Category Archives: open embrace

Holding Your Life in an Open Embrace

This was a speech with visual aids. I will try to get permission to use the photos I shared in person, but until I do, imagine:

(A black & white photo of a little girl holding on tight to her three dolls, with a distrustful scowl on her face.)

Here’s a photo of a little girl with her dolls. What a lucky little girl to have three dolls! She should be happy. But when I look at her, I don’t see happiness, I see fear. Maybe she’s afraid someone will take her dolls away. Look how tight she’s holding them. She is planning on defending them.

Of course, holding them this tight she can’t really enjoy her dolls, can she? Enjoying her dolls would be holding them in front of her, looking in their faces, talking to them, singing to them, feeding them, dressing them…maybe having a tea party and inviting other children over with their dolls to play.

But she can’t do any of that because she has to hold on tight to these dolls for fear of losing them.

We can all recognize ourselves in this little girl. We all cling to something, afraid of losing it. Whether it’s our possessions, our money, our relationships, our career, our beliefs, the way we see ourselves, the way we see the world – we hold on tight because we don’t know who we would be without them, and we are afraid to find out.

But just as this girl can’t play with her dolls when she holds them so tightly, we can’t really enjoy our lives and all the wonderful things in it when we hold them in such a tight grip.

What happens when we hold on so tight in a relationship for example? When we clamp down on the one we love, begging them to spend more time with us, pay more attention to us, tell us they love us. What happens? Usually we suffocate the love we hold so dear, we strangle it, we squish it. It turns to nothing in our hands.

So this tendency to grasp and cling to what we care about isn’t really a very effective strategy. At best we can’t enjoy it, and at worst we might actually cause it to disappear.

(A black and white photo of another little girl.)

Now here’s another little girl. She’s not happy either. She’s got her pouty face on and her arms folded. But instead of holding on to something she loves, she’s focused on something that hasn’t measured up to her standards, her expectations, her desires. Maybe her mother said she couldn’t have ice cream before dinner, and she’s determined to be miserable about it for a good long while. Or maybe she’s just arrived at a party. Maybe she’s been fantasizing about this party ever since she got the invitation three weeks ago. She imagined the entertainment, the cake, the friends who would be there, how much fun she would have. And here she is and something is not right. It may be the most fun party in the world, but she is stuck on the one thing that’s lacking, the one way in which it doesn’t measure up. So she can’t enjoy herself.

I’m sure we can all recognize ourselves in this little girl too. We’ve all had experiences that didn’t measure up to our expectations. We’ve all at times let that disappointment ruin the whole experience. We’ve all had trouble enjoying this moment because we’re still caught up in what happened last week, last month, last year, and we’re letting it color our whole experience.

The Buddha defined these two ways of being – this grasping and clinging and this aversion as the primary causes of suffering. He acknowledged that there is unavoidable pain in this life, but that most of the suffering we experience is optional, actually caused by these two tendencies.

But it’s not our fault that we’re like this. Like all animals we are programmed to go after what is pleasurable and avoid what is unpleasant. This is the basis of our survival instinct. We are attracted to bright colors and nature made the brightest color vegetables the most nutritious. We are attracted to the mates that will best help us procreate for the survival of the species. We are programmed to avoid the big sharp-toothed roaring bear who might maul us to death.

Our human brain is a little different however. With our highly developed cortex, we can dwell in the past, remembering in incredible detail all that has happened to us. And we can imagine infinite futures, so we can spend a good portion of our time in a state of planning and daydreaming. Now this is an amazing skill to have! Without it we would not have literature, history, inventions, technology, ever evolving architecture, design and the arts.

But we’ve been given this gift without a user manual, without a warning notice that spending too much time in the past or the future instead of staying in the present moment is hazardous to our health and our happiness.

But the brain is still evolving, still developing, and part of this development is tuning in to awareness, consciousness, rediscovering our ability to be in the present moment.

The primary purpose of meditation is to create this ability to be present, to come into balance, to open ourselves to what is arising in this moment and be able to savor it without grasping and clinging.

(A full color photo of a little girl holding a frog in her cup hands in such a way that she can see the frog in front of her. She has a look of curiosity and a smile on her face.)

In this final picture is a little girl who is living in the moment. You’ll notice that this photo, unlike the other two, is in full color. That’s because she is in the present, the only place that is real. The past and future are just thoughts.

She is holding a frog in her hand and she is holding it in open cupped palms, what I call and open embrace. She is able to fully enjoy the frog. She knows that the frog could jump out of her palm at any moment, but she knows that she will still be okay. The frog is not the source of her happiness. Her ability to be with whatever arises is the source of her happiness.

So this is what I hope for all of us: That we take responsibility for our own happiness, by learning how to be present with our experience, how to hold life in an open compassionate embrace.

Eightfold Path: The Cooking Pot Analogy

This blog is titled Open Embrace Meditations, and in the first post I explained why, but that was over 50 posts ago (!) so I’ll repeat it here and add a little Eightfold Path twist.

For many years now my intention in life has been to hold the world in and open embrace. The visual image I have of such an embrace is of cupping of my palms the way you do to receive water, or the way you do to hold something you want to look at more closely, or the way you might offer others to share in your joy of something. It is the antidote for clinging or grasping or pushing away.

So now here is this structure the Buddha provides: The Eightfold Path, the last of the Four Noble Truths. Because I have been a meditator for much longer than I’ve been studying Buddhism, I come to these teachings pre-sold to the tenets through my own meditation experience and insights. I recognize in them the pure universal truth that each of us has access to when we quiet down and listen in, that I talk about in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.

How wonderful for me to come upon a set of teachings that so beautifully expresses these truths, and provides a structure for exploring them even more fully.

To be honest, it amazes me that these wonderful teachings of the Buddha have survived in tact for 2500 years, in a world where everything gets misunderstood so quickly. You know how if you whisper in someone’s ear in the circle and they pass it on, by the end it comes out totally different?

In so many cases in the world, you have to add in the people along the way who purposely change the meaning not just out of misunderstanding but out of a desire for worldly power. But the Buddhist teachings seems to deflect power over others by continually bringing ourselves back to our own personal access to universal wisdom. The Buddha is oft quoted as saying if you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him. Not very Buddhist! Not exactly Right Action! But the meaning is clear. This is a personal spiritual path based on experiential insights. Every teaching leads us right back to the meditation cushion to sit with our own experience. There are cultural variations as the teachings travel from country to country, and we in the West are shifting the focus to meet our needs. But these cultural differences don’t change the core of the dharma.

So here I am with my intention of an Open Embrace, and how does that translate in the Bodhidharma? Take a look at the Buddhist bell bowl at the top of this blog. When you think about it, it is holding the world in an open embrace. And I can’t help but think that this way of seeing could be called Right View: Open, receptive, non-clinging, supportive, lovingly engaged. When you take in its capacity to emit sound waves that resonate in the core of our being, it reminds us of the oneness of all that is. Right View, right?

So if this bowl Right View, then where do the other aspects of the Eightfold Path fit in? Well, if this bowl made of metal, it could also be seen as a pot. I imagine underneath the pot, warming it, is Right Mindfulness. Then I see that Right Intention is the spark that sets the flame that is Right Mindfulness. Right Effort and Right Concentration are the logs under the pot that fuel the flame of Right Mindfulness. The flame of Right Mindfulness warms the pot to the point that steam rises. The three intertwining threads of steam go out to interact in the world as Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood.

What’s in the pot? Our finite life evaporating. And when the pot is empty it returns to being a bell bowl and the logs become ringers, ringing in a joyful reunion of ourselves with our true nature, at one with all that is.

One might say it would be better to not light the fire at all so life wouldn’t evaporate. But lets assume that if this life wasn’t in a bell bowl turned cooking pot over a nice campfire, it could very well be stuck inside a pressure cooker, letting off steam in all sorts of dangerous ways. We know that our lives are finite, no matter how we live them.

Using this new cooking pot analogy we can also explore unskillfulness. Those logs are Right Effort and Right Concentration only when they fuel Right Mindfulness under the pot of Right View. Taken from that position, these logs of effort and concentration can be used to beat ourselves or others up, over-efforting or using concentration practice to serve our greed for pleasure, possessions or power. Or perhaps we set the logs in our path as hindrances and let them stop us from exerting any effort or concentration.

That spark is only Right Intention when it lights the flame of Right Mindfulness. Otherwise it could be unskillfully turned into the intention to do any manner of destructive things. ‘Where are we setting our intention?’ we often ask ourselves. Are we skillfully lighting the flame of Right Mindfulness or are we mindless arsonists creating havoc and destruction wherever we go?

The lovely pot or Buddhist bell bowl is only Right View when it sits solidly upright resting on the logs of Right Effort and Right Concentration, warmed by the flame of Right Mindfulness. In other positions it becomes a different view of life: It can be turned over and hidden under, so we see only darkness. It can be turned on end like a gapping maw, an aching hunger needing to be filled. It can be turned around and used as a shield to keep the world at bay. It can be used as a shovel to dig up and dump on others.

The steam rising in Right Action, Right Speech and Right Livelihood could be used to obscure behavior, meaning or means. Are we talking a lot of ‘hot air’?

So there are many ways to play with this. Like any analogy, you can only take it so far, but as I have just come up with it, I am still exploring it and am happy to hear any thoughts you have about its effectiveness or pitfalls. But I hope it helps somewhat to understand the role of the various aspects of the Eightfold Path, which can be confusing.

I also want to make sure that in my dharma talks I distinguish between the teachings themselves and my freewheeling interpretations. This is a tradition that is open to creative insight and interpretation. But it is also a tradition that, as I said earlier, has lasted over 2500 years intact, as far as I can see. I don’t want to be a person in the circle who is misunderstanding what is whispered to me and passing on misinformation. So please take what is resonant to you. Be inspired to explore the Buddhist teachings further: Read some of the great books that have been written and are readily available. We are so fortunate to have a bounty of Western and Eastern teachers writing in English, bringing the Buddha’s teachings to us. Each has his or her own take on things, so spend a little time finding the authors who most speak to you, who address your concerns and questions.

Since October we have been exploring the Four Noble Truths, since January we have been focused on the Fourth Noble Truth: the Eightfold Path. As a teacher, how satisfying it was in class yesterday to have my students telling me that:

The First Noble Truth is that there is suffering.
The Second is that it is our tendency to grasp and cling that causes this suffering.
The Third is that the end of suffering is possible.
The Fourth Noble Truth is that The Noble Eightfold Path is the means to end suffering by developing Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

We are to remember that despite the use of the word Right on these eight aspects, this is not a list of commandments. Instead these are helpful guideposts (going back to my original analogy I have been using throughout these past many posts – I’m just full of them!), guideposts that shed light on our path as we make our way in life. When we find ourselves suffering in darkness, we can look to the guideposts of the Eightfold Path to shed light on the cause of our suffering. Perhaps we have caused harm through our speech, action or livelihood, and we are feeling badly about it, without even being aware of it. By taking time to focus our attention on our experience, we can recognize our emotions, remember our actions or words, and now we can hopefully make amends and definitely bring more awareness to future interactions.

Perhaps we want to meditate but never find the time. We can look to Right Intention to bring ourselves to sitting practice, and to help us practice Right Concentration with Right Effort to develop Right Mindfulness.

Perhaps we find ourselves always looking at life as evil or useless or some other view that brings us a sense of despair or hopelessness. We can recognize that we need to expand our vantage point, to become aware of the possibility of Right or Wise View, to open our compassionate hearts to ourselves and others, to hold the world in an open embrace instead of pushing away the possibility of happiness.

So let these guideposts light your path. Don’t uproot them and beat yourself over the head with them! That is not their purpose! They are there to remind you that you are human and will err, but you are also a perfect expression of the universe/God/the great is-ness – whatever you choose to call it — continually creating matter out of energy and energy out of matter. Let yourself be a conduit for that great energetic cycle that is infinitely generous and loving. Open to its light and, as the Buddha said, ‘Be a lamp unto yourself.’

Intention

Holding the world in an open embrace is my primary intention, so I’ve made it the title of this blog. But what does that mean: an open embrace?

I visualize it as holding my hands together uplifted, at a comfortable level in front of me, as if putting them under a faucet to get a drink of water, gently cupped. In this position my hands are able to hold my current experience without smothering it. This position is loving, nurturing -– I can even use one of the hands to pet the moment! — and it is open enough for me to be able to fully observe, satisfy my curiosity, and sate my thirst.

The open embrace is the opposite of grasping, clinging, trying to hold on tight to this moment – or this person – and feeling the ultimate wrenching when the moment passes or the person is gone.

It is also very different from putting my hand out like the Supremes doing Stop in the Name of Love, trying to keep the world at bay. Good luck with that!

Moments come and go whether I want them or not. The open embrace saves me from a whole range of self-deceptive techniques I might use to pretend that I can hold onto anything permanently or avoid dealing with experiences.

Since life is precious and temporal in nature, I want to be fully present to savor every moment of it with my full attention. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and say “Oops! Can we rewind? I wasn’t paying attention.”

There are no TiVo controls! Except maybe the pause button. Yes, there is one of those, and it’s called meditation. But meditation is much more than just time out of our busy lives. It’s a large and inviting gateway to the present moment.

Won’t you join me on this journey exploring meditation and Buddhist concepts?