Category Archives: pain

Inquiry series: Valuable question #2

What am I afraid of?

fear-hand-shadow.jpg

Fear rears its ugly head again, and again. We find ourselves saying and doing things that make matters worse. Rooted in fear, we feel tense, stressed, depressed or frantic. Fear can cause us to become violent, even if the violence is veiled and turned in on ourselves. When we feel out of control, asking ‘What am I afraid of?’ is an effective way to see the fear that has been causing us to make poor choices and miss out on joy.

At first our inner investigation will bring up a litany of stories about all that the future could manifest, given current causes and conditions. None of us knows what the future holds, but we can see from our own experience how reacting fearfully sets up a pattern of fear. In our practice we look at how we are in relationship to all that arises in our experience. Out of fear we are making enemies of everything. We spark fear in others and they then react in ways that are unskillful, causing more fear in us, and more justification for our fear. Fear creates its own proof! But that doesn’t mean it is the truth in the greater scheme of things. It only means we are powerful and need to be mindful of that.

Powerful? Yes! Beyond our wildest imagining.
Often, especially for women, this is difficult to recognize. We have historically been marginalized, patronized and dis-empowered. Those messages still run through us, no matter how liberated we may feel. I am posting this on a day that women are marching together in solidarity, supporting each other and feeling that unity of being. The true value in this is in seeing through the assumptions we all have inherited from an ever-evolving (and sometimes devolving) culture.

But this power is not dependent on external validation. Just by being alive, we are a powerful presence. For example, every being has the capacity to change the energy in an entire room. Don’t believe me? See if you can remember some gathering — family, business, friends — where everything was going swimmingly or everything was boring until someone walked in and the energy was turned upside down. The new addition, probably without even being aware of it, brought in fear-based antagonism or love-based joie de vivre that changed everything. It wasn’t that the person was in a position of hierarchical power necessarily, but they – and we – are all powerful beyond measure. So we need to take responsibility for the power we bring into the world.

If we are living in fear, we discount our power, and our actions or lack of action may be misinterpreted. I was in a situation this week where I was impressed by the skillfulness of a young woman I sat next to for an hour when I took my granddaughter to gymnastics class. The woman had a toddler to keep quietly entertained and contained while her daughter attended the class, and she managed it so beautifully — anyone would love to have a mother like that! — that I wanted to tell her. But I didn’t. I fell back into a pattern of shyness, discounting my own power. I thought that my words would be awkward and unwelcome somehow. Now I regret not saying something. We all appreciate praise, even if we don’t seem to. Why would I withhold a compliment? Out of fear.

Another fear-based pattern is how we can misinterpret the impact we make as something external that is happening to us, rather than something we are bringing into the situation. For example, the person that walks into a room of people, timid and shy, afraid of what people might think of them. They shrink and hide in such a way that people assume they want to be alone, or maybe that they are judging the group unworthy of their time. So they leave the person alone or, depending on their own level of fear, behave in a way that is a little defensive. This is interpreted by the ‘interloper’ as hostile, confirming their original supposition that they are not worthy of acknowledging. What a difference a fearless person makes in such a situation, able to step up to welcome a person, regardless of what they are projecting. But you can’t always count on finding a fearless person. It’s more skillful to simply be one!

This is a mild example. In the extreme, any person living through a filter of fear can activate fear in others, especially those who are hyper-fearful. It would seem to make sense that the two in a certain way call out to each other, a dangerous kinship of a shared scary world view. The fearful pair up to play out a painful pattern, perpetrator and victim, again and again. This is not to blame the victim for what happens to them, but to acknowledge that fear attracts fear and to encourage us to notice fear, question whether it is performing a useful function or actually causing harm.

Looking at these patterns, we might wonder how do we survive as a species with so much fear-based miscommunication? With the power of love. This is not the acquisitive desire kind of love, but the expansive love for all beings that rises out of gratitude for simply being alive in this moment, and the pleasure of sharing the joy with others who are alive with the sensate wonder of this amazing gift, just as it is.

The fear of taking a chance on ourselves
Where does fear grab you?

  • By the throat? Keeping you from speaking up?
  • By the metaphorical cojones? Keeping you from taking a chance on doing something you long to do — writing, painting, starting a business, etc.?
  • By the heart? Keeping you from expressing your feelings, risking rejection?

These fears feel valid. They each have risks. But how much risk-aversion is smart, and how much is simply crushing you? That’s an important exploration for each of us to take if this resonates.

Through the practice of being fully present to notice thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away in our experience, we can see fear for what it is. That awareness softens the tight grip that fear has held us in for so long. What a relief!

Three Poisons
The Buddha in his own inner investigation was able to identify ‘three poisons’ that cause suffering. As we look at each we can see that they are all rooted in fear.

Desire, fear’s greedy spawn
You may be surprised to see desire as rooted in fear. But think about the nature of desire. It is based in a sense of lack, of not-enough, and the assumption that something we acquire will remove that sense of lack. But desire is a mental pattern that breeds on itself. My granddaughters will never have enough of the current collectible stuffed animals. Ever. They may think there is some amount that will satisfy, but that will happen only when the focus of their desires moves on to the next toy of the moment, and way down the road maybe the next boy or pair of shoes or who knows what of the moment. Oh my. It is so much easier to see desire’s undesired effects in children than it is to see them in our own lives. But desire is there, rooted in fear, causing suffering.

Aversion, fear’s picky offspring
Fault-finding is a pattern that radiates out into the external world, but is seated in our own sense of not being good enough. Those standards we set that the world is not measuring up to? They came from our own not measuring up to the standards set by some powerful person in our childhood, who was caught up in the pattern from their own childhood sense of failing, and on and on. Getting caught up in blame is not useful. No parent or teacher has ever been perfectly skillful…well maybe the young mother at gymnastics class whom I mentioned earlier but I’m sure even she has her moments of unskillfulness at the end of a difficult day.

Delusion, fear’s wayward child
If a person is zoned out or just seems blind to the world around them, it might be reasonable to assume there is something scary that they would rather not look at too deeply. Instead, they float around in a state of foggy avoidance.

Since desire, aversion and delusion are the cause of suffering and are rooted in fear, the question ‘What am I afraid of?’ is a valuable exploration. But it might feel a little scary to pose. It may feel like having a conversation with the proverbial dragon at the gate, the one we’ve been avoiding or trying to sneak by for fear of going up in flames. But if that resonates, then this is just the conversation we need to be having. Because beyond that gate is the life we have been hiding from ourselves with our unquestioning patterns of fear.

This is not a one-off question. We can ask it, let the answer rise up, and then, instead of getting overly caught up in analysis, justification or argument, simply ask it again. And again. If you feel reluctant to go deeper in this way, remember that fear is already causing you pain. There’s a gospel song about how you have to go in through the door. These questions are a door.

Letting fear dictate our lives isn’t even helpful in addressing the surface fears. Instead it paralyzes us, making us unable to do the practical things we need to do: Create an emergency kit, build up a savings account, get a physical, etc.

What causes the paralysis? Under that fear is another fear. If this is not something you are comfortable doing on your own, find a dharma buddy to do it with. If you are terrified of such an investigation, then a therapist could help to guide you through the process.

By exploring the fear, we come to understand that we are causing ourselves and others suffering through reacting out of fear. Deep exploration and an investigation in the dharma shows us that we fear disappearing. So we panic when someone disrespects us and when things around us change, causing us to cling to the world we knew and push away new experience as threatening.

The Antidote to Fear
Just as fear is at the root of the three ways we suffer, the antidote to fear is offered in deep insight into the nature of things:

We are afraid of things changing or not changing. But insight and nature teaches us that impermanence is the way of all things. The seasons change. All beings cycle through life, death, decay and the regeneration of new life in some other form, the way fallen trees fertilize the forest floor.

We are afraid of being isolated, separate. But insight and nature teaches us that life is a complex web of patterns and networks that are not just interconnected but inherently one system of being, active, alive and non-isolatable. We forget that our being is woven into the pattern of life. Each of us can be imagined as a fleeting shining shimmer of a jewel in a complex network, radiating and reflecting all life.

We are afraid of pain and suffering. How can we not be? It is a biological imperative to fear pain so that we avoid what could harm or kill us. But insight and nature teach us that the pain of being born into a body, of illness, of aging, and of dying are intrinsic parts of the great gift of being alive to experience all the ever-present richness of each moment of awareness.
As we develop a practice of regular meditation, we come more fully into the present moment, into the senses. We can begin to look more closely at the nature of pain. We let go of the word pain, and sit with the pure sensation. We begin to see that it is not just one sensation but multiple sensations, like many instruments in an orchestra, each playing its part. We see how these smaller sensations are not in and of themselves painful. We see that they arise and fall away, and another sensation takes its place. We see the nature of impermanence in our close examination.
We see that it is our thoughts, rooted in fear, that compound pain. On top of that pure sensation we put the thought rooted in past experience: ‘Oh no, not this again! I hate when this happens.’ Then it’s not just this sensation, but a whole series of past similar pains that we are dealing with all over again. And if that were not enough we add in thoughts of the future: ‘How long will this pain go on? Will I have to miss that event I want to go to? Is this going to be a thing recurring for the rest of my life? Kill me now!’ And of course, we could toss a little comparing mind in there: ‘Why am I the only one who suffers in this way? Why me?’

By bringing ourselves fully into the present moment, not making things worse by diving into past and future thoughts, we find a fresh fearless way of being with pain. And then the pain disappears, or turns into something else. Because life is impermanent and this too shall pass.

The Buddha said not to take his word for it but to explore for yourself. Gentle compassionate investigation after the regular practice of meditation is how we gain insight. And our insights, the ones that arise out of our own experience, are the ones that spark awakening, self-compassion and a sense of wonder that is fearless.

[Read more posts about fear in this blog.]

Just how powerful is meditation?

Some of my students have been meditating for many years, while others are new to the practice. The value of sangha, the community of practitioners that comes together on a weekly basis, is not just the teachings that are shared, but the inspiration of fellow members. This week a relatively new meditator said that, although she loved meditating in the group, it was difficult to develop a regular practice at home on her own. We all totally understood and shared suggestions as to how to proceed. But the real challenge in establishing any new habit is the lack of any tangible benefit to remind us why we are making the effort. Advanced meditators have developed the habit, and they keep going because they feel the benefits of regular practice in their lives.

Without any experiences of her own to motivate her, the new meditator was helped by hearing about the benefits that others have experienced, (while being reminded that focusing on a goal of benefits is counterproductive!) One group member talked about the difference regular practice has made in her life over the years. And then I shared a story that I recently heard from a friend of mine named Linda, a talented artist who has been meditating for the better part of a decade.

A few months ago Linda went on a meditation retreat on the beach in the Yucatan. Lucky Linda, right? She was having a lovely illuminating experience. On the fourth morning of the retreat she rose early per instructions and went out into the early morning dark and headed for the beach for a walking meditation.

She describes her experience that morning:

“On my way down to the beach in the dark, the cement path in front of me was blocked by a group of people, so I stepped to my left to let them go by. My left foot went down into a four-foot deep hole with a cement floor. It was a spot to rinse off sand when leaving beach. It was unlit and had no rail.  I fell on my side and couldn’t move so I called out in the darkness for help.

powerofmed“A couple of hours later in the hospital, the orthopedic surgeon told me I had broken both leg bones, some ankle bones, and my hip. He said that the hip must be replaced, and the ankle repaired with two metal plates and many screws. He told me that the surgery must be done at one time due to the severity and would require about nine hours.  Because I was geriatric, ‘a bad risk’ and might not survive the surgery, I had to have a family member sign for me.”

Her son was called, but he couldn’t get to her. So he called his brother, the one from whom Linda had been estranged for many years for reasons I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that this lack of contact with her son and grandchildren has been a source of great sorrow, as any mother or grandmother can well imagine. Over the years, with the help of meditation, Linda had come to some state of equanimity around it, but of course she always held some hope of a reunion.

And here it was. In this moment of crisis, with his mother quite possibly confronting death, her long-estranged son rushed to her side, and there in the hospital they had a brief but deep conversation that did a lot to heal Linda’s heart. And as to all those broken bones, the surgery was successful! In fact, when I saw her at a party a few months later, she looked more healthy and beautiful than ever. When she told me all that happened to her, I could hardly believe it, but here’s the part that she wanted me to know:

“Stephanie, I never took any pain medications. The doctors and nurses couldn’t believe it. I credit my meditation practice. I wasn’t being brave. I just didn’t need it.”

Now, wait a minute. I’m a longtime meditator, yet I appreciated the proffered pain medication after my hip replacement surgery. But Linda’s story reminded of the woman I shared the hospital room with. We were both in pain after surgery, but she was in traction with her leg up in the air, having fallen off a horse. She cried and yelled for more medication all through the night. I always assumed the difference in our post-op experiences had to do with the fact that my surgery had been planned for and it was just a matter of waiting to be pain free after years of hip pain. So it was easy for me to simply be present with my various sensations, to accept with gratitude the kindness of the nursing staff and my husband, and to be patient, knowing that this too shall pass.

My roommate’s experience was quite different: She was perfectly fine and painfree yesterday, riding along on her trusty steed having a wonderful time, I assume, and in a split second she suddenly found herself in an extremely painful and unexpected situation. Who wouldn’t be grumpy and terrified of what the future might hold? I figured. But she was the biggest pain in my experience with her constant yelling and moaning. The nurses all night told her she already had the maximum amount of medication they could give her, and told her to practice breathing slowly.

It was a long night, and I dozed off and on, but much of the time I was groggily awake and feeling that I should help her. Some inner wisdom told me I was in no state to do so, and that I needed to focus on my own healing for now. But in the early morning hours when I was feeling clearer and more myself, I said to her, ‘I’m a meditation teacher. Do you want some help?’ She said YES!!!! So I worked with her a bit and she found the little exercises I was able to share with her very useful. But since she had never tried anything like it before, it only had limited potential to ease her pain.

For years since then I have wondered how might her experience have been different had she been a practicing meditator. Or, put another way, how might I or any other experienced meditator have managed such an experience? And now, here was Linda telling me a story that in many ways sounded far worse. She described it this way:

“After surgery I woke up in ICU.  There I had a beautiful, kind, loving nurse, an older Mexican woman, who was just an angel.  A week and two transfusions later, my surgeon filled me in on my adventure. He told me that I had never gone into shock, which was amazing considering the trauma, and pain. He said that I never asked for pain meds, and that I was amazing.

“Four different new friends I met at the retreat came to visit me in the hospital,  A good friend from home flew down to be with me, as my son had to return to work, and stayed with me for a week at the hotel, which was good enough to give us a room until I was well enough to fly home.  My surgeon gave me a gift of a walker. My ICU nurse came and gave me a present, saying I had touched her life!! I flew home and was greeted with loving friends and my son, and I never lacked for food, or help, or visitors.

“My neighbors were there every day, with food, or a call just to check on me, and ask what I needed.  I am truly filled with joy, and love; blessed beyond belief!!  I am now walking, need no more surgery, and, much to my therapist’s disbelief, I am walking without a limp.

“I am certain that after four days of meditation, and the joy and peace I felt, I came through all of this with an ease that amazes people.”

So that is Linda’s story. By her own account, it would have been a very different story, and in many ways a significantly different outcome, if she had not been meditating. I know, I know, if she hadn’t been at a meditation retreat, none of this would have happened! But falling down and breaking bones happens all the time to women of a certain age. The difference here is quite significant. Perhaps you are thinking that Linda is just a naturally resilient and indomitable spirit who looks at life that way. But no. When I first met Linda she was in quite a different space, with quite a different vantage point. She credits the regular practice of meditation for her ability to be present with this experience in a way that not only made it easier for her, but uplifted those around her. Now that’s something!

So if you don’t have the habit of meditation practice, let this story inspire you. It is said that we practice not just to feel better in our lives now, but for those moments in life when we are most in need: moments of loss, moments of pain and the ultimate moment of our own transition. Our meditation practice supports us now and always.

Does Linda’s story bring up anything for you? Please comment, share your own stories, comments or questions.

The Buddha’s Eight Worldly Winds

It’s been really windy lately. I notice that I get anxious in high wind, imagining how it is sucking the moisture out of the already dry landscape. I notice worry that the wind will topple a tree. Indeed the oak across the street just fell so my worry finds reason and grows stronger. I see how my mind gets caught up in imagining how if there were a fire right now, this wind would turn it into a fire storm. My thoughts travel into the past remembering all the times the wind has beaten against the house like this, causing any present discomfort to be compounded. My thoughts travel into the future, wondering whether with global warming, this hard wind will become stronger. Images from newscasts of the devastation caused by tornadoes in the midsection of the US rise up to remind me of the impermanent nature of these structures we call home.

I notice too how with the wind blowing so hard, everything else going on in my thoughts and emotions is tinged with my distressed reaction. Something that wouldn’t normally bother me now causes aggravation because I am already a little on edge. 


This clear noticing of what is really happening in my experience is not to whine about the wind, or to judge myself for making a mountain out of a molehill, but to compassionately notice how the mind takes me on an unskillful journey away from this moment, how it spreads misery in its wake and compounds the potential for suffering. The noticing and compassion are skillful, and as I focus I feel the tension in my body releasing. This is the practice of mindfulness.


The Buddha created a whole set of teachings based on the changeable nature of wind. The Eight Worldly Winds* is a set of eight paired experiences — pleasure & pain; gain & loss; praise & blame;  fame & disgrace. Like the wind they arise and fall away, then arise again and fall away again. All of life experience is like this.
Here is a drawing I did of the Eight Worldly Winds.

8 worldly winds.jpg

Now let’s look at them one by one.

We seek out pleasure, and don’t want it to end so we cling to it. Why would we not?
Here’s one reason: When we are afraid it will end, we are not really in a state of enjoyment. Instead we are caught up in the suffering of grasping and clinging. The only way we can truly enjoy pleasure is to let go of the fear of losing it. If we allow it to come and allow it to go, the way we might enjoy spending time with a butterfly who has alighted on our extended palm, we savor the moment. We know it is fleeting.  
We recognize that while we may have the power to capture the butterfly and keep it, if we did so the butterfly would no longer be what it is, would no longer be able to give us the pleasure of seeing it flit and fly from flower to flower. To keep it, we would have to kill it. If we did so, we could still admire the colors, shapes and details of the wings, but the essence of what makes it a butterfly is gone. 
In this same way we can notice how pleasure disappears if we hold on too tight, wishing it would go on and on.


We dread pain. Why would we not?
Here’s one reason: When we have a pain and get caught up in how much we don’t want to be in pain, we compound it with self-inflicted suffering. When we are able to fully be present with pain, we can see how it becomes a series of physical sensations that change constantly, diminish over time and eventually pass away.
One of my granddaughters who is an adult now was terrified of bees when she was little. She wasn’t allergic to them but she was still afraid of being stung, so she refused to go out in our garden. I sat with her and asked her, ‘What are you afraid will happen?’

‘I’m afraid a bee will sting me.’  

‘And if a bee did sting you, then what would happen?’ 

‘It would hurt.’ 

‘Have you ever been hurt before?’ 

‘Yes.’ 

‘And what happened when you were hurt?’ 

‘I  cried.’ 

‘And then what happened?’ 

‘The hurt stopped after a little bit and I stop crying.’

‘And then what did you do?’

‘I went and played.’

And with that statement she smiled at me with the light of recognition. Then she hopped off my lap and went straight outside to run around the garden with great joy and abandon.
We can do this for ourselves as well. We can come into skillful relationship with the Worldly Wind of pain, and not let the fear of it rule us. We use common sense, but we don’t stop living just to avoid pain, because that state of avoidance is ongoing pain.
It’s one of the ways we create dukkha, the chronic suffering that comes from our grasping at, clinging to and pushing away these Worldly Winds.

We like to gain a new friend, strength, ability, knowledge, health and wealth, and we are determined to hold on to what we’ve got. Why would we not?
Here’s one reason: While opening to the wealth of the world is a delight and there is maintenance required, when we cling to a it we strangle it, whether it’s a friendship or strength, ability, knowledge, health or wealth. When we experience the naturally occurring changes of life, we suffer much worse than simple disappointment. We fall into a sense of diminishment that sucks the joy out of every moment spent with the gains we have made.
We fear loss of loved ones, of health, wealth, strength, ability and anything else we value. Why would we not?
Here’s one reason: We create an ongoing state of suffering that precedes the loss. When the loss occurs, as it will, we can’t be present for the experience because we are still struggling, trapped under all the layers of fear we have created. If we can’t bring ourselves to be present with the loss, then how will we ever recover from it?
As women of a certain age, my students and I have all lost some of the people who mattered most to us in the world. So we know about loss. This knowing informs us. We would never wish for it or wish it on anyone, and yet when we are present with the loss itself, when we feel the physical and emotional impact of loss in each moment, we notice how it shifts and changes, arises and falls away. This noticing makes us wiser and more resilient. It carves within us the capacity to hold more love and deeper compassion.


We enjoy praise so we do things to earn it. Why would we not?
Here’s one reason: Chasing praise from another person throws us out of balance. We can’t be grounded or authentic if we are second-guessing what someone else would like us to be. Ironically, we can’t hear the praise when if it comes because we are caught up in our hopes, fears and expectations.
As women we may be more prone to make choices in order to get praise. Our feelings may be hurt if our mate doesn’t compliment a meal we cooked. And heads up to husbands: silence is often interpreted as criticism.
Of course we want whoever eats what we cook to enjoy it. But can we live enough in the present moment to arrive at the dinner table having so thoroughly enjoyed the process of cooking that we are not hankering after praise? Can we be so present with the experience of eating the meal, and with the pleasure of the company, that we are not waiting to hear ‘Wow, you are the greatest cook on the planet!’? Expectation sours our own enjoyment. We can’t taste a thing.


We so dread blame that we’re careful to do everything we should and nothing we shouldn’t. Why would we not?
Here’s one reason: While it is wise to lead a blameless life by living with integrity, honesty and kindness, sometimes we fail. In a moment of oblivion or distress, we do something that causes harm.
If we are tied up in knots of fear of being blamed, we will be more likely to do something unskillful, since our intention is not aligned with being present and being compassionate, but with some future scolding we might receive.
When blame falls on us can we be skillful in how we deal with it? Can we acknowledge our error or misjudgment? And if the blame is unjustified, can we see it as simply an error and not an indictment of us?


We crave recognition, maybe even fame. Why would we not?
Here’s one reason: Because the longing for recognition drags us out of the present moment. We live in our minds in some future moment when we will receive the recognition we so deserve. If that moment ever comes, we won’t have the practiced skill of being present in order to notice it. We will be craving greater and greater recognition.
Even if we don’t relate to the word ‘fame’, we each have our reputation. Among our family, friends and work associates we become known for certain qualities, traits and behaviors. While praise is a one-time thing, reputation is cumulative, and colors how we are perceived for years to come.
We want to avoid disgrace. Why wouldn’t we?
Well here’s one reason. Disgrace can become such a terrifying outcome that people in certain cultures would rather die than be disgraced. But even if that is not the case, allowing the shadow of potential disgrace to loom over us can really throw us out of balance, blind us to the rest of what is going on in the present moment.  
If we live mindfully, aware of our connection with all life, aware of the impact our choices have on ourselves, those around us and the world, while we will not be impervious to failure or error, we will be more likely to have the wisdom to know how to make amends and assure we don’t make that particular mistake again. We can recognize the universal nature of this and all the Eight Worldly Winds.
Our feelings around reputation can extend beyond ourselves. One student pointed out that if we identify with groups — a favorite team, a political party, a country — we feel connected and affected by their triumphs and stardom as well as their failures and disgrace.
With our previous exploration we can see how we might, through awareness, temper the effect of these Eight Worldly Winds. If notice them, we notice that they pass.
If we note ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’ for any experience, we strengthen our ability to see clearly the strong lure to get caught up in a story about the pleasant or unpleasant experience, and the emotions that are ready to rise up to further entangle us in associated memories, planning, worry, regret, daydreaming, etc.
At any moment during this entanglement of the mind, we can recognize it, and reset our intention to be present rather than lost in the past or future. When we do this, we begin to see the nature of what is. If we see in this moment one of the Eight Worldly Winds arising, and we stay present to observe it, we will see that it is insubstantial. Under observation it breaks down into component parts. We can see the desire or the fear underlying it. Recognizing the underlying longing or fear, we can be compassionate with ourselves, and that quality of kindness offers a release from the attachment to the Worldly Wind. As we stay present, we see that the worldly wind changes over time. It is impermanent. It arises and falls away.  We can simply be aware of this big wind passing through our field of experience.
If we can open our view wide enough to see the nature of how they arise and fall away again and again, we can find ease in simply being alive and present to experience it all.
Remember the story of the farmer who lost his horse? It applies very well here, so I’ll tell it again.

A farmer’s horse got loose from the corral and disappeared. The farmer’s neighbor said, ‘What a calamity! How will you plow your fields without your horse?’ A few days later the horse returned with six wild horses in tow. Wow! Now the neighbor said, ‘That’s fantastic! What great luck!’Then the farmer’s son fell off the horse while trying to tame it, and he broke his leg. ‘How terrible!’ the neighbor sympathized. The next week the army came and took all able-bodied young men, but not the son hobbling around on crutches. The neighbor could not believe the farmer’s good fortune. At every turn the neighbor reacted as if tossed around on the winds of fortune. But each time, whether the neighbor commiserated or congratulated, the farmer simply said he didn’t know whether this was good or bad fortune. Maybe yes, maybe no. He couldn’t say.

 The farmer was wise. He recognized that none of us know the outcome of any given event, that all things and all experiences are insubstantial, impermanent, and beyond our control. He recognized the nature of the Eight Worldly Winds.

In moments of clarity, when we are fully present, we recognize this as well. We can simply be present with the experience as it arises and falls away. Arises and falls away…

*  ‘Eight Worldly Winds’ is one translation. Others are ‘Eight Worldly Dharmas’, and ‘The Failings of the World’. This is from the Lokavipatti Sutta of the Pali Canon, the earliest scriptures of the Buddha’s teachings, which had been passed down orally from generation to generation of monks for 500 years until in 1 BCE, they were committed to writing.

Buddha’s Eight Worldly Winds

In exploring the Buddha’s teaching stories and analogies, I find myself elaborating and embellishing. It feels to me as if I am re-hydrating sharings that over the years had become single sentences or bare-bones concepts without sufficient details to make them juicy and alive for us today. It is up to each of you to decide whether these embellishments add or take away from the value of the teaching, but I want to be sure that it is clear what is received teaching and what is elaborated upon by me. I think the most important thing in learning and sharing teachings is that we each return to the well of our own inner wisdom, our own ability to question the veracity of any teaching. If it rings true, we draw from it; if not we let it go.

Having said that, I continue my exploration of the Buddha’s river analogy which students are telling me has been so helpful throughout the week. This time I am adding in another of the Buddha’s teachings, because I see within this river analogy an opportunity to discuss the Buddha’s Eight Worldly Winds.

The Winds are four pairs of opposites. They are: pleasure and pain; loss and gain; praise and blame; and ill-repute and fame. These paired opposites are worldly winds because the winds blow and we are all affected in some way.

We have often talked about how it is not the causes and conditions of life but our relationship to the causes and conditions, the things that happen to us, that we focus on and can skillfully affect. So here are these eight causes and conditions, these eight worldly winds. What is our relationship to them? How do they affect us? Or do we react to them?

Returning to the Buddha’s river analogy of the Middle Way, we can see that wind is definitely something one considers when one is on a boat. Understanding the nature of the winds is important for skillful navigation. So understanding the nature of these Eight Worldly Winds is skillful for our navigating along the Middle Way.

With these four paired opposites, we can see how they could easily blow us toward one shore or the other. (Remember that one shore is over-indulgence, the other self-denial. We are through our meditation practice, maintaining our course on the river, finding the rich nourishing infinite river that courses through our being.)

First there is the wind of pleasure. We experience pleasure and if we are skillful we accept it for what it is, appreciate it as one of the gifts of life, and let it go when it passes. As if a butterfly briefly alighted on our outstretched palms, we hold the pleasure in an open embrace, neither crushing it nor shooing it away.

But the World Wind of pleasure can blow us off course and leave us stuck aground on the shore of self-indulgence. How does this happen? Maybe the first thing we do is wonder why we don’t give ourselves this pleasure more often? And then we start planning just how we will do that, or beating ourselves up for never doing it. Thus we have fallen out of the moment and into the suffering on one shore or the other.

We can easily get habituated to pleasure, begin to feel that we deserve it, then can’t possibly live without it. Once we’ve slept on luxury sheets, maybe we say we’ll never go back to 200 thread count again! Thus we tighten the limits of our experience more and more, the borders of what we are willing to tolerate.

So what is skillful here? Pleasure comes, we are in the moment with the pleasure, appreciative, and then the pleasure passes and we are ready for whatever happens next. But even if we have missed the opportunity to have that straight-forward a response, we can, whenever we realize where we have gotten lost, come back again to the river, to the awareness of the present, with compassion for ourselves. We can also use our skillful questioning to explore our assumptions, thoughts and feelings that we notice arising. “Is this true? How do I know this is true?”

Pleasure’s counterpart is the wind of pain. Which shore does it blow us toward? Pain can feel deserved and thus blow us toward extremes of self-denial or we can fight to mask the pain with seeking the shore of self-indulgence, hiding out in that bottle, that pill, that comfort food or that mind-numbing activity.

As we practice, we learn that we can stay with the experience of pain and notice how what we believed to be one giant sensation is really a symphony of smaller sensations arising and falling away. This level of noticing makes it possible to be present, to let go of our thoughts that compound the pain, the ones that say ‘Oh no, not this pain again!’ or ‘How long will this last? I can’t stand it if it goes on like this forever!’ Thus staying present with it, we discover the joyful aspect of impermanence because we see that the sensation changes from moment to moment if we are being aware.

Someone says something devastating to us and we feel pain. Perhaps it blows us way off course, but once we are able to be present with the pain, we can use compassion to bring us back to the river. First compassion for ourselves as we hold ourselves in tenderness as we would a child who is in pain.Then we extend compassion to the other person, because in order for them to to inflict pain on someone, they must be operating out of fear and be in pain themselves. That fear has made them either mindless so they are unaware of the power of their words to harm, or it has made them feel they need to wield cruelty as a protective mechanism. Being able to find compassion for them softens the blow of our own experience. We understand that it is not all about us, any more than the wind is purposely trying to topple us.

Then skillful questioning is needed. We can certainly look to what role we may have played in provoking the hurt. We hear our thoughts and we can ask if they are true, without feeling the need to defend them. We can also question whether it is healthy for us to be near this person. Perhaps we are in a vulnerable state and need to put our own well-being as a priority. Compassion is not meant to enable other people to treat us badly. So there is a level of wise discernment necessary, and being fully in the moment, ‘on the river,’ helps us to see more clearly than when we are stuck deep inland, wandering lost.

Next there are the paired winds of gain and loss. When we gain something in life, does it throw us off course, like a wind pushing us to one shore or the other? Think of the lottery winner who goes on a spending spree of indulgence. But again, gain could cause one to feel uncomfortable, as if we don’t deserve what we’ve received, and cause us to go to excessive self-denial. I think of when I ‘gain’ a batch of cookies I have baked. For reasons I am still exploring for myself, I just can’t rest comfortably until they are all gone. For now, I don’t bake. If I want a cookie I go buy one cookie. This is sad because of course homemade cookies fresh from the oven are so much better than store-bought. But if I feel this way about cookies, I can imagine how a recipient of a great windfall might feel the same: that this money, ‘undeserved,’ must be squandered. That quality of undeserving is best explored from the vantage point of the river, the breath, the present moment, with compassion and a willingness to question in.

Gain’s counterpart is the wind of loss. Loss happens to us all. Loved ones die. We lose a relationship, a job, an ability, a home. And where does this wind blow us? Do we seek the shores of self-denial, blaming ourselves for the loss, beating ourselves up, denying ourselves comfort? Or do we seek mindless pleasures, addictions, something that can at least temporarily mute the loss through oblivion?
Again, once we are conscious enough to remember the river, we are back on it. We can be instantly present, anchored in physical sensation, feeling this moment in all its fullness.

The winds of praise and blame blow and what happens? Does praise roll off like water on a duck’s back but blame sink in deeply? Or does praise give us a big head so we get lost in self-indulgent thinking, hearing echos of the praise in our thoughts, becoming addicted to recreating conditions for more praise to come? Having done volunteer stints of teaching art to children, I know that comments, even praise, can throw a little (or big!) artist off track during the process of creation. The desire to please the teacher or the parent or the friend starts to change the simple joy of creation into a goal-oriented process, and the artist loses their way. This is true in any area where we are hoping to simply live our own lives as authentically as possible, to be the most honest expression of the gift of life in this form, as it has been given us. But if our parents have different ideas of what is a proper career for us, we may be thrown off course for years, maybe for our whole life, because we want to please them, we crave their praise and approval.

Conversely, rather than seeking praise, we can be so uncomfortable with praise that it can send us into self-denial, reminding ourselves of all the ways that the praise is undeserved.

And then there is blame, the opposite of praise. How to we relate to it? Are we able to stay present with the experience? Can we breathe and not feel under attack, as if our life was at stake? If the blame is justified, can we take it in as useful information, make the necessary apologies and amends, make note to self not to do that again, to be more mindful and wise in our behavior? Or do we race into mindlessness, on one shore or the other, seeking the oblivion of compensatory pleasure or the deserved pain of a bed of hot coals?  How does our reaction change when the blaming is unjust?  Say you get an email from the library that a book is overdue, a book that you returned weeks ago. What is your reaction? Do you simply call or go to the library and ask them to check the shelves, or do you go to some dark internal ranting place, expressing outrage at the ‘accusation?’ Which is more skillful? More mindful? More effective?

The last pair of opposite Worldly Winds is fame and ill-repute. Most of us feel this is not something that concerns us. We are neither famous nor infamous, so we can just let this one go. But let’s see it on a more human scale. We all have a reputation for certain qualities in our community of neighbors, family, friends and coworkers. Are we known for being trustworthy, dependable, compassionate, etc. or have we got a rep for being always late, or not to be trusted to follow through on what we promise? And how do we relate to this reputation, whatever it is? Do we go mindless, getting lost in believing ourselves to ‘be’ this reputation, thus hang on tight to our labels, even if they seem bad to others, for without them, who would we be? Is our behavior blown by the wind of our reputation? Do we modify our behavior in order to be seen in a certain way? ‘What would the neighbors think?’ is a typical expression of this being blown by the wind of fame or ill-repute.

And yet of course we live in communities. Hopefully we can be present and compassionate enough to say and do what is wisest for ourselves and those in our community. Both through awareness practice and through Wise Intention we live mindful of our impact on the whole web of life, knowing that we do not live in isolation. Through the practice of meditation, generosity arises, as do other virtues. This is a natural part of the releasing of the tightness of operating out of fear. If we are practicing being in the moment, we will be less likely to live in a way that is adversely affected by these Worldly Winds.

Wind could be thought of as an element of communication, the media, the way information travels on the airwaves, sometimes emitting a lot of hot air. We are often buffeted to one shore or the other by the news we receive and our reactivity to it; the face-to-face comments, emails, phone calls; radio, internet or television news; texts and twitters we receive and our reactivity to those as well. Notice how the next piece of news you read or hear affects you. What emotions arise? What defenses? It may help us to think of these received words as one of the Worldly Winds, capable of blowing us toward one shore or the other. With regular meditation practice, we develop this ability to stay or easily return to the center of the river, the calm center of our being. Meditation doesn’t make us impervious to anything, but it does help us to recognize where center is and how to get there.

Sometimes these winds are hurricanes, tornadoes or typhoons. It is not surprising that we then find ourselves deep inland on one shore or the other. Perhaps we have been unconscious for a time, but whenever we do become conscious, we are able to remember the river. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, who after being misguided to follow the yellow brick road discovered that by simply clicking her shoes she could return home, we can ‘click’ our paired intentions to anchor into physical sensation to bring ourselves into the present moment, and to be compassionate with ourselves so as not drag ourselves further inland. And just like that we are back on the river, back in the center of our being in this moment, whatever this moment holds. And when we are truly in it, not caught up in planning the future, regretting the past or worrying about something beyond our present control, we find that this moment is maybe not so bad, maybe even absolutely stunningly alive, rich, multi-layered; and we find ourselves feeling an incredible gratitude for the unique fleeting gift of this moment.