Category Archives: poem

What is the sound of many cell phones ringing?

The sweetest thing in the world — besides a baby of any species — is a sangha in silence on a meditation retreat. The quiet is delicious, like fine wine mellowing as it ages. Each day of the retreat the sangha (community of meditators) becomes more synchronized and sensate. Slowing down in the silence, there’s presence, awareness and a loving sense of mutual support.

Silence is golden and a sangha in silence is magical. So it was surprising to hear from a student about her husband’s experience at a meditation led by Mark Epstein where attendees were asked to keep their phone ringers on.

Whaa? Phones ON? Anyone who’s ever attended a meditation class or retreat (or a yoga class or pretty much any kind of civilized gathering) knows to at least turn their phones off and preferably abandon them altogether. It has become increasingly difficult to do as these phones have become extensions of ourselves, either in hand or close at hand, the part of ourselves that is connected to the wider world. To silence that connection may cause FOMO (fear of missing out). But meditators have learned to do this, especially in community, respectful of the silence we are co-creating. So to hear that a meditation teacher requested everyone keep their phones on was surprising. 

Well, not really. After all what we are practicing is how to cultivate calm in the middle of a busy world. So learning how to be with the sounds of cell phones going off randomly throughout a meditation is a worthy practice. We are cultivating internal silence, not expecting the world around us to cease making noise. If we can meditate in a room full of cell phones ringing, beeping and buzzing, we can meditate in an airport lounge or anywhere else. And this is a great gift!

We can notice how we create enemies of sound, as well as anyone responsible for a sound we don’t like. We can see how we pick and choose between pleasant sounds (maybe birds chirping, water flowing, rain, etc.) and unpleasant sounds (maybe leaf blowers, jack hammers, traffic and the errant cell phone accidentally left on by a fellow meditator). 

At the moment we notice that we are reacting to a sound, identifying it as pleasant or unpleasant, we have the opportunity to recognize that this reactivity is a jumping off point into thoughts that will take us on a journey far away from ‘here and now’. It all happens so fast we may not even realize how we ended up twenty years ago or a thousand miles away to a place or time that the sound triggered in our brains. Fortunately, once we notice it, it only takes an instant of awareness to gently bring our attention back to the moment. This moment, just as it is. Sounds and all.

Here’s a poem I wrote back in 2006 about an experience on a retreat at Spirit Rock:

Breakfast, Day Four

The dining hall clatter becomes symphonic.
The ecstasy of scraping chairs and utensils!
I have never heard anything so beautiful
as the sound of a sangha in silence
earnestly clearing their plates.

Sound can remind us to be present, and to cultivate a pattern of receptivity, kindness, compassion and equanimity, returning again and again to the calm rising and falling of the breath, letting whatever sounds arise to be simply sounds, part of the Symphony of Now, never to be repeated in just this way. How precious is this unique moment in every way. And phhp! It’s gone and now this one, oh so precious, and phhp! Can we gently greet and release all that arises in our spacious field of experience?

On another retreat I attended, teacher Howie Cohn brought all the bells from the Spirit Rock store into the meditation hall and rang them in a random pattern throughout the meditation. It was both pleasurable and helpful in bringing me back again and again from wherever my mind would wander, back to the sensory moment here and now. 

A cell phone symphony might be like that. Still, I hope it was a one-off experiment and not a trend. Because truly there is almost nothing as sweet as the sound of a sangha in silence.

Image above digitally created using an image by Gordon Johnson and an image by David Schwarzenberg, both from Pixabay


Happy Winter Solstice!

I hope you in the Northern Hemisphere are enjoying this dark period. The further north you live, the more intimate you are with darkness. And it might be depressing. Because of that, many people celebrate Winter Solstice as a returning of the light. Which is true: It will get lighter every day from here on until Summer Solstice in June. But right now it is dark. Very dark. And this is the moment we are in.

In our practice, we come into skillful compassionate relationship with all that arises, not making an enemy of anything. So why make an enemy of early sundowns and late sunrises when it is a powerful presence in our current experience?

Back in the early 1990’s I was so tired of people chasing the coming lightening of the days instead of being fully present here and now, that I wrote what I guess could be called a love poem to darkness. I’ve shared it every Winter Solstice since in one form or another, and it has become a tradition in solstice gatherings around the world. Feel free to share, but include attribution.

In Celebration of the Winter Solstice

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.

– Stephanie Noble

            copyright Stephanie Noble 1992

I also offer an illustrated narrated version on Youtube.

 

Wishing you and yours every joy of the season! – Stephanie

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.