The impact of our words and actions cause a ripple effect beyond our immediate circle of family, friends, neighbors, associates and brief encounters with strangers. Each impact affects them and in turn everyone in their circles, rippling out further and further until no being is untouched. This is true for each one of us. We are all powerful. Our words and actions truly matter.
Even the expression on our face at any given moment can set something into motion, perhaps something we never intended. This was driven home to me when, after the absence of many weeks, a fellow Toastmaster showed up at a meeting. I was happy to see her and mentioned how much I enjoyed her last speech. ‘You did?’ she replied, clearly amazed.
‘Oh yes, very much so!’ I assured her. She then told me that she had been taking time out to lick her wounds after feeling she had given a terrible speech, and one of the indicators to her that it hadn’t been good was the expression of concern she saw on my face while she was speaking.
Oh dear! I don’t remember being concerned. Maybe my mind had wandered for a moment? Maybe I had gas? Who knows? It was so long ago. It never crossed my mind that I could have that much impact just in the way the muscles of my face configure themselves.
She had given me too much power and I had been oblivious to the power I had. It seems that many women in particular do both these things quite readily. We seek approval from outside ourselves, and doubt that anything we say or do could really make an impact on someone else. But it turns out that the people we vest with power are unreliable resources; and conversely, without even knowing it we have encouraged and discouraged those around us at a time when they were unsure of their course and looking for external cues.
Think of a time when you gave up on something you wanted to do because you got discouraged. What discouraged you? What disheartened you? What caused you to lose your enthusiasm for what you were doing?
Was it something someone said, or didn’t say? Was it a look on someone’s face when you talked about it? Or the way they changed the subject or looked away, as if to avoid saying what they thought about it? Or was it your own assumption about what they would say, based on your past observations? It is so very easy to be turned away from a course we were enthusiastic about just the day before. I know this all too well!
At those moments it pays to notice whose opinion we are hearing in our head. What are the words we are hearing? And then to follow the source, question the source and be aware of how we are giving away so much power to a source that perhaps isn’t giving that message at all.
In this kind of inner exploration, the more particular we can get the more effective the process will be. The more clearly we can expose the exact time and place and people in these crystallized message-memories, by describing them in detail, even write them down, the better we will be able to recognize them when they rise up again to sabotage our efforts. Here’s an example from my life:
Circa 1959, in our family home in San Francisco; over after-work cocktails, my parents are having their daily sharings of their days. I was the innocuous eavesdropper sitting in their midst, always amazed at their ability to remember what people said and did with such exactitude. Yet more than 50 years later I perfectly remember their words as that particular evening they belittled a neighbor woman who ‘sits at her typewriter all day long writing a “novel” (air quotes), for God’s sake. Who does she think she is?’
Apparently it doesn’t matter to our tender vulnerable psyches whether we are the subject of the disparaging remarks. I was twelve years old and already writing stories, though not sharing them. Their scoffing laughter at this neighbor made the world feel like an unsafe place for creative pursuits. People would talk behind my back if I dared to think I could write. (I still imagine they do, come to think of it.) My enthusiasm for writing dried up a bit that evening. Being a writer was clearly a foolish activity.
So that’s a very specific memory from my life. Now think of a powerful message-memory from your own life that gives you pause when you think of undertaking something for which you have some enthusiasm. The one that rises up to shoot you down. Flush it out with details, and see yourself and the person or persons in that long ago moment very clearly from this present vantage point of being an adult. This will give you a clearer and more compassionate view.
The purpose of this exercise is not to place blame. Were my parents alive today there would be no benefit in confronting them with it. Their words inadvertently may have set something in motion, but I am the one who keeps those words alive. I am the one who uses the memory as a tool of sabotage, albeit unconsciously.
I have the power of compassion for my parents in their own fear-based unskillfulness, probably not even registering I was witness to this conversation or that it would matter to me.
I have the power of compassion for my child self who made their words into a monument of memory.
I have the power to understand that as an adult I have many other resources and experiences to draw from to help balance out the effects of that moment.
And I have the power to see that no one in the world is so all-knowing that their opinion on my life should prevail.
This sense of empowerment builds resilience that aids me when I feel under attack. I used to be so defensive. Ask my brother! Ask my husband! I might sulk or I might lash out at the ‘attacker’. Fortunately, through mindfulness practice, I have mellowed. I am not impervious to the pain, but I see more clearly how the process unfolds, how the slight may not have been intended, and if it was intended, the person is lashing out in response to feeling attacked by someone else and is probably projecting it on me. There’s a lot more room for questioning and a lot less need to be right.
I remind myself that ‘I have nothing to prove. I have nothing to defend. I have nothing to hide. I have something to give.’ This phrase that came to me while on a silent retreat years ago supports me still.
The process of recognizing an embedded memory that sabotages or deflates us in order to bring it into the light of our awareness is a most valuable one. As we come upon thought-memories traveling through our field of awareness, we don’t have to shy away from them, feel shame and determine blame. We can hold them in an open loving embrace and let their presence remind us that we are each of us powerful beyond our wildest imagining.
Over the past weeks we have been exploring the word ‘should’ and similar bully words that shove us around. We’ve practiced noticing these words as they come up and then using that awareness to explore where we get stuck in our lives, how we lose vital energy by relying on should thinking to determine our course.
When we pause, even briefly, we can tap into that vital energy that courses through us — the energy of light and loving-kindness that is our natural way of being in the world.
Now here you might skillfully question ‘Is this true? Is kindness our natural way? Are we born to it?’ When I ask in about this, I can’t help but think about the babies I’ve been hanging out with lately. Openness, curiosity and delight come quite naturally to newborns and as soon as they start spending more time awake, and basic needs are attended to, they are quite present, interested and easily delighted by whatever comes.
These naturally-occurring dispositions can easily be shut down and distorted. But if they are not, if they are met with loving-kindness, then loving-kindness will result. Parents and all who help care for children have the power to nurture or quash their way of being in the world, making their roles the most important and powerful in the world.
So babies are a good indicator that openness and loving kindness are basic to our nature. But we can do our own inner exploration by spending time away from the clamor of the media, electronics and the social interactivity that is central to most of our lives.
When we sit or walk in silence, our minds have the opportunity to calm. If we let our eyes close or gaze upon a tree, a bird or a flower, then we get a more accurate reading of our own nature. The thoughts that race around in our brains may still be there, but in time they may begin to seem more superfluous, no longer a part of who we believe ourselves to be. Awareness intensifies. The present moment expands and becomes all encompassing. In this moment we are simply here, sensing into this experience of being. What may arise from this experience is an upwelling of gratitude and tenderness for all of it.
If you try this experiment and are frustrated because your mind does not suddenly find perfect peace, then just be with the bundle of expectations, judgments and dissatisfaction that arises. Not as a punishment, but as an opportunity to be aware of what is, to breathe into it, to hold it with as much kindness as is possible in the moment. You are not unique in your frustration! Just allow for the possibility that awareness and loving kindness to the thoughts and emotions that arise is more useful than compounding misery with more harsh judgments. When we are most resistant, ‘allowing for the possibility’ is a gentle prod that can be very effective. It seems like not much of a concession, so we meet it with a perhaps grudging willingness. And that’s all that is needed to begin the process of melting the hard cold clamped down tightness that keeps us from accessing our true nature.
Though some may never take the opportunity to give themselves the gift of pausing to be in the moment, the ability to let go and access this ‘Buddha nature’ is within us all. So yes, we are naturally conduits of loving kindness, and when we are able to open to it, we align with that energy and amplify it.
This quality of amplification is one I hadn’t considered much in my practice. I imagine myself as a conduit of universal energy at times, but it acts more as a megaphone rather than a pipe shape. It takes the universal energy and focuses it in a particular direction, based on our natural interests and talents. This focus amplifies the felt sense of the energy.
Sounds like a lot of responsibility! You may be familiar with the quote by Marianne Williamson that reminds us that we are powerful beyond measure. Somehow we know this and often are afraid of this power. We have seen power misused. We have seen charismatic people incite crowds to all manner of destructive behavior. So we are right to be cautious! But it is not skillful to shut down the power that is within us. It is skillful instead to notice always if it is arising from fear, thus leaving destruction in its path; or arising from univeral loving-kindness, and thus creating spaciousness, a sense of well being and oneness.
We are all powerful. You undoubtedly have experienced or observed this power many times. Someone walks into the room and things lighten up, become fun and creative. Suddenly all seems possible. Conversely, someone walks into the room and suddenly things get weird, frenzied, anxious, contentious or the color just drains away and everything feels heavy. Perhaps you feel a need to leave.
One person can do that! Each of us is affecting the energy in whatever situation we are in. We may think we are separate and that our little inner world of turmoil is our business and no one else’s. But there is no separate inner world! There is no ‘me’ in that sense. Our misery may not love company, but no matter how we try to hide it, it’s what we are sharing in every exchange, even when we just stop to buy a little something at the store.
You know this is true. You have seen it over and over again in your life. You have observed it in others, perhaps seeing a miserable person as separate, pathetic, someone you can compare yourself to and feel glad you are not him or her. But whatever thoughts and feelings exist in you at that time arise from the combination of your energy and theirs — powerful enough to invade your line of thought or even change the flavor of your day, depending on how much it resonated within you.
When we are centered, calm, compassionate, and fully present, we are powerful beyond measure to bring peaceful joy to every situation. So when we practice meditation, we are not being selfish at all. We are tuning in to the energy that is generous and life-affirming so that all beings may be well. We are not retreating from the world to escape it. We are regrouping, reconnecting to the natural loving-kindness of being so that we and all those we encounter may be made more spacious, alive and loving.
Affording ourselves the opportunity to access our true nature is our homework for life. This is about coming home to the open, curious, easily delighted nature that is our Buddha nature.
How do we do it? We notice. We question. We offer ourselves opportunities to pause, to breathe, to be present. We take the ‘shoulds’ that arise in our self-talk and use them for more exploration. We breathe spaciousness into the tangle of our thoughts and emotions so that they unravel and allow themselves to be known as just thoughts passing through, just emotions rising up and falling away.
As part of our practice, we send metta, the Pali word for infinite loving-kindness, to all beings. aligning with this kind of energy. Perhaps we experience this as being energetic expressions of God or all that is or however we are most comfortable envisioning that infinite nature that arises when we quiet down and allow the feeling of spacious interconnection to be known within us.
Everything I teach, everything any meditation teacher teaches, points us back to this simple practice of being present and being compassionate with ourselves when we discover we are not. This is not just a sitting practice. It is a life practice. Wherever we are, at any time, we can pause, we can gaze at whatever is before us, we can sense into physical sensation, we can notice tension, thoughts, emotions and simply breathe into them with our open, curious delight.
This is our birthright. It’s who we are. It’s our Buddha nature.
The first aspect we discussed is our concentration practice, training our minds to stay focused on a specific experience, like the breath, for example. Even as beginning meditators we can follow our experience of this wise effort. We can notice when we have lost our focus and compassionately bring our attention back to the focus. If accessing a concentration point in the senses is difficult, I suggest focusing on the tongue or a foot and doing subtle movement — running the tongue around the teeth, wiggling the toes, etc. — to create a stronger sensation to focus on. Then reduce the movement and see if you can stay focused on the more subtle sensation. Then cease the movement and see if you can still notice sensation. In this way we build our ability to focus. Because the breath is for most of us a neutral, dominant and reliable sensation, it is the concentration focus most in this tradition choose for the main body of their meditation. But it is not the only one possible, and any sensation can be a focus for concentration practice.
The second aspect of the practice is a more generalized awareness of spacious infinite energy. Certain kinds of meditation practices can take us right to this ‘bliss state,’ as can various substances and activities. Vipassana meditation practice is not about attaining a state of bliss, as if it were a tropical vacation to escape from the world. Perhaps after such a ‘vacation’ the regular world feels more tolerable for a time, but then we need to escape again. Vipassana or mindfulness meditation is not about escape. It is actually the opposite. It is very useful for people whose minds are always escaping into daydreams, etc. because it is about being truly present here and now so that we find the joy in every moment of our lives. This is the wisdom of no escape. There is nothing to escape from when we discover how to be fully present with our experience, whatever it is.
So many people spend so much time finding a means to escape out of fear of being present with their experience. Younger meditation students complain that it is hard to find young people who are not drunk or stoned most of the time, meaning it is hard for them to find young people who are not afraid to face their lives sober. Those who take this route can blame the stresses of modern life, but at some point we need to remember that we are no longer children who have no control over our lives, who need to be able to escape in our minds. In fact we are very powerful. We can, through being fully present, shift the energy in the room, in an online thread, in our community and ultimately, because of the ripples even the smallest pebble makes, we can shift the energy of the world, simply by being present.
Think of how a minister, Martin Luther King Jr., shifted the energy of the civil rights movement and helped to begin a healing of a nation. Think how the man who inspired him, Mahatma Gandhi, a lawyer from South Africa, led India into a peaceful state of independence, just by his willingness to be present and compassionate. This kind of mindfulness is contagious, and we are in an amazing period of history able to see it in action as the peaceful assembly of the Occupy and 99% movement let their concerns be known with patience and consensus decision-making. We might say, well I’m no Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. Well, neither were they, in that famous powerful figure aspect, before someone helped them to shift their energy and discover the power of non-violent action. Perhaps we will never be famous, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t each of us incredibly powerful in our own way. We have the power to sour the energy, to incite anger, cat fights, nastiness, jealousy, violence. And we have the power, through anchoring into our senses and being fully present to bring peaceful collaborative exuberance, joie de vivre, a love of life, holding life not in a stranglehold of fear but in an open embrace.
Of course, if we get caught up in the goal of changing the world, then we are not living in the moment and that powerful energy is gone.
Just so, the naturally arising bliss state that may come through meditation or other means is not a goal nor an achievement. It is just another experience we hold with an open loving embrace. Whether the bliss state ever comes or whether it stays, that is not really our concern as meditators.
The bliss state does give valuable information, but even a hint or a brief experience of that timeless state can inform a lifetime. The valuable information is that all is one. There is no separate self. We are all expressions of life loving itself. We are like drops of water briefly experiencing soaring in a state of feeling separate, but in fact we are still the ocean.
For students who have never experienced this state and who feel the lack, I recommend watching science programs or reading about the current scientific understanding of reality with special attention to how much space there is, how structure, including ourselves, is mostly space. Think about skin, how we believe it to be the edge of who we are. But that is not true, is it? The more we know about biology and other sciences, the more we begin to understand the infinite nature of being. Now this kind of learning is not the same as experiencing the state of ‘knowing’ this to be true, feeling that interconnection. I wish English had two different verbs for ‘to know’ the way Spanish does, making a differentiation between something we have learned and something we have experienced.
But if we give the logical mind the opportunity to learn through watching or reading scientific information, it will help to unlock the door to the possibility of experiencing it. Then it’s just a matter of creating opportunity through meditation, chanting, retreats, being slow and silent in nature, dancing, creating or listening to inspirational music, etc. to experience abandoning the dead shell, to slough off the molting skin of these old limiting beliefs.
For the religious this experience grows the understanding and appreciation of the nature of God. You can see how God is all and everything, no part excluded from that infinite beingness, and how this consciousness can be so present in all things, able to experience all that is in each moment.
In our meditation practice we can go back and forth between a focused concentration practice and a spacious awareness state.
The third foundation makes all else possible. This is metta or loving-kindness practice. We end every class with the blessing “May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at ease. May all beings know peace.” But within each personal practice of meditation we set our intention to be compassionate with ourselves when we discover our mind has wandered. Without this kindness and compassion, we are doomed to get tangled in self-recrimination and blame. So this kindness, this compassion, is a fundamental part of our practice as well.
We always begin our practice of metta with ourselves. First, we often find ourselves to be the most difficult person to be kind to. And ultimately, because we are all one, sending true infinite loving kindness of this nature to ourselves is the same as sending it out into the world. Feeling that kindness, we express kindness in the world. We embody kindness, ease, generosity and peace. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the peace we seek.
So those are the three aspects of our practice in our class, in our personal daily practice of meditation and in each moment in our lives as we experience it, holding it in an open and loving embrace with full awareness and the resulting deep gratitude.
The last day of July, the last time I will be discussing the joys and challenges of being present in the moment. If you have been reading these posts in order, as written, I hope you have found something in what I’ve shared that resonates in you.
If you would like to explore the subject more, I would highly recommend reading Eckhart Tolle, who could fairly be called the master of the moment. His two books The Power of Now and A New Earth both explore this theme. I have read the latter and found it exceptionally clear. Millions of others have as well, since it was chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club selection and was discussed in an online class for ten weeks in an impressive worldwide awakening to the moment. (If you have judgments about Oprah, you might want to take the opportunity to question your attitudes and beliefs in that regard. Holding harsh opinions can be the ‘dragon at the gate’ to your own awakening.)
My own experience with the power of now came from reading a different book twenty or so years ago. I found it a very odd book, done in a conversational channeling format by Jane Roberts, but for some reason this one line jumped out at me about this moment being our personal point of power and I felt it fully in my being and have never forgotten it.
Power is such a strange word, holding in it both a great positive energy and a ruthless negative connotation that makes many of us, myself included, uncomfortable with embracing it in any form. I certainly don’t want to have power over anyone else, I don’t want to wield power, or be powerful. None of that resonates with me.
But this kind of power is not about domination. It’s about sensing deeply our connection to all that is, feeling well-rooted in that awareness, and drawing on the infinite energy of which we are very much a part the way a plant draws energy up through its roots.
The only place we can root is in this present moment, because it’s the only one that exists. All other moments past and future are only thoughts now. So we root our awareness into this moment and it supports us fully in whatever we want to do. That’s the power of now.
As we head into August, I’ll be changing the focus of my explorations to metta, loving kindness. But I am happy to continue the conversation on the moment with anyone who would like to comment on any of these postings.