Category Archives: meditation

A grain of salt, a kernel of truth

elephantThe expression ‘take what you hear with a grain of salt’ reminds me to allow for the very likely possibility that what I’m hearing is not entirely true. This is usually no fault of the person sharing. It’s just the nature of living in a complex world full of ever evolving knowledge.

Conversely, in every statement I hear, I try to notice that it has at least a kernel of truth in it. This is challenging because of the visceral reaction I feel to any idea or world view with which I strongly disagree.  But it is worth the effort, because if I can activate a sense of compassion for the person, listen carefully to what they are saying, I may be able to see the fear that is driving their statement and my reaction. In this way I can find our shared humanity. (Read more about Faulty Filters of Fear)

If truth is valued, then it’s important to take with a grain of salt even an idea we cherish and to recognize the kernel of truth even in an idea we abhor.

We would probably all prefer a solid truth to rely on, but accepting any old thing as true is obviously not the answer. In our rush to feel we know what’s what, we tend to accept things at face value if they feel true to us. But why do they feel true? Because they are familiar? We heard them repeated from parents, other family members, teachers, schoolmates, admired community leaders and news sources. Are any of those completely reliable sources? Or were they just repeating what they heard and accepted or hoped was true?

We get attached to our version of truth. We welcome anything that confirms it and feel threatened by anything that challenges it.  We incorporate these ‘truths’ into who we believe ourselves to be. We want to be right at any cost, because being wrong would dismantle our tightly held sense of self.  We likely label those who disagree with us as wrong, misguided, bullheaded or maybe even evil. We are less and less likely to reach out and engage with others outside a defined ‘safe’ circle, because from inside that circle it seems as if the world, or ‘wrong-thinking’ pockets in it, are dangerous and threatening.

Stuck in our entrenched positions, it is quite challenging to cultivate qualities of compassion and loving kindness. We may like to think we are kind, but we only extend compassion to people within circumscribed areas of agreement. Outside of that is a dangerous land of enemy thinkers we deem undeserving of our compassion.

Then we come to meditation practice and we are asked to send infinite loving-kindness to all beings. We are asked not to make an enemy of anything or anyone. This feels like an insurmountable challenge, maybe even one we don’t want to take on. What would we have to give up of ourselves to let down our guard in that way? The very idea threatens who we believe ourselves to be, and yet we believe ourselves to be good and kind. Uh oh! What a pickle!

At this point the most fearful among us make an enemy of the practice itself, saying ‘It’s not for me’ or ‘I don’t believe in that malarkey’. They go back to the bitter battle of defining their territory and needing to be right in order to feel okay.

That’s one choice. What’s the other? Do we have to hang out with people we disagree with and bite our tongues while they rant nonsense?

No. As a kindness to ourselves we can choose to respectfully steer clear of people caught up in tornadoes of fear and anger, unless we feel centered enough and called upon to help. Then we do so as conduits of infinite loving-kindness. If we’re not feeling kind even toward ourselves, it is best not to engage. Instead we focus on taking care of ourselves first because we have nothing to offer anyone else but our own fear-based opinions and depletable resources which will be of use to no one, and could make matters worse.

To not make an enemy of anyone doesn’t mean we have to agree with them. But they don’t have to agree with us for us to recognize our shared existence in this complex web of being. They are caught up in this tricky business of living just as we are. We may not wish that their goals come to fruition, but we do wish them well. (Even if in wishing them well we sneakily think, that if they were well they would not be so caught up in their wrong thinking!)

Our willingness to extend compassion to all beings, regardless of what they believe, helps us to be kinder to ourselves as well. We all have aspects of ourselves that we don’t feel particularly good about. We may have tried keeping them hidden but they pop out in all sorts of inconvenient ways. We create a fortress of Self, constructed of our preferences and our firm ideas that we defend to the end. We expend so much energy in this defensive stance that we become exhausted and none the happier for all our efforts. We just get prickly and prone to provoking fear-based emotions in others, causing misery all around.

The kinder we are to ourselves the less dependent we are on having to be right in order to be okay. But why would we want to let go of being right? Isn’t that losing something? In my experience, and in the experience of many others, giving up the need to be right is a great relief. We are not at war here. We are in a complex community of life that thrives on collaboration and communication and coexistence. The less vested we are in being right all the time, the happier we tend to be. Is that true? And if so, how do we get there?

First, let’s look at the expansive history and ongoing evolution of thought and knowledge. Consider how the facts that were accepted as true one hundred years ago don’t all hold up to the light of what further research has shown to be true. In many cases, it’s simply that we didn’t have a lens to see what was right before our eyes. Whether looking at things on a cellular level or into the cosmos, in both cases what our forebears could see with their limited tools don’t all hold up today, do they? That alone can give us pause to hold our current acceptance of what we ‘know’ to be true a little more lightly.

But still, for most of us, budging at all from our long-held opinions would be threatening. We have a need to be right, to know it all, to have things locked in.

Could we adopt a more scientific mindset? Could we inquire, observe, hypothesize, experiment and be open to being proven wrong in our hypothesis? The scientific community is trained to question everything. Non-scientists can adopt at least a degree of that same liberated mind instead of accepting any particular fact as the absolute truth.

But wait, we might say, things happened in history and some things we saw before our very eyes. Surely that is true, right? History is presented as facts, but history is written by the victors, by the dominant culture and throughout recorded history primarily by men. The filters that naturally arise from these varied perspectives present some facts and not others, either by complete omission or by highlighting certain aspects, projecting attributes upon them, and giving them whatever motivation, perspective and emphasis the person who lived to tell the tale chooses.

There seems to be a wave of research into previously untold stories to broaden and deepen our understanding of what life might have been like before our time. As important as this is, we can never recreate it exactly. We bring the zeitgeist of our current culture, our own slant laced with nostalgia or horror at past injustice. No re-creation of the past can help but be flawed. But for most of us it is far better than letting the past disappear completely and all the lessons learned lost.

Because of this interest, we now have a number of dedicated museums that are willing to look without blinders at things like the Holocaust, the African-American historical experience, etc. We even have the technology to capture in a most profoundly moving way a Holocaust survivor in a  hologram. In his own words he answers whatever question a visitor might pose in real time about his life and experiences. Along with written and oral accounts, a vital history lesson is being preserved in the hopes of never allowing such a thing to happen again.

Being open to listen and learn from people’s personal experiences is much easier if we don’t have preconceived notions that filter out what we are uncomfortable hearing. None of us want to believe that such horrors could occur, but denying that they do would seem a sure way to perpetuate them.

No one individual’s perspective will capture the whole of an experience, but by cobbling together a multiplicity of personal perspectives, we can come much closer to understanding the past. We might think that one factual account of an eyewitness would be completely reliable, but life is multifaceted. When the San Francisco Bay Area had a powerful earthquake in October 1989, those who lived through it asked each other the classic post-trauma question ‘Where were you?’ resulting in a wide variety of recountings of personal experience. So already, even in the moment, you have hundreds of thousands of versions of the facts, all of them true, but none of them telling the whole story. It’s like the blind men feeling the elephant and each coming out with a completely different description of what ‘elephant’ is, as shown in this video.

The earthquake was more than a collection of personal experiences. There are lots of facts: the date, the time, the 6.9 magnitude as recorded on the Richter scale. These facts are true, but possibly not the whole truth. Clock time itself is a cultural agreement among humans, not observed by the rest of nature, after all. And the measuring equipment will probably be considered unreliable and obsolete in fifty years. There were undeniable facts of fatalities, injuries and structural failures. But each fact is one facet of a much larger story that we don’t know. We didn’t know the victims personally and even if we did, no one knows anyone completely. Seismic engineers may be able to figure out probable cause for structural failures, but fifty years hence chances are there will be more in-depth understanding. This doesn’t make the facts untrue. It just makes them incomplete. That’s useful for us to remember when we think we know something. Can we at least acknowledge that our facts are incomplete?

On retreat at Spirit Rock a few years ago I suddenly had the knock-on-the-head recognition that ‘I don’t know!’ Looking around I could see how my mental shorthand, our communal convenient labeling of the world we live in as objects with names, left me still lacking in any real knowledge. My mental notation of ‘tree’ is just a skim the surface shorthand that’s necessary in order not to be overwhelmed by all the information being presented at every turn in this life. I don’t know and am unable to observe the goings on inside that tree or where it’s root go underground. I’ve been taught some things about the processes in general, but honestly I don’t know in this particular tree’s case what’s going on. I don’t know its history, what tree it fell from as a seedling, how it came to grow in this spot, etc. etc. And understanding how limited my knowledge was did not make me ambitious to find out more. It liberated me from feeling I had to know everything in order to feel okay. I hadn’t realized how tightly wrapped I had been in the fear-based need to believe that my shorthand version of the world is complete.

We have shorthand ways of defining people as well. We assign them categories based on gender, age, weight, height, ethnicity, profession, personality traits, clothing, possessions, etc. But what does it all add up to? Assumptions! And those assumptions cause us to judge them based on our experiences, in person or through the media, with others who we have pigeonholed in some of the same categories. Is this the way we want to be known? Of course not. Each of us wants to be seen clearly with fresh eyes, not through preconditioned filters that are blindingly inaccurate.

All the conclusions we draw are based on ephemera. And our assumptions come back to bite us in so many ways. For example, in our desire to be seen, respected, loved and admired we often compare ourselves with others. But we compare their perceived polished outsides with our more in-depth view of our own messy insides. Neither of our judgments are accurate.

We can see how clinging to our need to be right at all costs doesn’t serve us. But we may still feel we know facts when we see them. Let’s look at more examples from the 1989 earthquake.

People across the country watching film footage on television news were led to believe that the whole of San Francisco and much of the East Bay were in ruins. Why would a news report show the untouched areas? That’s not news because nothing changed. What had changed, and was therefore newsworthy, was the collapsed freeway and Bay Bridge, and the Marina district in flames. With so much going on, it’s not surprising that reporters failed to mention that the majority of the Bay Area was perfectly fine.

That’s the news biz for you! ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is the policy of the newsroom. Feeding the negativity bias of the survival mode part of our brain, is a safe bet for news shows to keep ratings up. In the newsroom, choices are constantly being made as to what to present. When my husband Will was a TV news film editor, the Black Panthers were much in the news. The reporters would tell Will what clips to include and in what order to suit their stories. It horrified him to see how they chose to include shots that showed them as militaristic and threatening, then routinely exclude footage of the community help programs run by the Panthers. So disturbed was he by this daily misrepresentation, that he saved the discarded footage on a reel in his work drawer. He should have taken it home. Eventually it was discovered and destroyed.

History is often destroyed because it doesn’t represent the skewed viewpoint of the person who is presenting the news. Today almost all of us carry around a phone that can record history in the making. This is changing our understanding of our world in wondrous and horrifying ways. We are seeing many more videos of cute and funny animals, of humans helping others of every species, of people standing way to close to tornadoes and lava flow, and we see firsthand the brutality and misuse of lethal force by those who are meant to protect us. In this way we are expanding the input possible, cobbling together a more accurate sense of things. But at the same time we are filtering out what doesn’t confirm our worldview, thus becoming more entrenched, and more likely to consider other views as ‘enemy’.

Can we recognize our own intentions and the intentions of those who are sharing their stories, each with their own hopes, dreams and agenda? In the long run, I can imagine that this explosion of sharing will offer future historians a more accurate reflection of the times we live in.         But they will have a whole lot of cat videos to wade through.

In next week’s post we will look at how to live with not knowing — and love it!

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Last Question in Our Series

Indra’s Net of Infinite Interconnection

Safety, Satisfaction and Connection
The other day I heard an interview with Dr. Rick Hanson, in which he said that there are three central needs humans have: safety, satisfaction and connection, in that order. It struck me that the series of six questions we have been working with here address these three issues in that same order.

The first three questions address issues of safety. What is my intention here? is a question we can ask when we are about to do or say something that might make things worse. If I see that my intention is to get back at someone for something, I can recognize the unskillfulness there, and reset my intention to be present and compassionate.

What am I afraid of? allows us to see our fears and explore them in a safe way. Our minds are programmed to operate from fear, but our health suffers if we are in constant state of high alert, so some self-awareness and discernment is valuable.

Are the stories I am telling myself true? is a question that can play an essential role of keeping us safe, not escalating a potentially dangerous situation.

While a certain degree of safety planning is wise, living constantly on high alert actually puts us in more jeopardy. So these first three questions are valuable. Instead of believing everything we tell ourselves, thus defining all that arises in our experience as ‘enemy’, we learn to see with more clarity and compassion for ourselves and others. This enables us to respond skillfully rather than react in ways that activate fear in others, putting all in danger.

Once we feel safe, finding meaning and happiness in life becomes central. This can be a tricky transition when coming off the adrenaline high of fear. We may need to make sense of the trauma of a scary and perhaps scarring experience. Or we may be bored because that intense focus on survival was exhilarating. It’s easy to get stuck in this post-survival mode and not know how to proceed. Instead of succumbing to listlessness or restlessness, and all the unskillful activities and diversions that might seem like a good idea at the time, we can continue to work with those first three questions: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? Are the stories I am telling myself true? to help create space in the tangle of thoughts and emotions that keep us feeling trapped.

We can also step into an active exploration of satisfaction in our lives. Instead of looking at our external situation and thinking that others are to blame for any lack of happiness or meaning, we ask our question What am I cultivating here? This question allows us to see how our thoughts, words, actions or lack of action are creating the life we are living. We can look at the various beneficial qualities that we could cultivate within us to bring about a positive difference in our lives. Beyond those universally shared qualities, we each have inherent gifts and interests that, when cultivated and engaged in make us feel more fully alive, authentic and joyful. We find satisfaction.

Finding Friends
Once we feel safe and satisfied, we are able to make wholesome connections. This might mean finding others who share our interests and enthusiasms. The internet and apps like Meetup have made this much easier to do. But there are also local colleges, adult education programs and community centers. There is no reason for anyone to be isolated. Once we find a group, it’s skillful to develop friends within that group with whom the sense of connection goes beyond just a single shared interest. In later life sometimes we have to give up certain activities. Having friends whose connection is deeper than just a shared enjoyment of a particular activity then becomes more valuable.

Connecting with Family
Deepening existing connections or reconnecting with family members who have been estranged, can become a rich source of joy. Once we are not operating out of fear, it can be surprising how deep friendships can develop between family members. If not, too bad, but it’s definitely worth questioning outdated assumptions and giving connection a try.

Howdy Neighbors
Connecting with neighbors is not just convenient and enjoyable, but creates greater safety. Don’t wait for a crisis to get to know your neighbors. You may not share ideologies or interests, but you do have shared concerns about your immediate surroundings. Back in the day neighbors knew each other because there was no television, no air conditioning and people typically sat out on the front stoop or porch, or hung out at the local park or pub, creating true community. Now most of us retreat indoors, and while there are certainly pleasures there, a lot of sense of connection has been lost. The app Nextdoor has become a big boon to developing neighborly connection, but nothing beats getting together occasionally for a block party or other community gathering.

How can I help?
Connection is also finding how the qualities and talents that we have been cultivating can benefit not just us, but family, friends, community, the earth and ultimately all beings. So our final question of the series is How can I help?

Mr. Rogers is famous for saying in a crisis ‘look for the helpers.’ The helpers are not necessarily specially qualified people like police, firefighters, teachers or nurses. Helpers are simply people who understand that we are all in this together, that we are all connected.

Inseparable
Skin is not a boundary but a porous surface. Where is the true edge of ‘me’? The air we breathe in and out is shared by all beings alive today and throughout history. We are intrinsic fleeting expressions of ever-changing electrical impulses and chemicals combining and recombining; complex systems, networks and processes generating and regenerating — birth, growth, death, decay, and new life, arising and falling away.

Our differences are relatively recent man-made distinctions for purposes of learning and examining, grouping shared characteristics into categories and divisions like phylum, class, family, genus, and species. This is a convenience for study but an inconvenience for in-depth perception of being.  The more we are able to sense that simple but powerful truth, the more we can rest in the gift of being alive in this moment, just as it is.

A sense of connection is central to our deepest feeling of safety and understanding the nature of existence. If we cling to the idea of a separate self, we feel unsafe. We defend this separate-seeming fortress of self. If we do try to help someone else, it is from a finite depletable source, and our intention is to be seen as a good person, a nice person to gain approval, love, power and safety. But that’s not the way it works, and we are left feeling more isolated and afraid.  Trying to be a ‘nice person’ we give ourselves away in the process of helping. That’s not helpful! Nobody is asking for sacrifice. Instead, if everyone shared from that undepletable source, how joyously we all would live.

Metta
If you have been reading this blog or doing Buddhist practice for long, you recognize that this kind of help is based in metta, infinite loving kindness. Just as when we do metta practice, we always begin with ourselves. We say ‘May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be at peace. May I be happy.’ or other general blessings of that nature. Once we feel the infinite quality of metta rising within us, we naturally share it. We think of someone in particular need of loving kindness, or with whom we have a challenging relationship, and we say ‘May you be well.’ Because metta is infinite in nature, it grows and glows to encircle the whole planet and beyond, and we say ‘May all beings be well.’

Only when we are able to hold ourselves in loving kindness are we able to radiate it. In giving, it grows stronger with use, like a muscle. As we do this (and regular meditation practice), we grow in our ability to be present and compassionate. We don’t feel separate, so ‘we have nothing to defend, nothing to fear, nothing to prove. But we have something to give.’

If that last phrase sounds familiar, it is because I have shared it before in my teaching and in this blog. It is an insight I had on a retreat, and it became my mantra for the past many years whenever I find myself caught up in fear-based patterns. Feel free to use it if it helps you.

When we sense our intrinsic connection to all life, fear dissolves. Whether we come to our understanding through studying science — the microbial nature of being and how we are all stardust — or we feel it intuitively, it’s an understanding that makes a huge difference in our lives and in the lives of those around us. It’s not just a piece of knowledge but a way of life.

See for yourself! Notice how someone’s authentic smile or words of kindness affect your whole day. Notice how critical, angry fear-based words or harsh looks affect you. Can you recognize that your looks, words and actions are equally powerful? Without realizing it, you are impacting all lives around you because you are intrinsically connected. Just by living we make a difference. The question is what kind of difference are we making?

Coming full circle
In moments of danger, often our deep understanding of inherent oneness brings out our instinct to help. Probably you have seen at least some of the many Youtube videos of humans helping to save animals. Whenever there is a crisis, people surprise themselves with the physical strength to lift a vehicle off a trapped passenger or the stamina to stay up all night to help rescue fleeing fire victims.

These moments have a powerful sense of purpose. All of which can make us adrenaline junkies. Because we like the person we become in a moment of crisis. But we don’t need crisis to be a helper. There is always someone in need. We may not believe that is true because we compare our messy insides with others’ polished outsides and can’t imagine that they need help or that we have something of value to offer them. But we are all the same stardust after all. If we can reveal a little of our own feelings of vulnerability, then we find deeper connection and understanding.

We also can expand our idea of what helping is. In a crisis it is so clear, but once the crisis has passed, what do we have to offer? What about entertainment, inspiration, education, beauty, humor? If you have eased someone’s mind for a time by sharing an enjoyable, funny or uplifting experience in any way, that’s helping! If others have benefited from your skillful sharing of knowledge and experience, that’s helping! If you are part of a support team for the care of family members or friends, that’s helping! If you clean up litter, if you make wise environmental choices, if you turn the lights off when you leave a room, that’s helping! If you donate to caring causes, that’s helping! If you vote, that’s helping! If you take good care of your body so that you will stay healthy, that’s helping!

Chances are you are probably already helping; you just might not be seeing it that way. So much depends on your intention, which brings us back to the first question in this series: What is my intention here? Whatever way you make a living, spend your time and engage with the world, when you question your intention, you may discover that you are indeed a helper.

Where are you in exploring these six valuable life questions? Spend time with one that is meaningful for you right now. And use them all whenever you feel unsafe, unsatisfied or disconnected.

Your feedback please!
Please let me know if this series of questions has been meaningful for you. I am considering putting it into at least a PDF downloadable form, if not a book. Let me know if that would be of interest to you.

Meditation: Chore or Pleasure?

sweeping.jpgDeveloping a meditation practice may feel like another chore to do, like taking out the garbage or cleaning the kitchen. Both require wise intention and skillful effort to do, and afterward there’s a noticeable positive difference in our lives.

But they are also very different, probably in many ways, but here’s at least one: Chores are things that someone else could do for us if we didn’t want to do them and money was no object. But no one can meditate for us. Just as no one can attend a concert for us or eat a meal for us. No one can enjoy a good book for us or go on a life-transforming trip for us. These kinds of things no one could do for us because they are not chores, but experiences that directly provide us with pleasure, nourishment, insight and edification.

Meditation is a pleasure! This might not be immediately apparent because like many pleasures, we develop our deep appreciation of it through practice and exposure. Though some people find meditating easy from the start, for most it is an acquired delight.

It is similar to acquiring a taste for walking in the woods if we’ve never done it and have only watched scary movies and the woods is where the bodies get buried. We may be afraid of what’s behind a tree or around the next curve on the trail. Just so, someone who has never meditated may fear what might be lurking within their minds. But, as with the new hiker in the woods, practice grows awareness and understanding. The new meditator discovers that simply being present with the senses in silence is a safe place to be. They increasingly find comfort in their growing ability to stay present with all the physical sensations, emotions and thoughts that naturally arise in their field of awareness. They develop the skills to greet all that arises with friendliness, to trust their own inner wisdom to help them see more clearly and experience more expansively being fully alive in each moment.

When it comes to chores, a regular meditation practice helps us to discover that even these tasks can be pleasurable. The pleasure isn’t just the satisfaction of a job well done, but in the doing itself, living life just as it is in this moment with appreciation.

In class, students shared some of their experiences with last week’s exercise working with the question: What are your inherent gifts, interests and skills? It made for an interesting discussion. If you did the exercise, what came up for you? Looking over your list, is there anything you noticed during the week? Did any moments from the past jump out as reminders of something that you could add to that list? Did any of the things you wrote down surprise you? Do any two or more of the skills or interest potentially combine in a satisfying way?

These are ongoing questions. If you didn’t do the exercise, you might want to go back to the previous post and give it a try. If you did it but it feels a little scary or troubling, then go back to the first few questions in this series and work with them around what comes up: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and whatever answers come up, look at them with fresh eyes and ask Is this true?

You might notice a harsh inner voice that devalues the gifts you name. There are often more than just one of these expressions of our fears, whose intentions are to keep us ‘safe’. They can be thanked for their intentions, treated with respect and kindness, but not given the run of the place, because operating from fear is unskillful and potentially dangerous.

In meditation we are tuning in to the still quiet voice of infinite loving kindness and wisdom. It has no sense of urgency. It never dictates. It simply offers guidance in the form of options. When a harried inner voice is sending us with a sense of urgency to the refrigerator for a treat, the wise inner voice might be quietly saying ‘Or, you could notice that you’re not hungry but bored and head out to the garden instead.’  But it takes practice to hear that quiet wisdom speaking amidst the cacophony of all those fear-based thought patterns going on in our brain. The more we listen, the more we recognize that wisdom, the more we operate from it, and though the other voices are present, we don’t feel compelled to act on what they say. (Or at least not all the time!) As we anchor into awareness and compassion, we can even ‘interview’ them, discover their needs, and wisely negotiate some skillful solution that would satisfy them without sabotaging our well being.

I remember my discovery of that wise inner voice in my meditation. It felt like dancing on the head of a pin. I fell off so many times, and the moments when I was there were so fleeting. But over time, with consistent practice, that pinhead grew larger and larger until I was able to be there most of the time, and I was very aware if I was no longer there, and knew how to get back in balance.

It may seem impossible at first. All those inner voices screaming and carrying on and laughing their heads off at the very idea that you could find wisdom within yourself. But the Buddha said ‘Be a lamp unto yourself’. He knew that each of us has the capacity to deepen in our experience, to cultivate presence, and to find that core of wisdom within. One of my students shared an insight she had, but she called it a ‘Stephanie moment’. I called her on that. It was not my moment, it was her moment. Her attendance in class has helped her find her own inner wisdom, but it is absolutely hers. She is learning how to be a lamp unto herself.

But it is challenging! It reminds me a bit of my aunt’s experience with macular degeneration. She had adapted to seeing through just one eye, but suddenly that eye also went blind. She freaked out. But she attended a class, and she was encouraged to really look and to notice that there was a pinprick-size window of sight in the lower right side of her vision. She was trained to see through that tiny window. Over time it felt to her as if the tiny window must have grown larger, but it was her capacity to focus there that had strengthened. That’s the same with the practice of meditation: We grow in our capacity to pay attention, to be aware and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. And to recognize the access to infinite wisdom we each have within us.

In the next post we will look at the final question in this series, and I am very excited about sharing it. Stay tuned!

Inquiry Series: Question #5

tool-collection.jpgIn this inquiry series, we’ve practiced using questions that help us deal skillfully with what arises in our experience: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? Is this true? We then looked at our inner landscape and asked: What am I cultivating here?  To the degree we incorporate these questions into our lives, they continue to be useful tools to find greater peace of mind, strength and equanimity.

Beyond the shared beneficial qualities we cultivate, we each have other gifts as well: The particular skills and interests that activate wholesome energy, aliveness, meaning and purpose.

What are these gifts? There is something inherent in each of us that draws us to different things. We can observe this in very small children. Beyond the fun things most children enjoy, any individual child will be more excited about spending time in one or more activities and less interested in others: Drawing, writing, cooking, doing math, solving puzzles, singing, playing instruments, listening to music, attending performances, taking things apart to see how they work, playacting, taking photos, doing science experiments, inventing things or walking in nature, for example.

But even though the adults around them may notice children’s natural bents, gifts and interests, often the children themselves do not see them or do not understand that all kids aren’t equally as interested in these things. Especially in decades past, the adults around them were likely a little blind to these gifts as well. And so the child grew up feeling a little lost, wondering where they fit in.

I was a shy little girl who had a spiritual bent that manifested in little chants I would make up to feel my connection with the divine. (“I am in God and God is in me” over and over again until I would fall down on the lawn laughing, because what made no sense at all suddenly made all the sense in the world to me.) I also loved to write poems and short stories. And I enjoyed making dollhouses and drawing floor plans. Bringing that little girl to mind now, if I were her parent, I would encourage all of those things, and maybe make sure she had access to materials, classes and kind mentors.

But instead of wishing I’d had different kinds of parents (my parents were wonderful, thank you very much!) I only need to remind myself that as an adult, I can parent myself in whatever way I need. I can provide whatever encouragement and guidance I may have craved growing up. Perhaps you have some dormant, underappreciated or hidden interests or skills that might be brought into the light of your increasing compassionate awareness. No matter what our age or situation, we can actualize all of the gifts we’ve been given in this fleeting experience of being alive in this oh-so impermanent body-mind.

EXERCISE

After meditation or after a few minutes of quieting the mind, ask yourself these questions and write down the answers that arise — as many as come up. Take your time. The first answer may be the best answer, or it may be a toss off answer and there’s a deeper, shyer, truer answer waiting to be heard. All are fine. Bring them on.

Notice any resistance that comes up, either in the exercise or in anticipation of an exercise. You can use our core questions then: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? And, when stories arise about why you can’t pursue a certain interest, look more closely at those stories and question them: Is this true? It may seem true, and it may seem important to hold onto the story, but look at every aspect with a kind but inquiring mind.

Okay, ready? Here we go:

  1. Think of moments during your day, week and life when you were filled with delight, contentment, purpose, enthusiasm — a sense of being in the right place, doing something satisfying. These will probably be very small seeming things but try not to judge them, just note them. List as many as come naturally to you.
  2. Look over your list of moments of delight and think of them as belonging to someone else. Bring your most compassionate, least judgy self to this task. By observing the list as someone else’s we are generally clearer and kinder, more willing to see latent gifts we might deny in ourselves.) Then ask, what interests this person? What does this person love to do? If a clear picture comes to mind, write it down as a little summary.
  3. Acknowledging that this is your list, not someone else’s, notice any emotions arising around this list as you read it. Notice any resistance to anything you have discovered. Notice any stories that come up to explain why, even if true, these interests and skills are for whatever reason not sufficient or not useful. Several people in class felt they probably weren’t doing this exercise ‘right’. A couple thought their moments weren’t sufficiently ‘lofty’. This is not about being lofty! And it is not about defining yourself and presenting yourself to the world. It’s more like the way a cat or dog might circle around to that just right spot of perfect contentment. Trust that whatever comes up is right for you in this moment.
  4. If you are judging yourself, finding fault or feeling resistance, ask ‘What am I afraid of?’ This is not a challenge, not a dare, but a heartfelt compassionate investigation. 
  5. Send metta, infinite loving-kindness to any fearful aspect that speaks up or hides out within you. The inner critic may be powerful and cruel, but it is not your enemy. It is only afraid and unskillful in the ways it tries to protect you.
  6. Looking at the summary you’ve made, do you feel that you are living your deepest most heartfelt interests?
  7. If not, set the intention to give more time to them, incorporate them more fully into your life and whenever you are in such a moment, to not feel rushed but really allow yourself to experience it fully with deep appreciation.
  8. Underline, circle, star or rewrite any core interests that you would like to explore more fully. This is not about ‘becoming’ something new. This is not a makeover. It’s recognizing what is already central to your way of being in this life, yet for whatever reason not actualized fully.
  9. Set the intention to be compassionate with those aspects of self that are fearful, but don’t let them run the show!
  10. Save and revisit this list, try the exercise again another time, and consider rewriting it as a note to yourself to keep close as a reminder.

If you do this exploration multiple times, you may find different answers each time, but a pattern will arise that will hopefully inspire you to honor your natural gifts, interests and skills.

If you discover powerful resistance, that is definitely worth exploring and challenging. I am reminded of the Marianne Williamson quote:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” — Marianne Williamson

Like many, I suffered from great doubts about my abilities. I kept my writing very private and never thought to share it with anyone. If I did share them, any compliments were like water off a duck’s back. I have no memory of them. But even the slightest suggestion or critique cut me to the core and the scars were a constant reminder of my lack of talent. It’s amazing I kept writing, but my writing was for me, and it was safe as long as I kept it private. And that’s fine. Writing and all the arts — music, visual arts, drama, crafts — all have the capacity to be cathartic. We each have our way of processing the traumas of our lives. I imagine that working out mathematical equations might be cathartic, too. Can we find our way of skillfully processing and coping with all that arises in our lives? Hint: It will never be a distraction from what we are going through. It will not make an enemy of it that we push away. There’s that old hymn: ‘It’s so high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it, so wide you can’t get around it, you’ve gotta go in through the door.’ The door is being fully present and compassionate with ourselves and others, finding that inner wisdom that is within each of us, by whatever name we might call it. But each of us also has one or more very personal ways of savoring life and processing what arises. And that’s what we’re exploring through this exercise.

Allowing ourselves our fullest expression is not a big ask. It is our birthright. It is our place at the table of life. That is such a hard lesson to learn, especially for women raised to always put others’ needs first and to be ‘demure’.

I will leave you with a personal experience: I had been teaching for a number of years and then writing blog posts from my dharma talks. After a year of teaching the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness, my students asked me to compile those posts and publish them in book form. I mentioned this to my teaching mentor and she said there are more than enough books in the world. (There were no comparable books on that subject at the time, and even still none that addresses women’s specific challenges, but that’s beside the point.) After I left our meeting, I felt like a daisy bush being told not to bloom, to stifle myself, because there are already too many daisies in the world.

Please, please, please, whatever kind of plant you are, feel free to bloom fully and radiantly! And don’t waste your time envying the rose or the lilac. You do YOU!

Cultivating with the core insights

rainbow.jpg

In exploring the question What am I cultivating here? we have been working with a gardening analogy. In this analogy we haven’t yet looked at what is represented by the soil, the rain and the sunshine. This seems a pretty big oversight! So let’s look at these most important aspects now:
The Buddha identified three characteristics of existence that, if understood, transform our whole way of being in the world. They are the underlying wisdom upon which all the rest of the teachings rest, and to which all the rest of the teachings point. On the graphic chart of the Buddha’s teachings, these three ‘marks’, as they are also called, are at the very center. They are the core of the teachings. Every insight that you will have in your meditation and your life will lead you to one or more of these three core understandings of the way of things. I know that’s a major claim, but try it for yourself, as the Buddha says, and see if it is true.
So what are these three characteristics of existence? In Pali, they are anicca, anatta and dukkha. Unless you plan to be a Buddhist scholar, or you just like to know terms, it’s not really necessary to remember those Pali names. But it is helpful to understand the concepts, which are:
Anicca: Understanding the nature of impermanence and our inability to maintain anything to our satisfaction. Things change and we don’t like it. Things don’t change enough and we don’t like it. Things change, we like it and assume now we will be happy forever, but we change in relationship to the thing that doesn’t seem to be changing, and we’re not happy. You get the picture. Impermanence is a fact of life, and how we are in relationship to it, to a great extent, determines our ability to be happy.
Anatta: Understanding that there is no separate self that needs constant shoring up and defending. The separate seeming nature of being is useful for practical purposes in this life, taking responsibility for this particular body, family, finances, commitments, etc. But taken to be complete reality, believing ourselves to be isolated individuals separate from the rest of being, causes suffering.
Dukkha: Understanding that, while there is pain that comes with birth, illness, aging and death; the greatest suffering we experience is created by grasping at, clinging to and pushing away all that arises in our field of experience.
For the purposes of our garden analogy, we could say that dukkha is the soil. The quality of suffering is very earthy. We can get caught up in it, ‘dirtied’ by it and buried in it. Yet when we understand dukkha, we can plant roots and draw nourishment in our deep understanding of its nature.
One student in class had a problem with planting her roots in suffering. Another student pointed out that we are planting our roots in the insight about dukkha. Since class, I have gone around in my mind whether this is an apt metaphor or not. What I’m thinking now is that earthly life, full as it is of suffering, is where we are planted. It’s not always an easy place, but as we put down roots, we become better able to sustain ourselves in it. The Buddha taught that birth, illness, aging and death are the four messengers. So there is something in the soil of dukkha that we need. When we are experiencing pain in our lives, can we be fully present for it, rooted in the experience — not grasping and clinging or pushing it away, but simply here to receive its nourishing message? I will never forget one time when I was younger and my back went out, and suddenly I understood that old people walk slowly because they are in pain! My pain nourished me, didn’t it? It cultivated an insight and compassion that has been of benefit to me in all my relationships.
This extended metaphor is a work in progress, so I’m open to ideas to make it better. Comments?

Anicca, impermanence, we could see as water. Rain comes and goes. There are droughts and floods. There are clouds and clear sky. Water is constantly transforming: Now it’s ocean, now mist, fog, cloud; now rain, snow, sleet or hail; now puddles, rivulets, streams, lakes, rivers, seas and back to the ocean. It’s also present in all life, including our bodies.

Anatta (no separate self) could be represented by water too — I often think of this fleeting life as a droplet of water flying over a waterfall, soon to rejoin with the flow of the river to the ocean. I also love the phrase ‘The ocean refuses no river’ which repeated over and over again is such a comforting message of self-acceptance. But since we’ve claimed water to represent the nature of impermanence, we will let sunlight represent that sense of no separate self: We are all energy, inseparable, radiant light.
One student asked, since we are applying the elements to aspects of the teachings, what of air? Ah, air! Well let’s let air be air: The breath at the center of our practice that is both a focus and a way to shift energy (releasing excess on the out-breath, bringing in enlivening energy on the in-breath). With breath we cultivate spaciousness, putting ‘air’ around our thoughts and emotions as they arise in our awareness so that they don’t overwhelm us. Every plant in the garden needs sufficient air to thrive.
Through our meditation practice (sitting in our garden enjoying simply being alive?), the support of the teachings (all that wise gardening advice?) and our community of practitioners (fellow gardeners who support us?), we create the conditions for the qualities we explored in the two previous posts (generosity, lovingkindness, resolve, etc.) to grow and flourish.

The Finite Balcony vs. the Infinite Garden
Without being rooted in the infinite wisdom of the core understandings of
anicca, anatta and dukkha, you can still cultivate these qualities, but it’s as if they are planted in little pots on a balcony, finite and contained rather than rooted in the infinite, and you need to attend them constantly. They will not spread and propagate, and they are not connected to the vast web of interconnecting gardens full of birds, butterflies, etc. that help keep the garden healthy. (If you are an apartment dweller and like your potted plants just fine, or if you have no interest in gardening whatsoever, remember this is just an analogy!)
As we practice and have naturally arising insights in our lives, we recognize the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. We don’t adopt them or accept them because the Buddha was an enlightened being and who are we to question what he taught. He asked us to see for ourselves the truth. That’s the heart of our practice. Being at ease in the practice, we create fertile ground for insights to arise. As arising insights do indeed confirm the Buddha’s teachings, we release any self-sabotaging doubt we may have had about the value of our practice and our path. Our practice itself becomes a celebration of gratitude where we can delight in the garden just as it is, ‘weeds’ and all.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? But don’t let it become a distant ideal. If you feel stuck on the balcony tending little pots, hey, you are still creating more beauty in life! But every day in your practice notice your inner ‘balcony’ expanding until it becomes an inner garden.

Cultivating your chosen quality with wise inquiry

e5f00-planting-seedIf you did last week’s exercise, then hopefully you chose one quality that you feel needs cultivation right now. (If you didn’t do the exercise, why not go back and give it a try?)

Once you have your quality, here are some more ways to explore. Keeping the quality in mind, ask yourself each of these three questions that will look familiar because they are the first three questions of this inquiry series. They serve us well again: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? Is this true?

What is my intention here?
In regard to your chosen quality, sense in and ask yourself this question.
Since I have been working with the quality of generosity, I will use it as an example for this exploration. I propose that the intention of generosity is to give wholeheartedly. Okay, this sounds good, right? Halfhearted giving sounds pretty lame and worthless. But does ‘wholehearted’ put out the expectation that I should give all of myself away?

When we come up with an intention that can be ambiguous, it’s worth noticing, because it could give insight as to why this quality has not been fully cultivated. And we can see how we might have fears that come up. If I perceive generosity in terms of some finite gift that will run out, that through my giving I will be depleted, and maybe I already feel depleted, then clearly there is a misunderstanding here. And also fear.

What am I afraid of?
You might feel the tension that sets in at the very mention of fear. We are often afraid to look at what we are afraid of! But with loving-kindness and resolve we can look clearly at what’s arising in our experience. Images may also come to mind. The fear may feel like a shield of self-protection, but it’s actually a distorting lens that makes us more vulnerable. The question ‘What am I afraid of?’ might bring up thoughts about potential outcomes. ‘I am afraid of going broke’ might be one answer when exploring the quality of generosity. There might be specific examples in our lives of some generous person we know who lives ‘closer to the edge’ than we would be comfortable doing. I certainly do have such an example in my life. A person who gave of himself quite freely and in turn relied on the generosity of others to see him through difficult times. Standing on the sidelines watching, I feared for him. Of course this experience affected me. It’s not the only influencer of my more cautious approach to generosity, but it is one.

Beyond how being generous might affect our bottom line, there is usually some other justification that has to do with those we might be generous to: ‘They’ll just fritter it away.’ ‘I worked hard for that money.’ Strong opinions and harsh judgments can be very effective in deterring acts of generosity. For myself, I would notice generous impulses, the desire to give, but then the ‘recoil’ opinions and judgments that would talk me out of the impulse, or at least lessen it.

This would work with any quality. Say, the quality of Letting Go. There might be the initial impulse to clean out the closet, but then some fear, some inner opinions, arise to shut down the impulse. But even just noticing the impulse is a big step toward cultivating the quality.

Noticing is vital. You don’t have to ‘do’ anything right away. This is not a makeover where we are looking for instant results. Instead, very gently, kindly and persistently we sense into physical responses, emotional up-welling, images from the past and imagined futures, with all their accompanying stories.

Is this true?
Once we are exploring the realm of stories that come up when we think about our chosen quality, we can listen respectfully, and then ask ‘Is this true?’ This is not to make the story an outright lie or to call ourselves liars. Instead it is a loving process of acknowledging that we are not our stories, that we will not fall apart if our stories don’t hold up to the light of truth.

None of our stories are writ in stone. They were all woven on the fly by ourselves and others at vulnerable moments. At first this realization can feel threatening. If we believe our identity is our stories, of course we will hold onto them tightly. But with the practice of meditation over time we soften into a deeper understanding of our nature, and these stories no longer form the fabric of our being. As we are freed from the weight of them, we can feel as if we are standing in sunlight for the first time. We discover that it was fear that wove the stories we’ve clung to all this time. We’ve taken them for granted, and now we see they were not serving us. Discerning the fear allows us to see with greater clarity and compassion.

See if working with these three questions, at times when you feel your mind is quiet and compassionate, helps you to see more clearly what has kept you from cultivating the quality you have chosen.