Category Archives: self-exploration

A grain of salt, a kernel of truth

elephantThe expression ‘take what you hear with a grain of salt’ reminds me to allow for the very likely possibility that what I’m hearing is not entirely true. This is usually no fault of the person sharing. It’s just the nature of living in a complex world full of ever evolving knowledge.

Conversely, in every statement I hear, I try to notice that it has at least a kernel of truth in it. This is challenging because of the visceral reaction I feel to any idea or world view with which I strongly disagree.  But it is worth the effort, because if I can activate a sense of compassion for the person, listen carefully to what they are saying, I may be able to see the fear that is driving their statement and my reaction. In this way I can find our shared humanity. (Read more about Faulty Filters of Fear)

If truth is valued, then it’s important to take with a grain of salt even an idea we cherish and to recognize the kernel of truth even in an idea we abhor.

We would probably all prefer a solid truth to rely on, but accepting any old thing as true is obviously not the answer. In our rush to feel we know what’s what, we tend to accept things at face value if they feel true to us. But why do they feel true? Because they are familiar? We heard them repeated from parents, other family members, teachers, schoolmates, admired community leaders and news sources. Are any of those completely reliable sources? Or were they just repeating what they heard and accepted or hoped was true?

We get attached to our version of truth. We welcome anything that confirms it and feel threatened by anything that challenges it.  We incorporate these ‘truths’ into who we believe ourselves to be. We want to be right at any cost, because being wrong would dismantle our tightly held sense of self.  We likely label those who disagree with us as wrong, misguided, bullheaded or maybe even evil. We are less and less likely to reach out and engage with others outside a defined ‘safe’ circle, because from inside that circle it seems as if the world, or ‘wrong-thinking’ pockets in it, are dangerous and threatening.

Stuck in our entrenched positions, it is quite challenging to cultivate qualities of compassion and loving kindness. We may like to think we are kind, but we only extend compassion to people within circumscribed areas of agreement. Outside of that is a dangerous land of enemy thinkers we deem undeserving of our compassion.

Then we come to meditation practice and we are asked to send infinite loving-kindness to all beings. We are asked not to make an enemy of anything or anyone. This feels like an insurmountable challenge, maybe even one we don’t want to take on. What would we have to give up of ourselves to let down our guard in that way? The very idea threatens who we believe ourselves to be, and yet we believe ourselves to be good and kind. Uh oh! What a pickle!

At this point the most fearful among us make an enemy of the practice itself, saying ‘It’s not for me’ or ‘I don’t believe in that malarkey’. They go back to the bitter battle of defining their territory and needing to be right in order to feel okay.

That’s one choice. What’s the other? Do we have to hang out with people we disagree with and bite our tongues while they rant nonsense?

No. As a kindness to ourselves we can choose to respectfully steer clear of people caught up in tornadoes of fear and anger, unless we feel centered enough and called upon to help. Then we do so as conduits of infinite loving-kindness. If we’re not feeling kind even toward ourselves, it is best not to engage. Instead we focus on taking care of ourselves first because we have nothing to offer anyone else but our own fear-based opinions and depletable resources which will be of use to no one, and could make matters worse.

To not make an enemy of anyone doesn’t mean we have to agree with them. But they don’t have to agree with us for us to recognize our shared existence in this complex web of being. They are caught up in this tricky business of living just as we are. We may not wish that their goals come to fruition, but we do wish them well. (Even if in wishing them well we sneakily think, that if they were well they would not be so caught up in their wrong thinking!)

Our willingness to extend compassion to all beings, regardless of what they believe, helps us to be kinder to ourselves as well. We all have aspects of ourselves that we don’t feel particularly good about. We may have tried keeping them hidden but they pop out in all sorts of inconvenient ways. We create a fortress of Self, constructed of our preferences and our firm ideas that we defend to the end. We expend so much energy in this defensive stance that we become exhausted and none the happier for all our efforts. We just get prickly and prone to provoking fear-based emotions in others, causing misery all around.

The kinder we are to ourselves the less dependent we are on having to be right in order to be okay. But why would we want to let go of being right? Isn’t that losing something? In my experience, and in the experience of many others, giving up the need to be right is a great relief. We are not at war here. We are in a complex community of life that thrives on collaboration and communication and coexistence. The less vested we are in being right all the time, the happier we tend to be. Is that true? And if so, how do we get there?

First, let’s look at the expansive history and ongoing evolution of thought and knowledge. Consider how the facts that were accepted as true one hundred years ago don’t all hold up to the light of what further research has shown to be true. In many cases, it’s simply that we didn’t have a lens to see what was right before our eyes. Whether looking at things on a cellular level or into the cosmos, in both cases what our forebears could see with their limited tools don’t all hold up today, do they? That alone can give us pause to hold our current acceptance of what we ‘know’ to be true a little more lightly.

But still, for most of us, budging at all from our long-held opinions would be threatening. We have a need to be right, to know it all, to have things locked in.

Could we adopt a more scientific mindset? Could we inquire, observe, hypothesize, experiment and be open to being proven wrong in our hypothesis? The scientific community is trained to question everything. Non-scientists can adopt at least a degree of that same liberated mind instead of accepting any particular fact as the absolute truth.

But wait, we might say, things happened in history and some things we saw before our very eyes. Surely that is true, right? History is presented as facts, but history is written by the victors, by the dominant culture and throughout recorded history primarily by men. The filters that naturally arise from these varied perspectives present some facts and not others, either by complete omission or by highlighting certain aspects, projecting attributes upon them, and giving them whatever motivation, perspective and emphasis the person who lived to tell the tale chooses.

There seems to be a wave of research into previously untold stories to broaden and deepen our understanding of what life might have been like before our time. As important as this is, we can never recreate it exactly. We bring the zeitgeist of our current culture, our own slant laced with nostalgia or horror at past injustice. No re-creation of the past can help but be flawed. But for most of us it is far better than letting the past disappear completely and all the lessons learned lost.

Because of this interest, we now have a number of dedicated museums that are willing to look without blinders at things like the Holocaust, the African-American historical experience, etc. We even have the technology to capture in a most profoundly moving way a Holocaust survivor in a  hologram. In his own words he answers whatever question a visitor might pose in real time about his life and experiences. Along with written and oral accounts, a vital history lesson is being preserved in the hopes of never allowing such a thing to happen again.

Being open to listen and learn from people’s personal experiences is much easier if we don’t have preconceived notions that filter out what we are uncomfortable hearing. None of us want to believe that such horrors could occur, but denying that they do would seem a sure way to perpetuate them.

No one individual’s perspective will capture the whole of an experience, but by cobbling together a multiplicity of personal perspectives, we can come much closer to understanding the past. We might think that one factual account of an eyewitness would be completely reliable, but life is multifaceted. When the San Francisco Bay Area had a powerful earthquake in October 1989, those who lived through it asked each other the classic post-trauma question ‘Where were you?’ resulting in a wide variety of recountings of personal experience. So already, even in the moment, you have hundreds of thousands of versions of the facts, all of them true, but none of them telling the whole story. It’s like the blind men feeling the elephant and each coming out with a completely different description of what ‘elephant’ is, as shown in this video.

The earthquake was more than a collection of personal experiences. There are lots of facts: the date, the time, the 6.9 magnitude as recorded on the Richter scale. These facts are true, but possibly not the whole truth. Clock time itself is a cultural agreement among humans, not observed by the rest of nature, after all. And the measuring equipment will probably be considered unreliable and obsolete in fifty years. There were undeniable facts of fatalities, injuries and structural failures. But each fact is one facet of a much larger story that we don’t know. We didn’t know the victims personally and even if we did, no one knows anyone completely. Seismic engineers may be able to figure out probable cause for structural failures, but fifty years hence chances are there will be more in-depth understanding. This doesn’t make the facts untrue. It just makes them incomplete. That’s useful for us to remember when we think we know something. Can we at least acknowledge that our facts are incomplete?

On retreat at Spirit Rock a few years ago I suddenly had the knock-on-the-head recognition that ‘I don’t know!’ Looking around I could see how my mental shorthand, our communal convenient labeling of the world we live in as objects with names, left me still lacking in any real knowledge. My mental notation of ‘tree’ is just a skim the surface shorthand that’s necessary in order not to be overwhelmed by all the information being presented at every turn in this life. I don’t know and am unable to observe the goings on inside that tree or where it’s root go underground. I’ve been taught some things about the processes in general, but honestly I don’t know in this particular tree’s case what’s going on. I don’t know its history, what tree it fell from as a seedling, how it came to grow in this spot, etc. etc. And understanding how limited my knowledge was did not make me ambitious to find out more. It liberated me from feeling I had to know everything in order to feel okay. I hadn’t realized how tightly wrapped I had been in the fear-based need to believe that my shorthand version of the world is complete.

We have shorthand ways of defining people as well. We assign them categories based on gender, age, weight, height, ethnicity, profession, personality traits, clothing, possessions, etc. But what does it all add up to? Assumptions! And those assumptions cause us to judge them based on our experiences, in person or through the media, with others who we have pigeonholed in some of the same categories. Is this the way we want to be known? Of course not. Each of us wants to be seen clearly with fresh eyes, not through preconditioned filters that are blindingly inaccurate.

All the conclusions we draw are based on ephemera. And our assumptions come back to bite us in so many ways. For example, in our desire to be seen, respected, loved and admired we often compare ourselves with others. But we compare their perceived polished outsides with our more in-depth view of our own messy insides. Neither of our judgments are accurate.

We can see how clinging to our need to be right at all costs doesn’t serve us. But we may still feel we know facts when we see them. Let’s look at more examples from the 1989 earthquake.

People across the country watching film footage on television news were led to believe that the whole of San Francisco and much of the East Bay were in ruins. Why would a news report show the untouched areas? That’s not news because nothing changed. What had changed, and was therefore newsworthy, was the collapsed freeway and Bay Bridge, and the Marina district in flames. With so much going on, it’s not surprising that reporters failed to mention that the majority of the Bay Area was perfectly fine.

That’s the news biz for you! ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is the policy of the newsroom. Feeding the negativity bias of the survival mode part of our brain, is a safe bet for news shows to keep ratings up. In the newsroom, choices are constantly being made as to what to present. When my husband Will was a TV news film editor, the Black Panthers were much in the news. The reporters would tell Will what clips to include and in what order to suit their stories. It horrified him to see how they chose to include shots that showed them as militaristic and threatening, then routinely exclude footage of the community help programs run by the Panthers. So disturbed was he by this daily misrepresentation, that he saved the discarded footage on a reel in his work drawer. He should have taken it home. Eventually it was discovered and destroyed.

History is often destroyed because it doesn’t represent the skewed viewpoint of the person who is presenting the news. Today almost all of us carry around a phone that can record history in the making. This is changing our understanding of our world in wondrous and horrifying ways. We are seeing many more videos of cute and funny animals, of humans helping others of every species, of people standing way to close to tornadoes and lava flow, and we see firsthand the brutality and misuse of lethal force by those who are meant to protect us. In this way we are expanding the input possible, cobbling together a more accurate sense of things. But at the same time we are filtering out what doesn’t confirm our worldview, thus becoming more entrenched, and more likely to consider other views as ‘enemy’.

Can we recognize our own intentions and the intentions of those who are sharing their stories, each with their own hopes, dreams and agenda? In the long run, I can imagine that this explosion of sharing will offer future historians a more accurate reflection of the times we live in.         But they will have a whole lot of cat videos to wade through.

In next week’s post we will look at how to live with not knowing — and love it!

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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.

The Seed Catalog

As we continue our exploration of the valuable question ‘What am I cultivating here?’, wouldn’t it be nice to have a seed catalog for our inner garden? We could peruse through all the pretty plants and pick one we’d like to add. Well, hooray, there actually is one! It’s called the Ten Paramis (aka Paramitas) that we studied for a good part of 2016.

The Paramitas are qualities that are intrinsic to our nature, but not necessarily growing strong right now. In the following exercise, we can notice what we have nurtured and perhaps what is in need of more conscious cultivation. Ready to give it a go? Great!

Get something to make notes on, and take at least a few minutes to quiet down and center in. This would be a good exercise to do after meditation, but even a few minutes of quiet will help make it more meaningful.

Now, one by one, take your time looking over the list below. With each quality, pause. Sense in and see how it feels in your body. Does it bring pleasure? Then you probably have already cultivated this quality. Does it bring tension or anxiety? Make note of that. Discomfort may indicate a need for more attention in this area.
If you are not sure what the quality is, just put a question mark for now. Each paramita has a ‘READ MORE’ link to a fuller exploration.

In class, when we did this exercise on handout sheets, there was a place beside each quality to mark whether it needs cultivating or whether it is ‘sufficient for now’. One student appreciated the ‘for now’ because as long as we are alive we are cultivating something. Our garden is always in process.

Students developed their own little ‘rating systems’ with, for example, one, two or three stars, to rank qualities in some need or dire need of cultivating. Since we would like to cultivate one at a time, it’s helpful to rate them so that at the end of the exploration, you can see which one quality stood out.

EXERCISE: Paramitas — Seeds to cultivate in your inner garden

Generosity
This word may bring up examples of ways in which you have been generous with your time, your money or other resources. If so, you probably can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If it brings up feelings of tension, anxiety or shame for a pattern of withholding even when you want to be generous, give it a ‘star’ as something that may need more attention and cultivation. Recognizing our innate generosity, we can compassionately explore any fears that arise from past experiences of scarcity, of being taken advantage of, or of giving to exhaustion. [READ MORE.]

Ethical Conduct
This quality may bring up examples of times you have been fair, considerate and how in general you operate from your inner moral compass. If so, you can probably mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If it brings up feelings of anger, justification, annoyance or shame reflecting on examples of unethical behavior; or if your ethical behavior relies heavily on words like ‘should’ or fear tactics to keep you in tow, mark this one with a star.
It is only when we contract in fear, believing ourselves to be isolated and separate, that we think up and justify to ourselves unethical solutions to the challenges we face. It is skillful to see how these unethical solutions ricochet in our lives, causing pain and confusion. This reminds us to choose the simpler, clearer and more compassionate path of ethical conduct. [READ MORE]

Letting Go
This quality may bring up memories of relative ease with releasing objects, transitioning out of even the most pleasant experiences, and holding all relationships in an ‘open embrace’, loving without smothering. If so, you can probably mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If, on the other hand, you feel threatened by the idea of letting go, and recognize that you hold onto objects, roles, habits and relationships in a very tight way, then you will want to mark this with a star.
We are naturally fluid in our nature. But we can get rigid and clingy when we vest our identity in our attachment to people, roles, habits and objects. Our clinging makes us rigid and even more fearful. Then we believe that this fearfulness is who we are and the only way to remedy it is to cling harder, making ourselves and others miserable. But it is not our true nature to cling. It is our true nature to dance the fluid dance of life, a celebration of coming together and falling away, all of a piece. [READ MORE]

Wisdom
(Wisdom in this context is the deep understanding of the nature of impermanence, the sense of there being no separate self, and how we cause ourselves and others suffering through grasping, clinging and pushing away. If you have been meditating awhile, you may have had insights that can fall in one or more of these three categories of ‘Wise View’.)
If you feel you are firmly open and receptive to life’s ‘teachable moments’ that spark insights, if you see how they benefit your sense of well being, and if you are comfortable with not knowing all the answers but are happy to live with the questions themselves, then you can mark this one as ‘sufficient for now’. This is not to claim to be wise. It only means that you are growing it in your inner garden. It is taking root.
If this all sounds like gobbledygook to you, you might want to mark it as something to cultivate! [READ MORE]

Energy | Strength
This quality may bring to mind ways in which you readily meet the challenges of life, bringing a balanced physical and mental strength to handle whatever arises. If so, you can mark it ‘sufficient for now’.
If these words feel like challenges in themselves, if you find yourself often times lethargic and overwhelmed, then this might be a quality that needs cultivating. Conversely, if you often feel restless, driven, supercharged, and need to be always on the go, cultivating more balanced energy might be for you.
We come into the world with a natural understanding of the need to be active, the need to rest, the need to nourish. This understanding cultivates our innate balanced energy and strength. When we lose that understanding, striving or shirking, then we forget that we are strong and have the energy to do whatever we need to do in life, if it is wise, ethical, loving, generous. [READ MORE]

Patience
This quality may bring up examples of how you can easily wait without getting flustered or upset. If so, mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If the very word ‘patience’ has you in an inner tantrum, and you can think of many ways in which you are thwarted in life by slow drivers, busy doctors, long lines at the grocery store, being put on hold on the phone, planes not taking off, people not understanding what you’re talking about the first time you say it, people not getting to the point when they’re talking, etc., well, this is the quality for you!!!!!
We get impatient when we are trying to escape from our current experience. We want to escape when we are not open to seeing life as it is. We become blind to beauty of every moment unfolding. We become more patient through being fully present, aware of all life’s gifts, and through compassion. [READ MORE]

Truthfulness
This quality may seem to be about not lying to people, but it is also about noticing and questioning the long-accepted stories we tell ourselves. We explored together the question ‘Is this true?’ and discovered that we in fact often do inadvertently lie to ourselves by accepting without question our long-held opinions, etc. None of us are completely truthful in this way, but as long as we are aware and ready to question ‘Is this true?’ we can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If, on the other hand, you find it difficult to be truthful with others or you are unwilling to question the truth of what you tell yourself, you might want to give this one a star.  [READ MORE]

Resolve
If you are able to follow through on the intention(s) you set, then you have a strong sense of resolve. You can mark this ‘sufficient for now’.
If you find it very difficult to follow through on intentions, and you have checked in to make sure the intentions are wise, then Resolve might be a quality you want to cultivate more of.
When we find our true intention, we are innately able to stay true to it. We recognize and respect any dissenting voices within our patterns of thoughts and emotions, and find means to skillfully resolve the dissension within us so that our resolution rings true. [READ MORE]

Loving-kindness
If you practice loving-kindness to yourself, others and ultimately all beings, and truly feel the welling up within you of that infinite quality so that you radiate it, then you can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’– even though of course you continue to practice it.
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of giving yourself loving-kindness, or sending loving-kindness to even the most difficult people; or you are caught up in feeling there’s only so much loving-kindness to go around and you’re going to reserve it for those who are near and dear to you, then mark this as something you’ll want to cultivate in your inner garden.
If we recognize the infinite nature of loving-kindness, we attune to it and allow it to flow through us. It is our true nature when we are not caught up in believing ourselves to be separate isolated objects in a finite situation.  [READ MORE]

Equanimity
If you can think of all kinds of ways that you are balanced and resilient in life, how causes and conditions rarely throw you, or at least not for long; and if you can be present in the moment for each experience that arises, then you can mark this one ‘sufficient for now’.
If you struggle and feel overwhelmed by what feel like ever-changing demands of modern life, and many times you’d like to just be on a beach somewhere, then this might be a quality for you to cultivate.
Our true nature is spacious and able to hold all of life in an open embrace. If we feel out of balance, coming home to our true nature allows us to rediscover that sense of being able to be in wholesome relationship with all that arises in our awareness. [READ MORE]

I hope you were able to really take time to look at each of these and sense in to sensations, thoughts and emotions that came up around each. If not, if you just perused them, make a point of trying this exercise at another time.

If you did the exercise, take a look at your notations and see what you’ve come up with. Notice those you’ve marked in need of cultivation and see if you can sense which one is in most need of attention right now. You might ‘rate’ them as to which ones activated the most difficult sensations, thoughts and emotions. Which one is causing you the most suffering right now?

All these qualities are interrelated. You might find you have marked two or three. As you look at them you may see a relationship between them. You might also recognize that you mistook one for another. For example, Resolve and Energy could easily cause some confusion. Look more closely. Is it really that you lack energy to do something? Or is it a lack of true resolve? That’s an interesting exploration in itself that you can pay attention to next time you’re feeling like a couch potato.

Exploring any one of these Paramitas could be a life’s practice. They work together to bring about awakening to our true Buddha nature.

Once identified, how do you go about cultivating your chosen quality?

One way to incorporate a quality into your life is to use it in your metta (infinite loving-kindness) practice. For example, you might say silently to yourself, ‘May I be well. May I be at ease. May I cultivate my natural generosity. May I be happy.’ See how I slipped the quality of Generosity in there? You can do metta practice at any time during the day, and at the beginning or end of your meditation practice. Or do the metta to yourself at the beginning, then metta to all beings at the end.

Another way to work with your chosen quality is whenever you find you are struggling, upset or conflicted. Instead of trying to change anything, see if you can cultivate your chosen quality to help you face the challenge. You might be surprised how well it applies and how it provides a kind and loving solution. If it doesn’t, then perhaps the quality you’ve chosen is not the one you most need to cultivate. Choose another! But I recommend you work with planting one quality at a time.

Abandon all ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’, ye who enter here!
Please do not take this list of qualities, these wonderful seeds to plant in your garden, as a to do list of ‘shoulds’. It would be very easy to give yourself a hard time about not already having grown these qualities. But that would not serve to grow them. It would only send you out of the garden altogether, saying ‘I’m no good at this kind of stuff.’ Instead, when you find yourself being unkind look at which quality would most help you here.

I would very much appreciate your letting me know how this exercise was for you. Feel free to ask questions and share your own findings.

This little light of mine

Here we are in the deepest darkness of the year. Most of us have challenging relationships with darkness. Why? Our fearful thoughts and feelings are activated in the dark because we can’t see, so we don’t know what there is there. And in the quiet of the dark night our other senses are heightened. We hear things. What is that? We don’t know!! Yikes. Then our imaginations, already activated with the patterns of dream-making in the dark, can create all manner of things to be afraid of. So yes, the dark can be difficult.

But the dark is also where the riches can be found — all those hidden treasures stored away in the dark cavernous basement or the dark dusty attic of our inner world. But if we are going to explore these areas, we need a flashlight, right? Through the regular practice of meditation, that’s exactly what we are developing: the ability to shine a light in our own darkness.The ability to calm our fears and see more clearly. Our practice is illumination! We actively cultivate the light of clarity and the infinite loving light of kindness and compassion. We are well equipped to be present with whatever we find, and our discoveries will very likely be of benefit to us and in turn to all beings.

So on this longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, I wish you Happy Solstice! I attended a granddaughter’s holiday chorus and was delighted to hear her group singing ‘This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!’ That shall be my theme song for the season and beyond. Try it for yourself and feel the glow. 😉

Here is a video of my illustrated solstice poem, and below that is the poem for reading. Enjoy and share widely. You never know who among all your friends, family and acquaintances might be afraid of the dark and in need of some soulful fortification. 

Stephanie Noble

In Celebration of the Winter Solstice
a poem by Stephanie Noble

Do not be afraid of the darkness.
Dark is the rich fertile earth
that cradles the seed, nourishing growth.
Dark is the soft night that cradles us to rest.
Only in darkness
can stars shine across the vastness of space.
Only in darkness
is the moon’s dance so clear.
There is mystery woven in the dark quiet hours,
There is magic in the darkness.
Do not be afraid.
We are born of this magic.
It fills our dreams
that root, unravel and reweave themselves
in the shelter of the deep dark night.
The dark has its own hue,
its own resonance, its own breath.
It fills our soul,
not with despair, but with promise.
Dark is the gestation of our deep and knowing self.
Dark is the cave where we  rest and renew our soul.
We are born of the darkness,
and each night we return
to the deep moist womb of our beginnings.
Do not be afraid of the darkness,
for in the depth of that very darkness
comes a first glimpse of our own light,
the pure inner light of love and knowing.
As it glows and grows, the darkness recedes.
As we shed our light, we shed our fear,
and revel in the wonder of all that is revealed.
So, do not rush the coming of the sun.
Do not crave the lengthening of the day.
Celebrate the darkness.
Here and now. A time of richness. A time of joy.

– copyright 1994 Stephanie Noble

 

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.