Category Archives: planning

Befriending or battling?

Noticing how we are in relationship with whatever is arising in our current experience is an important part of our insight meditation practice. The most fertile time to do this gentle inner investigation is right after meditating when we have actively cultivated clarity and compassion.

Whatever thoughts come to mind, we can look at them — the people, the problems, the plans, the situations — and notice if we are judging, blaming, avoiding or treating them as an enemy. Are we caught up in a bitter battle or participating in a joyful dance?

Maybe what is arising is a health crisis fraught with worry, pain and self-blame. This was the case for one student in class this week. She was also frustrated that she wasn’t managing to handle it all more graciously. Graciously? Excuse me? We are not white gloved ladies trying to be well-mannered to appease our mothers. How easily we fall into patterns that don’t serve us and how challenging it can be to see them. In our practice we aspire to wise speech which is kind, truthful and timely. That is plenty challenging, but no part of the requirement is to diminish ourselves or to put on a false front for the perceived benefit of others. What is called for is more regular metta practice. With infinite loving-kindness, we hold ourselves in a truly caring way.

If this speaks to you — either as something you crave or fear — feel the full power of your innate maternal or paternal self parenting yourself with love and kindness. Even if this is not the kind of parenting you received as a child, you can do this for yourself now. This is not self-indulgent. We all need to be held in this way. We might wish someone else would provide this to us, but waiting for someone else to provide it is like diverting fresh spring water away to another source, thinking it’s more valuable when offered in a cup from the hands of another. We all have direct access to infinite loving-kindness. Practicing it on ourselves first is the only way to be truly loving to anyone else. Access the infinite, then become a conduit for it.

Another student noticed how much time she needs to spend calming herself down to deal with a whirlwind of responsibilities. Well, first, great gratitude and celebration to have developed the resources to calm herself down. May everyone everywhere have those resources. Whatever skillful things we can do to take care of ourselves in order to manage our lives are to be appreciated. Kudos for having a regular practice and the ability to notice when a little time-out self-care is needed.

 

Although this student has a uniquely complex array of details to manage in her work, all of us can relate to at least at times having to manage preparations for some upcoming event. We know exactly how heavily it all can sit on our shoulders, and how we can get caught up in living in that future time when the event is fully realized, rather than giving ourselves the gift of fully engaging in this moment. This makes us less able to do what we need to do, and more miserable about doing it.

These kinds of projects often loom large and shadowy. We expend a lot of energy procrastinating and nagging ourselves about our failure to meet the challenge. The compassion and clarity that comes from regular meditation makes simply doing what we need to do much easier. It’s suddenly clear that we just have to break the work down into incremental bits and get to it.

Finding the time to fit a project into an already busy life can be tricky. But assigning it a regular time slot in your day or week can help to formalize the process. If you have ever been on a meditation retreat, then you probably were assigned a yogi job, some small daily chore that contributes to the well-being of everyone. It might be chopping vegetables, sweeping a porch or cleaning a bathroom. It’s always a very specific task, and it’s easy enough to do in a meditative way.

I once was assigned the yogi job of scrubbing the showers in one of the dormitories at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. It was interesting to notice how day by day my attitude and thought processes around my yogi job shifted. The first day was all aversion: Ugh to the claustrophobic tiled space. Ugh to the repetitive scrubbing and bending. Second day I was more accepting of the task at hand, and decided I would be the best shower scrubber ever. Third day I realized that these were

the showers used by the retreat teachers, so I shifted from proving my worth to expressing my gratitude. Fourth day I let go of all of that. I simply sensed into the movement of my arms and body wielding the scrub brush, sponge and spray bottle. Fifth day more of the same but also the awareness of being part of a continuum of shower scrubbing yogis who had all been here and would all be here day after day, retreat after retreat, for hopefully many years to come, scrubbing earnestly, dealing with their own range of thoughts and emotions. There was a sense of community, camaraderie and a relief that it wasn’t all up to me to keep this tile shining. And there was something about that that woke me up to what it is to be alive and to participate fully in life, whatever we are doing. Can we be fully present with the work itself? Can we see our own efforts as part of a pattern of dedication and even devotion? The work we do, and especially the way we do it, can be experienced as life loving itself through us.

Whatever is arising in our current experience can be met in so many different ways. Pause and consider what challenges or struggles you are currently dealing with. How are you relating to the experience? Are you avoiding it? Making an enemy of it? Can you add compassion and clarity into the mix and see what happens? Please let me know how it goes!

 

Eightfold Path: Right Mindfulness

In the practice of meditation, we learn to continually bring our thoughts back to the present moment whenever we find them wandering. We learn to use our many senses to engage our minds in the moment. We tell ourselves, ‘Be Here Now.’

It is challenging to go against life-long habits of the mind where the past and the future have commanded central roles in our thinking process. The effort we exert to become aware of our habits and to bring our mind back to the moment may feel a bit strained, and the results are often fleeting. This can lead to frustration, but we remind ourselves that developing any new skill is challenging. We continue to meditate and to bring awareness into our daily lives because we find that we and those around us benefit from our increasing spaciousness of mind, even though we may only be able to bring our minds to the present moment a small percentage of the time.

Having learned about Right Effort in the post before last, we might now question whether we need to try quite so hard to be mindful. If practicing mindfulness is a task or a chore we add to our daily to do list, then it is neither Right Effort nor Right Mindfulness.

Thinking again about the challenge of developing a new skill, consider playing the piano for example: At first it is all about the position of our fingers on the keys. We do endless drills to let our fingers learn where they should rest and how far they should reach to play the notes. But if we stay with it long enough for our fingers to feel at home on the keys, keeping our focus on the mechanical aspects can get in our way. As we become more adept at fingering, we can relax and allow ourselves to sense into and open to the music itself.

And this is exactly how it is with being present. At first, yes, the practice may seem a bit mechanical, our reminders to ourselves a bit nagging. This is normal. But at a certain point — and when this happens is totally individual — there is a shift where we realize that we don’t need to tell ourselves to be in the moment, that the moment itself claims us. We are naturally interested in the moment, perhaps awed by it, as if each moment were a new painting or poem to really see or hear. This is not a chore! This is a delight! This is life unfolding, fresh in every moment!

(Perhaps this sounds like being high, but those who have ever done drugs see how paltry drugs are in comparison to this grounded sustainable sense of being fully present with life as it is. This is a high that supports our physical and mental well being, while drugs threaten both.)

So how do we know when this transition comes? Well, the same way we knew when we no longer needed training wheels on our first bicycle. Perhaps we just had a sense that the training wheels were getting in our way, inhibiting our natural ability to ride. The extra trappings started to feel clunky. The same can be true here. The trappings of extra efforting begin to feel clunky, unnecessary – extra baggage no longer needed.

But if we take them off too soon, we will fall back into the habit of dwelling in the past or future. So we need to be mindful of our needs and not strive to be rid of that which supports us in our practice.

Some clues to being ready are noticing that we are: Becoming more aware of sensations in the body and taking heed of the body’s messages about our emotional or mental states; discovering that certain situations cause us to be less mindful and finding ways to craft our lives more skillfully; giving up multi-tasking so that we can stay present with our experience; arranging our schedule so that we create quiet spaces between events for our own rest and renewal; finding skillful means to stay present in difficult situations and to not add fuel to the fire by falling into fear.

All of these incremental steps allow us to be more mindful more of the time. And so perhaps we can transition from so much efforting to be mindful to opening to the naturally arising mindfulness within us out of our growing love and gratitude for life. Perhaps instead of reminding ourselves to come back to the moment, we can ask ourselves, “Where is the beauty in this moment?” and really give ourselves over to experiencing our surroundings with fresh eyes and ears, inviting ourselves into the spacious joy, the celebration of this precious gift of life.

This is Right Mindfulness. When life itself is so very interesting, even in the most ordinary moments, that we find ourselves fully present for our lives, enjoying discovering the depths and multi-layered dimensions of being absolutely where we are, our attention needs no effort.

But we are human. We will, by our very nature, get tripped up by the past or the future, and by old habits rising up at times of turmoil. That’s when we can turn to the guideposts of the Eightfold Path. If we have wandered into suffering, we can look at the guideposts of the Path and question what is going on. The light cast by the guidepost of Right Mindfulness is often bright enough to guide us back, because so much of our suffering is caused by not being mindful. We dwell in the past, regretting, reminiscing, revising history, laying blame; and we dwell in the future, worrying, planning or fantasizing. In this state we are bound to be unskillful. We can’t end our suffering if we aren’t present for the only moment in which we have the power to do so: This one.

As we spend more and more time fully in the moment, we fall in love with each moment, welcoming it and bidding it adieu as we greet the next. We no longer hold out for the moments we used to think were the ‘good’ ones, where life is ‘perfect.’ No matter what our situation, even if we are in incredible pain, we can sense in to the richness of life.

When I presented this dharma talk a question came up that a lot of other people probably share:

“If we are always in the present how do we plan?”
Being in the present does not preclude planning. We set aside a block of time in which we are going to plan something and that is our focus. But that is very different from the persistent thread of planning and daydreaming that runs through our minds all day, distracting us from being fully present with our current experience. When planning is the experience we want to be present for, then that’s Right Mindfulness.