Category Archives: Right Action

Where were you when the lights went out?

Everywhere in the world it seems we are increasingly challenged to cope with emergency situations. And many of us don’t prepare for that likelihood, maybe because we don’t want to think about it, or we just get busy, or we can’t imagine it.  So we put off valuable preparations that make all the difference when the alert goes off on our phones and we have to spring into action.

Skillful Action is one of the eight aspects of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. How we prepare and cope with emergencies falls into that area. Because my students and I had just experienced a three-day county-wide power outage*, I jumped ahead in our curriculum to that aspect. We’ll go back to our ‘regular programming’ — the order I had planned to teach the Eightfold Path in — after this brief but valuable opportunity to apply what we’ve learned to preparing for future events.

Here are a series of questions I posed my students. If you also experienced the power outage, please take this opportunity to answer them for yourself and make notes for an action plan. If you weren’t part of this California fire season event, please use this opportunity to explore these questions in regard to emergency situations in your own area. Perhaps you can reflect back to the last flood, hurricane, storm, earthquake, tornado or fire that you experienced. No one is immune! (For more comprehensive suggestions, go to ready.gov.)

PREPAREDNESS QUESTIONNAIRE

If you experienced this power outage or other emergency situation recently, take a moment to reflect and note down what worked well and what didn’t. This questionnaire was geared toward my students, all of whom were able to stay in their homes but had no power. In neighboring counties many people were evacuated due to fire, threat of fire and smoke. For those kinds of emergencies, having out-of-area family or friends you could call to stay with, and of course having a ‘go’ kit ready with your medications, cash, etc. is vital.

Some areas to consider: 

Communications – Were you able to stay in touch? Use your phone? Read your emails? Text? Keep your cell phone charged? Use your landline if you have one? Who is your service provider? Were others with different providers better equipped? Some elderly people don’t have cell phones, so were quite out of touch, and loved ones were unable to contact them to assure they were safe. Is it time to get an inexpensive emergency cellphone for just such occasions?

Charging – Keeping your phone charged is easy if you have a little solar backup charger. Our community also offered charging at various community centers, but not right away. Most vehicles are set up to charge, but you have to keep the car running. The more options you have the better, so be sure to have a back up charger fully charged in your emergency kit.

Community – Do you know your neighbors? Was there a system in place to look out for each other? Did your town provide services, and if so, did you know about them? Is there someone locally who made sure that you were okay, or would have if you were in an emergency situation? (If not, consider setting up a ‘buddy system’ with another local person in the same situation. Independent living is great but in emergencies, we fall back on the networking skills of yore, and that means neighbors. There are many rewards to establishing strong bonds with neighbors even in non-emergency situations!

Food — Did you have sufficient food on hand to last? Were you able to cook? If you like coffee, be sure to keep plenty in stock. If you wouldn’t be able to make it, consider having a few canned coffee drinks on hand.
During this power outage those who had gas stoves were able to cook, but in another kind of emergency that might not be available, so what preparations would you need to make for that?
Usually power outages are localized, so you can just go to a different part of town or a neighboring town and go to a cafe, grocery store or restaurant. But this one affected all businesses in our county. Being prepared for that possibility is important.

Refrigeration — Again, in a small scale power outage, you can get ice, but since no stores had power, there was no ice to be had. If this happens again, I would put everything in the freezer compartment because it is smaller, or use an ice chest. Even with a number of ice packs and extra ice in plastic bins, the refrigerator warmed up faster than I expected.

Without refrigeration, canned or dried food is the go to. I find it difficult to make myself stock up on canned foods I would never eat, only to toss them when they expire. But we always have nuts on hand, and we used up salad makings, etc.

Cooking — If you are able to stay in your home but you can’t use your stove, it’s good to have a barbecue with a burner, or a camp stove (only use outside!!!!) Be sure to keep sufficient fuel canisters on hand.

Cash — When the power’s out even stores willing to stay open may need to be paid in cash, so be sure you have an emergency fund handy. Store cash in dry plastic bags. Ours was stored in a money belt in our car and the money got a little mottled. FYI Banks aren’t allowed to take moldy or disfigured currency.

Heat — If you have a gas furnace, is it the kind that runs when the electricity is off? Ours isn’t. But we do have a gas insert fireplace in one room in the house. Research best heating solutions for your situation.

Transportation — Keeping your car fully ready to get away is important. Our electric car was charged and our hybrid was charged and had a full tank of gas. All gas stations in our county were closed, and those in neighboring counties had long lines. Best to just stay put or get around on foot! Because traffic lights were out, there was a period of adjustment as people learned to treat such intersections as if they had stop signs. For the most part people were careful and courteous, and most stayed home to avoid getting in the way of mass evacuations.

Medical supplies — If you rely on equipment that needs electricity, or medicines that need to be refrigerated, you might want to get a generator of some kind. At the very least, make sure your neighbors know that you are particularly vulnerable. As a general rule, be sure to order your prescriptions enough in advance that you won’t run out during an emergency.

Light
Were you in the dark or did you have useful solutions?
Our Petzl Tikkina coal miner headlamps made all the difference — perfect for reading and cooking in the dark. They use AAA batteries, so we stocked up on them for next time.
Little battery-operated votive candles all over the living areas gave a festive feeling and provided enough light for getting around. Besides our cellphone flashlights, we have a number of regular flashlights, and extra batteries, but we didn’t use them.

Air Quality
Although our air quality was okay, surroundings areas were affected by the smoke from the fire to the north. Do you have an N95 mask for each member of the household? To freshen the indoor air, consider adding more houseplants. Back in the 1970’s we had 22 houseplants in our tiny apartment! Not up for that? Me neither. But even a few scattered about the house might make a difference.

Entertainment
Sitting in meditation is a perfect activity under such circumstances. As is inner investigation — such a perfect opportunity to notice our thoughts and emotions! But most of us also want to have some other kinds of fun. In the daytime we had plenty of light so no problem doing chores, reading, writing with pen and paper, and because the weather was nice, and the air quality was not too bad we were able to do gardening. Had the smoke been intense or if it had been stormy, we would have been stuck inside.

Hiking trails were all closed due to fire danger so little walks around were best. Students reported meeting many neighbors and fellow citizens as they go around on foot.

If charging the phone is not a problem, and data is not an issue, of course there are many games, podcasts, music, etc, but why do things you can do any time? What a perfect opportunity to be completely unplugged!

The candlelight is ideal for deep conversation, making music, playing games and, um, other pleasures. And outside with the power out all over, the stargazing was wonderful.

I wanted to have a POPL party – Power Outage Potluck Party. When we had a home in Mexico, and there was an unusually long and heavy rain storm, we invited all our neighbors over for a potluck feast of whatever was in our refrigerators. It was a great festive gathering amidst the gloom.

What made life without power easier, safer, more fun for you?
Is there anything you might keep doing, even though the power’s back on? Just because you can switch on your lights and various technologies doesn’t mean you have to! Maybe establish a lights out night a week to rekindle the fun you discovered.

What do you wish you had thought to do beforehand?
While not everything was under your control, there were some things you no doubt could have done differently. While those are still fresh in your mind, make a note and then take action! This is probably the only time that you can really give it the energy, time and attention it requires. Make the most of it!

How were you in relationship to the experience?
Maybe you were afraid, depressed, lonely, impatient for it to be over, angry at someone in power, frustrated with your own lack of preparedness. This is important noticing! No need to beat yourself up about it. At the same time, it is an opportunity to discover your own capacity for patience, compassion, equanimity and other qualities that we are cultivating in our practice.

Did you have any insights?
Sometimes being out of the habituated patterns of our lives helps us to see things more clearly. It’s a kind of unexpected retreat, if we allow ourselves to be fully present for it.

A final reminder:

  • Restock whatever you used (batteries, cash, food, etc.)
  • Research solutions to any problems you encountered.
  • Retain any delight or insight you had from the experience.

Please share your experiences, suggestions and discoveries here, whether you experienced this recent event or another. Together we can assure wiser, more skillful action for all.

* The power was out in over 800,000 homes and businesses in California, not just our county. But this was the only time in my memory that our whole county was out of power.

Is your mouth getting you in trouble?

mouth-guardsThis time of year we can get into a lot of trouble with our mouths. What goes into them can so easily be too much, too rich, too sweet or too inebriating. What comes out of them might be thoughtless comments, backhanded compliments or casual remarks that are way off the mark. One way to stay out of trouble is to avoid all social gatherings for the duration. But if we do engage, do we have to stand guard, inspecting all content coming in and going out with a careful eye? Ugh! Where’s the fun in that?

Fortunately there is a way to stay out of trouble with our words and our eating without declaring ‘Bah humbug’. Compassionate noticing is joyous, not a duty call or an inner police state. The Buddha called it Wise Action and Wise Speech.

Wise Action during the holidays means being present in our bodies, finding balance, resting as needed, and gently stepping away from the buffet table when we are not hungry but find we are grazing to pass the time. We can wake up out of autopilot and really enjoy the party!

Wise Speech invites us we use three questions to gauge whether speech is indeed wise.
We ask:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it timely?

All three need a ‘yes’ answer for our speech to be wise.

One of my students said, ‘If I had to ask those every time I wanted to say something, I’d never speak!’
‘Is that true?’ I asked her. ‘Is everything you say a mean lie spoken at the most inopportune moment?’
Of course not. In my own experience her words are truthful, kind and timely, and I would bet that is more often the case than not. But hearing this set of questions can sound daunting, so I’m sympathetic to her concern.

We have all been witness to and perhaps participants in situations where unskillful words or the wrong tone of voice have ruined the mood at a gathering, sometimes creating a hostile atmosphere. Words are powerful! They can even put a relationship in jeopardy. A family dinner can be a minefield of potential emotional explosions. Having a few simple questions we can ask ourselves before venturing forth into conversation is actually a comforting gift. If what we are about to say is true, kind and timely, we can feel confident in our participation. We won’t be left with that gnawing feeling of guilt, wondering ‘Was it something I said?’

But why are we ever motivated to say things that are untrue or unkind? We may be under stress, worried about something, in a hurry, reacting to a perceived slight, or blaming a loved one for our own grumpy mood. With family there can be a river of long-held gripes running just under the surface, so these gatherings can get out of hand quite easily. We may balk at the idea that we need to be mindful of our words. ‘I just want to be me,’ we say. But is mindlessness who we are? Is unkindness who we are? Is saying untruths who we are? Really?

Of course not. When we speak mindlessly we are most often not speaking from our true selves but repeating some social patter we’ve heard somewhere just to fill the space and pass the time. The ‘filters’ of truth and kindness are ways of finding our own authentic voice, not quashing it.

The question of whether what we are about to say is timely really has to do with being present with what’s going on. We take a moment to notice that the person we want to speak to has their hands full at this moment and would not be able to pay real attention. Or we may realize these are words for a private conversation and think better of blurting out something in the group. Finding the right moment doesn’t have to be a monumental task, but considering timeliness helps to insure a more productive conversation.

If you can remember those three questions, hooray. If that’s just way too easy, consider a few more questions you could use as well:

‘What is my intention here?’ You might notice any sensations in the body — tension, for example — that indicate you are probably motivated by fear. Not much good comes from fear. We tend to make enemies. We feel we need to defend our isolated sense of self so we use our speech as as a sword to ‘protect’ ourselves. It doesn’t work, of course. It just makes us feel more isolated as people pull away or attack in kind.

Another motivation can be exposed with the question ‘Am I trying to prove something?’ Maybe some sibling seems to have it all together, and it feels important to be heard and seen as the accomplished person you are. (Remember not to compare your insides with their outsides. You present a pretty polished surface too.) That’s also a good question to ask yourself when you find you are doing most of the talking. If people’s eyes are glazing over or their looking away, you may be thrusting information that was not requested and pontificating about something just to show how much you know.

‘Is this my story to tell?’ is a useful question that helps to curb gossip. All information we receive is not fodder for conversation. Sometimes people share personal information with us and we are not meant to pass it on! It is not necessarily a secret, but it is just not our story to tell. Much as we may want to ‘fill the void’ by sharing stories about others to mutual friends or family members, it’s really a destructive pattern. But if not everyone is able to attend a family gathering, then what are we supposed to say when Aunt Sarah asks after her absent great nephew? Maybe it would be skillful to anticipate that there will be such a question and tell the one who plans to be absent that if he doesn’t want you to share his contact information with relatives, please provide some (true, kind) brief answer for the question of how he is doing so that you can feel confident you are not speaking out of turn. If none is forthcoming, fall back on, ‘Oh he’s fine.’ and if the probe continues, smile and ask the inquisitor a question.

 

When being mindful of your words in general, you can also look more deeply at the first question ‘Is it true?’ Your first response may be, ‘Well of course it’s true!’ but if you look a little more deeply you might see that we don’t know for certain if it is true. Investigating the truth of what we hear and read, seeing things in context, considering the source, and trying to see the bigger picture are all useful activities when we are looking at information. If we are going to repeat it, we don’t want to do so mindlessly, just passing on fabrications, urban myths or unfounded rumors. In an election year, it is especially easy to align ourselves rather mindlessly with the candidates who we assume represent us, without questioning what we really believe.

Sometimes we talk just to avoid ‘awkward silences’. You might ask yourself, ‘Can I be at home in silence?’ It is often our discomfort with silence that prompts us to say just about anything to keep the conversation going. We get so myopic we don’t recognize how much else is going on besides conversation. When silence arises try resting in it, deepening into noticing sensation. What is present in this moment besides words? A relationship that only has words to bind it is waiting for a deepening that resting in silence can bring: a smile, a pat on the back, a hug, a look, a sensing into the emotional state of the other person.

All these questions are not to make us uncomfortable with speaking. They help us develop language that has more meaning, resonance and connection; and less misunderstanding, boredom, hurt feelings and confusion.

When we pause in our obsessive need to fill the supposed void or to prove that we exist, we might find that the best form of speech of all is really listening. Less focus on monitoring the mouth, and more on activating the ears!

May all these suggestions help you further enjoy your holidays.

Getting Things Done – Spacious Action in Action

Wherever we are in any given moment we can remind ourselves of our intention to be fully present and compassionate. It’s simple but not always easy to remember, but it is so rewarding that we can soon develop a habit of doing so.

But how does being present and compassionate get things done?

Meditation practice fosters within us a sense of generosity and creativity. Spacious action arises out of those skillful impulses in whatever form is the clearest expression of our natural talents. Do we have the patience and persistence to sit until we are ripe and ready for skillful action? Do we feel we have the time and the permission to do so? Probably not! In our culture we are encouraged to ‘go for the gusto,’ to be goal-oriented, to plan for the future, to dream big, to ‘not stop ‘til we get enough,’ to ‘go for the Gold,’ ‘be all that we can be,’ etc. etc. Where in all these prompts to perfection, all these indications that we are not enough as we are, would be find room for simply sitting? And we come back to that question of how would we get anything done?

Gandhi is quoted as saying, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”

How I wish I had heard that quote back in the early nineties when I went through an extended lapse from regular meditation practice because I felt I didn’t have the time! Thus destabilized from my foundation of awareness, I paid no heed to my body’s call for a respite, for a time of silence and sitting. Instead I kept my nose to the grindstone and honored every commitment I made to others, but did not take the time to honor a basic commitment to take care of myself. At that time there were no well-publicized local retreat centers that would provide me with the simple life of sitting that I clearly needed. So what did I do?

I got sick. Illness is the one long-accepted form of retreat in our culture. Get sick in the body or mind and we will be forced to rest. We will become so unskillful or disabled that others will insist that we stop what we are doing and go away and don’t come back until we are well enough to pick up our burden again. Maybe we end up in a mental ward, a cancer unit or a prison cell. And there, if life were fair, the healing would begin. But instead chances are we get caught up in yet another intense culture where we feel threatened and overwhelmed…unless we are able to recognize the opportunity to let go and simply be.

I was heartened to read recently that in an Alabama prison there is an ongoing meditation retreat program for inmates who choose to participate. I wasn’t surprised that it has been extremely successful and that the recidivism among the members of that incarcerated sangha is much lower than the rest of the prison population.

When I was diagnosed with CFIDS (chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome) I felt fortunate that my illness was not life-threatening. All I had to give up was a career with which I’d had a love/hate relationship, half our family income, and the ability to do more than one thing a day beyond feeding my family and cleaning our home. Suddenly my overwhelming array of choices was eliminated.

Imagine that! If you could only do only one thing a day, what would it be? It became so clear to me who and what nourished me and who and what drained me. That was the deciding factor for any social encounter, any outing or any activity. The foods, films and people that put me into a tailspin of weariness were off the list. Television and novels that had been my days-end vacation were off the list! How had I not noticed that all these things were draining me? How had I not noticed that my nice corner office at work had been abuzz with freeway noise that I couldn’t hear after a while. How much energy had it taken for me to provide an inner muffle for that sound?

This discovery of what nourished me and what drained me was the product of my return to meditation, the one thing I could do as much as I wanted during my illness. In fact, for nine months I experienced a physically-enforced personal retreat. Through meditation I touched that deep connected mindfulness that creates the possibility of skillful spacious action. Until then I paid little attention to the many decisions and choices I made during any given day. I did what I had to do to get things off my plate, to get past where I was and onto some more tolerable future place. No wonder I got sick!

Now, thanks to the widespread practice of meditation and the development and appreciation for emotional intelligence, we have greater access to and greater acceptance of the knowledge to recognize when we are on autopilot, when we are becoming unskillful. We also have the resources available in the form of meditation instruction and retreats that can provide us with the ability to stay present and compassionate. Yet many of us are still not giving ourselves permission to let go for even a half hour a day and give ourselves what we need.

In the state I had been in working up to my illness, I was so disconnected that I didn’t feel deserving of anything for myself. I also felt that it was not something I could ask for. At some level I hoped that someone would give it to me, but I didn’t speak up and let it be known that I needed it. When my doctor told me I needed to quit my job, I went on half-time. But it wasn’t until I used that freed up time to meditate and get in touch with the inner wisdom that each of us has access to that I got it that I needed a complete time out in order to heal.

So what is it that kept me from asking for what I needed? It was a sense of unworthiness. Imagine sitting at the dinner table, feeling you have no right to ask someone to pass the salt. When I began meditating, I recognized that I was an intrinsic part of the universe, deserving what every being deserves, no less, no more. With that awareness I could accept my seat at the table and if I needed something, I understood that if I couldn’t reach it, it was reasonable to ask whoever was closest to it to ‘please pass the salt.’

I could also begin to recognize others who also felt undeserving of a seat at the table and I began to see that the table is infinitely expansive and there is plenty of food for all, so part of being at the table was inviting everyone to take their seat, their rightful seat that for whatever reason they had vacated or hadn’t been told was theirs.

What does it mean to you when I talk about accepting your seat at the table? What does it mean to you when I say ‘Feel free to ask for what you need?’

When we talk about skillful action we also talk about unskillful action because it helps us see more clearly. In this imaginary table we have constructed, we might see that there are those who see the seating and the food as limited, who look like they are sitting at a poker table and accruing chips instead of at a dining table with plenty of food and delightful conversation.

We can look at our own actions at the table. Are we eating off someone else’s plate? Are we telling others what they should and shouldn’t eat? Or are we allowing each other the full reign of our own seat and table setting?

How are we relating to the plate in front of us? Is it full or empty? Is it enough? Is it too much of one kind of thing and not enough of another? If we are looking longingly at another person’s plate or wishing we were in another’s seat, we can return to our mindfulness and skillful inquiry to ask what is driving that desire to unseat someone else or take what they have when there is plenty at the table and we already have a seat?

What are we afraid of? It always comes back to that when we get to a place of scarcity and contraction.

On a silent retreat at Spirit Rock a while back I realized that ‘I have nothing to fear, nothing to prove, nothing to hide and something to give.’ It wasn’t the first time I had realized that, but somehow phrased in that way, it was something I could write down and pin to my bulletin board where I can see it every day. It still informs me, and sometimes surprises me.

Once we begin to see that, even though we still have habituated patterns of fear-based beliefs and behaviors, we can begin to rest in awareness. We can really appreciate what is in front of us, even when it isn’t all chocolate pudding all the time. We can learn to look around and see what needs doing and understand what it is we bring to the table, what we have to offer from our set of skills and gifts and interests. Through the practice of meditation there is a natural shift of focus to what we have to offer, what is upwelling inside us from our natural generosity of spirit without any sense of agenda or recompense, just a joyous love of life and gratitude for this experience, even though it is sometimes painful and challenging.

Since we are not monks or nuns, since we are not on retreat constantly, we have options and challenges. Our needs are not taken care of by others. But in some deeper sense, we are taken care of. For those who believe in God, there is the personified understanding of being children of God, held in a loving embrace. For those for whom this personification doesn’t resonate, there is the scientifically based understanding of the interconnectivity of life, that we are all stardust, one being, and that each of us, even those suffering and struggling with outrageous misfortune, are intrinsically valued.

Maybe we feel we are not valued by some specific other – a parent perhaps — against whom we may rail, feeling abandoned or brutalized. But if we continue to come back to our intention to be present and compassionate, we will shift from feeling dependent on the permission, admiration or love of others. They don’t own the table. They don’t have to pull out our chair. We begin to see we are already seated, already here, at the table of life, nourished by the wholeness of being, accessed at any moment through awareness of the present and a willingness to be compassionate to ourselves and others.

So this is the way we get things done. We accept our seat at the table and we maintain the clarity and compassion to enjoy the interactions with others around us, to pass the salt to whomever needs it, and to not be afraid to say, “Could you please pass those sweet potatoes? They look mighty tasty!”

The Five Precepts – Intrinsic to Right, Wise or Spacious Action

We’ve been exploring the Action aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, with the specific focus of how using the word ‘spacious’ affects our understanding.

No exploration of this aspect would be complete without discussing the Five Precepts. These are the vows we take at the beginning of a retreat, but they are also commitments we make as Buddhist practitioners.

The first is to refrain from harming or killing. At first glance this seems easy for most of us. We have no wish to shoot or maim. But of course as we sit with what this means, it unfolds to reveal the myriad ways we might be causing harm or even killing without intention to do so. We use the skillfulness and wisdom that we have developed through our practice and through life experience to help us see more clearly. We accept that sometimes our actions will be unskillful, momentarily unmindful and operating out of life long habits, or simply unable as yet to see the harm we may have caused. We use each experience as a lesson to learn from, to increase our sense of connection and understanding. We make reparations as best we can, and then we let it go.

The second precept is to refrain from stealing or taking what is not freely given. Again, at first glance this seems easy for most of us. We have no urge to rob a jewelry store. But as we sit with what this means, it unfolds to reveal the myriad ways we might be taking from others without their having offered it. This is more often true with the people who are closest to us, where we may assume the right to take or even feel they have the obligation to give to us. Our expectations about what constitutes an intimate relationship get in the way of seeing clearly that we are taking what has not been freely given. This is a valuable area to observe. For some of us there may also be a gray area around theft when it comes to large corporations or faceless institutions. In a state of disconnect we cannot see how what we are doing hurts anyone. But as we look more closely we begin to see all the ramifications of our actions, and see that even ‘minor’ theft has affected us all. The fabric of trust is broken and, for example, safeguards to prevent such activity create hassles to deal with for everyone.

The third precept is to refrain from misusing our sexuality. Perhaps we have been careless, hormone driven and hard-hearted, harming others and ourselves through our actions. Sexuality can also be used to lure, promote and satisfy an agenda, and all of these uses are unskillful.

The fourth precept is to refrain from speech that is unkind or untruthful, and we will be covering this when we discuss the Speech aspect of the Eightfold Path.

The fifth precept is to refrain from intoxicants that cloud the mind and judgment, thus making it more likely that we will break the four previous vows. Intoxicants also inhibit our ability to end the very suffering we are trying to escape from by using intoxicants.

For each of these precepts, at first they may seem simple but then seem more complex and challenging, but ultimately each becomes a key to liberation. As we let go of behaviors that are harmful to ourselves and others we are freed from the guilt, shame and anguish caused by unskillful, mindless or habitual behavior.

Yes, this is clearly a list of ‘don’ts’ or ‘thou shalt nots’ but it’s also more importantly a list that helps us to clarify how we create suffering and how, at the very least, we can refrain from doing so.

Our meditation practice helps us to develop an understanding of connection, and to be responsible for how we impact others, as well as how we respond when the unskillfulness of others impacts us. Do we give others the power through their actions to cause us suffering? Do we feel the need to make sure others are taking and living up to these precepts? It is important to remember that these are vows we take for ourselves, not to enforce in others and not to become self-righteous, which is surely a cause of suffering. So those are the precepts. If you want to commit them to memory, you could make a simple list of them to have with you to ponder, and to set your intention. As people living in the busy world of infinite interactions we have many more opportunities to err and rededicate ourselves to these vows, so it helps to keep them close.

Or perhaps you are not interested in another set of ‘commandments’ and the precepts are not of interest to you right now. That’s fine too. When you are ready for them, they will definitely be available for you!

Meanwhile, we are wrapping up our Spacious Action discussion. As I’ve been experimenting with adding this word ‘spacious’ to Right or Wise Action, I have found it to be very useful. I suggested to the class that each meditator take a specific area of action to focus on for the duration of our exploration. I focused on my challenging relationship with food. I had come to a place where I recognized that the marshal law that I had to lay down in order to keep my weight down was not meeting my intention to be compassionate. So I was searching for a way to be conscious and healthy, while appreciating Bobby McFarrin’s line ‘No discipline seems pleasant at the time but it’s painful.’ This addition of the word ‘spacious’ seems to be helping me. For example, I have learned I can simply make more physical space between food and me, as well as more space (time) between the impulse to eat and the actual action. I can make more space between bites, thus slowing down my habitual speed-eating. And I can also have thoughts of food take up less space in my life. Noticing a food thought, I visualize it in a bubble in the space of my mind and allow it to come into a more proportional relationship as I watch it shrink down to a much smaller. This last one seems especially helpful, as part of my resistance to past marshal plan type diets is how all-consuming they become, so that conversations stray off into discussions of diet techniques, life is measured by the bathroom scale, and I’m suddenly all goal-oriented and checking myself out in the mirror every two minutes. I’m just not interested in going through all that, and my body agrees as it has firmly resisted rewarding me with sustainable weight loss on any diet I have tried over the past few years, whereas in younger years shedding pounds was as easy as …well you get the gist.

With spaciousness we can pay kind attention to how we react or respond to any person or situation, and notice our patterns of behavior. And if we find they are unskillful, we return to our intention to be present in this moment – not dredging up the past as an excuse for present behavior – and our intention to be compassionate with ourselves and others. As much as we are able in this moment, we act out of these intentions.

Spacious Action – ‘It’s not the load that breaks you down’

When we look at our cooking pot analogy of the Eightfold Path, we can see how Right Action or, as we are experimenting with it, spacious action arises as steam out of mindfulness. So, theoretically, if we tend the pot, i.e. hold our consciousness in spacious view, fueled by spacious effort, sparked by spacious intention and stirred by spacious concentration, then spacious action will arise quite naturally. Theoretically. In reality that doesn’t always happen. Why not?

Many of us compartmentalize our lives, so that once we are done with our meditation or our silent retreat, we re-enter our ‘real life’ as if it is something quite separate from what we have just been doing. Thus we quickly fall right back into unconsciousness, back into that murky soup of habituated patterns of thought, behavior and speech. We forget that the practice of meditation is to develop skillful means to stay aware, to stay conscious, and to stay clear and compassionate throughout our lives, not just during meditation. Not just on retreat!

Action, how we conduct ourselves in all areas, is not some separate function but an intertwined co-arising aspect of the Eightfold Path. It can be an entry point to the path if we become aware of how our behavior is impacting our well being and the well being of others. This observation may come upon us at any time with or without the benefit of meditation. The difference is that with a strong meditation practice we have skillful means to see the whole of what is happening. Without the practice, the recognition of unskillful action may be used as just another way to beat ourselves up, another way to blame someone else or some cause or condition for our behavior, another binge, and another sinking into deeper and deeper murkiness. But, sometimes the recognition comes with an insight that leads us to begin meditating, and thus it can be an entry point to the Noble Eightfold Path. Perhaps it was yours.

If so, the next step is still and always to return to our skillful intention to be present in every moment and our intention to be compassionate. Thus we are able to see our actions more clearly and we can look at them without running away.

Through this skillful process, this Eightfold Path of developing more clarity and compassion in our minds, our hearts and our lives, we begin to understand that even though we are fully responsible for our actions, they do not define us. Absolutely we need to rectify any suffering we have caused to whatever degree is possible, but we do not need to defend our behavior. There is no excuse possible. Coming up with one is just another self-protective device, based on the erroneous assumption that we are a unique isolated fortress rather than an intrinsic and beloved part of the rich and wondrous flow of life. Excuses keep us churning in the miasma of misery and foster more and more unskillful action. So when we are unskillful, we own up to it. We recognize the error. We understand that error is part of the human experience, arising mostly out of fear and unconsciousness. Think of anything you have done that you wish you had not done and see if you weren’t afraid of something. It might have been a little something but the ramifications were great, like you were afraid of being late so you were speeding in your car and had an accident. But that little fear of being late might be seated in a larger fear of losing love or respect, of being separate. (Being on time is a show of respect to others, of course, and is skillful behavior that starts well before we get into the car, but once we are in that heavy vehicle with all its capacity for harm, with the responsibility for the well being of ourselves, our passengers and everyone else on the road, then driving mindfully is our highest priority.)

Most of us don’t like to own up to how very afraid we are. It helps to see that it is a common part of the human experience to lose our awareness of our interconnection with all of life.

Through meditation practice, renewing again and again our intention to be present (conscious) and compassionate (sensing our deep connection), we begin to be more skillful in our behavior. We become more even in our behavior, not treating some people one way and others another. We behave as if everyone matters. Everyone does! We relate to people from that deeper more connected source of being, and we respond to that deeper more connected source in them. (Think about the phrase ‘namaste’ — the God in me bows to the God in you.)

We stop worrying about what others think about us, and we find we care more about them as an integral part of life. We lose any desire to impress them and instead gain the joy of seeing them happy, finding that when we stop needing to defend ourselves, to prove ourselves then we can focus on what we can share with others, with the world that brings more joy and awakening.

This is a huge and wondrous shift! And it comes through awareness practice. Not just during meditation, but continuing throughout our day, day after day. The ongoing support of our practice enables us take responsibility for our actions, to correct our errors, to loosen the stranglehold of destructive habits and to feel our actions as a dance of interconnectivity rather than a battle that saps us of our will to live.

So, actions are not automatically wise, skillful or spacious because we see meditation as separate from the rest of our lives. But there may be other reasons as well. Old patterns of behavior, deep seated fears as yet unexplored erupt in ways that create unskillful actions. When they do we may be disappointed and feel that our practice isn’t working. But it is! Because now we are able to see the unskillful action, and begin to see the patterns of fear that are still operative because still unconscious, still stuck in the sludge at the bottom of the pot!

Remember that at first, before we started having a regular meditation practice, we couldn’t see these patterns. We justified the behavior they caused and pooh-poohed that the matter could have been handled any other way.

Once we begin to see our unskillfulness we might feel ashamed and guilty. We might stop meditating because we don’t like what we see. This is a challenging stage because we are still defining ourselves by our thoughts and actions and now we see ourselves as ‘a person who does bad things.’ We are still unaware of but firmly attached to the fear-based patterns that caused the unskillfulness. But at some point, if we can just hang in there and give ourselves as much loving-kindness as possible, we begin to see more clearly and the patterns are much more noticeable because they don’t fit anymore. They stand out against the more spacious experience of our life as the tight and toxic sludge that can still be stirred up by certain events and conditions.

I remember finding myself almost twenty years ago in a shouting match with my then teenage daughter. That had been our pattern for a while, but on that day I saw myself more clearly. I saw my out of control and shouting behavior and I started to laugh. It was so absurd to be once again in this pattern of behavior that in no way expressed my true feelings for this child I loved so much. Needless to say she was a little surprised. I’m pretty sure that was the last shouting match we ever had. We found other ways to communicate, ways that were more accurate expressions of my concerns for her well being and her desires for the freedom to live her own life. This is not to say that we never had misunderstandings, but it was a great breakthrough for me to see a leftover destructive pattern arise in my growing awareness. These kinds of breakthroughs remind us that the practice is working! If they feel few and far between, just keep resetting your intention to be present and compassionate.

At times this kind of exploration and self-discovery is painful. We may simply want to get rid of or bury patterns, but this just fuels them. We might be over-efforting, digging too deep too fast. Insights arise out of awareness. If you have to put on an oxygen mask and dive into the depths, you may be forcing the exploration beyond what is skillful in this moment.

We are simply noticing patterns of behavior as they arise in this moment through awareness, compassion and inquiry. In the light of our growing mindfulness, we can see them for what they are, acknowledge them, learn from them and let them go. (Remember our image of holding the world in an open embrace, neither clutching nor pushing away.) Then our actions will be more spacious, arising from compassionate mindfulness. Until then we use the unskillful actions we notice as information for our inquiry to discover what we are afraid of and what old patterns of fear are still holding such power over our behavior.

Where do we begin this exploration? We start from where we are and work with what we have. Discovering what that is takes spaciousness as well. Chances are we have readymade long-held assumptions about who we are and how we are, but spaciousness allows us to take the time to inquire into the veracity of our assumptions. Many of our assumptions were made when we were quite young, when we were sponges for any information about ourselves and were ready to accept other people’s opinions without questioning the source. Conversely we may have been overwhelmed by other peoples’ opinions and in an effort to protect ourselves we shut out even useful insightful perception.

Either way, we have cobbled together the vehicle of our beliefs about ourselves into a reasonably functional means of getting around in the world. So what if the wheels are square and the ride is painful?

We suffer because we keep relying on this cobbled together transport instead of taking the time to investigate what it is that’s creating the rough ride. For some of us, this investigation might be therapy because what is coming up is too difficult to deal with alone, or because a more formal relationship is useful to keep us on track with our investigation. But even then, meditation is a great aid to the process. Learning how to meditate every day and set the intention to be present and compassionate with whatever arises can be the process or can aid the process. In either case the Eightfold Path supports us by offering the means to discover the source or sources of our misery through spacious inquiry and noticing our patterns of thinking, our patterns of behavior and our beliefs about ourselves and the world as expressed through our thoughts, emotions and sensations.

Lena Horne is quoted as saying, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” This is exactly what the dharma tells us. It is not our mother-in-law or spouse or child or job that is the problem. It is the vehicle of our beliefs, this cobbled together contraption of dispirit malfunctioning parts that causes pain every time we carry our load along. And when we hit a bump or a pothole in the road, an especially challenging time in life, then it makes the load feel even more difficult to carry.

So do we need a mechanic? Maybe! Like a good mechanic we need a keen ability to listen and notice where there is discord in the functioning of these patterns of thinking and behavior.
The literal translation of the word dukkha (suffering) is ‘ill-fitting axle hole,’ so this vehicle analogy has deep roots in the dharma.

In Jack Kornfield’s book called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry he reminds us that meditation is not an escape from life, that it is not about going off and having mind-altering experiences, the ultimate legal high. Yes, in meditation we lay our load down, but after meditation, or after our silent retreat, we pick it up again. If we are grumpy that we still have a load to bear, if we are sad to have our meditative experience over and ‘real life’ back to deal with, if we are thinking ahead to the next time we can get away to the cushion, the retreat center, the walk in the woods or the tropical beach, then we are missing a crucial aspect of the dharma: “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”

I am not a backpacker, mainly because I backpacked across Europe when I was nineteen and it was painful in every possible way so I have had no inclination to replicate any portion of that experience. But I see how backpacks today are designed of lighter materials and designed to carry the load differently, taking into account laws of physics and human anatomy, so that even if carrying the same amount of stuff, the load is lighter. So that’s what we are doing with our spaciously imbued Eightfold Path. We are giving ourselves the means to investigate how we are carrying our load so that we can pick it up again and carry it more joyfully.

Spacious Action

As we continue on our second exploration of the Eightfold Path together (see early 2009 posts for first exploration,) we are experimenting with inserting the word ‘spacious’ instead of ‘right’ or ‘wise’ before each of the eight aspects to see how it affects our understanding, fully understanding that this is just an exploration, not a rewriting of the traditional teachings.

What does spaciousness affect our understanding of right action? Is there a difference between right or wise action and spacious action?

For me ‘spacious action’ feels like there is time to act skillfully and from the source. There’s no need to hurry when we have the time to act in a way that honors our intention to be present and compassionate in all we do.

Spacious action arises out of the sense of interconnection with all that is, fully aware of the supportive nature of the web of being, giving us time to consider the rightness of our action, to be sure that it is kind, conscious, caring, timely and true.

Have you had the experience of walking fully embodied, fully sensing in to the sensation of foot meeting ground, arms swinging through air, the texture of clothes shifting on thighs, the sights, sounds and smells that we encounter as we walk? Our first instruction in meditation is to sense in to the body, to become aware of the breath and other sensations in order to be fully present in this moment. So likewise our first action would follow the same course, sensing in to the body and all its sensations, grounding ourselves in the full awareness of this present moment.

I remember having dinner one night at Il Fornaio and on the way back to the table from the restroom, I practiced being fully present, walking at a normal pace – not slowed down as I usually am in a walking meditation – and feeling fully ensconced in life in that moment. The destination existed in my consciousness as a slender thread of thought rather than a dominating goal. I was able to fully savor all aspects of that rich experience – walking in the soft light of a restaurant filled with people dining and talking and enjoying themselves, and feeling very much at one with the whole of the experience, with the whole of life.

This is spacious action, this being fully present in this moment. So fully in the moment that it is quite unlikely I would have bumped into anyone, causing a disruption or accident. It felt like a beautiful dance, as if I was awake to appreciate a particularly lovely sequence in an ongoing dream.

Let’s contrast this to my usual experience of returning from a restaurant restroom where my mind is already back at the table, and my body is hurrying to catch up, so eager am I to not miss any of the conversation. What poverty there is in an action that perceives only two points on the path – the bathroom to meet a physical need and the return to the table to meet a social need. The point of spacious action is to have a full awareness of the whole experience, not just the two end points.

Now if on the way back to the table, I got so caught up in the goings on that I lost sight of my final destination then that would be spacey action, not spacious action. Spacious action seeks a balance between our sensory ability to savor the moment and fulfilling whatever we set out to accomplish.

Any advanced practitioner of Tai Chi, Chi Gung or other ways of working with the body to align with the universal energy (called Chi or Qi in these traditions, but has many other names in other traditions,) would probably find Spacious Action to be a familiar way of being in the world. The instructor teaches the right way to do something, but until the action is aligned with that universal energy, arising out of a sense of connection, the student is only trying to replicate what he or she sees the teacher doing. At some point there may be a subtle shift into Spacious Action, and the teacher will recognize that the student ‘gets it.’ The student then tries to get it again, and may get caught in a struggle of over-efforting, but eventually is able to recognize that subtle shift, that releasing into a sense of being held and interconnected instead of an isolated bag of bones and muscles that must slog through the world on will power alone, doing battle against all comers.

Now of course it’s one thing to feel spacious while relaxed in a restaurant or engaged in doing Tai Chi, but what about in all those other more challenging situations that we find ourselves in on a daily basis? And what about when some extra challenge arrives in the form of a loss or a threat? Where’s our spacious action then?

This is why we have the practice, returning again and again to our intention to be present and compassionate. In this way our minds become spacious, our hearts become spacious and our lives, in turn, become more spacious.

In this and coming weeks we will explore what Spacious Action means in the various areas of our lives. We will share teaching stories that reveal the universal patterns of behavior that either cause suffering from a sense of isolation or joy from a sense of interconnection.

As we explore, we may begin to notice that it is always in relationship that actions take place. In relationship to our bodies, our families, our homes, our friends, our co-workers, the earth and all inhabitants of all species, our work, our play, and our way of being in the world. It is not our body, our family or anyone else that is the cause of our problems. It is how we relate to them, our habituated patterns of behavior, and often our tight fearful un-spacious action.

Spacious Action then is really Spacious Interaction, acknowledging that it is all in the relationships, the connections, and whether we feel connected, supported and supportive.

Because we begin meditation practice by sensing in to the body, it seemed appropriate to start our exploration with our relationship to our body and how we hold this aspect of our being in awareness. This is an area many of us struggle with. I do. I observe my struggle, am sometimes a bit bemused by it, but it is certainly an area where Spacious Action is often lacking in my life.

Why? Well, it shifts over time, but currently I’m noticing a dialog, sometimes an argument, between a voice that wants me to be as healthy and able-bodied as possible and a voice that waxes poetic about how grandmas get to be round, roly-poly and cozy, and certainly don’t have to deny themselves sweets or anything else wonderful. In fact they should be producing delicious baked goods for all their loved ones, even if it kills them!

Just being aware of the players in an inner dialog is enough to start a rich journey of noticing. So I won’t put on a little play here with my cast of characters. Instead I ask you to notice your own cast of characters. You can begin by identifying at least one major player in your life right now in the area of your body or your health. This might bring up issues about aging, the natural changes that happen to the body that bring up other issues perhaps. Just be noticing the voices and sort them out a bit.

Although I began doing inner dialogs on my own before I became a student of Buddhism, I was delighted to later discover that it is a time-honored Buddhist practice as well. It is a skillful way to recognize the variety of thoughts going on in our minds and to explore the sources and associative images that come forth in attitudes, beliefs and expressions that more often than not are harsh and abusive. I teach it in the way that I practice it, and that has been useful to me. I don’t know if it strays from traditional teachings, but I do know that it is a valuable and effective tool for self-discovery.

You may be saying ‘Wait a minute! What voices in my head?’ This practice is for meditators who have sufficient experience to recognize that their thoughts are not pure expressions of self, but more a river of mostly unconscious patterns that pass through our awareness, that could just as easily be anyone else’s thoughts. This is not to say that we do not have a certain amount of unique expression as these thoughts travel through the patterns of filters created by our inherited tendencies and acquired experiences. But through meditation and the development of mindfulness, we see with growing clarity that these thoughts do not define us.

This understanding liberates us to feel free to explore them and learn from them. We do not bar the doors or evict them, as that technique doesn’t work and has long term negative repercussions. Instead we bring our compassionate respectful attention to discover what it is that these inner aspects are afraid of and then we respectfully negotiate a reasonable way to address these fears without letting the aspect/voice dictate our actions.

So first we notice a thought going through our mind, some generally negative statement that we recognize as ongoing or recurring, a belief about ourselves or the world and our relationship to it. Recognizing the general tone and area of focus of this thought helps us to see it more clearly, and is further enhanced if we give it an affectionate descriptive nickname, so that we will recognize it each time it arises. I remember at one point having a full cast of characters, one named Lumpy because he was kind of a lump on a log, not wanting to do anything. Another was named Striver because he had such over-efforting exhausting ambition. And I’ve talked in the past about Slug, who hated exercise and just wanted to stay in bed because it was like a big mommy hug and he missed his mommy.

Hmmm, why are all these inner voices male? That’s something to explore for me.

Once we notice and name an aspect, we are ready to have a dialog. We can develop a set of questions to help us understand them better, and the first and foremost question to ask of any negatively charged voice within our thoughts is “What are you afraid of?” This question is not a challenge. It is not calling the aspect a scared-y-cat, which would just shut down any possibility of fruitful inner dialog. If this happens we need to pause and access our deepest most compassionate awareness to call forth and be respectful of the truth of each aspect’s fear-based view of the world.

It isn’t very helpful to have two fear-based aspects carrying on a dialog. Therefore, the dialog process is only useful once we have begun to experience Spacious Mindfulness. From that clarity, we can be skillful in our inquiry. If we are unable to access that compassionate clear inner voice, the one that has no agenda but to hold all life in an open embrace, then we will want to focus on our meditation practice and just practice noticing and simply questioning the veracity of our harsh judgments. ‘Is that true? How do I know that’s true?’

So I hope you will find time during the week, perhaps after meditation or after a walk in nature, to record an inner conversation with an aspect that has the strongest opinions about your body. Making a record in a journal or in whatever form is comfortable for you, helps to stay on track, making a distinction between a formal dialog and a meandering train of thought.

This working with our relationship to our bodies is probably one of the most personal areas we will be exploring, and we won’t be discussing our discoveries in next week’s class. This homework is for ourselves alone. Bring as much spaciousness to the inner exploration as possible.

In coming weeks we will be looking at different areas where spacious interaction would bring about joy rather than suffering.

Eightfold Path: Wise Action: Precepts

Wise Action, like all aspects of the Eightfold Path, arises out of the foundation of Right Understanding or View and the anchor of Right Intention. However, as mentioned in the last post, we may have challenging habitual patterns and unconscious behavior that sabotage our efforts to Wise Action. We come to the practice humbled by our inability to force different behavior upon ourselves. How often have we tried to break a self-destructive habit — an addiction, a lack of awareness, a leaning into the future as we race around getting things accomplished – only to find ourselves lighting up a cigarette, standing in front of the refrigerator with a carton of ice cream in our hands, or reacting with impatience, even rudeness, in a traffic jam.

Through the practice of meditation, we not only begin to see our thoughts, sensations and emotions, we begin to see our behavior in the world. We recognize the uncomfortable thoughts that arise out of doing things that are contrary to our deepest intention. And in that recognition we can truly begin to shift away from destructive behaviors.

Wise Action starts out identifying those things we can refrain from doing in order to free ourselves from suffering and in order not cause suffering to others. These are called the Precepts. There are five of them for lay people, more for monks and nuns. Every time we sit a retreat we begin by taking the Five Precepts, but they are useful in daily life as well. Like the Eightfold Path, the Five Precepts help us to identify where we are wandering into disconnection and suffering.

The Five Precepts
Refrain from killing or harming other beings.
Take only what is freely given, i.e. refrain
from stealing, exploiting or deceiving.
Refrain from misusing of our sexuality.
Speak truthfully and kindly (covered in Right Speech),
Maintain clarity of mind by avoiding intoxicants.

When we sit in meditation regularly our minds may clear to a point that these precepts naturally arise within us, bringing our actions in harmony with our intentions. The resulting sense of cohesion and calm is integrity. Integrity comes from the Latin ‘integ-’ which means whole, complete. We feel a sense of integrity in our being when our actions are aligned with our deepest wisdom. We feel we have come home to ourselves, that we are whole and complete.

Though at first perhaps, taking such vows might feel daunting, keeping the Precepts is ultimately quite pleasurable as we find a spaciousness in our minds freed from the guilt, shame and confusion caused by harming, stealing, lying, over-indulging or clouding our minds.

But a lifetime of habits does not always fall away easily. When they don’t and we are feeling miserable, we can look to the Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts for clues as to why we are feeling so badly.

When we discover the source of our misery, we don’t beat ourselves up about it. We practice inner kindness. But we are also clear in our understanding that our behavior has caused harm to ourselves and probably others. While we are responsible for the resulting suffering, the resulting sense of guilt is useful only until it brings us insight. Once it has provided us with the opportunity to see clearly, we can let the guilt go. That moment of awareness always calls us to return to the practice with renewed dedication, anchored by Right Intention in the foundation of Right View.