Category Archives: metta

What I learned on my summer vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what have you learned lately?

Radiate!

The summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, when the nights are shortest and the days are longest, brings to my mind two key aspects of Buddhist meditation practice.

THIS, JUST THIS…BLISS
The first aspect is mindfulness, the ability to fully inhabit the present moment. Staying in touch with the seasons helps to keep us present. The changing seasons teach us that it is natural to let go and open to whatever arises. By staying fully present we can learn to notice and appreciate whatever nature offers in the way of temperature, light and moisture in this moment, giving our preferences a rest from always dragging us out of this moment into a state of longing or complaining.

Inspired by the natural world of which we are an intrinsic part, we practice being present to what is and letting go of regrets and nostalgia for the past. There are no do overs. There is no going back. Wishing doesn’t make it so, but it does make us unhappy and blind to the joy that is possible in this moment.

At first our attempts to stay fully present may feel like standing on the head of a pin, it’s such an unstable awareness. But eventually this foundation of the present widens and supports us more fully. The regular practice of meditation with the intention to stay present, guiding ourselves gently back to this moment just as it is, again and again, develops this ability.

Nature is teeming with life and growth. We too may feel ourselves opening and expanding, entering a time of relaxation or easy bountiful productivity.

With our days so full of light, let’s remember our own lighthearted nature, our capacity to laugh at the silliest things, and hold all life in a lighter more open embrace.

If current conditions of your life are not supporting lightheartedness, if you are grieving or in great pain, feeling sad or afraid, let nature’s wisdom nurture you now. This too is life. This too shall pass.


RADIANT METTA

Another aspect of Buddhist meditation that comes to mind for me especially at this time of year is how the infinite radiance of the sun is like the infinite radiance of metta, loving kindness. Like the sun, metta shines on all without discrimination. Metta is not just for those who are ‘worthy’ or ‘lovable.’ This radiance is not something we have to earn. It is our birthright to feel the sun on our skin when it shines. It is our birthright to feel the infinite loving kindness of the universe supporting us. And it is our intention as meditators to be conduits for that radiant loving energy, offering it without the filter of judgment to all beings everywhere.

Sending metta to ourselves when we get upset helps us let go of a story that might have ruffled our feathers and kept us unsettled for hours, days or years! It is empowering and releasing at the same time.

By being present with the changes of the seasons, we can break out of the bondage of our habitual nature. We can celebrate the summer solstice by rising earlier in the cool of the day to enjoy the fresh morning, relaxing in the heat of the afternoon, and by getting out and enjoying the extended evening light. By recognizing that we are loved, have always been loved and will always be loved, held in the buoyancy of infinite metta, we can be infinitely generous with sharing loving kindness with the world, holding it in an open embrace.

THREE NEW GUIDED MEDITATIONS ON INSIGHT TIMER
For those of you who have the free Insight Timer app or would like to download it and try it out, three additional meditations have been added to my published offerings, each one geared toward a particular challenge: Anxiety, Sleeplessness and Anger/Hurt Feelings. They are receiving lots of five star reviews and grateful comments from around the world. Check them out and please share them with anyone you know who might be suffering from any of these. We’re all in this together!

Image by Valentin Sabau from Pixabay

All thanks to Gavin?

This week I didn’t teach meditation because I had an appointment to renew my driver’s license. This is a necessary life event that’s hard not to dread — all that dreary standing in line and then sItting around in the crowded DMV office waiting for your number to be called, having your papers shuffled through by bored bureaucrats who’d rather be anywhere but behind that counter; then taking a test, waiting some more, then a vision test, photo, etc. etc. So many lines, so much waiting! You know the drill.

There was a line outside the building when I arrived — uh, oh, here we go — but it turned out it was just for those with no appointment. The appointment line was empty! In fact I was a little early and the young woman who came in behind me had an earlier appointment time, so I encouraged her to go ahead of me. After receiving a number, I sat down and settled in, expecting a long wait, but before I could pull out my reading material my number was called.

At my assigned window I was greeted by a friendly clerk. Because I had filled in the renewal forms online, I just gave my thumbprint, took my vision test and paid my fee. Then she sent me off to “the red carpet where they are waiting to take your picture.” I told her that sounded like a lot more fun than it probably is. We laughed, she called me sweetie, and we wished each other a good rest of our days.

On the red carpet, while waiting for those in front of me to have their pictures taken, I couldn’t help noticing a woman who had been at the window next to me who was also getting her licence renewed. She had received the same instructions I had, about the photo and then the driving test in the room beyond, but after her photo was taken she didn’t seem to think there was anything else she needed to do. The photographer told her the next step and she wandered off dazedly in the general direction and eventually ended up at a touch screen test station, as did I.

After my test, I was behind her in line again. The computer had told me I’d passed, so I was just waiting for the clerk to issue my temporary license, which he soon gave with a cheery congratulations and, I later noted on my receipt, a smiley face and star! (see it with logo above) Aw! This is indeed the new DMV! I felt not just the usual relief of getting a chore over with, but as if I’d been to a well-choreographed party with thumbprint invitations all along the way so everybody knew my name. Well, ‘party’ may be overstating the case, but you get the idea. Compared to the mindless cattle-herding experience I had come to expect over the years, this was a relatively fun romp.

But my companion was not feeling it. She had failed the test royally. She just couldn’t understand how that was possible. The clerk gave her a printout of her test and suggested she go review it and then she could take it again. He was kind and patient with her as was everyone along the way. What a difference from the brusque impatience people who don’t follow the drill are often given in these kinds of situations!

I sent her metta (infinite lovingkindness), and metta to all who know and love her, and a hope that she is not alone because it looked as if a major life challenge is arising for her. We’re all in this life together, and wishing each other well is a powerful part of that. I felt that quality of lovingkindness from the staff of the DMV yesterday. They cared. And I bet a good part of their caring is knowing that their employers care about them and they can feel it. There was definitely a cultural shift in this place! Their kindness radiated through me as I drove home, and undoubtedly that benefited other drivers along the way. That’s how kindness works!


I arrived home earlier than my ten AM class usually begins, but there had been no way of knowing I would be out so soon. In fact, I had had such little faith in the bureaucratic nightmare of the old DMV that I had even wondered if I would be able to make my afternoon appointment!

And then the doorbell rang. Uh oh! One of my students must not have read my reminder email. But no, it was someone I’d never met at the door, a woman who had been wanting to attend and showed up, not knowing that the class had been cancelled. I invited her in, gave her the tour — here’s where we sit together with the view of the mountain, here’s the cupboard full of extra pillows, blankets, socks, etc., here’s where you get a glass of water, and here’s the garden with the waterfall, the oak trees, the blooming rhododendrons and the decks and paths to roam, quietly engaging with nature. She felt right at home. Then we sat down to get to know each other and to see what she was looking for in a class. Happily it turned out to be a good fit and we had a lovely leisurely exchange. As we were winding up, she said how fortuitous it was that she happened to come today and that I was at home.

I told her that it was all thanks to Gavin Newsom.
“Really? How so?” she asked, confounded but intrigued. (You know you think your new meditation teacher is of sound mind and you’re on the same page and then she comes up with some weird statement like that! Wha’???)
I told her where I’d been and where I’d probably still be but for our new governor keeping his pledge to make the DMV a top priority. (I have no idea if he directly impacted the changes, but excuse me if I’m feeling effusive and willing to give him credit. I just whisked in and out of the DMV in a festive mood with plenty of time to spare! It may take time to change major technology and systems, but changing a culture and inspiring workers by making sure they know how important they are doesn’t take long at all. So yes, I’m willing to credit him and his leadership team.)
So because he kept his campaign promise I arrived home in time to greet her.

Thanks, Gov!

What gets in the way of loving-kindness?

When we see how loving-kindness (metta in the Pali language) makes all the difference in our lives and in our relationships, why is it sometimes so difficult to muster?

Believing that metta is finite
When we practice sending metta we are activating our natural sense of generosity. This generosity comes in part from understanding the nature of impermanence. We see that all we ‘own’ is temporal, not ours to begin with, and not the source of our happiness in any case, so there is only suffering in clinging to it. This frees us to be open-hearted and generous. We still use common sense in managing our affairs, but we can do it with a different attitude. There’s a great Sufi expression: ‘Trust in Allah but tie your camel.’ We can find a balance between sensing the oneness of all that is and being responsible for the physical well being of ourselves and our dependents. The art of doing so is addressed within the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.

Because in our lives we manage finite resources, making hopefully intelligent fiscal choices, we may approach sending out loving-kindness in the same way, as if it is a finite resource we need to manage. When we think loving-kindness is finite, we mete it out in careful doses, perhaps only to those whom we care deeply about, those we see as having the greatest need or those we deem the most deserving.

It’s so important to realize that metta is not a limited resource. This took me a long time to realize. Insight came one day when I was riding in our car going over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, and I was wrapping our car in loving light as I often did since long before I began studying Buddhism. Then I recognized that just wrapping our car — just sending metta to us — was not very loving or kind. So I extended it out to the vehicles around us, and then beyond to the whole bridge, then the whole highway of vehicles coming and going in both directions.

Then I came to another mental obstruction. I thought, ‘We can’t all be accident-free. Somebody’s got to crash. It’s beyond statistical probability that we could all be well.’

Aha! Here was a belief I could question! Is that true? Must someone be sacrificed to the gods of probability? A phrase came up that reminded me that it was not necessarily true. It’s not a Buddhist phrase but the wording found at the bottom of any financial investment brochure: “Past performance does not guarantee future results.”

That’s true! In the case of all of us driving along the freeway, it might be a statistical probability that some percentage would crash based on what has happened in the past, but that is all subject to causes and conditions. What if a fundamental condition changed? For instance, what if it became more common than not for us all to be fully conscious, fully present while driving? Statistics show that 80% of all accidents are caused by distracted drivers. So if everyone were paying attention, the likelihood of a crash would be greatly reduced, right?

Then consider what would happen if everyone felt a palpable sense of connection with all other beings? What if we didn’t think of ‘that jerk in the other car putting everyone in danger’ or ‘that slow-poke keeping us from getting where we want to go on time?’ What if, instead, we felt compassion for them, a compassion that comes from a sense of connection, maybe simply from knowing what it is like to be reckless or overly cautious ourselves at times. Then the probability would increase that there would be neither jerks nor slow-pokes. Instead we would move together like starlings in a murmuration, capable of phenomenal flights in dense airborn communities, flying as one.

Okay, you may say that this is unlikely to happen. But the realization that it is possible gave me the freedom to let go of that locked in belief that somebody has to be sacrificed to the statistical probability of accidents. So I was free to be more generous with sending metta to all.

Feeling metta is uncool
I had one meditation teacher who was apologetic about leading metta practice. She was a young woman, a brilliant explainer of concepts, but she was uncomfortable with surrendering to such an open-hearted practice. She would tell people she knew metta wasn’t ‘cool’ and might feel too treacly sweet a practice. It was something she was struggling with. She preferred the more intellectual aspects of Buddhism. Metta is by definition all heart.

We don’t all come to any aspect of practice with the same attitudes. If sending loving-kindness seems beyond your ability, then notice that, investigate your assumptions if it feels right to do so. You don’t have to justify your feelings and certainly you don’t want to force yourself to change. But you might consider the possibility that a practice that is awkward because it doesn’t come naturally, might be the very one to bring balance into your life. Just a thought.

Thinking that sending metta to yourself first is selfish
Traditional metta practice always has us begin with ourselves first. People often have a problem with this instruction. They feel it is selfish. But is it? Well, it might be selfish if it were a finite resource. If we cooked, sat down and fed ourselves first before offering any of it to others at the table, that would certainly seem selfish not to mention rude.

But consider: What if we served a meal on dishes that hadn’t been washed? That would be beyond rude. It would render the meal unpleasant if not inedible. We could think of sending metta to ourselves first as part of the preparations of a meal, cleansing the vessel through which we offer the loving-kindness to others. Or we could think of it as tasting it first, as cooks do, to assure that the metta we are offering is indeed infinite loving kindness, not full of the hard to swallow and digest fear-based tightness that congeals our hearts. That said, I encourage you to not just ‘taste’ the metta, but to receive it fully.

Another analogy that is often used is the airline instruction to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before putting it on the child in your care. Why? Because if you pass out you will be unable to be helpful. Likewise, if you are cut off from a sense of connection with loving-kindness, then how can you possibly offer it? Sending metta to someone else first is not sending true metta at all. It’s just being nice and is kind but usually comes with caveats. It hasn’t been fully received so it doesn’t come from that infinite source. How can we be a conduit for something we haven’t opened to fully?

Resistance to giving metta to ourselves first may come from a belief that we are not worthy of being loved. If this is your challenge, you might picture yourself as the small child you once were. If that is difficult, get out a baby picture to remind you of how truly lovable you are. Allow yourself to look beyond the judgments you carry and simply focus on that child. This is still you. You are still the lovable being you have always been.

If you say sure, cute kid, but look at what a mess I made of my life; remind yourself that errors in judgment made before you were thirty were made by a not-fully-formed brain! You’re off the hook. A little forgiveness please! Errors made later may not have that excuse, but certainly you can find ways to learn from them to live a more balanced, loving and ethical life from this moment forward, rather than beating yourself up again and and again.

If sending yourself metta is still too difficult, skip that step for now. Send it to someone you care about without exception, for whom you have wholehearted affection. Then pause and notice how that feels in your body and mind. See if you can activate that feeling for yourself as well.

If not, then go on and send metta to all beings, and if you can be wholehearted there, remind yourself that you are one of those beings. You are an intrinsic part of all that is. It also helps to remind ourselves that throughout the world at any given moment, someone is sending metta out to all beings, including us.

After we send ourselves metta with phrases like May I be well. may I be happy. may I be at ease. may I be peaceful, we may send it to someone who comes to mind who is in particular need of lovingkindness right now. To them we say words like May you be well. may you be happy. may you be at ease. may you be peaceful. And, because the nature of metta is infinite, it grows and glows, expanding out to shine its radiant loving light into even the darkest places. It encircles the earth in its loving embrace and continues to grow without ever dissipating. Extended traditional practices of metta may include a ‘neutral’ person and a ‘difficult’ person as well. It’s important to notice when sending metta to different people feels different. We may notice the physical sensations shifting, maybe tightening or numbing out, as we move into sending metta to someone for whom we have mixed feelings or no particular feelings. This noticing of how our thoughts and emotions affect physical sensation is a vital part of our practice. In general we just observe this, but in the case of sending metta we can actively dip back into the softened more spacious body sensations we had when sending metta to our ‘easy person.’ We are not forcing ourselves to feel what we don’t feel, just noticing and allowing ourselves to acknowledge that we have the capacity to be that spacious and open-hearted.

Seeing metta as reward
What makes that shift from being soft and open to tight is at least in part this belief that metta is finite, but also that not everyone deserves it. This belief becomes even more pronounced when we come to the next step in sending metta to someone very close to us with whom we struggle, a political figure or a criminal for whom we have strong negative emotions and perhaps lots of judgment. This is where many people bristle. Why in the world would we want to send loving kindness to someone so undeserving? Someone we may see as an enemy or a monster.

It helps to think of metta as the sun that shines light on everything in its path. The sun is not picking and choosing who is worthy of sunlight! The sun cleanses all it touches. So does this infinite loving-kindness.

We, being human, with our complex collections of experiences, patterns and emotions, carry the weight of our beliefs. Metta practice can soften our brittleness. Mindfulness practice can give us the clarity to see and disentangle some of the mindless and perhaps heartless patterns.

Metta is not a reward. We do not have to earn it. We have no agenda or specific goal in mind in doing this, other than being open conduits of loving energy.

Our own sense of compassion may rise up out of understanding that there are many people in the world who have never sensed this loving-kindness, who have always been constricted in fear, whose energy is compressed and therefore volatile, ready to explode. We may judge their resulting actions and resonate with that negativity, and so we react by trying to block their access to this universal kindness. But if we sense into our body and feel the tightening and constricting, we know immediately that this is not the answer. The answer is always to access metta and allow it to inform our actions.

Once we have found a way to send metta to ‘difficult people’ then the way is clear to send it to all beings. May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace.

Through sharing metta we feel our connection to all life on our little blue planet. We perhaps feel a tenderness for all beings — not just for the cute and cuddly ones, but for the ones who may be hard to look at because they are so beaten down, and also for those who, in their state of such extreme disconnection, do the beating.

When we do metta practice we enhance our capacity to access awareness of infinite loving-kindness, acknowledged by all the world’s spiritual traditions in various names. In this way we can hold the world in an open embrace, deeply understanding the transient nature of all matter, coming together and falling apart.  We can actively participate in the rich play of impermanence, using our ability to conduct infinite energy to activate peace, joy and gratitude.

Magical Moments of Mindfulness in the Middle of Everything


Monk walking
Photo credit: Honey Kochphon Onshawee

Throughout the day there are so many opportunities to practice coming fully into the present moment. Here are a few examples:

  1. Holding your cup of coffee or tea
  2. Watching a weather phenomenon arising and falling away
  3. Riding mass transit
  4. Waiting in line
  5. Walking anywhere

Whether you meditate or not, you can still practice being present in this moment just as it is. Meditation develops and tune these skills, but using them is something that you can do any time. Using these examples, here’s how to come fully into the joy of this moment:

That comforting cup of warm liquid is a welcoming place to rest your full attention, especially on a cold day. Hold it in your hands and focus on the feeling of the heat in your palms. Notice any sense of relaxation, restfulness, pleasure, anticipation, etc. that arises in you. Maintain that focus as you lift the cup to take a sip, noticing all the senses involved now. Close your eyes and savor the experience. Stay present in the moment just as it is, allowing other senses – hearing, seeing, etc. to be noticed as they make themselves known. Rest in a state of openness and welcoming.

If you spot a rainbow and you have a few minutes to spare, stop and watch it with your full attention. Let go of all the associative thoughts that come up for you with rainbows or the anticipation of telling someone about it, or the desire to take a photo. Just be with the experience itself. Notice how it intensifies and lessens in intensity. Stay with it until it dissolves.

If you are on a bus, subway, plane or other form of mass transit, take the opportunity to really feel the movement, hear the sounds, feel bodily sensations of sitting or standing, swaying, pressure against the seat or other surfaces. If you feel so inclined, send metta — infinite lovingkindness — to everyone on the transport with you.

If you are waiting in line, say at a grocery store, recognize that impatience will not get you out the door any faster. Then sense into the sensations that are present in the moment. All the ones already mentioned, but also taking in the visual feast of color and pattern in all the packaging without getting caught up in labeling what they are or what you think of them. See it all as an artist might see it. If someone in front of you seems to be taking longer than you deem necessary to conduct their transaction, notice how that judgment feels in your body, how it reintroduces impatience, anger, judgment and other kinds of discomfort. Why are you letting their actions negatively affect your current state of being? To shift your state, you might expand from simple awareness to sending metta to that person who most likely has life challenges beyond what you can imagine. While you’re at it send metta to the checker who must deal with challenging people all day while you will very soon be on your way out the door. And while you’re at it, send metta to the people in line in front and behind you. And why stop there? Send it out to the whole store full of people going about their day, doing the best they can. And once you’ve done that, and especially if there’s good music playing, you might recognize that this moment is really more of a party going on. Why any second everyone might break into dancing. or conversation. Or at the very least smiles. You could be the one to break the ice with just a little smile at one other person. Try it!

If you are walking, see if you can be fully present, letting go of any sense of your destination or sense of accomplishment. Just walking. Just sensing into the movement of your muscles, your feet touching the ground, the way your body balances, the feel of air on your skin, the temperature, the sights and sounds going on all around you as you move through space. How freeing it is to be present!

In all these situations, and in any others you can think of, the common thread is to come fully into the senses, letting go of all the thoughts that take you away from this moment and entangle your attention in other places, times, challenges, etc. That is mindfulness. Also notice the opportunities for extending kindness to all around you. How different this is from the mind state of seeing people as obstacles to your goals!

Every moment of every day offers you the opportunity to be present, to live more fully, to feel more alive and in love with life. I have mentioned just a few examples. There are as many more as there are moments in the day. See what you find when you open to the senses and fully live this magical moment, just as it is. And please, report back your findings!

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.

Befriending or battling?

Noticing how we are in relationship with whatever is arising in our current experience is an important part of our insight meditation practice. The most fertile time to do this gentle inner investigation is right after meditating when we have actively cultivated clarity and compassion.

Whatever thoughts come to mind, we can look at them — the people, the problems, the plans, the situations — and notice if we are judging, blaming, avoiding or treating them as an enemy. Are we caught up in a bitter battle or participating in a joyful dance?

Maybe what is arising is a health crisis fraught with worry, pain and self-blame. This was the case for one student in class this week. She was also frustrated that she wasn’t managing to handle it all more graciously. Graciously? Excuse me? We are not white gloved ladies trying to be well-mannered to appease our mothers. How easily we fall into patterns that don’t serve us and how challenging it can be to see them. In our practice we aspire to wise speech which is kind, truthful and timely. That is plenty challenging, but no part of the requirement is to diminish ourselves or to put on a false front for the perceived benefit of others. What is called for is more regular metta practice. With infinite loving-kindness, we hold ourselves in a truly caring way.

If this speaks to you — either as something you crave or fear — feel the full power of your innate maternal or paternal self parenting yourself with love and kindness. Even if this is not the kind of parenting you received as a child, you can do this for yourself now. This is not self-indulgent. We all need to be held in this way. We might wish someone else would provide this to us, but waiting for someone else to provide it is like diverting fresh spring water away to another source, thinking it’s more valuable when offered in a cup from the hands of another. We all have direct access to infinite loving-kindness. Practicing it on ourselves first is the only way to be truly loving to anyone else. Access the infinite, then become a conduit for it.

Another student noticed how much time she needs to spend calming herself down to deal with a whirlwind of responsibilities. Well, first, great gratitude and celebration to have developed the resources to calm herself down. May everyone everywhere have those resources. Whatever skillful things we can do to take care of ourselves in order to manage our lives are to be appreciated. Kudos for having a regular practice and the ability to notice when a little time-out self-care is needed.

 

Although this student has a uniquely complex array of details to manage in her work, all of us can relate to at least at times having to manage preparations for some upcoming event. We know exactly how heavily it all can sit on our shoulders, and how we can get caught up in living in that future time when the event is fully realized, rather than giving ourselves the gift of fully engaging in this moment. This makes us less able to do what we need to do, and more miserable about doing it.

These kinds of projects often loom large and shadowy. We expend a lot of energy procrastinating and nagging ourselves about our failure to meet the challenge. The compassion and clarity that comes from regular meditation makes simply doing what we need to do much easier. It’s suddenly clear that we just have to break the work down into incremental bits and get to it.

Finding the time to fit a project into an already busy life can be tricky. But assigning it a regular time slot in your day or week can help to formalize the process. If you have ever been on a meditation retreat, then you probably were assigned a yogi job, some small daily chore that contributes to the well-being of everyone. It might be chopping vegetables, sweeping a porch or cleaning a bathroom. It’s always a very specific task, and it’s easy enough to do in a meditative way.

I once was assigned the yogi job of scrubbing the showers in one of the dormitories at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. It was interesting to notice how day by day my attitude and thought processes around my yogi job shifted. The first day was all aversion: Ugh to the claustrophobic tiled space. Ugh to the repetitive scrubbing and bending. Second day I was more accepting of the task at hand, and decided I would be the best shower scrubber ever. Third day I realized that these were

the showers used by the retreat teachers, so I shifted from proving my worth to expressing my gratitude. Fourth day I let go of all of that. I simply sensed into the movement of my arms and body wielding the scrub brush, sponge and spray bottle. Fifth day more of the same but also the awareness of being part of a continuum of shower scrubbing yogis who had all been here and would all be here day after day, retreat after retreat, for hopefully many years to come, scrubbing earnestly, dealing with their own range of thoughts and emotions. There was a sense of community, camaraderie and a relief that it wasn’t all up to me to keep this tile shining. And there was something about that that woke me up to what it is to be alive and to participate fully in life, whatever we are doing. Can we be fully present with the work itself? Can we see our own efforts as part of a pattern of dedication and even devotion? The work we do, and especially the way we do it, can be experienced as life loving itself through us.

Whatever is arising in our current experience can be met in so many different ways. Pause and consider what challenges or struggles you are currently dealing with. How are you relating to the experience? Are you avoiding it? Making an enemy of it? Can you add compassion and clarity into the mix and see what happens? Please let me know how it goes!