Category Archives: meditation

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.

The Seed Catalog

As we continue our exploration of the valuable question ‘What am I cultivating here?’, wouldn’t it be nice to have a seed catalog for our inner garden? We could peruse through all the pretty plants and pick one we’d like to add. Well, hooray, there actually is one! It’s called the Ten Paramis (aka Paramitas) that we studied for a good part of 2016.

The Paramitas are qualities that are intrinsic to our nature, but not necessarily growing strong right now. In the following exercise, we can notice what we have nurtured and perhaps what is in need of more conscious cultivation. Ready to give it a go? Great!

Get something to make notes on, and take at least a few minutes to quiet down and center in. This would be a good exercise to do after meditation, but even a few minutes of quiet will help make it more meaningful.

Now, one by one, take your time looking over the list below. With each quality, pause. Sense in and see how it feels in your body. Does it bring pleasure? Then you probably have already cultivated this quality. Does it bring tension or anxiety? Make note of that. Discomfort may indicate a need for more attention in this area.
If you are not sure what the quality is, just put a question mark for now. Each paramita has a ‘READ MORE’ link to a fuller exploration.

In class, when we did this exercise on handout sheets, there was a place beside each quality to mark whether it needs cultivating or whether it is ‘sufficient for now’. One student appreciated the ‘for now’ because as long as we are alive we are cultivating something. Our garden is always in process.

Students developed their own little ‘rating systems’ with, for example, one, two or three stars, to rank qualities in some need or dire need of cultivating. Since we would like to cultivate one at a time, it’s helpful to rate them so that at the end of the exploration, you can see which one quality stood out.

EXERCISE: Paramitas — Seeds to cultivate in your inner garden

This word may bring up examples of ways in which you have been generous with your time, your money or other resources. If so, you probably can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If it brings up feelings of tension, anxiety or shame for a pattern of withholding even when you want to be generous, give it a ‘star’ as something that may need more attention and cultivation. Recognizing our innate generosity, we can compassionately explore any fears that arise from past experiences of scarcity, of being taken advantage of, or of giving to exhaustion. [READ MORE.]

Ethical Conduct
This quality may bring up examples of times you have been fair, considerate and how in general you operate from your inner moral compass. If so, you can probably mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If it brings up feelings of anger, justification, annoyance or shame reflecting on examples of unethical behavior; or if your ethical behavior relies heavily on words like ‘should’ or fear tactics to keep you in tow, mark this one with a star.
It is only when we contract in fear, believing ourselves to be isolated and separate, that we think up and justify to ourselves unethical solutions to the challenges we face. It is skillful to see how these unethical solutions ricochet in our lives, causing pain and confusion. This reminds us to choose the simpler, clearer and more compassionate path of ethical conduct. [READ MORE]

Letting Go
This quality may bring up memories of relative ease with releasing objects, transitioning out of even the most pleasant experiences, and holding all relationships in an ‘open embrace’, loving without smothering. If so, you can probably mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If, on the other hand, you feel threatened by the idea of letting go, and recognize that you hold onto objects, roles, habits and relationships in a very tight way, then you will want to mark this with a star.
We are naturally fluid in our nature. But we can get rigid and clingy when we vest our identity in our attachment to people, roles, habits and objects. Our clinging makes us rigid and even more fearful. Then we believe that this fearfulness is who we are and the only way to remedy it is to cling harder, making ourselves and others miserable. But it is not our true nature to cling. It is our true nature to dance the fluid dance of life, a celebration of coming together and falling away, all of a piece. [READ MORE]

(Wisdom in this context is the deep understanding of the nature of impermanence, the sense of there being no separate self, and how we cause ourselves and others suffering through grasping, clinging and pushing away. If you have been meditating awhile, you may have had insights that can fall in one or more of these three categories of ‘Wise View’.)
If you feel you are firmly open and receptive to life’s ‘teachable moments’ that spark insights, if you see how they benefit your sense of well being, and if you are comfortable with not knowing all the answers but are happy to live with the questions themselves, then you can mark this one as ‘sufficient for now’. This is not to claim to be wise. It only means that you are growing it in your inner garden. It is taking root.
If this all sounds like gobbledygook to you, you might want to mark it as something to cultivate! [READ MORE]

Energy | Strength
This quality may bring to mind ways in which you readily meet the challenges of life, bringing a balanced physical and mental strength to handle whatever arises. If so, you can mark it ‘sufficient for now’.
If these words feel like challenges in themselves, if you find yourself often times lethargic and overwhelmed, then this might be a quality that needs cultivating. Conversely, if you often feel restless, driven, supercharged, and need to be always on the go, cultivating more balanced energy might be for you.
We come into the world with a natural understanding of the need to be active, the need to rest, the need to nourish. This understanding cultivates our innate balanced energy and strength. When we lose that understanding, striving or shirking, then we forget that we are strong and have the energy to do whatever we need to do in life, if it is wise, ethical, loving, generous. [READ MORE]

This quality may bring up examples of how you can easily wait without getting flustered or upset. If so, mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If the very word ‘patience’ has you in an inner tantrum, and you can think of many ways in which you are thwarted in life by slow drivers, busy doctors, long lines at the grocery store, being put on hold on the phone, planes not taking off, people not understanding what you’re talking about the first time you say it, people not getting to the point when they’re talking, etc., well, this is the quality for you!!!!!
We get impatient when we are trying to escape from our current experience. We want to escape when we are not open to seeing life as it is. We become blind to beauty of every moment unfolding. We become more patient through being fully present, aware of all life’s gifts, and through compassion. [READ MORE]

This quality may seem to be about not lying to people, but it is also about noticing and questioning the long-accepted stories we tell ourselves. We explored together the question ‘Is this true?’ and discovered that we in fact often do inadvertently lie to ourselves by accepting without question our long-held opinions, etc. None of us are completely truthful in this way, but as long as we are aware and ready to question ‘Is this true?’ we can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If, on the other hand, you find it difficult to be truthful with others or you are unwilling to question the truth of what you tell yourself, you might want to give this one a star.  [READ MORE]

If you are able to follow through on the intention(s) you set, then you have a strong sense of resolve. You can mark this ‘sufficient for now’.
If you find it very difficult to follow through on intentions, and you have checked in to make sure the intentions are wise, then Resolve might be a quality you want to cultivate more of.
When we find our true intention, we are innately able to stay true to it. We recognize and respect any dissenting voices within our patterns of thoughts and emotions, and find means to skillfully resolve the dissension within us so that our resolution rings true. [READ MORE]

If you practice loving-kindness to yourself, others and ultimately all beings, and truly feel the welling up within you of that infinite quality so that you radiate it, then you can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’– even though of course you continue to practice it.
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of giving yourself loving-kindness, or sending loving-kindness to even the most difficult people; or you are caught up in feeling there’s only so much loving-kindness to go around and you’re going to reserve it for those who are near and dear to you, then mark this as something you’ll want to cultivate in your inner garden.
If we recognize the infinite nature of loving-kindness, we attune to it and allow it to flow through us. It is our true nature when we are not caught up in believing ourselves to be separate isolated objects in a finite situation.  [READ MORE]

If you can think of all kinds of ways that you are balanced and resilient in life, how causes and conditions rarely throw you, or at least not for long; and if you can be present in the moment for each experience that arises, then you can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If you struggle and feel overwhelmed by what feel like ever-changing demands of modern life, and many times you’d like to just be on a beach somewhere, then this might be a quality for you to cultivate.
Our true nature is spacious and able to hold all of life in an open embrace. If we feel out of balance, coming home to our true nature allows us to rediscover that sense of being able to be in wholesome relationship with all that arises in our awareness. [READ MORE]

I hope you were able to really take time to look at each of these and sense in to sensations, thoughts and emotions that came up around each. If not, if you just perused them, make a point of trying this exercise at another time.

If you did the exercise, take a look at your notations and see what you’ve come up with. Notice those you’ve marked in need of cultivation and see if you can sense which one is in most need of attention right now. You might ‘rate’ them as to which ones activated the most difficult sensations, thoughts and emotions. Which one is causing you the most suffering right now?

All these qualities are interrelated. You might find you have marked two or three. As you look at them you may see a relationship between them. You might also recognize that you mistook one for another. For example, Resolve and Energy could easily cause some confusion. Look more closely. Is it really that you lack energy to do something? Or is it a lack of true resolve? That’s an interesting exploration in itself that you can pay attention to next time you’re feeling like a couch potato.

Exploring any one of these Paramitas could be a life’s practice. They work together to bring about awakening to our true Buddha nature.

Once identified, how do you go about cultivating your chosen quality?

One way to incorporate a quality into your life is to use it in your metta (infinite loving-kindness) practice. For example, you might say silently to yourself, ‘May I be well. May I be at ease. May I cultivate my natural generosity. May I be happy.’ See how I slipped the quality of Generosity in there? You can do metta practice at any time during the day, and at the beginning or end of your meditation practice. Or do the metta to yourself at the beginning, then metta to all beings at the end.

Another way to work with your chosen quality is whenever you find you are struggling, upset or conflicted. Instead of trying to change anything, see if you can cultivate your chosen quality to help you face the challenge. You might be surprised how well it applies and how it provides a kind and loving solution. If it doesn’t, then perhaps the quality you’ve chosen is not the one you most need to cultivate. Choose another! But I recommend you work with planting one quality at a time.

Abandon all ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’, ye who enter here!
Please do not take this list of qualities, these wonderful seeds to plant in your garden, as a to do list of ‘shoulds’. It would be very easy to give yourself a hard time about not already having grown these qualities. But that would not serve to grow them. It would only send you out of the garden altogether, saying ‘I’m no good at this kind of stuff.’ Instead, when you find yourself being unkind look at which quality would most help you here.

I would very much appreciate your letting me know how this exercise was for you. Feel free to ask questions and share your own findings.

Inquiry Series: Valuable Question #4

21618.jpgThe first three questions in this series — What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and Is this true? — are useful any time we are feeling we are on the verge of being unskillful in any way. Or we can use them if feel we may have been unskillful and are trying to see how that happened and how we might not repeat that unskillfulness.

The next questions in this series are more for insightful overview of our lives as they are now. This is not a historical reflection, but really looking at the lay of the land, this inner and outer landscape we have created, whether we realized we were creating it or not. We can look both with appreciation for the beauty and with a gardener’s eye to what changes we might need to make in order to live with greater ease, harmony and joy.

Consider that in every moment of our lives we are planting seeds and nurturing them, so it pays to be mindful of what exactly it is we are cultivating. So our fourth valuable question is:

What am I cultivating in my life? After meditating or a going for a quiet walk in nature, we can take a few moments for this inner inquiry. We can notice whether we are cultivating ease, compassion, equanimity and joy. Or are we cultivating fear in all its variations and manifestations?

Cultivate is also a very accurate and satisfying word for what we do in meditation. We cultivate spaciousness. We cultivate ease. We cultivate kindness and compassion. We don’t push anything away. We plant the seeds of wise intention and wise effort and wise concentration, and what we reap is wiser mindfulness, wise, view, wise action, wise speech and wise livelihood — all in direct measure to our skillfulness in cultivation.

When we are working in the garden, we discern between plants we have purposely planted and ones that as seedlings may seem pretty or benign but in no time take over or shoot off seeds that root everywhere. So we make (sometimes difficult) choices. And so it is in our lives. But using the first three valuable questions will help us to make more beneficial choices.

You reap what you sow
I like the word ‘cultivate’ because it reminds me to recognize how responsible I am for the way things are in this moment and the way things will be in the future in my life. At the same time, just as a storm will come in and reek havoc in a garden and then there’s a period of recovery, I can recognize that it is not all up to me, that sometimes causes and conditions are such that I need to learn how to live in skillful relationship to great difficulty, great pain, loss and the ongoing unavoidable truth of the nature of impermanence. Can I be resilient? Can I find beauty in the storm? Can I find pleasure in the small sweet moments amidst the storm?

While I have no control over when the sun will shine or the rain will fall, I do have the ability to adjust my plantings accordingly: ferns and azaleas in the shade, roses in the sunny places. I can assess the soil and the average rainfall and choose accordingly. I can recognize that conditions change. A tree dies and is removed and now this shaded area is sunny, so some adjustments need to be made. So too in life when I come up against the loss of some ability to do something I love, can I find some other activity that will be more suited to current conditions? Or will I feel helpless? Will I wish things were the way they used to be, and wallow in the mud of a garden that hasn’t been lovingly tended?

In my life, there may be events and conditions beyond my control, but by being present and noticing, I can make skillful adjustments to accommodate changing conditions so that the seeds of my wise intentions have the best chance to grow.

Does this make sense to you? Are you cultivating the seeds of your wisest intentions? Or are you just letting your inner garden become an impenetrable jungle. Beautiful in its way, but when difficulties arise, as they will in any life, it’s a more than a bit daunting to try to navigate amidst the tight tangle of vines, the poison oak, and the possibility of slipping into a slimy swamp where who knows what is lurking. Oh my!!

What foolhardy soul would go there? So instead of spending time in the garden you get up to all kinds of distracting, dulling and even dangerous activities to avoid the whole mess. Sound familiar?

Another pitfall is to fall in love with the jungle, believe it is who you are, cling to that identity, as painful as it may be.

Another pitfall is to hate the garden unless it’s perfect, willing everything into orderly rows, just so, losing touch with any understanding of the necessary collaboration of the gardener and nature’s own awesomeness. The true green thumbed gardener is attuned to nature. They are nature, too.

That’s why a regular practice of meditation is so immediately useful. It naturally creates spaciousness in the inner garden. Over time we become more skillful at cultivating compassion, balance, ease and joy. We plant a seed in fertile soil enriched by our practice and trust that with the regular watering of our daily practice and our intention to be mindful in our daily life,something will grow. There is no immediate expectation. Seeds take time to sprout. We’re involved in the process, but is not completely a product of our will. We are tapping into the nature of things. It is the nature of things to grow. It is within our nature to be peaceful, to have more clarity in our minds and more compassion in our hearts.

I sometimes use the phrase ‘cultivating spacious ease’ in my meditation practice. I find it helps me to develop wise balanced effort. If I find myself lost in judgmental thought, I might use the phrase ‘cultivating kindness’ or ‘cultivating compassion’. Notice how different these phrases are from ‘I should be kinder’ or ‘I should be more compassionate’ or ‘What a mean rotten person I am.’  The word ‘should’ is a clue that I’m not being skillful, that I’m looking through a faulty lens of fear at myself and the world.

Thinking of it as cultivating these qualities accepts that I am not necessarily being kind or compassionate right now, but I am cultivating those qualities and with steady attention and patience they may grow within me.

As inner gardeners, we can look at all the areas of our lives and ask:

Am I cultivating health?
What am I cultivating here when I mindlessly eat more than the body needs in this moment? When I over-indulge in things that don’t nourish? When I don’t listen to the body’s need to move, relax, sleep or eat?

What am I cultivating when I let a complex pattern of thoughts and emotions around self-image get in the way of attending the body’s wise messages and taking care of its simple needs?

Am I cultivating healthy relationships?
In each family, friend and workplace relationship we can see patterns at play in the way we interact. We can see how we have cultivated warmth, caring and kindness. And perhaps where we have cultivated relationships that are thornier and difficult.

We may feel we are helpless to change a relationship, but it is worth experimenting to see. I know from my own experience and from reports from students that when we let down our defenses and instead send infinite loving-kindness in our thoughts to even the most difficult people in our lives, the energy shifts. This can be done from a distance. Any time that person comes to mind, just think ‘May you be well.’ This can be done not just with people we know personally but, for example, people in power with whom we disagree. This sending of metta doesn’t condone their decisions. We can still write, phone and march to let our positions be clearly understood. But if our words are venomous and our actions are violent, then what are we really cultivating?

While we wish all beings well, some relationships are potentially toxic for us, and it’s important to notice if when hanging out with someone, we revert to unhealthy habits that don’t support us — overindulging in food or drink, smoking or doing drugs, engaging in malicious gossip, spending beyond our means, etc.

There’s no need to blame the friend. He or she is caught up in painful cycles and is deserving of our compassion. But we don’t follow them into those cycles either. If we feel susceptible to temptation, we compassionately pull back from spending time with that person. Instead we send them infinite loving-kindness from a distance. May you be well. May you be happy.

We don’t proselytize or try to fix anyone. We are each on our own journey here. But we can trust that if we live true to our own wise intentions, we may without realizing it, offer inspiration to others. And that is a greater kindness than giving ourselves away and losing ourselves in the process.

Am I cultivating a healthy work life?
The practice of meditation over time puts us in touch with our deepest wisest self. Our fear-based efforts to be seen in a certain light fall away, and we grow into the fullness of simply being. The result is that we are authentic and accessible. Ambition to be seen as ‘a success’, however we define it, falls away. Our work is a contribution to the world, a valued and necessary activity that stems from our abilities and interests.

Often in work situations, we might find we have patterns of over-exertion and exhaustion. Seeing what we are cultivating with unwise effort — the quality of the work product, the effect on our health, the effect on our relationships in and outside the workplace — really helps us to develop more skillful balanced effort.

Am I cultivating a healthy planet?
Acknowledging our power includes taking responsibility for how our actions impact all life. If we belittle ourselves, we feel our actions don’t matter. But they do. If we get caught up in guilt we become paralyzed and unable to make simple choices to leave only footprints, not poison the communal garden of our planet. So now that it is not only possible but easy, and even fun, to live more responsibly for the benefit of all life, why not do it?

These are just a few examples of areas you might explore with this question. See for yourself if asking ‘What am I cultivating here?’ gives you a valuable way of looking at your life. And whenever you can, practice cultivating spacious ease.

Cultivating spacious ease makes room for wonder in our lives: Both the questioning kind of wonder and the awestruck kind of wonder. We make room for our buddha nature, our own access to universal wisdom, to whisper its truth to us in our most quiet, relaxed and attentive moments of meditation.

Inquiry Series: Pause in place and set a kinder pace

Over the past weeks we have been looking at three valuable questions — What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and Is this true? These are particularly helpful when we feel something’s not quite right in our lives. For example, when we:

– have difficulty in a relationship
– get hurt feelings
– feel stuck or frustrated
– can’t appreciate the goodness in life
– get caught up in thoughts of the past or future
– are hard on ourselves and/or our loved ones

Noticing when something’s askew and asking What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and Is this true? allows us to see more clearly what’s going on. We may see where we are misunderstanding the true nature of our experience. This is not a fault-finding expedition, but a compassionate look with some clarifying tools we may never have realized we had readily on hand to help.

Already happy?
It’s good to know about these tools, these valuable questions, even if we are feeling fully present in our experience, not caught up in endless thoughts about the past or future. We can save them for the proverbial rainy day when they will come in handy. Most of us do have at least occasional bouts of troubling emotions and circular thoughts, so these questions can be packed in the emergency kit for just such occasions.

Wise Effort
When we undertake this kind of inquiry, it’s important to do so with wise effort. The answers can’t be mined with a pick ax. Instead they arise in the space we create with our compassionate attention and gentle inquiry. This is only possible when we give ourselves time to quiet down, pause and unplug from our to do list and our devices. A regular meditation practice helps create the spaciousness needed, but the inquiry and the answers come afterwards and at other times during the day if we are open and receptive to them.

This is quite a different experience than the ‘Let’s DO this thing!’ attitude we may take when confronting a big project. There’s no charge of adrenaline and no goal to aim for. There is no urgency in our inner investigation. If you sense an urgency, that’s just a fear-based aspect wanting to get ‘fixed’ and done. But this is not a one-off project. It’s a rich and rewarding habit of a lifetime. Be compassionate toward that urgent aspect, but don’t let it dictate the agenda here.

Clarification on the word ‘story’
Last week in our exploration of the question Is this true? I used the word ‘story’. This usage of that word is easily misunderstood. Calling our long-held patterns of thought ‘stories’ is not to discredit them or throw them out. It is to allow some light in so that we can see more clearly. If we’ve always accepted the story whole-cloth, how interesting to look more closely and see the distinct threads woven together to create the pattern.

When we ask ‘Is this true?’ it is not to get rid of the story. It is to look with compassion and clarity at all the assumptions within the story. Most of our stories have aspects of truth and aspects of misunderstanding or misinformation within them.

The teacher/author Byron Katie has made it her life’s work helping readers and students question Is it true? How do I know it’s true? and Who would I be without my story? That last question helps us to see how tightly we hold onto even the most painful stories. The story might be ‘I’m a total klutz’ or ‘I’m the kind of person who could never do…’ something we very much would like to do. These self-defining belief-stories are hard to challenge. We’ve built a lifetime of ‘proof’ that backs up our story. This kind of inquiry can seem threatening. If I’m not this story I so firmly believe in, then who am I? And yet some deeper wisdom within us encourages us to explore, to question, to open to the possibility that we are quite possibly not a total klutz at all.

This inquiry is a gentle and incremental process, not a tearing up of the book of our lives and writing a whole new version. It’s an invitation to be present with what arises and be willing to look with open eyes and open heart. We hold ourselves in kindness. May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be at peace. May I be happy.

Befriend what arises, and be the light!

If you read the last post, I hope you had a chance to notice when fear showed up within yourself during the week. When we’re really paying attention, it can be surprising how much fear in all its guises is present. We experience it as physical tension (afraid the body will fall apart if we don’t lend extra holding power?) We experience numerous fear-based emotions: anger at another driver for putting us in jeopardy, anxiety over what people might think of us when we speak up, fear of being judged and found wanting, fear of getting ill, fear of dying, or of losing a loved one, etc. etc.

In looking back on a week asking the valuable question ‘What am I afraid of here?’ one student said that the more aware she was of the fear the more she was able to be with it and acknowledge it. Yes! We’re not pushing fear away. If we were afraid of snakes or rats, spending time in a controlled environment with an individual snake or rat would help to soften the fear, wouldn’t it? So much of our fear is rooted in our distrust of the unknown, so getting to know what we fear shifts us into a different frame of mind. We might still be cautious, we might never want to have a pet snake or rat. But something has shifted. That shift dis-empowers the fear, giving a deeper understanding of the nature of things a chance to guide us more skillfully.

While fear can activate us, motivate us to do something, more often it paralyzes us and keeps us from doing things in our lives. Fear has at times paralyzed me from living the full expression of this gift of life, from taking my seat at the table of life, the seat that is reserved for each of us just by being born into this world. Boys are usually raised in such a way that they don’t question that they have a seat at the table, a right to exist, a right to seek their own destiny. But women historically have not. To the degree that is beginning to change, hallelujah!

In class we also talked about the January 20th women’s marches locally, nationally and around the world. My husband and I went to the one last year in San Francisco, but this year we babysat our granddaughters while our son and daughter-in-law went. I shared a live stream of the SF march on Facebook, but mostly enjoyed spending time with the next generation of empowered women.

womensmarchsf-1-18.jpgOne student who attended the San Francisco march said that she had asked herself who she was doing this for? (Another really good question!) Before going to the march, she had felt that since the Bay Area marches rarely got coverage beyond local media, why turn out? But once she was in the march, the most peaceful and joyful she had ever experienced, she understood that ‘we were doing this for ourselves’. Now that’s powerful! When we see the truth in that, we transition from trying to impress the powers that oppress us to being the power, to taking our seat at the table. She sent me a number of wonderful photos she had taken at the march and gave me permission to post any I wanted. I enjoyed the many creative signs that the marchers carried, but I chose to share the one that is most closely aligned with my own message in my life, my teachings and this blog: “Don’t curse the darkness, be the light!’ In fact, amidst the little Buddha statues I’ve been given over the years, there is a small lighthouse to remind me of this meditative poem I wrote that is both calming, centering and empowering. 

Lighthouse: A Meditation

I radiate light
out into the fog

Air circles up and down
my staircase

Waves lap my shore,
storms pass through.

Just by shining
I am of service.

There’s nothing
more I need to do.

I radiate light.

– Stephanie Noble

Inquiry series: Valuable question #2

What am I afraid of?


Fear rear’s its ugly head again, and again. We find ourselves saying and doing things that make matters worse. Rooted in fear, we feel tense, stressed, depressed or frantic. Fear can cause us to become violent, even if the violence is veiled and turned in on ourselves. When we feel out of control, asking ‘What am I afraid of?’ is an effective way to see the fear that has been causing us to make poor choices and miss out on joy.

At first our inner investigation will bring up a litany of stories about all that the future could manifest, given current causes and conditions. None of us knows what the future holds, but we can see from our own experience how reacting fearfully sets up a pattern of fear. In our practice we look at how we are in relationship to all that arises in our experience. Out of fear we are making enemies of everything. We spark fear in others and they then react in ways that are unskillful, causing more fear in us, and more justification for our fear. Fear creates its own proof! But that doesn’t mean it is the truth in the greater scheme of things. It only means we are powerful and need to be mindful of that.

Powerful? Yes! Beyond our wildest imagining.
Often, especially for women, this is difficult to recognize. We have historically been marginalized, patronized and dis-empowered. Those messages still run through us, no matter how liberated we may feel. I am posting this on a day that women are marching together in solidarity, supporting each other and feeling that unity of being. The true value in this is in seeing through the assumptions we all have inherited from an ever-evolving (and sometimes devolving) culture.

But this power is not dependent on external validation. Just by being alive, we are a powerful presence. For example, every being has the capacity to change the energy in an entire room. Don’t believe me? See if you can remember some gathering — family, business, friends — where everything was going swimmingly or everything was boring until someone walked in and the energy was turned upside down. The new addition, probably without even being aware of it, brought in fear-based antagonism or love-based joie de vivre that changed everything. It wasn’t that the person was in a position of hierarchical power necessarily, but they – and we – are all powerful beyond measure. So we need to take responsibility for the power we bring into the world.

If we are living in fear, we discount our power, and our actions or lack of action may be misinterpreted. I was in a situation this week where I was impressed by the skillfulness of a young woman I sat next to for an hour when I took my granddaughter to gymnastics class. The woman had a toddler to keep quietly entertained and contained while her daughter attended the class, and she managed it so beautifully — anyone would love to have a mother like that! — that I wanted to tell her. But I didn’t. I fell back into a pattern of shyness, discounting my own power. I thought that my words would be awkward and unwelcome somehow. Now I regret not saying something. We all appreciate praise, even if we don’t seem to. Why would I withhold a compliment? Out of fear.

Another fear-based pattern is how we can misinterpret the impact we make as something external that is happening to us, rather than something we are bringing into the situation. For example, the person that walks into a room of people, timid and shy, afraid of what people might think of them. They shrink and hide in such a way that people assume they want to be alone, or maybe that they are judging the group unworthy of their time. So they leave the person alone or, depending on their own level of fear, behave in a way that is a little defensive. This is interpreted by the ‘interloper’ as hostile, confirming their original supposition that they are not worthy of acknowledging. What a difference a fearless person makes in such a situation, able to step up to welcome a person, regardless of what they are projecting. But you can’t always count on finding a fearless person. It’s more skillful to simply be one!

This is a mild example. In the extreme, any person living through a filter of fear can activate fear in others, especially those who are hyper-fearful. It would seem to make sense that the two in a certain way call out to each other, a dangerous kinship of a shared scary world view. The fearful pair up to play out a painful pattern, perpetrator and victim, again and again. This is not to blame the victim for what happens to them, but to acknowledge that fear attracts fear and to encourage us to notice fear, question whether it is performing a useful function or actually causing harm.

Looking at these patterns, we might wonder how do we survive as a species with so much fear-based miscommunication? With the power of love. This is not the acquisitive desire kind of love, but the expansive love for all beings that rises out of gratitude for simply being alive in this moment, and the pleasure of sharing the joy with others who are alive with the sensate wonder of this amazing gift, just as it is.

The fear of taking a chance on ourselves
Where does fear grab you?

  • By the throat? Keeping you from speaking up?
  • By the metaphorical cojones? Keeping you from taking a chance on doing something you long to do — writing, painting, starting a business, etc.?
  • By the heart? Keeping you from expressing your feelings, risking rejection?

These fears feel valid. They each have risks. But how much risk-aversion is smart, and how much is simply crushing you? That’s an important exploration for each of us to take if this resonates.

Through the practice of being fully present to notice thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away in our experience, we can see fear for what it is. That awareness softens the tight grip that fear has held us in for so long. What a relief!

Three Poisons
The Buddha in his own inner investigation was able to identify ‘three poisons’ that cause suffering. As we look at each we can see that they are all rooted in fear.

Desire, fear’s greedy spawn
You may be surprised to see desire as rooted in fear. But think about the nature of desire. It is based in a sense of lack, of not-enough, and the assumption that something we acquire will remove that sense of lack. But desire is a mental pattern that breeds on itself. My granddaughters will never have enough of the current collectible stuffed animals. Ever. They may think there is some amount that will satisfy, but that will happen only when the focus of their desires moves on to the next toy of the moment, and way down the road maybe the next boy or pair of shoes or who knows what of the moment. Oh my. It is so much easier to see desire’s undesired effects in children than it is to see them in our own lives. But desire is there, rooted in fear, causing suffering.

Aversion, fear’s picky offspring
Fault-finding is a pattern that radiates out into the external world, but is seated in our own sense of not being good enough. Those standards we set that the world is not measuring up to? They came from our own not measuring up to the standards set by some powerful person in our childhood, who was caught up in the pattern from their own childhood sense of failing, and on and on. Getting caught up in blame is not useful. No parent or teacher has ever been perfectly skillful…well maybe the young mother at gymnastics class whom I mentioned earlier but I’m sure even she has her moments of unskillfulness at the end of a difficult day.

Delusion, fear’s wayward child
If a person is zoned out or just seems blind to the world around them, it might be reasonable to assume there is something scary that they would rather not look at too deeply. Instead, they float around in a state of foggy avoidance.

Since desire, aversion and delusion are the cause of suffering and are rooted in fear, the question ‘What am I afraid of?’ is a valuable exploration. But it might feel a little scary to pose. It may feel like having a conversation with the proverbial dragon at the gate, the one we’ve been avoiding or trying to sneak by for fear of going up in flames. But if that resonates, then this is just the conversation we need to be having. Because beyond that gate is the life we have been hiding from ourselves with our unquestioning patterns of fear.

This is not a one-off question. We can ask it, let the answer rise up, and then, instead of getting overly caught up in analysis, justification or argument, simply ask it again. And again. If you feel reluctant to go deeper in this way, remember that fear is already causing you pain. There’s a gospel song about how you have to go in through the door. These questions are a door.

Letting fear dictate our lives isn’t even helpful in addressing the surface fears. Instead it paralyzes us, making us unable to do the practical things we need to do: Create an emergency kit, build up a savings account, get a physical, etc.

What causes the paralysis? Under that fear is another fear. If this is not something you are comfortable doing on your own, find a dharma buddy to do it with. If you are terrified of such an investigation, then a therapist could help to guide you through the process.

By exploring the fear, we come to understand that we are causing ourselves and others suffering through reacting out of fear. Deep exploration and an investigation in the dharma shows us that we fear disappearing. So we panic when someone disrespects us and when things around us change, causing us to cling to the world we knew and push away new experience as threatening.

The Antidote to Fear
Just as fear is at the root of the three ways we suffer, the antidote to fear is offered in deep insight into the nature of things:

We are afraid of things changing or not changing. But insight and nature teaches us that impermanence is the way of all things. The seasons change. All beings cycle through life, death, decay and the regeneration of new life in some other form, the way fallen trees fertilize the forest floor.

We are afraid of being isolated, separate. But insight and nature teaches us that life is a complex web of patterns and networks that are not just interconnected but inherently one system of being, active, alive and non-isolatable. We forget that our being is woven into the pattern of life. Each of us can be imagined as a fleeting shining shimmer of a jewel in a complex network, radiating and reflecting all life.

We are afraid of pain and suffering. How can we not be? It is a biological imperative to fear pain so that we avoid what could harm or kill us. But insight and nature teach us that the pain of being born into a body, of illness, of aging, and of dying are intrinsic parts of the great gift of being alive to experience all the ever-present richness of each moment of awareness.
As we develop a practice of regular meditation, we come more fully into the present moment, into the senses. We can begin to look more closely at the nature of pain. We let go of the word pain, and sit with the pure sensation. We begin to see that it is not just one sensation but multiple sensations, like many instruments in an orchestra, each playing its part. We see how these smaller sensations are not in and of themselves painful. We see that they arise and fall away, and another sensation takes its place. We see the nature of impermanence in our close examination.
We see that it is our thoughts, rooted in fear, that compound pain. On top of that pure sensation we put the thought rooted in past experience: ‘Oh no, not this again! I hate when this happens.’ Then it’s not just this sensation, but a whole series of past similar pains that we are dealing with all over again. And if that were not enough we add in thoughts of the future: ‘How long will this pain go on? Will I have to miss that event I want to go to? Is this going to be a thing recurring for the rest of my life? Kill me now!’ And of course, we could toss a little comparing mind in there: ‘Why am I the only one who suffers in this way? Why me?’

By bringing ourselves fully into the present moment, not making things worse by diving into past and future thoughts, we find a fresh fearless way of being with pain. And then the pain disappears, or turns into something else. Because life is impermanent and this too shall pass.

The Buddha said not to take his word for it but to explore for yourself. Gentle compassionate investigation after the regular practice of meditation is how we gain insight. And our insights, the ones that arise out of our own experience, are the ones that spark awakening, self-compassion and a sense of wonder that is fearless.

[Read more posts about fear in this blog.]

Inquiry Series: Valuable Question #1

WiseIntention.jpgThis is the second part in a series on inquiry. The first was a look at toxic questions we habitually ask ourselves. I have added to the previous post a few more that my students noticed coming up for themselves during the week — or in some cases noticed not coming up anymore, because, one might assume, her meditation practice is working!

Now we will begin our exploration of valuable questions we can use to cultivate awareness, compassion, joy and meaning in our lives. In the insight meditation tradition, once we are ‘primed’ by our practice and the spacious compassion it creates within us, the Buddha’s teachings encourage us to do skillful inquiry. We can also do this inquiry any time during the day, especially when we are feeling overwhelmed or experiencing inner turmoil.

(NOTE: The only questions asked during meditation are meant to bring us gently bring our attention back to the moment, not to spark a deep investigation. For example, a teacher might ask ‘Where are you now?’. The question we are exploring in this part can be used both ways.)

The question is What is my intention here? If you are feeling stressed, take a mindful pause, center in, notice the breath, and then ask yourself ‘What is my intention here?’ Why am I saying/doing this or about to say or do something that is clearly unkind and unskillful. This question might save you from saying something you’ll regret!

An honest answer to this question might be ‘My intention here is to punish (insert name) for what he/she said/did.” We want only honest answers, of course, as unpleasant as they may be. An honest answer will probably not be rooted in wisdom because if it were, we wouldn’t be in such turmoil. But instead of giving ourselves a hard time about it, we can, if we have time, use it as an opportunity to investigate. If there is no time, it’s an opportunity to send metta (infinite loving-kindness) to ourselves and the other person(s) before proceeding.

When to pose the question ‘What is my intention here?’

  • When you feel exhausted from doing so much for others, you might ask this question and discover that you have been hoping to get praise, affection, gratitude, admiration, or something else from someone else.
  • When you find you can’t help but say or do something mean, you can ask this question and recognize that you have been caught up in defending your fortress of ‘self’.
  • When you feel threatened by the idea that you might not be right –and being seen as right is more important than actually finding the truth — questioning your intention helps you discover how afraid you are of not being seen, appreciated, respected or loved. Seeing that intention liberates the fear, activates your inner compassion, and allows you to live more joyfully with uncertainty.

When we question our intention in any given moment, we can save ourselves and others a lot of suffering. By cultivating a wise intention or two that supports us in all we do, we feel more at ease in the world. My two intentions for many years have been: first, to be present in this moment and second, to be compassionate with myself and others. I started these years ago as an experiment to see if just those were enough, and so far so good. They seem to cover all the bases. Feel free to try these out if you like, or find something similarly helpful.

Wise Intention is one aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path. By setting wise intentions, we can see more clearly when we are venturing into unskillfulness. Wise intentions are rooted in Wise View. Read more about Wise Intention and the Noble Eightfold Path.

The problem with ‘should’

One of the words that comes up a lot when we explore intention is ‘should’ (or ought to, must, etc.). Watch for this word in your thoughts and speech. It indicates that your intention is coming from an external source. How we are in relationship to other people is only authentic and heartfelt when we are attuned to our own inner wisdom. If we are stuck in a storm of disparate inner messages originally encoded by external sources (family and the culture we live in) about how we should be, then we can’t really relax and connect with others in a deep way.

By listening in we discover a number of inner aspects (behavioral psychologists call these ‘modules’, among other things, and we all have them, so not to worry!) that seem to have conflicting agendas, yet all intent on saving us, however unskillfully. By cultivating spaciousness through meditation, we see them more clearly and we allow each of these aspects to feel heard and respected. It’s important to remember that, although misguided, every aspect of self is working hard to protect us. So we can feel gratitude for their intention, but hold their demands up to closer scrutiny before acting upon them.

Accessing Inner Wisdom
With spacious awareness, we are able to access our own inner wisdom that has a distinctly different quality about it than these other voices. Our wise inner voice is deeply aligned with our wisest intention rooted in wise view. Unlike all other aspects, it is not rooted in fear. You can tell the difference because wisdom has no urgency, is not strident nor bossy, and is consistently peaceful and kind. It never makes demands, only offers wise counsel and only when asked. You could go through your whole life without ever hearing it if you never take the time to pause, quiet the mind and listen in! Clearly periods of mindful inquiry are valuable when seeking the counsel of an aspect of self that has all the time in the world. (If you are religious, you might prefer to name that wise inner voice God or the voice of a spiritual figure you honor. This is totally up to you. But please remember the voice is not God’s if its demanding, strident, impulsive or violent.)

If you have set wise intentions, check to see if you are aligned with them. If you haven’t yet set your wise intentions, asking yourself ‘What is my intention here?’ is still a useful way to explore how you got yourself into this pickle! What inner aspect’s agenda were you following? And what is that aspect’s intention?

Taking time for skillful inquiry can lead to a whole wondrous series of self-discoveries. In the next part of this series we will explore more valuable questions. Meanwhile, please give this a try, and if you feel like it, please share your experiences, questions or comments by clicking on ‘Reply’ in this post.