Category Archives: meditation

Imagine

t-b-med(1).jpgImagine those twelve Thai boys meditating in a cave not knowing when or if they would be rescued. Now imagine what greater anguish that hungry darkness might have churned up in them without the anchor of the meditation practice taught by their coach, once a Buddhist monk. Om mani padme hum. Over and over. The distress of waiting and wondering at times no doubt gave way to simply being alive together in the dark here and now, radiating light, cradled in the warm welcoming sense of oneness with all being.

Now imagine the immigrant children in the US, ripped out of their parents arms at the border and later vanished into vans bound for distant undisclosed locations. Then imagine if in this horrendous and totally unacceptable situation, these children had at least a gentle meditative practice to hold onto: A way perhaps of feeling held by their understanding of God, by Jesus, by the Virgin, a way of entering the oneness of being, where distance does not exist and separation is not possible. Perhaps some have found a way to provide that for themselves, but most are likely in heightened states of fear, anguish, worry and distress that will impact them for the rest of their lives, and ripple out in all manner of ways to all life.

What of those whose job it is to guard them? I imagine many must feel the inherent cruelty of this dreadful task that was never what they signed up for.

And what of he who assigned them to do it? Can anyone touch his heart and awaken compassion? Can anyone find his heart? It seems buried so deep in a dark cave where likely no one held him and assured him he was okay, where no one led him in the delight of discovering the intrinsic oneness of all being. And so he is caught up in his craving for everyone to see him as the wondrous one, the miracle maker, not knowing that no amount of praise or adoration will fill his achingly empty heart.

Now imagine that Thai monk-turned-coach being invited to the White House — or, hey, why not the Dalai Lama? Someone please! — to share the open secret of joy with the man who has so little, so these children can be quickly — already too late for ‘quickly’ but still — reunited with their families, and all people can be reminded of their intrinsic place in the oneness of being.

I know, I know, I have quite an imagination.

But I’m not the only one.

 

Overview :: Seven Factors of Awakening

7-factors-sunrise.jpgLike many Western insight meditation teachers, I share the Buddha’s teachings as I understand them, but don’t always refer by name to specific ‘chapter and verse’.  My students have no interest in becoming Buddhist scholars. This is an important role for someone to fill, assuring safe passage of the Buddha’s words through generations. But my role as a teacher is to help my students to develop a practice that cultivates the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, together known as the Three Refuges. They are: the inner wisdom we each have access to if we quiet down and listen in, the Buddha’s teachings to offer guidance in skillfully using our insights, and the community of practitioners to support each other in this shared endeavor.

In my dharma talks, I always know where I am in the panoply of the Buddha’s teachings, but few of my students and readers know or care. They are focused on developing a practice and understanding to understand and relieve suffering in their lives and the lives of all beings. But just in case you care, we have been spending time in ‘Investigation’, the second of the Seven Factors of Awakening. We have also been cultivating ‘Mindfulness’, the first of the seven factors. In the coming weeks, I plan to share the other five. For now, here’s an overview of all seven:

Mindfulness
In our practice of meditation we cultivate mindfulness, the ability to be present in this moment, whatever is going on in our lives.

Investigation
When we practice mindfulness, investigation naturally arises. We see when something we are doing, saying or thinking is unskillful, causing harm to ourselves and others. We can use the questions we’ve been discussing over the past months, like ‘What is my intention here?’ and ‘What am I afraid of?’ to explore what’s really going on in the complex patterns of our thoughts and emotions.

Our investigation relies on mindfulness to keep us clear and able to question. As we explore the other factors, we will see how each one relies on and adds to the others.

Energy – Effort
Balanced wholesome effort — enlivened but not restless, calm but not slothful — allows us to live our lives engaged but not overwrought.

We use mindfulness and investigation to help us develop stable skillful energy. 

Happiness
This kind of happiness does not depend on getting what we want. This is the joy that arises from being fully present in this life just as it is, with Mindfulness and wise Effort, able through skillful investigation to see how the causes of unhappiness are not in the conditions of our lives, but in how we relate to them.

Tranquility
Through the clarity that arises from Mindfulness, Investigation, wise Effort, and authentic Happiness, we find a sense of inner calm that enables us to weather life’s vicissitudes. This is not to become unfeeling automatons, but to give context to the news in the world and our own lives.

Concentration
This kind of concentration is not gritted-teeth determination, but stems from the wise intention to notice what is arising in this moment in the field of physical sensation. We will do some practices and look at the five hindrances to Concentration. 

Equanimity
There is a clarity and compassion in Equanimity that enables us to hold all that arises in our experience in a spacious and compassionate way. We are not thrown out of balance by the causes and conditions of life. Though mindfulness and investigation we have insight into the ongoing impermanent nature of all things, and we are able to feel intrinsically a part of this flow of life, but don’t drown in it.

 

As we explore these Seven Factors of Awakening we will see how in our practice and in our dharma discussions, we are skillfully cultivating the qualities needed to awaken from the divisive delusions in which we all get entangled. I will also supply examples and resources for deeper understanding and guidance.

I know sometimes the Buddha’s many lists seem overwhelming, but each one has great value. Try not to think of all those lists. You don’t have to memorize them, and there is no test! Instead let yourself focus on just one aspect of the list at a time, and see how it arises in your own life. Each aspect of every one of the Buddha’s lists is a door through which all the wisdom of the dharma is revealed.

Solstice — a reminder that we are all earthlings here

solstice-equinox.jpgHappy Solstice! In the northern hemisphere we’re enjoying the longest day of the year and the beginning of summer. In the southern hemisphere today is the shortest day and the beginning of winter. Either way, it’s a time to recognize that we are all of this planet as it rotates around the sun. We are all earthlings here.

It’s an opportunity to remember that all the perceived differences between us are just that: perceptions, opinions, fear-based judgments and excuses. Whatever is going on in our own lives, we share a common concern about all life. At any given moment there are beings experiencing pain and suffering. This is difficult to think about, so we may block it out for fear of falling into despair.

But despair or no, we are all in this together, and if there is something we can do to alleviate suffering, and we know it, then we will not rest easy until we have done it. We may think it is too little and won’t matter, but each of us doing something, even some little thing, shifts the energy, inspires others to do something too, and helps us to feel less powerless.

At this particular moment there is suffering going on that we who are US citizens are not powerless to help: the separation of parents and children as a punishment of the parents who are escaping from situations more punishing than most of us can imagine. This is so clearly not acceptable that voices from all sides of this very politically divided nation have spoken up and forced the President to rescind his policy. Going forth families will be kept together indefinitely in detention centers awaiting trial for crossing the border illegally and for legally seeking asylum, without distinction. As former first lady Laura Bush and many others have pointed out, this is like the internment camps for Americans of Japanese ancestry, a shameful part of history that most Americans assumed could never be repeated. Yet here we are. And so far no plan exists to reunite the over two thousand children that have been separated from their parents, and there is to date no plan in place to do so.

As an insight meditation practitioner and teacher, I spend a lot of time noticing how traumatic experience, especially in childhood, becomes entangled in tight knots of fear and results in a lifetime of suffering that spreads far and wide. No individual suffers alone.

As meditators, we are engaged in the often slow process of gently untangling those knots, and we know how challenging it can be. Most people don’t bother taking the time and effort to untangle them. It seems so much easier to accept the knots as our identity.

So here we have small children suffering the highest anxiety trauma — long-term separation from parents without knowing when or if they will see them again; and children incarcerated, albeit with their parents, for indefinite periods of time. What will this trauma do to their lives and the lives of all around them as the years unfold? This is cruelty not just to the specific individuals involved but to all humanity as these actions spawn suffering that will play out over lifetimes and generations.

Those American citizens who have no problem with separating parents and children are so steeped in fear and frustration that they refuse to acknowledge shared humanity. They see themselves as separate. They are caught up in defending that isolation, and they see keeping people from other countries incarcerated as sensible. To acknowledge that we are all earthlings experiencing this life together would be emotionally untenable.

Their fear emanates out and is contagious. We all have easily-activated seeds of fear within us. And when they sprout and grow they entangle us in a blind reactive fury. We may feel powerless and succumb to anger, violence, depression and despair.

To grow fear, we need to feed it. If we are paying attention, we can see when we are fueling our fear. We can see when our words and actions are more likely to incite hatred and retaliation than an open exchange of ideas; and when we turn away from what’s going on, feeling helpless.

But we have a choice! Instead of feeding the fear, we can feed our sense of connection with all life. We can cultivate clarity of mind and compassionate hearts. We can recognize that we have a seat at the table of life — and we can do whatever is ours to do to help.

In this case, that help may take one or more of many forms: speaking up, writing letters, making phone calls, standing together in community, and donating to organizations working to help. Do not despair! If you sense your connection with all life, then celebrate that connection by lending a hand.

May the shared experience of our planet’s cyclic rotation remind us all of our intrinsic oneness of being. Happy Solstice!

You already have a seat at the table!

seat-at-the-table-of-life.jpgYour seat at the table of life is reserved and everyone sees you sitting there. Do you?

You were born into this complex web of life and you are an intrinsic part of it. Whether you were adored, ignored or abused, you exist. Your body exists in physical space and you are an energetic presence that has palpable impact on all around you.

Does that feel true to you? Perhaps it does and you wonder why it even needs to be said. But for many of us, especially women, there is a sense of waiting to be invited to have a seat at the table. This causes all kinds of misunderstandings. If you feel you do not have a seat at the table, then you speak and act from that belief, causing confusion and suffering all around. Imagine it: Everyone else sees you at the table, but all your thoughts, words and actions stem from the desire to be at the table. Since you are already there, your words and actions seem out of sync, oversensitive, obsequious, or as bad table manners because of the rude way you demand your right to be there.

What? Wait a minute! How can this be true? Good question. We’ve been exploring in the past few posts what we accept as true and this is as good a place as any to question our own assumptions, as well as any new concepts presented.

I have been exploring it in my own experience. I spent portions of my life feeling completely invisible. In fact there have been days when even my car seems to disappear and people drive as if I’m not there. They are startled when they almost crash into me, as if I appeared out of nowhere. That’s pretty invisible. I’m sure some of you reading this can relate to feeling invisible. Others might feel quite the reverse, as if you are too on view, stand out like a sore thumb, feel seen as an object rather than a person, feel misplaced or awkward. Either way we don’t feel a natural intrinsic part of the whole web of life, but overlooked and left out.

I assumed that this not having a seat at the table was a challenge for my generation of women and those before mine. But sadly my younger students are still struggling with it. They are powerful but don’t see their power. They are at the table but are either still waiting to be invited to have a seat, or they have stormed the table and demanded to be seated. But everyone sees them as already there, part of the ongoing conversation of life, so why are they silently beseeching or so strident about their right to be there that everyone else feels threatened or at least uncomfortable?

A woman with impressive credentials and a show-stopping resume may still be waiting to be invited. She feels she has earned her seat but is waiting for someone to pull it out for her, or at least nod at an empty space and encourage her to sit. But if people already see her as sitting at the table, why would they invite her to sit? In her mind she’s standing around waiting, and in their minds she’s just a lackluster or prickly participant in the table conversation of life.

Decades ago when I was entering the corporate world, I read a book titled Games Mother Never Taught You. One sentence grabbed me and turned me around. It said something like “In business, women are playing gin rummy while men are playing poker.” A woman works hard to build up a ‘good hand’ — the right degrees, the right work experience, etc.– and expects that hand to win her the game, fair and square. But a man is willing to go for things he might not even be fully qualified to do, thinking, (as one of my students husband says) ‘How hard can it be?’ With sufficient bluff and swagger, he expects to win. (Whether he can do the job when he gets there is a whole other issue, but he’s up for the challenge.) This is a huge difference in mindset, isn’t it? Inspired by that book, I asked for a raise and got it. I exuded a book-inspired self-confidence that was valued for the position I held. I had no self-confidence, but hey, this was poker! The old ‘fake it til you make it’ advice. And it worked.

But this is a blog about meditation and insight, not a guide to corporate gamesmanship. So let’s see how this translates into the rest of life and why it matters.

If we all have seats at the table of life, we are all powerful. It’s not something we have to acquire. We are empowered as cohabitants of this life, interconnected, collaborating together to bring forth our deepest, hopefully wisest, shared intentions. Our unwise intentions come from fear — the fear of not being seen, of not having a seat at the table. If we discount our power we may do unskillful things and think they have no consequences. Whose feelings could possibly get hurt by a nobody like me? What difference do my actions make? Or, conversely, deciding to do unskillful things to get the attention we crave.

If we are not aware of our power we may be causing harm all around and not even know it. Can you see in your life where this plays out? Do you feel you have a seat at the table? If not, notice how your thoughts, words and actions seem to activate confusion and even negativity in others around you.

With the practice of meditation and opening to the infinite lovingkindness of mettaMay I be well. May I be at ease. May I be peaceful. May I be happy. — we can come to a clearer perspective of our natural place in the scheme of life. When we send metta out to all beings, and remember that throughout the world there are others sending metta out to all beings, we can come to recognize that hey, I am a being! I am one of those ‘all beings’. It’s not just that I have a right to be here. It’s that I am here. I have a seat at the table. I have power because I exist as an intrinsic part of the web of life. Everything I do affects that web and all life. So let me take responsibility for my power and use it wisely.

Try a little metta practice now:

After teaching this dharma talk on Thursday, I went late to the week-long intensive poetry class I’ve been taking, and guess what? There was no seat for me at the encircled tables, and no one stopped in the middle of class to invite me in. What an opportunity to see my thoughts that arose around that sense of feeling invisible! But then I realized, hey, I am a part of the class, so I pulled up a chair and people on either side smiled and made room for me.

“Be a lamp unto yourself.” – Buddha

morrocanlamp.jpgIn our exploration of the nature of truth, how we go about investigating is as important as what we discover. If we are rushing, we will miss it. If we are worried, we will find only fearful answers. If we are narrow-focused, it may fall outside of our vision. With our ‘eye on the prize’, we won’t see the gift ever available in this moment.

When I lose something, I leave no stone unturned in looking for it. I think of every place I’ve been since last I saw it.  I look in obvious and unlikely places, as well as places I or someone else has already checked. This system generally works well.

Looking for the truth has a different quality because truth is not an object that I misplaced. Instead of leaving no stone unturned, I relax, come fully into the moment, and gain a more fluid free-ranging clarity. I notice the nature of mind — all those filters of preferences, judgments, hopes, dreams and fears that habitually flavor my perception of what I experience in the world. I feel in touch with the nature of what arises and falls away in the world, revealing inherent truths that enable me to feel gratitude for life even at its most difficult and painful moments.

So yes, it’s a very different kind of search, one that requires different kinds of tools: Tools such as patience, attention and compassion. I don’t know about you, but these are not tools I had ready at my disposal. Just wanting these qualities, telling ourselves we should have them, can make us less patient with ourselves, less attentive to all that’s going on and less compassionate. So how do we obtain these qualities? They can’t be bought in any store or installed like an app. They need to be cultivated to grow within us. But how?

No big surprise here: Patience is cultivated through the regular practice of meditation. The mind has the chance to discover a peaceful way of being, beyond the rush-rush clock time of the world so many of us habitually attune to in our daily lives, even when there’s no reason for it. In meditation we may slip into or get a glimpse of timelessness, living completely in the moment which extends infinitely in all directions beyond our conception of the linear passage of time. After meditation, as we return to our daily routine, just that brief glimpse can infuse us with patience, just as a bit of tea will change the flavor of a whole cup of hot water.

Attention is cultivated through our practice of focus in meditation as we attend the breath or other physical sensations. The patience we have cultivated helps us to return again and again to our point of focus without giving up in despair of ever being able to meditate. Establishing a regular wholesome habit of sitting undistracted for any set period of time is a gift to ourselves and all whom we encounter in our lives.

With the regular practice of meditation, we discover that as we go about our day we have more patience and attention to notice the beauty of life, the fleeting specialness of even the most ordinary moment. Being able to pay attention to this precious moment also keeps us safer, as we are able to be alert and responsive to whatever situation arises as we go about our daily activities.

Compassion arises out of meditation, out of being patient and present in the world, out of seeing more clearly the nature of being — both the joy and the suffering that is present in every life.

What does this have to do with truth? With patience, attention and compassion, we are in a better position to discern truth when it arises. We are prone to have insights about the nature of mind and the nature of life. We can see the beauty of impermanence, even as it takes away something or someone we love. We can see the nature of suffering, how our cravings, aversions and delusions make us miserable. And we see the infinite interconnection of all life, how we are all of the same stuff, and in that understanding we find a way to feel welcome and safe in the world just as we are.

We become like lamps, shedding light in the darkness so we can see for ourselves what is true.

We like our facts rock solid, but how solid is rock?

Last week we looked at the wisdom of taking what we hear or hold dear with a grain of salt and looking for the kernel of truth in ideas we abhor. One of the phrases in the Buddha’s Karaniya Metta Sutta encourages us, among other things, not to hold to fixed views.

Are there no absolute truths then? There may be, I don’t know! But what I’m learning in my own experience is how joyful it is to be less attached to knowing everything. It doesn’t make me any less curious about the world, but the nature of my curiosity has shifted away from the desire to acquire knowledge to store up as a possession that I must then tend and defend as part of who I believe myself to be. Instead I have been practicing cultivating a spacious compassionate field of awareness, and to receive whatever information flows through it with friendliness — neither accepting it nor rejecting it. I can look at it with interest, follow the threads of it, and see how with other information of all kinds it weaves complex patterns that are more visible when they are held in spacious awareness so I can look at all sides. It’s all life revealing itself in wondrous ways! And there’s often a dharma lesson in there somewhere.

Without cultivating spaciousness I can’t look at all sides of anything because I am holding on so tightly that it becomes an entangled knot. I remember many years ago I was on a beach after a storm and there was a huge clump of tangled kelp, and I thought ‘that’s how the mind is without meditation: unapproachable, tight, dark, many aspects completely hidden.’ I could see how daunting it must be to consider meditating. But really, how wonderful to have the capacity within ourselves to soften and lighten the tight knotted loads we are carrying!

rock-solid.jpgThis holding lightly may feel a bit unnerving at first. We like our facts rock solid. So okay, let’s look at rocks for a moment. I met a rock up close and personal some years back: I fell on a granite outcropping while hiking in the Sierra. My temporarily bruised and bloodied face retains the memory of that surface. Rock is hard. That’s the truth from my own embodied experience. But is it the whole truth? Is it solid in the way we want our truths to be?

Just now I challenged myself to not take my own word for it. With a little research, I found lots of interesting facts about granite, including how on the accepted hardness scale, it’s harder than steel but I’m lucky I didn’t fall on an outcropping of diamond! Now that’s hard.

How hard is it? When I looked for the elements found in rock, oxygen was first on the list at 46%. How ‘rock solid’ is that? I also found a reminder that all matter, no matter how hard, is made up of atoms and molecules. Only one percent of the volume of an atom is mass, the rest is empty space. Then why does matter seem so solid? Apparently, the negatively charged electron clouds of the atoms repel each other if they get too close together, resulting in our perception of solidity.

Of course, given my preference to cultivate spaciousness, I attached quickly to that fact as confirmation of the rightness of what I am sharing. 😉 But it does seem that ‘rock solid’ isn’t quite so solid after all.

Speaking of hard surfaces, when we first try skating most of us cling to the side of the rink, afraid of falling. But it’s only when we let go and practice that we learn the joys of the experience. The whole point of skating is to stop clinging to the edge and engage in the activity itself. Could that also be the point of this earthly life? Who knows? But it can become a habit to keep clinging to the side, afraid to venture forth, telling ourselves all kinds of reasons why we’re not ready or the world’s not ready for us. If we can see those things we are telling ourselves with more compassion and clarity, we might recognize that while there may be some truth there, it is not the whole truth.

Can we stop clinging to the barrier we think is supporting us and float more freely and joyfully? Can we dance with all the patterns that are in a continuous ever-changing flow?

Maybe this is not a moment in your life when you want to be challenged. Maybe you want to be comforted. Me too! For me, what I am sharing is comforting, even though it may seem to be shaking the foundations of our long-held beliefs. Consider the possibility that if we are in such desperate need of comforting, the foundations we have been relying on may not be as supportive and comforting as we thought.

This is not to label anything we believe ‘false’ — just perhaps incomplete and in need of being held more spaciously so that we can see all of it. Our practice is to explore how we are in relationship to everything that arises in our experience — in fear or in friendliness? In that spirit, our inquiry may reveal some inconsistencies that we can consider, but it will probably also reveal some beauty that we hadn’t seen before. Things that we may have been doing by rote or tradition may suddenly take on a new vibrancy.

There may also be a sense of relief, because if there are long-ignored inconsistencies, they were present in our minds, and it took a lot of energy to suppress them. What if we could be free of the nagging feeling of being at odds with something we hold dear? What if we could relax and use that energy more productively by actually looking at what we believe in a more compassionate and spacious way? Can we live in relationship to ourselves and others with moment to moment awareness and deepening compassion?

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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