Category Archives: noticing

What I learned on my summer vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what have you learned lately?

Noting sensations and emotions: It’s not all bad!

five sensesLast week I shared the experience of receiving difficult news, and the challenges of meditating with ‘the elephant in the room’ — that one big overbearing excruciating thought/emotion.

Over the course of the week, I continued to pay attention to physical sensation, and what a series of shifts there were to notice! Before the ‘elephant’ sensation set in, back when we were waiting to hear the diagnosis after my brother’s many scan, tests and biopsies — dreading bad news but also wanting answers — my whole body had been wracked with tension. Of course I did what I could to relax and release it, but the body just kept saying ‘Really?’

Then when I wrote last week’s post right after receiving the news we had dreaded. (Thank you to friends who wrote with concern and I’m sorry to have been so opaque about what is going on, but this is the internet after all, and I was concerned for my brother’s privacy. This week I realize we’re in for the long haul here, since he was diagnosed with metastasized cancer, and though it won’t be the subject of every post — I promise! — it is now very much a presence in my life, and it would be counter to the practice to pretend to ignore it. I also realized that only very close friends and family know who my brother is, so his privacy is not really an issue here.)

Okay, so we get this tidal wave of challenging news, and I notice that the tension that was wracking my whole body dissipated. I was no longer anxious because I wasn’t waiting on pins and needles with worry and not knowing. Instead I was brokenhearted, and felt the heaviness in the heart area that accompanies the strong emotions of loss, grief, sorrow. The elephant wasn’t just ‘in the room’. It was sitting on my chest!

Now because my difficult news still has, after extensive treatments, the potential to turn into good news eventually, the heaviness in my chest lifted more quickly than it might have had the news been of a permanent loss. I say this for anyone who has lost a loved one, either by death or separation. In that case the heaviness may lift and return many times. Or there may be other physical sensations that might be noticed. The main thing is that we practice noticing, staying in touch with physical sensation, because it is such a valuable messenger at a time we may be feeling quite lost. If we feel exhausted, for example, we need to take care of ourselves and not keep pushing. If we keep pushing, what happens? We find we are behaving unskillfully, and feelings are hurt all around.

For all of us dealing with ANY challenges in life of whatever magnitude, it’s tempting to embrace pleasant sensations and push through or ignore unpleasant ones. But in our practice of being present, we do ourselves a disservice by trying to escape our experience. There are no short cuts through the landscape of emotions. When we try to cut through the rough grass to get to some other part of our trail that looks easier, we get scratched, we get ticks, we get poison oak or ivy, and oftentimes we get lost. This, whatever it is in this moment, is the experience we need to attend.

But what if the pain is intolerable?
Sometimes a particular sensation, thought or emotion feels unbearable. But if we cultivate spaciousness, we might begin to notice that there is more than just this one unpleasant experience going on in this moment.

A physical example of this might be a strong pain in the right knee. Instead of getting caught up in a story about the pain, we expand our awareness to notice that maybe the other knee doesn’t hurt, or if it does, that the thigh or the shoulder or the foot is either neutral or is maybe even having a pleasant sensation. We are not running away from what is. We are expanding to include all of what is happening in this current moment, not just the difficult thing.

This is the same with current conditions. We notice unpleasant conditions, but being fully present with it allows us to also notice whatever pleasant or neutral things are occurring as well. Have you ever seen a child surrounded by toys, friends and loving parents, pouting or crying because of one little thing that isn’t to his or her liking? Have you ever seen news footage of a person in a desolate refugee camp commenting on some little thing in their experience that brings them joy? In both cases we can see that we all have choices in what we notice. This is not a Pollyanna prescription. No one’s saying ‘Look on the bright side’. We’re saying, in every moment, cultivate awareness and compassion, and look at ALL sides, or see beyond ‘sides’ and into the vast realm of being alive and awake in this moment. What a gift!

Activating all the senses and enjoying pleasant ones is a way of bringing balance into our current experience. Maybe that’s why there’s often engaging art in hospitals. It doesn’t take us away from the experience but it does offer balance. Yes, this is difficult but life itself is not inherently a horrible experience. Many hospitals also offer comfortable outdoor seating, so that sunshine and plants will bring us solace. This is not avoidance. This is balance.

So notice in any given moment all the sensations — sights, sounds, textures, temperature, energy level, tension, ease, pressure, twinges, aches, etc. — and see if you can simply stay present with the symphony of experience without getting caught up in wanting it to be different than it is.

This is not about fixing anything about ourselves or anything else. We are practicing a skill that has never been encouraged before, so it’s new and challenging. Any self-judgment simply creates more to notice, and more compassion and spaciousness for us to cultivate.

Excuses! Excuses! A Procrastination Exploration

When we are really noticing our thoughts we can see where we shut down, where we find road blocks in our way. Maybe we say we want to do something or go somewhere, but we keep procrastinating. What is the message that sets up the block that keeps us from doing this thing we say we want to do?

Meditation practice creates a spacious mind where such noticing becomes possible. We can set aside time after meditation to ask in and see if there is some concern or issue that feels important to look at right now.

Perhaps there is some lifelong dream that we keep putting off. What is the story that gets spun every time we think of that dream? The story we tell ourselves may be spun in words, images, sensations or emotions. We may show ourselves examples of past failures in the area of the dream. We may be dredge up harsh judgments with rude labels that make us feel disempowered, unable to accomplish what it is we feel drawn to do. The story may not seem to have a direct correlation yet we see that it is automatically triggered by the thought of the dream, so we can explore the connection. We can develop curiosity about how that leap happens.

Energy Levels
We may notice a variation in levels of energy around the idea. At 4 AM if I am awake I am likely to have a whole series of interconnected creative ideas that culminate in grand schemes that seem totally do-able at the time. By 4 PM these ideas seem absolutely impossible to accomplish and leave me feeling weighted down with yet another creative idea I will not fulfill. So I have learned to write my ideas up in level-adjusted versions, starting with the grand scheme and ending with the key component or thrust of the basic idea, the thing I can definitely do. If there are aspects that are not something I can do on my own but it feels like a worthy idea, I make note of who would be the right person or community of people to do it. I sometimes have ideas that are simply not mine to fulfill. Apparently we all do because there’s a site called where you can put up ideas that you will never use in case someone else who doesn’t have the idea but has the ability to run with it might find it.

Now I could just tell myself to go back to sleep at 4 AM, tell myself, ‘You know you’re never going to do any of this, why are you wasting this time?’ I have gone that route but have found that when I shut down the thought process, I am in effect capping the font of creativity that I seem to have more access to at certain times.

Noticing our energy cycles, when we are most alive, awake, cookin’ and when we are more likely to be tired, unable to concentrate or make a decision, is important and skillful awareness so that we can make use of our peak times and be compassionate with our low times. (Since my lowest time is four in the afternoon, it was a challenge when this class was for years at 4 pm. That’s how I got in the habit of reading my dharma talks rather than speaking them. I really couldn’t think on my feet very well at that time of day. Now the class is at 10 AM and I feel much fresher and more able to lead discussions and answer questions. But students are in the habit of listening to my written talk, and they say they feel it’s like being read a story. I realize I am more of a writer than a teacher, so I do read the talk, then we have a discussion. But when I give speeches to larger groups I don’t even rely on notes.)

If we can notice our patterns of energy we can schedule our lives more skillfully. If the dips are very low and disruptive, we might also adjust our eating patterns. But if the levels are not sending us into extremes, we can simply schedule high energy periods for creativity and low ones for rest and relaxation. Understanding our own rhythms and cycles is an important part of self-discovery and the ability to live skillfully. And seeing the levels of energy we can understand why at times we are inspired by a dream and at other times discouraged.

Sometimes we are actually holding other people’s dreams and we feel the responsibility to act upon them. Self-exploration helps us to see the source of our dream. It’s not uncommon even at a late age to still be holding a parent’s expectation or dream for us, feeling guilty if we haven’t fulfilled it. Once we discover that it isn’t even our own dream, it is much easier to let it go.

Sometimes we are hanging on to dreams we once had that have gone stale and no longer have meaning for us. We hold on out of habit. Sometimes we really need to clean out our wardrobe of dreams that just aren’t working for us anymore!

To assess whether a dream is vibrant and alive or stale and in need of discarding, we sense in while holding the dream in our thoughts. Where do we feel it in our body? Is there greed or aversion involved? Is this something we want in order to be seen in a certain way by others? To gain approval? To exist? These dreams are born from a shallow-rooted fear-based place. For example, the desire to be fabulously rich, famous or adored as an object of desire is the fear of disappearing, not being seen. We can ask ourselves what amount of money would be enough to satisfy this need? What amount of recognition would satisfy this hunger? What amount of adoration would make the mirror any kinder? What amount of accomplishment would make us feel we deserved to take up space on the planet?

We can look to past longings in this area and find in many cases that we have fulfilled what we had thought would satisfy us. Yet here we are still hungry! There is an image in Buddhist teachings of the hungry ghost. It has a very small mouth and a huge belly, so it is constantly hungry but unable to satisfy its hunger. We can notice the hungry ghost within us –that fear-based desire that can never be satisfied no matter what we accomplish, no matter how much money we accumulate, no matter how many awards we receive and no matter how much we are loved.

We can see this in ourselves and we can see it in others, how little even major achievements or large bank deposits seems to satisfy the hunger for something that feels beyond naming. We can see how this hunger dulls our other senses, how little joy is possible when this longing is ever present. This is just the nature of a shallow-rooted fear-based dream. It can never be satisfied.

When we recognize this, it is cause for celebration. Celebration? Yes, because we are developing the skill of awareness to notice what is true. But often when we make this discovery, we don’t feel like celebrating. We are too embarrassed to discover we had such a shallow dream.

This is where our intention to be present and compassionate comes in to help us be with even something very ugly and uncomfortable, and to hold ourselves in a loving open embrace. We have made a great discovery and we need to be present to reap the rewards of the discovery, not rush away from it, afraid of what it says about us. The only thing it says about us is that we are human, and if that is new news, it can feel painful, but it is also a sense of communion. We are not alone in this. We are an expression of life in all its manifestations, and these convoluted fear-based thoughts and emotions arise in all of us. This understanding helps us to be courageous in staying present with our discoveries.

So sensing into the body, noticing what arises when we think of a dream we have been telling ourselves, gives us rich vital information, even when it’s painful.

If this dream we have been telling ourselves is born of love and generosity, sharing of our skills, experience and talents, or a desire to know the world in a deeper more meaningful way, we will have quite a different experience with it. We might feel a joyousness of inner sureness, a sense of absolute yes that fills us with a feeling of being in the right place at the right time and empowered to do whatever we need to do.

If we feel blocked, we can recognize the fear-based voice full of reasons why we shouldn’t undertake this dream, why we shouldn’t take a chance and why we would fail if we tried. Once known, the blockage may disappear or we may need to work with it, to negotiate a settlement that assuages the fears expressed. Or the block may be pointing out something that needs to happen before we can actualize our dream.

For example, I had a fear-based aspect that believed I would make myself sick if I did any public speaking. So I joined Toastmasters, an international organization that helps people overcome the fear of public speaking and develop speech and leadership skills. The practice of speaking in a supportive environment has helped me overcome the anxiety. This is an example of working in a very practical way with our blockages, developing the skills and acquiring the needed knowledge or experience to meet the dreams, rather than wasting our time telling ourselves we are not up to the task, if it’s something we truly want to do.

We need to know what are the messages, what are the excuses that keep us from doing what we want to do in this our precious gift of life. So take a few minutes now to quiet down inside. Then see if there is something in your life you want to do that you have put off again and again. It could be a small thing or a big thing.

Whatever it is write down what the dream is. Sometimes it is enough to just make the dream known. We can be so busy in our lives that we don’t even know we are feeling drawn to do something of value for our lives and perhaps the lives of others.

Now stay with this thought of the dream, and notice if anything gets in the way. This will be a reason why it is not possible. Maybe there will be a stream of reasons, but for now let’s stay with the first one that comes up. It may seem like a very practical reason and will be very convincing. After all, it has convinced you over and over again. But this time write it down. If there are other reasons that arise from it, write them all down.

Read over the dream and sense in to the body, noticing how it feels to envision this dream.

What did you notice? If you felt an opening or a sense of greater aliveness, this is an active dream, even if it is edged with a little tension because the fear-based aspect feels threatened at the very mention of this dream.

If there is no felt sense when you think of this dream, perhaps it is no longer true for you. Perhaps you are just used to saying this is something you want to do. Perhaps the dream has shifted in some way and you need to spend more time actively questioning and renaming it. Or perhaps you are already living your life in a way that is meaningful to you and the dream you have named is nothing that would significantly enhance your sense of aliveness.

If the senses feel deadened, then the dream has died. How does it feel when you think the dream has died? Is there regret? Denial? Anger? Relief? Acceptance? Resignation? Explore the reactions for valuable clues. Do they rise up around a lot of thoughts or just this one? If just this one, it may be time to take that dream to the Goodwill! Let it go! Let yourself love this moment and not be dragged constantly into some other potential moment. You are fine just as you are. Your life is just fine as it is. If that doesn’t ring true for you, explore some more.

Notice physical sensation associated with any thought. The thoughts themselves might be challenging to address because fear-based aspects get activated and dominate the conversation, denying the quiet wise inner voice access. Addressing physical sensations that arise with a relaxing breath, some metta (loving kindness) and a willingness to be present and notice the sensation, helps us to be more skillful and less frantic, so that we can access that inner wisdom and have a valuable inner dialog.

Notice image, sound or smell memories that seem to arise out of nowhere. What is the association with the subject at hand? We often answer our own questions through these means but we rarely pay attention to the answers!

If through your noticing you have found that this life dream is very much alive, and yet you continually procrastinate, making excuses why you cannot do it, then a skillfully conducted inner dialog is useful to discover what is holding you back.

So listen to the messages you are receiving in whatever form they come. Listen, notice, respect and honor these messages. These are the skillful means to discovering what is blocking your way. Judging, accusing, denying, paving over, ignoring, pushing aside, killing, sympathizing, glorifying, justifying, feeling victimized, put upon, etc. are the unskillful means that most of us use all the time when we realize that we aren’t doing what we want to be doing.

The first most skillful thing to do is to question. Is this true? The insertion of a question opens a whole world of possibility that we were unaware of previous to paying this close attention. We thought we had it down. We knew the answers. We believed everything we thought because we are often so vested in being right, in knowing ourselves. The suggestion that we don’t know ourselves as well as we thought can feel threatening to the fear-based aspects within that have been ruling the roost. The wise inner voice is fearless in the face of a question. A question is like a wonderful breath of fresh air that makes possible clarity and understanding.

‘Is this true?’ Apply this to every excuse or judgment that arises. If an insistent inner aspect says ‘Yes, yes, of course it’s true, dummy.’ Then we ask, ‘How do I know this is true?’ The inner aspect has not done its homework and is not used to being questioned so doesn’t have a ready answer. You can feel the stumped quality that can stir up shame, anger, embarrassment, and other emotions. But this just helps to clarify that it is indeed a fear-based inner aspect that is voicing this excuse.

This can feel like an uncomfortable place to hang out, but in fact it’s very juicy and fruitful if we can stay with it and access our inner wisdom, our sense of kindness and compassion that isn’t threatened by all this acting out and stomping about going on inside our consciousness.

Throughout the process, we may need to continually re-access the wise inner voice, to remember the qualities we have discussed before that indicate this is deep-rooted inner wisdom and not shallow-rooted fear speaking. Remember the wise inner voice will be calm, patient, loving, kind and have a timeless sense, while the fear-based aspects will be urgent, caffeinated, opinionated, demanding using words like should, must and have to. They will be unkind and resort to name calling. It is pretty easy to tell the difference once you are really paying attention and creating a quiet space for the wise inner voice to be audible.

If you are afraid you don’t have a wise inner voice, relax. That’s just some fear-based aspect terrified of the consequences of your accessing your own inner wisdom. It is there, quietly waiting for your attention. It is an ever-present constant. It isn’t going anywhere! We just aren’t in the habit of listening in. That’s why we practice meditation, to develop the muscle of hearing our inner wisdom and being guided by it, instead of being ruled by a chaotic bunch of fearful inner aspects.

So if this has been a useful exercise for you, if you feel you have found a vein worth exploring, please take time throughout the week to do so.

Noticing: Thoughts on the Beach

Walking on the ocean’s edge yesterday, I noticed huge clumps of kelp, all tangled like beached whales. This, I thought, is how thoughts are when they get tumbled in the rough storm of emotion.

The beach was so clear that even the delicate tide lines showed, even the impressions of tidal bubbles left lacey tracks. And I thought: This is like the meditative mind, so quiet that even the most subtle thoughts, emotions and sensations become clearly visible.

I looked at the interwoven smooth and salty surfaces of the maroon and ochre kelp, remembering how as a child I would take that bulbous length and run with it, whipping up the sand for the sheer joy and exuberance of such a vast expanse of space.

In some of the clumps were tangles of turquoise rope. I imagined the small boat from which it came, for this was not a shipboard purchase but the choice made in a boat shop where the color promised tropical sea sailing instead of the cold cruelty of the choppy Bay, Gate and Pacific Ocean. Nearby on the beach there was what looked to be a peach-colored oval stone, but when I picked it up it was light-weight, with four evenly spaced holes and a wedge cut the full length of both sides for line to slide, so I knew it to be nautical in nature. I suppose there are some sloppy sailors, but I noticed how images of some mid-ocean mishap arose within my mind.

There was a dark green plastic garbage can stranded on the beach, without wheels or lid. I noticed how this object launched a long involved fantasy beginning with imagining dragging it along, picking up the detritus of human life, leaving the shore devoid of all but footprints. But there seemed so much, and I thought how it’s a long way to April 22nd, so I imagined an ‘earth day every day’ party where we would don gloves and carry garbage bags to pick up the oil cans, the bottle caps and bags. And people would come to help and come for the tasty picnic part with rich conversation and camaraderie and leave feeling nourished in every way.

Together my husband Will and I imagined a lot of photos we might have taken had we remembered the camera – especially of the dune grasses thatched so decoratively against the russet cliffs in the distance. We framed potential paintings and planned to return, camera in hand, while knowing no moment can ever be recaptured, that the light would shift and the grasses would fade.

We watched, enchanted by the chubby little sanderlings racing on their tiny legs, chasing each receding wave as it exposed choice tidbits, with precious few seconds to poke, suck and swallow before rushing to escape the incoming flow that followed.

And now I share this experience with you, not in the hopes to take you there yesterday at the beach, though it would have been fun, but to offer up this example of a typical mind at work, and all the kinds of thoughts that traverse through it like the kelp through the storm, like the turquoise rope through the oval fitting, that now washed ashore whispers scary stories, like the plastic leavings and the thatched grasses calling up regrets, wishes and plans.

And the shore birds bringing attention back to this moment, as they need — as we need — every moment to be conscious.

So we become conscious of the thoughts that are just the tangled detritus of our nature. And if we find that we are caught in the tight tangle of thoughts, we can, through meditation and metta (loving kindness), give ourselves the spaciousness of the vast expanse of beautiful beach that is contained in our every breath, our every awareness of physical sensation.

The thoughts do not disappear. We simply see them in the context of how the brain functions, a part of the experience of being alive in human form. By broadening our spacious awareness through practice we make room for all of life. And this making room for what is arising in this moment is the key to finding joy and relieving suffering.

But how do we practice it? During meditation we practice opening into the silence, releasing tension, setting intention, and paying compassionate attention to a sensory experience – the breath, the sounds in the room, etc.

What about after we open our eyes? I would like to encourage a continuing of this kind of awareness practice even after the meditation is over. The meditation shows us what’s possible, but if we treat it as a getaway vacation instead of instruction for living our lives, we are peeling the apple, tossing away the most nutritious part.

The most nutritious part of meditation comes outside of formal practice when we continue to maintain a level of awareness. Meditation is training us to be present, but if we don’t practice being present in every moment, then what is the training for?

In our post-meditation discussion this week we did this. And it is something you can do on your own, with friends or in a meditation group.

We adjust our bodies to be relaxed but alert. We stay present with the rising and falling of the breath or other sensory focus, even as we listen to each other, even as we notice our thoughts, our judgments, or questions, our feelings. And in our discussions we actively practice using our language in a way that helps us to continue to recognize the nature of our thoughts. Instead of stating our opinions or facts, we can actually say, “I notice that when you say ________ a judging thought comes up for me, or a question comes up for me, or tension arises in my body, or a feeling of ______ comes up.” Now this is by nature a slow and maybe at times awkward structure, BUT it is a way for us to intensify our practice and bring it into the rest of our lives where it might serve us well.

This process is at once deeply personal yet universal. The thoughts we each have are not our thoughts. They are just the nature of thoughts, and we all experience them as they pass through, given a wide variety of factors, causes and conditions. Perhaps some system of thoughts gets stuck in a holding pattern, like the eddy of a stream where branches get stuck, and it easy to think of them as ours because we become so familiar with them we begin to define ourselves by their existence. But there is no thought that defines who we are. Knowing this frees us to greet thoughts with curiosity and loving kindness, neither grasping them nor pushing them away.

So try this exercise of speaking from your most conscious spacious awareness, bringing to light with loving kindness the process of your thoughts.

Enjoy the spacious beach-ocean-sky of the human mind, including all the thought forms that pass through it!

Black-eyed Dharma

I recently taught a day long retreat with a black eye, the result of a fall I had while hiking in the mountains. My hands and knees were also bruised but not so on display as this amazingly dramatic black eye and bruised chin.

‘Well, meditation clearly doesn’t save you from pain,” my students might well have thought.

True! But it did help to illuminate in the moment of impact and those that followed as I sat on that granite cliff, gasping for breath, sobbing, as my forehead gushed blood down my face, my hair and all over my clothes and the rock below, and my dear husband dug frantically around in the backpack to find our first aid kit.

In that moment, I noticed the physical sensation of having fallen, and there was pain, of course, but the pain was not as severe as pain I’ve known in my life. The tears came from the thoughts that were coursing through my head. ‘Oh my God! Why didn’t I pick up my foot a little higher?’ and ‘Oh please, don’t let anything be broken!’ and ‘Oh no, how will we get ourselves back down the mountain? Can I possibly hike three miles in this state?’ and ‘Oh no, I’ve ruined our perfect camping trip!’ and ‘Thank goodness I fell here, not twenty feet earlier where I might have tumbled down a cliff.’ But my over-riding concern in that moment, as Will tore open the little packets of alcohol, anti-bacterial unguent and bandages was for the way the strong mountain wind was whipping those little white pieces of paper up. I kept grabbing them and collecting them, determined not to leave litter on the mountain. Will assured me he would pick everything up after we got the blood staunched and my wounds tended, but I knew the wind was going to blow them off our little outcropping to places he would not be able to reach and I simply could not bear to litter this pristine wilderness with the detritus of my mishap. That was the pain that focused my attention.

Noticing. That was the gift of meditation in that moment. And later, safely back down the mountain, assured there was no permanent damage, and comforted by a chocolate ice cream cone and an ice pack on my swollen brow and lip, I was able to see that the cause of my fall was my lack of mindfulness in previous moments. I had stubbornly resisted my body’s cues that clearly warned me I had hiked high enough, even if I hadn’t reached our goal: a picnic spot at a pair of mountain lakes. I had multiple opportunities to heed what my body was saying: When I noticed I was too tired to go on; when I noticed that even though we were trying to conserve water, I really needed to be drinking more of it; and when I let a whole series of future and past thoughts override my awareness of the moment.

What tripped me up was not just a little tree stump, but the thought that for the past few years, every time we are in the mountains and we decide to hike to a certain spot, we never get there! We always turn back! So it seemed to me that to give in again, to ‘not get there’ this time, was to acknowledge something much larger than merely the tiredness I was feeling in my body. It was acknowledging aging, change, a lack of control over what I could or couldn’t do. Or it was acknowledging that I was out of shape and needed to spend the rest of the year being more active, taking much longer more rigorous walks. All of this thinking was weighing on me as I hiked up that rocky trail that required intense concentration for each step.

And so, I refused to turn back each time Will suggested I seemed tired and maybe we should. The heat was oppressive, especially as I covered myself thoroughly, not trusting my sunscreen to be enough to protect my skin, and not sure how many hours we had been hiking.

Youthful hikers bounced by us and I felt ancient in a way I’ve never felt ancient before. Their ease made my discomfort all the more unacceptable. Oh comparing mind! Also I occasionally chide myself for being comfort-loving and soft, and I wanted to challenge that image, I wanted to show that inner voice that I was made of tougher stuff.

But in the last portion of the trail to the lakes, there was suddenly a very steep, much narrower dirt section that I had to look at with the eyes of the surgeon who replaced my hip two years before. It looked very slippery and precarious. Maybe I could get up it, but how would I ever get back down? Maybe I could do it if I was fresh, but I could never do it in this state.

So we turned around. Once again! Defeated and exhausted, I followed my long shadow back down the gravel trail that demanded even greater concentration going downhill. My shadow was hypnotic, an elongated version of my three-year old self who, according to family lore, was dragged up the Smokey Mountains against her will. Now the shadow of my straw hat pulled in at the sides by the shirt I tied to keep it anchored from the strong wind, made the shape of the little bonnet I wore on that journey sixty years before.

So we walked together this small grumpy child and I, following my beloved husband down the mountain. Our descent was slow but buoyed by our plan to return to a shady view spot we remembered from our climb that seemed a good place to rest and have our picnic. Somewhere along the way, I took the lead, and when we arrived at the spot and I stepped off the trail, relaxing into my tiredness, thirst and hunger. And in that moment of release, of letting down my intense concentration on each step that had been necessary for survival on this challenging trail, I missed seeing the little stump in the shadow of a rock, and I tripped and fell.

Will says that for him it happened in slow motion, watching me fall and feeling helpless from his position to save me. For me, there was a moment lost somewhere. There was the arriving at the rest spot with a sense of relief, and there was being flat on the granite, my sunglasses flying off to the left, my face smashed against the jagged rock, blood erupting, and me saying, “I’m fine. I’m fine.”

During the week that followed, I found the most challenging part was dealing with the dirty looks my sweet husband was getting when we were together as strangers assumed he did the damage.
One male friend joked that Will should point to my black eye and say, “She wouldn’t listen.” I was horrified by his suggestion because of the serious nature of spousal abuse. I couldn’t find the humor in it. But you know what? He was right. I got a black eye because I wouldn’t listen! I didn’t listen to Will when he expressed his concerns about my well-being on the climb, and I didn’t listen to my own body when it said enough already. So let that be a lesson to me!

So no, meditation doesn’t always save us from pain, though in this case it could have, had I stayed more present with my experience. We’ll discuss that aspect more when we get into the Eightfold Path and Wise Action.

But, just as that black eye has healed so quickly, showing a wonderful resilience, my meditation practice provides me with more mental and emotional resilience than I would have had otherwise. It provides a more expansive view of things so that I don’t keep kicking myself for my misstep, don’t keep knocking myself down over and over again. And, although I admit I did give that little stump a good kick and a piece of my mind as we left that now-bloodied rest stop, it was in jest, and I haven’t indulged in railing against it, or the trail or the heat or my body or any other condition that could easily become the tarbaby dukkha delivery system. How many events in our lives are still holding us hostage, still delivering dukkha as if we have a standing order?

My meditation practice gave me the patience to give myself a lot of down time to rest and heal, even though it’s been a busy time. It gave me the ability to process a painful experience with compassion and more clarity than I would have had otherwise.

It gave me gratitude for being alive, an awareness of impermanence and a new appreciation for my face without bruises. I look prettier to me now! During the period my face was so shocking to see that people gasped or averted their eyes, I appreciated this gift of insight into how it might be to have some permanent disfigurement in such a prominent place as the face; how it must be to constantly deal with the responses of others, when one feels perfectly normal inside. This experience carved a deeper sense of compassion in me, as I felt my desire to just stay home, to just avoid going out all together.

I have made use of the black eye, working it, making ‘lemonade’ out of this lemon experience. This dharma talk, a poem brewing somewhere within me, and even a two minute speech at the Civic Center. I was scheduled to give a ‘Tip of the Day’ at my Toastmasters meeting there, and had planned to talk about our camping trip with a suggestion people visit that area. I did that, but I choreographed it to keep my ‘dark side’ covered with my Veronica Lake locks until the dramatic reveal of my black eye and the suggestion that people should watch their step when hiking. The gasp of the audience was priceless!

It’s a traditional Buddhist practice to sit with such examples of impermanence, so I was providing a service to you, my dear students as you watched me giving my dharma talk in class and on retreat. What a devoted teacher!

So I open this up to explore that quality of noticing, of heeding our inner wisdom and what happens when we don’t. What recent experiences in your own life have given you this same lesson, or this same sense of gratitude for the practice? What past events are still holding you hostage? When you have some time and want to explore, meditate and then ask these questions of yourself. The answers will arise and may even surprise you.

Fix-it? Forget it!

We were discussing the Second Noble Truth, and how we can each notice the way we create suffering for ourselves through clinging, grasping and pushing away our experience instead of holding it in an open compassionate embrace. A meditator said that she was noticing this, but that she hoped that the Third Noble Truth was going to offer the next step: How to fix what we notice.

I said that the noticing is all there is. Now this may have been a tad disingenuous because of course the Buddha offers the Eightfold Path (The Fourth Noble Truth.) I suppose it could be regarded as a fix, but I see it more as a circle of light with which we surround ourselves in this practice. Each aspect of the Eightfold Path is a guidepost shedding light that helps us see where we have strayed too far from the core of consciousness and compassion. But the Eightfold Path itself does not fix anything; it simply brightens our way so we can notice. The noticing itself is the one and only step in this process.

The minute we try to fix whatever arises in our thoughts, we are caught up in the stickiness of suffering. Our ‘noticing’ is fault-finding and once we have found a fault, like a fissure in a tooth, we want it ‘taken care of.’ We want it drilled, filled and made perfect.

This is a reasonable response, a naturally arising thought from our creative brain activity. But in this regard, when it comes to releasing from tight constriction into a spaciousness of mind, you can see that this fault-finding fix-it methodology is more likely to shut us down, make us feel defensive and constrict us, rather than open us to feel more and trust in the process. Thus our desire to fix ‘the problem’ undermines the process.

The only tool that is up to the task is this ‘noticing.’ At first our noticing might be rather coarse, full of judgment and attitude, like “Oh there I go again with my big mouth,” or “Yup, I see how angry I get at the least little thing that person does.” Even this has some consciousness to it, some willingness to acknowledge what is happening, or why things are happening as they are, even if we are harsher than we need to be. If this is where we are, we can acknowledge that this is considerably more skillful than not noticing we’ve said something offensive or not noticing our own anger or what seems to trip our trigger.

The next step is not to ‘fix’ what we have noticed, but to refine the quality of our noticing.

Noticing is polished to a rich sheen through meditation practice, both concentration practice and metta practice. This is why we practice and why it is ongoing. The practice is the way we keep our tool of noticing polished.

At first we might think that meditation is a place we go, a retreat we take to get a breather from the hectic life we lead. And if it offers this, that’s lovely, but it is not the purpose of meditation. The core purpose is to develop and refine the ability to see with clarity and compassion whatever arises in this moment.

You can think of the knife-sharpener or the silverware polisher performing a vital service. This is a good way to think of meditation because it takes away the allure of thinking it is about having a mind-blowing experience. It takes away comparing one meditation with another. It is just the practice of being as fully present as we can be in this moment with as much compassion as we can manage right now.

It is just polishing our ability to notice what arises. There is no bad or good meditation, only this taking the time to do the task, to do the practice. If it creates inner peace, sparks creativity, etc. all to the good. The knife sharpener at his grinder and the silver polisher with her felt cloth also may experience this quieting down of the mind. And all the while the knives get sharpened, the forks get polished and the food is well cut and served. Just so, with meditation practice insight, we polish and refine our ability to notice what is arising in this moment and to hold it with acceptance, wisdom and compassion.

And through this practice we can see how the quality of our noticing shifts from, “Oh God, there I go again” to something along the lines of, “Ah, thinking. Noticing a tightness in my jaw when that thought arises. The emotion that arises with it is a sort of_____. Hmmm, the associative images that are arising are ______. Making space in my field of awareness for this to simply arise and fall away.

This kind of inner process could be called a dispassionate curiosity. Although the subject is personal, we are willing to allow for the possibility that it is inherently human, that we –though unique and individual in our own ways – are dealing with a universal stream and we are constantly testing the waters. It is not our job to fix the water, but to become more skillful in navigating in it. We can only do this through noticing the nature of the tides, the undercurrents, the weather, etc. We tune in. We notice. We notice everything.

So through our regular daily practice of meditation this quality of noticing gets polished up into a tool of self-exploration and expansion, rather than a weapon of harsh judgment that cuts us to the quick and leaves us to find a hole to hide in while we lick our self-inflicted wounds.

As you give yourself this gift of meditation, trust that whatever noticing you experience is sufficient for now. Yes, with regular practice, over time the noticing will become more insightful, but judging your state of noticing now as lacking is just another sticky dukkha delivery system, just another tarbaby to get caught up in. So trust the process, trust that as long as we live there is the polishing.

Let your light shine.