Category Archives: self-discovery

We Don’t Leave a Sister Hanging

metoo.jpgRecent revelations about the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace have been met by a powerful social media response of women willing to step forward and say #metoo. There is such bravery in this action. Thank you to all who have done so.

Insight meditation is not only calming and focusing the mind. It is also noticing with compassionate awareness the patterns of thought and emotion that pass through. For many women there are tight knots of troubling thoughts around things that have been said or done to us by men who mindlessly or purposely abused their power.

Our practice is to neither push away nor cling to whatever arises in our experience. When a troubling thought surfaces, we notice what sensations, emotions and thoughts arise with it. Perhaps the jaw clenches or the chest tightens or we get caught up in a long involved story full of shame and blame. Our practice is to sit with whatever is there: the pleasant, the unpleasant and the things we have chosen to forget. We do this practice with a quality of universal compassion, very different from feeling sorry for ourselves or seeing ourselves as isolated objects. We tap into the wholesome wellness of being that is our birthright, and we rest there, able to see things with greater clarity.

In class we didn’t share details of our #metoo stories but we acknowledged their existence, and the way this #metoo focus has caused us to look more closely, to see if there was anything we dismissed that is still a painful knot within us. What is hidden, even forgotten, pushed down into the recesses becomes an abscess that leaches out, poisoning our lives. Openly investigating in a gentle way allows us to see the root cause of our own unhappiness.

Sometimes people are afraid to meditate because they sense that there will be painful inner discoveries. I have learned over the years that when we give ourselves the natural gift of quiet alone time on a regular basis, the body-mind self-regulates. A universal inner wisdom available to all arises and offers insights at just the right moment for us to receive, understand and benefit from them. Nothing is forced. Nothing ever arises that is too hard for us to bear in that moment. Only when we are ready to receive it will a discovery come. And it will always be for our well being.

Not surprisingly, when delving into this particular area of exploration, anger often arises: Anger at the perpetrator and anger at ourselves for perhaps not having the wherewithal in that moment to say or do something different than what we did. (This is our way of giving ourselves some control over the situation in retrospect, but it usually just transfers blame and isn’t particularly helpful.) So we sit with the anger. Anger is not wrong. It’s just what’s arising. We make more room in our field of spacious compassionate awareness for the anger to be present.

What happened to us is not who we are, but it does contribute to how we relate to all that arises in our experience. So it’s worth recognizing. We hold it in an open compassionate embrace. We send metta to ourselves. We open to receive this infinite lovingkindness and really feel it. Deeply. Only after we have truly felt it in ourselves, we send metta to the perpetrator. This is not condoning their behavior or even forgiving them necessarily. Metta heals all beings with its loving light. And we want those who are doing these things to be healed so that they will do them no more. Right? Nobody’s off the hook here. We all take responsibility for our actions.

You might ask, with so much else going on in the world, why are we doing this now?When a rise in social consciousness brings about a willingness by even the most vulnerable to share, even if only with two little words preceded by a hash tag, we don’t leave a sister hanging. Once she has bared her soul, both for the benefit of her own well being and generously for the benefit of all, we step up to stand with her.

While the focus has been on sexual harassment in the workplace, this is just one facet of a much larger and even more insidious world of abuse of power perpetrated by mostly men toward mostly women, but also toward children, which is often just too awful for us to contemplate. So we may turn a blind eye just when someone really needs us to see what is happening to them, hoping we’ll read the cues so they don’t have to speak the unspeakable, or break the trust of the totally untrustworthy. So as important as it is for each of us to compassionately soften, loosen and untangle the tight knots in our own minds, and express the truth of our own experience, we also need to acknowledge and stand with and for those who suffer, who feel beyond words, maybe even beyond hope.

It is way beyond time for the perpetrators to do some soul searching and self-examination, to see this abuse as a weakness and a deficiency that needs to be tended, rather than some harmless indulgence or proof of their manhood. Quite the opposite, in fact! Real men are mindful of the impact their actions make on all beings. Real men live with strong intention to live ethically and do no harm. Real men can be relied on to protect and defend against abuses of power by others, and not stand idly by. Complacency is complicity.

This #metoo is like those tests of trust where a person is encouraged to fall backward into the arms of people they may not even know. Are your arms strong and open to support these women who have spoken out? Even if you’ve put all thoughts of what happened to you away in a dark corner of your brain, even if you feel it didn’t affect you because you are tough and not a victim, this is the moment to receive your sister into your arms and know that you stand with her. If not for yourself, then for your children, your nieces and nephews, the well being of our whole society. Now is the time.

 

Preferences II :: Seeing for ourselves

In the last blog post we looked at how we can be imprisoned by our preferences. I suggested we notice during the week any preferences arising and what effect they had. In class we had an interesting discussion about our various findings. I have heard from some readers that this was a valuable topic for them. Maybe for you as well?

Let me confess right up front that, despite my intentions, I didn’t give up any of my preferences, my little darlings. The very idea!

But I did pay attention. When a leaf blower started making its noise when I was reading outside one day, I noticed my habitual reactivity…irritation, muscle tightening, asking why now?, etc. Then I challenged myself to simply allow that sound to be a presence. This exercise did not make me pro-leaf-blowers, but it did let me see how allowing my preferences to dictate my happiness is my choice, that it is my reactivity that makes me suffer.

I found it much easier to notice other people’s preferences rather than my own. Of course! (And that’s a perfectly valid place to start in any kind of inner investigation as long as we do it with kindness and the understanding that we have our foibles too.) I saw many examples of misery by preference:

crowsOne evening this week I was sitting on the deck of a friend’s house, savoring the lingering warmth of early autumn, surrounded by redwoods and enjoying the conversation of old friends. Then at the sound of a few crows cawing, the hostess, who is one of the most loving and thoughtful people I know, said she wished she had a gun! Goodness! She also has a sense of humor, but I wasn’t absolutely sure she wasn’t serious. Among the assembled there were those of us who loved crows and those who hated them. There seems no neutral ground when it comes to crows. I love them, especially the spectacle of them filling the vast sky at dusk. But I have many friends who are bothered by them, especially first thing in the morning when they can set up quite a cackle fest. I might feel differently about crows if they woke me out of a delicious dream. And I admit there’s a red squirrel who one summer totally decimated our Japanese maple. If that varmint shows up again, there’s no telling what my preferences might cause me to do!

I noticed how our own preferences can affect others. I was standing in line at the fabric store with my husband and little granddaughter, having her choices of gloriously tacky gold lame and pink with sparkly hearts fabrics cut so we could add a few more items to the dress up box. The employee was cheery, chatting with us as she cut. Then the woman behind us asked if they could get another cutter to come up. Not an unreasonable request. She was in a hurry, she had other things on her to do list. I could understand that. But at the same time, the air of happy collaboration on making a little girl’s imaginative play come true shifted to the employee feeling hurried and somehow failing in her job, even though she had been cutting right along; and my feeling we were somehow in this woman’s way with our few ribbons and fabrics. Even though it was indeed a reasonable request, it still sucked some of the air out of the room.

Living our lives as we do, most of us spend a lot of time in lines, and our preferences are easily apparent there. Some of us spend a lot of time online in order to avoid standing in line. But there’s such an opportunity for awareness practice in line. Can we be present? Can we take the opportunity to be kind, to send a little metta, to notice what is pleasant in this moment? Must everything have a driven quality of just wanting to get things done, so we can…what? What is it at the end of the day of errands and chores and whatever else that we are rushing to get to so we can be present?

If we’re not practicing being present in all situations, regardless of our preferences, we won’t be present at the moment we’ve been waiting for. Being present is an ongoing practice.

In class, one student said that she always tries to give herself more than enough time to get places so that she can relax and enjoy the ride. It was a preference that she noted. That’s a preference rooted in Wise Intention. We all have many preferences rooted in Wise Intention. Noticing our preferences helps us to distinguish between those and the ones that sabotage, undermine and deaden us to life.

Another student said that she found resistance to exploring her preferences during the week, and some confusion between preference and choice. I suggested that we have a choice in particular situations, but our preferences are underlying habituated patterns of thought that strongly influence what choices we make. So we might say, ‘I prefer seafood, so if there’s shrimp on the menu, I’ll choose that.’

One day this week I was walking out of an air-conditioned classroom with a fellow poetry student who said that she didn’t like heat. It felt pleasantly warm outside to me. She added that she was an autumn and winter person. That’s an example of suffering by preference. It illustrates how we take it to the next step of defining ourselves by our preferences. In her case, she was ‘dooming’ herself to feeling out of sorts half the year — so half of her life.

A friend who follows the blog said she particularly appreciated the post on preferences because it’s been something she has been thinking about a lot since she read about a woman who was traveling and stayed someplace with no hot water. She was avoiding bathing because she had a strong preference for hot water, as most of us do. But after a few days she noted how her preference was causing discomfort of another sort. So she took a cold shower and much to her surprise discovered it was refreshing.

We can surprise ourselves by challenging our preferences. It’s easier to do when traveling, when we are often confronted with new and different situations. I will be traveling in a few weeks and I will take this challenge up with renewed vigor then, especially that preference for sleeping in my own bed.

The class was full of good noticing, and I hope if you have been following the blog, that you took on the challenge and had some aha moments about your preferences, or those of other people. I’d love to hear about them. Just click on ‘reply’ above this post and let me know. (If you’ve never commented before, there’s a one-time request to register. This is simply to avoid trolls and spam.)

Just as a reminder, these kinds of explorations are not done with instruments of torture or combat. They are done with respectful tenderness. If you find that you are being hypercritical of yourself for anything you’ve noticed, see if you can be kinder. Not indulgent, but kind, like a parent caring for their child. We parent ourselves in this way, and we grow in the process.

What’s in a Name?

Lately I’ve been noticing how often people call themselves names: ‘stupid’ or “idiot”; or they describe themselves as ‘technologically challenged’ or ‘anal’, etc. They may start sentences with ‘I’m the kind of person who…’

What’s wrong with that? This is such a common human thing to do that it doesn’t seem problematic on the surface. Self-effacement is socially acceptable and even encouraged, unlike boasting, a sure way to lose friends. The boaster puffs up their personal identity in order to be admired, respected and safe. The person whose words are self-diminishing has a different strategy for self-protection: Perhaps to lower expectations? To put themselves down before someone else does? To gain sympathy? Not all the motivations have to do with impact on others. And probably only a small percentage of the put downs are said out loud.  Both the people who boast and the people who put themselves down may feel they are simply stating truth, seeing themselves ‘realistically’. Is that true? Or is it selective observation at best and distortion at worst?

As we practice mindfulness and become increasingly present in our experience, we can see how these autopilot statements lock us into a very limited sense of self. The words form a false construct — a painted shell — that camouflages our authentic being, disconnects us, and prohibits true engagement in life.

It is a good practice to listen for our own self-defining statements and to question them when they arise. This isn’t judging them, but seeing them clearly, questioning their veracity and motivation. In the last post, I talked about the faulty filter of fear. Can we see these ways we define ourselves as a part of that filter? If we say ‘I’m such an idiot’, there is clearly at least one if not a series of painful past experiences that bring us to this conclusion. It’s worth revisiting that past and investigating: Were we called a name by someone who was afraid in their own lives? We may doubt that the original voice of that name-calling was afraid, but what healthy happy person with no ax to grind goes around calling anyone an idiot? People who put others down are acting out their own unhappiness and insecurities.

Many of us over-manage our image like hyper-zealous stage mothers. And our running commentary gets in the way of people seeing us clearly. If this sounds at all familiar, are you ready for a little challenge?

Challenge

  1. Stop describing yourself to others! There’s no need to explain yourself. You may have your opinions, but let others draw their own. Live your life with wise loving intention and effort, and let the rest go.
  2. Pay attention to the unspoken but oft-repeated negative names you may call yourself. If you find one or more, take time to investigate, preferably after meditation, to find the source. Question the veracity with awareness and compassion. For example, you repeatedly call yourself ‘stupid’, you might think of times when you were smart.

veil-3

 

Exercise

Occasionally in class I share this exercise I created almost thirty years ago, when I was teaching meditation, but before I began studying and practicing Buddhism. It’s called ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’. If you’ve been following along the posts in this blog, you might see a correlation between the veils this week and the filters from last week. Clarifying our view of the world and ourselves is an ongoing valuable part of our practice. And as always, we’re simply noticing how we are in relationship to all aspects of our experience, not trying to push them away or change them. Try this exercise after at least a few minutes of meditation.
‘Dance of the Seven Veils, an Exercise in Letting Go’
by Stephanie Noble

Here’s a written version, in case you can’t play it, or just want to review:

The first veil is the you that is defined by material possessions. These possessions reflect your taste, your financial status and your values. Think of your home, your furnishings, your clothes, your vehicle — all the choices you have made that tell people who you are.

To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The second veil is the you that is defined by your achievements and your failures, your badges of honor and your battle scars. Woven into this veil are the titles you hold, the awards you have won, the degrees you have earned, the good deeds you have done, the pain you have caused, the guilt you bear, the struggles you have gone through. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The third veil is the you that is defined by your relationship with others. See the threads of your various roles as son or daughter, sister or brother, father or mother, husband or wife, friend, lover, student, teacher, co-worker, employee, employer and citizen. To the degree that these roles define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The fourth veil is the you that is defined by your beliefs, how you have woven together your religion, your spiritual beliefs, your political affiliations, your judgments, the angers and resentments that shape your judgments, and your assumptions about other people. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The fifth veil is all the aspects of you that you were born with: Gender, ethnicity, ancestry, physical features, and the most fundamental aspects of your personality. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The sixth veil is the you that is defined by your perception of your body as isolated and your skin as an encapsulation and barrier. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you.

Let it go.

The seventh veil is the you that is defined by mind, consciousness. It is the you that maintains resistance in order to exist as a separate consciousness. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you. Let it go.

The seven veils drift to the floor. For this brief moment, allow yourself to shine free of them.

Now who are you? Beyond the barriers of all your veils of identity, beyond the veils that create shadow, mask and distortion, suddenly all is clear. Who are you? You are one with all that is, an expression of the joy of oneness. You are undefined thus unconfined and expansive without limits. Yet completely here and now, always in this moment. Rest in this joyous light being.

Now you can dress in the veils. Take your time to take on each one as a light sheer manifest expression of being alive in this place and time:

This separate seeming consciousness — now lighter, sheerer, a softer way of being in the world.

This separate seeming body — now lighter, sheerer, able to dance with this gift of life.

This veil of personality and traits — now lighter, sheerer, more fluid and loving.

This set of beliefs — now lighter, sheerer, more insightful and open.

This set of roles in relationships — now lighter, sheerer, more ready to see the wholeness of being as you engage with others.

This veil of personal history loosely woven life lessons — now lighter, sheerer and full of kindness.

This final veil of possessions, no longer seen as self at all, but simply objects to use, enjoy, give, receive and maintain.

Once again you are fully dressed in all your veils, but now they are diaphanous and don’t weigh you down. Never again will you mistake them for you. The authentic inseparable you that is light energy source and receptor, transmitter and receiver. You that is released from the limits of fear and knows the infinite power of love. Behold your true self. One with all that is.

                                               – Stephanie Noble

 

Why I teach a women’s group

kwan yinWhen I guest teach elsewhere people often come up to me afterwards and ask where else I teach. When I tell them I lead a weekly women’s group, the women smile and seem to completely understand why that would be a good thing. If their schedule allows, they want come on a Thursday morning and give it a try.

But, not surprisingly, when men hear my answer they have a very different response: ‘Isn’t that sexist?’ ‘Why exclude men?’ And I agree with them, or at least I did until relatively recently.

When I began teaching insight meditation ten years ago, it was at the request of a few friends who happened to be women. There was no particular intention to create a ‘women’s meditation group’, but as the sangha grew by word of mouth, the members invited women friends, sisters and daughters. For whatever reason, they did not invite their husbands or male friends to come along. After a few years, the students started asking if we could call it a women’s group and limit it to women. I repeatedly said no, explaining that I felt strongly it should be an open group, even if no men show up. These teachings are universal, I told them, and it would be wrong to withhold them from anyone who wanted to learn them.

Then I spent a couple of weeks traveling around Morocco. It was my first exposure to a culture where women are truly hidden away. We saw men everywhere but very rarely did we see women walking about or filling any jobs in public places. It was a big deal when we saw a lone woman in the countryside carrying a bunch of firewood on her head. The tour arranged for us to be invited into people’s homes for occasional meals, which was lovely. But where were the women? The men sat at the table and engaged us in conversation, while the women were off in the kitchen cooking up dishes that they served us before disappearing again. They didn’t set a place for themselves at the table.

Hmm. There was something both sad and familiar in this. My mother-in-law often did the same, saying she had already ‘eaten’ while she was cooking and tasting. And I recognized that many women everywhere have some degree of this feeling of exclusion, an ingrained sense that we don’t have a seat at the table of life, that we are meant to remain in the background.

What does it take for us to awaken to the realization that we do have seats at the table, just by virtue of having been born? Our seat has always been there for us. We just didn’t know it was ours. We’ve been waiting around for an invitation or for someone to pull out a chair. Well, hello, we don’t need an invitation! It’s our table, too! We can sit down and enjoy the fruits of our own labors, whatever they may be. Why is this so difficult for so many of us to do?

When I returned from Morocco, I finally understood in a deep way how important it was that in our meditation group we are always actively addressing these issues, applying the Buddha’s teachings to the specific challenges we face as women. And yes, okay, let’s call it a women’s group and acknowledge the importance of creating a safe haven for directed exploration of our own experience. That is, after all, what we had been doing all along, but finally I could see the  value in naming and claiming it, something I had not understood until that journey to a land of invisible women.

It’s important to create a safe space to question these long-held assumptions of who we are in the world. This is not a gripe session or a victims’ support group. But it is an opportunity to look at the whole of our experience, and not just the subset where it overlaps the experiences of men.

But why do we still need this? Sure, women have made great strides, but look around! The challenges are ever-present. And even if the world were a perfect place where girls and women were no longer objectified, belittled and dis-empowered in a myriad of ways, gross and subtle, we would still be living with the cultural ripples, the patterns of thought and emotion that have been embedded in our psyches, handed down from generation to generation for millennia. Acknowledging this is empowering and crucial right now because we can see that our passive acceptance of male domination has put not just us but all life on this planet in jeopardy. Not only do we have a seat at the table if we feel like it, we need to take our seats and speak our truth out of love for all beings. Now more than ever!

Speaking our truth can be scary. I am fortified again and again by the insight I had on one silent retreat. I realized that “I have nothing to hide. I have nothing to prove. I have nothing to fear. I have something to give.” This helps me counter the shy little girl inside who doesn’t want to make a fuss. Forget that! Let’s make that ‘fuss’! We can let go of our fear of being seen and judged.  (I also need to give a shout out and a recommendation to check out Toastmasters if you are afraid to speak your truth in public. Participating in a local club can change your life! It did mine.)

It’s a huge awakening to realize that we are not objects. We are the subjects of our own lives, and co-creators of life on this earth at this time. (In general men do not need to be told they are the subjects of their lives. Of course they are. They look completely baffled when confronted with this idea. What else would they be?) But we women have historically been taught to be completely focused on the needs of others before even wondering what our needs, interests and desires might be. To that end we continually reshape ourselves to suit each role, to be the best daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, employee, co-worker, employer, etc. that we can be so we will be loved, needed, appreciated, respected — safely held in the reflection of other people whose opinions we deeply care about. We can arrive at a point, as I certainly did years ago, where we totally lose sight of whoever it is we are outside of the roles we play.

In the Buddha’s teachings there is a strong focus on letting go of shoring up identity. Yes! It’s very important to recognize that we are not some isolated being encased in a bag of skin. But often for women there needs to be a period of discovery of who that person is even in the most common sense of the word — to develop a healthy ego — before we can soften our attachment to it. Could you give a moment here, guys?

In the previous post we looked at why I practice and teach insight meditation instead of some other form of Buddhism. A big reason is the post-meditative explorations that are part of the practice. That focus of interior investigation plays a big role in why we have a women’s group. If all we did was to sit together, then went out into the world refreshed, there would be no particular reason to have a gender-specific group. But there’s much more to an insight meditation class than that, isn’t there? We go deep! And in that depth are discoveries that are personal in nature, and we may, at least at times, feel safer to explore them in the company of people who understand from their own experience what we are talking about. It is about vulnerability. This is not about making men — or anyone — the enemy. Quite the opposite! Instead it is to allow for hidden truths to arise within us, and to support each other in that investigation. Perhaps later we can share our findings with the men in our lives so that they can understand us better. But in the investigation itself, in that vulnerable place, the shared experience and understanding is vital.

If you look at a Spirit Rock Meditation Center schedule, you’ll see that there are a number of classes and retreats specifically for certain groups: People of Color, LGBTQ, women, men, parents, teens, families, elders and more. At first glance it looks like segregation and my initial response to it was feeling confused and even fearful: Why am I being excluded? Am I perceived as a threat by that community? I don’t feel like I’m a threat. Aren’t we all made of the same stuff? What are they talking about in there? Are they making me the enemy? So, believe me, I understand when men pose the same question to me about teaching a women-only group.

To calm my sense of feeling excluded, I remind myself that when I first started going on retreats, I chose women-only retreats because I felt I could let go and be completely myself. After a few retreats, I no longer felt that having men around — all in silence and with no eye contact — was a problem. We were all there being very interior, dealing with our own thoughts and emotions, not interacting with others. One day sitting in the meditation hall, I heard a man weeping. It cracked open my heart to realize how much alike we all are at the core. I was grateful to be sitting in a sweet sangha of brothers and sisters, all vulnerable together.

But at first and still at times, I need to be with just my sangha sisters.

Of course, we all hope for a world in which everyone feels equally empowered, and that is part of what we are learning through meditation and investigation. But we don’t get there by denying what is true in this moment. We look at whatever is arising — the good, the bad and the ugly — and then, in a respectful and friendly way, question it. Is this true? How do I know this is true? How am I in relationship to whatever is arising? What am I afraid of here? And then we patiently listen in.

This is a universal investigation. We all have incorporated the harsh messages of our culture into the ongoing unquestioned messages we tell ourselves. But women, simply by virtue of being women, have different messages that keep coming up, and different ways of dealing with them.  Whether our brains are fundamentally different from men’s is a matter of scientific research, and some findings indicate that there are over 100 ways brains have physical, hormonal and chemical differences between the ‘average’ male and ‘average’ female. None of us are average, of course! We each fall somewhere on a spectrum between what have traditionally been considered masculine and feminine traits. And anywhere we fall on the spectrum is just fine. But what we can see clearly is that we have been and continue to be treated differently, creating within us some special challenges when it comes to awakening to our true natures. So we come together as ‘just us girls’ to ‘let our hair down.’ And we encourage the men to create community together, to explore through compassionate self-inquiry how personal and cultural messages have shaped previously unquestioned beliefs that may be causing them suffering.

In this way, we can all come together with greater understanding of ourselves and the nature of being alive in this moment, and recognize in a deep and meaningful way that we really are all made of the same stuff.

‘You Don’t Have to Be Good’

“You don’t have to be good.’ This is the first line from Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese. It is such a touchstone for so many of us who find we are always working so hard to be good. We may be surprised to find these words are such a release for us, such permission — not to run out and be bad, but to stop striving so hard to be good.

We talked a little about striving last week when we discussed the
bodhisattva. It is so easy to get stringent and determined around recreating ourselves in the mold of a bodhisattva or any other form — a good Buddhist, a good person, a worthy person. Or perhaps we don’t care about good, but strive to be admired for beauty, talent or brilliance.

But the striving itself keeps us from ever finding joy in any accomplishment. Instead it causes us to strengthen and tighten the pattern of striving. We can’t appreciate the achievement because we are stuck in looking forward to the next goal. That is the pattern we create with our striving. We are attached to the tight tangle of trying hard and are blinded to who we truly are. So when we think about letting go, it seems threatening to who we believe ourselves to be.

We may be proud of the very things that ultimately cause us and those around us misery. We are usually conditioned to be proud of will power. We have seen how well it works to achieve things. Culturally we embrace will power as one of the highest virtues. And we see it as trying really hard, putting blinders on to any distractions and pushing through. There may be times where life depends on such determination. But it is a sprint mentality, not sustenance to feed us for the whole journey of life.

Imagine if will power were music. It would sound forced, strident and sharp. Playing that tune would be all about conquering the notes, racing to the finish. It would care nothing about savoring the rhythm, melody or harmony of the music itself.

We have explored in the past the concept of Right or Wise Effort. Wise Effort is one of the eight aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment.There are certain qualities of Wise Effort that are missing when we get caught up in striving, pushing through with will power. Wise Effort is first about being present, anchored in sensation, noticing what is true in this moment. It stems from the awareness that arises, an awareness that is compassionate and insightful, seeing the world fresh in every moment.

When we recognize we are not using Wise Effort, we simply refocus our intention. In class, when we begin meditating, I offer up the prompt to set the paired intentions of being present and being compassionate. We don’t need to get caught up in judging our failure to have Wise Effort. We just come back to it again and again.

Wise effort, anchored in these two intentions, rises up from the truth of the present moment — what’s going on in our body, our mind, our heart; what’s going on around us — all the causes and conditions that whirl about us at any given moment that may infuse our thoughts and emotions. With compassion we temper our effort to accomplish something. If we are focused on a goal to get something done, we might not be present to do what needs doing in the fullest and most authentic way possible.

Authenticity is a naturally arising expression of being fully present in the moment and being compassionate with ourselves and others. Wise Effort is attuning our actions to the natural rhythm of this authentic expression. Striving feels quite inauthentic because it comes from some external focus, a desire to be seen in a certain way by those around us.

The opposite of striving — giving up, not bothering, daydreaming — comes from a sense of powerlessness. The only place of power is in the present moment. The past and future are just ideas we have in our thoughts in the form of memories, regrets, hopes, plans or worries. If we get stuck in these in past or future thought patterns, unable to be fully present in the here and now of life, we lose touch with our own access to infinite power. Only in this moment right here and now can we, with compassion, transform a sour situation into something vital, lively and joyful — whether in the world or within ourselves. This is Wise Effort.

Exercise:
After meditation, take a moment to look at the current situations of your life and notice where you are perhaps living in the future, hopeful and striving, or fearful and losing ground.

Perhaps what comes up is an area in your life that seems particularly dysfunctional — an inability to get a handle on something. These are the areas where we go dead, where we fall out of awareness of the moment, even if we are practiced meditators who are usually able to be fully in the moment much of the time.

Is there some area where you go dead, where you get caught up in the future or the past?

For me it is around eating, especially around sweets. I can at times get caught up in a tight little pattern of circling back to the kitchen for one more of whatever treat is in the cupboard or fridge. It’s a circular journey where I get lost, even though, or maybe exactly because, I’ve done it so many times. If there is something sweet in the house, my mind can not leave it alone. I cannot rest until it is gone. Wouldn’t it be great to have the ability to pace myself, to have a little bit today, and, if I feel like it, a little bit tomorrow? I purchase or bake a treat with that very idea in mind. And then something else kicks in. There have been times in my life where I have been able to muster up the will power to steer clear of sweets all together. At these times I am very proud of myself, redefine myself as a person with a strong will, an admirable person. But that pride, pleasant as it seems, is in the end just an extra load, an extra label, and it doesn’t get to the core of the problem.

It’s rare to find a person who doesn’t have some place where they go mindless and get caught up in tight patterns. Going mindless so that we do something self-destructive and then beating ourselves up about it is a pretty toxic combination. It is the exact opposite of our paired intentions to be present and compassionate. We see the results of this mindlessness and lack of compassion all around us in the world, where people are living out tight patterns of destructive behavior, bringing misery to themselves, to those around them, to society as a whole, and to the earth.

Mindfulness meditation is a training to help us be fully present in all areas of our lives. Wise Effort encourages us to set the intention to be present, even in difficult moments so that we can see what’s going on, what sparks the mindless pattern, the words we use to make it okay, the way we might scold ourselves afterwards, perhaps the way we take it out on others, etc.

With Wise Effort, I can notice the actual sensations of my desire rather than act upon the cues I am conditioned to believe must be followed. With Wise Effort I can do this. But because of the life-long pattern of either riding the steam roller of will power or wallowing in the swamp of lethargy, finding that authentic expression of Wise Effort in this area is more challenging.

With meditation practice we are developing the ability to be conscious. We can sit with our thoughts and notice the things we tell ourselves, seeing them as threads of thoughts passing through our awareness. Since they do not define us, we can notice them without the reactivity of harsh judgment or despair. We can pay particular attention to when we find we are justifying a choice. For example, I have several sentences that repeat on a regular basis, the latest ones I’ve noticed are, ‘Grandmas should be plump,’ and ‘The fat is filling out my wrinkles and I would look older if I were thinner.’

When we find ourselves justifying our choices, that’s a clue to a challenging set of self-destructive patterns. After all, we don’t bother justifying going for a walk, eating a healthy meal or washing up.

So if you found an area in your life where Wise Effort seems to be lacking, you might want to take the time to really notice what is going on, adding spacious awareness where there is a deadening dread or a powerful drive.

Here are a few guidelines for this exercise: Try it out right after meditation or any time when you are quiet and the wise inner voice (the one that accesses our connection to all that is) can be heard. Set the intention to be present and compassionate each time you find that your mind has wandered or you are being rude to yourself.

Notice how much of what comes up is directed from outside sources, bringing up comparing mind, the inner scold and a sense of personal failure. Question the truth of everything, but do so in a respectful way.

Consider journaling as a way of noticing the way you talk to yourself and a way of making note of any insights. Let it be an interesting ongoing journey of discovery, not one more chore on your to do list.

You’ll find Wise Effort supports and sustains you in a way will power or striving never could. And remember, you don’t have to be good!

Insight Meditation, how ‘Dharma can heal our wounds’

The short lessons we read from The Pocket Pema Chodron before my dharma talk and discussion, is often in sync with what I had planned to talk about or whatever came up before in our meeting. This week we read #87 ‘Our Predicament is Workable,” that starts with the sentence “The dharma can heal our wounds, our very ancient wounds that come not from original sin but from a misunderstanding so old that we can no longer see it.”

‘…a misunderstanding so old that we can no longer see it.” What does that mean?

We talked about how on a personal level there are many patterns that we operate with in our lives — patterns of thinking and behavior — that we see as our way of being, part of who take ourselves to be. We let these patterns define us even though we don’t know where they come from or how they were woven.

On a collective cultural level, we have been weaving certain traits as well, reacting to events such as climate, landscape, famine, drought, war and other threats to our well being. These culturally inherited or co-created traits also become part of our personal pattern. International travel is useful to help us see beyond what we believe to be ‘human nature’ when it’s really just our own localized set of patterns at work. We can see other nation’s collective patterns more clearly, without needing to judge them or prove one is better than another. Viva la difference! When we see how much variation there is between cultures and between individuals within cultures, we are less inclined to believe that there is one way of seeing the world or any given situation. This frees us from having to defend the particular thought patterns we are most familiar with, nor do we need to disparage them. We can simply begin to see them as a little more free-floating, a little less intrinsic to our very being.

Through mindfulness meditation we make the space to begin seeing these patterns more clearly as they arise and act out as passing thoughts or emotions. We can compassionately look at them, and at the defensiveness, shame or judgment that may arise with them. They are just patterns. As we give our minds the quiet to settle down and become spacious, we may wonder about some of the things we notice.We can perhaps focus our thinking mind, struggle to analyze these patterns and come to some conclusions. But what is this analysis and what are these conclusions but more judgment, blame and assumption? More of the same patterns?

In the space we create through our meditation practice, we can wonder in a more open creative way. For example, we can simply put out the question, “Is this true?” and then allow for our quiet attention to let the ‘answers’ arise in our awareness.

I shared with the sangha an experience I had soon after starting to meditate 30+ years ago. I was questioning an ongoing troublesome pattern I recognized, a place in my life where I tended to go dead. I asked “Why am I like this?” Then I let the question go (probably because I had asked it more in despair than in any expectation of finding an answer!) and I relaxed, resting a little longer before getting up to go about my day.

Because I was relaxed but noticing, three different vivid images of events from my past floated one by one through my awareness. I remember thinking how odd it was that these long forgotten memories would just show up like that, yet here they were. Because they came in a series, I looked for a common thread, and realized that each one offered a memory of getting shut down around this very area of concern, making me turn inward and go dead.

‘Oh!’ The answer was there as clear as if a spotlight and a close up lens had been offered up for purposes of self-exploration and discovery. This is what creating a meditative relaxed open attention to the present moment can offer up, if we are willing to stay present to notice.

A sangha member shared her own exploration of a particular knot of fear-based pattern that troubled her. She could see that the reaction that became her pattern was learned at an early age. Like most of our patterns, she saw how it made sense at the time but now, as an adult with other means and with the power of autonomy, she could respond with more skill to challenging situations.

This is part of the insight process. We notice, we question, we gain insight. And then what? Well, if we just stop there we can either develop a pattern of judging our patterns, or we can stay open and allow awareness to soften the patterns, releasing us from them. But there is something else we can do if we are wanting to continue the process a little further within a meditative self-exploration.

If we have our younger self in mind, we can compassionately reparent the child within. What does this mean? Well, especially if we are parents or have taken care of children, it is fairly easy to see our young self with a great deal of tenderness and compassion. (Whatever harsh views we hold about ourselves, certainly we can allow that as small children, no matter how we behaved, we were worthy of being loved, being held with compassion. Even the person we were in our early twenties, before the finishing touches were put on our brain’s judgment functions scientists have now discovered, can be reparented, forgiven for failures of judgment, etc.)

Whatever it was that we didn’t receive from our parents or guardians — love, kindness or permission to be ourselves — we can give ourselves now. We may find within us the voice of the parent that may have withheld love, been overbearing, forgot to praise or was constantly scolding or abusing us. Whatever our relationship with those who had power over us, we can fairly say they did the best they could at the time, because that’s true for us all. We each of us hold within us a set of patterns that, if we are not able to get conscious, dictate our behavior. If there is no room for forgiveness, then let that be a known knot within us, a knot that we can hold with compassion for now.

We can recognize that the still-active voice within us that replicates the parent’s voice can also be held with tenderness. It is what we have to deal with now — not the actual parent, but the internal parent voice. (So often we feel we need to have a conversation with our elderly parent, or feel we have lost the opportunity after they die, when really it’s this inner parent that is in charge now, and it’s an inner conversation that needs to happen!)

We can hold this inner parent voice with compassion, treat it with respect, listen to its concerns, and work with it in the same way we have worked with other voices or aspects of self, all of which are knotted fear-based patterns of thought-emotion that can be seen now that we are creating an open spaciousness within our minds.

In our meditation practice we have the paired intentions to be fully present and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. With these two intentions we have the very tools we need for skillful inner exploration and insight,

Making Note
When we have insights, it is often useful to make note of them. Caveat: This can turn into a compulsion to write down everything, which turns it into something different and sometimes short circuits the process. But if some words stay with us and make a profound difference in our lives, then writing those words down and keeping them close might be useful.

I have this note to self that I wrote on a retreat pinned to my bulletin board:

I have nothing to fear
I have nothing to hide
I have nothing to prove
I have something to give.

This was a realization I had on a retreat. At the moment I wrote it, it was not a hope of a way to be but my actual experience of being. Up on the board, glanced at on occasion, it refreshes me, strengthens me, puts me back in touch with myself.

Of course what I wrote down is not always true for me. I don’t use it as an ‘affirmation’ but a way to find the truth of the current moment. I can say those words and question. Is that true?

At a recent reading an accurate statement was:

I have nothing to fear, yet I’m afraid.
I have nothing to hide yet I feel the weight of the effort to keep something buried inside me.
I have nothing to prove yet I feel myself striving to be something other than what I am.
I have something to give, yet I withhold it for fear it is not good enough.

That was the truth in the moment I wrote that statement. To work with it at the time I asked questions:

What am I afraid of? (Always a great question whatever the situation!)
What am I hiding?
What am I trying to prove?
What do I have to give?

At any given moment the answers will arise differently, so I will not record them here. This is just a reminder, a suggestion, of how to work with an insight that has captured the crux of a knotty pattern within. We each have areas that are particularly knotty, patterns however created. When we have an insight that shines a light on the knot, that makes more space between the knotted threads, that makes it easier to see the threads from more angles so we can see where the threads come from and how the tangle got so tight, then we have the opportunity to sit with it and allow it to inform us.

Can we take the time to allow the process to unfold? Can we let it arise without forcing it, without jumping too quickly to grab an easy answer and claim it as proof of our enlightenment?

May we be relaxed but alert, open in mind and heart, awakened to the moment, filled with a sense of universal kindness, able to hold whatever arises in an open embrace.

Buddha’s River Analogy continued: Why We Crave the Shores

In a previous talk, I shared the Buddha’s analogy of a river to explore The Middle Way. We have looked ar various aspects of it, and today you will have the opportunity to explore for yourself what is on the shores of your own river and why it draws you.

Both the banks of the river, though they look so different — one a lush jungle of opulence and indulgence, the other an arid desert of strict self-denial — are really quite similar. They both lure us deeper and deeper inland with promises that if we just go a little further, we will find ultimate happiness. Whether it’s through acquisition or austerity, the message is still the same: Wherever we are right now is not okay. Change is necessary. The here and now is flawed. We are flawed and in need of changing.

Perhaps you say that message is not a bad one because none of us is perfect. We are each flawed, and therefore in need of changing. And then you add that the world we live in is not perfect and in need of fixing. Maybe yes, maybe no, as the farmer in the Taoist teaching story says. If you are not familiar with this story, it goes something like this:

A farmer had a plough horse to help him tend his fields. One day the horse ran away. His neighbors told him how sorry they were for him. How would he till his field? What a terrible misfortune had been laid upon him, and he didn’t deserve it, he was such a good man, such a hard worker. But the farmer surprised them when he said, ‘Maybe it’s a misfortune, maybe it’s not. Who knows?’

The next day the horse returned, and along with him came some other horses. Now the neighbors exclaimed, “What great fortune for you! You are the luckiest man! You deserve this good luck.” But the farmer surprised them again when he said, “Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows?”

The next day the farmer’s son rode one of the new horses and fell off, breaking his leg. The neighbors said, “Oh my, this is a terrible stroke of bad luck!” And the farmer surprised them again when he said, “Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows?”

The next day conscription officers came to the area to draft all able-bodied young men into the army. Since the farmer’s son’s leg was broken, he was allowed to stay home with his family. The neighbors, some of whom had tearfully seen their sons trudge off to war, exclaimed at the uncanny good fortune of the farmer. And this time they were not surprised when the farmer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows?”

As you can see this story could go on and on. It’s useful to think of this story the next time we notice ourselves reacting as the neighbors did. We can pause and question the truth of our assumptions about a situation. We could withhold judgment and open to possibilities within any situation.


Nostalgic amnesia
It seems to be in our nature to see the world as it is right now as more flawed than it was in the past. People ask, ‘What period would you go back to if you could time travel?” as if there was some idyllic time when all was right in the world. This nostalgic amnesia really gets in our way of being present with what is. I just saw an interview on The Colbert Report with the author Stephen Pinker about his book, ‘The Better Angels of our Nature: A History of Violence.’ In it, he points out the statistical fact that we are living in the most peaceful time in history. Now of course this is per capita and there are way more people now, but even so this may seem contrary to our own sense of the way things are. This is nostalgic amnesia.

In class I brought up a decade that many people wax poetic about, a decade remembered as all soda fountains, felt poodle skirts, bobby socks, etc. But they choose to forget that the 1950’s and early 60’s was a time of ongoing degradation based on skin color, gender and sexual orientation. I remember children with downs syndrome either being hidden away in secret back rooms of homes or institutionalized, held in huge rooms naked. I saw this room with my own eyes when our school choir went to sing up at ‘Napa,’ the mental hospital for the San Francisco Bay Area. It was a decade full of fear of nuclear war. Many of us never expected to make it to adulthood, envisioned being evaporated en masse or dying slow painful radiation deaths. Some built fall out shelters to save themselves and their families and to keep out the hoards of neighbors who would want food. It was a time of paranoia, people seeing ‘a red under every bed.’ I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It’s a both/and situation. Yes, there were wonderful things about that decade too, but no era has ever been or will ever be perfect.

One student pointed out after class that things may seem worse now because we are more informed about everything that is going on around the world. She said that her experience of the 1950’s was very protected, not exposed to the things I mentioned above, but now she feels bombarded with a 24 hour a day influx of information. It’s challenging to know at what level to adjust our filters for all this input!

The technological advances of our age are a wonderful example of the ‘maybe yes/maybe no’ quality. On the one hand these technologies bring amazing abilities to stay connected over distances with family and friends. On the other, we can easily manage to never know our neighbors, as we come and go in cars, pushing a button to open our garage doors and closing ourselves into our contained spaces. Thus, we feel isolated and disconnected, even though we are carrying on text, twitter, email and phone conversations all day long. Of course we can easily remedy that situation by making a concerted effort to know our neighbors, to create real community, to participate in local government and organizations instead of only focusing on national and international situations. These technologies bring the ability to co-create a leaderless revolution. They bring the possibility of identity theft, of governmental invasion of privacy, of those with fear-based motives reaching our children with messages they are not able to defend against, of fear-based advertisements invading our homes and our minds before we realize we have been seduced or inducted.

This could well be the reason meditation has become so sought after now. It is needed so we can each find a way to be skillful in dealing with these challenges.

So the wise person doesn’t put on blinders but is able to hold all of what is occurring, recognizing the yin/yang quality of being, finding a state of equilibrium, understanding that these are and always will be ‘the best of times and the worst of times.’ Dickens claimed that in his opening line of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ about the French revolution.

‘May you live in interesting times.’ Is that a Chinese blessing or curse? Both! And we certainly do live in interesting times. How grateful I am to be alive to witness and participate in this fascinating period.

The recognition that nothing is perfect and was never meant to be perfect is very liberating. The astro-physicist Stephen Hawking says the universe was created from two forces: gravity and imperfection. Watch the first few minutes of this program to see his explanation.

With only gravity there would be a static unchanging uniformity, but imperfection provokes gravity into a dance so that the planets orbit and cycles occur that would not otherwise have been necessary. So imperfection has been getting an awfully bad rap, considering its importance in the creation of life itself!

I belong to Toastmasters, an international club to help people overcome their fear of public speaking and develop leadership skills. For the past few years I have been able to see incredible transformations in people in the club. Almost every member joined in order to change, in order to improve ourselves and our skills. Our motivations were anchored in this discomfort with who we felt ourselves to be in relation to the world.

But the transformations that have occurred are not from the elimination of imperfections but from the release of the fear of letting those imperfections show. The speakers who are most enjoyable to watch, most able to convey their message and connect with the audience, have learned how to relax into their shared humanity. They are completely themselves at the podium. And because they are relaxed and sharing openly of their own experience and knowledge, their audience can relax and take in what the speakers are saying.

The more we hold back, the more we protect who we hold ourselves to be, the harder we try to be perfect, the less successful we are. True transformation is a process of relaxing, noticing and releasing tension (which when in front of an audience exhibits itself in a variety of distracting ways,) making eye contact with others that reminds of of our connection, realizing that this is a practice and failure is simply a way we learn, and then staying in the present moment as much as possible with what we have to share.

If this sounds a little bit like how we begin meditation, then that really isn’t very surprising.  Coming home to ourselves, our true selves, is the key to letting go of the discomfort with who we feel ourselves to be in the world.

In Toastmasters, the most engaging and enjoyable speakers have in a way polished up their imperfections. The other day a club member talked about how unhandy he is in such an engaging and entertaining way that he won the spontaneous speaking award (Table Topics ribbon) that day. If he were to become handy around the house, maybe his wife would be happier because she wouldn’t have to hire someone to do those tasks my fellow Toastmaster cannot do, but the world would be poorer in a way I can’t explain, but I think you understand.

Think of someone you love who died. Isn’t it often the very quirks that drove you most crazy that you miss about them after a while? Isn’t it those very imperfections that make you smile?

There are Toastmasters who get caught up in a state of paralysis, afraid to get up and speak because they have not reached their goal of being perfect speakers and don’t want to embarrass themselves. Sometimes this paralysis keeps them from coming to meetings, even though they keep paying their dues because the intention is still there. But if they just keep showing up for meetings and taking roles that require them to speak in very non-threatening way (explaining their role at the beginning of the meeting and following up with a little report at the end of the meeting), and occasionally getting up for two minutes to answer a posed question, slowly but surely their confidence grows.

This is true in so many aspects of our lives, isn’t it? We don’t have to be Toastmasters to recognize the pattern we get into when we get inspired to improve ourselves in some area. Perhaps we join a gym to give ourselves the opportunity to get in better shape. The same pattern happens. If we go, we realize it’s a supportive atmosphere (hopefully!) and that we feel better for having done it, but if we don’t attend, we get stuck in that place where we feel disappointed in ourselves and stuck. We want that perfect muscle tone, that slimmer body now! We don’t want to have to see ourselves in the gym mirrors or compare ourselves to others who seem perfect. They’re not, of course. But some part of ourselves plays that game in our heads and we stay away, defeated and uncomfortable with how we perceive ourselves to appear in the world.
In the grueling ongoing effort to become more beings, are we hoping to trade in under-valued traits and attributes for ones that are more in demand? Or do we really just want to be more at home in our own skin?

It’s also true in developing a regular meditation practice. I honor my students for taking time out of their busy lives to come to class with such dedicated regularity. If they are in town, they are here. They carve this space out of their week and arrange their lives around it. Many of them have also managed to carve a half hour out of their day for a daily practice of meditation, as I hope all readers of this blog do. And just like the speech club and the gym, meditation practice is primarily a matter of showing up. What happens after we have set that intention to practice, that intention to be present and compassionate with ourselves, arises naturally. We don’t have to worry about the outcome. It is enough to be here.

For real transformation to occur, we need to be fully present and fully aware of what is occurring in this moment. Only then, anchored into sensation, can we recognize the mindlessness of habitual patterns that drag us ashore into jungles of desire or deserts of self-negation. Only then can we see that it is not our lack of uniformity that is causing us misery, but habit of striving for some distant vision of happiness where we or the world are different.

The river analogy applies to all of us, but each of us sees the banks differently. At times my indulgence bank is lined with hot fudge sundaes. Knowing this helps me to recognize it as the seductive jungle that it is. I am not clear what the sweet treat promises, what the allure is. That’s something I could explore and it would be very beneficial in order to be able to return the Middle Way river and not sink the boat with my over-indulgence! But would I only be comfortable in my skin if there was less of it? That’s another area for me to explore.

What line your shores? What inner aspects are jumping up and down, waving signs and calling out to you? Notice the expressions they use, how disrespectful they are, how they call you names to demean you.

What is so alluring on the banks of the river for you.  What is the promised goal as you trudge through the jungle of over-indulgence or the desert of self-denial? There will be a tangible fear that draws you to each shore. Can you name the fear? At core all our fears are the fear of separation, the fear of isolation, of encapsulation, of rejection. But on the surface they have many different names and appearances.

In class we did an exercise of exploring our own experience of being on the river, first looking at one shore, then making notes or drawing what was there; then looking at the other bank and doing the same. We also made any notations or sketches about the boat, the river and what we saw ahead of us. This might be a self-exploration exercise you would like to do for yourself after meditation practice, when you are feeling calm and spacious.

You might picture the images that draw you as cardboard cutouts set up as a lure with nothing of substance behind them. See if that helps to remind you that there is no fulfillment possible on either shore.

When we are fully present on the river, this river that runs through the center of our being, this river of presence and compassion, we feel fully enlivened and at one with the universe, this universe formed by imperfection.