Category Archives: present moment

Feeling a little tense, are you?

Sometimes I find myself all tense and worried about a current situation, and I fall into the belief that once this is over I can really relax. And then it is over and I’m glad, but my body is still tense! What’s up with that?


The body has a strong preference for the here and now, so when the mind has cast a net into the future, the body tightens up, creates discomfort and even pain as a reminder to release the net and come back to this, just this.

The body so wants me to be here now that even as I’m writing this I can feel my body purring like a cat!

Oil painting by Stephanie Noble


If you feel tense, pause to sense into your body. What do you notice? Where exactly do you feel tension? We all have places we chronically hold tension and it’s useful to know where they are so in a moment of crisis we can gently focus on that area, softening its grip.

Once you have identified the area(s) of tension, spend some time relaxing and releasing the tension in whatever way works best for you. Maybe send it the message ‘Relax’ or ‘Release’ or another word or phrase that soothes you like ‘Let go’. Maybe imagine breathing into that area, softening it with the warmth of your breath.

Now notice other sensations in the body, places where there is no tension. Find a pleasant or neutral sensation and it will remind you that there is more going on in your body and in your life than just this situation that is causing you tension.

Use all your senses. Listen to the various sounds around you without getting caught up in attaching them to preferences or references that draw you into the past or future. It’s just a symphony of sounds. Look around you and notice all the light and dark contrasts, the colors, patterns, shadows and reflections. See if you can smell anything. If not, you might go find something to smell – the cinnamon in the spice cabinet or the flowers on the table. (Smelling things was a big part of our childhoods but we often don’t use it now except to notice something unpleasant. My little granddaughters sometimes generously share their blankies, offering them up to be smelled. All the comfort they derive from these little soft squares of fuzzy fabric is in that cozy scent.)

There are so many sensations available to us in any given moment: texture, temperature, the dampness inside our mouths, the breath that rises and falls in our chest, the feel of the earth supporting us. The more we are able to access sensation, the more present we are in this moment. The more present we are in this moment, the more we are able to live fully with clarity and compassion.

So come to your senses, release whatever tension you can and see if it doesn’t make you purr!

Walking through a dark valley

When I’m going through a difficult time, I try to remember to pause and notice what’s going on in my body. What sensations are present that aren’t usually here?
For example, have you ever felt an achy heaviness in the chest area? That can be a physical manifestation of loss. Next time you feel that sensation, you might pause to consider what’s going on in your life. Where might you be feeling loss?
If we can notice a physical sensation, we can hold it with tenderness. We can be the kind friend to ourselves that we try to be for others. We can be present to experience this sensation, and to be compassionate with it. This is much more powerful than trying to talk ourselves out of it.
I grew up back when ’emotional intelligence’ was not even coined as a term. My mother was a great and loving woman. I was very lucky. But even so, if I said, ‘Mom, I’m feeling sad,’ she would get very uncomfortable and tell me that I had nothing to complain about. It’s not her fault. If she were a young mother today, chances are she would know that telling someone they shouldn’t feel what they feel is not very useful.
Has anyone ever told you to stuff down your feelings or trade them in for a shinier happy version that would make everyone feel more comfortable? And if so, have you found that their voices are still in your head, still telling you it’s not okay to feel what you feel?
Most of us have stuffed-down sadness that we didn’t let ourselves feel at the time it occurred. It is still there, compressed under layers and layers of judgment. When we notice it, we rush to put on a smiley-faced band-aid and hope nobody notices.
Noticing is what our mindfulness practice is all about. We notice physical sensation first and foremost. It anchors us in the present moment which is the only one that exists. The past and future are just thoughts. We can’t change the past, though we can change how we relate to it, and any power we have over the future is contained in this present moment.
But are we willing to be present when we’re going through something difficult?
Most of us want to rush past this experience and get to a pleasant one. Maybe we’re embarrassed to be down and that adds to our discomfort. So we’re racing toward some brighter future, but we are dragging all these weighty anchors from the past. Our anger and judgments are rooted there. We’re not operating from here and now but from where we once were because we weren’t sufficiently there to notice what was going on at the time and to give ourselves the simple gift of being there. It’s complicated!
You can see how this gets us into trouble.

In Psalms 23.4 the Bible says ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’ This is identifying a human experience we all share at times. We find ourselves walking through a dark valley. We don’t have the vantage of the mountain top to see the lay of the land, so we don’t know where this valley leads. Maybe we get anxious and want very much to get past this narrowing in the inner landscape. We’re spending all our time looking for a way out.

But the valley is actually a very fertile place, and there is great value in simply being here where we are. In fact, the valley is so fertile that whatever it is we seed there will grow up before our eyes. If we are afraid of what we’ll find in the darkness, we seed fear. From the seeds of fear grow all manner of demon-like thoughts and emotions, like associated memories from youth that have lain dormant these many years that now rise up to taunt us. Loser! Loner! Unacceptable! Different! Pathetic!
But even in this dark narrow valley we are never alone. We are each of us an intrinsic part of the grand scheme of things, a natural expression of the life force. If we can sense into physical sensation we can remember this connection and the fear will soften. We can seed that same valley with love and compassion that in turn nourishes us. We are then able to follow our natural course at an easeful pace. We cease to struggle to get a mountain top vantage point but accept that we just don’t know. And that’s okay.
We expect to be in dark valleys when we have experienced a loss of any kind. We don’t expect to wake up one day and for no particular reason find we’re in a valley. But it happens, doesn’t it?
Sometimes when we do what feels like the next right thing in the natural flow of our lives, we come to a bend in the river and the shadows of the canyon walls make everything go dark. At this point we have no idea what to do. We thought we had a clear course, yet here we are in the valley of darkness! How did this happen?
As an example, I have recently embarked on a journey, having made a decision to publish some of my writing in book form, and I find myself at times in the valley. I recognize it. I have been here before. It is the place where all the taunts of my youth come up to haunt me.
I think how foolish I must have appeared when, as a new kid in school, I ran for an office because no one else was running and I thought it would be a good way to meet people. That would have probably worked out okay except that at the last minute the most popular girl in the class decided to run as well, and it was too late for me to withdraw. How awkward I felt making campaign promises standing in front of the whole student body in the expensive Pendleton plaid wool pleated skirt my mother had splurged on so I would feel confident for the occasion.
It was of course no surprise that I didn’t win, but here’s the painful part for me to remember: I stayed after school to wait for the voting results. Now why did I do that? Did I think I had a chance? That delusional hopefulness worries me.It makes me wonder if am I just as delusional now.
Of course in my mother’s view the worst thing about it was that I never wore that Pendleton skirt again. It was jinxed and had bad memories. I wanted to forget the whole experience. But clearly I haven’t, have I?
When you find yourself in a dark valley for seemingly no reason, notice what ancient taunts rise up to pull you down. What are the parallels to your current situation?
We all have these echoes within us, these events in our lives that reactivate fear when any potentially parallel situation arises. So where’s the parallel for me? In publishing these days it is supremely important to have a preexisting ‘author platform’ — an audience of people already interested in what the author has to say. Back in high school as the new kid in town I was completely lacking in any ‘platform’ at all, especially compared to that very popular girl. That’s a seemingly direct parallel. Except, as my meditation students point out, I have them, my blog readers, readers of my last book, as well as a wide circle of friends. I’m not the new kid at school. But the fear is there. 
So here I am in this dark valley at some moments when self-doubt creeps in. Just last week I was up on the proverbial mountain, leaping from peak to peak, feeling so supported by the universe. Absolutely nothing has changed from that moment to this. Students are sending me lovely expressions of praise to share with publishers. Friends say how great it is I’m doing it. Those with knowledge about publishing are particularly encouraging.
But still I find myself in the dark valley with a bunch of fourteen-year-olds from fifty years ago, who to their credit never said one mean word to me about the whole debacle. It’s all me creating this valley of darkness. And that’s important to remember.
What can I do about it? What can any of us do? We stay present with this moment and notice how it feels to be here with these physical sensations, some of them painful. We notice how it feels to stay present with these thoughts and emotions that arise in our field of awareness. Some of them are painful. We don’t try to talk ourselves out of what we are feeling. We don’t try to shame ourselves into more cheerful views. We simply stay present and acknowledge that we don’t know how long we’ll be walking in this dark valley. It may disappear in the next instant. It may last awhile. We do not know, and that’s important for us to embrace as a way of relating to our experience and life in general because it’s the truth in every moment, not just this one.
So we stay present and compassionate with ourselves, planting seeds of kindness in this fertile valley. If demons rise up from the fear-seeds we’ve planted in the past, we are compassionate with them. We don’t indulge their fears but we do acknowledge them. They are like old friends who think they are trying to protect us. We can remind ourselves that they are well-intentioned but not wise. So we appreciate their efforts but we don’t follow their advice.

With compassion and awareness, we may find that this valley is verdant. Someday we may look back and see it as the source of wonderful things that followed, how we grew in ways we could never have imagined. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s be here in the valley now, noticing physical sensation and giving ourselves time to experience it with compassion.

When this moment pales by comparison

Recently we went on an outing to a narrow peninsula that juts out into the Pacific, cupping Drakes Bay, called Chimney Rock. A beautiful place any time by any standards, but there is a certain time in the Spring when this narrow stretch of land with its steep cliffs on either side is thick with fields of wildflowers, seals birth their young on the beach below, and migrating whales pass by on their way north.

How could we not go every year to such a spectacular place? Well it is a long drive, but the real reason we don’t is that one visit many years ago was so special, so magical that for at least a few years after that I didn’t want to go again, lest I dilute that perfect memory of that previous experience.

Have you ever had the fear of losing an experience by trying to repeat it? My students did. One said she feels like she can never go back to Venice, because it was so exquisite. I totally understand this. We don’t want to mess with that perfect memory, diminish it by imposing new memories on the same place.

But are we then just collectors of memories? What does this say about who we believe ourselves to be?

Remember when we explored the Five Aggregates. One of the Aggregates was cognition, how our thinking brain perceives the world and the knowledge base we accumulate. We enjoy adding a new lovely memory, like a jewel to add to the crown of remembered experience we hold to be an important part of who we are. What a Deluxe Dukkha* Delivery System that is!

Even if we are able to retain memories our whole life, if we enshrine them, they lure us into the past, away from this moment. We pull them out and admire them when we don’t want to face what is. But life is not enriched by living elsewhere in our minds, in other times or places. We cause suffering for ourselves and for those around us, who may feel they are not enough to hold our attention, or whose concerns cannot be met because we are in a state of avoidance. (This is not to diminish the richness of sharing stories with loved ones who ask to hear them. But if the need is strong to live in the past, then it becomes clear this is an escape from something in the present.)

Beyond the fear of polluting a perfect memory, there are other reasons a repeated experience pales by comparison with the first time. Any brand new experience tends to get our full attention, doesn’t it? We are more likely to be present with whatever is going on, to notice the light, the texture and other sensory details of that moment.

The next time we go to the same place or eat the same meal, it’s just harder to pay the same level of attention. What was new before is no longer new, just a part of our ongoing experience of being in the world. Not memorable. Give us a daily dose, like a commute, and most of us will stop noticing large portions of our experience altogether. We might remember something noticeably different from usual, but the rest is just wallpaper to our day. To create that sense of aliveness, we feel we must keep traveling to different places we’ve never been, try new restaurants, new dishes, new forms of entertainment, new adventures, new outfits, or new decor.

The body of precious memory we carry — That magical carpet of wildflowers! That gondola ride! — acts as a powerful obscuring filter through which we see (or don’t see!) the current moment. We cannot recreate the first time we encountered something new. It is gone. But we hold it tight and get caught up in comparing mind.

Between not paying attention to what is and looking through the filter of what was, how is it possible to engage in this second experience with the same rapt attention?

The other day when we got out to Chimney Rock, there was a perfectly horizontal stripe of light mist in Drake’s Bay that made it appear to be a modernist landscape. As we headed down the path toward the point we encountered a female tule elk that kept running around and squatting. Given her bulky middle section she might have been giving birth.

We saw a little mole peeking out of his hole — exciting in the wild, less so in the garden. And then the wildflowers started revealing themselves, plenty of variety, lots of beauty. Okay, maybe it’s not a solid carpet of flowers like that one magical time, but this would not be a bust.

Then we saw our first whale. Phew! Comparing mind was beginning to relax. But then it became a comparing numbers game. How many whales would we see? That one magical time we saw a pod of whales, mothers and babies, and we followed them all around the point. It had been such a still day we could even hear their calls.

This time while out at the point having a picnic, we met two retired women from the East Bay who said they come every year to Chimney Rock. We enjoyed watching the whales with them, five all together, and there was a peregrine falcon sitting nearby on the cliff’s edge for an exhilarating few seconds before he flew off. Okay! This was it’s very own quite spectacular day.

But what if this trip was a bust? If nothing had met our expectations? One time
we went on a hike up in the mountains around Carson Pass in the Sierra. The trail from Woods Lake up to Lake Winnemucca in an El Nino year had a wildflower display that was unbelievably gorgeous. Two years later we returned in hopes of replicating our first experience, but all we got was a muddy trail and an occasional flower here and there. We turned back and found another trail we hadn’t tried before.

How much of this disappointment is the environment and how much is our minds? Being relieved that the environment supplied sufficient beauty and diversity is not the same as coming to ‘beginner’s mind’ where whatever the experience, we are at home in our breath, present in the moment, alive.

When we meditate we might compare this meditation to one we did before. Perhaps we had experienced a state of bliss. Had we only known we would turn around and use this exquisite experience as an instrument of torture in every subsequent meditation, it would not have been so blissful!

So what can we do?

First we can notice our comparing mind and smile at its capacity to get itself caught up in a tangle, like a little kitten in a ball of yarn. “Oh sweetheart, look at you, caught up in the tangle again,” and then we can bring our attention back to the present.

When we are present there isn’t much room for comparing mind. And when it crops up we recognize it for what it is — the desire to replicate joy. That’s not such a bad motivation, but as we see it in action we see that it causes us, and sometimes those around us, to suffer. Oh it’s not a terrible suffering, but it tends to suck the joy right out of our experience, and often out of the experience of those around us. It becomes a habit of mind, a chronic state that does a disservice to the moment we are in, the only moment that exists, the only moment we have to savor.

What makes a magical moment anyway?  if we are truly present, fully anchored in awareness of physical sensation, of the sights, sounds, aromas, tastes and texture of this moment, we discover our full capacity to be alive, and that is joyful, whatever is going on.

Exercise

Spend a few minutes right now, wherever you are, just noticing what’s going on in this moment. 
For example, as I write this: The last light is on the trees waving in the breeze (pleasant), which is also rustling some paper by the open window (mildly unpleasant). There are bird sounds (pleasant twittering and mildly unpleasant squawks) and a distant hum of commute traffic. The air, so hot all day, is cooling. My stomach is feeling the urge to get some dinner cooking. I notice both the desire to finish this writing and the urge to get up. (At odds, but not totally unpleasant while just observing it.) 
I could go on, but tell me, what is this precious moment like for you?

*Dukkha is the Sanskrit word for suffering.

Wise Mindfulness — the joy of being fully present

As you read these words, sense in to what is going on in this moment. Your eyes are activated. What else do you notice? Can you feel the pull of gravity as pressure on your seat or feet? What else? Pay attention to all your senses that anchor you in this moment.

Mindfulness is noticing what’s happening in this moment rather than getting lost in thought. The habituated mind is zoned out and often does things that are unskillful, acting on impulses and other murky motivations. The mind that is attuned to the moment uses all senses to register the various components that make up any given experience.
People think meditation is about getting rid of thoughts and they don’t feel this is possible for them, so they don’t think they could meditate. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding that keeps so many people from a natural healthy activity that makes such a difference in how we experience life.

In meditation, we don’t need to bother racing around trying to herd our thoughts. It would be like wrangling cats. An impossible task! Instead we create a quality of spaciousness in which the cats can play, but lo and behold they eventually settle down. If you pay attention you can see that there’s much more – and less – in this experience of spaciousness than just busy thoughts.

In the experience of being fully present in this moment, we may notice many sources of information coming through our various sensors. We can register ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ or ‘warm’ or ‘chilly’. We might notice a response to the temperature: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We might notice physical responses: sweat, chills, goose bumps; and the urge to put a sweater on or take one off. These are all going on all the time, but we have been on autopilot.  Now we take the time to really notice all these ‘automatic’ activities.

There is also pressure, the interaction of the force of gravity on our body, pressing it into the ground or the chair. When’s the last time you really noticed that sensation?
What are the other senses, and how do you experience them in this moment? Sounds? Textures? Odors? Light and dark? Color? A twinge, an itch, an ache? The breath drawing air, pulling it down, and then releasing it?

All of this is going on, and yet most of us are oblivious to it. We don’t pay attention these ongoing experiences because our minds are caught up in storytelling, problem solving, judging, planning, rewriting history, placing blame and wishing.  All of this is going on in our thoughts, yet we are rarely aware of it – rarely aware that we are having those same thoughts over and over and over again.

Have you ever spent a lot of time with someone, and find that they just keep repeating themselves? Yes? Well, they’re not the only ones. We each have interior monologues – maybe we don’t all voice them and bore other people with them – but if we pay attention to the ongoing brain chatter, we quickly find we’ve got a rather limited set of reruns on a continuous loop! What’s more, if we were to trade thoughts for a day with another person, we’d find that these thoughts would have very similar patterns. We explored this in the Five Aggregates and found that our thoughts and emotions are not who we are, they don’t make us unique. In fact, human thoughts and emotions are universal in their limited range of possible reactions to situations.

Given all this, why would we want to be mindful? No wonder we go on autopilot! Strangely though, paying attention, being in the moment, isn’t at all boring! Yes, there’s the noticing of patterns of thought, but then we see the judging of the patterns, and then we see the struggles. If we can bring metta, loving kindness, into the mix, then our active attention becomes Wise Mindfulness.

Without loving kindness, there will always be a struggle, maybe even a civil war inside. No wonder we suffer when we are constantly enduring and reenacting a battle of rude comments, harsh judgments, and hurt feelings.

Universal loving kindness is a tapped-in understanding that doesn’t make excuses, doesn’t provide justifications. It simply provides spaciousness and tenderness with which to hold all of what is going on.
How does a wise parent or grandparent or teacher handle a child having a temper tantrum? With attention and kindness; not indulgence, but a deep understanding of the nature of being human. Wise Mindfulness is this level of attention infused with universal loving-kindness.

With our cooking pot analogy, Wise Mindfulness is the contents of the pot, the soup or stew we are cooking up. Next week we’ll talk about the spoon that stirs the contents: Wise Concentration.

But until then give yourself every possible opportunity to experience Wise Mindfulness. Commit yourself to a regular sitting practice. Infuse mindfulness into regular activities, like walking the dog, exercising and doing household chores. Mindfully listen as a relative, friend or co-worker talks. Let go of any sense of a goal when you are running errands. The errands will still get done, but you will have been fully in the moment, experiencing this body moving through space with ease. 

Holding Your Life in an Open Embrace

This was a speech with visual aids. I will try to get permission to use the photos I shared in person, but until I do, imagine:

(A black & white photo of a little girl holding on tight to her three dolls, with a distrustful scowl on her face.)

Here’s a photo of a little girl with her dolls. What a lucky little girl to have three dolls! She should be happy. But when I look at her, I don’t see happiness, I see fear. Maybe she’s afraid someone will take her dolls away. Look how tight she’s holding them. She is planning on defending them.

Of course, holding them this tight she can’t really enjoy her dolls, can she? Enjoying her dolls would be holding them in front of her, looking in their faces, talking to them, singing to them, feeding them, dressing them…maybe having a tea party and inviting other children over with their dolls to play.

But she can’t do any of that because she has to hold on tight to these dolls for fear of losing them.

We can all recognize ourselves in this little girl. We all cling to something, afraid of losing it. Whether it’s our possessions, our money, our relationships, our career, our beliefs, the way we see ourselves, the way we see the world – we hold on tight because we don’t know who we would be without them, and we are afraid to find out.

But just as this girl can’t play with her dolls when she holds them so tightly, we can’t really enjoy our lives and all the wonderful things in it when we hold them in such a tight grip.

What happens when we hold on so tight in a relationship for example? When we clamp down on the one we love, begging them to spend more time with us, pay more attention to us, tell us they love us. What happens? Usually we suffocate the love we hold so dear, we strangle it, we squish it. It turns to nothing in our hands.

So this tendency to grasp and cling to what we care about isn’t really a very effective strategy. At best we can’t enjoy it, and at worst we might actually cause it to disappear.

(A black and white photo of another little girl.)

Now here’s another little girl. She’s not happy either. She’s got her pouty face on and her arms folded. But instead of holding on to something she loves, she’s focused on something that hasn’t measured up to her standards, her expectations, her desires. Maybe her mother said she couldn’t have ice cream before dinner, and she’s determined to be miserable about it for a good long while. Or maybe she’s just arrived at a party. Maybe she’s been fantasizing about this party ever since she got the invitation three weeks ago. She imagined the entertainment, the cake, the friends who would be there, how much fun she would have. And here she is and something is not right. It may be the most fun party in the world, but she is stuck on the one thing that’s lacking, the one way in which it doesn’t measure up. So she can’t enjoy herself.

I’m sure we can all recognize ourselves in this little girl too. We’ve all had experiences that didn’t measure up to our expectations. We’ve all at times let that disappointment ruin the whole experience. We’ve all had trouble enjoying this moment because we’re still caught up in what happened last week, last month, last year, and we’re letting it color our whole experience.

The Buddha defined these two ways of being – this grasping and clinging and this aversion as the primary causes of suffering. He acknowledged that there is unavoidable pain in this life, but that most of the suffering we experience is optional, actually caused by these two tendencies.

But it’s not our fault that we’re like this. Like all animals we are programmed to go after what is pleasurable and avoid what is unpleasant. This is the basis of our survival instinct. We are attracted to bright colors and nature made the brightest color vegetables the most nutritious. We are attracted to the mates that will best help us procreate for the survival of the species. We are programmed to avoid the big sharp-toothed roaring bear who might maul us to death.

Our human brain is a little different however. With our highly developed cortex, we can dwell in the past, remembering in incredible detail all that has happened to us. And we can imagine infinite futures, so we can spend a good portion of our time in a state of planning and daydreaming. Now this is an amazing skill to have! Without it we would not have literature, history, inventions, technology, ever evolving architecture, design and the arts.

But we’ve been given this gift without a user manual, without a warning notice that spending too much time in the past or the future instead of staying in the present moment is hazardous to our health and our happiness.

But the brain is still evolving, still developing, and part of this development is tuning in to awareness, consciousness, rediscovering our ability to be in the present moment.

The primary purpose of meditation is to create this ability to be present, to come into balance, to open ourselves to what is arising in this moment and be able to savor it without grasping and clinging.

(A full color photo of a little girl holding a frog in her cup hands in such a way that she can see the frog in front of her. She has a look of curiosity and a smile on her face.)

In this final picture is a little girl who is living in the moment. You’ll notice that this photo, unlike the other two, is in full color. That’s because she is in the present, the only place that is real. The past and future are just thoughts.

She is holding a frog in her hand and she is holding it in open cupped palms, what I call and open embrace. She is able to fully enjoy the frog. She knows that the frog could jump out of her palm at any moment, but she knows that she will still be okay. The frog is not the source of her happiness. Her ability to be with whatever arises is the source of her happiness.

So this is what I hope for all of us: That we take responsibility for our own happiness, by learning how to be present with our experience, how to hold life in an open compassionate embrace.

Coming into relationship with what is

Coming into relationship with what is – that’s what we are doing in our practice. We can stop running around pretending, covering up, or reframing the truth. Instead we open to whatever arises in our experience in this moment. Whether it is pain or beauty. We acknowledge it. We let it all in. No extra added ingredients, no preservatives, just this, life expressing itself through us and around us. The unvarnished, unedited, unqualified moment to moment multi-dimensional experience of existence.

The Four Noble Truths are all about this coming into relationship with what is. By acknowledging that, along with all the delight and wonder, there is also pain and suffering, we can relax a bit. The cat’s out of the bag! What a relief! We don’t have to keep pretending that there’s some iconic perfection of a life that we must strive to fulfill in order to be allowed to be here. This is life. Just as it is in this moment.

This is not a passive stance, not “Oh well, I might as well give up and accept that I will never amount to anything, that I will never be happy.” Quite the contrary! This is actually a very empowering stance. Standing fully in the reality of this present moment is the only point of power we ever have.

If our thoughts dwell in the past, we find ourselves incapable of being engaged with the present in a full and meaningful way. It is an unstable stance in which we are constantly pulling the rug out from under ourselves. For example, we may feel that because of some past event we don’t deserve this moment. So we can’t even see the invitation we are offered to fully partake in the richness of life. It is valuable to notice what messages from the past are streaming through us in this moment, to notice what we are telling ourselves and question the source of that message. We are often seduced into using the past as a measuring stick to determine what we are capable of doing. When the thoughts tell us things like, “I flunked algebra so I can’t do math related things,” or “I come from humble origins so I don’t belong in this rich person’s mansion,” then we can see that we are standing in the past and thus not fully present. While we may feel more comfortable in certain areas than others, or in certain places than others, it is still valuable to question that comfort, to question all assumptions whenever they start chaffing and causing suffering by making us feel there are areas that are off limits to us.

Likewise, although projecting into the future feels powerful, as if we are in control of our destiny, this stance sets us up for comparing everything that happens to some imagined ideal future. It makes us vulnerable to ‘lose’ things we never had to begin with – an accomplishment, a house, a child, a mate. It is possible to create suffering out of dashed hope, a mirage created in the past that haunts the present, making this moment seem incomplete. Standing in the future leaves us so totally out of balance, so outside of our immediate experience, that we are unable to receive the gifts that are arising in this moment, opening doors to futures beyond our limited imagination.

We may feel we are in the present even as we hold ‘the broad view’ of our lives, able to take measure of our achievements and our failures, our strengths and our weaknesses. We feel this informs us, but our broad view is not broad enough or informed enough to take as truth! Staying present with what is — not just at ‘this time in our lives’ or ‘this week’ or even ‘today,’ but in this millisecond, this fleeting flash of consciousness — is an opportunity to step into the very specific experience of being alive. Just because something bad happened this morning doesn’t mean the whole day needs to be flavored by it. We are so easily seduced into calling it a ‘bad day’ or a ‘bad week’ or even a ‘bad year,’ so ready to ring in the new with the thought that it will somehow save us. We are so desperate for a blank slate, but then so ready to call it ruined by anything that happens. This is nonsense! Truly! Staying fully present in the moment, we don’t need to wait or throw away whole blocks of time! We recognize the unique nature of each moment and let it stand on its own, unencumbered.

If at some unitive moment of deep clarity we get a glimpse of our whole life, then we may understand how all our harsh judgments, expectations, disappointments and demands were totally off the mark. But for now, it’s just better to remind ourselves that there’s a whole lot we don’t know. This moment fully experienced is the only access point to deeper clearer perception.

The basic practice of meditation invites us to open to whatever arises in our thoughts, emotions and senses, acknowledging it, perhaps even noting it, saying, for example, ‘planning,’ all within the spacious awareness of the breath rising and falling, if that is our focus. We often talk about ‘returning’ or ‘coming back’ to the breath, and this may be useful at first but, for me it seems that it eventually gets in our way, like training wheels on a bicycle when you’ve achieved a sense of balance. It is misleading to suggest that we have ‘gone’ anywhere. There is no ‘away’ and no place to ‘return’ to. We have been sitting here in this position the entire time. Our thoughts have been streaming through the field of our awareness. Sometimes they are so powerful, or our energy feels so scattered that our awareness gets disoriented, as if a wave has turned us upside down momentarily. Over time, with practice and clear intention, we develop skills to keep ourselves oriented in a way that our minds can handle whatever waves of thought or emotion that pass through without getting so completely disoriented every time.

This spacious mind is a place that feels safe, where even though we may experience pain, we can sit quietly with it and begin to see it more clearly. It is a place where we notice the heavy arsenal of weapons we carry, and we can lay them down and rest. We can see how we have created fun-house-mirrors that distort our view of ourselves and the world around us. We can see through our faux confidence in the fancy sword-play techniques we use to go into battle with any thought or deed that threatens to unmask some deep core belief we hold to be true about ourselves and the way of things. We recognize our fear.

We may see how we create mine fields that we then walk through or discover that others have stumbled upon, and we then see the pain caused by our unconscious emotional bumbling. Over time we may see what trips the triggers, what ignites the fuse to the bombs we set off, and later regret. All of this and so much more we sit with and allow to rise and then fall away, giving it all the same kind compassionate attention we give our breath that rises and falls.

Resting in this state of non-judgmental awareness, we understand that this is what it is to be human, to err, to bumble, and to go unconscious. Having laid our weapons and shields down, we can cultivate compassion for ourselves and for those in our lives who act out of this same bumbling unconsciousness.

Here, as we sit with what is, things can get very simple and very clear. Stories fall away, leaving only the residue of emotion that finds some physical expression – an achy chest, for example. We rest with whatever arises. If we find a physical sensation, we attend it with openness and compassion, not trying to change it, but simply letting it fill our experience in this moment, letting it be as big or small as it wants to be, letting it sink like a rock or lift like a feather. We hold it in a compassionate open embrace, and let it inform us. This physical sensation exists in the present moment and, held in awareness, may transform. Opening to what is present in this moment is powerful healing, not just the physical pain but for the associated emotional pain as well.

This practice of quieting and opening is not unique to Buddhism. It is a part of every spiritual tradition. And it is not uniquely spiritual. It is a natural state we are born to experience. If not honored as valid and valuable, we lose it.

I remember as a small child having this quality, being able to shift into this kind of open accepting awareness. Perhaps you have noticed, as I have with my granddaughter, that children seem to have a way of self-nurturing, of calming themselves down when they have become over-stimulated. It’s important to honor that ability and not try to commandeer the experience. When we make this self-nurturing activity seem oddball, then a child naturally looks for that sense of calm through other more socially accepted means: Mindless television, video games, snacking, etc. – all those unskillful avenues with potentially painful side effects that we as adults may find ourselves pursuing in an effort to self-nurture, to find that calm quiet place to simply be.

So we may come to meditation as if it’s some foreign experiment in mental transformation. But when we actually sit, we find we are coming home to something we once knew, even if only briefly, and it feels as welcoming and safe as our long lost ragged blanket or love-worn teddy bear.

As we practice, we see how giving ourselves back this spaciousness also gives us back a sense of openness and playfulness in our lives. It gives us other more skillful means than weapons to approach any challenges we may face.

When we talk about embodiment, this anchor to the present moment, this effective means of healing, we are not talking about something foreign either. As babies we began very much in our bodies, very much in the body of being, feeling undifferentiated and physically connected to the world around us. So as a very important part of our practice, we sense in to the body.

Words are useful, but they can only point to experience, they cannot be the experience itself. So it is the senses that really ‘knock some sense’ into us, really show us wherein resides the core story, what one might call ‘the big lie,’ that we tell ourselves, the one that keeps us feeling separate, judged, shamed, and afraid.

If this sounds off-putting, remember the embodied experience in turn enhances our ability to savor the sweetness of life. So it is a great gift, this ability to sense in. To feel the boundless nature of energy expressing itself as breath, temperature, vision, sound, smell, touch, texture, pressure, tightness, release – is life itself and the way to joy in living.

Embodiment practice is the way to discover for ourselves the Second Noble Truth. It is the most immediate way to be with what arises, to recognize suffering, to accept it into our experience in order to know its roots and associative behaviors, emotions and thoughts. So when you are sitting, fully inhabit the body. When you are walking, fully inhabit the body, letting go of all ideas of where you came from and where you are going, just this moment of experience, open to the kaleidoscope of senses telling you everything you need to know.

That is the practice.

Sukha – Being Present for Happiness

We have been revisiting the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: that there is suffering in life. In the Pali language this suffering is called dukkha, and we delved deep into the doo-doo of dukkha in previous posts. But there is not just dukkha in life. And particularly for me at this moment of time it would be disingenuous to focus exclusively on suffering, when I am so grateful for this moment where everyone in my circle of family and friends is in better shape than in past months, where crises have passed and in some cases new exciting ventures are being launched, and life is suddenly more light-hearted and fun. My thoughts are filled with playful creative ideas instead of deep problem solving ruminations. Staying present with my experience, I acknowledge this temporal state of affairs. I know that conditions will shift and change, but while I am experiencing this, let me fully acknowledge it!

So as part of that acknowledgment, today we will talk not about dukkha but about sukha. Literally sukha means having a good axle-hole. While at first glance that seems to have a lot to do with this doo-doo dukkha, in fact it means that the axle of the vehicle of your life is round and even, so the wheels that carry you turn smoothly, making the course of your life less bumpy, more pleasant. So sukha is this pleasantness when things run smoothly, and noticing and taking pleasure in this smoothness.

So we’re talking about happiness. When we get to the Eightfold Path we will talk in more detail about how we can skillfully create conditions that produce happiness in our lives and in the lives of others. But as I understand it, sukha is not the conditions of happiness but our experience of enjoying it, just as dukkha is not pain but our tendency to compound it into suffering.

In our last discussion, we talked about this difference between pain and suffering. Pain happens, arising out of life itself. Through mindfulness we can reduce our risk of getting into a painful situation, but pain is an inherent part of being born, living and dying in this earthly realm. Trying to escape it just creates more suffering.

There are also moments of time when conditions are such that we are pain-free and life seems good. Maybe the weather is beautiful, our health is good, we’re doing what we want to do and those we love are in a good place. All the makings for happiness! But because we have the ability, sometimes even the tendency, to take a happy situation and look on the dark side or look all around the edges, we may miss the experience itself. Sukha is the ability to truly appreciate the goodness of life in the moment.

Now, if we take this happy condition and are unable to appreciate it because we fear it is fleeting, or we are afraid our appreciation will cause it to disintegrate, or we get into wondering why life can’t always be like this, or how we could make it be like this all the time, or any of a hundred inner conversations of that nature, then we are back in dukkha!

Sukha, the ability to enjoy ourselves in a way that is beneficial or harmless, is something we can cultivate within ourselves through concentration, insight and awareness practice. We have been spending a few weeks really paying attention to how we create dukkha in our lives, compounding any pain we find by dragging in the past and future, and we will bring more attention to that in the coming weeks. But this week, and from here on out, I ask you to also notice what is pleasurable in your life.

We talked last week about embodiment. Sensing in to our bodies is a big part of our focus in meditation practice. Sometimes we focus on the strongest sensation. But when the strongest sensation becomes overwhelming, it is skillful to find another sensation in our body to focus on, one that is neutral or pleasurable.

Because of the way our brains work and the requirements for survival in our history, we have a tendency to focus more on pain and the potential for future pain. So cultivating an ability to focus on what is pleasurable can be skillful, bringing us closer to the truth of the whole of our current situation. We don’t focus on what is pleasurable in our experience in order to escape or mask pain. We are not trying to run away from the pain, but to remind ourselves to open our embrace to hold all experience, not just the most difficult. We are bringing balance into the moment, acknowledging all of what is.

What we notice when we focus on any sensation for a long time is that it changes. What we labeled ‘pain’ may become a symphony of changing sensations. This is also true for pleasure. The most pleasurable sensation in the world may become intolerable if prolonged. It is valuable noticing to see the truth in this, to understand the impermanence of pain and pleasure. We can even take comfort in the truth of impermanence. ‘This too shall pass.’ And it serves as a reminder of how important it is to stay present with our experience so that we won’t miss the moments of our lives in pursuit of other moments, which, if we continue in this trend, we won’t be present for either.

Happiness sometimes scares us. We tell ourselves it won’t last. Of course it won’t. So what? This is life. This is the deal. Why should we ignore what is right in front of us, bouncing with delight, in favor of pondering the universal problems that abound in the world? Of course we use skillful means, compassion and wisdom to alleviate suffering wherever we find it, but it is not required of us to oppress ourselves constantly with the plagues that are ever present in the world. There has never been a perfect world and there never will be. We do a disservice to this gift of life if we are always in a state of finding it lacking. It is, once again, a matter of finding balance.

So, notice happiness. That’s your homework. Notice when it arises, when the conditions of happiness are there, and then notice what you do with them in your thoughts and emotions. I’m not asking you to “Look on the bright side” or to “Put on a happy face.” I’m asking you to bring awareness to what is pleasant, and then really notice your relationship to that pleasant condition. Make note of any phrases that come up, things you tell yourself, like, “I don’t deserve this.” Or “This is silly. I’m a serious person. To focus on happiness is frivolous in a world where there is so much suffering.” Or “If I pay happiness too much attention, it will disappear.”

Noticing our relationship with whatever arises is a part of the practice, whether it’s how we relate to pain or how we relate to happiness, how we create dukkha and how we cultivate sukha in our lives.

To deepen our investigation, I once again offer up embodiment, an anchoring into our senses. This is letting go of seeing consciousness as a little know-it-all pilot inside our heads operating the controls of this big vehicle of our body, navigating through the mine fields of the outer world.

Embodiment encourages us to take a more realistic view, once based in the facts. We are made of the exact same stuff as the earth and all the beings on it, the same stuff as the universe and beyond. We are stardust. Believing ourselves to be separate may have its uses, but it is just a construct, not meant to be taken as truth.

The truth is we are not just interconnected; we are one and the same body of being as all that is. Consciousness therefore is not a little navigational device, but a shift of awareness into a broader and deeper understanding. Expansive beyond imagining. Infinite, in fact!

When I spent a year on a personal retreat meditating most of the day, healing from the exhaustion of believing myself to be separate, what came quite naturally to me was sensing into my light nature. This sounds odd, I know. But I have sense learned that working with light is an accepted Tibetan Buddhist practice, and though I haven’t studied it and am not a Tibetan Buddhist, my own experience taught me that working with light energy is a universal part of awakening to the reality of consciousness.

When I think of sukha, the ability to truly experience happiness, I think of being fully aware of that light energy that permeates all life. At this time of year when we have just had the Summer Solstice, I am especially aware of light, as I take walks in the cool of the evening when it is still light at eight o’clock.

As we explore sukha for ourselves during the week, if it feels comfortable for you, let the practice include the exploration of light nature. Breathe in light; let it dissolve the imagined boundaries of your being. Let light shine through every pore and dissolve the capsule of skin you once believed to be the edge of your being. Radiate light out; allow your light body to grow as large as it wants. Radiate loving-kindness; wrap the earth in your light body awareness. Feel empowered by this radiance to hold the world and yourself in a loving open embrace of light. Ah sukha!