Category Archives: poem

Befriend what arises, and be the light!

If you read the last post, I hope you had a chance to notice when fear showed up within yourself during the week. When we’re really paying attention, it can be surprising how much fear in all its guises is present. We experience it as physical tension (afraid the body will fall apart if we don’t lend extra holding power?) We experience numerous fear-based emotions: anger at another driver for putting us in jeopardy, anxiety over what people might think of us when we speak up, fear of being judged and found wanting, fear of getting ill, fear of dying, or of losing a loved one, etc. etc.

In looking back on a week asking the valuable question ‘What am I afraid of here?’ one student said that the more aware she was of the fear the more she was able to be with it and acknowledge it. Yes! We’re not pushing fear away. If we were afraid of snakes or rats, spending time in a controlled environment with an individual snake or rat would help to soften the fear, wouldn’t it? So much of our fear is rooted in our distrust of the unknown, so getting to know what we fear shifts us into a different frame of mind. We might still be cautious, we might never want to have a pet snake or rat. But something has shifted. That shift dis-empowers the fear, giving a deeper understanding of the nature of things a chance to guide us more skillfully.

While fear can activate us, motivate us to do something, more often it paralyzes us and keeps us from doing things in our lives. Fear has at times paralyzed me from living the full expression of this gift of life, from taking my seat at the table of life, the seat that is reserved for each of us just by being born into this world. Boys are usually raised in such a way that they don’t question that they have a seat at the table, a right to exist, a right to seek their own destiny. But women historically have not. To the degree that is beginning to change, hallelujah!

In class we also talked about the January 20th women’s marches locally, nationally and around the world. My husband and I went to the one last year in San Francisco, but this year we babysat our granddaughters while our son and daughter-in-law went. I shared a live stream of the SF march on Facebook, but mostly enjoyed spending time with the next generation of empowered women.

womensmarchsf-1-18.jpgOne student who attended the San Francisco march said that she had asked herself who she was doing this for? (Another really good question!) Before going to the march, she had felt that since the Bay Area marches rarely got coverage beyond local media, why turn out? But once she was in the march, the most peaceful and joyful she had ever experienced, she understood that ‘we were doing this for ourselves’. Now that’s powerful! When we see the truth in that, we transition from trying to impress the powers that oppress us to being the power, to taking our seat at the table. She sent me a number of wonderful photos she had taken at the march and gave me permission to post any I wanted. I enjoyed the many creative signs that the marchers carried, but I chose to share the one that is most closely aligned with my own message in my life, my teachings and this blog: “Don’t curse the darkness, be the light!’ In fact, amidst the little Buddha statues I’ve been given over the years, there is a small lighthouse to remind me of this meditative poem I wrote that is both calming, centering and empowering. 

Lighthouse: A Meditation

I radiate light
out into the fog

Air circles up and down
my staircase

Waves lap my shore,
storms pass through.

Just by shining
I am of service.

There’s nothing
more I need to do.

I radiate light.

– Stephanie Noble

This little light of mine

Here we are in the deepest darkness of the year. Most of us have challenging relationships with darkness. Why? Our fearful thoughts and feelings are activated in the dark because we can’t see, so we don’t know what there is there. And in the quiet of the dark night our other senses are heightened. We hear things. What is that? We don’t know!! Yikes. Then our imaginations, already activated with the patterns of dream-making in the dark, can create all manner of things to be afraid of. So yes, the dark can be difficult.

But the dark is also where the riches can be found — all those hidden treasures stored away in the dark cavernous basement or the dark dusty attic of our inner world. But if we are going to explore these areas, we need a flashlight, right? Through the regular practice of meditation, that’s exactly what we are developing: the ability to shine a light in our own darkness.The ability to calm our fears and see more clearly. Our practice is illumination! We actively cultivate the light of clarity and the infinite loving light of kindness and compassion. We are well equipped to be present with whatever we find, and our discoveries will very likely be of benefit to us and in turn to all beings.

So on this longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, I wish you Happy Solstice! I attended a granddaughter’s holiday chorus and was delighted to hear her group singing ‘This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!’ That shall be my theme song for the season and beyond. Try it for yourself and feel the glow. 😉

Here is a video of my illustrated solstice poem, and below that is the poem for reading. Enjoy and share widely. You never know who among all your friends, family and acquaintances might be afraid of the dark and in need of some soulful fortification. 

Stephanie Noble

In Celebration of the Winter Solstice
a poem by Stephanie Noble

Do not be afraid of the darkness.
Dark is the rich fertile earth
that cradles the seed, nourishing growth.
Dark is the soft night that cradles us to rest.
Only in darkness
can stars shine across the vastness of space.
Only in darkness
is the moon’s dance so clear.
There is mystery woven in the dark quiet hours,
There is magic in the darkness.
Do not be afraid.
We are born of this magic.
It fills our dreams
that root, unravel and reweave themselves
in the shelter of the deep dark night.
The dark has its own hue,
its own resonance, its own breath.
It fills our soul,
not with despair, but with promise.
Dark is the gestation of our deep and knowing self.
Dark is the cave where we  rest and renew our soul.
We are born of the darkness,
and each night we return
to the deep moist womb of our beginnings.
Do not be afraid of the darkness,
for in the depth of that very darkness
comes a first glimpse of our own light,
the pure inner light of love and knowing.
As it glows and grows, the darkness recedes.
As we shed our light, we shed our fear,
and revel in the wonder of all that is revealed.
So, do not rush the coming of the sun.
Do not crave the lengthening of the day.
Celebrate the darkness.
Here and now. A time of richness. A time of joy.

– copyright 1994 Stephanie Noble

 

But then I remember

Amidst all the conflicts going on — the mental illness that leads to massacre, the fear that leads to hate, the anger that leads to violence, the centuries old ill will between whole groups of peoples, the bristling at even listening to the views of the ‘other side’ — how are we to find even a smidgen of happiness? And is that even something we should care about at times like these? Are we like small children crying for lack of something fun to do when the whole house is burning down around us?

After a difficult night’s sleep, this morning I woke to just that sense of despair. So much sorrow, so much injustice, so much hopelessness in the world. And I felt disdain for my feeble attempts at personal happiness when the world is crumbling around me.

But then I remembered.

I remembered that I can’t help anyone else if I am drowning. So it’s not just okay but imperative that I be sure I keep my head above water, able to breathe.

Ah the breath. Yes. I come back to the breath, just noticing, but also appreciating that it is still there, still breathing me, that it is my greatest support. Gratitude arises. Appreciation. Deeper noticing. I find my footing. I feel grounded. I’m not drowning in despair.

Just like that, I land fully in this experience of life. This here right now is all I have to work with for whatever I want or need to do. This moment, this breath, this sense of connection: This is my personal point of power. I am anchored by the breath the way a tree is anchored by its roots — supported in all the ways it grows. I grow where I am planted, branching out in all directions, responding with the wisest intention and wisest effort I can manifest to the ever-changing causes and conditions of life.

In what other ways can I learn from the trees? Just like the tree, sometimes our greatest offerings are hard for us to see. Does the tree know that it offers a way for the squirrels and birds to navigate, feel safe and nest? Does it know it provides shade for the weary wanderer to rest?

What do each of us offer the world around us that we aren’t even aware of providing?

under-tree.jpg

My brother John and me under a tree

I think about that in relationship to my brother this week in particular, as the days lead up to his life celebration and I will briefly speak about him. What will I say? How will I say it? What will help those gathered? What is better left unsaid? We are all so tender in our own grief. But we also need each other at this difficult time of shared loss.

The moon is getting so full, and my heart with it. The clear night bright light keeps me awake. But in my sleeplessness, trying to wend my way back into dreams, I find myself instead re-inhabiting those last difficult days of his life, and how helpless I felt to save him as he slipped away before our eyes. I think about what I might have done differently, but nothing would have made a difference in the outcome. And I think about his life, what a difference he made every day in the lives of those who knew him. Like most of us, his life at times took dead end roads and contained some actions with painful consequences. Yet he died surrounded by loving family and life-long friends who have gone on to create beautiful memorials for him. He touched so many lives in so many wonderful ways, just by being his kind funny generous self. 

They say there are no failures, but that’s not true. There’s the failure to understand our own intrinsic value and the value of every being we encounter in our lives. We can take lessons from the trees. We can stay present, stay rooted, keep growing, keep providing for ourselves and others whatever it is in our nature to offer when we release our fear and rest in awareness and compassion.

Swinging Limb
for my brother John Culler, 1942 – 2017

Out beyond the field
that edged our neighborhood:
A tree we kids called
Swinging Limb.
Upon it we would climb
to laze the summer days away,
at rest in its dip and rise.

— Stephanie Noble

Celebrating Winter Solstice – My Illustrated Poem Now on YouTube!

Whether you enjoy this dark season or hate it, you’ll find comfort in this short video. I wrote the poem 25 years ago. Since then it has become part of winter solstice celebrations around the world. Twenty years ago, I illustrated the poem, cutting out black white and gray shapes. Recently I came upon the illustrations and realized that now there is Youtube, so, with a little help from a family member, I put it together and posted it.
It had it’s debut on the ‘big screen’ in this week’s Poetic Pilgrimage class at College of Marin. I hope you will view it on something larger than your phone! Be sure to turn the volume up. So many people struggle this time of year, so please SHARE IT widely!

Background
I wrote this poem originally because it seemed to me that everything about the winter solstice was celebrating the return of the light. That is just another way to lean into the future rather than noticing what is present and finding something in this moment to celebrate.

It is not saying darkness is preferable to light! It is only saying to notice all that is happening in our current experience with at least some level of gratitude. Let’s stop wishing life away in favor of some ‘perfect’ day. When it’s raining let’s listen to the symphony of raindrops and the gratitude of the plants and, if you live in a part of the world prone to drought as I do, gratitude for the filling of the reservoirs. Every season has its gifts and its challenges. We humans tend to have a negativity bias and see the hassles and challenges more readily than the gifts. This poem offers us a little balance.

What is Winter Solstice?
Some people are still unclear about what the winter solstice is, thinking it’s something religious. While it can inspire spirituality, it’s actually when the earth tilts furthest away from the sun, making it the shortest day and longest night. The summer solstice is when the earth tilts towards the sun, making it the longest day and shortest night. The northern and southern hemispheres have exact opposite solstices.

equinox

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.

Metta :: Lovingkindness

copper-heart-smallThe ninth Paramita is Metta or lovingkindness. This is a quality we are very familiar with in class because I end each meditation with a metta practice, sending it first to ourselves, then to some person, a group or a situation in particular need of metta right now. And then to all beings: May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

This is such a wonderful practice. In the middle of a difficult meditation, when the mind is glued to solving some life problem, it is hugely helpful to send metta to that problem or person, and then return to the breath. The practice is all we can do, and the best we can do, in that moment.

Since my paired intentions in life for a number of years have been to be present in this moment and to be compassionate with myself and others, metta practice is very much a part of how I am able to live my resolve. My students have also found it to be a very useful practice.

This week, focusing on metta itself, I led a full metta practice. So I include a recording of that practice here in case you want to try it. It attunes you to the true nature of metta. This particular practice is very helpful if you have difficulty being kind to yourself and for any reason feel you don’t deserve lovingkindness. It is includes the ‘difficult person’ component of the practice, and that is super helpful if you are struggling with someone in your life who pushes your buttons.

METTA PRACTICE (10 minute audio recording)

 

As mentioned in the audio recording, you can send metta from any distance. Sometimes you have a person in your life who is very draining, who activates difficult volatile emotions in you, and you aren’t feeling strong enough to be with them. That reminded me of this poem I wrote twenty years ago when I was recovering from a long illness:

Dirt Bag Dharma

I don’t know how long I had been ill…
Long enough to see myself as
fragile, wan, weak, in need of protection
from violent images and emotion
that could suck the life right out of me.

But I needed soil for my garden
and the young worker assigned to shovel
ten bags of dirt for me was apparently
way overdue for a break, and no doubt
had other grievances fueling his anger.

I backed off — to give him space, I thought,
but really more to give me space,
as I retreated to the cocoon of my car to wait.

Feeling guilty, I began to send him metta:
May you be well, may you feel ease.
At first the words had a begging quality
like the prayers of a small child, cowering
in a corner, terrified of the boogey man.

But the words became an invocation
And suddenly I saw myself more clearly:
how knotted in fear I seemed,
as knotted as the worker out there
both of us suffering our grievances.

The metta repeated became a shaft of light
breathing into me, releasing me
from my victim stance, revealing instead
my capacity to be a conduit
of compassionate healing energy.

Across the muddy yard, I saw him too.
still shoveling dirt into bags,
still bent, still angry, still suffering.
So I returned to his side and soon
we were chatting — who knows about what,
it didn’t matter, because — all the while
I breathed in his suffering and out that radiant light.

Soon his shoulders softened,
his voice lost its edge. I heard a low
chuckle at something I said,
and when his boss yelled another order,
he didn’t bark or bristle as he’d done before.
Instead he smiled at me, rolled his eyes as if to say,
‘Maybe it’s not much, but it’s mine and I can handle it.’

In that moment, standing amidst in the mud,
amidst my ten bags full of dirt,
it dawned on me that I am well.

I have taught and written so much about metta over the past decade of teaching that I’m just going to supply links to previous posts.

Anxiety about the election?
This is from another political season, where we explore sending lovingkindness to the candidate we are voting against. Now there’s a challenge that brings up the true meaning of metta and adds clarity to our understanding. 

Trouble with a relationship?
This post includes examples from my students about the difference sending metta has made in their relationships. 

People you think don’t deserve lovingkindness?
This is an exploration with good stories and examples of the infinite quality of metta and the trouble with trying to withhold it from the ‘undeserving’. 

Metta is also the first of the Four Brahmaviharas, or ‘heavenly abodes’, another set of Buddhist teachings. These are beneficial states that are both practices and experiences of being: Metta or lovingkindness; Karuna, compassion; Mudita, empathetic joy; and Uppekka, equanimity. We spend most time focusing on metta, because that practice leads quite naturally to the other three.

May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. May you be happy.

Befriending the Breath

In the vipassana meditation tradition we are taught to focus on the breath. Why? Aren’t there more interesting things to focus on? Certainly there can be. Take listening, for example.

Yesterday in class we sat outside in the cool morning air and did a listening meditation, as if it were a symphony. There were many distinct sounds: sawing, hammering, traffic noises, bird calls and more. Each was like musical instrument playing its part. It was a magnificent symphony.

A listening meditation is lovely when there is rain. It’s also good for in a public space, like at the gate waiting for a flight at the airport. I remember in 2003 in the lead-up to the Iraq war, sitting with other meditators organized by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship as all the peace marchers assembled at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco. What a listening meditation that was! The sound of voices over a microphone rallying the troops, the conversations of nearby marchers getting together, the rustling and footsteps that passed by around us. When the march began we rose to take our part, feeling focused and united in purpose. We were the peace we wanted to see in the world.

Even sitting inside in a quiet room there will be sounds to listen to: the heater, the refrigerator, someone clearing their throat or coughing, some rustling perhaps, a cell phone going off (oops!), and allowing the sounds to be a symphony rather than an annoyance is skillful.

In my poetry classroom at College of Marin, we have a wall of glass facing a busy street near a fire station. Last week during the four-day annual poetry intensive, I found myself coming into relationship with that sound and here’s a poem I wrote.

Siren Song

What if the siren
echoing down the street
doppleganging by
the classroom window
is the red blur of God,
the tender wail of wanting
all beings to be well?

So listening can be a very powerful meditation when sound is the most dominant sensation you notice. And that’s the key word, ‘dominant’. We pay attention to all the senses as we begin our practice, and we might ask ‘What is the dominant sensation in this moment?’

Sometimes the most dominant sensation might be a pain in the body. If we spend time with that sensation we can notice a ‘symphony’ of more subtle sensations. We see that what we have been labeling ‘pain’ is not one solid experience but an ever-changing arising and falling away of a whole series of sensations, each one tolerable and even kind of interesting. This is not to make light of pain. I deal with chronic pain a lot in my life and at times it can feel overwhelming. But it has helped to recognize that much of the agony has to do with how I get lost in thoughts about the pain rather than really paying attention to the micro-sensations that compose it, how they arise and fall away, get stronger and softer, appear and disappear.

But generally, for most of us most of the time, as things settle down at the beginning of our practice, aches and pains are not dominant. If they are present, we sense that there are also other sensations going on in the field of our experience that are pleasant or neutral. We don’t replace one with the other, but we just notice the full range of sensation within our field of experience.

And then, if things are relatively quiet and other sensations are reasonably mild, as we pay attention, we begin to notice, even if we haven’t been directed to, that the breath is the most dominant experience. And, not only is it dominant, it is ever present. It is the most reliable sensation we have. As long as we are alive, we have breath to focus on. The rhythm, pace and depth may change but the breath carries on. Dependable. And potentially very interesting. A perfect focus. Vipassana: Awareness of the breath.

breathMany people come to vipassana practice from other traditions, and I encourage them to experiment with focusing on the breath, but to also feel free to use whatever skillful means they have in their meditation ‘toolbox’ to bring themselves fully into the present moment.

I came to vipassana meditation over twenty years ago after many years of other forms. I found focusing on the breath a challenge in part because my mother died of emphysema and her last years were a painful struggle for breath, so focusing on my breath brought up my grief. It took me nine years to have the aha! moment when I realized that MY lungs were healthy. MY breath was fine. 

But even though it became easier, it still didn’t always feel compelling, and sometimes it felt dull, even boring. But I stayed with it because I know that ‘boring’ is just a label I was putting on it, that in fact it was a rich experience when I really paid attention. And now, all these many years later, I am having a new relationship with the breath, one that recognizes that as long as I am alive my breath is my constant companion, my most intimate, reliable and supportive friend.

And so I have been writing odes and love poems to my breath! Here are some examples.

My Heretofore Unnamed Friend

All these years
it never crossed my mind,
until now, to befriend my
greatest supporter.

Oh, what oversight!

So now, with gratitude
and deep appreciation,
I name this breath
my dearest friend.

 

Lifesaver

The breath is like a lifesaver
floating on the swells
of thought and emotion.
I rest there, gently rising and falling.
When I find myself swallowed up
and sucked down into the depths,
surfacing into that circle of breath
is both relief and rejoicing.

 

No Name Breath

Breath, aware
attending
each unnamed note
of earth’s symphony…
bird song, car door, heart beat.

Breath, aware
opening
infusion of light
bursting boundaries
dissolving cherished reference points
that heretofore defined me.

Breath, aware
this, this and only this
the unlimited
the unnameable
the ever present.

 

Rescue at the Well

In a moment of dread
the unwelcome upheaval:
churning chest,
catch in the throat
woozy wobble

I make my way to the middle
and stand by the well
where steady pumps
the influx the outflow

I attend the constant motion
of my most reliable friend
and in this abiding
monstrous mutiny melts.

All poems by Stephanie Noble copyright 2016

So I encourage you to investigate your own practice with whatever is the most dominant sensation at the time. And  befriend the breath! If you are religious, recognize all the spiritual words (even the word ‘spiritual’) assocatiated with breath. If you are more scientifically inclined, then the focus on the physical process that keeps your body alive and connected to all life is a wonderful place to ground your practice. Explore and enjoy!