Category Archives: middle way

If you’re struggling, this will be music to your ears

In the last post we looked at the Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion the Buddha identified as the source of dukkha (suffering). I offered some questions to help you investigate these three in your own experience. You may have had some aversion to this task, and I imagine many turned away. If you took the time to do it, perhaps you made an enemy of what you found, activating feelings of regret, remorse, shame or anger.

Maybe this additional teaching from the Buddha will help put things into perspective:

Having lived his life at both extremes — the lap of luxury and near starvation — Siddhartha Gautama knew them both to be empty of insight. So after six years of self-deprivation he gave up the ascetic path. After accepting some nourishment (to the horror of his fellow ascetics), he sat down with renewed intention and meditated under a ficus tree for many hours. Mara (illusion) tried hard to distract him by activating greed, aversion and delusion: all manner of delights and frights. As they appeared, he found that he could dissolve these lures by simply seeing them for what they were, illusions, and by acknowledging them without rancor. “Mara, I see you. Mara, I know you.”

We do know the delights and frights in our own lives that distract us and push our buttons. (You might think of those buttons as having labels on them: GREED | AVERSION | DELUSION.) That simple act of noticing is key to our practice. When we get caught up in a fantasy, can we just recognize it instead of shaming ourselves? Can we simply say “Greed, I see you.”? It’s just greed. It’s just aversion. It’s just delusion — lifelong companions we are growing weary of entertaining and tangling with. Then we come back to the fresh aliveness of the present moment, just as it is, anchoring our awareness in the breath and other physical sensations that arise and fall away.

When the lures of Mara finally faded away because Siddhartha was firmly present in the moment, he got up from the base of the tree.
In this awakened state, he listened to a woman playing a lute. This prompted an insight that made all the difference in the way he would practice and what he would teach. He noticed that the strings on the instrument were neither too tight nor too loose, in order to play sweet music.
Just so, he thought, when we strive too hard or don’t bother trying, we suffer. Denying ourselves creature comforts or over-indulging in them both cause us to suffer. Being mindful in the moment we can sense when we are attuned to life. We and those around us benefit when we are not living ‘off key’, when we are not so stressed out that we’re ‘breaking the strings’ or so lethargic that there’s no music.

It would be very easy to take the teachings of the Three Poisons and over-react or turn away in discomfort. Instead we can find what the Buddha came to call The Middle Way. We notice greed, aversion and delusion in our lives without falling into the blame and shame game. This teaching enables us to investigate without causing additional pain. Keep the lute in mind as you explore the thoughts and emotions that arise in your experience.

The Three Poisons combine in toxic ways
Identifying a specific poison may be difficult. For example, in class one student noticed she was experiencing comparing mind but she couldn’t assign it to one of the poisons. This is because all three poisons are present. Greed shows up in envying someone else’s life, looks, accomplishments, etc. Aversion shows up in the negative opinions we have about ourselves by comparison. And delusion shows up because we are deluded in believing that someone else’s life is somehow perfect and that they don’t suffer as we do.

As you give yourself the opportunity after meditation to notice thoughts and emotions arising, look for those Three Poisons in their infinite combinations. No need to make an enemy of them. Just recognizing them is enough — just as the Siddhartha recognized illusion, greeting it by name.

Gratitude – a gift, not an instruction

Thursday morning my dharma talk was about gratitude. All week I had been noodling around about the concept of gratitude. At my Toastmasters club meeting,one club member gave a great short speech about research into the causes of true sustainable happiness. He said that one cause is meditation practice. Another is gratitude. Just two minutes a day of noting what we are grateful for can cause a shift into a state of happiness. Great news!

But the thing that kept coming back to me all during the week was how gratitude as most of us experience it has some challenging aspects. When we start listing things we are grateful for, we can see that they are almost always for things that may be taken away. In fact, because of the temporal nature of life itself, we can fairly say they will be taken away sooner or later.

Can we be grateful without tightening our grasp around what we are grateful for, fearful that we will lose it? Can we be grateful even when something precious has been taken away? When we lose a loved one, a relationship, a job, a home, our health, a physical ability — how do we deal with this idea of gratitude?

Depending on the severity of our loss, we may be too angry, feel too betrayed, feel too lost to be grateful. There’s no room for it in our hearts now, not with this huge hole, this heaviness or this rage. And yet some part of us, or perhaps some person somewhere, says we should still be grateful. Well, screw gratitude! There! Doesn’t that feel better?

Yes it does. But look at that sentence again. There’s another word in there, the word ‘should.’
Should is really the culprit here. The feeling that we should feel something we don’t feel and don’t want to feel — that’s what creates a falsity in anything, in this case gratitude.

In our ongoing discussion of the Buddha’s river analogy for exploring The Middle Way, what does this word ‘should’ do? Should shoves us into the shallows of one shore or the other. When this should attaches to any word, even the most lovely word gratitude, then it makes it shallow and meaningless.

Back in the middle of the river, the gratitude rises naturally and is felt without obligation or longing. It simply exists as a felt sense of appreciation for this moment, whatever it is, understanding that this moment is temporal, fleeting, a gift we can only enjoy now, then it’s gone.

After arriving at this realization about gratitude, I looked back at my Thanksgiving eve 2009 dharma talk and my Thanksgiving Eve 2008 dharma talk and found that I had come to the same place about gratitude again and again. That is, I guess, the nature of the dharma! The truth reveals itself again and again. So if you feel like reading more about gratitude, read those dharma talks.

I am truly grateful for all of you who read this blog. It was originally meant to be a way for students who missed a class to keep up with an ongoing dharma talk theme, so I wouldn’t have to bring anyone up to speed. But now it is read by thousands of people all over the globe! Great gratitude for your kind attention, comments and questions.

In the US in late November our one day for giving thanks prompts these dharma talks about gratitude, but gratitude can’t be contained in a day. The following suggestion can be applied to any moment.

For those of you who will be gathering with family and friends in this traditional harvest feast, pause over pie to look about you and give space to simply notice your emotions. Allow room for all the automatic reactions that certain people bring up in you. See this complex pattern of life being lived. Notice desires for things or people to be different. Notice the desire to please, to appease, to tape someone’s mouth shut, to bop someone over the head or any of a myriad of reactions! Then sit with the full force of life being lived and simply savor it.

Buddha’s River Analogy cont’d: Poetry & an Exercise

In our exploration of the Buddha’s river analogy to talk about the Middle Way, we are looking and questioning what’s true for us, what is our experience of the shores, the boat and the river itself. Because we are so often lost on one shore or the other, it’s useful to see how we keep ending up over-indulging or adopting strict systems of self-denial.

Here are two poems to illustrate the two different shores. First, one about wanting run amok:

No End to Wanting
If truth be known, you want to be idolized,
to be set apart from the flock of ordinary beings
to be seen as separate and special.
You want a whole room of your mansion
for your many awards in specially lit glass cases
and the soundtrack of Rocky playing upon entrance.
You want your ghost-written biography
to fill a whole table at Borders with a
giant cardboard cutout of you and
a line round the block waiting since dawn
for you to sign your autograph and for them
tell you how much they love you.
You want to have a huge yacht with a crew
spiffy-clad in white shirts and shorts
lined up to greet you in exotic ports of call.
You want a small sleek jet done to your
taste by the world’s leading decorator
who answers your endless 2 am calls
happy to implement your latest desire
for say a chaise lounge in the loggia of
your villa on the shores of Lake Como
or your beachhouse in Bali, or perhaps
the estate in Provence or the penthouse in Paris —
each one of them staffed and stocked 24/7
in case you feel like a change of venue.
You want an entourage of sleek beauties or
hunks lounging at poolside, pouring you drinks,
laughing at your jokes, every steamy glance
 telling you how much they long to touch you,
to say they have touched you,
to be enhanced by your magical powers.
You want every celebrity in the world to be thrilled
at an invitation to drop in at a moment’s notice
because whatever else they had planned for a
Saturday night pales in comparison to the chance
to dine at your table and bask in your reflected glow.
You want your name to be a household word
said with a shiver of awe and a shared hint of desire.
You want your face to be as familiar as the one
people see in the mirror every morning
when they take stock and wish they were you.
You want people diving into your dumpster
to have even the most disgusting indigestible
parts of you to put on display
or be sold for thousands of dollars on eBay.
You want to walk down the street
and be mobbed by paparazzi who push you
back so they can get a better shot of you
because you are the most valuable prize
of their pathetic little lives and you know it.
You want to stroll into a showroom of
luxury cars and drive out with whatever
suits your fancy the way you used to
go out for an ice cream cone on a Sunday
afternoon when life was simple
and the sun on your back and the taste
of the ice cream and the laughter of a friend
was enough to make you happy.
When happiness was enough.
– Stephanie Noble

And to illustrate the other shore:

The Desert of Just Desserts
This scorched sand, this unrelenting sun:
No more than I deserve. 
Thick oozing lava pools and
a stack of buckets with instructions:
‘Fill and carry, don’t stop, don’t drop, don’t drink. Toxic.’
All around me others are loading up buckets, whispering,
‘This time I’ll do it, this time I’ll get it right.’
‘Please don’t let me fail again, please don’t let me fail.’
They don’t look up, so I drop my gaze, and set to the task at hand:
To carry these buckets across the vast arid sands,
to ignore those along the way whose
writhing bodies speak in tongues,
to set my sights, to keep my eyes on the horizon,
on the oasis shimmering golden in this hellish heat.

Oh, to be worthy of the illusive prize
to be worthy to set my lips upon the chalice
that holds that righteous sip
of sweet

– Stephanie Noble
To finish with our poetry sharing, here’s one by Mary Oliver. It is perhaps her most beloved poem for the way it gives us permission to see the truth about this ‘desert of just desserts.’ It is titled Wild Geese. Because I don’t have permission to publish Mary Oliver’s poem, here is a Youtube video of the poet reading three poems, including Wild Geese, which she reads because she says,‘Sometimes people get mad when I don’t.’ Watch it now or later, but come back to this post because we’ll be doing a valuable self-exploration exercise.

It’s important to recognize the quality of the river itself: Notice how it flows naturally, how it is connected in a great cycle of watery wholeness and life itself. Perhaps the image of a river feels claustrophobic. Imagine a wider river! Perhaps it seems boring. Imagine a livelier river, gurgling joyously! This is your experience of river. Let the river be an expression of freedom and life. Let the shores be less interesting than the river itself, so that your do not turn being on the river into another form of self-denial. And of course you don’t have to use the river analogy at all! It’s just an analogy and we have used many others that might better serve you. But it is one of the ways the Buddha made his teachings real to students, and so we have been exploring it thoroughly.

We did an exercise last week where we defined for ourselves what was luring us off the river of the Middle Way and onto the shore of over-indulgence or self-denial. I hope you had a chance to play with this, and that some lures came up.

Our exercise today is finding a lure on each shore that relates to one on other. These two lures are connected in some way. I will use a personal but pretty universal example to illustrate how this exercise works. Okay, so there is a hot fudge sundae sitting on the shore. No, wait, let me be more specific. There is a hot fudge BROWNIE sundae sitting on the shore. On the opposite shore there is a sign saying, ‘You’re a pig.’ Those two definitely have a relationship. I feel that if I eat the sundae, then I am a pig. And if I see that sign, I resonate with it and am reminded of the sundae I either ate or long to eat.

So now, find your two related lures. First, choose the thing that is sticky, that gets you caught up in craving, that makes you go mindless and sparks a lot of circular thinking and despair of ever being ‘good enough.’ The lure on the over-indulgence shore is not the occasional innocent treat. This is a mine field for you. It doesn’t have to be food, of course. It could be a craving for praise, fame, wealth, beauty, sex, security, or excitement.

If you have a lure on the over-indulgence shore that is ripe for exploring, there will definitely be some related lure on the opposite shore. It will chime in with some snide comment and draw your attention. The self-denial shore is full of rudeness, rules and regulations that don’t arise out of a sense of natural virtue and good will that comes from our feeling connected to all beings. Instead it is a set of whips and chains to use on ourselves and sometimes others when we project our issues on them. This shore is full of harsh judgments that don’t just deny us pleasure. They deny us our very right to be who we are.

Once you have found your two related lures, sit with the indulgence lure.
So I sit with the sundae. What does it offer me? What does it promise? A few minutes of pleasure, sweet taste, cool and creamy with hot and gooey, yum! A reward to myself. A sense of happiness. Oblivion, release.

Exploring further, what is the fear that drives the urge? What is the lure’s underlying fear-based message?

(Maybe you are saying, ‘Hey, why does there have to be fear? Why can’t it just be a hot fudge sundae. Well for some it would be, but I’ve got that ‘You’re a pig’ sign on the other shore, and a feeling that I would eat every hot fudge sundae if given the chance. So there is a fear message there. And if you’ve found lures that are equally or even more seductive, there is most definitely a fear-based message there. What is it?) 
The message I hear is, ‘Life is short. What if I get to the end of my life and feel I missed out on enjoying indulgent simple pleasures?” So I fear the regret that I didn’t live fully and embrace all that life has to offer.

We then check the statements that have come up for veracity. We ask, ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’ for each of the statements we have made.

When that exploration feels done for now, we turn to the related lure on the other shore, in my case the sign saying “You’re a pig!”

Explore what this lure offers. In my case I’m noticing guilt, self-loathing and shame. I’m also noticing a call to exercise discipline and will power. I’m hearing a promise of a reward of good health and a slender figure to provide me with a protective shield of ‘attractiveness’ that may make me more acceptable.

Now we ask ‘What is the fear that drives this urge?’ When put into words sometimes the fear sounds outrageous, but that’s okay. Outrageous as it is, it feels real enough, so write it down. You aren’t sharing this with anyone. It’s your own exploration just for you.
For me what comes up are fears that I will eat all the hot fudge sundaes in the world given half the chance, that I will become grossly obese instead of what I hope is seen as ‘pleasantly plump,’ that people will be repulsed by me, that I will be whispered about behind my back.

Again, we check some of these things for veracity, asking, ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’ for each of the statements we have made. This could be a long or short conversation. This is your exercise, your exploration, your experience. Give it as much time as you need.

Having fully explored both these lures on the banks of the river, can we find the Middle Way between the two? Yes, the Middle Way begins with awareness, so our exercise in shining a light on what lures us onto the shores of over-indulgence or self-denial helps us to stay present. When we are present fully with our experience, we are on the river. 

We’ve talked about the river as being awareness and compassion. Compassion is vital in this exercise and in life. Without discounting, negating or denying any of the feelings we have brought up, we notice them, acknowledge them, and then question them. Compassion allows us to return to the river. Without it we judge ourselves, our situation or the people we feel caused the situation, and thereby get stuck deeper and deeper in the muck and mire, the dark humid tangle of vines that choke us, or the quicksand of our thoughts and emotions.

So from our boat on the river we look at the two shores, thus reminding ourselves that this is the vantage point we choose, again and again, by setting the intention to be present and compassionate. Retraining our vantage point is part of the practice of meditation. With Wise Effort we are able to find this Wise View, this vantage point. We return again and again to the breath, whether we see it as simply the breath or as the river that runs through the center of our being.

If you are new to the practice, perhaps ‘the river’  is as illusive as the oasis or the golden mountain that looms deep inland on each shore, the horizon that never gets any closer. You may say,‘What river? I want the river! Where the heck is this river? Is it over that mountain? Maybe I better strive harder. Maybe I’m not worthy of the river.’

Don’t worry, the river is within you. The river is as close as the rising and falling of your breath. Only your ability to notice it is illusive, and it is that ability that we develop through meditation practice. So create for yourself a regular practice — begin with five minutes and work up to 30 or 40; or, if you prefer, do two 20 minute meditations a day. Set the intention to stay present with whatever you experience. And set the intention to be compassionate with yourself when your mind wanders, as it will, as it was designed to do. Just this will be enough. Let go of all else as you sit. Anchor in sensation, whether focused on the breath, on sound, or on an openness to all sensation; or choose a simple word or phrase that brings you present like ‘here, now, relaxed’ or ‘om.’ For more information on getting started in meditation, see the Meditation Basics page.

Buddha’s River Analogy continued: Why We Crave the Shores

In a previous talk, I shared the Buddha’s analogy of a river to explore The Middle Way. We have looked ar various aspects of it, and today you will have the opportunity to explore for yourself what is on the shores of your own river and why it draws you.

Both the banks of the river, though they look so different — one a lush jungle of opulence and indulgence, the other an arid desert of strict self-denial — are really quite similar. They both lure us deeper and deeper inland with promises that if we just go a little further, we will find ultimate happiness. Whether it’s through acquisition or austerity, the message is still the same: Wherever we are right now is not okay. Change is necessary. The here and now is flawed. We are flawed and in need of changing.

Perhaps you say that message is not a bad one because none of us is perfect. We are each flawed, and therefore in need of changing. And then you add that the world we live in is not perfect and in need of fixing. Maybe yes, maybe no, as the farmer in the Taoist teaching story says. If you are not familiar with this story, it goes something like this:

A farmer had a plough horse to help him tend his fields. One day the horse ran away. His neighbors told him how sorry they were for him. How would he till his field? What a terrible misfortune had been laid upon him, and he didn’t deserve it, he was such a good man, such a hard worker. But the farmer surprised them when he said, ‘Maybe it’s a misfortune, maybe it’s not. Who knows?’

The next day the horse returned, and along with him came some other horses. Now the neighbors exclaimed, “What great fortune for you! You are the luckiest man! You deserve this good luck.” But the farmer surprised them again when he said, “Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows?”

The next day the farmer’s son rode one of the new horses and fell off, breaking his leg. The neighbors said, “Oh my, this is a terrible stroke of bad luck!” And the farmer surprised them again when he said, “Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows?”

The next day conscription officers came to the area to draft all able-bodied young men into the army. Since the farmer’s son’s leg was broken, he was allowed to stay home with his family. The neighbors, some of whom had tearfully seen their sons trudge off to war, exclaimed at the uncanny good fortune of the farmer. And this time they were not surprised when the farmer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows?”

As you can see this story could go on and on. It’s useful to think of this story the next time we notice ourselves reacting as the neighbors did. We can pause and question the truth of our assumptions about a situation. We could withhold judgment and open to possibilities within any situation.

Nostalgic amnesia
It seems to be in our nature to see the world as it is right now as more flawed than it was in the past. People ask, ‘What period would you go back to if you could time travel?” as if there was some idyllic time when all was right in the world. This nostalgic amnesia really gets in our way of being present with what is. I just saw an interview on The Colbert Report with the author Stephen Pinker about his book, ‘The Better Angels of our Nature: A History of Violence.’ In it, he points out the statistical fact that we are living in the most peaceful time in history. Now of course this is per capita and there are way more people now, but even so this may seem contrary to our own sense of the way things are. This is nostalgic amnesia.

In class I brought up a decade that many people wax poetic about, a decade remembered as all soda fountains, felt poodle skirts, bobby socks, etc. But they choose to forget that the 1950’s and early 60’s was a time of ongoing degradation based on skin color, gender and sexual orientation. I remember children with downs syndrome either being hidden away in secret back rooms of homes or institutionalized, held in huge rooms naked. I saw this room with my own eyes when our school choir went to sing up at ‘Napa,’ the mental hospital for the San Francisco Bay Area. It was a decade full of fear of nuclear war. Many of us never expected to make it to adulthood, envisioned being evaporated en masse or dying slow painful radiation deaths. Some built fall out shelters to save themselves and their families and to keep out the hoards of neighbors who would want food. It was a time of paranoia, people seeing ‘a red under every bed.’ I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It’s a both/and situation. Yes, there were wonderful things about that decade too, but no era has ever been or will ever be perfect.

One student pointed out after class that things may seem worse now because we are more informed about everything that is going on around the world. She said that her experience of the 1950’s was very protected, not exposed to the things I mentioned above, but now she feels bombarded with a 24 hour a day influx of information. It’s challenging to know at what level to adjust our filters for all this input!

The technological advances of our age are a wonderful example of the ‘maybe yes/maybe no’ quality. On the one hand these technologies bring amazing abilities to stay connected over distances with family and friends. On the other, we can easily manage to never know our neighbors, as we come and go in cars, pushing a button to open our garage doors and closing ourselves into our contained spaces. Thus, we feel isolated and disconnected, even though we are carrying on text, twitter, email and phone conversations all day long. Of course we can easily remedy that situation by making a concerted effort to know our neighbors, to create real community, to participate in local government and organizations instead of only focusing on national and international situations. These technologies bring the ability to co-create a leaderless revolution. They bring the possibility of identity theft, of governmental invasion of privacy, of those with fear-based motives reaching our children with messages they are not able to defend against, of fear-based advertisements invading our homes and our minds before we realize we have been seduced or inducted.

This could well be the reason meditation has become so sought after now. It is needed so we can each find a way to be skillful in dealing with these challenges.

So the wise person doesn’t put on blinders but is able to hold all of what is occurring, recognizing the yin/yang quality of being, finding a state of equilibrium, understanding that these are and always will be ‘the best of times and the worst of times.’ Dickens claimed that in his opening line of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ about the French revolution.

‘May you live in interesting times.’ Is that a Chinese blessing or curse? Both! And we certainly do live in interesting times. How grateful I am to be alive to witness and participate in this fascinating period.

The recognition that nothing is perfect and was never meant to be perfect is very liberating. The astro-physicist Stephen Hawking says the universe was created from two forces: gravity and imperfection. Watch the first few minutes of this program to see his explanation.

With only gravity there would be a static unchanging uniformity, but imperfection provokes gravity into a dance so that the planets orbit and cycles occur that would not otherwise have been necessary. So imperfection has been getting an awfully bad rap, considering its importance in the creation of life itself!

I belong to Toastmasters, an international club to help people overcome their fear of public speaking and develop leadership skills. For the past few years I have been able to see incredible transformations in people in the club. Almost every member joined in order to change, in order to improve ourselves and our skills. Our motivations were anchored in this discomfort with who we felt ourselves to be in relation to the world.

But the transformations that have occurred are not from the elimination of imperfections but from the release of the fear of letting those imperfections show. The speakers who are most enjoyable to watch, most able to convey their message and connect with the audience, have learned how to relax into their shared humanity. They are completely themselves at the podium. And because they are relaxed and sharing openly of their own experience and knowledge, their audience can relax and take in what the speakers are saying.

The more we hold back, the more we protect who we hold ourselves to be, the harder we try to be perfect, the less successful we are. True transformation is a process of relaxing, noticing and releasing tension (which when in front of an audience exhibits itself in a variety of distracting ways,) making eye contact with others that reminds of of our connection, realizing that this is a practice and failure is simply a way we learn, and then staying in the present moment as much as possible with what we have to share.

If this sounds a little bit like how we begin meditation, then that really isn’t very surprising.  Coming home to ourselves, our true selves, is the key to letting go of the discomfort with who we feel ourselves to be in the world.

In Toastmasters, the most engaging and enjoyable speakers have in a way polished up their imperfections. The other day a club member talked about how unhandy he is in such an engaging and entertaining way that he won the spontaneous speaking award (Table Topics ribbon) that day. If he were to become handy around the house, maybe his wife would be happier because she wouldn’t have to hire someone to do those tasks my fellow Toastmaster cannot do, but the world would be poorer in a way I can’t explain, but I think you understand.

Think of someone you love who died. Isn’t it often the very quirks that drove you most crazy that you miss about them after a while? Isn’t it those very imperfections that make you smile?

There are Toastmasters who get caught up in a state of paralysis, afraid to get up and speak because they have not reached their goal of being perfect speakers and don’t want to embarrass themselves. Sometimes this paralysis keeps them from coming to meetings, even though they keep paying their dues because the intention is still there. But if they just keep showing up for meetings and taking roles that require them to speak in very non-threatening way (explaining their role at the beginning of the meeting and following up with a little report at the end of the meeting), and occasionally getting up for two minutes to answer a posed question, slowly but surely their confidence grows.

This is true in so many aspects of our lives, isn’t it? We don’t have to be Toastmasters to recognize the pattern we get into when we get inspired to improve ourselves in some area. Perhaps we join a gym to give ourselves the opportunity to get in better shape. The same pattern happens. If we go, we realize it’s a supportive atmosphere (hopefully!) and that we feel better for having done it, but if we don’t attend, we get stuck in that place where we feel disappointed in ourselves and stuck. We want that perfect muscle tone, that slimmer body now! We don’t want to have to see ourselves in the gym mirrors or compare ourselves to others who seem perfect. They’re not, of course. But some part of ourselves plays that game in our heads and we stay away, defeated and uncomfortable with how we perceive ourselves to appear in the world.
In the grueling ongoing effort to become more beings, are we hoping to trade in under-valued traits and attributes for ones that are more in demand? Or do we really just want to be more at home in our own skin?

It’s also true in developing a regular meditation practice. I honor my students for taking time out of their busy lives to come to class with such dedicated regularity. If they are in town, they are here. They carve this space out of their week and arrange their lives around it. Many of them have also managed to carve a half hour out of their day for a daily practice of meditation, as I hope all readers of this blog do. And just like the speech club and the gym, meditation practice is primarily a matter of showing up. What happens after we have set that intention to practice, that intention to be present and compassionate with ourselves, arises naturally. We don’t have to worry about the outcome. It is enough to be here.

For real transformation to occur, we need to be fully present and fully aware of what is occurring in this moment. Only then, anchored into sensation, can we recognize the mindlessness of habitual patterns that drag us ashore into jungles of desire or deserts of self-negation. Only then can we see that it is not our lack of uniformity that is causing us misery, but habit of striving for some distant vision of happiness where we or the world are different.

The river analogy applies to all of us, but each of us sees the banks differently. At times my indulgence bank is lined with hot fudge sundaes. Knowing this helps me to recognize it as the seductive jungle that it is. I am not clear what the sweet treat promises, what the allure is. That’s something I could explore and it would be very beneficial in order to be able to return the Middle Way river and not sink the boat with my over-indulgence! But would I only be comfortable in my skin if there was less of it? That’s another area for me to explore.

What line your shores? What inner aspects are jumping up and down, waving signs and calling out to you? Notice the expressions they use, how disrespectful they are, how they call you names to demean you.

What is so alluring on the banks of the river for you.  What is the promised goal as you trudge through the jungle of over-indulgence or the desert of self-denial? There will be a tangible fear that draws you to each shore. Can you name the fear? At core all our fears are the fear of separation, the fear of isolation, of encapsulation, of rejection. But on the surface they have many different names and appearances.

In class we did an exercise of exploring our own experience of being on the river, first looking at one shore, then making notes or drawing what was there; then looking at the other bank and doing the same. We also made any notations or sketches about the boat, the river and what we saw ahead of us. This might be a self-exploration exercise you would like to do for yourself after meditation practice, when you are feeling calm and spacious.

You might picture the images that draw you as cardboard cutouts set up as a lure with nothing of substance behind them. See if that helps to remind you that there is no fulfillment possible on either shore.

When we are fully present on the river, this river that runs through the center of our being, this river of presence and compassion, we feel fully enlivened and at one with the universe, this universe formed by imperfection.

Or = Oar Along the Middle Way

In the last post I shared an embellished version of the Buddha’s analogy of the Middle Way being our course as we boat on the river of life, steering clear of the seductions of either bank that represent overindulgence and self-denial. You can read that post if you have forgotten or didn’t see it.

In the analogy, we focused on both banks but didn’t really spend much time exploring the river or the boat. For example, how do we keep our boat in the middle of the river and not stuck on either side?

That’s right, we need an oar. This is a very powerful oar, and it’s spelled O-R. Or: Perhaps the most powerful word in the English language. Powerful enough to steer our vessel along the Middle Way. How?

At any moment, inserted into a sentence, the word ‘or’ creates a pivot point, full of possibility.
Whatever we are doing, however close we are coming to either shore of over-indulgence or extreme self-denial, we can use ‘or’ to remind ourselves that we have other options.

This has worked well for me when I’m on the way into the kitchen to look for a treat. My inner sweetie is all excited by the prospect of some tasty treat even though I’m not hungry, and then, if I’m paying attention, I can hear the strong, clear, calm wisdom of the word OR rising up: “OR I could go out to the garden,” “OR I could go for a hike,” “OR I could wash the dishes,” “OR I could call a friend I haven’t talked to in a while,” “OR I could sit and enjoy being in this moment.”

This same OR rises up in other situations as well:

  • I’m walking by a store that has something I want but can’t afford. I simply offer myself the word OR – as in ‘OR I could walk on by.’
  • ‘I could keep channel surfing mindlessly, OR I could turn off the TV and do something more fun.’  
  • ‘I could keep stuffing food in my mouth even though I’m full, OR I could push away from the table.’

This word ‘or’ is very empowering. It gives us choice. Sometimes we have made a commitment to do something, and so our choices may seem gone. We’re in a committed relationship. ‘Or’ doesn’t give us the option to go home to someone different tonight! But even then we have the choice of how we approach our commitment, what attitude we take. ‘I could complain about this situation, or I could whole-heartedly take it on, remembering why I committed to it in the first place.’

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that are not of our choosing. We find that we or someone we love has had an accident, is seriously ill or is dying. The ‘or’ is not a means of escape from the situation, but a means of finding a new relationship with it, finding how to be present with causes and conditions of life with compassionate attention rather than getting lost in the mire of regret or fear of the future. ‘Or’ is not an escape route out of a sticky situation. It’s an awakening to consciousness, a reminder to be alive and alert to the reality of the present moment.

In class a student mentioned that the oar is also used for getting unstuck, so it has a quality of mobility. True! That’s an important aspect to bring into the mix. The word ‘or’ creates options for any moment.

But again it’s important for us to use our ‘or’ skillfully. The skillful, wise ‘or’ always brings us back to the river, back to awareness, back to compassion. An unskillful ‘or’ would have us paddling back and forth from one shore to the other, trying to find balance by going to both extremes. An example would be gorging ourselves and then going on a strict minimal intake diet. Another example would be the person who works beyond the point of exhaustion all year long and has a flat on the back on the beach vacation to make up for it. This isn’t skillful paddling! This is taking the oar and paddling ourselves with it! The Middle Way is being fully present and compassionate, not going from one state of extreme mindlessness to another and believing we have found balance.

In French the word or means gold, but what fool would choose gold over the infinite possibilities of the English ‘or’ or the French ‘ou.’

In Spanish or translates into ‘o’ – How that sunny perfect circle captures the essence of the infinite rays of choice, all those potential pivotal turning points available in any given moment.

So next time you find yourself doing something mindless, see if you can empower yourself with the word OR.

We have talked about accessing our Buddha nature, our wise inner voice that is our access to universal wisdom. This word ‘or’ radiating options, keeping the world spacious and open, keeping us conscious, is a simple way to access that inner wisdom. Listen for it!

The word ‘or’ can also be used unskillfully to divide up the world, as in: ‘It’s either you or me, us or them, your way or my way, and it better be my way.’ The word ‘or’ can be very divisive. When we are wandering on either shore, away from the river, an oar is no longer a useful tool but a useless appendage, or worse a weapon. So notice how you are using the word ‘or’ to recognize if you are stuck on one of the shores or in the flow of the river, embarked on the Middle Way.

Something else we didn’t discuss about the Buddha’s Middle Way analogy of a river is the river itself. What is the river? What is this that runs through the center of our being to which we return? This is the river of awareness and compassion. We return to it from states of unconscious habitual patterns that don’t serve us or the world.

Where does the river go? Is there some place we are getting to on this river?

Where does any river go? Yes, to the sea. And then what happens to the water in the sea? It evaporates and becomes clouds, which become rain, which eventually makes its way back to the river. This natural cycle of water, how it turns from liquid to gas (and sometimes to solid) is the easiest example we have to understand the nature of things, the nature of life and of our own part in it. For it isn’t just water that cycles through in infinite transformation, but all of life, including ourselves.

Once while attending a mountain camping retreat, I had the experience of observing a cascade with the drops of water flying above the creek, each drop fleetingly solitary. And I saw how that was true for each of us as well: This sense of solitary existence, of being in an isolated encapsulated body is indeed temporary and illusory. The drop of water is part of the ongoing cycle of life. It will momentarily return to the creek and then to the sea and then evaporate into a cloud, then rain in an ongoing cycle — as will our fleeting moment of seemingly solitary existence that we call ‘life.’

The drop of water is held separate by surface tension. Interesting to think that we hold ourselves separate by tension as well. When through meditation we release bodily tension, we access our awareness of being an integral part of the whole, not an isolated drop. How refreshing! How much easier it becomes to live in this world when we feel our connection to all that is. How much easier it is to be compassionate when we understand the unitive nature of life. There is no ‘us or them,’ but the interconnected cycles of life and this wondrous gift of awareness.

The Middle Way: Buddha’s River Analogy, Embellished

The Buddha sometimes taught that the Middle Way is like boating on a river. I sat with it and wrote this embellished version:

From our boat on the river we can see both banks, the whole sky and the great expanse of water. One bank of the river is luxurious, dense with riches, a veritable jungle of eye candy and every sensory delight, comfort, entertainment, distraction, assurance of safety, financial security, recognition, fame, success and power. When our boat gets into the shallows by this bank, the siren sound draws us out of the boat and onto the shore, then into a jungle of opulence and indulgence. Luxuriant flowering vines wrap themselves around our limbs, and though they weigh us down we think we would feel naked without their beauty. A golden pyramid shimmers in the distance. The path leading to it is paved in glistening diamonds, and all along the way are champagne fountains and endless buffets of every sweet and savory taste we could ever want. Yet the pyramid never gets closer, the champagne never slacks our thirst and the food never fills our bellies. Instead we feel increasingly afraid of losing our way, losing the safety of the luxury we’ve come to depend on. How could we survive without all this? So we step carefully on the diamond path, hypnotized by the dazzling light that goes on and on, as the thirst and hunger become increasingly painful.

If we are lucky, we remember the river, the cool clear water, the nourishment and the clear expansive view the river gives us of life.

On the opposite bank of the river is a desert, a desolate landscape, arid, harsh, hot, and unyielding. When our boat gets into the shallows by this bank, we find ourselves stuck in the sand and have to disembark. We are grateful for all the clear instructive signs telling us the way to a distant oasis that glistens on the horizon. But as we travel this route, we see demands for more and more sacrifice. ‘Take off your shoes to better feel the burning sand,’ says one sign. ‘Take off your shirt to better feel the sun blistering your skin and the cold night air shivering you rigid and aching.’ Wherever there is food, there is also a sign saying ‘Don’t eat this.’ Wherever there is drink, there’s a sign saying ‘Poison.’ We are directed onto paths that are treacherous, layered with smoldering coals to toughen us up and test our resolve. We are directed to sleep, if sleep we must, on beds of nails. We are told to deny every urge, especially the urge to turn around, to give up our difficult journey to the oasis that never seems any closer. Along the way we see skeletons half buried in the sand. Other wanderers, some crawling with a crazed look in their eyes, challenge us to keep going. But, if we are lucky, we remember the river.

If we are lucky, we feel the pull of the open water, the easeful travel in a boat that supports our journey, and we turn around.

The Buddha says the Middle Way is the course of the river. He taught the importance of noticing when we are getting too close to either shore. Both shores can be seductive. Both shores promise fulfillment, one through having it all and one through denying it all. The Buddha lived the first two-plus decades of his life on one bank and then six years on the other before, at the age of 29, he realized there was a river running through the very center of his being, the very center of being itself.

This is the key message the Buddha felt compelled to share upon awakening: At any moment if we find ourselves stuck on one shore or the other, if we can just remember the river, then we find ourselves on the river again. For the river is within us. Our practice is being present enough to recognize the river and to chart our course along the Middle Way.

The Buddha’s Middle Way

After last week’s exploration of finding balance in our lives amidst the inconsistent causes and conditions that abound, I wanted to bring the Buddha into the conversation because his first discourse after his awakening included an explanation of what he called the Middle Way, and what is the nature of the Middle Way if not balance?
Remember that the Buddha’s life had been marked by two extremes. Siddhartha Gautama was raised in opulence, luxury and sensory indulgence. When he left that life, he joined a group of wandering mendicants who practiced asceticism, denying not just the pleasures of the flesh but as much of the basic needs of the body as they possibly could without dying from their rigorous practice. Siddhartha was quite gifted at the various ascetic practices, mastering them quickly. But after six years he found that this extreme did not satisfy either. So he set off on his own, sat under the Bodhi tree with clear intention and a willingness to be present with whatever arose, and ultimately awakened.
After he awakened, thus becoming a buddha or awakened one, it is said that he sat by a river and listened to a lute being played. He noted that the strings of the lute needed to be neither too loose nor too taut in order to play beautiful music. Just so he realized that over-efforting and under-efforting both create discord, that only when tuned to what he came to call The Middle Way could true happiness be found.

This was an important insight for him and an important message for the ascetics to hear because their whole practice was imbued with extreme deprivation and self-mortification.
How important is this message to us? Is it a message only for people living at extremes? Can those of us who live moderate lives feel smug and move on to the next lesson? Is living at extremes a real problem for us?
The Buddha said we should neither force ourselves to do things we cannot do, nor lose ourselves in sensual pleasures. Those two words ‘force’ and ‘lose’ are key to this teaching.

Force. Hmmm. When have we ever forced ourselves to do something that it turned out well? How present can we be when we feel forced. What inner aspect is in charge of this forcing? Is it a wise inner aspect or a fear-based one? I think of some inner Gestapo with threatening words and weapons that will be used if I don’t tow the line. How whole-heartedly will I do whatever task is at hand under these conditions? How much of my mind is preoccupied with plotting escape routes?

But wait, sometimes I do have to just force myself to get out of bed in the morning, and the minute I do I am glad to have done so. So isn’t a little force necessary? When I stop to think about that moment, I can notice that my body wants to rise, wants to move, wants to greet the day. The inner Gestapo has nothing to do with it. What keeps me in bed is any of a number of emotions that have already scoped out what the day might bring and are pulling back in aversion. Or, there is simply a greedy self-indulgent aspect that finds the coziness of bed quite addictive. So there is a subtle but powerful difference between forcing myself to get out of bed, pushed by some name-calling inner drill sergeant, and being present with the natural call to rise.

The idea of losing ourselves in sensual pleasure actually sounds pretty good but in truth the more present we can be with any state, the more pleasurable it is. When we lose ourselves what are we losing? Our access to inner wisdom? Who is making the choices when we are lost? Some greedy aspect that wants to gobble up all the goodies before they are gone? Is the jagged edge of fear really adding to our experience or taking away from it? An interesting exploration for each of us.

Last week we studied the image of a gyroscope as an illustration of how our twin intentions of being present and compassionate keep us stable rather than subject to the extremes of the events that may happen in our lives. These two intentions are the mainstay of our practice. If they were the only things we learned, they would be enough to make an enormous difference in our lives. But the Buddha in his initial teaching spoke of The Four Noble Truths, and the fourth among them was The Eightfold Path, which provides us with actionable means to create the Middle Way in our own lives. By following the Eightfold Path we not only can survive and even thrive in adverse conditions, we can actively create conditions most beneficial for our welfare and the welfare of others.

If you are unfamiliar with or would like review, look up both explorations of the Four Noble Truths, including the Eightfold Path. Since this is the primary teaching of the Buddha — the most important thing he wanted to share when he began teaching — it is certainly going to be worth your time to find out about it.

The Eightfold Path supplies us with tools or guideposts to see when we veer off into extremes and get out of balance in our lives. Every day we are in a position to make conscious skillful choices that will create either happiness or havoc in our lives. So the Middle Way is not just being able to tolerate what arises, but developing the skillfulness to actively create balance in our lives. We develop behaviors that support health and well being, like eating a balanced diet, getting sufficient exercise, and working without over-efforting. We may recognize the way we speak or act out of fear and anger, and then have to live with the drama that unfolds. With awareness we recognize how we are often causing the events around us. Hopefully as we grow older, we grow wiser, and maybe we don’t need to Buddha to tell us how to be skillful, but the Buddha and his concepts help to make the process of being skillful so much more satisfying as we develop a sense of presence and compassion rather than a scolding tone that diminishes all life.

Sometimes when I work I think about the yogi jobs on retreat. A yogi job is what each retreatant voluntarily undertakes for about an hour each day for the benefit of the whole community of retreatants — chopping vegetables, washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming a hallway, sweeping a terrace, etc. At the beginning of my first retreat, I wanted very much to do a great job, to be the best yogi possible. But it is difficult to sustain that kind of intention when you begin to feel the interconnection of all beings. The intention shifts to a joyful sense of participation. I found myself doing the job at hand in a whole-hearted way without any sense of needing to be the best at it, or looking for approval, or being afraid of not doing it well enough. While at first a job like scrubbing a shower might seem boring, ultimately it isn’t at all. And even if it were, the yogi job is for a set amount of time, no more than an hour and usually less. For most of the jobs, we simply do the best we can within that time frame allotted and then put our tools away and go back to our sitting practice. We accept that no one is going to break silence to exclaim what a shiny shower stall we’ve polished, and any need for praise has been replaced by something infinitely more satisfying, a sense of being present and interconnected.

After a retreat, I bring home that wholesome attitude toward working, but soon I am back to the habit of over-doing and being goal-oriented, forgetting that it doesn’t all have to be done right now. And sometimes I find I am full of thoughts that show me I am doing the work for approval and the fear of not being good enough in the eyes of the people I care about. But now when that happens, at least I notice it, and I can make the shift into a more wholesome relationship.

For further exploration of the Middle Way, you might review these three posts: Middle Way, Middle Way, Don’t Tip the Boat!
 Pilgrimage: Sarnath

As we study the Middle Way we want to remember that it is not the mediocre way, not the straight and narrow path, not the bucker up, put up and shut up way. It is the wisdom way, the alive way, the present way, the treasure way, the juicy way, the rich way, the Way.