Category Archives: self-acceptance

But then I remember

Amidst all the conflicts going on — the mental illness that leads to massacre, the fear that leads to hate, the anger that leads to violence, the centuries old ill will between whole groups of peoples, the bristling at even listening to the views of the ‘other side’ — how are we to find even a smidgen of happiness? And is that even something we should care about at times like these? Are we like small children crying for lack of something fun to do when the whole house is burning down around us?

After a difficult night’s sleep, this morning I woke to just that sense of despair. So much sorrow, so much injustice, so much hopelessness in the world. And I felt disdain for my feeble attempts at personal happiness when the world is crumbling around me.

But then I remembered.

I remembered that I can’t help anyone else if I am drowning. So it’s not just okay but imperative that I be sure I keep my head above water, able to breathe.

Ah the breath. Yes. I come back to the breath, just noticing, but also appreciating that it is still there, still breathing me, that it is my greatest support. Gratitude arises. Appreciation. Deeper noticing. I find my footing. I feel grounded. I’m not drowning in despair.

Just like that, I land fully in this experience of life. This here right now is all I have to work with for whatever I want or need to do. This moment, this breath, this sense of connection: This is my personal point of power. I am anchored by the breath the way a tree is anchored by its roots — supported in all the ways it grows. I grow where I am planted, branching out in all directions, responding with the wisest intention and wisest effort I can manifest to the ever-changing causes and conditions of life.

In what other ways can I learn from the trees? Just like the tree, sometimes our greatest offerings are hard for us to see. Does the tree know that it offers a way for the squirrels and birds to navigate, feel safe and nest? Does it know it provides shade for the weary wanderer to rest?

What do each of us offer the world around us that we aren’t even aware of providing?

under-tree.jpg

My brother John and me under a tree

I think about that in relationship to my brother this week in particular, as the days lead up to his life celebration and I will briefly speak about him. What will I say? How will I say it? What will help those gathered? What is better left unsaid? We are all so tender in our own grief. But we also need each other at this difficult time of shared loss.

The moon is getting so full, and my heart with it. The clear night bright light keeps me awake. But in my sleeplessness, trying to wend my way back into dreams, I find myself instead re-inhabiting those last difficult days of his life, and how helpless I felt to save him as he slipped away before our eyes. I think about what I might have done differently, but nothing would have made a difference in the outcome. And I think about his life, what a difference he made every day in the lives of those who knew him. Like most of us, his life at times took dead end roads and contained some actions with painful consequences. Yet he died surrounded by loving family and life-long friends who have gone on to create beautiful memorials for him. He touched so many lives in so many wonderful ways, just by being his kind funny generous self. 

They say there are no failures, but that’s not true. There’s the failure to understand our own intrinsic value and the value of every being we encounter in our lives. We can take lessons from the trees. We can stay present, stay rooted, keep growing, keep providing for ourselves and others whatever it is in our nature to offer when we release our fear and rest in awareness and compassion.

Swinging Limb
for my brother John Culler, 1942 – 2017

Out beyond the field
that edged our neighborhood:
A tree we kids called
Swinging Limb.
Upon it we would climb
to laze the summer days away,
at rest in its dip and rise.

— Stephanie Noble

‘Am I what I know and how I know it?’

We continue to explore the Buddha’s Five Aggregates in the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness. We have looked at material form and feeling tones. Now we will look at cognition.

Cognition is the way we organize the information we take in as we experience the world. The brain develops a highly complex system of assessing, comparing, categorizing and ordering experience into patterns that make them instantly retrievable, so we can make informed decisions at any given moment.

My youngest granddaughters are at the stage of life where everyone around them is telling them the name, color, shape, size and use of any particular object. They are busy building their information organizing system. I am fortunate to be part of the team of caregivers who help them develop their systems. It does sometimes strikes me as funny that on babysitting day, I point to an object and say ‘chair’ and maybe add other information like ‘green’; while on dharma teaching day, in the same room, I might point to the same object and ask my students to consider that, on an atomic level, that same object is not so solid, not so ‘chair’ and not so ‘green’ as it appears.

We tend to skip thinking on an atomic level and accept the solid-seeming nature of the world around us because it makes it easy to get around. Our brains do a great job of connecting the dots, organizing the information into useful patterns. But we can take one step more and develop the awareness that it is just a convenient shorthand that we are agreeing to use. With this awareness we can still fully function within the system, but we can hold it more lightly.


When we get attached to our solid understanding of the world and ourselves, we suffer. Because things fall apart. If we trusted them to be solid, then we are shocked and betrayed when they prove themselves to be impermanent. Next time something you were used to changes or disappears, notice your thoughts, emotions and sensations. Is suddenly everything thrown out of whack? Does it threaten your sense of rightness? This is being tossed about on a sea of causes and conditions that are not in our control. How do we learn to surf in these conditions instead of drown in them?

How attached are you to the way you process information?If we are highly knowledgeable or capable of processing certain kinds of information, we might feel a sense of pride and believe it to be who we are. Conversely, if we feel we aren’t competent in a particular way, it can be a source of discomfort or even shame.

Since we were children we have probably been given compliments and applause for displaying these skill sets or made to feel inadequate in some way when we struggle with learning, figuring things out, etc. We have internalized all of it and made it into identifying aspects of our ‘self’, whom we hold ourselves to be. We can’t change our childhood, but we can see through the conclusions we accepted as true. Think of labels you apply to yourself in regard to intelligence.

One student emailed me the day after class about an insight that came up for her. Being good at math has always been a part of how she sees herself. When that skill set is not as reliable as it once was, she gets upset with herself. Her ‘aha!’ moment came when she realized that she isn’t as physically agile as she once was either, but since she isn’t so vested in that ability, since it isn’t a strong part of who she believes herself to be, she’s much more accepting of that change. In this insight she saw for herself how suffering arises from believing herself to be ‘a person who is good at math’.

This is how insight meditation is meant to work: We get some new information — from something we read or hear, or maybe from pausing as we walk in nature — that stirs something up inside, and then in our own way, at our own pace, we come to an insight. This process is not a struggling intellectual exercise, but simply a spacious awareness that allows us to see more clearly thoughts as they arise.

Take a moment now to notice some facility you have that readily comes to mind when you think of who you are. If that facility were no longer so facile, would you still be you? If not, you are holding on tight to something insubstantial and thereby potentially causing yourself to suffer unnecessarily. This is a noticing, so you are not going to instantly let go of this sense of identity just because you saw it. But the seeing it is creating spaciousness so that the belief can exist, but its impact is lessened. With continued compassionate noticing, it will loosen its grip more and more.

What we learn from our own noticing is the valuable lesson that stays with us. If you have such an aha! I suggest you write it down in the words as they came to you. Keep that ‘note to self’ with you and refer to it again and again when you need it. This becomes your personal journey that is giving you the answers you need right now.


Insights into Inner Rudeness

Our recent review of four obstacles to sending metta came from a series of insights. An insight is a naturally occurring result of open curiosity, inquiry and noticing patterns and conditions both in our minds and in the world around us. The kind of meditation we do here is called Insight Meditation. An insight is possible from the very first moment we begin to be present with our experience. It’s not surprising that when we begin to look we begin to see. When we begin to notice whatever arises in our current experience, we notice assumptions and beliefs. When we question them: ‘Is that true? How do I know that’s true?’ then we set into motion an exploration with real potential for illumination. What is this illumination or insight? Greater understanding of our own current experience, our habitual patterns of thought and emotion, the filters through which we see the world, the source causes and conditions that contributed to the tight knots of fear that we all hold in a variety of ways, unacknowledged.

That exploration is aided when we infuse it with loving-kindness, metta. Loving kindness is not a state of constant praise to stroke the ego. It is a sense of oneness and connection that opens our hearts and our eyes to what is arising. It helps us to see more clearly how fear activates and aggravates patterns of beliefs, words and actions that keep us from being present with our experience.

Metta allows us to be spacious in our exploration. We can come upon some thought passing through our awareness that makes us very uncomfortable. Without the compassion of a metta view, we may tighten up into a strong reaction, usually a judgment or a justification, causing further suffering. With metta, we have a greater capacity to free ourselves from the ongoing pattern of reactivity that causes suffering. If we notice our thoughts, emotions, and the world around us without metta, we can come to a cold mechanical view that lacks sufficient heart to sustain us. We are much more ready to turn away and find relief in mindless distraction. So metta makes mindfulness more effective. In a way we might say it lubricates mindfulness to keep it functioning.

Likewise mindfulness infuses metta with clarity and understanding. Without mindfulness, we can easily misunderstand of the nature of metta. For example, as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, we might think of metta as something limited that must be doled out carefully and only to the deserving. That view of metta increases suffering. Mindfulness gives us the insight to see through that distorted view.

A friend who has been following the blog of dharma talks mentioned that she noticed how rude she is to herself. This insight came from skillful noticing, from mindfulness that she has been practicing for a while now, and from the metta she had incorporated into how she interacts in the world. So the words she was in the habit of using to speak to herself at the least provocation now stood in stark contrast to the sense of loving kindness she had been developing. When she heard herself internally muttering, ‘Idiot!’ because she had forgotten to take the meat for dinner out to defrost, she suddenly heard it with more clarity. She recognized that she would never speak to a friend in that way. Aha!

Now she is one of the most competent, accomplished, creative and generous people I know, but we are all capable of this kind of self-talk. We may call ourselves ‘dummy’ or ‘stupid’ without even thinking about it. So I ask you now to think about it. Notice how you talk to yourself. Once you have begun a meditation practice and find you are noticing your thought patterns, you can begin to hear the words you are using to talk to yourself, especially when you do something you didn’t intend to do. Just notice.

Once we recognize the rude way we speak to ourselves we have a choice. We can judge the rudeness and add it to our long list of personal failings, OR we can allow ourselves a spacious field of metta-infused exploration. We can notice where we feel the ‘idiot’ prod, the ‘stupid’ shot or the ‘dumb’ stab in our body. We may be numb to the words, think they carry no weight, but as we allow ourselves to become more awake and aware, we find that these words have been doing their number on us all along, draining us of energy, making us intolerant and angry, etc.

Perhaps you feel these are harmless jibes. But even if said with a kind of affection, they are just justifying words that may have been used on us when we were children, trying to prove to ourselves that it is possible to be rude and still love someone. If that is the case, that’s a worthy investigation.

Perhaps you are hard on yourself because you hold yourself to a higher standard, because you feel you are special or better than others, or are trying to fulfill some parental hope that you will be. That’s a worthy exploration too. ‘How stupid of me. I should know better.’ Should you know better than others in the same situation? Are you so much smarter, wiser, more enlightened, talented? If that resonates, then that’s another interesting vein to explore. It’s not that we don’t aspire to be the best we can be, but we undermine our ability to truly be the open loving insightful person we have the capacity to be if we somehow believe that everything we do must be perfect. If perfection is your goal, start asking yourself a few questions about what that means.

Next week we will be doing a more indepth exercise to see how we bring mindfulness and lovingkindness together, and additional instruction on sending metta to ourselves that I learned from Jack Kornfield at a recent day long class. But for this week, please notice how you talk to yourself, and explore whatever arises with both mindfulness and metta.
This balanced approach is called loving awareness.

Meditation & Creativity: Process vs. Product

We have been talking about creativity and the challenges to getting into a free flowing creative mode. We are exploring the subject from various angles that have some overlap because different people resonate to different approaches.

Last week we talked about shifting from a limited exhaustable (and exhausting!) finite source into accessing the infinite, the bottomless spring of universal creative energy.

This week we will focus on another shift we need to make if we are to embrace and sustain creative life. The challenge here is to see ourselves and our creativity more clearly, because the myopic view prescribed by our culture gets in the way of being able to step into the flow of true creativity.

Prescribed by our culture? Yes. I spent a decade in advertising writing prescriptions, and I saw how advertising, with the goal of getting us to buy something, very effectively convinces us that we are somehow lacking. Since advertising is all around us, we have grown up under the collective cloud of believing that we are in need of improvement, that we are products ourselves.

We may be following a spiritual path with the hope of self-improvement, striving to get to the point where we can say, “There, now I can be happy with who I am.”

Even as we recognize the crazy fallacy of this idea, we don’t know how to opt out of it because we are so deeply habituated to believing we are lacking. We strive to gain self-acceptance, to weed out this faulty belief that we are a self-improvement project, only to find that we are even more deeply entrenched. It’s like one of those Chinese woven finger puzzles where the more you try to pull, the tighter it holds onto your fingers. Because pulling, the obvious choice, is not in this case the right effort.

In this same way we struggle to like ourselves just as we are until we can struggle no more. We give up, exhausted. In the aftermath of giving up our struggle, in the burnt out emptiness of our inner devastation, having given up the fight, having laid down our weapons, having surrendered to the impossibility of our struggle, then, in that stillness, we may begin to notice what is true in our experience right now. We may notice our body sensations, the sights and sounds around us, the emotions and thoughts that pass through us. Aha!

We have been practicing accessing this state of passive awareness, where we see clearly the hopes, fears and stories that storm through us. Perhaps we judge them, then notice the judgment. We bring as much compassion as we can manage to our own experience. And we create a compassionate space to experience whatever arises, even our least compassionate thoughts.

This practice of meditation is a practice. It is an ongoing process, and it is all about the process itself, in each moment, and not about some end product of liberation or enlightenment. Because the liberation that is possible is in each moment, not at the end of some path. The enlightenment is lost when we strive for it.

Now what does all this have to do with creativity. Well, as long as we believe we are products, how can we not believe that anything we create is even more of a product. And then, if we sell what we create, it is impossible not to take into account the marketing aspect of what we do.

But for creativity to truly thrive within us, if we are to access the infinite source instead of the finite depletable one, then we need to stay present in the moment of creating, present and fully engaged in the process.

The minute we think of it as product, we are projecting into the future. We are imagining other people looking at it, and that can send the chilly finger of fear into us, knocking us out of the infinite and into the fear-based finite shallow safety-seeking depletable mode. The infinite is only accessible from the present. Thinking of our creativity as a product knocks us out of the present. It’s as simple as that. The fear shuts us down, clams us up and maybe even causes us to abandon our passion.

In a poetry workshop I took with Prartho Sereno at College of Marin, we did many in class writing exercises to free ourselves from the confines of the finite source. And I found it incredibly helpful to remind myself ‘This is just an exercise.” I was freed of worrying about what I was writing being a Poem with a capital P and calligraphic script and all the other encumbrances that would make it a product to be read, discussed and criticized. So now whatever I am writing, I tell myself it’s just an exercise.

So what about marketing? Well, that’s just a different process. That’s a process that happens after we are done with a series of exercises in which we have thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The process of marketing is all about sharing a passion, communicating and opening to connection. Whether you are reading a poem at a mike, sending slides to a gallery or serving up your newest recipe to your friends, this too is process. Staying in the process we bring to it our full attention, noticing the fearful thoughts, the hopes and dreams, and having compassion for ourselves. Staying in the process, we nurture ourselves when we are feeling vulnerable. Staying in the process we remember that we ourselves are not products to be judged, that we are like drops of water briefly dancing above the oceans depths where we will soon return. Staying in the process we accept the challenge of sharing that which is joyful in us with a loving generosity to the world. This is what Buddhist teacher Philip Moffett so aptly calls “Dancing with Life.”

I have had a lifetime of struggles with this theme of product vs. process. But there are moments where the struggle falls away, where the process itself is so powerful that my resistance, my misgivings, my fears of failure and ridicule evaporate for a time. And when they rain down again another day, as they are prone to do, I bring as much compassion and awareness as I can muster. Again and again.

That is the practice.