Category Archives: mindfulness

Mindfulness and the Mirror

With the moment to moment practice of being fully present, anchored in physical sensation, noticing how thoughts and emotions pass through my experience, I find myself in a much kinder and healthier relationship with my body. I think of the Cat Stevens song ‘Miles to Nowhere’ when he sings, ‘Lord my body has been a good friend. But I won’t need it when I reach the end.’ It’s such a reminder of the impermanence of the body and also gives me a way to be kind to my body. It is indeed a good friend! It affords me to experience this life, all these sensations and interactions that would not be possible otherwise.

But this sense of friendliness to my body has not come easily, as any western woman understands completely. How much of my brain activity has been expended over these many years on the ‘flaws’ and ‘imperfections’? How long did I buy into the idea that to the degree that this body didn’t meet the ideal standard of the current culture, I had failed in some way? And to what degree are those ideas still embedded in my thoughts?

We had a rich discussion in class this week on our relationship to our bodies, and especially about continually coming to terms with the changes that occur as the body is affected by a combination of gravity, time, sun exposure, stress and health care. More and more the mirror belies the person we feel we are. My mother removed all the mirrors in her house except a small one on the back of the bathroom door, and she only used it to make sure nothing was stuck in her teeth. She had sailed for four years and her Anglo-Irish skin was so deeply wrinkled from sun exposure that she couldn’t handle the sight of herself! She was a lively vibrant woman, regardless of her wrinkles, but every time she got a glimpse of that ‘hag’ she was dragged down.

Have you ever had that feeling? You get a glimpse of yourself in a shop window and wonder who that is? Not you! Or have you ever been out in the evening having a wonderful time and then you excuse yourself to go to the lady’s room where the lights are harsh and you return to the party chastened by that cruel sight of yourself in the mirror? As a kindness to each other we should all make sure our bathroom lighting is soft enough to make any guest look as beautiful as she feels inside. Now that’s a good hostess!

The class seemed to be in agreement that the numbers we are awarded on our birthdays seem less and less a fit to our ideas of who we are. But why would a number match? As children the age number was a pretty predictable indicator of size and behavior of a majority of kids. But the bigger the number, the less predictable it is, because so much of how our bodies age has to do with how we treat them. My mother died at 73 of emphysema, the same age her mother died. They both smoked. My mother’s younger sister was convinced she would also die at 73, a family tradition. But she never smoked and she lives on in pretty good health and happier than ever at the age of 88 in a loving relationship with a much younger man.

This week my youngest granddaughters turn three and five, and the number is such a big deal. A friend of mine taught the older one the Barbara Streisand song ‘I’m five, I’m five, I’m a big girl now, I’m five!’ and she was thrilled to be such a big girl. But for us by now the thrill of the number is gone. The older we get the less that number means, and our attachment to it really doesn’t serve us. Let’s celebrate each birthday as the anniversary of our birth, with gratitude for the great gift of life. But let’s let go of the numbers game that is such an inaccurate a reflection of reality.

The practice of mindfulness can help us take care of our bodies in a way that supports health and strength. I’ll never forget when a doctor told me ‘as a kindness to your heart you could lose some weight.’ That was such a wonderful way to put it, and as a result I have lost a pound a month over the past eighteen months without any real effort except remembering to be kinder to my heart.

Being mindful we can notice when we are holding two contrary opinions. One student in class recognized that she was grateful for her body enabling her to experience life but at the same time unhappy with her aging body. Such skillful noticing! What contrary pairings do you notice about your body? Can you hold them up to the light of your awareness with compassion? Not making yourself wrong? Just noticing, and maybe marveling at the complexity of the human mind?

Wisdom from one student’s grandmother: ‘There are only two ages: alive and dead.’

Of course we all die, but our routes to that common destination are very different. My aunt’s belief that she would die at 73 is a good example of how we make assumptions based on what we have observed of other people’s experience. But we will have different experiences because we are in different bodies, and even if we have a similar experience we will experience it in our own unique way. If we’re raging about the unfairness of it, if we’re in denial, if we are doing everything we can to escape from it, we’ll no doubt suffer. But here we are practicing opening to whatever the present moment brings, and who knows? Maybe this practice will serve us well whatever we face in the future.

In the group there was also a collective nostalgia for the young girls we once were. But then there was a recognition that that little girl is still here, still part of who we are, still alive and well. And this reminded me of my recent intention to include all of who I am in everything I do. Leave no part of me out, not that little girl, not that young woman, and not the old woman yet to be. Her wisdom has often guided me at difficult turns, and I certainly don’t intend to deny her now that I see her appearing in the mirror.

When we are fully present, conscious of the fleeting precious gift that is this moment, we are less likely to think that having a ‘perfect’ body is going to make us more lovable. We can see how obsessing about supposed imperfections and spending time and money grasping at youth is a sure way to isolate ourselves. Through mindfulness we activate compassion, both for ourselves and others, creating true loving connection. And much more fun!

Mainstream Media Discovers Meditation

Wow! Over the past few months the major American media outlets have really started noticing what a huge difference meditation makes in the lives of those who practice it regularly.

In the past months there has been a Time Magazine cover article, a 60 Minutes television segment, then a NBC news story on the difference meditation makes in elementary school classrooms, then a personal story by an ABC newsman Dan Harris, who found Buddhist style meditation works to keep him cool, calm and off drugs. He wrote a book, 10% Happier that will speak to a whole different audience than usually reach. It might make a great gift for more skeptical family or friends. (Though let’s not proselytize! The best way to promote meditation is to simply do it yourself, and let those around you reap the benefits of your calmer, kinder interactions.)  I loved one thing he mentioned in the interview in this link, about giving that busy mind voice in the head a Reaganesque ‘There you go again.’ Now you don’t often hear Reagan references in meditation circles. This means the circle is definitely widening! And more people are considering meditation something they might actually incorporate into their lives.

But the capper for me was this past Sunday when Parade Magazine named meditation the number one thing to do for your health for 2015! Now Parade is a relatively conservative newspaper insert syndicated in most major papers throughout the country. I’ve never known it to embrace anything that isn’t total Americana. It offers up celebrity interviews, seasonal recipes for such things as tailgate parties and 4th of July picnics, and lots of inspirational stories about hometown heroes. Now it embraces meditation. I can only conclude that meditation is finally a truly red, white & blue American activity. Since the act of meditation is a simple activity that needn’t have any dogmatic affiliations, there’s never been a valid reason for it to be scorned.

A couple of the stories focus on the wonderful work of Jon Kabat Zinn in bringing science-based mindfulness practice to hospitals and to the world at large. But a subtle but profound shift has happened because in all the other stories they call it ‘meditation.’ That word that Zinn found so toxic to his colleagues that he substituted ‘mindfulness’ for it is apparently no longer seen as something foreign and threatening. People, this is huge!

Also huge is the fact that most of the stories are not apologizing to readers in advance for giving them this information. Most are straight out reporting in a reasonable and even positive way the many benefits of this simple practice. Dan Harris did say he used to think it was flaky, but since his own experience with it, and the research he did, he now says that meditation is ‘simple, secular and scientifically validated.’

Good enough for me. Think I’ll try it! How about you?

I know fads come and go. No doubt soon meditation’s stardom may dim.  The media that has been offering inspiring meditation articles all along may have ruffled feathers that it’s no longer their private purview and find fault with the mainstream’s reporting. Chances are good that somehow someone will find newsworthy backlash stories, anomalous news to counter the results reported, or ways in which previous reports were overblown. But even so, the practice of meditation is now an accepted part of a normal life, seen as no weirder than going to the gym. It has broken through the resistance, the fears and the foolishness. Meditation can now, without a lot of hullabaloo or rigamarole, provide anyone anywhere with a means to create well being, compassion and understanding.

All we ever needed was for people to be willing to give it an honest try just to see if it’s right for them. Once they try it, like all those reporters, they’ll discover why it’s such a valuable practice, simple as it is.

Walking through a dark valley

When I’m going through a difficult time, I try to remember to pause and notice what’s going on in my body. What sensations are present that aren’t usually here?
For example, have you ever felt an achy heaviness in the chest area? That can be a physical manifestation of loss. Next time you feel that sensation, you might pause to consider what’s going on in your life. Where might you be feeling loss?
If we can notice a physical sensation, we can hold it with tenderness. We can be the kind friend to ourselves that we try to be for others. We can be present to experience this sensation, and to be compassionate with it. This is much more powerful than trying to talk ourselves out of it.
I grew up back when ’emotional intelligence’ was not even coined as a term. My mother was a great and loving woman. I was very lucky. But even so, if I said, ‘Mom, I’m feeling sad,’ she would get very uncomfortable and tell me that I had nothing to complain about. It’s not her fault. If she were a young mother today, chances are she would know that telling someone they shouldn’t feel what they feel is not very useful.
Has anyone ever told you to stuff down your feelings or trade them in for a shinier happy version that would make everyone feel more comfortable? And if so, have you found that their voices are still in your head, still telling you it’s not okay to feel what you feel?
Most of us have stuffed-down sadness that we didn’t let ourselves feel at the time it occurred. It is still there, compressed under layers and layers of judgment. When we notice it, we rush to put on a smiley-faced band-aid and hope nobody notices.
Noticing is what our mindfulness practice is all about. We notice physical sensation first and foremost. It anchors us in the present moment which is the only one that exists. The past and future are just thoughts. We can’t change the past, though we can change how we relate to it, and any power we have over the future is contained in this present moment.
But are we willing to be present when we’re going through something difficult?
Most of us want to rush past this experience and get to a pleasant one. Maybe we’re embarrassed to be down and that adds to our discomfort. So we’re racing toward some brighter future, but we are dragging all these weighty anchors from the past. Our anger and judgments are rooted there. We’re not operating from here and now but from where we once were because we weren’t sufficiently there to notice what was going on at the time and to give ourselves the simple gift of being there. It’s complicated!
You can see how this gets us into trouble.

In Psalms 23.4 the Bible says ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’ This is identifying a human experience we all share at times. We find ourselves walking through a dark valley. We don’t have the vantage of the mountain top to see the lay of the land, so we don’t know where this valley leads. Maybe we get anxious and want very much to get past this narrowing in the inner landscape. We’re spending all our time looking for a way out.

But the valley is actually a very fertile place, and there is great value in simply being here where we are. In fact, the valley is so fertile that whatever it is we seed there will grow up before our eyes. If we are afraid of what we’ll find in the darkness, we seed fear. From the seeds of fear grow all manner of demon-like thoughts and emotions, like associated memories from youth that have lain dormant these many years that now rise up to taunt us. Loser! Loner! Unacceptable! Different! Pathetic!
But even in this dark narrow valley we are never alone. We are each of us an intrinsic part of the grand scheme of things, a natural expression of the life force. If we can sense into physical sensation we can remember this connection and the fear will soften. We can seed that same valley with love and compassion that in turn nourishes us. We are then able to follow our natural course at an easeful pace. We cease to struggle to get a mountain top vantage point but accept that we just don’t know. And that’s okay.
We expect to be in dark valleys when we have experienced a loss of any kind. We don’t expect to wake up one day and for no particular reason find we’re in a valley. But it happens, doesn’t it?
Sometimes when we do what feels like the next right thing in the natural flow of our lives, we come to a bend in the river and the shadows of the canyon walls make everything go dark. At this point we have no idea what to do. We thought we had a clear course, yet here we are in the valley of darkness! How did this happen?
As an example, I have recently embarked on a journey, having made a decision to publish some of my writing in book form, and I find myself at times in the valley. I recognize it. I have been here before. It is the place where all the taunts of my youth come up to haunt me.
I think how foolish I must have appeared when, as a new kid in school, I ran for an office because no one else was running and I thought it would be a good way to meet people. That would have probably worked out okay except that at the last minute the most popular girl in the class decided to run as well, and it was too late for me to withdraw. How awkward I felt making campaign promises standing in front of the whole student body in the expensive Pendleton plaid wool pleated skirt my mother had splurged on so I would feel confident for the occasion.
It was of course no surprise that I didn’t win, but here’s the painful part for me to remember: I stayed after school to wait for the voting results. Now why did I do that? Did I think I had a chance? That delusional hopefulness worries me.It makes me wonder if am I just as delusional now.
Of course in my mother’s view the worst thing about it was that I never wore that Pendleton skirt again. It was jinxed and had bad memories. I wanted to forget the whole experience. But clearly I haven’t, have I?
When you find yourself in a dark valley for seemingly no reason, notice what ancient taunts rise up to pull you down. What are the parallels to your current situation?
We all have these echoes within us, these events in our lives that reactivate fear when any potentially parallel situation arises. So where’s the parallel for me? In publishing these days it is supremely important to have a preexisting ‘author platform’ — an audience of people already interested in what the author has to say. Back in high school as the new kid in town I was completely lacking in any ‘platform’ at all, especially compared to that very popular girl. That’s a seemingly direct parallel. Except, as my meditation students point out, I have them, my blog readers, readers of my last book, as well as a wide circle of friends. I’m not the new kid at school. But the fear is there. 
So here I am in this dark valley at some moments when self-doubt creeps in. Just last week I was up on the proverbial mountain, leaping from peak to peak, feeling so supported by the universe. Absolutely nothing has changed from that moment to this. Students are sending me lovely expressions of praise to share with publishers. Friends say how great it is I’m doing it. Those with knowledge about publishing are particularly encouraging.
But still I find myself in the dark valley with a bunch of fourteen-year-olds from fifty years ago, who to their credit never said one mean word to me about the whole debacle. It’s all me creating this valley of darkness. And that’s important to remember.
What can I do about it? What can any of us do? We stay present with this moment and notice how it feels to be here with these physical sensations, some of them painful. We notice how it feels to stay present with these thoughts and emotions that arise in our field of awareness. Some of them are painful. We don’t try to talk ourselves out of what we are feeling. We don’t try to shame ourselves into more cheerful views. We simply stay present and acknowledge that we don’t know how long we’ll be walking in this dark valley. It may disappear in the next instant. It may last awhile. We do not know, and that’s important for us to embrace as a way of relating to our experience and life in general because it’s the truth in every moment, not just this one.
So we stay present and compassionate with ourselves, planting seeds of kindness in this fertile valley. If demons rise up from the fear-seeds we’ve planted in the past, we are compassionate with them. We don’t indulge their fears but we do acknowledge them. They are like old friends who think they are trying to protect us. We can remind ourselves that they are well-intentioned but not wise. So we appreciate their efforts but we don’t follow their advice.

With compassion and awareness, we may find that this valley is verdant. Someday we may look back and see it as the source of wonderful things that followed, how we grew in ways we could never have imagined. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s be here in the valley now, noticing physical sensation and giving ourselves time to experience it with compassion.

What’s Up with all the Buddha’s Lists?

All matter and all experience is conditioned, dependent on something else having happened or existed. Try to think of any object and imagine it existing in isolation. What is it made of? Where did the things it was made of come from? Who made it? Who transported it? Who packaged it? Who sold it? A tree relies on the sun, rain and soil. All the elements rely on one another. All affect one another. This is the nature of dependent co-arising. Our thoughts are conditioned as well, dependent on sensory experience, memory, and events in the past, the present or what we fear or hope might happen in the future. They arise and fall away just as physical matter arises and falls away, in a non-linear complex web of interwoven events. This is important to notice when we look at the dhammas, these lists that constitute The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness. Why so many lists? The hindrances, aggregates, sense spheres, etc. do not present themselves in list form when we experience them for ourselves, do they? No. We experience ‘worry’ as worry, not as an item on a list of the Five Hindrances. Each component of any of these Buddhist lists is also part of the web of dependent co-arising. Lists are not the way we experience life, but they do have their uses, don’t they? We organize information in this way to assure ourselves that we have addressed everything we need to remember. The many, MANY lists in the Buddha’s teachings, were memorized and handed down from generation to generation of monks in a purely oral tradition for the first 500 years after the Buddha’s death. We can see they did a good job of clear transmission, because even now, 2500 years later, we are still empowered to investigate and discover for ourselves the truth of the teachings. If the transmission had broken down, subverted by some leader’s thirst for power, turned into dead dogma, the teachings could not be verified in the experience of each meditator who dedicates him or herself to meditative practice. We don’t have to be Buddhists to have this experience. There is no one path that can claim the only way to wisdom or enlightenment. I came to the Buddha’s teachings after having already experienced for myself the power of meditation to heal and sense the unity of all being. So when I arrived at Spirit Rock Meditation Center back in the mid-1990’s, it was like coming home. My first teacher at Spirit Rock, Sylvia Boorstein, read my book, Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living, and called it ‘jargon-free dharma.’ You might wonder why, if I had already literally ‘written the book’ or at least a book, I set aside teaching and writing about what I had discovered in order to study and practice Buddhism for the next fifteen years. Simply this: I love the elegant structure of the way the Buddha’s teachings are organized. This structure offers the best possible chance for someone to awaken. And so I learn it. And so, once again, I share it. That said, I have to add that the compilation of all these lists seems a bit crazy-making. There are lists of Buddhist lists they can be helpful to give an overview of all the teachings. But it’s important for us all to remember that we are not asked to memorize the lists or to take them in all at once, even if it were possible to do so. As we go through the dhammas, we go at our own pace, taking in what we are able to understand, what we are able to see is true from our own experience, and we let the rest wait, rising like dough for us to knead at another time when we are ready. All this to say we are about to look at another list! It’s the last list before we look at the Four Noble Truths, which of course is a list of four and contains a list within it of the Eightfold Path.

The Seven Awakening Factors
For those of you who were on our recent retreat, just think of some of the mental qualities that you may have experienced during your meditative sitting, walking and simply being in nature. We practiced and experienced Mindfulness. That’s the first and foremost of the Awakening Factors, without which the others are unable to arise. In class, students responded quite naturally with several of the Awakening Factors on their own. This is the nature of the dharma. For those who are practicing meditation on a regular basis, the dharma reveals itself. Several students spoke of the quality of peacefulness, which is the same as the factor called Tranquility. They talked about a sense of opening, another way to describe Equanimity, the ability to create spaciousness to hold whatever arises with ease and balance. I reminded the students of some of the comments they made at the end of the retreat. One had spoken of experiencing a quality of aliveness. This is the Awakening Factor of Energy. Another student had spoken of noticing how three roses were in different states of bloom, and that one had been nibbled on and she was so glad there was enough to share. This is an example of the Awakening Factor called Investigation of the Dhammas. I remember noticing a student sitting by the waterfall, eyes closed, deep in Concentration on the sense of sound, and with a smile filling her whole face, in a state of pure Joy. So we come to this ‘list’ not as something foreign, but something wonderfully familiar. Everything in boldface is an awakening factor. Next week we will explore how these Awakening Factors work together to bring balance and, well, awakening! But for now it’s enough to know that all these lists may look daunting or boring from the outside, but when we begin to explore them, we are really coming home to the experience of our own practice.

After the Retreat

Last Thursday, our first class after our daylong retreat, one student entered quipping, ‘Ah, the laundry,’ referencing Jack Kornfield’s book titled After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.
Once the retreat is over, is it over? Maybe yes, maybe no. We can’t expect the same level of relaxation, attention, appreciation, realization and awakening to the interconnection of being to be sustained far beyond a retreat. This is true no matter how long the retreat is. So why bother going on retreat if the ‘magic’ wears off? Because having experienced that sense of communion, we are forever changed, even if we are not necessarily able to sustain a sense of transcendent bliss. Every retreat I have been on gave me at least one meaningful insight that helps me through difficult times even years later.
For those retreatants who experience a sense of oneness, that brief glimpse is enough to infuse a sense of Wise View. The nature of that experience is timeless. When we sense the infinite nature of being and the oneness that permeates all that is, it indelibly permeates the fabric of our being. This softens our habituated patterns and releases us and those around us from the harshness of our judgments, the prickly, demanding or grumpy qualities we may have had, as well as reduces the occurrence of physical illness. So retreats are important and have lasting value, but expecting that sense of magic or high to last is a set up for disappointment. At our day long several students found that the lunches they brought were the most delicious food they ever tasted. Two specifically talked about how the bread they had been eating for years suddenly had so much more flavor, and the variety of grains could be tasted in a way they had never noticed before. Eating the same meal a few days later at home, it was hard to imagine what was so wondrous about the bread. This is the nature of retreat. I have a reputation in my family for being a speedy eater. When my stepsons were three and four, sitting at the dinner table observing me scarfing down my food, they thought this must be a race, so when my plate was empty, one cheered and said, ‘Stephanie wins!’ How embarrassing! So it was with great delight that I discovered the pleasure of eating slowly on my first retreat, really tasting the food and feeling gratitude for the cooks, the grocers, the truckers, the farmers, the earth, the rain and the sunshine that made this meal possible. I vowed to remember to eat more slowly. Back home, even at my first meal, I was so excited to share with my husband all that I’d experienced and learned, that I noticed my plate was empty and I hadn’t even remembered eating it! But over the years, I see that I am no longer always the first one done. Usually, but not always! The regular practice of mindfulness and compassion for ourselves and others will quite naturally begin to shift destructive or simply mindless habits. We don’t have to make a solemn vow to eat more slowly and appreciate the food. We can simply reset our powerful and ongoing intentions to be mindful and compassionate. Again and again. These two paired intentions are all the ‘magic’ we need to gently and naturally transform mindlessness and misery into awakened radiant joy.

Coming Home to Our Senses

In our many months of exploration of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness we have been balancing concepts and simple practice. It is important to keep in mind that the practice of anchoring our awareness in physical sensation and cultivating compassion is always more important than the concepts. You can have insight practice without the concepts, but the concepts are only useful in tandem with a dedicated mindfulness practice. These are experience-based teachings. But the concepts, if you can stay with them, will make it so easier to do the practice and to stay grounded in it.  Some of the concepts explored seem abstract, others feel more concrete and easily accessible. Today we will look at just such a concrete teaching: The Sense Spheres. With this exploration we are coming home to our senses. This is where we begin every meditation and where we return to when our mind has wandered off into thought. So it is not foreign or alien. It’s one of the first things we learn as babies. The six sense-spheres are paired in two’s: the sense organ and the sense object. We have the five physical senses of eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. Each is paired with its counterpart object: sight, sound, odor, flavor and touch. That’s five senses. What is the sixth? The Buddha considered the mind to be one of the senses because it is an integral part of the process of sensing. Without the mind, how would the sense organs know what they were sensing? It is liberating to think of the mind and thought as just another sense and sense object, as impersonal as the eyes and sight. How refreshing not to think of the mind as who we are but as just an organ that processes sensory input using thought, reason, memory and reflection. Especially as we age and the mind sometimes falters, if we see it as an organ like the ears or eyes or taste-buds, all of which often deteriorate in some way with age, we might be sad or frustrated at the loss, but we do not see it as a personal failing. It’s just another common occurrence in the process of growing older. Applying Our Understanding of The Five Aggregates

The Five Aggregates: body, feeling tones, cognition, volition and consciousness make up the way we perceive and experience the world which we encounter initially with our senses. Knowing them, we can see clearly the stages of experience and are better able to develop the muscle of mindfulness. Here is a typical sequence of the perceptual process:

  1. Body — Initial contact with a sense object, for example: a sound.
  2. Feeling Tone – We have an immediate feeling tone response to the sound. It’s either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. A pleasant ‘What lovely bird song!” or an unpleasant “What an irritating leaf blower!” or a neutral soft thud of a car door closing, that might not even register.
  3. Cognition – We identify or work hard at trying to identify the source of the sound. “What kind of bird is that?” Now if you’re a birder, you might go on to, “I should know that.” If you’re not but think you’d like to be, you might think ‘I should take that class on bird song’ and suddenly your mind has taken you to the local community college, and then you think about how you could go on one of those birding field trips. And suddenly you’re in an Amazon jungle, binoculars in hand staring up into the tangle of vines and leaves. Your mind itself has become a jungle.
    Or if the sound was a leaf blower, we might go, “Maybe it’s not a leaf blower, maybe it’s a chain saw.” The mind wants to identify accurately the source of any sense. “What neighbor is using that chain saw?”
    Then it goes into association that takes us on an extended journey into the past and the future: “I should probably call someone to check out our trees. That one oak has a branch that really looks iffy. I was really afraid in the last storm. Boy that was a rough night.” “I wouldn’t want it to fall on the house. God, what if it fell on the house when the grandchildren were napping in the guest room.” And on, and on in a flurry of memories, planning or fantasy.
  4. Volition – Perhaps we decide to go do something about the sound: If it’s unpleasant we might put our hands over our ears, close the door, or get away from the sound. If it’s pleasant we might move closer to the sound, or we might move our bodies to the delightful rhythms of the sound, or investigate it further to see what the sound is.
  5. Consciousness – At some point we become aware that we are lost in thought.

We don’t decide to think all these thoughts. The thoughts, projections and associations proliferate quickly into a densely woven network, and we are as helplessly trapped as a fly in a spider web. So there’s no point in beating ourselves up about having been lost. And doing so is just another tangle of thoughts we immediately get lost in. That’s why compassion is so important. The moment we are aware that we have been thinking is cause for celebration, not punishment. We are here now in this moment. Ah. How do we untangle ourselves from the web of thought? That’s an almost impossible challenge since we are not aware that we are trapped and don’t see it as a problem until suddenly we do. Wouldn’t it be easier and wiser to learn to recognize how the web arises in the mind and how to not get drawn into it? That’s what we do with mindfulness practice. We slow down enough to see how the process works. We set the intention to be with the sensory experience itself, to let a sound be a sound, a smell be a smell, etc. and to be sufficiently aware not launch into subjective mental activity that takes us out of the present moment.
Woof!   In class we talked about the value of treating the wandering mind like an excited and untrained puppy. This helps us to hold it with the right amount of loving kindness and intention to train it well. We have the puppy-mind on a leash but at first the leash is so long the puppy wanders far and wide. As we learn to hold the leash — learn to anchor our awareness in physical sensation — the puppy may begin to wander but doesn’t go very far before we gently pull the leash.

So in the example above of the mind following a sound all the way to the Amazon, with training maybe it only gets as far as the local community college. With more mindfulness practice, eventually a sound is just noted as sound.

Symphony of Silence    Perhaps you are familiar with the work of John Cage who famously composed and presented a piece titled 4’33 which he performed to a packed symphony hall. It consisted of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence on his part, allowing the sounds of the audience be the symphony. As originally performed it is reported that the audience had a lot of response, was made uncomfortable, and there was a lot to listen to. I just checked several YouTube versions of recently performed versions of 4’33, and the audience was almost completely silent! What a rich silence comes from hundreds of people sitting together paying close attention to one focus, a man with a piano and a timer, or a conductor with an orchestra and a timer, all in silence, but not waiting for anything. So John Cage taught us something hugely important. Can we incorporate it into our own practice? The willingness to be present for whatever arises without needing it to be more than simply noting ‘sound’ or one of the other sense objects. That is our mindfulness practice. 

This is not deprivation but liberation and the opening of a previously unnoticed and ignored richness of the present moment. This is awakening to the joy that rests in every moment if we are only here to experience it

Awareness dissolves mental hindrances

Last week I introduced The Five Hindrances, the first of the dhammas that make up the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness. All these numbers and lists might have you throwing up your hands at this point. It does seem a little daunting. But any time you think, ‘This is too much,’ just allow yourself to rest in awareness of whatever physical sensation is present in that moment.

Remember that all we really need is the two intentions with which we enter meditation: The intention to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and the intention to be compassionate with ourselves and others. In meditation and in our daily life, if we can reset these intentions whenever we are feeling lost or confused, we are good to go!

Then why learn anything else about the dharma? Each of us has to decide for ourselves whether in this moment we are ready and able to learn more of the Buddha’s teachings. If the cup is full, stop pouring in more tea! Our minds can only take in so much information. Then we need to spend time with what we have taken in, allow it to steep. 

Buddhism is primarily experiential. The dharma lessons point the way and provide tools for the experience to illuminate and awaken, but if we just study-study-study, then we are out of balance with the teachings. Our own sitting and walking meditations, our own ability to create spaciousness in our experience brings the dharma home where it can actually give meaning and end suffering. All else is restless mind, greedy mind, trying to know it all. Resting in ‘I don’t know!’ is one of the most delightful experiences of my life. I rejoice in it. I savor it. It’s delicious. Make room for that sense of being comfortable with not knowing and see for yourself if it releases a few endorphins.

If you have been following along and have developed a regular practice of meditation, then it may be interesting to explore more of the Buddha’s teachings that shed so much light on our experience. One of my students mentioned this week that the Five Hindrances might be a more accessible door to the dharma for some people.

What are the Five Hindrances?

The Five Hindrances are mind states that act as obstacles to clarity of mind. They are desire/craving, aversion, restlessness and worry, sloth and torpor, and doubt. Do any of these sound familiar? Most of us experience all of them at one time or another, sometimes in combination or quick succession. In class, one student felt sloth was too pejorative a term. Another clarified the distinction between sloth and torpor — sloth a sense of physical sluggishness and torpor more a fogginess of the brain. This sounded right to me. It’s important to remember that all of these terms are the closest English approximation to the original Pali language terms. Can we leave room in our understanding for the translations to not be completely satisfactory?

How to be in skillful relationship with the Hindrances
It is skillful to acknowledge the Hindrances that are currently present in our experience. That recognition is all that is required. If we actively try to change them or push them away, we are just getting caught up in aversion. Compassionate awareness brings everything into balance. If we can stay present with the hindrance that we notice, it can teach us something valuable. Each hindrance has the capacity to be a great gift, if we recognize it, can stay present with it and learn its nature. This is the path of awakening! So don’t turn away.

One student said she really liked the word ‘hindrance’ — so much easier to deal with than ‘character flaw,’ the term she was raised with. Other students nodded their heads.

Yes! We can much more easily spend time noting a ‘hindrance’ than dwelling on a ‘character flaw’ that takes us right into shame or guilt. The statement, ‘Oh, I’m so lazy,’ takes us to a dead end place where we either suffer quietly with our ‘defect’ or noisily try to bust out, rebelling at the label.

How much wiser is the statement, ‘Ah, sloth, I know you.’ This simple recognition of a transitory state passing through our experience has the ability to dissolve it on the spot. We don’t claim it, cling to it, or react to it. We sit with it, see it for what it is, and the clarity of recognition brings us into the present moment.

Noting what causes hindrances to arise
The Buddha’s teachings also encourage us to notice what leads us to activate these hindrances, and then to mindfully avoid those situations. For example, if you crave alcohol, don’t hang out in a bar. If you crave pastries, don’t go inside the bakery. Years ago when I attended Weight Watchers meetings, I remember they called the foods we just couldn’t resist ‘red light foods.’ The answer to these irresistible temptations was to not have them in the kitchen, to not tempt ourselves with what was just too challenging. This works to a point, especially when we are feeling most vulnerable.

With each of the hindrances we can observe in our own lives the point at which they are activated. It might not be a place, person or object that sets it off. It might simply be a habituated pattern of thought that we get caught in again and again. We just go there, almost as a default position. Noticing the pattern is skillful. Then we can investigate the nature of the pattern. We can see which mind state it leads to. We might see where it comes from — a parent, a teacher, an old love interest, a playmate or schoolyard bully.

The radiant light of awareness, developed through these mindfulness practices, recognizes that thoughts, emotions, mind states, etc. are not who we are. We suffer in our attachment to them as identity, and are liberated from suffering when we simply enjoy and feel gratitude for the opportunity to experience all of this finite fleeting earth experience in whatever form it takes.

Seeing what activates the hindrances helps us to develop the ability to stay present with a clear mind. This ability at first may seem so brief that we have a hard time seeing how it even happens. I remember thinking that it was like alighting on the head of a pin and then almost instantly falling off. When I understood that this was natural, like the challenge to find balance when learning to walk or ride a bike, I was less frustrated and thus more able to be present with the experience. With practice that brief alighting becomes more constant, a widening stable foundation where we place our awareness.

While we are developing our practice it is especially important to be with people who support us in our practice and to avoid spending too much time with those who lure us into behaviors that lead to mindlessness or actively try to throw us off this course. This is being kind and skillful.

As our practice deepens and our sense of being in the present grows, we may be sufficiently grounded in our practice to recognize that not only can we resist temptations that had previously drawn us, but we have a sense of presence that helps others become more grounded as well. This is not something we aim for, lest our goal-setting topples our equanimity. But we can recognize when it happens, and then be less self-protective and more engaged in the world beyond sangha in a way that creates a sense of moment.

A good test is to see if you are using the word ‘should’ as in ‘I should be able to sit in a bar and drink iced tea even though I crave liquor.’ The word ‘should’ is just a stick we beat ourselves up with. Put it down and pick up compassion and common sense instead!

Noting when the Hindrances are absent
If we find we are in a state of awareness, the Buddha encourages us to notice how that feels and to enjoy the spacious ease of not being caught up in the thirst of sensual desire, the turbulence of aversion, the sluggishness of torpor, the agitation of restlessness and worry, or the muddiness of doubt. To rest in clarity is peaceful and pleasurable, and this pleasure is finer than any we had imagined when pursuing a goal driven by sensual desire. Whatever happiness we were striving to achieve is nothing compared to this. Just this. Bliss.