Category Archives: Right View

Who are you?

“As I look more deeply, I can see that in a former life I was a cloud. And I was a rock. This is not poetry: It is science. This is not a question of belief in reincarnation. This is the history of life on earth.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

As we explore the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, we will take it at a leisurely pace, giving ourselves the opportunity to understand each aspect. Within each aspect, there may be a need to review and reflect on other teachings of the Buddha that help us become skillful in that aspect. We might not do this with every aspect, but certainly in this first one, Skillful View, we will. Because how can we become skillful in how we look at things if we haven’t had the opportunity to really look at things? That’s exactly what the Buddha challenges us to do.

We begin by looking at the very heart of his teachings, the Three Marks or Characteristics of Existence to see where we cling to unfounded habituated patterns of thought, causing us to have skewed views of the world we inhabit and ourselves.


  • All things are impermanent.
  • There is no separate self.
  • Not understanding those two causes suffering.

Okay, let’s take them one at a time:
Impermanence: We may be in the habit of railing against it yet it’s not all that difficult to see that it is the nature of things. Right now in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s autumn: leaves fall off the trees, there’s a chill in the air. Further evidence of impermanence: On my calendar is a memorial service for an old friend, and in my inbox is an email of the latest school photo of our nine-year-old granddaughter that gives a strong indication of her teenage face. It seems just yesterday I was holding her in my arms, whispering welcome to the world. How easy it would be to rail at the passage of time and the impermanence of life. But it doesn’t make my life easier, does it? And it doesn’t make time stop. In fact, it makes my life much more difficult when I either cling to the past or wish away a challenging present in the rush toward a possibly more promising future. Noting and accepting impermanence can lead to appreciating it, finding the wonder of this moment just as it is. Over and over again.

Where in your life might you be wrestling with the nature of impermanence? Can you be compassionate with yourself as you explore the veracity of any untenable position? After all, if no one died, no one would be born. The amazing cyclical natural system would be broken. If nothing changed, there would be no cause for awe and wonder. And without the nature of impermanence and the cycles of nature, we would all starve. You get the idea. It’s not an alien concept.

The third Mark, how we suffer, is not all that hard to see in our lives and the lives of others if we pause to pay attention. Since I wrote about it recently, I won’t go into in-depth here but you are welcome to review.

No Separate Self can be more challenging to understand. But it’s also the one with the greatest sense of reward. Pure joy arises from that deep understanding. So hang in there.

Our habit of mind is to view this body-mind, this thinking-feeling-skin-sac we call ‘I’ and ‘me’ as a singular being. But is it? For practical purposes of managing our lives and our responsibilities in modern life, this way of thinking has its uses. No one is suggesting you toss out your passport, drivers’ license, etc. and erase this identity built up around your name, date of birth, etc. The system’s all set up to support it. It’s a convenience. But that doesn’t mean we have to vest our identity into it hook, line and sinker. It’s much better if we don’t! If we can hold it all more lightly, with appreciation for its benefits, we can access a deeper understanding of the true nature of being.

A couple of posts ago, I offered this scientific explanation of ‘no separate self’:

“All matter, whether it’s solid, liquid or gas, is made up of atoms. We might imagine matter as made up of microscopic versions of children’s plastic building blocks, because, thanks to electrons, atoms bond together into molecules, just the way the little holes and plugs of the blocks allow them to connect. So I’m made up of atoms, as is the air I breathe, the solid, liquid and gas all around me, and every being of every species. All atoms all the time, all interconnected, all coming together and falling apart, in an ever-changing state of being. So there are no edges to being. There is fundamentally no separate self.”

Understanding the science doesn’t automatically make us feel that it is true. Our habit of mind is strongly in favor of the separate-self version of being. But how is that working for us? Look around! We humans are incessantly ‘other-making’ in our relationships with each other, the earth and all life. We get stuck in an alienated mode of misery that doesn’t serve us, angry and hurting.

To help us understand ‘no separate self’ on a deeper level, we practice quieting down and being fully present, softening our habitual need to fortify our identity as ‘me’ and ‘I’. The Buddha knew this part is challenging, but he also knew that these teachings lead to the end of suffering, so he persevered. And we will too, as we look at the Five Aggregates that help us understand the idea of ‘no separate self’, and thus, in incremental doses, help us cultivate Wise View. 

The first of the Five Aggregates: Body

We ask the simple question, a child’s question really, but also the question that forms the foundation of many philosophical discussions throughout the ages: Who am I?

Pause for a moment, close your eyes, sense into physical sensation, and ask it again, as if for the first time. ‘Who am I?’ You might say it over and over like a mantra that goes deeper and deeper.

Where is this solid, dependable sense of self that you call ‘I’ and ‘me’?

The first thing that might suggest itself is this physical body, this material form. This is me. This is who I am, or at least it is part of who I am.

Is this true? What are the edges of the self-defined by this body? Is it the skin that is so porous, letting in and out moisture all day long? That very skin sheds itself constantly. Is it still ‘me’ when it’s dust being vacuumed up off the floor and carpet?

What about the breath? Is it ‘me’ when it is in my lungs, but then no longer ‘me’ when it has been exhaled?

The cells in the body are totally different than the ones that were here seven years ago. This seemingly permanent body is neither solid nor separate from the rest of life.

The Buddha said, “This body is not mine or anyone else’s. It has arisen from past causes and conditions…” This body we see as so separate and so intrinsic to our identity is an intrinsic part of the pattern of life ever-changing and evolving. So getting caught up in labeling it and claiming it, feeling pride or shame in it is just another habituated pattern that entangles us. How liberating it can be to recognize that this body in whatever shape or shade it is, is simply the fleeting opportunity to experience life in human form. Can we appreciate the benefits of being embodied — mobility, sensations, etc. — without attachment? Can we take good care of this wondrous temporal vessel of being without wishing it to be other than it is?

Spend some time noticing your own experience of being embodied. After meditating, do some self-inquiry around the body and the way you think of it. Pay attention throughout the day for clues in your thoughts, words and deeds that reveal your perceptions. Ask “Is this true?” Let the automatic answers arise and be acknowledged, but leave room for the quiet wisdom with nothing to fear and nothing to prove also have a say.

Artwork by Gordon Onslow Ford, Lunar Wind, 1962, Parles paint on canvas (Gordon was a friend of my parents and I sure wish I still had the beautiful piece they had of his!)

The joy of seeing clearly | Buddha’s ‘Skillful View’

When my mother was fifteen years old, she got her first pair of glasses. She was, it turned out, very near-sighted. Leaving the optometrist’s office, she walked down the street and discovered that trees had individual leaves on their branches! How exciting it was for her to suddenly see details that hadn’t been part of her world view. She hadn’t realized she wasn’t seeing well. She hadn’t been aware of all the adaptations and compensations she had to make to get along. She assumed her view was accurate. Until suddenly she could see!

That’s what we all do with the way we view the world, not just with our eyes but through our habituated lenses of perception. We tend not to question our view of things, automatically filtering out any conflicting information. We may feel attached to our view, believing it to be an intrinsic part of who we are. On top of that is the fear that softening our fierce attachment to our view might put us on the outs with the community we were born into or the one we have chosen. (We feel this way even though clear-seeing is not leaping from one set of beliefs to an opposite set, but seeing the complex web of fear-based patterns that prompt them all.) From inside a myopic world view, It feels much safer to stick rigidly and unquestioningly to the familiar discomfort of inner conflict, no matter what.

So along comes Buddha, who right out of the gate (or out from under the Bodhi tree where he attained enlightenment) challenged our view of ourselves and the world. Such nerve!

But maybe we could be inspired by my mother’s thrill of discovery as she walked down that street, seeing things anew. She didn’t toss her new glasses in the nearest trash bin and revert to the questionable comfort of the world she knew. Can we open to the possibility that we could polish up our perception and find joy in the process?

Skillful View is one aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path that helps us liberate ourselves from suffering. We explore it first, because developing the skill of clear perception — and noticing what clouds that perception — enables us to see the other seven aspects of the Eightfold Path more clearly.

Without skillful view, we become mindlessly entangled in greed, aversion and delusion, driven by the fear of not having enough, not being enough, finding fault with ourselves and/or others, having something to prove, having strong opinions about the way the world is that has no room for equivocation.

So who is the Buddha to tell us how to see? Exactly what the Buddha would encourage you to ask! He always told students not take his word for it, but to investigate for themselves.

Fortunately for us, his own deep practice and investigation provide the tools for us to explore, because his brain just worked that way. He was really good at organizing the insights he had. So when you have an insight, you can see where it fits into the overall teachings. That’s what drew me to Buddhism. When I began studying it, I had already been meditating extensively, investigating, having insights, writing them down and, when asked, sharing them. I arrived at Spirit Rock with a meditation group and felt I had come home. Home to the natural beauty of the place, home to the community’s open acceptance of me and my individual journey, wherever it might take me, and home to the wise teachings of the Buddha, who had a scientific bent.

So it’s not surprising that when we come to his teachings on ‘wise’, ‘right’ or (as I’m choosing to call it in this series ‘skillful’) view, modern science supports what the Buddha taught.

If we understand the nature of matter, then we can more easily develop a skillful view of all that arises in our experience, especially our perception of ourselves.

The Buddha identified the causes of our suffering to be the Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion. [Read previous posts for review]

The Three Poisons grow from these unskillful views:

  1. We think this being we call ‘I’ and ‘me’ is separate and alone.
    While there may be those for whom a little individuation would be healthy, for most of us what clouds our view is the belief that our bodies and minds operate in isolation. We label things ‘mine’, defend them and want more and more, in order to build and reinforce this separate self for a sense of safety and for others to admire, love or fear.
  2. We react to our current experience by either wanting this pleasant situation to stay the same, or feeling like this unpleasant situation will never end.
  3. We can’t see, or we refuse to see, the suffering we are experiencing, caused by the first two.

Skillful View #1
Here’s the simple science: All matter, whether it’s solid, liquid or gas, is made up of atoms. We might imagine matter as made up of microscopic versions of children’s plastic building blocks, because, thanks to electrons, atoms bond together into molecules, just the way the little holes and plugs of the blocks allow them to connect. What an incredible system, right?

Okay, we get it. I’m made up of atoms and over there you’re made up of atoms and that table is made up of atoms. But it doesn’t stop there because that’s only acknowledging solid matter. Don’t forget the gas state atoms — the air we breathe, for example. There is nothing we can sense that is not atoms! We’re all made up of the same stuff and it is all connected. There are no edges to being!

Skillful View #2
These atoms are not static. There are ever-changing systems and networks of life interacting. Everything is changing all the time. Imagine you construct a whole town of plastic building blocks and then play time is over and you take it all apart and put it back in the toy box. What fun would it be if once you put your town together it was stuck that way forever?

You may think you don’t like change, but you wouldn’t exist without it! The world we live in is constantly coming together and falling apart in cycles of birth, growth, death, decay that nourishes new growth.

Why are these two views skillful?
If we can see that we are not separate and that everything is in a constant state of flux, that this is the natural way of all matter, then we are liberated from the exhausting business of shoring up a permanent separate fortress of self that must constantly be defended. We are liberated from the pain of dreading change, whether in the seasons, in the culture or in ourselves. We are alive in this moment, with deep appreciation for this incredible molecular dance of life!

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Barnacles can’t dance, but we can!

Every time I come home after a retreat I feel as if I’ve been released into a more natural way of being, as if I’m lightly dancing with life. I am able to see more clearly the nature of suffering and how I tend to create it.

barnacleAn image from my childhood comes to mind: The barnacles on the boats in the Marina where my friend and I used to play on sunny San Francisco days. We humans often act like barnacles, attaching ourselves to all manner of things.

We may do this in our relationships. Clinging is corrosive and can destroy natural loving bonds and connections. Think about how you react when someone clings to you. It feels more like a drain, an imposition or a demand that you are unable to fulfill, doesn’t it? The person who is clinging doesn’t realize that they are having the opposite effect of what they are trying so hard to achieve. They can’t see that what they are offering is not love or friendship at all. Love is like a dance of the interplay of energy. How does a barnacle dance? Not very well!

I think you get the idea. Where else in our lives might we be clinging rather than dancing?

We cling to our ideas of who we are. With barnacle-like persistence we fasten ourselves to an identity made up of all kinds of things to varying degrees: political affiliation, personal style, religious belief, culture, profession, physical characteristics, personality traits, possessions, family, ancestry, relationship roles, experiences, preferences, etc. These amalgams of how we see ourselves can get locked in early in life, long before we have the wisdom, experience, judgment, or understanding to question the veracity of these views. But it’s never too late to pause in a moment of mindfulness and question our barnacle grip.

The film critic Mick LaSalle was asked by a reader about his favorite films and actors. Mick replied “…I think self-definition through the announcement of favorites can sometimes shut the door on discovery.” Then he went on to list his favorites. But in that acknowledgement he kept the door open to discovery, didn’t he? And that’s what we all want to do, even while enjoying what we know and love.

In class we discussed how whole generations brand themselves by set ideas of fashion, music, hairstyles, vehicles, etc. Recently I heard the term ‘perennials’ to describe people of any generation who are less interested in age-based divisions and are fully engaged in life, ever new and unfolding. I liked that. I might even get a little attached to it!

So here we are, attached to these ideas about this self we hold ourselves to be. We may promote or berate this self, but we rarely question that it is exactly who we are. If we are not totally thrilled with this self, we want a makeover. We find the most offensive aspect or the one that is most readily changeable — weight, for example — and we focus all our distress, unhappiness and dissatisfaction on the idea that if only we lost some pounds, then we’d be happy. Or perhaps it’s wrinkles that worry us, and we invest in fancy creams, facials or surgery. Or maybe it’s fame or wealth that we believe will finally make us okay. Whatever it is, there is no end to the wanting. Achieving the perfect weight, flawless skin, rave reviews or mountains of money — none of it is ever quite enough. It doesn’t deliver on promised results. If we can check off a goal reached, we just reset the goal. It still leaves us in a state of ‘if only’.

Of course, there’s practical wisdom in maintaining a healthy weight, in taking care of our bodies and creating financial stability. But we are talking about the craving for perfection, the striving for some ideal that will right all the wrongs in our life. We expend a lot of energy chasing those ‘if only’ goals without seeing that none of them address the core challenge we face.

The core challenge is that barnacle behavior, the way we cling to the erroneous idea of self: that we are separate and must create the most appealing or impressive identity in order to navigate life’s dangerous waters.

Our meditation practice gives rise to insights that tell us something quite different. We begin to understand in an embodied way that we are natural expressions of life, interconnected to all life. We understand that all life forms a pattern — a dance, if you will — of ongoing cycles of birth, growth, death and decay that nourishes new life. What we thought was solid and permanent is instead processes, systems and patterns. Perhaps we watch a murmuration of sparrows in the sky at dusk and we realize our true nature is a dance of life, not an isolated fortress we need to defend. We no longer believe that our job is to keep repackaging ourselves to be the most attractive gift under the Christmas tree or the most impressive accumulator of stuff, power and experience

But it’s not just in our meditation practice that insights come. At any time, especially if we are troubled, we can ask skillful questions that help us see more clearly. We listen to what we are telling ourselves, and we ask, ‘Is this true?’ and ‘How do I know this is true? Another useful question is ‘How am I in relationship to this?’ Instead of running around in mental circles, telling ourselves a story about a situation, person or belief, we can examine the way we are relating to them. Can we recognize that we are grasping, clinging or pushing away? Through meditation we cultivate awareness and compassion. Then we can skillfully investigate what’s going on in any moment and gain insight. Aha!

Through the regular practice of meditation we don’t necessarily lose all the various elements of identity we believed ourselves to be. We just see them for what they are and we can hold them lightly. We let go. We un-barnacle. And in doing so we reveal the beauty of all life.

We awaken to our passion and purpose, not to claim it as ‘our thing’ or wear it as a badge that defines us, but to participate more fully in each moment, blooming where we are planted with naturally arising kindness, compassion, freedom and the grace of a dancer who’s attuned to the rhythms of life.

What have you been telling yourself lately?

We all have phrases we tell ourselves to put things into perspective. ‘This too shall pass’, for example. These words realign us with our understanding of the world and how things are.

Pause for a moment to think of one or more phrases that you tell yourself when you are in a funk. Maybe your inner Doris Day rises up and sings ‘Que sera, sera’ as mine does. Whatever inner advice come up, just notice.

If something came up for you, remember it, because we will do a little exercise to assure that this inner advice is helpful, effective and wise. But first, a little background.

We’ve been exploring over the past weeks the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. We’ve set wise intention, examined whether we are using wise effort, practiced wise concentration with which we have cultivated wise mindfulness — the ability to be present in the moment and hold what arises with compassion. (If you missed any of those, go to the bottom of the page and click on the left-side link to the previous post.

After meditation practice, we find that during our daily life, we can cultivate mindfulness as we do our chores, have conversations, go for walks, etc.. Thoughts freely come and go, but our practice of mindfulness — just feeling the earth under our feet as we walk, for example — keeps us present. And that sense of presence makes us more receptive to insights that may arise. These aha! moments are our own inner wisdom’s way of giving us guidance and perspective, helping us cultivate Wise View in our daily lives.

So how do you know if an aha! moment is revealing wisdom?

Here are some clues.

An insight is wise if it:

  • arises out of the practice of gently listening in to your own inherent wisdom.
  • makes you feel more connected to all beings and all of life, instead of isolated and in need of shoring up your identity, proving your worth.
  • helps you see the suffering you are creating through some habitual pattern of thought and behavior.
  • helps you soften your tight hold on what you love and your tight fist against what you hate.
  • helps you understand the nature of impermanence and how railing against it causes suffering.
  • helps you have compassion for someone beyond your immediate circle of friends and family.
  • takes you beyond resignation into an open embrace of this moment just the way it is.
  • makes you less reactive (as in knee-jerk) and more responsive (engaged in a wholesome way).
  • allows you to see that you are not your story.
  • puts things into perspective so that you see that one painful thing isn’t the only thing that is going on in this moment.
  • keeps you from comparing your insides to other people’s outsides.
  • inspires ethical behavior not because you might not get away with some action but because you feel connected and compassionate for all life.
  • makes you realize that you can be open and inquisitive about life, rather than being acquisitive, amassing information to shore up your sense of a self ‘in the know’.

I could go on, but you get the idea. At the very core of the Buddha’s teachings are three deep understandings: That there is no separate self; That everything is impermanent; That not accepting the truth of these first two causes suffering because we want things to stay as they are and grasp for and cling to things, relationships and experiences to build up our sense of being a (very special) isolated being.

If your aha! moments have given you such insights, then that’s your wise inner voice, your inherent awakened nature finally being given a chance to be heard. You cultivated the space, time and willingness to listen in. Congratulations!

Insights are often very simple, but just what we need to remember. They often come out of moments of difficulty when you are following a familiar pattern, but your increasing mindfulness lets you see it afresh. ‘Aha! Here I am aggravated at a stoplight, when really it’s just a reminder to pause and be present.’

Where I used to live, I had to drive by a hospital on the way to and from home. I couldn’t believe how many crazy drivers there were! Then I realized that on that stretch of road a higher percentage of drivers were dealing with a crisis, a dying loved one, a lack of sleep because of the birth of their new baby, or the receipt of the worst news of their lives. Suddenly my heart opened and I felt great compassion for everyone on the road.

It wasn’t too big a leap to extend that compassion to other roads and out on the freeway. There is a saying that everyone is carrying a great burden we know nothing about. If we live with that understanding, our harsh judgments and irritations fall away. We may wish they wouldn’t drive a two ton lethal machine when they are not fully present and able to do so, but we take it more as a reminder to ourselves not to do so, rather than blaming them for their temporary mindlessness. That’s compassion.

viewWalks in nature in silence — at a speed that allows us to really look, smell, feel and notice all that is present in the moment — is one of the most likely ways to come into Wise View. If we are finding it hard to deal with change, nature reminds us that all life is ever-changing, and yet the cycles continue on and on. Can we allow for the release of whatever in our lives needs letting go with the ease of a tree whose leaves drift off in the autumn wind?

All of our practice is really a way to quiet down enough to allow our inherent wisdom to be heard. We can hear wise words from others and appreciate the thought, but it’s only when we come to an insight in our own experience that we really wake up. I have heard countless dharma talks and read many wise books over the past decades, and they have been interesting and helpful in keeping me practicing. But moments of personal insight transform me and mark me indelibly.

So we practice with dedication and patience, not waiting so much as being open to the possibility of aha! moments arising out of the most mundane experiences.

One caveat: Of course, there are people who are delusional, whose ‘insights’ are not wise at all. How do we distinguish between them? A delusional insight will be harsh and demanding, will want some action right now and won’t take no for an answer. This is not inner wisdom but the supercharged fear-based pattern of destructive thought. We all have these needy fearful aspects, but if a person is so out of balance that some inner voice feels like a vengeful god talking, and the person feels they must do what they are told, then, that is a call for immediate help from a medical professional.

But for most of us, these inner aspects are simply annoying patterns of thought that sap us of joy, upset our sense of equanimity, cause us to be harsh in our judgments, quick to anger, restless, sluggish, anxious, self-doubting and depressed. This is the mind bouncing off the walls of causes and conditions of life without the help of a meditative practice. And this is exactly why we practice! Because our mind without meditation is like the worst party we ever attended. And we keep expecting someone more interesting to arrive and change the music, the lighting, the food and the conversation.

But we actually ARE the change we’ve been waiting for! Dedicating to a regular practice of meditation, even if for only ten minutes a day and a class once a week, can turn that inner party around very quickly. And one person being fully present can change the energy of any real gathering — even a family dynamic or a workplace dynamic that feels very locked in — just by being present and compassionate. If you are practicing meditation regularly, and you are awakening to the wisdom within, then don’t under-estimate your own power to radiate presence into a situation, and cause a softening, warming effect. Watch out for the temptation to be ‘powerful’ in the limited sense of having power ‘over’ someone. This is a loving power that is contagious when it arises. 

Wise View is usually not arrived at all of a piece. Instead it arises in incremental insights that come from dedicated practice, and the willingness to compassionately question the veracity of the ongoing thoughts that we have taken for truth for so long.

So look at that phrase you tell yourself to make you feel better and see if it is offering wisdom. If not, quiet down, be present and let your inner wisdom — that quiet, patient, loving voice — offer you its precious treasure.

Read more that I’ve taught over the years on Wise View:


Eightfold Path: Spacious* View

* In this exploration of the Eightfold Path, we are seeing how the use of the word ‘spacious’ instead of ‘right’ or ‘wise’ affects our understanding. Please see the previous post ‘Spacious Eightfold Path’, January 13, 2011 for an explanation of why this seemed a worthy exploration.

In conversation we might say “In my view…” We build our sense of identity upon our view of things, the way we see the world, the beliefs we align with or rail against, and the people we see as like-minded allies or enemies.

“From my perspective…” is another term we might use. Again, we are choosing a particular vantage point from which to observe and react to the world around us. It’s useful to notice what vantage point we have chosen, since it shapes so much of how we participate in the world. Maybe we were born here in this perspective, born to a sense of belonging to these inherited beliefs, obligated to live and live up to them in order to honor or validate our history. Or perhaps we found this perch on our own, and feel the pride of our individual stake in the rich vein we have claimed. How we come to our perspective plays a role in how attached we are to it. Our ‘story’ is our identity. We rely on our story. It comforts us even if it is a terrible tale. It is our tale and we hold it dear, as we share it with others by word or deed.

Sometimes our story seems incomplete and we are in a state of seeking something or someone who can tell us who we are. We search for some kind of confirmation that will give us a clear vantage point, a deserved perch, a deed to this life we are living. ‘Who am I?’ we may ask with the same urgency as a baby bird clambering blindly in a nest cheeping for food.

How does this attachment to our identity and this quest for a defining story, affect our ability to access Spacious View? When we are aligned so rigidly with a viewpoint, or seeking distinguishing marks that align and separate us, then how do we access or value Spacious View, where there are no sides, no mine, no yours, no theirs — just an infinite field of interconnection and compassionate understanding?

Although it might seem as if we need to get rid of our attachment to our identity in order to access this Spacious View, actually the attempt to get rid of it, or anything, knocks us out of an ability to access spaciousness.

Spacious View is the noticing of perceptions we hold and allowing room to explore them with increasing compassion and clarity. In this case, it is the gift of presence that arises out of noticing the way we cling to our story. We can notice the fear that we are nothing without our beliefs, our thoughts, our personality, our behavioral quirks that distinguish us from others, and our ways of being that mark us as part of this tribe and not that one.

Through the practice of meditation we begin to see the patterns of our thoughts and emotions. In class we have meditated together, making ourselves available to this sense of spaciousness. And hopefully, each of you have been developing or continuing a practice of daily meditation that furthers this sense of spaciousness.

Arising out of the stillness and inner silence, our alignments, our attachments, our judgments, our beliefs – everything that we thought makes us who we are – become visible in the spacious field of awareness that is infinite and generous.

If you notice any sense of defeat when I say this, as you judge your own experience of meditation, know that Spacious View has room for your defeat and your judgment or any other thoughts or feelings that arise.

As we meditate we are giving ourselves the quiet solitude we crave as a natural part of our lives. This is not news. The scientific proof of the value of taking time in silence for ourselves is everywhere in the media, especially in health news, to the point that it is an accepted part of our culture. And yet habits die hard and remarkably few people give themselves the gift of these quiet moments on a regular basis.

By allowing for this quieting down to be a natural and regular part of our lives, insights arise. We see that we are not giving up ourselves and taking on a different perspective, but we can see where our views came from, how they became ingrained or calcified in our patterns of thinking. What we thought was something solid becomes softer and more airy. Through this inner exploration we may find in time that we do not have to defend our views, do not have to hold them so tight, and do not have to make someone else wrong or take sides in order to exist with joy in the world.

When we use the word ‘spacious’ instead of ‘right’ or ‘wise,’ it reminds us to look at the space between things instead of just focusing on the things themselves. On a universal level this is seeing the interconnectivity, the fluidity of being. On a personal level we notice how we are relating to the object in question. For example, we can look at the way we see ‘the world.’ We can listen to how we talk about the world and instead of just accepting everything we say as truth, we can see our thoughts, emotions, judgments and beliefs more clearly. We see that ‘the world’ is not some solid clearly definable thing but a ‘whirled’ collection of amorphous opinions that we may have accepted as truth without bothering to question them.

Spacious View is always supported by questions, by curiosity, by a compassionate exploration of the relationship between things, especially between us and the things that matter to us. So take for example, the way we see a person who is important to us in our lives. Instead of focusing our thoughts on the person as if they are solid, separate entity, we can focus on the space between us that is so filled with belief, thoughts, emotions, judgments and opinion. We can see the degree to which we react when they say something or do something that sets off particular patterns in our behavior. Instead of focusing on them and how they should be different, we focus on our thoughts about how they should be different. We notice the physical sensations associated with these thoughts, the emotions that arise with the thought. We see the inter-related nature of this little storm system that sets in, spawned by a behavior on the person’s part that perhaps irritates us.

Spacious View allows us to see that the world is not some stagnant place with a bunch of solid objects bouncing around banging into each other, but a rich web of interconnection. When we begin to notice the web, these interconnections become more alive, fresh and wholesome, rather than calcified and rigid.

No doubt at some time in your life you have felt held by someone else’s calcified view of you. You have felt the stranglehold of being seen as something solid and unchanging. Perhaps someone who has known you all your life or someone who only knows you in one role can’t make room in their view for all of who you are. So you know how chaffing and exhausting it can be to be viewed this way, how it brings up feelings of having to prove their view wrong and has the potential to set off a whole series of unskillful interactions. Noticing this, we shift gears from perceiving ourselves to be solid, separate, crashing and careening objects in space to seeing how we are more akin to microcosmic points on a macrocosmic web of infinite interconnectivity, able to see all the strings of thought, emotion and sensation that interplay along the pulsing vibrating threads of life. That is Spacious View.

As we discuss Spacious View we might notice that there is something familiar here, something that sounds perhaps a lot like what people say they experience when they experience the presence of God. They talk about having a sense of being deemed okay as they are, forgiven for their human imperfections. Accepting a higher power is a response to an awareness of there being a vantage point that is infinite and all-encompassing. How does God, for those who believe in God, seem to be able to hold all the mess without getting dirtied by it? God by nature is transcendent and intrinsically personal, infinite yet never distant.

Every earnest accounting of an experience of the presence of God suggests this spacious awareness, this spacious presence that arises when we quiet down and open our hearts to what is, whether we are in a place of worship, out in nature or on our meditation cushion.

‘Defending God’ is an oxymoron, because the minute we fall into ‘us against them’ and ‘our belief against their belief,’ we fall out of spaciousness, out of the intimate and infinite experience of God.

It is not surprising that people of all religions have found that meditation and Buddhist teachings enrich their experience of their own religion, regardless of what religion it is. Training in letting go of attachment to the story and simply being available for the spacious sense of ‘union with the divine’ is revitalizing for any spiritual life.

There is nothing we have to give up, nothing we have to turn against, and nothing we are destroying or denying when we simply sit and open to what is. We sit quietly with generous infinite nature and let it be what it is, let it go unnamed, because the naming and claiming creates a trap of attachment. We notice it all, even the desire to claim it. We relax into its vast compassionate embrace.


As a useful exercise during the week, take some time to focus on your relationship with either ‘the world’ as you perceive it or a particular person about whom you have a lot of emotional volatility or a situation in your life about which you have strong opinions and a sense of struggle. Notice, and perhaps write down, what happens when you shift from talking or thinking about them to noticing your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. Question your assumptions and beliefs. Is this true? How do I know this is true? Give this exercise the time, space and compassion to allow all that arises to be acknowledged and honored. Notice any wanting to change your mind, or to prove your beliefs to be right, or to make yourself wrong, or to want to be ‘better.’ These too are just thoughts. Let them arise and let them go as part of your experience.

This is a life-long exercise, so have patience and compassion.
Hold the experience in Spacious View.

Eightfold Path: Right Intention

Once we have an understanding of Right View, we can explore Right Intention, the second aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path. Right View, as I said before, can be experienced as a subtle yet life-changing shift within ourselves to a deeper more spacious vantage point where we sense (or are at least open to the possibility of) connection, wholeness, integrity.

These first two aspects of the Eightfold Path go hand in hand, each dependent on the other. Without Right View, there is no possibility of Right Intention, for our intentions are rooted in our view of the world. If our view of the world is rooted in fear, we go into lockdown mode. We create protective barriers and see ourselves as totally separate. Separate from other people, separate from nature, separate from the world. From this view, our intention is automatically set on defending the fortress we have created to keep ourselves ‘safely’ separate from life.

Conversely, Right View without Right Intention could create a practice and a life that is more spacey than spacious. Right Intention adds a level of precision, attention, mindfulness and active engagement. Right Intention makes it possible to stay in touch with Right View. It keeps us anchored to a sense of wise understanding.

Right View and Right Intention together set the stage for the rest of the Eightfold Path. It may be useful to think of Right View as the foundation and Right Intention as the hook that anchors us to the foundation. Once they are in place, the other aspects of the Eightfold Path arise in natural alignment.

Another way to think of it is with a musical analogy: Your life is the instrument you have been given. Right View lets you see that your instrument is part of a great orchestra, and you have the opportunity to co-create the symphony of life. Right Intention tunes your instrument. Then all the others – Right Speech, Right Action, etc. — are attuned and resonant, melodic life expressions rising from a deep wisdom. Without the understanding of Right View, there is no symphony. Without tuning of Right Intention, the resulting music is discordant.

Right Intention
Right Intention for our purposes as meditators and Buddhist practitioners is three-fold: First, to develop a regular practice of meditation. First things first, we need to get ourselves to the cushion! Second, to bring our awareness to the present moment, both in our meditation and in our lives. And third, to practice kindness to ourselves and others.

Just adopting these three intentions in our lives can make a remarkable difference. You can see how in the practice of meditation, bringing in Right Intention to bring us back again and again to the breath, to bring our awareness back to sensation and anchoring us in the present moment is a wonderful gift. And when we bring Right Intention into our daily life, we find ourselves being kinder in our interactions and more present for the rich experience of living.

But to fully embrace the idea of Right Intention, it may be helpful to explore our understanding of the word ‘intention’. In English this word has an inherent weakness about it. Think of the expression, “I’m sure he had the best of intentions, but…” And then there is the excuse, “I intended to do it, but other things got in the way.” And of course we all know that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

So is there no better word than ‘intention’ we could use? Resolve has more power but resolutions are better known for being ‘broken’ than ‘kept.’ So we are inclined to think of the word ‘goal’ as the more powerful serious option. Goal setting is a skill that go-getters have and that’s why they achieve things that others don’t. This is our cultural truth. So why are we playing around with this wishy washy word ‘intention’?

Here’s why: As goal-setters we achieve our goal only to have to set another. Our lives are all about the goal, as we’re playing a game of football or hockey. ‘Keep your eye on the prize.” we are told. But with our eyes locked on the goal, we miss the present moment. We see this moment only to the degree that it serves or hampers us in our pursuit of some future moment that will be perfect in every way. Thus we are not present for the rich experience of life fully lived. We are not present for our loved ones when they talk to us. We are not present to notice the multi-layered complexity and beauty of each moment as it reveals itself. No, we are holding out for that goal of a perfect moment when we will have what we so desperately want. But when we get to that perfect moment we have only developed the habit of looking forward and we have no skills at being present, so we miss it! That perfect moment we longed for! Poof! Gone! As unappreciated as all the other moments that preceded it. So what’s the point?

Setting an intention is very different. Here’s an example from my own life:
Will and I study Spanish every day together. We have set the intention of sitting down after breakfast together to study verbs and read to each other from Spanish children’s books. The intention is fulfilled each morning in each moment of our time together, as we laugh and stumble through the challenge of learning a foreign language, and in the process enjoying each other’s company.

But sometimes we can forget to just stay with the intention, and get caught up in a goal of becoming fluent in Spanish. When we do that we have a very different experience. We waste our time beating ourselves up, being frustrated that our brains can’t remember vocabulary, and feeling like we should just give up. How is this in any way useful? This eye on the goal is really sabotaging the likelihood of achieving it! When we stay with our intention, lo and behold, we are increasingly more fluent with each passing month.

So should we not set goals at all? What a radical notion! It might be interesting to take a holiday from our goals just to see how that change affects our lives. We might find that we are more available for opportunties and life experiences that we could not have even imagined from the limited view of our goal setting.

If throwing out a goal is too radical then, at the very least, it’s important to question it to be sure it is aligned with our deepest values, that it’s not just an expression of our grasping or comparing mind, not a way to prove to the world how great we are. This only builds our fortress walls higher. Goals rooted in fear can only create further suffering.

But upon close examination, even fear-based goals might have a seed of love in them. Sometimes with kind attention we can reframe a goal so it is more authentic. The goal of “I want to be a famous movie star” (i.e. I want people to admire me, I want to project an image, I want to have power and control to protect myself from harm, I want to prove to so and so who dissed me that I’m great, etc.) might on closer inspection contain within it a more loving and authentic desire. Perhaps it is “I want to explore life through a variety of roles and share my expression of my explorations with others.”

You can see how that switches from a distant goal that has no depth or substance into a meaningful moment to moment way to be in the world that arises organically from our own natural skills and unique gifts. This reframed goal has more of the quality of an intention. An intention leans toward connection and is acted upon in every moment. A goal leans toward separation, individuation, and is distant, pulling us out of the moment.

Now we can’t talk about Right Intention without acknowledging that we already have all sorts of unspoken and unexamined intentions in our lives, whether we are aware of them or not. We can get a clue as to our intentions by looking at our behavior – the things we say and do, how we interact with others, how we lead our lives. An unskillful intention can be destructive, causing suffering all around. An unskillful intention is based in fear and is an attempt to protect ourselves from a perceived threat.

Seeing these intentions as bad and setting the intention to get rid of them is simply more fear-based activity that will not produce the desired result. The more skillful way is to bring compassionate attention to them and to provide a safe spacious mind for them to reveal themselves. It’s important for us to remember that inside every unskillful intention is a hurt but loving heart, trying its best to protect us from perceived threats.

Through regular meditative practice and bringing our awareness into the present moment we begin to see these unskillful intentions more clearly. Eventually, with kind attention, we can see we don’t need to protect our identity or transform ourselves into some superhuman to secure respect or love. We can let go of these unskillful intentions as the veils of illusion fall away.

If we have had trauma in our lives that makes self-exploration difficult, it may be useful to seek help with a therapist in examining the fear and the unskillful intentions and behavior. But otherwise, a regular sitting practice, a willingness to notice our thoughts and question their validity, and a great deal of patience to let this lifetime process unfold as it will, is all we need to enjoy the ongoing fruits of practice.

As we practice Right Intention – developing a regular practice of meditation, bringing our awareness back to the present moment, and practicing kindness to ourselves and others — we begin to see its quiet power, and as our understanding increases, the meaning of the word ‘intention’ becomes not just powerful but meaningful, and richly satisfying.

Eightfold Path: Right View

Right View (aka Wise Understanding) is the first guidepost on the Eightfold Path, and rightly so. Without the Right View, we might approach the Eightfold Path as a checklist of goals to be achieved. There is nothing to achieve. Striving to achieve takes us out of the present moment, and only in this moment can we fully experience life. Without the Right View we might take the Eightfold Path as strict rules to follow and beat ourselves up if we fail to adhere to them. So we need the Right View in order to be in a healthy relationship with the seven other aspects of the Eightfold Path.

So what is this Right View? Well, like any ‘view’ it depends a lot on our vantage point. If we are down in the valley we have a different view of the world than if we are on the hill top. The sun and moon seem to rise later and set earlier than when we are atop a mountain. So with our inner life, vantage point informs our view of what is.

The vantage point for the Right View is both deeper and more expansive than the limited surface view of life we often have. From this vantage point we feel more embodied, more present with whatever sensation arises.

From this vantage point our heart is not finite and fragile in need of protection, but open, infinite and radiant.

From this vantage point we see through the illusion that we are our thoughts. Our mind is spacious, with room for all that arises, like the sky has room for all weather.

From this vantage point we can see how our fear-based defensive behavior keeps us feeling separate and causes suffering in ourselves and others.

From this vantage point we see others with great compassion. The things about them that may have annoyed us from our limited view, we now see as merely unskillful responses to the tangle of suffering caused by their own limited vantage point. We see through all that to the authentic, lovable being with whom we are connected.

From this vantage point, the world is not a mess. It is a wondrous mystery: a rich, vital and volatile mix of pain and pleasure, cause and effect, patterns of cycles and seasons. All that birth, death, decay and rebirth! From this vantage point our awe increases and our harsh judgments and our need to be right simply fall away. Yet we are more able to be powerful agents of change from this vantage point.

How do we come to the Right View?
Chances are if you are reading this, you have at least had glimpses of Right View. Or if not even glimpses, you have some sense of its existence because you feel its absence in your life. Perhaps reading and hearing about it feels like coming home to you.

Giving yourself regular opportunity to experience Right View through the practice of meditation on a daily basis is the simplest and most effective way to access this vantage point. By staying physically relaxed yet mentally alert in our practice and mindful of our thoughts and behavior, we deepen our ability to access Right View. Through regular practice this will become more and more your natural vantage point.