Category Archives: self-discovery

The Sorting Room

In our home there is a room off the garage that I recently designated ‘The Sorting Room’. That’s a fancy name for the place where I can go through boxes I haven’t looked through in over thirty years without having to repack them quickly to make room for the evening meal. But the room has taken on a sweeter quality than its utilitarian purpose would imply. It is an inviting space so I don’t dread going there. It celebrates the process of its purpose. 

In exploring the Buddha’s teachings of the EIghtfold Path in upcoming posts, we might cultivate a kind of internal Sorting Room. After meditation, for example, is a good time to create a mental space that is welcoming and safe to notice the complex threads of thoughts and emotions and discern the interwoven repetitive patterns without getting entangled,

One friend on retreat years ago said that she was walking around Spirit Rock in that sometimes dazed, but often mindful way one does when one is doing seven sessions of sitting meditation a day, and she noticed a thought that just kept passing through her awareness. I don’t remember her exact words, maybe ‘Oh you again.’ The awareness that these are just thoughts, not who we are, is intrinsic to awakening. Her experience was much like the way Siddhartha Gautama, sitting in meditation under the Bodhi tree, recognized the patterns of illusion without claiming them as who he was or making an enemy of them, just greeting them and letting them go.

When we believe these thoughts to be who we are, we attach great significance to them. They become precious and we hold them up to be admired or deplored. In our meditation practice we begin to recognize that this is just part of the illusion. We spend time in The Sorting Room with clarity, compassion and a sense of insight, gratitude, connection and perhaps release.

In the room off the garage, I spent a little time freshening it up, making it an inviting place to be. Just so, we can cultivate a more welcoming internal sorting room by being selective and compassionate in our choice of entertainment, the company we keep and the activities we do. Consider some of the films, shows, games and books you have spent your time with recently. Are they contributing to your well being? Or are they amplifying some fear-based inner pattern that already feels like a burdensome rant? Notice how you feel after you partake of an activity or spend time with someone. If you find you feel depleted, tense or exhausted, then make note to make wiser choices.

In class, my students talked about some of the films they’ve been seeing at the Mill Valley Film Festival. One student found herself so oppressed by the cruelty of all the characters in one film that she finally walked out. We each need to be aware that we have the option to walk out, to turn off the TV or shut the book whenever we find that what we are exposing ourselves to activates fear, tension, depression, hatred, etc. This is not the same as putting blinders on to avoid seeing the world as it is. It is recognizing that taking care of ourselves so that we can be useful in the world, to ourselves and for the benefit of all beings, is a top priority. We will talk about this more when we explore the Eightfold Path aspect of Skillful Action. 

In the Sorting Room, I could easily get caught up in just making the room nicer and nicer, or just while away my time there and think that is all it’s for. I could forget that at least part of the reason we created this room was to go through our hoard of stuff so that it’s not creating unnecessary clutter, nor adding undue hardship to the grief of our heirs.

In the same way, we could develop a practice of meditation and enjoy the fruits of it without ever feeling the need to sort through anything. Perhaps we, unlike most people, haven’t accumulated patterns of thinking that are self-destructive, undermining or sabotaging. Perhaps, we are uniquely free of aversion, greed and delusion. Great! Maybe. Living in a continual bliss state may work until some situation causes a disruption, and then it would have been good to have a set of practices to rely on.

You may have seen a recent 60 Minutes segment on the research into psilocybin, the hallucinogen that can change brain patterns to such a degree that some people give up addictions easily and lose all fear. Why not just go through that experience, as fraught for many as it may be, and get instantly past this attachment to ego, this confusion of illusions? Well, first, it’s not legally available to the public. Second, it’s potentially dangerous for some. And third, you’d miss out on this amazing skillful process!

Taking the time to practice meditation, have insights and apply those insights to what shows up in the inner sorting room, is not drudgery! Done skillfully, it is fun. “Aha! What’s this?” we say, activating our inner Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew, with a little heartfelt inner Marie Kondo.

As we embark on discovering the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, it’s a perfect time to assure that we have created a welcoming space to receive it, that we are taking it on not as a hunk of knowledge to learn in case we’re ever competing in a trivia contest.

To think of this as just another piece of knowledge we can claim to know, stow away or forget about, would be doing such a disservice to ourselves when this is the Buddha’s finest gift to us. He spent six years preparing his own ‘sorting room’. He made space for the wisdom to be well received when it came to him. Maybe we can honor his efforts with gratitude and with a generosity to ourselves by cultivating a receptive space to receive it.

What I learned on my summer vacation

Family vacations are wonderful times to learn a lot about ourselves and our way of being in community and in the world. I remember one extended family vacation that my mother put together in a beautiful spot with perfect weather. Though everything went well, she was mostly tense and dictatorial and I was often grumpy and defensive. My main job as I saw it was to assure the safety and well-being of my two year old son and to pitch in cooperatively to keep the shared household running smoothly. But she saw me as her personal assistant and servant to assure the happiness of my brothers and their families whom she saw as the ‘guests’.

Because in the U.S., most of us don’t live in multi-generational family situations year-round, when we live for brief periods with our family of origin, a lot of old patterns resurface, and a lot of reactivity that replicates our childhood coping mechanisms shows up as well. We might be surprised, even horrified, to discover that those emotional cesspools are still within us when we felt we had become ‘better’ people.

It helps to see the pattern unfolding, even if it’s difficult to stop it from playing out. Just noticing it makes a big difference, helping us to understand its origins and its fleeting nature. We can rest assured that when the gathering is over, we will return home to our ‘normal’ adult ways. Being able to see these patterns arise gives us the chance to pause, send metta (lovingkindness) to ourselves and the rest of the family, so that we reconnect with our core intentions.

Because I had had negative experiences on family-gathering vacations my mother had hosted, I didn’t try to host one myself after I became a family matriarch. But a few years ago we happened to stay as overnight guests at a vacation home with our son and his family, and I discovered what I had been missing. Yes, extended time together can be stressful, but it can also be incredibly rich, sweet, funny and insightful. So I’ve started hosting simple little three-night summer mountain getaways, and I’m so glad I did.

We just returned from a mountain lake that has a rustic family resort vibe. It was a perfect choice for the age our youngest grandchildren are right now. We had a great time relaxing together, doing whatever anyone was in the mood to do, free of any agenda. As well as the fun of our group conversations, I had time alone with each family member — sweet moments I especially cherish.

My morning meditation got short shrift, as our grandchildren visited us when they woke up while their parents slept in, and I was too busy whispering and laughing. But my longtime practice helped me to stay grounded and present to enjoy it all and to hold the experience lightly. It would be so easy to get caught up in grasping and clinging, wanting to hold onto this special time and place forever. But impermanence is our nature. All we can do is savor the current experience and let it go, without regret or anticipation of the next great thing.

I didn’t completely master the advanced art of the zipped lip that all parents of adult children must learn if life is to be enjoyable, but I think I did pretty well, considering. I find the key is when judgy words are about to burst forth to ask myself, ‘What is my intention here?” and also “What is most important in this situation?” As a compulsive tidier and responsible tenant of vacation rentals (Oh, the pride I take in our AirBnB rating!) my first answer to what’s important defaults to making sure everything is just so, but with even a moment’s reflection I see that my relationship with my family is infinitely more important. And after all, it’s only for a few nights.

We are fortunate to not have reason to get into heated arguments, but decades ago I had that experience with other family members. I learned then to go to bed before alcohol consumption fueled wee hour dysfunctional disagreements. And again, to question my intention in needing to be right. Ah, the ‘I don’t know’ mind really comes in handy! Cultivating spaciousness for all voices to be heard without getting into battle. And if we let go of the need to convince someone of our view, we have the opportunity to learn more about what fears motivate their views, and that’s valuable information for us all.

All my past lessons helped me enjoy the gathering, but there’s always more to learn, and here are several I came away with this time:

#1 Explore off the beaten path
On the last day, after packing up, we took a little walk and decided to head away from the lake instead of toward it. (It’s understandable that we would always be drawn to the lake, but curiosity finally took us in another direction.) We discovered that right behind our cabin there was a beautiful wooded walking path to the grocery store, that was not only a short cut but a much safer way to walk with two children than on the street.

It makes me wonder what obvious/autopilot ways I have been taking in my life, ignoring beautiful and possibly even more direct routes.

Using this lesson, on the drive home down the mountain, we stopped in Jamestown, an old gold mining town off the beaten path. A passerby gave us the peace sign, a relic of a bygone era for sure. It’s main street is about two blocks long and it has all the requisite architectural features of the old West circa 1856, with raised wooden sidewalks under overhanging balconies. It had the requisite number of antique shops for any small California town before it becomes too popular for shopkeepers to sell some old bottles for a dollar each for our grandchild’s Harry Potter magic potion collection and then carefully wrap them in a gift bag.

We also chose a more scenic if less speedy way into the Bay Area, and arrived home refreshed. A perfect ending to a lovely getaway.

#2 Vacation food is not offset by exercise
Well, to be honest, I wasn’t doing that much exercise. We walked around quite a bit but also did a lot of lounging on the beach enjoying the sight of our kids and grand-kids playing in the water, and all the various families with children and elders of all ages having a great time together. I have never heard the word ‘grandma’ spoken from so many different young mouths.

I used to see vacation as an opportunity to over-indulge, but since I’ve found a way to eat in a balanced and satisfying way, my treats were tasty but sporadic and my reward was that I felt good. If my scale on returning home begged to differ, that’s its problem!

#3 Having better cell phone coverage is not always a blessing
Some in the family had AT&T and were blissfully free from knowing whether anyone was trying to reach them. We have Verizon, whose infinitely better coverage in remote areas is much appreciated in almost all circumstances. Except this one. Eventually, I had to just turn it off and put it in a drawer. We were surprised to discover that even though we couldn’t text each other our whereabouts or make plans, we kept finding each other quite naturally, just like we all did before cell phones were invented. 😉

#4 Put away the camera most of the time
With my phone in a drawer, I was without a camera. But I have found that ‘capturing’ the moment as a future memory is sometimes really losing the moment because I’m focused on framing and adjusting and not paying attention with all my senses. A camera cannot capture the experience anyway — the feel and smell of mountain air, the textures of sand, water and sun-warmed skin — and while a video camera gets the sounds as well, it imposes itself into the situation, altering behavior. Our grandchildren hate having their photos taken anyway.

#5 Always bring seat cushions
We just happened to toss in some outdoor seat cushions as we were packing for the trip, and boy did they come in handy! The cabin kitchen table had a hard bench banquette that was much improved by the cushions, and they were easy to transfer out to the picnic table on the deck where fast and furious games of Yahtzee taught the grandchildren a lot of math skills. Our kids took the cushions to outdoor movie night and said they wouldn’t have survived without them.

So let’s consider this: Where in life might we add a little extra cush? It doesn’t have to be a physical cushion. Our language, for example, has cushions that make conversations more comfortable like  ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘maybe you’re right.’ Hugs, pats, holding hands — small gestures convey a lot of love and soften the sometimes rough edges of life’s interactions.

#6 Apply practical lessons to inner life
We are all learning things every day. These are usually new facts, practical solutions, etc., but it can be helpful to see how they could apply to other areas of our lives, including our inner lives.

So, what have you learned lately?

You are not broken and you don’t need fixing.

This YouTube video of two teenagers who have never seen a rotary phone before is fun and fascinating to watch. For those of us who grew up using rotary phones dialing is just second nature. Even if we haven’t used one in years, we know without question what to do. Kids today think of smartphones, tablets and computers in the same way, so it’s difficult for many of them to be patient with elders when they struggle to learn new technology. They don’t get what the challenge is. Now these two boys, trying to use this earlier technology, get it for sure!

Watch and enjoy!

After you’ve watched the video, here’s a question for you:

Is that rotary phone broken?

No! It works perfectly well. But there’s no operating manual for it and these young users had to figure it out on their own, naturally making lots of mistakes along the way. Sound familiar? We are not broken. We function perfectly well. But none of us came with manuals. We are all doing the best we can to figure out how to function. Hopefully we are willing to spend more than a few minutes at a stretch. Hopefully we don’t give up and decide not to bother.

If you are a parent you may remember leaving the hospital with your first child, feeling some degree panic and astonishment that the nurses allowed you to leave without your knowing how to take care of this tiny fragile bundle of vulnerable living breathing (for now!) being.

Of course there are books on child rearing and no doubt most prospective parents read them, but it just doesn’t prepare you for the real deal, does it? And advice changes from generation to generation, from ‘let them cry’ to ‘pick them up’, from benign neglect to helicopter parenting. There are also lots of relatives and people in the grocery store all too happy to give advice. But it’s all conflicting advice! And it often feels like it comes with so much judgment. Finally you just have to find your own way and do the best you can. Right?

Without that operating manual, it’s no surprise that many of us grow up befuddled with this assignment called life. We may feel unlovable, unseen and misunderstood. We may have a difficult time finding contentment, connection, meaning or even a sense of safety in our lives.

When we seek help we find advice that tells us how to fix ourselves, change ourselves, transform ourselves into some ideal version of a human being. We wonder “What’s wrong with me?” and then, to top it off, people around us may be happy to make a list!

But we are not broken and we don’t need fixing.
It’s more useful to think of ourselves as a mysterious technology we’re learning how to use. We may fumble a lot, but over time, by paying attention we get little insights and we begin to have a clearer sense of how we function. There is help available from wisdom teachings, like the Buddha’s, but he’s most famous for saying something to the effect of ‘Don’t take it from me! See for yourself.’ But he taught us how to sense in and see, and to have self-compassion. And that makes all the difference.

Practicing mindfulness we start to notice how much better we feel when we meditate regularly, and we notice a falling away of that sense of equanimity when we forget to practice for a while. We are each learning our way, writing our own little operating manual, seeing what works for us and what doesn’t, what helps and what harms us.

We learn how to greet what arises with friendliness and an understanding that this too shall pass. We notice the patterns of our thoughts, thickly woven with the stories we tell ourselves about our personal histories. Instead of getting paralyzed with fear, we gently shine the light of awareness and compassion.

We are not broken.
Just like that rotary phone, we work perfectly well. But we may be unclear how to dial up the connection we crave, that sense of being fully present in this moment, full of compassion for ourselves and others. Ring! Ring! This present moment calling! May we remember to come back to simply paying attention to whatever is arising with patience, curiosity and gratitude for this gift of life.

“Be a lamp unto yourself.” – Buddha

morrocanlamp.jpgIn our exploration of the nature of truth, how we go about investigating is as important as what we discover. If we are rushing, we will miss it. If we are worried, we will find only fearful answers. If we are narrow-focused, it may fall outside of our vision. With our ‘eye on the prize’, we won’t see the gift ever available in this moment.

When I lose something, I leave no stone unturned in looking for it. I think of every place I’ve been since last I saw it.  I look in obvious and unlikely places, as well as places I or someone else has already checked. This system generally works well.

Looking for the truth has a different quality because truth is not an object that I misplaced. Instead of leaving no stone unturned, I relax, come fully into the moment, and gain a more fluid free-ranging clarity. I notice the nature of mind — all those filters of preferences, judgments, hopes, dreams and fears that habitually flavor my perception of what I experience in the world. I feel in touch with the nature of what arises and falls away in the world, revealing inherent truths that enable me to feel gratitude for life even at its most difficult and painful moments.

So yes, it’s a very different kind of search, one that requires different kinds of tools: Tools such as patience, attention and compassion. I don’t know about you, but these are not tools I had ready at my disposal. Just wanting these qualities, telling ourselves we should have them, can make us less patient with ourselves, less attentive to all that’s going on and less compassionate. So how do we obtain these qualities? They can’t be bought in any store or installed like an app. They need to be cultivated to grow within us. But how?

No big surprise here: Patience is cultivated through the regular practice of meditation. The mind has the chance to discover a peaceful way of being, beyond the rush-rush clock time of the world so many of us habitually attune to in our daily lives, even when there’s no reason for it. In meditation we may slip into or get a glimpse of timelessness, living completely in the moment which extends infinitely in all directions beyond our conception of the linear passage of time. After meditation, as we return to our daily routine, just that brief glimpse can infuse us with patience, just as a bit of tea will change the flavor of a whole cup of hot water.

Attention is cultivated through our practice of focus in meditation as we attend the breath or other physical sensations. The patience we have cultivated helps us to return again and again to our point of focus without giving up in despair of ever being able to meditate. Establishing a regular wholesome habit of sitting undistracted for any set period of time is a gift to ourselves and all whom we encounter in our lives.

With the regular practice of meditation, we discover that as we go about our day we have more patience and attention to notice the beauty of life, the fleeting specialness of even the most ordinary moment. Being able to pay attention to this precious moment also keeps us safer, as we are able to be alert and responsive to whatever situation arises as we go about our daily activities.

Compassion arises out of meditation, out of being patient and present in the world, out of seeing more clearly the nature of being — both the joy and the suffering that is present in every life.

What does this have to do with truth? With patience, attention and compassion, we are in a better position to discern truth when it arises. We are prone to have insights about the nature of mind and the nature of life. We can see the beauty of impermanence, even as it takes away something or someone we love. We can see the nature of suffering, how our cravings, aversions and delusions make us miserable. And we see the infinite interconnection of all life, how we are all of the same stuff, and in that understanding we find a way to feel welcome and safe in the world just as we are.

We become like lamps, shedding light in the darkness so we can see for ourselves what is true.

Inquiry Series: Question #5

tool-collection.jpgIn this inquiry series, we’ve practiced using questions that help us deal skillfully with what arises in our experience: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? Is this true? We then looked at our inner landscape and asked: What am I cultivating here?  To the degree we incorporate these questions into our lives, they continue to be useful tools to find greater peace of mind, strength and equanimity.

Beyond the shared beneficial qualities we cultivate, we each have other gifts as well: The particular skills and interests that activate wholesome energy, aliveness, meaning and purpose.

What are these gifts? There is something inherent in each of us that draws us to different things. We can observe this in very small children. Beyond the fun things most children enjoy, any individual child will be more excited about spending time in one or more activities and less interested in others: Drawing, writing, cooking, doing math, solving puzzles, singing, playing instruments, listening to music, attending performances, taking things apart to see how they work, playacting, taking photos, doing science experiments, inventing things or walking in nature, for example.

But even though the adults around them may notice children’s natural bents, gifts and interests, often the children themselves do not see them or do not understand that all kids aren’t equally as interested in these things. Especially in decades past, the adults around them were likely a little blind to these gifts as well. And so the child grew up feeling a little lost, wondering where they fit in.

I was a shy little girl who had a spiritual bent that manifested in little chants I would make up to feel my connection with the divine. (“I am in God and God is in me” over and over again until I would fall down on the lawn laughing, because what made no sense at all suddenly made all the sense in the world to me.) I also loved to write poems and short stories. And I enjoyed making dollhouses and drawing floor plans. Bringing that little girl to mind now, if I were her parent, I would encourage all of those things, and maybe make sure she had access to materials, classes and kind mentors.

But instead of wishing I’d had different kinds of parents (my parents were wonderful, thank you very much!) I only need to remind myself that as an adult, I can parent myself in whatever way I need. I can provide whatever encouragement and guidance I may have craved growing up. Perhaps you have some dormant, underappreciated or hidden interests or skills that might be brought into the light of your increasing compassionate awareness. No matter what our age or situation, we can actualize all of the gifts we’ve been given in this fleeting experience of being alive in this oh-so impermanent body-mind.

EXERCISE

After meditation or after a few minutes of quieting the mind, ask yourself these questions and write down the answers that arise — as many as come up. Take your time. The first answer may be the best answer, or it may be a toss off answer and there’s a deeper, shyer, truer answer waiting to be heard. All are fine. Bring them on.

Notice any resistance that comes up, either in the exercise or in anticipation of an exercise. You can use our core questions then: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? And, when stories arise about why you can’t pursue a certain interest, look more closely at those stories and question them: Is this true? It may seem true, and it may seem important to hold onto the story, but look at every aspect with a kind but inquiring mind.

Okay, ready? Here we go:

  1. Think of moments during your day, week and life when you were filled with delight, contentment, purpose, enthusiasm — a sense of being in the right place, doing something satisfying. These will probably be very small seeming things but try not to judge them, just note them. List as many as come naturally to you.
  2. Look over your list of moments of delight and think of them as belonging to someone else. Bring your most compassionate, least judgy self to this task. By observing the list as someone else’s we are generally clearer and kinder, more willing to see latent gifts we might deny in ourselves.) Then ask, what interests this person? What does this person love to do? If a clear picture comes to mind, write it down as a little summary.
  3. Acknowledging that this is your list, not someone else’s, notice any emotions arising around this list as you read it. Notice any resistance to anything you have discovered. Notice any stories that come up to explain why, even if true, these interests and skills are for whatever reason not sufficient or not useful. Several people in class felt they probably weren’t doing this exercise ‘right’. A couple thought their moments weren’t sufficiently ‘lofty’. This is not about being lofty! And it is not about defining yourself and presenting yourself to the world. It’s more like the way a cat or dog might circle around to that just right spot of perfect contentment. Trust that whatever comes up is right for you in this moment.
  4. If you are judging yourself, finding fault or feeling resistance, ask ‘What am I afraid of?’ This is not a challenge, not a dare, but a heartfelt compassionate investigation. 
  5. Send metta, infinite loving-kindness to any fearful aspect that speaks up or hides out within you. The inner critic may be powerful and cruel, but it is not your enemy. It is only afraid and unskillful in the ways it tries to protect you.
  6. Looking at the summary you’ve made, do you feel that you are living your deepest most heartfelt interests?
  7. If not, set the intention to give more time to them, incorporate them more fully into your life and whenever you are in such a moment, to not feel rushed but really allow yourself to experience it fully with deep appreciation.
  8. Underline, circle, star or rewrite any core interests that you would like to explore more fully. This is not about ‘becoming’ something new. This is not a makeover. It’s recognizing what is already central to your way of being in this life, yet for whatever reason not actualized fully.
  9. Set the intention to be compassionate with those aspects of self that are fearful, but don’t let them run the show!
  10. Save and revisit this list, try the exercise again another time, and consider rewriting it as a note to yourself to keep close as a reminder.

If you do this exploration multiple times, you may find different answers each time, but a pattern will arise that will hopefully inspire you to honor your natural gifts, interests and skills.

If you discover powerful resistance, that is definitely worth exploring and challenging. I am reminded of the Marianne Williamson quote:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” — Marianne Williamson

Like many, I suffered from great doubts about my abilities. I kept my writing very private and never thought to share it with anyone. If I did share them, any compliments were like water off a duck’s back. I have no memory of them. But even the slightest suggestion or critique cut me to the core and the scars were a constant reminder of my lack of talent. It’s amazing I kept writing, but my writing was for me, and it was safe as long as I kept it private. And that’s fine. Writing and all the arts — music, visual arts, drama, crafts — all have the capacity to be cathartic. We each have our way of processing the traumas of our lives. I imagine that working out mathematical equations might be cathartic, too. Can we find our way of skillfully processing and coping with all that arises in our lives? Hint: It will never be a distraction from what we are going through. It will not make an enemy of it that we push away. There’s that old hymn: ‘It’s so high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it, so wide you can’t get around it, you’ve gotta go in through the door.’ The door is being fully present and compassionate with ourselves and others, finding that inner wisdom that is within each of us, by whatever name we might call it. But each of us also has one or more very personal ways of savoring life and processing what arises. And that’s what we’re exploring through this exercise.

Allowing ourselves our fullest expression is not a big ask. It is our birthright. It is our place at the table of life. That is such a hard lesson to learn, especially for women raised to always put others’ needs first and to be ‘demure’.

I will leave you with a personal experience: I had been teaching for a number of years and then writing blog posts from my dharma talks. After a year of teaching the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness, my students asked me to compile those posts and publish them in book form. I mentioned this to my teaching mentor and she said there are more than enough books in the world. (There were no comparable books on that subject at the time, and even still none that addresses women’s specific challenges, but that’s beside the point.) After I left our meeting, I felt like a daisy bush being told not to bloom, to stifle myself, because there are already too many daisies in the world.

Please, please, please, whatever kind of plant you are, feel free to bloom fully and radiantly! And don’t waste your time envying the rose or the lilac. You do YOU!

Cultivating with the core insights

rainbow.jpg

In exploring the question What am I cultivating here? we have been working with a gardening analogy. In this analogy we haven’t yet looked at what is represented by the soil, the rain and the sunshine. This seems a pretty big oversight! So let’s look at these most important aspects now:
The Buddha identified three characteristics of existence that, if understood, transform our whole way of being in the world. They are the underlying wisdom upon which all the rest of the teachings rest, and to which all the rest of the teachings point. On the graphic chart of the Buddha’s teachings, these three ‘marks’, as they are also called, are at the very center. They are the core of the teachings. Every insight that you will have in your meditation and your life will lead you to one or more of these three core understandings of the way of things. I know that’s a major claim, but try it for yourself, as the Buddha says, and see if it is true.
So what are these three characteristics of existence? In Pali, they are anicca, anatta and dukkha. Unless you plan to be a Buddhist scholar, or you just like to know terms, it’s not really necessary to remember those Pali names. But it is helpful to understand the concepts, which are:
Anicca: Understanding the nature of impermanence and our inability to maintain anything to our satisfaction. Things change and we don’t like it. Things don’t change enough and we don’t like it. Things change, we like it and assume now we will be happy forever, but we change in relationship to the thing that doesn’t seem to be changing, and we’re not happy. You get the picture. Impermanence is a fact of life, and how we are in relationship to it, to a great extent, determines our ability to be happy.
Anatta: Understanding that there is no separate self that needs constant shoring up and defending. The separate seeming nature of being is useful for practical purposes in this life, taking responsibility for this particular body, family, finances, commitments, etc. But taken to be complete reality, believing ourselves to be isolated individuals separate from the rest of being, causes suffering.
Dukkha: Understanding that, while there is pain that comes with birth, illness, aging and death; the greatest suffering we experience is created by grasping at, clinging to and pushing away all that arises in our field of experience.
For the purposes of our garden analogy, we could say that dukkha is the soil. The quality of suffering is very earthy. We can get caught up in it, ‘dirtied’ by it and buried in it. Yet when we understand dukkha, we can plant roots and draw nourishment in our deep understanding of its nature.
One student in class had a problem with planting her roots in suffering. Another student pointed out that we are planting our roots in the insight about dukkha. Since class, I have gone around in my mind whether this is an apt metaphor or not. What I’m thinking now is that earthly life, full as it is of suffering, is where we are planted. It’s not always an easy place, but as we put down roots, we become better able to sustain ourselves in it. The Buddha taught that birth, illness, aging and death are the four messengers. So there is something in the soil of dukkha that we need. When we are experiencing pain in our lives, can we be fully present for it, rooted in the experience — not grasping and clinging or pushing it away, but simply here to receive its nourishing message? I will never forget one time when I was younger and my back went out, and suddenly I understood that old people walk slowly because they are in pain! My pain nourished me, didn’t it? It cultivated an insight and compassion that has been of benefit to me in all my relationships.
This extended metaphor is a work in progress, so I’m open to ideas to make it better. Comments?

Anicca, impermanence, we could see as water. Rain comes and goes. There are droughts and floods. There are clouds and clear sky. Water is constantly transforming: Now it’s ocean, now mist, fog, cloud; now rain, snow, sleet or hail; now puddles, rivulets, streams, lakes, rivers, seas and back to the ocean. It’s also present in all life, including our bodies.

Anatta (no separate self) could be represented by water too — I often think of this fleeting life as a droplet of water flying over a waterfall, soon to rejoin with the flow of the river to the ocean. I also love the phrase ‘The ocean refuses no river’ which repeated over and over again is such a comforting message of self-acceptance. But since we’ve claimed water to represent the nature of impermanence, we will let sunlight represent that sense of no separate self: We are all energy, inseparable, radiant light.
One student asked, since we are applying the elements to aspects of the teachings, what of air? Ah, air! Well let’s let air be air: The breath at the center of our practice that is both a focus and a way to shift energy (releasing excess on the out-breath, bringing in enlivening energy on the in-breath). With breath we cultivate spaciousness, putting ‘air’ around our thoughts and emotions as they arise in our awareness so that they don’t overwhelm us. Every plant in the garden needs sufficient air to thrive.
Through our meditation practice (sitting in our garden enjoying simply being alive?), the support of the teachings (all that wise gardening advice?) and our community of practitioners (fellow gardeners who support us?), we create the conditions for the qualities we explored in the two previous posts (generosity, lovingkindness, resolve, etc.) to grow and flourish.

The Finite Balcony vs. the Infinite Garden
Without being rooted in the infinite wisdom of the core understandings of
anicca, anatta and dukkha, you can still cultivate these qualities, but it’s as if they are planted in little pots on a balcony, finite and contained rather than rooted in the infinite, and you need to attend them constantly. They will not spread and propagate, and they are not connected to the vast web of interconnecting gardens full of birds, butterflies, etc. that help keep the garden healthy. (If you are an apartment dweller and like your potted plants just fine, or if you have no interest in gardening whatsoever, remember this is just an analogy!)
As we practice and have naturally arising insights in our lives, we recognize the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. We don’t adopt them or accept them because the Buddha was an enlightened being and who are we to question what he taught. He asked us to see for ourselves the truth. That’s the heart of our practice. Being at ease in the practice, we create fertile ground for insights to arise. As arising insights do indeed confirm the Buddha’s teachings, we release any self-sabotaging doubt we may have had about the value of our practice and our path. Our practice itself becomes a celebration of gratitude where we can delight in the garden just as it is, ‘weeds’ and all.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? But don’t let it become a distant ideal. If you feel stuck on the balcony tending little pots, hey, you are still creating more beauty in life! But every day in your practice notice your inner ‘balcony’ expanding until it becomes an inner garden.

Cultivating your chosen quality with wise inquiry

e5f00-planting-seedIf you did last week’s exercise, then hopefully you chose one quality that you feel needs cultivation right now. (If you didn’t do the exercise, why not go back and give it a try?)

Once you have your quality, here are some more ways to explore. Keeping the quality in mind, ask yourself each of these three questions that will look familiar because they are the first three questions of this inquiry series. They serve us well again: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? Is this true?

What is my intention here?
In regard to your chosen quality, sense in and ask yourself this question.
Since I have been working with the quality of generosity, I will use it as an example for this exploration. I propose that the intention of generosity is to give wholeheartedly. Okay, this sounds good, right? Halfhearted giving sounds pretty lame and worthless. But does ‘wholehearted’ put out the expectation that I should give all of myself away?

When we come up with an intention that can be ambiguous, it’s worth noticing, because it could give insight as to why this quality has not been fully cultivated. And we can see how we might have fears that come up. If I perceive generosity in terms of some finite gift that will run out, that through my giving I will be depleted, and maybe I already feel depleted, then clearly there is a misunderstanding here. And also fear.

What am I afraid of?
You might feel the tension that sets in at the very mention of fear. We are often afraid to look at what we are afraid of! But with loving-kindness and resolve we can look clearly at what’s arising in our experience. Images may also come to mind. The fear may feel like a shield of self-protection, but it’s actually a distorting lens that makes us more vulnerable. The question ‘What am I afraid of?’ might bring up thoughts about potential outcomes. ‘I am afraid of going broke’ might be one answer when exploring the quality of generosity. There might be specific examples in our lives of some generous person we know who lives ‘closer to the edge’ than we would be comfortable doing. I certainly do have such an example in my life. A person who gave of himself quite freely and in turn relied on the generosity of others to see him through difficult times. Standing on the sidelines watching, I feared for him. Of course this experience affected me. It’s not the only influencer of my more cautious approach to generosity, but it is one.

Beyond how being generous might affect our bottom line, there is usually some other justification that has to do with those we might be generous to: ‘They’ll just fritter it away.’ ‘I worked hard for that money.’ Strong opinions and harsh judgments can be very effective in deterring acts of generosity. For myself, I would notice generous impulses, the desire to give, but then the ‘recoil’ opinions and judgments that would talk me out of the impulse, or at least lessen it.

This would work with any quality. Say, the quality of Letting Go. There might be the initial impulse to clean out the closet, but then some fear, some inner opinions, arise to shut down the impulse. But even just noticing the impulse is a big step toward cultivating the quality.

Noticing is vital. You don’t have to ‘do’ anything right away. This is not a makeover where we are looking for instant results. Instead, very gently, kindly and persistently we sense into physical responses, emotional up-welling, images from the past and imagined futures, with all their accompanying stories.

Is this true?
Once we are exploring the realm of stories that come up when we think about our chosen quality, we can listen respectfully, and then ask ‘Is this true?’ This is not to make the story an outright lie or to call ourselves liars. Instead it is a loving process of acknowledging that we are not our stories, that we will not fall apart if our stories don’t hold up to the light of truth.

None of our stories are writ in stone. They were all woven on the fly by ourselves and others at vulnerable moments. At first this realization can feel threatening. If we believe our identity is our stories, of course we will hold onto them tightly. But with the practice of meditation over time we soften into a deeper understanding of our nature, and these stories no longer form the fabric of our being. As we are freed from the weight of them, we can feel as if we are standing in sunlight for the first time. We discover that it was fear that wove the stories we’ve clung to all this time. We’ve taken them for granted, and now we see they were not serving us. Discerning the fear allows us to see with greater clarity and compassion.

See if working with these three questions, at times when you feel your mind is quiet and compassionate, helps you to see more clearly what has kept you from cultivating the quality you have chosen.