her books and Netflix series about tidying up. She is different from typical organizers because her emphasis is on paying attention to the thoughts that come up when you hold an object — a piece of clothing, for example. She has her readers and viewers ask themselves, ‘Does this spark joy?’

For many the concept of sparking joy is difficult to grasp. A friend of mine said that she couldn’t get it until she discovered ‘a back door’ to understanding it. She was holding an old T-shirt she never wore but couldn’t think of a logical reason to get rid of since it was in good shape and fit. Then she realized that it reminded her of a very negative experience in her distant past. Spark joy? Quite the opposite! But it revealed the strong relationship between seemingly benign objects and complex mental processes.

Neuroscientists say we have a negativity bias, so it’s not surprising that it was easier for her to notice a bad feeling arising than a good one. But either way, once we see that connection, we are more attuned to noticing thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that crop up in reaction to certain stimuli. It’s not a big leap to purposefully pay attention and note if those feelings are positive or negative.

If negative, Marie Kondo says to thank the object and put it in a pile to give away. I like this respectful relationship with objects. Would it be as skillful to take that T-shirt and project all the unhappiness it reminds her of, and banish it from her sight? It’s more skillful to see that while the T-shirt has bad memories for her, it might provide a positive experience for someone else. Giving it away as an act of generosity and good will is a more empowering and pleasurable than banishment.

Noticing the connection between objects and mental formations is powerful. We can better understand how PTSD gets triggered, too. We are prone to thinking of post traumatic stress as something only soldiers in combat suffer. Certainly, their experiences are often overwhelming compared to what most of us go through. While we may experience severe trauma, it is unlikely we will experience it again and again, unless we are being repeatedly victimized and have no means of escape.

But many of us have experienced moments of fear, physical pain or other trauma. Long after these incidents have passed, we may relive the trauma when we are where it happened, in a similar situation or exposed to sensory triggers. But we may not even be fully aware that that is what is happening. We just suddenly feel fearful, sad, depressed, tense. Maybe it’s like the sun has just gone behind a cloud and everything is a little duller.

One personal example: Twenty or so years ago we had a power outage and the garage door had to be opened manually. My husband and daughter were leaving and I was staying home for the day. After they pulled out of the garage, I manually lowered the door from inside. Somehow in the process my finger got caught between two horizontal panels that interlock. The pain was excruciating. I screamed as loud as I could. I had to get immediate help. But would anyone hear me? My husband and daughter were inside a vehicle with the motor running and heading out. Our only near neighbor was gone for the day. In that instant I imagined spending eight hours stuck in pain, standing there helpless.

Fortunately, my daughter has amazing hearing, and they were able to rescue me. My finger wasn’t permanently damaged and we installed interior handles on garage door (and now plan to look into the backup batteries they have for them!) But every time I am around that garage door, that memory, that woozie feeling, that fear, are all present with me.

What about you? Have you ever been in a situation that was physically and/or emotionally painful? If so, have you noticed that whenever you are where it happened, memories arise with associated physical sensations? And if so, are these memories of a different quality than memories of benign events or pleasurable ones? Perhaps your experience doesn’t qualify as trauma to you, but regardless of its severity, the mind works the same way, and even though your experience doesn’t require therapy, it does benefit from noticing.

I have noticed that shining a light on that garage door experience of mine has somewhat neutralized my reactivity to being around the door. Simply noticing and registering how these mental connections happen can be of great benefit.

I am no expert in trauma, but as an insight meditation teacher trained to observe patterns of mental processes, here’s what I’ve noticed:

Trauma is an overwhelming experience that is challenging to release because it is a compressed period of intense senses and emotions. Therefore, we need to give ourselves more quiet time to process it all. We don’t necessarily have to sit still. We can walk, row, hike, do physical chores, etc. — but the mind has to have time to disengage from busy life and distractions.

Meditation enables us to cultivate a compassionate field of awareness where we can safely be present with even the most difficult emotional content. After periods of meditation, we are better able to see thoughts as threads passing through our current experience. We can see these mental formations as passing products of ongoing processes. They are not who we are. They do not define us. And they are not permanent if we are paying attention.

The more aware I am of my emotional reactivity to the garage door, the less it causes an emotional reaction. I am not trying to get rid of my feelings or change anything. Awareness is powerful. Add in some metta (lovingkindness) for ourselves and for the trigger location and for anyone else involved, and there will be even deeper healing.

In the case of severe trauma, there will likely be some self-protective fear that sabotages awareness, and makes us unwilling to go there — in Buddhism this is called the Dragon at the Gate. If you find yourself paralyzed at the gate of deep investigation that will free you to be fully alive in every moment, then consider finding a skilled therapist to act as a guide.

Noticing the pattern of our thoughts is one of the great benefits of meditation, and especially going on a silent meditation retreat. Befriending the dragon at the gate of awareness, we gain insight and the freedom to be fully alive in this moment.