Category Archives: Paramis

Cultivating your chosen quality with wise inquiry

e5f00-planting-seedIf you did last week’s exercise, then hopefully you chose one quality that you feel needs cultivation right now. (If you didn’t do the exercise, why not go back and give it a try?)

Once you have your quality, here are some more ways to explore. Keeping the quality in mind, ask yourself each of these three questions that will look familiar because they are the first three questions of this inquiry series. They serve us well again: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? Is this true?

What is my intention here?
In regard to your chosen quality, sense in and ask yourself this question.
Since I have been working with the quality of generosity, I will use it as an example for this exploration. I propose that the intention of generosity is to give wholeheartedly. Okay, this sounds good, right? Halfhearted giving sounds pretty lame and worthless. But does ‘wholehearted’ put out the expectation that I should give all of myself away?

When we come up with an intention that can be ambiguous, it’s worth noticing, because it could give insight as to why this quality has not been fully cultivated. And we can see how we might have fears that come up. If I perceive generosity in terms of some finite gift that will run out, that through my giving I will be depleted, and maybe I already feel depleted, then clearly there is a misunderstanding here. And also fear.

What am I afraid of?
You might feel the tension that sets in at the very mention of fear. We are often afraid to look at what we are afraid of! But with loving-kindness and resolve we can look clearly at what’s arising in our experience. Images may also come to mind. The fear may feel like a shield of self-protection, but it’s actually a distorting lens that makes us more vulnerable. The question ‘What am I afraid of?’ might bring up thoughts about potential outcomes. ‘I am afraid of going broke’ might be one answer when exploring the quality of generosity. There might be specific examples in our lives of some generous person we know who lives ‘closer to the edge’ than we would be comfortable doing. I certainly do have such an example in my life. A person who gave of himself quite freely and in turn relied on the generosity of others to see him through difficult times. Standing on the sidelines watching, I feared for him. Of course this experience affected me. It’s not the only influencer of my more cautious approach to generosity, but it is one.

Beyond how being generous might affect our bottom line, there is usually some other justification that has to do with those we might be generous to: ‘They’ll just fritter it away.’ ‘I worked hard for that money.’ Strong opinions and harsh judgments can be very effective in deterring acts of generosity. For myself, I would notice generous impulses, the desire to give, but then the ‘recoil’ opinions and judgments that would talk me out of the impulse, or at least lessen it.

This would work with any quality. Say, the quality of Letting Go. There might be the initial impulse to clean out the closet, but then some fear, some inner opinions, arise to shut down the impulse. But even just noticing the impulse is a big step toward cultivating the quality.

Noticing is vital. You don’t have to ‘do’ anything right away. This is not a makeover where we are looking for instant results. Instead, very gently, kindly and persistently we sense into physical responses, emotional up-welling, images from the past and imagined futures, with all their accompanying stories.

Is this true?
Once we are exploring the realm of stories that come up when we think about our chosen quality, we can listen respectfully, and then ask ‘Is this true?’ This is not to make the story an outright lie or to call ourselves liars. Instead it is a loving process of acknowledging that we are not our stories, that we will not fall apart if our stories don’t hold up to the light of truth.

None of our stories are writ in stone. They were all woven on the fly by ourselves and others at vulnerable moments. At first this realization can feel threatening. If we believe our identity is our stories, of course we will hold onto them tightly. But with the practice of meditation over time we soften into a deeper understanding of our nature, and these stories no longer form the fabric of our being. As we are freed from the weight of them, we can feel as if we are standing in sunlight for the first time. We discover that it was fear that wove the stories we’ve clung to all this time. We’ve taken them for granted, and now we see they were not serving us. Discerning the fear allows us to see with greater clarity and compassion.

See if working with these three questions, at times when you feel your mind is quiet and compassionate, helps you to see more clearly what has kept you from cultivating the quality you have chosen.

The Seed Catalog

As we continue our exploration of the valuable question ‘What am I cultivating here?’, wouldn’t it be nice to have a seed catalog for our inner garden? We could peruse through all the pretty plants and pick one we’d like to add. Well, hooray, there actually is one! It’s called the Ten Paramis (aka Paramitas) that we studied for a good part of 2016.

The Paramitas are qualities that are intrinsic to our nature, but not necessarily growing strong right now. In the following exercise, we can notice what we have nurtured and perhaps what is in need of more conscious cultivation. Ready to give it a go? Great!

Get something to make notes on, and take at least a few minutes to quiet down and center in. This would be a good exercise to do after meditation, but even a few minutes of quiet will help make it more meaningful.

Now, one by one, take your time looking over the list below. With each quality, pause. Sense in and see how it feels in your body. Does it bring pleasure? Then you probably have already cultivated this quality. Does it bring tension or anxiety? Make note of that. Discomfort may indicate a need for more attention in this area.
If you are not sure what the quality is, just put a question mark for now. Each paramita has a ‘READ MORE’ link to a fuller exploration.

In class, when we did this exercise on handout sheets, there was a place beside each quality to mark whether it needs cultivating or whether it is ‘sufficient for now’. One student appreciated the ‘for now’ because as long as we are alive we are cultivating something. Our garden is always in process.

Students developed their own little ‘rating systems’ with, for example, one, two or three stars, to rank qualities in some need or dire need of cultivating. Since we would like to cultivate one at a time, it’s helpful to rate them so that at the end of the exploration, you can see which one quality stood out.

EXERCISE: Paramitas — Seeds to cultivate in your inner garden

Generosity
This word may bring up examples of ways in which you have been generous with your time, your money or other resources. If so, you probably can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If it brings up feelings of tension, anxiety or shame for a pattern of withholding even when you want to be generous, give it a ‘star’ as something that may need more attention and cultivation. Recognizing our innate generosity, we can compassionately explore any fears that arise from past experiences of scarcity, of being taken advantage of, or of giving to exhaustion. [READ MORE.]

Ethical Conduct
This quality may bring up examples of times you have been fair, considerate and how in general you operate from your inner moral compass. If so, you can probably mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If it brings up feelings of anger, justification, annoyance or shame reflecting on examples of unethical behavior; or if your ethical behavior relies heavily on words like ‘should’ or fear tactics to keep you in tow, mark this one with a star.
It is only when we contract in fear, believing ourselves to be isolated and separate, that we think up and justify to ourselves unethical solutions to the challenges we face. It is skillful to see how these unethical solutions ricochet in our lives, causing pain and confusion. This reminds us to choose the simpler, clearer and more compassionate path of ethical conduct. [READ MORE]

Letting Go
This quality may bring up memories of relative ease with releasing objects, transitioning out of even the most pleasant experiences, and holding all relationships in an ‘open embrace’, loving without smothering. If so, you can probably mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If, on the other hand, you feel threatened by the idea of letting go, and recognize that you hold onto objects, roles, habits and relationships in a very tight way, then you will want to mark this with a star.
We are naturally fluid in our nature. But we can get rigid and clingy when we vest our identity in our attachment to people, roles, habits and objects. Our clinging makes us rigid and even more fearful. Then we believe that this fearfulness is who we are and the only way to remedy it is to cling harder, making ourselves and others miserable. But it is not our true nature to cling. It is our true nature to dance the fluid dance of life, a celebration of coming together and falling away, all of a piece. [READ MORE]

Wisdom
(Wisdom in this context is the deep understanding of the nature of impermanence, the sense of there being no separate self, and how we cause ourselves and others suffering through grasping, clinging and pushing away. If you have been meditating awhile, you may have had insights that can fall in one or more of these three categories of ‘Wise View’.)
If you feel you are firmly open and receptive to life’s ‘teachable moments’ that spark insights, if you see how they benefit your sense of well being, and if you are comfortable with not knowing all the answers but are happy to live with the questions themselves, then you can mark this one as ‘sufficient for now’. This is not to claim to be wise. It only means that you are growing it in your inner garden. It is taking root.
If this all sounds like gobbledygook to you, you might want to mark it as something to cultivate! [READ MORE]

Energy | Strength
This quality may bring to mind ways in which you readily meet the challenges of life, bringing a balanced physical and mental strength to handle whatever arises. If so, you can mark it ‘sufficient for now’.
If these words feel like challenges in themselves, if you find yourself often times lethargic and overwhelmed, then this might be a quality that needs cultivating. Conversely, if you often feel restless, driven, supercharged, and need to be always on the go, cultivating more balanced energy might be for you.
We come into the world with a natural understanding of the need to be active, the need to rest, the need to nourish. This understanding cultivates our innate balanced energy and strength. When we lose that understanding, striving or shirking, then we forget that we are strong and have the energy to do whatever we need to do in life, if it is wise, ethical, loving, generous. [READ MORE]

Patience
This quality may bring up examples of how you can easily wait without getting flustered or upset. If so, mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If the very word ‘patience’ has you in an inner tantrum, and you can think of many ways in which you are thwarted in life by slow drivers, busy doctors, long lines at the grocery store, being put on hold on the phone, planes not taking off, people not understanding what you’re talking about the first time you say it, people not getting to the point when they’re talking, etc., well, this is the quality for you!!!!!
We get impatient when we are trying to escape from our current experience. We want to escape when we are not open to seeing life as it is. We become blind to beauty of every moment unfolding. We become more patient through being fully present, aware of all life’s gifts, and through compassion. [READ MORE]

Truthfulness
This quality may seem to be about not lying to people, but it is also about noticing and questioning the long-accepted stories we tell ourselves. We explored together the question ‘Is this true?’ and discovered that we in fact often do inadvertently lie to ourselves by accepting without question our long-held opinions, etc. None of us are completely truthful in this way, but as long as we are aware and ready to question ‘Is this true?’ we can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If, on the other hand, you find it difficult to be truthful with others or you are unwilling to question the truth of what you tell yourself, you might want to give this one a star.  [READ MORE]

Resolve
If you are able to follow through on the intention(s) you set, then you have a strong sense of resolve. You can mark this ‘sufficient for now’.
If you find it very difficult to follow through on intentions, and you have checked in to make sure the intentions are wise, then Resolve might be a quality you want to cultivate more of.
When we find our true intention, we are innately able to stay true to it. We recognize and respect any dissenting voices within our patterns of thoughts and emotions, and find means to skillfully resolve the dissension within us so that our resolution rings true. [READ MORE]

Loving-kindness
If you practice loving-kindness to yourself, others and ultimately all beings, and truly feel the welling up within you of that infinite quality so that you radiate it, then you can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’– even though of course you continue to practice it.
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of giving yourself loving-kindness, or sending loving-kindness to even the most difficult people; or you are caught up in feeling there’s only so much loving-kindness to go around and you’re going to reserve it for those who are near and dear to you, then mark this as something you’ll want to cultivate in your inner garden.
If we recognize the infinite nature of loving-kindness, we attune to it and allow it to flow through us. It is our true nature when we are not caught up in believing ourselves to be separate isolated objects in a finite situation.  [READ MORE]

Equanimity
If you can think of all kinds of ways that you are balanced and resilient in life, how causes and conditions rarely throw you, or at least not for long; and if you can be present in the moment for each experience that arises, then you can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If you struggle and feel overwhelmed by what feel like ever-changing demands of modern life, and many times you’d like to just be on a beach somewhere, then this might be a quality for you to cultivate.
Our true nature is spacious and able to hold all of life in an open embrace. If we feel out of balance, coming home to our true nature allows us to rediscover that sense of being able to be in wholesome relationship with all that arises in our awareness. [READ MORE]

I hope you were able to really take time to look at each of these and sense in to sensations, thoughts and emotions that came up around each. If not, if you just perused them, make a point of trying this exercise at another time.

If you did the exercise, take a look at your notations and see what you’ve come up with. Notice those you’ve marked in need of cultivation and see if you can sense which one is in most need of attention right now. You might ‘rate’ them as to which ones activated the most difficult sensations, thoughts and emotions. Which one is causing you the most suffering right now?

All these qualities are interrelated. You might find you have marked two or three. As you look at them you may see a relationship between them. You might also recognize that you mistook one for another. For example, Resolve and Energy could easily cause some confusion. Look more closely. Is it really that you lack energy to do something? Or is it a lack of true resolve? That’s an interesting exploration in itself that you can pay attention to next time you’re feeling like a couch potato.

Exploring any one of these Paramitas could be a life’s practice. They work together to bring about awakening to our true Buddha nature.

Once identified, how do you go about cultivating your chosen quality?

One way to incorporate a quality into your life is to use it in your metta (infinite loving-kindness) practice. For example, you might say silently to yourself, ‘May I be well. May I be at ease. May I cultivate my natural generosity. May I be happy.’ See how I slipped the quality of Generosity in there? You can do metta practice at any time during the day, and at the beginning or end of your meditation practice. Or do the metta to yourself at the beginning, then metta to all beings at the end.

Another way to work with your chosen quality is whenever you find you are struggling, upset or conflicted. Instead of trying to change anything, see if you can cultivate your chosen quality to help you face the challenge. You might be surprised how well it applies and how it provides a kind and loving solution. If it doesn’t, then perhaps the quality you’ve chosen is not the one you most need to cultivate. Choose another! But I recommend you work with planting one quality at a time.

Abandon all ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’, ye who enter here!
Please do not take this list of qualities, these wonderful seeds to plant in your garden, as a to do list of ‘shoulds’. It would be very easy to give yourself a hard time about not already having grown these qualities. But that would not serve to grow them. It would only send you out of the garden altogether, saying ‘I’m no good at this kind of stuff.’ Instead, when you find yourself being unkind look at which quality would most help you here.

I would very much appreciate your letting me know how this exercise was for you. Feel free to ask questions and share your own findings.

Coping with what life gives us

The tenth Paramita* is Equanimity, the ability to hold all that is going on in our lives in an easeful way. In the past I have used the analogy of being like the sky, holding fluffy white clouds, rainbows, storms and lightning bolts all at once.

Many years ago a woman in our sangha out at Spirit Rock asked how was it possible for her to attend her daughter’s wedding with true joyousness of spirit when her dearest friend was dying in the hospital. This question has always stayed with me as an example of what is asked of us in life, and how equanimity serves us. The answer to the question is to stay as present in the moment as we can and to be compassionate with ourselves when we find that our awareness of joy is shot through with a thread of sorrow. So we can be fully where we are (at the daughter’s wedding) and be fully who we are (a caring friend and mother). One does not negate the other.

In fact, these kinds of contrasts are often the richest moments in our lives. I remember at the memorial we gave for my father in his home on his birthday the week after he died. I remember the beauty of the cherry blossoms that completely surrounded his deck and how much he loved them, and how sorry he felt that his beloved wife was no longer there to enjoy them. And I remember how I came upon my son changing the diapers of his month-old daughter on my father’s bed where just the week before, Dad and I had watched Wheel of Fortune and I had begged him to let me spend the night on the couch, sensing the end was near. One week apart, two sets of fathers and daughters: one set at the end of life, the other set at the beginning. To be able to hold the beauty of that is a great gift of equanimity.

There are other ways to describe equanimity. One is to find your center of gravity, that way of being in your body and in your life that you are sufficiently grounded that nothing throws you. Recently I heard a zen teacher from Nova Scotia talking about equanimity. He shared how his teacher had demonstrated it. He stood up and held his body rigid and told two men to try to knock him over. It was easy. Then he changed his stance, relaxing, going limp, being rooted in place with the release of tension. And when the men tried to move him, they couldn’t do it.
oaks
My students, all female, did not feel very inspired by this image. Is the real goal in life to be unmoved?  But they responded with more enthusiasm when I suggested that trees are grounded in this way.

Here’s a poem I recently wrote that captures some of that feeling:

Oak Sisters

Three oaks entwine on the hillside:
Minoan snake goddesses with burl breasts.

I, with the good fortune to sit below them,
rarely bow in gratitude,

while they bow to the wind, the rain,
the sun and the moon.

I am footloose, but rarely dance,
while they, despite earthly constraints,

sway together in ecstasy.
I imagine underground a mirror dance

of roots rollicking round rock,
deeper and deeper into the soil of being.

 

Of course, California live oaks are beautiful trees but not necessarily the best example to aspire to when we want to remain upright come what may. In a severe storm or even in the middle of a drought, an oak will occasionally crack and fall to the forest floor. We might choose instead a more supple tree for our role model! But you get the idea.

So now we have two ways of seeing equanimity:

  • Being spacious like the sky to hold whatever arises
  • Being like a supple tree, rooted and able to dance in the winds of life, resilient

Both of those views are helpful. Some others less so. For example, when we think of balancing, we might picture a tightrope walker on a highwire. Life might feel like that at times, but it’s a worldview that is bound to create fear and tension. If you find yourself in that position, let go! Discover that life will support you.

Another image that comes up is the art of balancing stones. Perhaps you’ve seen the results, or have watched in fascination as the artist gives his or her full attention to setting the stones, and perhaps you have even tried it yourself. At Spirit Rock on retreat I have walked up the hill to an area that was full of stones that were fun to stack. They weren’t the more challenging rounded stones the artists use, but the process still required my full attention. It’s a lovely meditative process.

That view of equanimity reminds us to be fully present, to sink into full awareness and a sense of connection with whatever we are doing. But the image could backfire if we are attached to the stones staying stacked! It could easily bring out perfectionist tendencies and the fear of things falling apart and personal failure.

In my ‘Oak Sisters’ poem there was a quality of dancing, and I am reminded of how for many years I did Nia, a dance exercise class that develops a supple grace in the body. I had no idea how stiff and ungraceful I was until I started that class! But over time I softened in my movements and gained greater balance. I felt centered and joyous. We worked from our core, just as you do in Pilates or yoga, and were trained to not overextend our limbs. What a good lesson for life that is! Where in life are you feeling overextended?

Part of the reason we overextend is that we are trying to please or impress someone else. So we are seeing ourselves from the outside, the way we think others see us. This is ‘object mode’. This is a good way to get way off balance! We need to be the subject of our own lives, the center of our own universe. This is not selfish. This is growing where we were planted. Remember that when we send metta (lovingkindness) we always begin with ourselves before sending it out to others and ultimately to all beings. Because we can’t give what we don’t have.

In meditation we find that when we go rigid we get easily distracted, and getting caught up in thinking and emotion will cause tension in the body. But when we relax our muscles and find a balanced posture, we are able to sustain a seated practice for quite sometime. And as our mind relaxes that spacious quality of sky is able to arise and fill the whole of our awareness.

And then when we go about our lives, perhaps we can develop a greater sense of ease and natural grace, able to carry whatever challenges life has given us. We may even find that what we have held as burdens will gently reveal their gifts.

May we be dancers on this earth, sensing into the music of life.

So these are all ways of looking at equanimity. What resonates with you? What questions does it bring up? What is your experience of equanimity? Please comment below.

*Paramita or parami is a state of quality of Buddha mind that we are cultivating. Equanimity (Upekkha) is the last of the ten paramitas we have been studying. See the rest in earlier posts. You can type ‘paramita’ in the search bar in the right-hand column.

Peace empowers intention, but what is peace?

I’d like to start off this continued exploration of the Paramita of Resolve with a guided exploration. It’s just two minutes, but it’s easier to talk it through rather than have you try to do it while reading.

EXERCISE (two minute audio recording)

(If for some reason you are not able to play the recording: Think about an intention that you have or a resolution that you have made either now or in the past. It doesn’t have to be your highest or most meaningful intention, just whatever comes up when I say that.
Now sense into your body and see how that intention sits. Where do you feel it? Does it stir up anxiety? Does it feel tight anywhere? Or does it make you feel more open and spacious, more clear and focused?)

Having done that little exercise, if you noticed tension come up in your body after stating your intention or resolution, then that intention is rooted in fear and confusion rather than compassion and clarity.

Let’s look at a common intention: ‘I want to lose weight.’ Why is it so difficult to follow through on that intention or sustain it? I don’t know about you, but when I say that intention, I tense up at the thought of people judging me for being overweight; of my jeans not zipping up, of having to buy a bigger size, and feeling some shame in my lack of control around certain foods.

How does that intention feel in my body? Heavy! Weighted down with shame, remorse, self-loathing, and a sense of hopelessness that has me giving up before I even get started. Well, how is that intention going to work for me?

Not very well, I can assure you. But then I had a little confab with a cardiologist who said to me, ‘As a kindness to your heart you could lose a little weight.’ Suddenly my intention was restated in a way that really spoke to me. Kindness was something I could get behind! So I reset my intention to be rooted not in fear or shame but in loving-kindness. In my body, instead of feeling tension and heaviness, I felt an upwelling of love and gratitude for my dear reliable heart that just pumps away all day and night for all these years. I have been able more often to come up with some kindness at the refrigerator door when my inner sweet tooth or just plain boredom has me lingering there. It’s also helped when I’m preparing a meal, when I’m sitting at the table, and when I’m shopping. I can put more love into the whole experience of eating, and more awareness into noticing when I am full or when I am eating mindlessly.

If you found tension or some other challenging sensation as you stated your intention in the exercise, how might you reword it to be rooted in love, gratitude and joyful celebration of life?

This experiential exercise might help you to rewrite your intention or it might erase an intention that doesn’t resonate with qualities we are cultivating here. There are fear-based intentions that activate desire, striving, and other qualities that drag us out of this moment. They are like glaring roadside billboards trying to make us believe some other moment is better than this one. This is a root cause of suffering: pushing away this experience in favor of some imagined past or future experience; and clinging to this fleeting experience hoping it will last forever.

A wise intention is not a distant goal that clogs up this present experience. It is a companion, a guide, deepening our resolve to be present and compassionate. It helps us to be more skillful in our interactions.

We can see from this experiential exercise that our bodies are the best indicators we have to discern whether our intention is wise. If it’s not wise, our body will tell us loud and clear: by tensing up or being painful in some way. When we pay attention to our thoughts — all those judgments and opinions — we can tell if we are going to be able to stay with our intention. If there’s a cacophony of voices fighting it out in there, it’s unlikely. But if our body and mind remains peaceful, and even gets a little tingle of expansive connectedness going on, then we know that we have named our intention in a way that we can follow through. Because there is inner peace.

Peace is the fourth way we are asked to look at the Paramita of Resolve, after discernment, truthfulness and relinquishment. But what if there’s not inner peace? Then we need to create more inner spaciousness, so the various thoughts can have their say but aren’t in constant conflict with each other. As we get to know the various patterns of our thoughts, we can respectfully discover what drives them.

We can create some inner peace if we are willing to pay attention. These various urges, drives, etc. all have well-meaning intentions: to help us survive. It’s just that those intentions are rooted in fear, and so the results are often ineffective and sometimes harmful. As we listen to them, we can use metta, lovingkindness, to allow them to exist as part of our experience without giving them everything they demand. We can create peace by creating spaciousness within ourselves so that it isn’t an tense tangle, but a vast field where all manner of thoughts and emotions can arise and fall away without creating conflict.

Maybe you would think it would be peaceful if everyone was in agreement, whether our internal voices or everyone in the world community. But we are not a mono-mind species either individually or collectively. We have different opinions, and two different opinions can seem equally valid, true, well-thought out, loving, etc. This is how it is to be human, isn’t it? So how can there be peace, ever?

Here’s how I see it: Peace is not the same note played by every instrument in the orchestra. Peace is the harmony that comes from each instrument playing its part so the resulting concert is beautiful. So then do we need a conductor? Not in my experience. With our young toy instrumentsgranddaughters we have a tradition of making music with the various toy instruments we have at hand. We march in a parade around the house with great exuberance banging and drumming and blowing on wooden flutes. From the outside it probably sounds horrendous, but for us it is a joyful celebration.

Every moment that I attend with awareness and compassion reveals its beauty. The challenge is always whether I can pay attention. With my dedicated daily meditation practice, I find that often I can. When I don’t pay attention to this moment, it can sound like a cacophony. But when I listen with spacious awareness and compassion, the beauty is revealed.

With that definition of peace, there is peace possible in every moment. It is not the peace of the dead or the dreamless sleep. It is the peace of life being lived in concert.

Resolve

 

resolveResolve. I like that word. The wordsmith in me likes the sound of it better than ‘intention’ where the ‘tin’ rings a little hollow at times. ‘Resolve’ sounds deeper. It resounds in the body. It feels like a powerful river carving stone. Resolve.

If resolve feels more powerful for you than intention, practice using it when you set a course and see if it empowers you to follow it. If you prefer intention, stick with that. We all find what works best for our own practice. But for now, I will use ‘Resolve’ and we’ll see where it takes us.

Resolve is affiliated with the word ‘resolution’. Is that a powerful word? Or is it one we don’t take that seriously after so many failed New Year’s resolutions? One student in class said she thought of resolution as a problem that has been resolved, another way to use the word. That way of using it helps us to understand a key point about Resolve: Until all our inner voices come to some kind of resolution — have negotiated a sustainable agreement — we can’t effectively move forward on our course. Instead we get stuck in a quagmire of conflicting thoughts.

Sound familiar? We all have a bit of an internal cacophony. It’s not multiple personalities; just a lot of unexamined thought patterns that hold competing and conflicting opinions. Until we become fully aware of them, they hold the invisible reins to our behaviors, often sabotaging our best intentions without us knowing why. We end up frustrated that we don’t seem to get anywhere and feel so ‘weak-willed’. But will is not the problem. Our not taking the time to investigate who’s in charge here is the real challenge we all face.

One way to ‘out’ these conflicting rein-holders is to purposely set the trap of a little resolution or intention: something simple but for some reason difficult to carry out, like ‘clean out the closet’. Then wholeheartedly endeavor to do it. Maybe the closet gets cleaned out. (Yay! Now choose another more challenging resolution.) Or maybe the closet is still full of stuff that falls on you when you open the door. Or you got started but got tired or distracted and all the stuff just ends up in a pile elsewhere. Maybe half the closet gets done. Maybe you never get to the closet because life gets in the way. But during the process of having set this resolution, you come to the real purpose of this exercise: To activate and pay attention to the conflicting thoughts and emotions you have about whatever intention you have set.

Once you notice a thought that conflicts with your intention, this is an opportunity to have a dialog. I suggest journaling or maybe even recording the dialog. Most important in this process is to keep the dialog friendly, curious, respectful and compassionate. It needs to be a dialog between the sabotaging aspect of self and your deepest wisdom. If it’s a dialog between two aspects of self, it will escalate into a shooting match, a tantrum or a shut down. If your deepest wisdom interviews the aspect that’s being troublesome, the exchange will be valuable and potentially transformative. Inner wisdom is not trying to destroy or get rid of any part of ourselves or our experience. Nor is it trying to protect, defend, justify or coddle that aspect. It simply wants to investigate in a loving way what that aspects deepest fear is, what motivates it to sabotage us, and what could make it feel better without sabotaging well being.

Some skillful negotiation can be useful here. I once got my inner aspect I’d nicknamed Slug to go to a yoga class because I found a teacher who during the last period of savasana pose came around to each student and covered her with a blanket and tucked her in. In my interview with Slug I had discovered that he loved to hang out in bed because it reminded him of a big mommy hug and he missed his mommy. My mother had died the year before. So I found a motherly woman who made yoga possible for Slug. And it worked. After a while Slug no longer needed to be tucked in and I joined an aerobic exercise class as well.

So it really does work! But we need to identify the aspect, give it an affectionate but identifiable nickname, and find out what it’s afraid of, what it thinks it’s protecting us from, what it wants and how we could perhaps make use of its energy rather than be ruled by it.

In attempting to live up to a resolution, we may expose the mixed messages we are getting from our inner aspects. I found one the other day. I noticed that I give myself a hard time if I spend money (‘OMG, this month’s credit card bill is huge!’) and I give myself a hard time if I don’t! (‘Why didn’t I give more to that charity?’ ‘Why didn’t I splurge more on my child, grandchild or friend?’) I can’t seem to win in regard to money. So what is the answer for me? Perhaps I could spend more time exploring the First Paramita of ‘Generosity’. And part of that exploration could be an investigation of these two warring factions within me. Hmm, what shall I name them? Stingy and Benny (for beneficent)? After a meditation session, I’ll interview them and see how it goes. That’s my current challenge. Pause for a moment to see if you can notice yours.

Resolve is cultivated through our meditation practice. It arises out of our deepening understanding of the nature of things. As we begin to see more clearly, we can resolve to, for example, practice meditation every day, in a way that acknowledges its true value in our lives and in the way we interact with the world.

JUST TWO INTENTIONS

For the past five years or so I have been conducting an experiment by setting just two intentions: To be present and to be compassionate with myself and others. I wanted to see how just those two might work out. I’ve found that they do seem to be sufficient. If I find myself in a muddle, I reset the intention to be present, which creates inner spaciousness, calm and clarity. If things don’t clear up, then some compassion helps to remind me to take some needed rest.

If I find myself judging either myself or someone else, my intention of compassion softens the harsh edges and reminds me how we are all in this together, how each of us, including myself is doing the best we can. Compassion also helps me to maintain my health. ‘As a kindness to my heart’ a cardiologist once told me I could lose some weight. That spoke to me in a way none of my inner dictates and rude name-calling had done, because it was attune to my intention to be compassionate. And my intention to be present helps me to really taste what I am eating and enjoy it rather than wolf it down, and to notice when I am satisfied and when I am just eating mindlessly. This has always been a challenging area for me, but I am more present more of the time.

You might try using those two intentions yourself. Resolve to be present. Resolve to be compassionate with yourself and others, especially when you realize you haven’t been present at all, or you see that the other person is just not present but lost in their thoughts. See how setting these two intentions affects your daily life. I would love to hear about your experience.

Happiness begins with questioning in

questionmarkIn our ongoing exploration of the Ten Perfections of the Heart, we have been looking at Truthfulness, especially how truthful we are with ourselves. It is not that we are outright lying, just that we are not often questioning the statements, beliefs, judgments, etc. that are the running inner commentary of our mental lives. How much does this inner commentary shape the way we relate to this present moment and all that we are dealing with? Do our assumptions persuade us and dissuade us in ways we are not even aware of? Of course! So after quieting the mind down a bit in meditation, it is extremely valuable to start questioning these previously unquestioned long-standing thoughts that have been getting a free ride all this time. If we are basing our intentions, attitudes, words and actions on something we haven’t even looked at lately, then there’s no time like the present to start questioning.

As we take the time to unplug, focus on our breath and develop awareness and compassion, we have the opportunity to begin to see the nature of the thoughts that pass through (again and again). Especially right after meditating, we can allow ourselves just a few more minutes to really notice and question.

Of course, the process is particularly noticeable when on a silent retreat. (But don’t put it off until then!) On retreat there is so much time in silence, and without the opportunity to be expressed, thoughts stand out in our minds. They have more space to move around because the normal thoughts that typically run our daily activities have become unnecessary: We don’t have to pick anything up from the store, make anything for dinner, accomplish anything on our to do list or think of what to say or review what we should have said instead of what we did say, etc. On retreat all we do is respond to the bells by getting up, going to the meditation hall, sitting, walking, dining, listening to dharma talks, maybe going on a little hike or resting in the sun, and doing our one simple daily yogi job — a housekeeping or cooking chore that we have chosen. The remaining thought patterns have a lot of room in our heads to rattle around, so that we actually see them passing through, again and again.

How we come into relationship with these repeating patterns is really the focus of our practice as we go about our day.

Do we combat them? “Oh, shut up!’

Abuse them? “You are so stupid!”

Placate them? “I promise I’ll do better.’

Reinforce them by adding in some emotional component? ‘ Grrr, that really made me angry, and not only that, remember the time…?’

Or, as the Buddha suggested, do we question their veracity? ‘Is that true?’ ‘What proof do I have to back up that belief, assumption, judgment or statement?’

This is a valuable investigation, and one that is lifelong. We develop the powerful habit of self-exploration. This is quite different from self-doubt, which is the habit of undermining our best intentions. Inner investigation is simply making sure that we are being truthful in what we tell ourselves. So many of our thought patterns simply repeat something we heard as children. We have tuned ourselves in to a certain set of beliefs, and we accept anything we hear that resonates with those original assumptions. But where did the assumptions come from? They are often negative judgments about ourselves or the world, and when we simply accept them as true without questioning, we do a disservice to ourselves and those around us. With our child’s limited view we made sense of a confusing world at the time, but now, from our adult perspective, if we take a moment to really look, these assumptions reveal themselves to be erroneous, painful and unnecessary now. Whatever we thought we were protecting doesn’t need this protection any longer. The truth does set us free!

As with all the Paramitas, these perfections of the heart, we can spend a lifetime in this practice and find great value in it. We have insights into the nature of mind and how we are causing ourselves and others to suffer by being oblivious to the patterns of thought and emotion that activate anger, jealousy and ill will of all kinds.

In our meditation practice, we are training ourselves to be present with whatever arises in our experience. This is a worthy endeavor in itself, but when we get into inner investigation, the real fruits of our efforts reveal themselves. When we see that thoughts are not ‘who we are’ but instead just wisps of mental formations passing through our vast compassionate field of experience, or synaptic activity, it makes it a lot easier to look at them without freaking out or freezing up or turning away.

You can see how the matter of identity comes into play with this investigation. We may cling to certain beliefs, opinions and judgments as components of our personality or character. Those of you who have studied the work of Byron Katie will recognize these valuable questions: ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true? Who would I be without this thought?’

As we begin to explore the next Paramita of ‘Resolve’, we are asked to continue with this practice of looking closely at the nature of our thoughts. The Buddha taught that there are four aspects to ‘Resolve’, and the first one is Discernment. And what is involved in discernment? It is really looking at the intention or course we have set for ourselves and noticing all the underpinnings of thoughts and judgments that rise up in our field of experience that may be sabotaging our intentions. Discernment makes us look at the goals themselves to see if they are worthy and sustainable.

So here we are again, paying attention to the nature of thoughts that arise, and questioning them. We just can’t get away from it! And that’s okay, because there is incredible richness in this process. This is where the wondrous insights grow from the fertile field of ongoing dedication to awareness and compassion.

To tell the truth, we lie all the time

When I was eleven and just moved to San Francisco, for some reason I began making stuff up. In a class with three sets of twins, I fabricated a twin of my own named Catherine who lived in Cleveland with my grandmother because ‘we didn’t get along’.  I told my closest friend, who was also new that year, that the shower in our bathroom was a fern grotto with moss and a little cascade. Admittedly that shower was dark, enclosed and who knows what could have grown in there had my mother not stayed on top of it, but a fern grotto? My friend was mightily disappointed on that first visit to my home, but I guess she forgave me because we’re still friends almost sixty years later.

So I come to the virtue of Truthfulness with curiosity. Would we have children not fabricate tall tales for the amusement of others?

 

COVER

Cover of soon to be published book. See below for more info.

Which brings to mind the book my husband, the artist Will Noble, has just finished illustrating. It’s a true celebration of imagination, based on the lyrics of the Peter, Paul and Mary song ‘Autumn to May’. (Ordering info, if interested.)

One of my meditation students is involved in the theater, where she says ‘truth’ is not about being factual, as the whole play is usually the product of imagination, but about being true to the play and staying in character. Certainly in painting or poetry, the two art forms I am most familiar with, the painting or poem requires being true to it, honoring it, not suddenly breaking out into some other kind of painting or poem. The art dictates the core truth so that every aspect is enhancing the integrated whole. But this has nothing to do with factual truth, does it? There’s a deeper truth that is revealed when we stay true to the art.

Truth in Politics
But lets get back to factual truth. In this highly charged political season, there seems to be a dearth of it. Perhaps you remember comedian Stephen Colbert’s infamous ‘truthiness’ where political doublespeak sounds true, but isn’t. It puts us on notice that there are a lot of ways of thinking about things and talking about things that conveniently skirt issues and sound true enough, but upon closer examination are revealed to be false.

We can complain about it, sure, but it’s more useful to notice how we are inclined to readily believe ‘facts’ that support our preexisting position, and how we may quickly reject fact-based ‘lies’ when they don’t. We are also more likely to believe something to be true when it comes from someone we want to believe, perhaps someone who looks like us or shares our values. With news sources offering more editorial opinion than researched facts and information flowing so freely on the internet, discerning the factual truth becomes increasingly difficult. But it is up to each of us to make the effort to find the truth, and to not be attached to rigid positions. Question everything!

Being Honest with Friends and Family
On an interpersonal level, most of us adults have found it is just too much of a hassle to keep track of lies. So we are as honest as we can be, and when it would be hurtful to say what we think, we don’t lie, we just stay silent. And that’s skillful. The Buddha’s teaching of Wise Speech asks us to think before we speak, and then only say what is true, kind and timely.

How does that play out in real life? In class students offered two situations for us to examine:

First up, what do you do when you were invited to something you didn’t want to attend, gave an elaborate excuse and get caught out later in the lie. How could that have been handled better? Well, keep it simple! We don’t need to make an excuse or tell a tale. ‘I’m not available.’ is sufficient, but if pressed ‘That’s not my thing.’ or ‘I’m not up for that.’ also work. We don’t need reasons. If it’s a person we would like to spend time with, we can come up with an alternative type of activity that is more our thing. If not, then a simple, ‘I hope you enjoy it.’ is sufficient.

The second situation was brought up by the student who works in theater. She wondered how to be honest with an actor after a not-so-great performance. For the answer to this, I turned to Toastmasters excellent format for evaluating other members’ speeches. First, while watching the performance, regardless of how bad it is, find something praiseworthy, and then be sure to praise that. Right after a performance, that’s enough. But later, if the actor actually requests your full opinion, or if it is your job to give them an evaluation, you can use what we call the ‘Toastmaster sandwich’, beginning with something they did well and ending with something else they did well. In the middle give the meat of what they might consider doing differently next time to be more effective. But again, only if they request your opinion.

Sometimes we think we are being kind by lying to each other, but upon further reflection it just creates misunderstandings and confusion. Others of us feel compelled to tell the ‘truth’ regardless of how hurtful it may be. I put truth in quotes because it is often just a personal opinion. Finding our way in this is never easy, but again, if we pause to reflect whether what we are about to say is true, kind and timely, we have a better chance of maintaining strong, respectful and caring relationships.

I’m sure you can think of other challenging situations we can look at together. Please comment below and get the conversation started!

The Biggest Lies We Tell All the Time
Where we are likely to be lying more often than not is to ourselves! Our thoughts rattle around saying the same old thing over and over and we believe them without question and let them guide our behavior. In our next class we will be exploring this aspect of Truthfulness. Stay tuned!