Category Archives: meditation

Reflections on the Climate Crisis Summit at Spirit Rock

No Time to Lose: A Dharma Response to Climate Change
In the beautiful community hall of Spirit Rock Meditation Center over four hundred people gathered on Sunday, September 15, 2019, joined by many more live streaming. Led by Buddhist teacher and author James Baraz, the event was filled with the big names of insight meditation, including Buddhist teacher/authors Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach and Joanna Macy, who has for decades actively advocated for environmental responsibility.

The Great Hall at Spirit Rock Meditation Center holding our beloved planet

The event was a fundraiser for OneEarthSangha, a key player in the emergence of a Buddhist response to climate change, providing a hub for information, connection and organizing. Founded five years ago by a graduate of the dharma leadership program and a burned out executive from World Wildlife Fund who found sustenance and strength to renew his dedication to the environment through Buddhist practice, the 10,000 member organization offers EcoSattva training to anyone, or any group, interested in deepening their understanding of environmental issues and finding a way to help. They work in partnership with other Buddhist environmental organizations such as Earth Holder, Buddhist Climate Action Network and Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective.

A few environmental organizations had tables in the lobby to help attendees find other direct ways to get involved: Citizens Climate Lobby, Sustainable Fairfax, Marin350, and Pachmama Alliance.

There were in person presentations by James Baraz, Joanna Macy, Belvie Rooks, and others, as well as video-conferences with the co-founders of OneEarth Sangha and Tara Brach. There was a recorded interview with the revered Buddhist monk and scholar Analayo, a dharma talk by Jack Kornfield and a sharing of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunburg’s talk to the United Nations.

We were offered several opportunities to actively participate. Canadian musician and environmental songwriter Jennifer Berezan and her group had us standing, singing and swaying with ‘Praises for the world’. The hall has amazing acoustics (funny for a room where a majority of time is spent in silence!) so when we were all standing and singing and swaying the words “praises for the world” was powerful.

We were offered the opportunity to write down on a piece of paper our personal intentions of how to use our gifts for the benefit of the earth. We were asked to make a copy for ourselves and put the other one in a basket. All the gathered intentions will be put into the dharma wheel at the entrance to the retreat area.

The effect of offering heartbreaking information, uplifting music, insights and the opportunity to express our own hopes and fears, made for an emotional roller coaster of an experience. We were allowed to crack open and encouraged to feel our sadness, but we were also given means to take care of ourselves and to use whatever gifts we have to help.

The key takeaways from the event are these:

This is no time to play small, asking ‘who am I to….’ make a difference.

Action absorbs anxiety.

“We’re like children playing with their toys in the attic while the house is burning down.” – Buddha

“Climate change is the most important topic for the dharma hall.” – Analayo

The dharma holds the key to sustainability.

Let go of the need to know how it will turn out. Just do what you are doing wholeheartedly.

The harm that has been and is being done to the earth is done out of ignorance and confusion. If we can understand that, we can let go of the anger and come from a more empowered place that can truly make a difference. Anger, even righteous anger, is poisonous and will not bring the desired results. It is a toxic fuel.

“You have no moral authority over those who can feel your underlying contempt.” – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Othering (us against them, seeing people with different understanding as the ‘enemy’) is the primary disease of the world. Hatred ceases by love alone.

Greed, anger and delusion (which the Buddha called the Three Poisons) are the challenges we all face. We can see the greed embraced by our culture and inherent to our economic system. Joanna Macy said ‘The Industrial Growth Society’ thrives on these three poisons. You can see the greedy, ‘I’ve got mine and I want more’ mentality on which the whole system is built.

Delusion keeps people blind to what’s happening and the causes and effects of their actions and inactions. Resignation is also a part of delusion. The majority of us live in delusion about climate crisis, but we are waking up.

Part of the resistance to waking up to what is going on is the uncomfortable feeling of ‘I’m responsible’. It is far better to say ‘I am taking responsibility to change the situation.’

‘Just fall in love with what is.’ – Joanna Macy
Can we love the earth just as it is right now, wounds and all? Can we love the earth as it burns? We can never return to what was, but we can craft a life-sustaining society through the collapse by learning how to take care of each other.

Then Joanna led us in a dyad exercise where we took turns finishing the sentences:
“As the current world order collapses, I am grateful for___________________”
“As the current world order collapses, I fear ___________________________”
“As the current world order collapses, I want to remember _______________”

She said that the current order keeps power by pathologizing our disobedience and grief. Big Pharma has a pill for that, and others industries offer distractions from our grief. We need to allow ourselves to be sad!

She talked about the Great Unraveling. Since she was talking to a Buddhist group she didn’t need to educate us about the nature of impermanence, how things fall apart. This is the way of all life. Then she talked about the Great Turning, the welling up of consciousness to meet the challenges we face together to build a sustainable community of all beings.

Belvie Rooks’ presentation was profoundly touching as she shared her poetry and her personal process of grieving the loss of her husband. She is a cofounder of Growing a Global Heart.  She shared something her grandmother told her: “But for such a time as this that you were born.”

There was such a powerful sense that yes, we were born for this time. And it is not by accident that so many of us are waking up from the numbness of going along to get along, of reacting with greed, hatred and delusion to life; of feeling separate and lost. But for such a time as this that we were born. If a woman who was born into slavery could recognize her own purpose and power, then surely we can stop making excuses for our self-absorption and inaction. Yes, we need to take care of ourselves, and recognizing the Three Poisons active in us is an important part of that. Can we see greed, hatred and delusion at work in ourselves and in our world? And can we see ourselves as intrinsic and vital to what the earth and all life needs now?

Where does it hurt?

Once I told my mother I was feeling down. She said ‘Well, you shouldn’t.’ I knew she was right. It didn’t add up. I had all the prerequisites for happiness. Okay, but then what do I do with this feeling? (Don’t judge her. She was a woman of her time, before emotional intelligence was even a thing. She was of a generation that took pride in soldiering through any emotional turmoil.)

But the Buddha knew what I was talking about. He recognized this ongoing sense of angst and not-enoughness and called it dukkha, which has been translated as suffering, unsatisfactoriness and discontent. There’s no perfect word in the English language for dukkha, and besides the original Pali word is so perfect for us English-speakers because it marries two common words we may use for feces: doo-doo and caca. Doo-cah. Dukkha. Yup, that works to describe feeling poopy. We don’t need a specific reason to feel that way, do we? Sometimes we just do. We might say ‘I woke up on the wrong side of the bed’ which makes no sense at all but we feel the need to ascribe this feeling to something.

Sometimes the conditions of our lives do activate unhappy emotions, but often what we find to blame for this ooky feeling didn’t bother us yesterday. Yesterday we didn’t find someone’s habits annoying, but today for some reason we do. It has to be the fault of someone or something, doesn’t it?

No! According to the Buddha, it doesn’t. Dukkha exists. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to deal with it. The Buddha provides a brilliant set of solutions that we will be exploring in upcoming posts. But it’s important to first notice the existence of dukkha in our lives, and to notice that blame is not useful. Making an enemy of anything is not useful.

The Ill-fitting Axle Hole
In Pali dukkha literally means ‘ill-fitting axle hole’. Such a great metaphor for how dukkha feels in our lives. Imagine riding along in a cart with a wheel that is wobbly or otherwise dysfunctional. It makes a continuous ker-thump. Some of the time the beautiful scenery or the delightful conversation distracts us from the ongoing ker-thumping, but it’s there. Sometimes we can’t sense anything else because the constant irritation of the rough ride makes enjoying anything impossible. And that’s just like dukkha. It’s an underlying irritant that creates discontent even in otherwise pleasant circumstances.

This recognition of dukkha’s existence, even in the lives of those who seem to ‘have it all’ was the starting point of Siddhartha Gautama’s quest to end suffering for himself and all beings circa 600 BCE in northern India. He was born into wealth and destined to rule. Yet as a young man he felt a sense of unsatisfactoriness. No one is immune to dukkha. Because he was born into wealth, he knew that luxury can be a source of pleasure but not of true happiness. This saved him a lot of time that many of us spend striving and seeking material success, fame, admiration, etc. thinking it will wipe out the dukkha we are experiencing. Can we take his word for that? If not, we can look around at the rich and famous in our own culture and recognize that whatever true happiness they experience is not a product of their wealth or position, and whatever sadness they experience cannot be cured by another villa, island or fancy car. (Many recent studies show that beyond an income that assures sufficient food, shelter and health, wealth is no indicator of happiness.)

(Not familiar with the Buddha’s life story? Take this four post pilgrimage.

The First Noble Truth that the Buddha taught when he, after years of meditative practice, became enlightened was the importance of acknowledging the existence of dukkha in our lives. Our lifelong patterns of trying to ignore it make this a challenge, but the regular practice and the exploration of the teachings with a group of others, our sangha, who share the wholesome desire to understand and to cultivate awakening, make it possible.

In the Four Noble Truths, his first teaching after awakening, the Buddha named the problem we face as human beings. Then he identified the causes of the problem, identified the solution, and shared the necessary steps to implement that solution. Seeing the truth of his words, his small group of fellow seekers became his first followers. Over the decades of his life, his followers grew, and they took it far and wide. His teachings have been passed down over millennia and they are as alive today — as we explore them, investigating their veracity — as they were in his day in the forests with his followers.

During the week, see if you can notice dukkha’s presence in your own life, from minor discomforts to overpowering mental and physical pain. Over the coming posts we’ll discover what causes dukkha and how to liberate ourselves from it.

That is the heart of the Buddha’s offering.

Image by Matthias Böckel from Pixabay

Our new garden altar

Our new garden altar created by Will Noble

This week my students and I had a ceremony to consecrate the beautiful wooden altar at the end of the garden crafted by my husband Will. When we gathered in front of the altar I told them about its inception and construction, how it didn’t suddenly appear in its seemingly perfect state, but was a process full of unexpected problems. The altar is the result of skillful effort, patience and a willingness to try again when things don’t go right. It’s useful for us to remember, especially when it seems everyone else’s life is easy and ours is uniquely problematic, to live whatever process we are in with self-compassion and clarity. The end result may be different from what we envisioned, but it, like this altar, will be perfect. Or, as we say in our family, ‘perfect enough.’

The intention for this altar is to be a place where anyone walking in the garden can go to have a private moment of refuge, reflection, contemplation, inspiration and insight into the way of things, and perhaps the way forward in their lives. After a brief dedication ceremony, each student in turn took their private time with the altar. Their later shared experiences made me know that it is indeed a special place for healing and revealing.

Usually during class, Will goes on hikes or bike rides, but just before he was leaving, we couldn’t find his phone anywhere, and we both agreed it would be better if he just stayed home for the 90 minutes of class. So he retired to our room to read, but then after everyone had spent time at the altar, I realized how synchronistic it was that he ‘lost’ his phone that morning. Because he was home, after our consecration ceremony, I brought him out so that everyone could thank him in person. It was so good for him to see how something he had made had such a powerful effect. Everyone was full of tears and hugs, glad to be able to thank the artist. Aw. And immediately after that he found his phone!

In fact, there was a palpable sense of synchronicity to the whole morning. Though the Buddhist tradition I practice and teach is the most secular, creating and consecrating an altar seemed to have sparked something much more than we could have imagined. May it continue to be a place of solace and inspiration to all who visit it.

In the photos you can see various Buddhist bells, gifts from students, friends and a teacher over the years. But the two Buddhas inside, one mounted on the back wall and one seated on a rock I found in the garden, were purchases from Routes Gallery in San Anselmo, CA. I had no idea what a special place it is! Much more than a store, it’s a whole contemplative experience. What a treat! I plan to arrange a field trip there. Join us! Or at least visit on your own if you’re in the area.

The ceremony for the altar was a simple recitation of taking refuge. Last week I talked about the hand-sewing done in American Zen communities, but I didn’t mention that while they make their stitches, they chant the Japanese Zen words of taking refuge.

Taking Refuge

All Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

The Buddha is not just the historical Buddha whose teachings we explore and apply to our own lives. Buddha means awakened one. So we take refuge in our own Buddha nature, our own potential for awakening. That seed of awakening is within each of us, waiting to be acknowledged, nurtured and cultivated.

The Dharma is the body of Buddhist teachings. Students are not to accept these teachings blindly, but are encouraged to investigate for ourselves what is true. So the dharma is not stale rigid dogma, but a living experience of awakening in this moment whenever we are fully present to access insight.
Nature is the greatest dharma teacher, always sharing lessons on impermanence and the interconnectedness of all life. We suffer when we rail against the truth of nature’s lessons. And we find joy in being alive when we stop making an enemy of whatever is arising in our experience.

The Sangha is the community of practitioners who support each other in meditation practice and explore the dharma together. A member of our sangha might also be someone who doesn’t themselves practice, but supports us fully in our practice, who doesn’t sabotage our wise intentions and effort.
When beginning to take on a meditation and mindfulness practice, it is wise to be very discerning when choosing who to spend time with, as it is easy to become dispirited and distracted by old habits when those around us are engaged in them.
But as we strengthen and deepen in our practice and our understanding, we begin to recognize the sangha of all beings. When our practice is strong and our insights guide our lives, we can see that even those who would discourage us only strengthen our resolve, and their unskillfulness is a reminder to live more skillfully in our own lives.

Whoa! 50,000 Stitches?

In the documentary States of Grace (which I saw on Kanopy, the public library’s free streaming service) I was intrigued by the mention of 50,000 stitches being required to be ordained as a Zen priest. What an amazing concentration practice! If each stitch was mindfully done, certainly after 50,000 to make a robe, you would be a very present practitioner.

Since I know nothing about what is required for Zen Buddhist ordination, I did some research and came upon a Tricycle article about Tomoe Katagiri and the history of hand-sewing in the US Zen communities. Apparently it is an ancient practice, though these days in Japan robes are purchased instead of handmade. But Tomoe Katagiri has been teaching hand-sewing in the U.S. since 1971, and so it has become a part of the American Zen experience.

But this is not a post about Zen. It is a post about one sentence in the article that captured my attention. When a woman was coming to her final stitch of the robe for her ordination as a Soto Zen priest, she asked Tomoe if there was anything to be said for the final stitch. Tomoe answered, “The last stitch is the same as the first.”

“The last stitch is the same as the first.”
We could apply that to all aspects of life, couldn’t we? If we are doing something with full attention, then each moment receives that same quality of attention, not distracted but fully sensed.

One area we might apply this is eating. For most of us that first bite is special. We savor it, we really taste it. But a few bites in, caught up in conversation, reading, listening or just thinking, the hand and mouth may go on autopilot. When I am on retreat my whole attention stays with the bites I am taking, the chewing, the swallowing because there is absolutely nothing else to do, and my mind is focused on savoring not just flavors but the whole experience of being on retreat. Every time, I promise myself that when I get home I will be done with a lifetime’s habit of inattention and will attend every bite with full mindfulness. Well, you know how that turns out. A few days later, I’m back in the habituated groove of shoveling it in and then wondering where it went. Ah me!

Reading “The last stitch is the same as the first” made me want to challenge myself in my daily life to have a meal with that level of steady attention, each bite fully appreciated. If I can do it on retreat, why can’t I do it at home? Why do I accept my excuses? It is simply a matter of setting wise intention and following through with wise effort. So yesterday and so far today I did just that for each meal, and the last bite was as delicious as the first. And I noticed that I put more attention to making a nice meal, to choosing wholesome tasty foods, to taking my time in the kitchen with each chore fully attended, the last cut of a vegetable as mindful as the first. It is all of a piece, this being present, isn’t it?

How about a walk where the last step is done with the same level of attention and appreciation as the first? I tried that this morning too. It was a lovely day for a favorite hike on the shady side of Lake Bon Tempe. Staying present I saw so many things I might not otherwise have noticed, like the two tiny butterflies flitting in close pairing among the yellow wildflowers. Attending the sensations of my body in motion, I walked further than I habitually do. I spent some time focusing on my thigh muscles, letting them do the work that my knees might otherwise take on. I don’t know if that’s physically a thing, but it felt right for me. What I didn’t do was talk politics, wonder what to make for lunch, or plot the rest of the day’s activities. I just walked and looked and listened.

How often in life do our thoughts fly off craving the next thing? Wondering ‘when will I be done with this?’ even when it’s something we very much wanted to do?

The last stitch is the same as the first. Wow. Think of other areas in your life where this advice might be useful. In class we ended up talking about chores, errands and projects that seem to consume time in a mindless way. We’ll explore more of that in a future dharma post when we look at what constitutes wise effort.

We all go mindless at times. The practice of meditation is in part about learning how to simply be present, attentive to all that is arising and falling away in the field of sensation. The other part is learning to be compassionate with ourselves but not indulgent — an important distinction that we’ll look at in a future dharma post about wise concentration.

(If you are seeing a theme developing with these future dharma posts, you may recognize two aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: Wise Effort and Wise Concentration. Those and the other six will be our fall focus. I have taught this invaluable life guidance three times over the past decade or so, and my current students have asked me to teach it again. I am happy to do so, and this time with a beautiful new illustration by my husband of the analogy I developed for understanding and remembering the various aspects!) Every time I teach it I discover so many new things I hadn’t noticed before, and I hope you will too!)

But meanwhile, you might make a point of noticing as you go through your day where you go mindless, what falls apart when that happens, and how it feels when you muddle through life lost in distraction, as most of us do at least some of the time.

“The last stitch is the same as the first.” There’s so much we can learn from that one sentence! May we live our lives attentively and compassionately, savoring each moment as it arises, then letting it go, so that our last breath is the same as the first.

Photo above uncredited, but click on it to go to another article about Zen hand-sewing.

Who’s your tribe?

A prime motivator of the human species, right up there with safety, is comfort. Over millennia we have developed creative ways to provide ourselves shelter from weather extremes, food at our fingertips, soft places to sleep and sit, and ways to travel great distances with ease. Ah, comfort! 

Conformity is comfort, too. We feel safer if we make the same choices as people we respect.  We may define ourselves by our choices of brands of clothing and technology, for example. We are drawn to people with shared interests or outlooks, for both the stimulating exchanges and the sense of being at ease with shared viewpoints. In this way we have a sense of tribe.

We are tribal by nature, so when our ancestors migrated around the globe in search of food, safety and freedom from persecution, each generation had to expand its understanding of tribe. Nations arose not just to define physical boundaries but for a sense of belonging to a tribe. A tribe might have shared physical attributes, but as our sense of tribe grows, it is more dependent on a sense of shared experience, regardless of whether we look alike. For example, the shared experience of surviving a war, a famine, a drought, a depression or the assassination of a leader, will bind people together in a sense of a tribe. 

Each of us longs to be part of a ‘we’, however that ‘we’ is defined. Think about the word tribe for a moment and see how you feel it in your own experience. You might start with your family, then your friends, perhaps your coworkers, the people in your community, the citizens of your country, people with shared beliefs or practices around the world, etc. See where this exercise takes you and take your time with it.

When we look at the past century in the U.S., it’s easy to see the patterns of comfort-seeking conformity. Mass media set the standards of what was ‘in’ and all anyone had to do was dress the part. When I was an adolescent we read magazines like Seventeen and Glamour and followed their cues like maps to happiness, not just what to wear, or how to style our hair, but how to be in the world and in relationships, how to find true love and meaning. The boys read Sports Illustrated, Popular Mechanics, MAD magazine and Playboy, finding comfort in shared interests and opinions.

But some didn’t find mass market media comforting at all and felt alienated from it, so revolted against it and appeared to be non-conforming. 

If it is our nature to seek conformity, how can we explain the non-conformists? They are still seeking comfort. They just have a different tribe, a tribe that seeks itself out. Look at all the gatherings, festivals and conferences that draw like-minded people together.

Recently I saw the PBS documentary Woodstock. (It is not the original Woodstock movie, which was also great but was focused more on the music. This one focuses more on how the festival came about, how it was received by the locals (the kind and generous townspeople of Bethel, NY and environs) and how 400,000 managed to be fed, etc.. Fascinating.)

Festival attendees from all over the country and the world were so elated to find their tribe, a tribe they couldn’t be sure existed beyond their own immediate experience since they only had a few newspapers like the Village Voice and Berkeley Barb. They looked bizarre to the majority of society, but together they looked much the same, their hair and clothes an expression of their desire to be free from the predefined conformity of their parents’ generation. They conformed to their own tribe.

The beatniks before them also found their tribe. I remember how happy I was when hippies happened because the beatniks that some of my school friends aspired to imitate in the early 60’s were just too dreary and depressing for me.

There have always been non-conforming tribes. I recently read Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel, about the tribe of artists in New York in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, with Lee Krasner, Elaine DeKooning, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. at the center of it all. They painted all day in studios that often failed to provide even the minimum of comforts, some lacking heat or electricity. Their diets were so minimal that some struggling artists died of starvation. They would rather die than give up their art! I was fascinated in part because my father was one of them in the late 1930’s and I remember him saying that he and his friend figured out that a diet of dates and peanut butter was the cheapest and most nutritious way to survive. I wish I had asked him more about his time in New York back then.

According to the book, what kept the group of artists going, were the late night co-mingling with their tribe of artists and poets while nursing cups of coffee that had to last all night at the cheapest cafeteria in their down and out neighborhood. That is the strength of tribe and the powerful comfort of conformity, even when the tribe seems from the outside to be non-conforming, even when all creature comforts are sacrificed for the greater comfort of self-expression and the community of likeminded people.

What has described tribe in our massive culture is often generational, defined by the music we listen to, the entertainment we enjoy, the clothes we wear, the way we groom our hair, and what we are upset about — the Vietnam War, gun violence, student loan debt, climate crisis, etc.

Adults choose communities, a particular style of home, kinds of food, the online communities to join, but whatever we are doing, we are always seeking the comfort of our tribe.

With the advent of the internet, geography has ceased to play a role in this tribalism. Every morning after I meditate, I am greeted with ‘Thank you for meditating with me’ notes from all around the globe on the Insight Timer app. Reviews on my guided meditations also remind me that this is a worldwide community. How comforting! How supported I feel in my personal practice!

At its best, the internet has provided the possibility to be a true world community, to overcome fears and perceived barriers, to celebrate the wonder of being alive on this beautiful planet. At its worst, it has made it easy to self-define tribes of fear-based hatred, emboldening incivility and violence. If we succumb to the negativity, perceive our tribe as under siege and in need of protection, then we have tribal warfare that destroys us all.

So what we are doing in meditation is making internal peace, recognizing the fear, listening with respect, and then giving comfort, kindness, compassion to all aspects of our inner world. In this way we allow a spaciousness of mind that can hold all of what arises in ourselves and in the world in an open and loving embrace.

And what our practice leads to is an awakening to a deep understanding that we are intrinsically interconnected with all life, that our sense of ‘tribe’ does not have to be limited to just those whose opinions match our own or those who look like us. All the world’s great religions lead to the same place of deep understanding that there is no ‘other’. We are unique expressions of all that is in its infinite loving variety. We are not alone. We are all one. Our tribe is here and now and infinite, interconnected and inseparable.

Image by Speedy McVroom from Pixabay

What I learned on my summer vacation

Family vacations are wonderful times to learn a lot about ourselves and our way of being in community and in the world. I remember one extended family vacation that my mother put together in a beautiful spot with perfect weather. Though everything went well, she was mostly tense and dictatorial and I was often grumpy and defensive. My main job as I saw it was to assure the safety and well-being of my two year old son and to pitch in cooperatively to keep the shared household running smoothly. But she saw me as her personal assistant and servant to assure the happiness of my brothers and their families whom she saw as the ‘guests’.

Because in the U.S., most of us don’t live in multi-generational family situations year-round, when we live for brief periods with our family of origin, a lot of old patterns resurface, and a lot of reactivity that replicates our childhood coping mechanisms shows up as well. We might be surprised, even horrified, to discover that those emotional cesspools are still within us when we felt we had become ‘better’ people.

It helps to see the pattern unfolding, even if it’s difficult to stop it from playing out. Just noticing it makes a big difference, helping us to understand its origins and its fleeting nature. We can rest assured that when the gathering is over, we will return home to our ‘normal’ adult ways. Being able to see these patterns arise gives us the chance to pause, send metta (lovingkindness) to ourselves and the rest of the family, so that we reconnect with our core intentions.

Because I had had negative experiences on family-gathering vacations my mother had hosted, I didn’t try to host one myself after I became a family matriarch. But a few years ago we happened to stay as overnight guests at a vacation home with our son and his family, and I discovered what I had been missing. Yes, extended time together can be stressful, but it can also be incredibly rich, sweet, funny and insightful. So I’ve started hosting simple little three-night summer mountain getaways, and I’m so glad I did.

We just returned from a mountain lake that has a rustic family resort vibe. It was a perfect choice for the age our youngest grandchildren are right now. We had a great time relaxing together, doing whatever anyone was in the mood to do, free of any agenda. As well as the fun of our group conversations, I had time alone with each family member — sweet moments I especially cherish.

My morning meditation got short shrift, as our grandchildren visited us when they woke up while their parents slept in, and I was too busy whispering and laughing. But my longtime practice helped me to stay grounded and present to enjoy it all and to hold the experience lightly. It would be so easy to get caught up in grasping and clinging, wanting to hold onto this special time and place forever. But impermanence is our nature. All we can do is savor the current experience and let it go, without regret or anticipation of the next great thing.

I didn’t completely master the advanced art of the zipped lip that all parents of adult children must learn if life is to be enjoyable, but I think I did pretty well, considering. I find the key is when judgy words are about to burst forth to ask myself, ‘What is my intention here?” and also “What is most important in this situation?” As a compulsive tidier and responsible tenant of vacation rentals (Oh, the pride I take in our AirBnB rating!) my first answer to what’s important defaults to making sure everything is just so, but with even a moment’s reflection I see that my relationship with my family is infinitely more important. And after all, it’s only for a few nights.

We are fortunate to not have reason to get into heated arguments, but decades ago I had that experience with other family members. I learned then to go to bed before alcohol consumption fueled wee hour dysfunctional disagreements. And again, to question my intention in needing to be right. Ah, the ‘I don’t know’ mind really comes in handy! Cultivating spaciousness for all voices to be heard without getting into battle. And if we let go of the need to convince someone of our view, we have the opportunity to learn more about what fears motivate their views, and that’s valuable information for us all.

All my past lessons helped me enjoy the gathering, but there’s always more to learn, and here are several I came away with this time:

#1 Explore off the beaten path
On the last day, after packing up, we took a little walk and decided to head away from the lake instead of toward it. (It’s understandable that we would always be drawn to the lake, but curiosity finally took us in another direction.) We discovered that right behind our cabin there was a beautiful wooded walking path to the grocery store, that was not only a short cut but a much safer way to walk with two children than on the street.

It makes me wonder what obvious/autopilot ways I have been taking in my life, ignoring beautiful and possibly even more direct routes.

Using this lesson, on the drive home down the mountain, we stopped in Jamestown, an old gold mining town off the beaten path. A passerby gave us the peace sign, a relic of a bygone era for sure. It’s main street is about two blocks long and it has all the requisite architectural features of the old West circa 1856, with raised wooden sidewalks under overhanging balconies. It had the requisite number of antique shops for any small California town before it becomes too popular for shopkeepers to sell some old bottles for a dollar each for our grandchild’s Harry Potter magic potion collection and then carefully wrap them in a gift bag.

We also chose a more scenic if less speedy way into the Bay Area, and arrived home refreshed. A perfect ending to a lovely getaway.

#2 Vacation food is not offset by exercise
Well, to be honest, I wasn’t doing that much exercise. We walked around quite a bit but also did a lot of lounging on the beach enjoying the sight of our kids and grand-kids playing in the water, and all the various families with children and elders of all ages having a great time together. I have never heard the word ‘grandma’ spoken from so many different young mouths.

I used to see vacation as an opportunity to over-indulge, but since I’ve found a way to eat in a balanced and satisfying way, my treats were tasty but sporadic and my reward was that I felt good. If my scale on returning home begged to differ, that’s its problem!

#3 Having better cell phone coverage is not always a blessing
Some in the family had AT&T and were blissfully free from knowing whether anyone was trying to reach them. We have Verizon, whose infinitely better coverage in remote areas is much appreciated in almost all circumstances. Except this one. Eventually, I had to just turn it off and put it in a drawer. We were surprised to discover that even though we couldn’t text each other our whereabouts or make plans, we kept finding each other quite naturally, just like we all did before cell phones were invented. 😉

#4 Put away the camera most of the time
With my phone in a drawer, I was without a camera. But I have found that ‘capturing’ the moment as a future memory is sometimes really losing the moment because I’m focused on framing and adjusting and not paying attention with all my senses. A camera cannot capture the experience anyway — the feel and smell of mountain air, the textures of sand, water and sun-warmed skin — and while a video camera gets the sounds as well, it imposes itself into the situation, altering behavior. Our grandchildren hate having their photos taken anyway.

#5 Always bring seat cushions
We just happened to toss in some outdoor seat cushions as we were packing for the trip, and boy did they come in handy! The cabin kitchen table had a hard bench banquette that was much improved by the cushions, and they were easy to transfer out to the picnic table on the deck where fast and furious games of Yahtzee taught the grandchildren a lot of math skills. Our kids took the cushions to outdoor movie night and said they wouldn’t have survived without them.

So let’s consider this: Where in life might we add a little extra cush? It doesn’t have to be a physical cushion. Our language, for example, has cushions that make conversations more comfortable like  ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘maybe you’re right.’ Hugs, pats, holding hands — small gestures convey a lot of love and soften the sometimes rough edges of life’s interactions.

#6 Apply practical lessons to inner life
We are all learning things every day. These are usually new facts, practical solutions, etc., but it can be helpful to see how they could apply to other areas of our lives, including our inner lives.

So, what have you learned lately?

Open your channel of creativity

When I began a daily practice of meditation in my early thirties, I was frustrated creatively. I had a novel in my head but I would write the same first twenty pages over and over again. My inner critics were bearing down on me with such vigilance that it felt impossible to get a word in edgewise.

After a couple of weeks of incorporating meditation into my life, I woke up one morning with a vivid dream that gave me my novel full blown. All I had to do was sit down and write it. And reader, I did! The inner critics must have been overwhelmed by the flow and were flushed away! Hooray! Six weeks later I had over three hundred pages of my first draft. For two hours every morning in my bedroom while my children were in nursery school I typed out two more drafts on my IBM Selectric that had replaced my dear old Underwood, and within nine months I had a novel. (That remains in ‘the drawer’ to this very day but that’s another story!)

I felt like my meditation practice cleared a wide column in the center of my being, allowing creative expression to rise up without blockage.

Why does meditation open the creative channel?
I can only speak to my own experience in writing and painting. But it makes sense when you think about how through the regular practice of meditation we begin to notice the harsh inner critics that rattle around in our thoughts constantly spouting cruel opinions about us. How likely are we to subject ourselves to such bad feelings by doing something creative? Why not avoid the whole thing? And yet there is this flicker of an eternal flame inside each of us that is ready to radiate, if only it were given even a little oxygen, a little kindness, a little encouragement. The creative impulse takes many different forms, not just in the arts. It’s where we feel truly alive and engaged in the process of creation, whether it’s an equation, a poem or a mural.

Without meditation to reveal what’s going on, we may assume that we are afraid of what other people might think. But it’s the inner critics that keep us from doing creative things. If we spend time with them in a compassionate way, we may begin to see where they come from. We might recognize what person who had a great deal of influence on us when we were young has been internalized and given power to keep us from living a full and meaningful life.

If you have a meditation practice, in the few minutes after you finish and your mind is clearer and kinder, throw out a question like “Why am I so resistant to ____________ (fill in your creative pursuit)?” (If you don’t have a practice, try it anyway after a quiet time with no distractions.)

Relax, look around, maybe yawn and rest — eyes open or shut, it doesn’t matter. Don’t search for answers. Just be open and easy. By asking the question, you are activating your own inner wisdom which has just been waiting to be asked. So notice answers as they arise. They come in many forms: visual or aural memories, some object you never noticed before, a book jumping off the shelf, the impulse to talk to a certain friend or family member.

I just happened to pose a question years ago around a problem I had, asking “Why am I so screwed up about ______?” I did not expect an answer, I was just in that state of quandary, and it may have been commentary, but I did pose it as a question. Then I just happen to lie there doing nothing, those last few precious moments before I make myself get out of bed, and much to my surprise within five minutes three different images came up for me out of the blue. Images of people and places I’d almost forgotten, words said to me that were cruel by people whose opinions mattered to me. At the time. And those three long-forgotten comments had been shaping my relationship to what I was ‘so screwed up about’! Wow! I had not thought about those people, and certainly not those words, in decades, but deep inside they were as fresh and wounding as if they were still being said.

And they were. Because I had internalized them. Those words were the daggers I used to make myself miserable. Exposed to the light of day by a simple question years later, I could see what had happened and how I had given away my power. And I said to myself “Why would I give those people so much power? They were clueless, troubled and unskillful. They didn’t know what they were doing, and even if they did, it had nothing to do with me.”

A big shift happen in my relationship to what I had been pondering. I managed to defang the viper that had sabotaged my ability to enjoy that part of my life! This is the power of insight meditation. It is not an escape from the daily grind, though it can be very pleasant. It empowers us to see clearly and to have compassion, to come into more skillful relationship with all that arises in our experience, even the ones so deeply hidden we hadn’t even known they were there. And it works especially well in relationship to creativity because, let’s face it, there were so many people when we were young — parents, teachers, classmates, the culture at large — telling us we couldn’t do it, that we weren’t doing it right, or asking who did we think we were to even try?

Suggestions for opening your creative channel

  • If your creative impulses get thwarted by inner scoffing and ridicule, up your meditation game. Meditate every morning to open the wide wondrous channel of your own creative expression.
  • Find your creative sangha. I bet you can find courses at a local community college or adult ed program where you will meet like-minded people with whom you can share the joy of creativity. It can feel silly on your own to buy art supplies and set up an easel in your home, but joining a class is empowering, and finding the friendship and encouragement of others who are also trying something new is very comforting. (I have a painting group I continue to meet with even though I haven’t painted in fifteen years. We meet every few months, share our creative efforts (I share my poetry) and enjoy each other’s company. For writing poetry, I belong to an ongoing poetry group where we are challenged but also feel safe in writing and sharing.)
  • Just before beginning writing or painting or whatever creative project you are working on, give yourself a moment of meditation focus, grounding, centering, letting go of the hyper-critical self-doubt and scolding that hampers the free flow of your imagination.
  • When you are not actively creating, stay alert to thought-threads and wisps of dreams that arise that might want to be expressed. Carry, and keep by your bedside, something to jot notes or sketches.
  • Focus on the process, not the product. Creativity is process. The product is a byproduct of that process and focusing on that byproduct is counterproductive. It is infinitely more joyful to activate a creative field of expansive celebratory exploration, rather than keeping your eye on the supposed prize. There is no prize but this very experience right here and now. Focusing on the end result sabotages the end result because it limits the possibilities, disturbs the flow and sets you up for disappointment when what you had imagined and what you have created don’t match, leaving you unhappy, but also blind to what is actually there.
  • Stay attuned to the creative flow and notice when it’s not ‘sparking joy’. Pause, walk away, refresh, renew, and then revisit when you feel ready.
  • Remember that you are in collaboration with some synergistic serendipitous field of energy. Sounds woo woo until you’re in it, and synchronicity provides exactly what you need when you need it. That’s being in the flow, whether you’re working on a creative project or just living.
  • The project is done when it satisfies some sense of wholeness, some intrinsic ‘yes!’ Not because you think it’s what the market wants or your teacher or friends like it, but because it satisfies something in you.

In my experience there are four clearly delineated stages of creativity that suffer when they overlap. I will use writing as my creative example, but it could just as well be used in other kinds of creative endeavors.

THE FOUR STAGES OF CREATIVITY

  • Stage 1: Open
    You have a thought, a dream, a phrase, an impulse — the stirrings of creativity arising. You might jot down a little something or keep toying with the words in your head, or it may arrive full blown and you can write it out. But if you sit down to write before the stirrings have inspired something, it may take a while to get to the heart of the matter, or you might never get there because the writing process without the stirrings can be laden with complicated self-talk.
  • Stage 2: Write
    When you are ready simply pour the words onto the page. Don’t hold back, don’t overthink, don’t edit. Just breathe life into the experience with the senses and specifics. If something needs researching, just make a note in the margin “RESEARCH:______________” Don’t look anything up right now or your attention will be stolen by the internet gremlins.
  • Stage 3: Edit
    Editing use a very different set of tools than writing. Trying to use them both at the same time stops the flow and gums up the works. Give your piece a little cooling off period before revisiting with an eye to where it comes alive, what contributes and what dulls it down. Then edit with fresh eyes. You might hang the piece somewhere you will see it often, and it will stay alive and reveal what may need to happen.
  • Stage 4: Share 
    Showing your work to others is a completely separate stage. Thinking about sharing it during the other stages will thwart the process. Sharing the work out loud or in print with others is both illuminating for the writer and the listener/reader. But the writer is not obligated to share, and except for reading well and providing a satisfying print environment for the piece, the writer’s work is done. The reader’s creative engagement and what they do with it is their own experience.

So there are a few ideas to use to stir up your inner creative impulse. Enjoy! But remember it all starts with a daily practice of meditation so the channel of creativity can open fully.