Category Archives: Relationship

Love doesn’t have to hurt.

Metta heartsWhen we talk about love we may mean romantic love or the family and friendship ties that bind us in a love that varies in degree and complexity, depending on our own nature and what each party contributes and expects from the other. Think of all the relationships in your life. Each one has it’s own course, doesn’t it? Some are lifelong, some are brief interactions. Almost all are complicated.

Try this little exercise:
Pause and bring to mind a person with whom you once had loving feelings but no longer do.

Looking at that relationship, let yourself remember what was the initial connection: physical attraction, chemistry, shared experience, shared values, shared confidences or something else entirely.

Answer any of these questions that readily activate a response:

  • What was your initial goal in that relationship?
  • What were you planning to have happen that maybe didn’t?
  • How did that person fail to live up to their part of the deal?
  • How did you fail to live up to your part of the bargain?
  • What would have made the relationship a success?
  • What was that person’s agenda in the relationship, as far as you can tell? Was the agenda overt or hidden? Was it different from yours?

Before you get too caught up in a painfully familiar mental romp or rant, let’s look at the words in this exploration: Goal. Plan. Failure. Deal. Bargain. Success. Agenda.

What do they have in common? What world are they a part of?
Clearly these are all business terms. What business does business have in our relationships? We don’t like to think of love relationships in these terms. But if answers to the questions came up for you, then the business model fits, doesn’t it?

To whatever degree you suffered from the end of that relationship, I send you metta, infinite loving-kindness, and apologies for bringing it up. But I did it for a reason: It is valuable to distinguish between love that brings joy and love that causes suffering. And the difference is tied up in those business words. Love that causes suffering is a negotiation, and we think it’s not going well or it failed because we didn’t understand ‘the art of the deal’.  Sad.

Love that activates authentic joy is not a business transaction. It is not confined by the limited view of ‘I’ and ‘you’. It doesn’t require a return on investment. It doesn’t require a winner or a loser. It doesn’t circumscribe a small group of people who by reason of blood, hormones, preferences or proximity are the ‘us’ that in turn defines some external ‘them’ for whom we have no love or maybe even understanding.

Love that activates true joy, softens the heart, and deepens contentment is called metta in Pali and maitri in Sanskrit. There is no English word that properly captures its meaning. Some people call it friendliness. I call it infinite loving-kindness. Every meditation I lead, I end by doing a traditional abbreviated metta practice of well wishing, first to ourselves, then to someone (or a group of people or a situation) that’s in particular need of loving kindness right now. Then out and out so that we are sending metta to all beings: May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

But there is a longer traditional practice that actually teaches us how to access the ability to send metta. Many people are uncomfortable with sending metta to themselves, feeling they don’t deserve it. Many people find resistance sending metta to a challenging or difficult person. This practice helps in both cases.

Take a few minutes to meditate, and then give this metta practice a try.

EXTENDED METTA led by Stephanie Noble

This practice is not just for meditation. Activate infinite loving-kindness whenever you are being hard on yourself or someone else in your thoughts. Someone cuts in front of you? Send them some loving-kindness: May you be well. Someone in your life causing you heartache or headache? Send them some loving-kindness: May you be at ease. Discovering yourself putting yourself down in some way? Send metta: May you be at peace.

Metta practice grows joy in the moment and in your life, expanding in ripples out in all directions. Perhaps you are actively working with energy. Or perhaps you are simply grounding yourself in a loving space. Either way the effect is powerful, transforming your relationship with everyone and everything around you.

This all sound pretty good, right? Naturally we would prefer to love in a way that creates joy, not all the suffering that comes with clinging, worrying, trying to match the other person’s level of engagement, etc. But we have been loving in one way for so long, and our culture totally supports that way, fascinated by all the emotional turmoil, intrigue and drama. We may want to get rid of the suffering way and switch over to the joyful way, but pushing anything away just activates more suffering. Instead, we use the mindful tools we have been developing:

We cultivate spaciousness to hold all that is arising in our experience. If what is arising is the limiting entangling kind of love, then we cultivate spaciousness to hold all that tangled mess in a compassionate way.

We also do inquiry, noticing that kind of love’s thorny nature. Without judging it, we can simply be present with it. This clear seeing softens our attachment to it. Just like some junk food you might be addicted to, if you saw how it was actually made, you might go off it. When we see the toxic components of this long-suffering love, we see how ill-fitting it is, how insidious it can be, how it is all surface glamour with no depth, all soap opera and no real feeling, all fear and not in fact love at all.

Seeing that, we might want to toss love on the junk heap and live a life of solitude. While there’s nothing wrong with solitude, we often choose it as a way of hiding from something we are afraid of. Perhaps we’ve come to the conclusion that we’re no good at relationships, and we accept that judgment without inquiry. Naturally, as part of our practice, we’ll want to question such assumptions: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Examples of failure in relationships will arise to answer these questions, but there is likely to be more answers than we have previously noticed. We stay with the process, continuing to cultivate spaciousness and compassion to hold it all in an open loving embrace.

Whatever we find, we do metta practice. This practice can become an inherent part of our being present in the world. We can do it whenever we think of someone. We can do it when we are with someone. We can do it for ourselves every time we feel ourselves faltering. Metta practice keeps us in touch with the expansive nature of all being. It softens the seemingly impermeable barrier between this seemingly finite person and a world of seemingly other beings. How joyful it is when recognize there are no barriers, that we are all one infinite ongoing cycle of life loving itself.

As to those negotiated relationships, hold them in loving-kindness. See when you are slipping into a contractual state of mind; send metta to yourself and the other person.

If you are doubting this will make a difference, just try it. It can’t hurt. And if you discover it does make a difference, let me know! I love gathering stories of the wondrous effects of metta.

To tell the truth, we lie all the time

When I was eleven and just moved to San Francisco, for some reason I began making stuff up. In a class with three sets of twins, I fabricated a twin of my own named Catherine who lived in Cleveland with my grandmother because ‘we didn’t get along’.  I told my closest friend, who was also new that year, that the shower in our bathroom was a fern grotto with moss and a little cascade. Admittedly that shower was dark, enclosed and who knows what could have grown in there had my mother not stayed on top of it, but a fern grotto? My friend was mightily disappointed on that first visit to my home, but I guess she forgave me because we’re still friends almost sixty years later.

So I come to the virtue of Truthfulness with curiosity. Would we have children not fabricate tall tales for the amusement of others?

 

COVER

Cover of soon to be published book. See below for more info.

Which brings to mind the book my husband, the artist Will Noble, has just finished illustrating. It’s a true celebration of imagination, based on the lyrics of the Peter, Paul and Mary song ‘Autumn to May’. (Ordering info, if interested.)

One of my meditation students is involved in the theater, where she says ‘truth’ is not about being factual, as the whole play is usually the product of imagination, but about being true to the play and staying in character. Certainly in painting or poetry, the two art forms I am most familiar with, the painting or poem requires being true to it, honoring it, not suddenly breaking out into some other kind of painting or poem. The art dictates the core truth so that every aspect is enhancing the integrated whole. But this has nothing to do with factual truth, does it? There’s a deeper truth that is revealed when we stay true to the art.

Truth in Politics
But lets get back to factual truth. In this highly charged political season, there seems to be a dearth of it. Perhaps you remember comedian Stephen Colbert’s infamous ‘truthiness’ where political doublespeak sounds true, but isn’t. It puts us on notice that there are a lot of ways of thinking about things and talking about things that conveniently skirt issues and sound true enough, but upon closer examination are revealed to be false.

We can complain about it, sure, but it’s more useful to notice how we are inclined to readily believe ‘facts’ that support our preexisting position, and how we may quickly reject fact-based ‘lies’ when they don’t. We are also more likely to believe something to be true when it comes from someone we want to believe, perhaps someone who looks like us or shares our values. With news sources offering more editorial opinion than researched facts and information flowing so freely on the internet, discerning the factual truth becomes increasingly difficult. But it is up to each of us to make the effort to find the truth, and to not be attached to rigid positions. Question everything!

Being Honest with Friends and Family
On an interpersonal level, most of us adults have found it is just too much of a hassle to keep track of lies. So we are as honest as we can be, and when it would be hurtful to say what we think, we don’t lie, we just stay silent. And that’s skillful. The Buddha’s teaching of Wise Speech asks us to think before we speak, and then only say what is true, kind and timely.

How does that play out in real life? In class students offered two situations for us to examine:

First up, what do you do when you were invited to something you didn’t want to attend, gave an elaborate excuse and get caught out later in the lie. How could that have been handled better? Well, keep it simple! We don’t need to make an excuse or tell a tale. ‘I’m not available.’ is sufficient, but if pressed ‘That’s not my thing.’ or ‘I’m not up for that.’ also work. We don’t need reasons. If it’s a person we would like to spend time with, we can come up with an alternative type of activity that is more our thing. If not, then a simple, ‘I hope you enjoy it.’ is sufficient.

The second situation was brought up by the student who works in theater. She wondered how to be honest with an actor after a not-so-great performance. For the answer to this, I turned to Toastmasters excellent format for evaluating other members’ speeches. First, while watching the performance, regardless of how bad it is, find something praiseworthy, and then be sure to praise that. Right after a performance, that’s enough. But later, if the actor actually requests your full opinion, or if it is your job to give them an evaluation, you can use what we call the ‘Toastmaster sandwich’, beginning with something they did well and ending with something else they did well. In the middle give the meat of what they might consider doing differently next time to be more effective. But again, only if they request your opinion.

Sometimes we think we are being kind by lying to each other, but upon further reflection it just creates misunderstandings and confusion. Others of us feel compelled to tell the ‘truth’ regardless of how hurtful it may be. I put truth in quotes because it is often just a personal opinion. Finding our way in this is never easy, but again, if we pause to reflect whether what we are about to say is true, kind and timely, we have a better chance of maintaining strong, respectful and caring relationships.

I’m sure you can think of other challenging situations we can look at together. Please comment below and get the conversation started!

The Biggest Lies We Tell All the Time
Where we are likely to be lying more often than not is to ourselves! Our thoughts rattle around saying the same old thing over and over and we believe them without question and let them guide our behavior. In our next class we will be exploring this aspect of Truthfulness. Stay tuned!

Meditation is not a luxury item!

I just can’t seem to let go of Letting Go! This Paramita, the third on the list, seems so crucial and so central to everything. I think about moving on to the next Paramita, ‘Wisdom’, but see how Letting Go is a at the heart of wisdom.

After all, letting go is what we do as we meditate — We let go of tension, let go of thoughts as they arise, let go of grasping and clinging. We make a strong distinction between letting go and pushing away. Very clearly letting go is a friendly act — an opening, a gentle holding in a spacious way and even delighting in whatever arises in that spaciousness before it drifts away.

As women, we often let go of what is nourishing us. Why? Do we feel we don’t deserve it? Are we so used to putting the needs of others first that our needs fall through the cracks? Many of us see meditation as a self-indulgent treat that we will get to when everything we do for others is taken care of. A little reward for good behavior.

But meditation is not a reward. It’s more in line with necessary basic activities like brushing our teeth. Definitely not something we want to put off. But if you haven’t meditated before you haven’t experienced the benefits yet, so how can you know? Longtime meditators sometimes forget how much they depend on their practice to bring balance, compassion and joy into their lives. One time when I was on a two-month trip abroad, I struggled to find time to meditate, and eventually gave up. I thought that maybe while traveling I was living so much in the moment, with everything new and interesting, that I didn’t need my practice. It was a real opportunity for me to see exactly how much my daily practice supports me. The longer I didn’t meditate, the crankier I got, the less creative I got, and the more out of whack I felt. It was a good lesson. I haven’t missed a day since then. I may have occasionally done shorter meditations, but I’ve never gone without it entirely.

If we let go of meditation, thinking we are doing it for others, who will thank us for that sacrifice? No one! Because when we sacrifice our own well being — our balance, our resilience, our creativity, our sense of fun and perspective, our joy — it is not at all generous to anyone. Giving up something that feels selfish because it is personal ‘down’ time, may feel generous at the time, but in fact it is quite the opposite. Maybe we’re striving to prove how ‘good’ we are and how deserving of love. We may think we’re earning points that will ultimately ensure fidelity forever. But is that the kind of love we want? Tit for tat? ‘You owe me, bigtime. Look what I did for you.’ That’s bound to backfire. No one likes to be in debt.  

We may secretly want someone to know what we need and give it to us. I know years ago I kept working at a high stress job when I was very ill, hoping my husband would say ‘Honey, quit!’ But my husband saw me as a mature adult with the good sense to take care of myself. (How wrong can a man be!) Ultimately my doctor told me I had to stop working in order to heal. Only then was I able to do so. Looking back I wonder why I felt I had to wait for permission? (Looking back I also see that if I had carved time out in my day to meditate and time out in my week to meditate in a group, I probably would not have gotten ill in the first place as I could have better handled the stress of the work.)

We may not value what we simply claim for ourselves in the same way we value what a loved one or someone we respect gives us — whether it’s acknowledgement, permission or something else we yearn for. This may be a secret even from ourselves and takes some deep noticing to see how ingrained in our upbringing this kind of thinking can be. It’s why men are so often baffled by women.

— What do women want?

— If you have to ask, I can’t tell you!

Agh! The need to be known in such a deep way that one’s most hidden desires are anticipated is highly unreasonable, of course. And it causes misery all around.

As a teacher of a women’s meditation group, I have seen how difficult it can be for women to claim the time and space to meditate. Early on in my own practice, it took a lot of gumption to tell my husband to close the bedroom door behind him when he got up in the morning and don’t come back in until it was open. Early mornings are my time for meditation and writing. When I did make my request, he was happy to accommodate me. It was not a problem. It was not selfish. He loves me. He doesn’t need me to be at his beck and call every moment. That is not the foundation of our 47 year relationship! Mutual support, shared core values, physical attraction, respect, humor and wanting the best for each other — that’s what keeps us together.

Virginia Woolf’s famous encouragement for women to have a room of their own has resonated for many women. The current trend has taken it to another level: the She Shed! Beautiful outbuildings, garden dwellings, just the right size to hold one woman and an occasional invited guest. Whether it’s set up as a studio, a meditation spot or a nest to read and daydream, it is a claimed space, away from the ongoing uproar of family life and the questions of ‘What’s for dinner?’ or ‘Where’s my baseball bat?’ Even when the main living space no longer holds chaos and clamor, it still holds distracting technology, habituated patterns and a sense of demand to be maintained. Claiming some personal space within it is wise, but a she shed! Oh my! Now we’re talking.

Carving out a regular time in the day to meditate and in the week to attend a meditation group means claiming space on the calendar and making it a priority. If other things are being scheduled, a woman may have difficulty claiming that space. If the receptionist at the doctor’s office suggests an appointment time, unless it’s somehing urgent, we don’t have to take the first one offered if it conflicts with our commitment to practice! We can protect that precious dedicated time instead of making it a default thing we do when nothing else demands our attention. If a mate has scheduled something, expecting us to be available, it is surprisingly difficult for many women to say ‘that time doesn’t work for me.’ This can be true in any personal or professional relationship that takes priority over taking care of ourselves. Men generally assume that we, like they, will speak up for ourselves and claim what we need.

If we have the inner message that our time for meditation is a treat, and selfish at that, then we are ready to sacrifice it at the least provocation because we weren’t sure we ‘deserved it’ in the first place. It’s only when we begin to see that our regular practice of meditation benefits not just ourselves but all those around us that we gain the strength to claim the time we need to practice, to attend classes and be with our supportive sangha.

When we give ourselves what we need through the daily practice of meditation, especially with the addition of metta practice, accessing infinite loving kindness, we find a source of non-depletable energy that inspires us to collaboratively and lightly create joy in the giving.

So you can see that we want to be discerning and wise in what we choose to let go of. Let go of things that deplete you, drain you, or leave you feeling lost and befuddled. Hold in a loving embrace all that nourishes and inspires you. Do this and you’ll fall in love with life, as well as your family and friends, all over again.

Loving Kindness Shifts Relationships

In exploring metta, the practice of sending loving kindness, we come to the challenge of sending it to a ‘difficult’ person, someone with whom we struggle or who pushes our buttons. This can be a family member, co-worker, client, or a public figure whose policies, beliefs or behavior seem wrong, maybe even evil to our way of thinking. (If you wonder why we would send loving kindness to such a person, look at the last post under ‘Obstacle #4. Metta Seen as Reward.’)

We picture this ‘difficult person’ and think, ‘May you be well, may you be happy, may you be at ease, may you be at peace,” or similar well wishing. If they are going through difficult experiences, we could send compassion with phrases like, ‘May your difficulties ease. May your struggles or sorrows be held in compassion.’ As you read this, can you sense that the activity of sending loving kindness and compassion softens our hearts, gives ease to our body, allows our mind to be more restful and spacious? Even if we question whether metta has any power or meaning, we can at least acknowledge a certain satisfaction in being able to do some positive action, even though it’s only within our mind. The behavior of others is beyond our control, and that can be frustrating and scary. We can’t change them, but we can send them metta.

So is it just about making ourselves feel better? Maybe yes, maybe no.

One student shared her experience of sending metta to her sibling with whom she had difficulty. She began the practice to find peace within herself, a release from feeling so distressed when this person would cause disruption at family gatherings. She did find peace as she practiced, but what surprised her was how her sibling began to open up and become less prickly. Remember that we are not saying this blessing out loud. The other person is not even aware of it. But the softening that comes with wishing someone well changes not just ourselves, but them too. Now the sibling have a closer more loving relationship than they have had in their whole lives. (The student did not have that goal in mind, remember. If she had hopes or expectations that her sibling would change, then probably that hope would have sabotaged the pure practice of sending metta.)

This is not the first time I have heard such a story. But most of us don’t take the time to do the practice it in a consistent way. It takes intention to do so. If our intention is to access the infinite quality of loving kindness and compassion, to allow ourselves to dwell in it, and then share it, perhaps with special focus on those with whom it is challenging to do so, then the loving kindness can be transformative.

Sending metta to a challenging person might feel like too big an assignment. So we start with what we can do. ‘May you be well…far from here.” “May you be happy…somewhere else.” That doesn’t sound very friendly, but it is a start. If we feel vulnerable and unsafe with this person, then it is skillful to keep our distance, but we can still send metta. If our well wishing seems half-hearted, at least it is a little crack in the door we can begin to enter more wholeheartedly as we follow our intention.

Metta is a practice unto itself, but it is also a gift that arises out of mindfulness practice. As we become aware of our connection with all life, the oneness of all being, we feel included, safe, loved without striving to earn it, and are then able to give love to all beings, even the difficult ones. These two practices combine create loving awareness.

If you are curious about where metta fits in the scheme of Buddhist concepts:
Metta – Loving Kindness –  is the first of the Four Brahmaviharas.The other three are: 

Karuna – Compassion – is a feeling that naturally arises out of that sense of connection. It is quite different from pity.
Mudita – Sympathetic Joy, happiness for the happiness of others, that also arises out of that sense of connection. Don’t be frustrated if this doesn’t feel so ‘naturally arising.’ Have compassion for yourself.
Upekka – Equilibrium. When our practice provides so much spaciousness that we can hold the extremes of emotion as in those when a loved one is dying and another is being born or getting married or having some positive experience. Our ability to make room for all to be held in a loving embrace is upekka.

The Four Brahmaviharas infuse our lives with connection, joy, meaning and a sense of balance.  Each of the four has its own practice to help us develop, but each is also a gift of mindfulness, a fruit of the practice. Let knowing they exist keep you coming back again and again to meditation practice. But don’t turn them into a goal. Let go of striving. Practice with simple joy.

Taking Refuge, Taking Responsibility

Two weeks ago we talked about taking refuge and how refuge is not a place to escape to but a relationship, a way of being supported by the inspiration of the Buddha and the discovery of our own Buddha nature; supported by the dharma, both the teachings and the wisdom we find in nature; and supported by the sangha, the community of meditation practitioners who too are taking refuge in this way.

Last week in class I was asked to talk more about what the sangha is. Simply put it is the group of people who share the intention to be present and compassionate. A sangha is not like a group of friends. If someone cries the sangha holds the space for that person to fully experience their feelings without anyone rushing in to comfort them, make it better or make it go away. Instead the person feels the sangha’s complete acceptance of their tears. They really get it that there is room for all of who they are and all of what they feel in the web of support the sangha provides. On a retreat after a few days of sitting in silence you might begin to hear sobbing. This is not because the retreatant is having a miserable time but because they feel the emotional release of sitting in silence and they feel the support of the sangha to help them face whatever they are dealing with in their thoughts and emotions. They can spend time safely coming face to face with the thing that all the distractions in their lives have kept them from facing. It is a very rich sharing when someone breaks down and cries, especially when a man does, as that is so discouraged in our culture. The sangha honors and supports the deep practice of each member, so when we take refuge in it, we feel held but not coddled, interconnected but not necessarily interactive.

When we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, if we recognize that it is a relationship instead of an escape then we understand that, like any relationship, there is not just refuge but responsibility, if that relationship is going to thrive.

So, we take responsibility for our relationship with our Buddha nature, vowing to nurture and honor it.

We take responsibility for our relationship with the Dharma, vowing to honor the teachings and not manipulate them for our own agenda. And we take responsibility for holding all dharma up to the light of inquiry, not accepting everything we hear or what we have come to believe without question.

We take responsibility for our relationship with the Sangha, vowing to support our sangha sibling in their practice and to honor their privacy by not sharing what they have disclosed in our circle with others. Thus we develop a practice of trustworthiness that is valuable in all our relationships.

Let’s explore this word ‘responsibility’ a little more. Taking responsibility in life sounds straightforward, but it’s amazing how quickly we get out of balance, taking too much responsibility or taking too little and not knowing how we got so turned around.
First we need to let go of the idea that all the responsibility lies elsewhere, that we are hapless flotsam being tossed about on a sea of causes and conditions. We need to recognize that on this sea of causes and conditions we have a boat and we have a sail, oars, a motor, a rudder, a bucket, a compass and more. These are not things that can fall overboard, but they are things we may not realize we have on board. So part of our practice is to recognize all the means we have to cope with whatever causes and conditions arise. This recognition helps us to take responsibility for our own happiness and our own well being.

Circumstances exist. It’s no use to pretend they don’t. Yes, we have a boat but nothing on the boat will change the weather. We have the means to change our relationship to the weather, to the storm, to the choppy waves, to whatever arises.

We are born into a life with certain circumstances, rarely ideal, and even when ideal, we learn that life can change on a dime. Plans we made may no longer be viable due a change in conditions. Taking responsibility includes acknowledging the truth of the situation and the ramifications that arise, just as the sea goes from calm to full of white caps to a raging storm. Then the storm quiets down and the sun comes out and we’re still here.

What if the circumstances in our life seem to preclude the possibility of our living the life we want to live? We have the means to explore this assumption. We have inquiry: Is this true? How do I know this is true?

We have noticing: We see not just the circumstances but our own set of skills, connections, strength and patience. Taking responsibility for our own life experience doesn’t mean forging ahead without regard to conditions. It means working with all that is arising in this moment. Being able to release our attachment to the way we planned to go. Exploring work-arounds to see what really is possible is one way of taking responsibility. So is letting go of our addiction to living in the future, some distant destination always beyond the horizon, and finding joy right here, right now.

We have self awareness: If we feel like a big ship, weighted down with a lot of freight, what’s that about? If making a decision to deal with changing conditions is wrought with difficulty, perhaps we are carrying around too much weight in the form of stories we tell ourselves about our place in the world. Can we develop the flexibility of a small boat?

And we have compassion: Our boat can rock, but we can experience it as a cradle, being held in the supportive web of life. And we can see that we are not alone on these seas, and we can share compassion and feel compassion from others in our midst.

Through the practice of compassion, self-awareness, noticing and inquiry we create for ourselves a small sea-worthy vessel. We are able to navigate our way through causes and conditions. Our practice of meditation gives us the clarity to see through the fog and the storms.

If it doesn’t feel that way, if that sounds like wishful thinking, let’s explore why. Are we at the helm of our vessel? Or do we imagine someone else in charge? And if so who? Why do we believe that to be true? The actions of others do have an impact on us, but if they are crashing into us, then that action is just another cause and condition to be weathered.

Here’s a traditional boat story that is appropriate here:

A man is rowing his own boat, minding his own business, and he sees another boat coming toward him. It’s foggy and he can’t see the person steering the boat, but it’s clear the boat is going to hit his, so he calls out. But the boat keeps coming at him. So he calls out louder, this time more aggressively, fueled by his fear that the boat might hit him and his future thinking of all the harm and hassle that might entail. But the boat keeps coming! Well now he’s really angry! This other boater is clearly ignoring him and is purposely attacking him. So he yells curses and uses his oar not just to fend off the approaching boat to keep himself safe but to clobber the stupid expletive deleted at the helm.

Only then is he able to see that the other boat is empty. Suddenly all his feelings change. He has no hard feelings about a boat floating aimlessly. He doesn’t think it is out to attack him. He just pushes it away and sets back to rowing his boat.

So what does that story tell us? Why do we respond so differently to causes and conditions when we think another person’s volition is involved? Why do we let the actions of another so throw us off course? We can see how we do this in our lives. How angry we get at other drivers on the road if we think we have been disrespected. If we realize that these unskillful actions we see on the road and elsewhere in life are the result of mindlessness – that the person is absent from this moment, their mind somewhere else – then how is that really different from an empty boat? Scary to think about how many empty boats are floating about, but when we understand that to be the case, we can take responsibility to be really present and mindful, to be able to navigate these added conditions.

Now, back to who is at the helm of our own vessel. If we see someone else at the helm, then we are not in touch with our own Buddha nature. We are perhaps reacting out of emotional longing for safety, but it actually makes us less safe. Putting someone else at the helm of our own boat is making ourselves captive rather than captain. Coming into the relationship with our Buddha nature allows us to take the helm of our own lives. Our Buddha nature is our refuge and it’s our responsibility to awaken and cultivate our relationship with this deep, connected inner wisdom that is our birth right.

If our vessel feels unstable, as if it will turn over in a big wave, then we need to add ballast in the form of meditation practice. If we are already doing a regular practice, perhaps a refinement in our understanding of what meditation practice means is in order. Perhaps our practice is taking us off into dreamland or spacy-ness instead of into a deep and abiding awareness of the present moment. This ability to stay with physical sensation – the breath, for example – is not a journey to lofty heights of forgetting where we are, but a door into the fullness of each moment, replete with gratitude for this gift of life in all its variations, the ability to feel connection to all of life as it is. This adds ballast that keeps our vessel steady. Fantasy is lovely but has no staying power. And we can’t navigate our vessel from up in the clouds.

We set our intention to be present and compassionate and we let that intention guide us like a rudder through the challenging waters of our meditation and our life. That is taking responsibility.

Sometimes we may find we are trying to navigate someone else’s vessel. As parents our children’s smaller vessels are tied to ours. The other day we were walking along the shore in Tiburon and saw a motor boat pulling nine little dinghies in a row. It was like a mother duck being followed by her ducklings. A great image! But at some point our children are ready to take charge of their own vessels, and we rejoice in their independence.

As adults with no dependent children, we need to acknowledge that we have responsibility for only one vessel: our own. Whether we are married or not, our vessel is our vessel, no one else’s. And our spouse’s is not ours to steer, no matter how closely we travel together. So this is a very important thing to notice about how we are taking responsibility in our lives. Where are we out of balance? It’s quite common to take too little responsibility for our own vessel, possibly not even recognizing that we have a vessel, and/or too much responsibility for steering the vessels of others.

This vessel analogy has some similarity with the analogy of accepting our seat at the table and having table manners. Work with whichever one feels most compelling for you.

We might say this is a boundaries issue, and it certainly is. But notice that when we talk about vessels, it becomes quite clear where the boundaries are. We don’t want to fall into the water as we lean over to steer another’s boat!

But what if someone we care about is steering their vessel into harm’s way? Are they going the ‘wrong’ way or just not our way? That’s an important question to ask ourselves. Most times we see they are headed for stormy or choppy waters and we want to keep them in calm seas. But learning to navigate in all conditions is part of developing a sea worthy vessel in life. Certainly sailor to sailor conversations are useful, but there are strict rules at sea about asking permission to come aboard. Remember that the only ones that board another’s ship without permission are pirates! Is that the role we want to play in the lives of those we care about? Of course not! And while we’re on board, who’s minding the tiller of our own vessel?

So we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and we take responsibility for our relationship with these three refuges as well. Whether we feel adrift, becalmed or about to be engulfed in a big wave, we have the means to navigate all the causes and conditions of our lives.

Happy Metta Day!

Yes, I know it’s Valentine’s Day with all its complex history and delightful rituals, but a day devoted to romance is so limiting. In Mexico it’s called El día del amor y la amistad, Day of Love and Friendship. That’s a little more expansive. If you aren’t in a romantic relationship you don’t have to hole up watching old movies, eating bon bons and grabbing tissues. You can let friends know how much you love them. A nice addition!

But when it comes to love, there’s nothing that can compare with Metta or loving kindness. This radiant well wishing is love from an infinite source. And because it can’t be depleted, we can tap into our natural desire to be generous. We don’t have to pick and choose among the people we know to single out ones who are worthy of sending metta. We send it to everyone, we send it to all beings.

So what would it be like to have this day be about sending metta? Well, first we could give up a lot of expectations around receiving valentines and other displays of romantic affection. We can give up comparing mind around what others are doing for their sweethearts. We can give up worrying about whether what we do is enough to satisfy our sweetheart’s need for acknowledgment of love. And of course, if we aren’t in a relationship, we don’t feel we have to hide away, or find other friends not in a relationship in order to survive the day. In other words we could give up fear, fear of not being loved, fear of not being enough, fear of being misunderstood, fear of being perceived by others as unattractive or unlovable. That’s a whole lot of unpleasantness. How great to let it go!

On Metta Day we just send blessings all day! First we start with ourselves, sensing in to that radiant loving energy, soaking it up as if it were the sun’s rays. A little metta-bathing. The sun doesn’t pick and choose who is worthy to receive its light, and neither does metta. “May I be well.” “May I be happy.” “May I be peaceful.” Any resistance to saying such words to ourselves, spoken or internal, is worthy of noticing. Most likely it is just residue from that old fear-based pattern of thinking. We send metta to the aspect of ourselves that is clinging to fear.

After we feel fully saturated with this loving energy, (or as saturated as we are willing to be at this point) we recognize that we are a conduit for metta. We breathe it into ourselves, accepting it fully, feeling the unconditional quality of this love. And then we breathe it out to the rest of the world. “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be peaceful.” As we go about our day out in the world, we let the metta blessings flow, wordless for the most part yet strongly heard and strongly felt by every person we meet. Every exchange will be sweeter for this loving intention.

And what of our sweetheart, if we have one? Radiant metta, loving from an infinite an unconditional source, is the best gift to any relationship. When two beings meet in metta the love expressed is transformative. And the chocolates taste even better, the flowers look even more beautiful and the time spent together, fully present in the infinite embrace of loving kindness, is a true union of our deepest selves.

So Happy Metta Day! May you be well. May you be happy. May you be peaceful.

Letting Go: Beyond the Labels in Relationship

After reading through the Dance of the Seven Veils in the previous post, it may seem as if we are being asked to give up possessions, relationships, our very skins! But of course that is not the case. Instead we are looking at what it might be like to let go of our habit of defining ourselves by what we own, how we look, what we do for a living, or who we know. We are exposing the lie that all these things are the sum total of who we are. Abandoning the things themselves would serve little purpose, but abandoning our misperceptions about them as our identity could serve us very well.

Let’s look more closely at the third veil: ‘the you that is defined by your relationships with others…. To the degree that these roles define you, they confine you. Let them go.’ We are not giving up our relationships. To the contrary. We are finding a more spacious way to be in them so that the relationships are enhanced and vibrant. By releasing labels of ‘sister’ ‘father’ ‘wife’ or ‘friend’ to the degree that these terms confine us in these relationships.

The first clue to a problem with these labels is that we always use them with that dangerous word ‘my’ in front. My sister, my husband, my child. The word ‘my’ confers a clear sense of ownership. If something is mine, I have a say about it. If something is mine, I think of it as an extension of me, that it represents me in some way.

That sense of entitlement to have a say creates toxicity in relationships. We feel not only entitled but somehow obligated to remake those we own in order that they can live up to our expectations.

We have all felt the pain of being ‘owned’ by some well-intentioned but delusional person who was unable to see us as ourselves. And as painful as it is, we often turn around and hurt others close to us in the same exact way.

So how do we expunge the idea of ownership from a relationship? It would be an interesting challenge to spend a week without using the word ‘my’ or ‘our.’ Would we find a new way to talk about our relatives? Or would we stop talking about them? That would be a very positive outcome indeed!

But even if we don’t speak in the possessive, we still have our lifelong habit of thinking that way. How do we rephrase it to ourselves? Awkwardly, no doubt, but that’s alright. When something is awkward it brings our attention to it, and that breaks us out of habitual patterns and lets us see things anew with fresh eyes.

How would it be to see the person you married with fresh eyes? What if the veils dropped away and you saw the wondrous luminous being with whom you chose to spend your life. (I assure you there is a wondrous luminous being in there! Keep looking!)

If you are not an only child, imagine a person you have known your whole life, who is close to your age and was raised in the same household, who shares a rich wealth of memories from a different vantage point, who in personal traits is unique and yet incredibly perhaps endearingly familiar. Might there be some fresh and wondrous delight in seeing them without the veils of expectation, duty or obligation?

The labels we put on ourselves burden our relationships. The roles we play become who we perceive ourselves to be, and all our accumulated ideas about what it is to be a good wife, mother, sister, husband, father, brother, etc. come into play. We struggle and suffer in the vast field between our imagined ideals and our uneven ability to fulfill them.

For example, I lived with Will for the year before we married. After the wedding I found myself suddenly saddled with a lifetime of images and expectations of what it is to be a wife or a husband, culled from observing my parents’ marriage, from reading novels and watching movies. Of course, Will too had his ideas and expectations, and suddenly a simple loving relationship was floundering in a sea of misunderstandings. It took nearly a decade for us to find a way to be together that didn’t rely so heavily on fulfilling these mostly misguided expectations.

Friendships too can get complicated by our ideas of what it is to be a friend. Our expectations set us up for disappointment. We may say, “A real friend wouldn’t” say or do this or that. What would it be like to let these concepts go? To simply be with someone with whom we share so much and have no expectations and no sense of obligation. How much deeper could the true connection be?

Certain relationships come with contracts. Marriage and parenthood, for example. These contracts are taken on joyfully, and are best kept if that joyfulness is renewed in each moment from our most authentic selves.

Letting go of our identity around these relationships is not necessarily easy because these are ingrained habits of being and perception. But doing so, to the degree we are able, frees us to be fully ourselves, just as we are, with every person we are with. We can allow them to be fully themselves as well, without the drag of our expectations around the role they play in our lives.

Letting go is a gentle process. It is the result of continued compassionate attention. Force has no role here. Judgment is counter productive. Coming into awareness of our thoughts, emotions and sensations is sufficient for the task. The trees let go their leaves when the time is right, and so will we.