Category Archives: Seven Factors of Awakening

What keeps us from awakening?

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At the very center of the graphic chart of all the Buddhist teachings are the Three Marks of Existence:

anicca, the impermanence of all life; anatta, no separate self; and dhukka, suffering that comes from our ongoing argument against the truth of the first two Marks. Hmm, they must be super important to be at the very center, right? They are! When we deeply understand these, then we awaken to a sense of aliveness and joy that lets us celebrate with gratitude this very moment, just as it is.
But most of us just can’t seem to embrace these Marks as true. We either don’t know about them because they’re not talked about in our culture, or we can’t make sense of them. They seem obscure. So, we suffer.
For example, if we get depressed or upset when we see wrinkles or we lose some abilities, we suffer, don’t we? We are not suffering because we are aging, but because we don’t see impermanence as a natural part of life.

The poet Mary Oliver died this week. Her ability to celebrate the natural world and bring meaning into our own lives was a powerful gift. May she be at peace. If anyone knew the nature of impermanence, it was she; for she observed it intimately every morning on her walks in the woods and marshes. That’s the kind of understanding of the nature of things that is not some cerebral notion, but a deep awareness. I am so grateful that she was able to share that wisdom in a way that resonated with so many. (In a 2015 interview, she said, “Lucretius says everything’s a little energy. You go back and you’re these little bits of energy and pretty soon you’re something else.“)
We also suffer when we believe that we are separate isolated entities encased in skin sacks, and that our main job is to polish and promote this separate self we call ‘me’ to obtain respect, power, love, admiration, etc. When our underlying reason to do things is to build up a separate-seeming self, then we feel lost and out of balance, dependent on the approval of others to be okay, and so we suffer.
We are not suffering because we are unlovable or because other people don’t understand us. We are suffering because we believe ourselves to be impermeable solid objects interacting with other solid objects in a stressful game we might win or lose.
If we look more closely at the nature of our existence, how every breath we inhale and exhale reminds us that we are intrinsically connected to all life, then we begin to open to the possibility that we are not alone. Further investigation shows us that skin is not an impermeable barrier that defines the boundary of our being, but is porous and very much engaged in life. And, if we take our investigation to a molecular level, we can see that all life is made up of the same stuff creatively arranged in constantly shifting formations, in a mind-boggling complexity of patterns, systems and networks that, once understood, release any sense of being isolated that we might have. We are all stardust. Not separate at all. And releasing our attachment to the idea of being separate frees us from a great deal of suffering.
Now notice how on the same chart of Buddhist teachings, encircling the Three Marks of Existence at the center are the ‘Three Poisons’: Greed, Aversion and Delusion.
Why, we might wonder, of all the Buddha’s teachings, would these two sets of three be so intimately entwined? Let’s investigate.
Might we say that the Three Poisons keep us from understanding and embracing the Three Marks of Existence? If so, how?
If we see impermanence as something to fight against, then we activate greed to shore up a sense of permanence: ‘If I just had that job, that house, that perfect body, that relationship, etc., then my life would be perfect forevermore.
We activate aversion to go into battle with the idea of impermanence. ‘I refuse to get old and I’ll do everything I can to look younger.’
And, to support the greed and aversion, delusion blinds us to the true nature of existence and creates a smoke screen that tells us that greed is good and we must protect ourselves from all that is ‘other’. Delusion tells us that if we can just get and do all the right things then permanent perfection is possible. Maybe even guaranteed.
If we feel isolated, then we activate greed to build up our fortress of self, believing that the more stuff we have, the more experiences we have, the more respected and desirable this separate self will be.
Aversion is activated at the scary notion of a separate seeming self, something that is learned when we are very young children. We feel we need to always defend this separate self against the ‘enemies’ that we perceive through our lens of fear.
Delusion delights in all this drama, creating mythologies, beliefs and a disorienting fog that together reinforce our belief in a separate self. Think of all the collective cultural myths that support the idea, for example, that life is a competition, that people who look different are dangerous, etc. It’s so easy for people in power to play on these delusions, and then we all suffer.
So the Three Poisons encircle the Three Characteristic of Marks as a hyper-vigilant barrier to deep understanding and awakening. Can we notice these Poisons arising in our experience, prompting our thoughts to play out all kinds of dramas? And instead of condemning what arises, can we just see them for what they are and hold them with a sense of compassion?
When we can do that, when we can perceive the patterns of the threads of thoughts, how they arise and fall away, impermanent and not us, then we can find the heart of the Buddha’s teachings coming alive in our awareness. That’s awakening!

It’s so easy to see other people’s delusions!

delusionThe definition of awakening (or enlightenment) is ending greed, aversion and delusion — The Three Poisons.

It’s pretty easy to recognize greed: ‘If I just had fill in the blank I would be happy.’

It’s even easier to recognize aversion, finding fault and making an enemy of people, things, situations and aspects of ourselves.

But, at least for me and maybe for you, delusion is more challenging to see because if it’s a delusion, how can we recognize it as such? Probably because of the difficulty of being able to see it and truly understand it, I have over the past decade of teaching barely mentioned the subject of delusion. Hmmm. What have I been avoiding?

When I shared with students in class a chart titled A Wheel of Buddhist Terms, how all the topics interconnect, we noticed how the hub of the wheel, the core of the teachings — understanding the nature of impermanence, no separate self and suffering — is encircled with what we might call a ‘noose’ of greed, aversion and delusion. These are what gets in the way of deep wisdom. Obviously they are crucial to recognize, understand and release if we are to awaken. 

So, how interesting then that I have not explored the subject of delusion for myself or with the class to any real degree. What I was taught early on about delusion was that it’s a bit like walking around in a fog, a state of clueless distractedness, and that’s pretty much what I share when the topic comes up. But not surprisingly there’s much more to it than that.

We were looking at that Buddhist chart because, as we come to the end of our exploration of the Seven Factors of Awakening, I wanted to show how it fit into the panoply of Buddhist teachings, and also to ask my students if there was any other topic on the chart that resonated, anything they would particularly like to delve into next.

One student asked if it wouldn’t be logical to start at the center and work out. Maybe. But every aspect on the Wheel is a door to all of the teachings. That’s why you can walk into any Buddhist meditation group at any time, go on any retreat, listen or read any teacher, and receive immediate insight and connection to all the rest of the teachings. So when someone asks ‘Where should I begin?’ the answer is ‘Begin where you are.’

That’s why I like to teach in response to where my students are in their lives, what challenges they are facing, and what aspect of the teachings would be of most benefit in this moment. Like most dharma teachers in this tradition, I also teach from where I am in my own life. Otherwise the dharma is just dogma instead of a rich living exploration.

After I rolled up the chart, I ‘wrapped up’ my months-long exploration of the Seven Factors of Awakening with a brief talk about delusion, almost a nod to its existence, before pressing on to the next big thing.

Not so fast. Haha! It turns out delusion is exactly what the students want to explore. So that’s what we will do. High time, it looks like! But since seeing delusion within ourselves is so challenging to recognize, I suggest we begin by seeing if we can identify it in others. We do this with as much compassion as we can muster, and we certainly don’t call people out on it. But for our own edification we begin to notice delusion as it arises in the news, in characters in novels and in those around us. In this way we might get a clearer idea of what delusion is, and begin to recognize its patterns.

In a recent article on denial, Jack Kornfield tells a story about a man who is driving down the highway when he hears a safety alert on the radio: “Anyone driving north on Interstate 187 should use great caution! There is a car driving on the wrong side of the divided highway.”
The man glares through his windshield and mutters, “There’s not just one car driving the wrong way. There are hundreds of them.”

Obviously, it’s much easier to see someone else’s state of delusion than it is to see our own, isn’t it? So let’s start with what is easy as an entry point to the subject. Again, it’s super important to remember that this is not to point a finger at anyone but to see how universal delusion is, and then to open to the likelihood that we are not uniquely exempt.

Unless you feel ready to explore your own delusions with infinite lovingkindness but not indulgence, let’s stay with other people for awhile. As we begin to see the nature of delusion in others, we can practice the kind of compassion that will enable us to then recognize our own delusions without freaking out and making an enemy of them.

I am excited about taking on this challenge my students have presented to me. I hope you will join us in this rich exploration that we’ll begin in January. Until then I have a couple of traditional Winter Solstice and New Year’s things I like to do with my class and with you. So stay tuned for those deep and inspirational annual offerings.

But meanwhile, look around using your lens focused to notice delusion. At this particular moment in history, we have an abundance of delusional behavior you might notice. But try to go beyond the obvious. Jot down examples and make a real investigation. Report back!

The pursuit of enlightenment: One more thing to let go of

tree-sitOne of my students said that the least interesting thing to her in the study of Buddhism is enlightenment. ‘That’s funny,’ I said, ‘because that’s exactly what I planned to talk about today.’ But maybe not the enlightenment she was imagining. If we think of enlightenment as some goal of miraculous transformation, I agree with her, because focusing on ‘achieving enlightenment’ sabotages our practice. A practice that enlightens us!

In class and in these blog posts we’ve been exploring the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Awakening or Enlightenment. The factors are Mindfulness, Investigation, Energy/effort, Joy, Concentration, Tranquility and Equanimity. Each factor is full of potential for rich inner discovery. Speaking of enlightenment, I feel lighter for having explored them. In the process there’s been a lot of letting go, Ahh! And in the lightening up, there has been a lot of gratitude. I hope if you have been following along and doing a regular meditation practice that you have found some benefits as well.

What does ‘awakening’ or ‘enlightenment’ actually mean?
For many it is seen as a means of escaping the difficulties of life, the ‘rat race’, ‘emotional roller coaster’ or however we want to describe the suffering we experience. But is enlightenment just another version of a beach hut on Bora Bora with a Mai Tai? There are plenty of shows you can watch that let you tag along as people, mostly overworked but highly paid executives, pursue just such a getaway. There’s even one where you can buy a whole island, just for you. Given global warming, these multi-million dollar purchases seem like a poor bet. But an equally poor bet is believing that escaping is the way to happiness. Because once the initial euphoria wears off, our patterns resurface and we’re back where we started, just thousands of miles away from what we thought was the source of our suffering. Hopefully we realize that, just like Jon Kabat Zinn’s book title, Wherever You Go, There You Are.

As uncomfortable as it may be to recognize that suffering travels with us, it’s enlightening to see that we are the ones who are cultivating suffering. We’re not helpless and there’s nothing wrong with us. We’ve just been barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. This recognition empowers us to try out new more wholesome ways of being in relationship to all that arises in our experience. That’s the heart of our practice.

Another book title, Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape, reminds us that it is skillful to stop thinking this (whatever ‘this’ is for each of us) is something we have to get away from. Of course, there are certain situations — abusive relationships, for example — where it is skillful to leave and to notice the patterns of excuses we make that deter us from doing so. But if we are beating ourselves up about, say, not having the funds, the smarts, the talent, the luck, etc. to buy an island or our dream home, or a perfect job, body, family, life, etc. — or we blame the world, our parents, the system, etc. and let that pattern of blaming sabotage us into inaction — then coming home to this moment, just as it is, and finding compassion for ourselves and all beings is the absolute best thing we can do.

With wise intention and wise effort and the help of the wisdom teachings we can gently cultivate awakening, which the Buddha defined as the end of the three causes of suffering: greed, aversion and delusion (which I think of as Yum! Yuck! and Huh?)

Since greed, aversion and delusion are the ways we habitually react to our experience, this is indeed a challenge. But being present to notice what’s arising, not running away from it, but allowing ourselves to be curious, aware and compassionate, is a more wholesome way of relating to all that arises. Daily practice for even ten to twenty minutes can make a world of difference to our whole lives. Add in a weekly class and an occasional retreat, and you’ll be amazed at how much clearer, kinder and lighter you feel!

Spirit Rock Meditation Center co-founder and author Jack Kornfield in an article titled ‘Enlightenments’ (in the Fall 2010 issue of Inquiring Mind, recently republished by Tricycle’s ‘Trike Daily’) suggested that there is more than one kind of enlightenment. Under his teachers Ajahn Chah in Thailand and Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma, he was given two very different means of awakening. With Sayadaw he was taught complete ongoing immersion into the retreat experience of sensory moment-to-moment awareness. When after a year he returned to study again with Ajahn Chah, he shared all the wondrous meditative experiences he had. Ajahn Chah nodded and appreciated all he had shared, and then said ‘Just one more thing to let go of.’

Ajahn Chah taught simply notice all that arises moment to moment in this daily life just as it is. Both of these ways are in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, and we have the opportunity to do both practices, as one supports the other. But attaching too much importance to going on retreat in order to experience the factors of awakening can undermine our understanding that awakening is available in every moment. There’s no place we have to go to ‘get’ it.

That said, given the opportunity to go on retreat, take it! It’s much easier to practice when that’s all that is asked of you and you are completely supported by all around you. Certainly some of the deepest insights that stay with me came to me when I was on retreat, and I am so grateful to have had those opportunities. It is relatively recently that we in the West have had retreats to go on, and it’s important to value and support the centers that provide them. That said, the most awake I ever felt and the deepest insights I ever had came from a period of dedicated meditation on my own, when, due to illness, I had a choice of going mindless watching endless television or taking a weekly meditation class and doing the practice extensively on my own. This was back when classes were rare and retreat centers unavailable.

Whether on retreat or in daily meditation practice, we set the intention to be fully present and compassionate with all that arises in every moment of our lives. That seed of intention planted firmly blooms into wise effort and mindfulness throughout the rest of our lives.

With that intention and effort, the Seven Factors of Awakening bloom within us. They are qualities we cultivate and states we experience more and more through our practice. Each Factor supports and enhances the others. There is a dependent co-arising of awakening.

Since we have recently looked at how language shapes our inner landscape, we might look at the traditional translations of the teachings of the definition of enlightenment: ‘extinguishing’ or ‘getting rid of’ greed, aversion and delusion. Do these verbs put us in a combative relationship with greed, aversion and delusion? Another word that is often used is ‘cessation’ that seems less combative, and then there’s the very simple word ‘end’ that for me seems relatively neutral. The overall term for greed, aversion and delusion is the Three Poisons. I think that’s a good description because dealing skillfully with poison is first a matter of noticing it, being aware of its toxicity, and then not swallowing it! The process of recognizing that these are indeed poisons could take some time. But noticing that they exist and then noticing how they cause suffering in our lives is central to our practice. If we are really looking, we can see how the endless desires and cravings make us unhappy. We can look at our judgments, annoyances and anger and see how they make us miserable. It’s harder to look at delusion, but we can often see it after the fact and we can let that awareness be a reminder of the likelihood of its presence in our lives.

Here is a practice that cultivates light:

Exercise

  • Notice greed, aversion and delusion as they arise in your experience.
  • Sense how they feel in the body, how tightness and tension arises.
  • Breathe more spaciousness to be able to stay present with the greed, aversion or delusion.
  • Cultivate compassion and clarity to dissipate fear and bring understanding.
  • Investigate instead of judging whatever arises; see the pattern and maybe the source.
  • Release with lovingkindness and loving intention whatever is passing away.
  • Notice whatever arises now with a sense of friendliness and gentle curiosity.
  • Let go of the goal of enlightenment, and let the light in. Let it fill you to overflowing.
  • Radiate infinite light!

I look forward to your thoughts on this topic. Click on ‘leave a reply’ above the post.

More than just coping with it all

Doesn’t it seem like just when things can’t get any worse, they do? This week in the United States has been marked by violence born out of such senseless hatred, it feels unbearable. In case you are reading this at a later date, and wonder which of the many senseless acts of violence I might be referring to, this week it is the slaughter of worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where eleven people were killed.

memorialI appreciated how PBS Newshour offered photos and insight into each person who died. Like the doctor who, even at a time when it wasn’t sure how AIDS was transmitted, saw his patients as people worthy of respect and kindness, shaking their hands without gloves and masks that many others in the medical community felt was necessary. And the brothers who looked out for each other with such sweet caring. What blessings they all were to the life of those around them. May they all rest in peace.

Getting a glimpse into who they were was such a reminder that the horrendous act that took their lives had nothing to do with them and who they were as people. It was an act of madness, a festering in a warped mind that manifested in a pattern that has taken root in our culture at this time and is all too easy to replicate. These kinds of patterns play out as impersonally as random tornadoes, the deranged perpetrator in some ways as helpless as the victims. The difference is that we as a community of citizens have no power over tornadoes, but we do have the power to change this kind of pattern, to make it more difficult to acquire the means to attack and easier to find mental health care. And yet we allow it to take the best of us, again and again.

How do we handle the onslaught of such a pattern repeating like a storm that strikes anywhere and doesn’t let up? Hopefully, with equanimity.

Equanimity? That sounds way too passive, way too ‘ho hum, another murderous rampage, what else is new?’ Are we practicing in order to take in such news like water off a duck’s back, leaving us untouched and uncaring? If that were the case, leave me out!

But equanimity is not disengagement from life. It is in some ways deep engagement, but done so with moment to moment attention, compassion and awareness. There is a Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, where meditators breathe in the pain of the world, a particular situation, person or group of people; and then breathe out loving-kindness. Through spacious compassionate awareness, the pain is diluted, cleansed and transformed into kindness, into good will for ourselves and all beings, without exception. It is a deep practice to be undertaken by those with a strong meditation practice that supports it. It is a way of responding to what arises with skillful means. It is empowering, balancing and enlightening. And it cultivates true equanimity.

But the tonglen practice is not the only response one could have, of course. In our class, as we shed tears and passed the tissues, a few shared how they were caring for themselves at this time. We always begin with ourselves. What is it that we need in order to be okay in this moment? Turn off the news and turn on some uplifting music? Take a walk in nature? Do some yoga? Meditate? Call a dear friend and have a deep sharing? These are skillful ways to return to our center. It is not running away. It is being fully present in this moment.

In our exploration of the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Awakening, we are just now coming to the last factor: Equanimity. How fortuitous. As a factor of awakening, it is both a quality we cultivate and a state of being that feels like a gift. And because it is the last on the Buddha’s list of factors, we might reasonably assume that it relies on all the previous factors. And that would be true. But also true is that the Buddha’s lists are often not linear but circular, so that all these factors are interdependent and evolve together.

Equanimity is being fully present with all that arises in any given moment, greeting it with spacious friendliness. Without equanimity, we are a jumble of reactivity, easily irritated, aggravated, hurt, worried, and tossed about in a turmoil of thoughts, entangled in knots of memories and judgments, at war with the world and with ourselves.

When we hear the horror stories in the news, it’s an opportunity to notice our own reactions. If we are paying attention, we can watch ourselves being tossed about as if on huge ocean waves with strong currents and undertows sucking us down and smashing us to the gravelly bottom of our emotional being.

We see that reactivity, in the form of grasping, clinging and aversion, not only causes suffering but is based on not pausing to notice the interconnectedness of all life and the intrinsic necessary nature of impermanence.

With the cultivation of all the factors of awakening — mindfulness (sati), investigation of the nature of reality (dhamma vicaya), energy/effort (viriya), joy (pīti), tranquility (passaddhi), concentration/clear awareness (samādhi), and equanimity (upekkha) — we are more and more able to be present, clear-seeing and compassionate.

When the loss is personal
Dealing with the news of the world is one thing, but personal loss feels very different, doesn’t it?

At moments of great loss, it can be like a huge boulder falling into a pond, causing a lot of emotional turmoil, so much so that even the wisest among us can get caught up in the waves and pulled down so they think they might drown.

But at some point, after the waves quiet down and the person is able to see the sky above and feel the lapping of the surface of the water around them, if they have been practicing being fully present and have had insights into the nature of being, equanimity even in their great loss is possible.

We can see the nature of impermanence playing out in every aspect of all of life, and this event is one expression of that nature. Since we have already discovered for ourselves that impermanence is key to life itself, we don’t fall down the rabbit hole of rueing the death, even of someone we love. We know we all die. We may not like the circumstances, or that life was cut short relative to the average lifespan, but we recognize that nothing in life is average, that given the causes and conditions that have come together in this way at this time, this loss is inevitable.

A deeper kind of well-wishing
It is a rich and important part of our practice to send metta, infinite loving kindness, to all beings. With a deeper understanding of the nature of life, we might deepen our well-wishing beyond hoping that we, our loved ones and all beings bypass difficulty, pain or loss. These are conditions of life that happen to all of us. So what we might more deeply wish for is that we, our loved ones and all beings have the skills to greet life’s challenges with equanimity and all of these Seven Factors of Awakening.

You can focus like Siddhartha under the ficus

ficus-buddhasTwenty-six hundred years ago, under a tree, a seeker named Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation, determined not to stop meditating until he awakened.

In his meditation he was taunted, terrorized and tempted by all manner of thoughts and emotions that came in such convincing guises that it was a challenge to not believe they were solid and true.

Instead  of engaging, chasing after or battling them, he recognized them for the passing illusions they were, and each time he greeted them in a friendly way with the words ‘I know you.’ Because of the deity-rich culture and times he lived in, he saw the hand of Maara (aka Mara, Maya), the tempter. Maara manifested thoughts of self-doubt, of the hopelessness of awakening and even of his right to try to do so. Maara also tried to activate desires and cravings, and to scare him into giving up his seat under that tree.

Again and again Siddhartha reset his intention, stayed grounded, and, thanks to six years of practice, he was able to stay fully present and see through these manifestations to their fleeting and illusory nature.  His awareness of the nature of impermanence and interconnectedness grew so strong within him that Maara couldn’t gain a foothold. And Siddhartha awakened. He became a buddha, which simply means awakened one. On occasion, throughout his long life, Maara tried again to seduce him to give up struggles, even for life itself when he was in a physically weakened state. Maara advised him to keep the wisdom he had learned to himself rather than sharing it. And, of course, Maara seized any opportunity to bring doubt into the Buddha’s mind that he was truly awakened.

The Buddha was a human being, with all of the struggles and suffering we all have at times. We honor the Buddha not as a god — he was the first to refute such an honorific — but as an inspiration to us to practice meditation as he did under that tree, with gratitude for his ability to see through Maara’s taunts, and share his teachings over many decades, so we benefit from them all these centuries later.

In class, I passed around little Buddha statues (gifts from students over the years) for class members to hold or to put in front of them while we did a few minutes of meditation with the image of Siddhartha sitting under that tree, his intention so strong, his concentration so clear. Perhaps you have such a statue that could at times be incorporated into your home practice. One student said it was easier to stay focused with the statue in front of her, reminding her of her purpose.

‘Now I understand why people have altars,’ she said. I teach what I call a ‘portable practice’ that can be done anywhere without drawing attention to oneself. But that practice doesn’t preclude having an altar at home for daily practice. It just means not becoming reliant on it, so that when it’s not there you can’t practice. Even traveling, one can bring to mind that young man so long ago with all the temptations we ourselves face, sitting under that tree with such skillful effort.

When he completed his marathon meditation and awakened, one of the first things he said was that all beings are endowed with the nature of awakening. This is important for us to remember, because our thoughts and emotions will likely try to convince us otherwise, that somehow we are uniquely incapable of awakening.

If Siddhartha can wake up, you can too. 

A fun way to learn to focus

When we sit in meditation, the untrained mind naturally runs amok. No fault there. We live in a culture of constant distraction and short attention span. The mind, even in silence, gets caught up in thinking or gets lost in a fog. Cultivating inner calm, ease and balance, we become better able to focus on one object, like the breath rising and falling. We create a spaciousness that lets us befriend what arises without engaging with it.following-thoughts-bench

Imagine sitting on a park bench on a pleasant spring day. All manner of people pass by and you not

ice them, maybe smile at them, but you don’t rush up to them and have a conversation, do you? That’s a skillful way to be with all the sensations, thoughts and emotions that pass through your inner ‘park’, that compassionate field of awareness in your meditation practice. How nice!
But, because, being human, we have lots of opinions and preferences, we may find certain people passing by our park bench grab our attention in various ways:

  • Perhaps there’s an attractive person we’d like to get to know. Or we see an ice cream vendor and suddenly we’re salivating, even though we weren’t the least bit hungry. Maybe we find this moment so extraordinarily pleasant that we never want it to change, We think, ‘Why can’t it be like this all the time?’
  • Perhaps someone walks by smoking and now the air is full of a foul smell. Or someone looks evil and we imagine horrible things they may have done. Or someone’s wearing an outfit that just doesn’t work – ‘What were they thinking?’ Or we wish the park bench was better positioned so we could see both the pond and the rose garden. If only that tree was a little to the left, then it would be SO much better.
  • Perhaps, even with all that’s going on around us, we get lost in a fog, and only after an unknown period of time do we notice again where we are and what’s going on. But then we’re lost in the fog again.
  • Perhaps a band of pranksters come along and lure us away from the bench entirely. We get swept up in their big to do, and it all seems so much more interesting than sitting on that boring old bench. They can magically travel into the past and the future! Why wouldn’t we hang out with them? But finding ourselves swept away, there’s also a sense of feeling lost and worried. Where is that park bench? Where is the park? Where the heck are we?
  • Perhaps we’re concerned because we’re not sure if we’re allowed to sit on this bench. Is this a private park? Do we need an invitation? Are people looking at us as if we don’t belong? And if we are allowed, is this really a good thing to do?

What I have just described in that park scenario are the Buddha’s Five Hindrances: craving, aversion, torpor, restlessness and doubt. What are they hindering? They hinder our capacity to focus, to concentrate and to awaken. Let’s look at them one by one. These emojis I created for an exercise we did in class to help recognize and remember these Hindrances. craving-green

Craving

Whether we crave sweets, sex, adventure, love, power or something else, that grip of craving throws us off-balance. We’re leaning into longing, missing what’s here and now.
Craving can be a specific physical addiction, but it is more universal than that. It’s like a dangling fishing lure that we keep leaping after, only to discover the pain of the hook. Even when we enjoy getting what we had craved, there’s an edge to that enjoyment because now we fear losing it. Clinging and craving go hand in hand. Even if we feel we have come to terms with the nature of impermanence, we hope against all reason that the rules don’t apply to us.

aversion-red

Aversion
Hatred is the most virulent form of aversion, and the one that causes mental blindness. This ‘blind rage’ sabotages any possibility of happiness. The mental knots of grudges and pet peeves we’ve been exploring recently, that entangle our thoughts and emotions in misery of our own making, are also aversion. As is the habit of fault-finding. How often have you been enjoying an experience but found some way in which it would be even better?torpor-face

Torpor

This is a kind of mental malaise, a state of fogginess, a ‘huh?’ quality, as if we’re just floating along mindlessly, not really living. There could be a physical component to this, when there’s a sluggishness in the body that is not just needing to rest after being active but an ongoing state of lethargy.restlessness

Restlessness

The restless mind has difficulty settling down and focusing on this moment. It is always leaping to the next thing on the calendar or to do list, or solving a problem or planning an event or a creative project. Worry and anxiety can arise here as well. The restless mind is everywhere but here and now.doubt

Doubt

This is not the healthy questioning that is an intrinsic part of our insight meditation practice where we ask ‘Is this true?’ This is a sneaky self-sabotaging doubt: Doubting that we can meditate or do whatever task we set ourselves. It’s also the doubt that our wise effort will be rewarded. Doubt may arise about the value of the practice and teachings, even though we have experienced their benefits. It’s the belief that somehow we are uniquely unqualified to awaken.

In class we did a practice of sitting as we would in regular meditation, but instead of just sitting on our metaphorical park bench and feeling friendly toward all that passes by, we made a point of identifying them as one or another of these Hindrances. I gave each student a sheet of Five Hindrance emojis in a pie chart, and every time a thought or emotion arose they were to make a mark in the section of the Hindrance where it best fit.
Contact me if you would like to get a downloadable PDF of this exercise sheet.
Please note that we are not categorizing or labeling ourselves. We are looking at thoughts passing through and categorizing them. If we find that most of our marks are in one area, say ‘aversion’, it would be counterproductive to label ourselves an ‘aversive personality’. In the Buddhist tradition, we are letting go of as many labels as we can, not adding more. So, watch for the all-too pervasive mental habit of labeling yourself, and resist!
Coming into Skillful Relationship with the Hindrances
Noticing these five hindrances as they arise in our experience is the first step, but how do we disengage from them? First and foremost, we don’t make enemies of them. That’s just aversion, one of the hindrances! Instead, we recognize their intention to improve things for us. They are patterns developed to ‘save us from ourselves’ in some way. But because they are based in fear and are myopic and misguided, we lovingly and respectfully cultivate enough space for them to exist without feeling we need to adhere to their plans for us, many of which are cockamamie schemes. We remind ourselves that they are not the bosses of us! As we practice, our own quiet inner wisdom can be heard and appreciated. We develop the ability to see the Hindrances for what they are and see that we have the choice not to succumb or engage in them.

We can develop some phrase to use in that moment of recognition that will bring us back to the moment in a skillful way. Your own inner wisdom will have the best phrase, but here are some ideas to get you started. Just be sure they are wise speech: kind, true, timely and not scolding.
Craving: This moment is enough.
Notice all that is arising in this moment to fully engage all the senses. Take sensory pleasure in the feel of your tongue in your mouth, the air on your skin, the light on your eyelids, etc. It was only ever not enough because you weren’t paying full attention.
Aversion: This too shall pass.
Remembering the nature of impermanence helps to ameliorate momentary annoyances. But a deeper practice of coming fully into the senses and thinking of whatever arises as part of this unique moment’s ‘symphony of now.’
For aversion that wants to makeover everything, the study of wabi sabi, where we are encouraged to find the beauty in all phases of life, not just some ‘perfect’ moment, like a flower at the peak of its bloom. How much richer life is when we expand our appreciation to include the beauty of wrinkles! Once you understand the concept, you can answer aversive thoughts with a whisper of ‘wabi sabi’.
Restlessness: This moment matters.
Gently and repeatedly bring the mind back to the here and now from wherever it wanders. In class I found myself almost in tears in defense of this moment, so often ignored. Poor little thing. It doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Especially when you consider that it’s the only moment that exists! All other moments are memory or imagining.

If worry is involved, you might bring out your inner Doris Day and remember ‘Que sera, sera – what will be will be.’
If anxiety is present, one student mentioned the skillfulness of switching out the word ‘anxiety’ for ‘energy’ and then asking, ‘How is this energy benefiting me?’ and other skillful inquiries. And again, letting go of the habit of labeling yourself ‘an anxious person.’
Doubt
I can do this.
I am worthy.
I have a seat at the table of life guaranteed by having been born.
You are not uniquely deficient in whatever qualities are needed to meditate or undertake other activities. And you deserve this! If you think you don’t you might use the phrase ‘The ocean refuses no river.’ as a chant. It can release any sense of feeling unacceptable. Also, make a habit of sending yourself infinite loving kindness — May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be peaceful. May I be happy. — or other supportive loving phrases.
If you are doubting the value of the practice or the teachings, find examples in your own life, or if you’re very new to the practice, in the lives of people you know, where meditation and the dharma have been of value. If you feel you haven’t achieved enough, let go of any sense of a time frame or progress chart. That’s just more self-sabotage.
Torpor
Here and now. Wake up! This moment is worthy of my attention.
To keep your attention present, you might give yourself extra sensory stimuli: Wiggle your toes, rub your fingers together, or some other small but effective way to maintain present attention. Encourage the mind to be curious about all that is arising in this moment in the field of sensation. Question your desire to escape.
With this look at the Five Hindrances, we have launched our exploration of Concentration, the next Factor of Awakening. I hope you have found this an interesting way to look at your busy thoughts. I appreciate your comments.

Beyond meditation :: Doors to tranquility

 

marita-king-swans

Photo by my friend Marita King who says this is where she finds tranquility.

 

In our ongoing exploration of the Seven Factors of Awakening, we’ve been looking at the factor of Tranquility, which sounds heavenly but can be elusive. In this post I will share a list of  easy ways we can access tranquility.

How we think about tranquility can get in the way of experiencing it. For example, tranquility is not about having everything under control. It is more like being able to rest at ease in a sea of uncertainty. That’s quite a shift of mindset! When we think everything has to be ‘just so’ in order to ‘get to’ tranquility, we never get there. In the first place, life’s not like that, is it? But also, our belief that tranquility is a place to get to or something to achieve sabotages us. We get stuck in an ‘if only’ state of mind, wishing for a fantasy idea of a tropical vacation that’s going to deliver us ready-made peace of mind. Tranquility is cultivated in life just the way it is, as we soften the way we are in relationship to all that arises.

We have been exploring those mental knots that continually cause us trouble, like long-held grudges and pet peeves. One of my students just sent me a fascinating article on the science of grudges, with a focus on revenge and resulting feud mentality. Revenge? Feuds? Yikes! I had not even thought about that. But ultimately, the article says, it’s best to just get over the grudge. So that leads us back to where we are in our practice, noticing when grudges exist, questioning if they still have any basis in fact or serve us in any way, and then gently releasing them, as possible.

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you may notice that I often put concepts into visual metaphors — the idea of grudges as a type of ‘tangled knot’, for example. But then the metaphors can expand and shift for me. So now in our inner mental landscapes, these tight knots can feel so solid that they form the land itself. This is distinctly different from the storms of thoughts that pass through our mind as we cope with current challenges — event planning, problem solving, etc.

Though these passing storms are not knots that need to be untangled, we might notice how the inner landscape of accumulated knots shapes the storms, perhaps making them more frequent or intense. So as you notice and gently release the tight tangle of long-held angry feelings, you may discover that passing inner storms fall less heavily upon you. Causes and conditions have not changed. But you have softened the lay of your inner landscape.

Have you been noticing your pet peeves and grudges? I continue to be surprised at my own. Some are easy to assess and release just by thinking about them and seeing that, though I was upset at first, on reflection things turned out for the best. If we don’t notice and question our grudges, how would we realize when that’s true?

It seems that when we make a point of practicing anything, the subconscious offers up clues, perhaps in our dreams. For example, this week I had a dream about my maternal grandmother who died over fifty years ago. I’ll spare you the details, but the memorable feature was her face looking at me with the warmest loving smile, her eyes twinkling. This was particularly memorable because it’s not at all how I remember her. And thinking of her, I realized I have a huge old grudge against her!

You be the judge of the grudge: One time when I was fourteen I was drawing and she took my art without asking, erased parts and ‘corrected’ it. I’ve held that grudge for most of my life! Good grief.

Clearly, although she was a talented artist, she was not a particularly skillful arts educator. So what? The very thought that any of my grandchildren would hold a grudge against me for one of my unskillful moments breaks my heart. So I will see if I can attach that warm twinkling-eyed smile to my memory of her, and let the grudge go. Again, I’m not making light of it or pushing it away; just acknowledging and looking at all sides of it with as much compassion as possible.

 

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Doors to Tranquility
Now onto sharing some of the many ways we can bring tranquility into our lives beyond our regular meditation practice. A little caveat: Any of these could be done with a frenzied aggressive mind and would not result in tranquility. So clearly something is required of us. The expression ‘you can take the horse to water but you can’t make him drink’ applies. We can provide ourselves with the nourishment of tranquility, but our mind needs to open to it, receive it and welcome it in a gentle way. If we pursue it ambitiously to accomplish something, or if we rush through it in order to get to the rest of our day, then we are like horses who gallop through the river rather than drink from it.

I am referring to these ways of accessing tranquility as ‘doors’. And if they are doors, then the universal key to all of them is through the senses. We learn how to attend the senses through meditation. None of these doors replace our regular practice, but they offer other opportunities to weave tranquility into our lives.

The Nature Door
Being in nature, unplugged, fully present and engaged with all the senses. This can be a walk in a forest, sitting on the beach listening to the waves, looking out the window at a bird, lizard or squirrel, or even a spider on the wall.

Let go of all thoughts, plans and goals of getting anywhere or accomplishing anything, like learning the names we have applied to what you are seeing. The deeper you go in nature, especially if you don’t get cell phone reception and no one expects anything of you, the more engaged you will probably be. Can you discover that you are nature too? There’s a great release in that, when we recognize that nature is not everything except us, but us too.

If this is a door that appeals to you, I highly recommend the teachings of Mark Coleman, an insight meditation teacher who wrote a wonderful book Awake in the Wild: Mindfulness in Nature as a Path of Self-Discovery.

If you like to hike in a group, consider agreeing to do at least a section of the hike in solo silence. Years ago a small group of us formed what we called a Spirit Hike, where we would walk and talk for awhile, and then when we got to the deepest part of nature, the appointed leader would have us stop and space ourselves at least thirty feet apart to proceed walking in silence for at least twenty minutes, each of us having our own private communion with nature. Then we would gather and begin to talk again, but the quality and rhythm of that conversation was so different, so much deeper, so much more connected, and tranquil.

The Mindful Movement Door
Many people exercise with the goal of becoming more fit. Nothing wrong with that, but there’s a missed opportunity to develop mindfulness and cultivate tranquility in the process. Any exercise can be done in a meditative sensory-aware way, letting go of extraneous thoughts and goals; but certain movement traditions are based in mindfulness, like yoga, tai chi, chi gong and many others.

The Arts Door
Any of the arts can be an entry point to tranquility, again depending on how you go about it. Listening to music that is soothing, of course, can attune our minds to tranquility. I imagine playing an instrument, if you are not caught up in demanding perfection but just being with the experience, could cultivate tranquility. Singing in a group or solo could bring tranquility. There’s something so nourishing for the soul to join a choir, for example.

Creating visual art without trying to achieve anything would do the same. And dancing, where it’s just your body responding to the music, can certainly be soothing. And then there’s creative writing, especially poetry. Writing can be a very left brain activity, reporting factual information, but when the right brain gets activated, a sense of tranquility can result.

Entering a museum or gallery space can shift the mind into a spacious receptive state. Many people find that while it’s pleasant to view art with others, it’s especially rich to give yourself the time and space to go at your own pace, lingering at any piece that draws you.

The Ritual Door
Personal ritual, where you, for example, brew and sip a cup of tea with mindfulness, is a way to cultivate tranquility. You can do this with any aspect of your life: Bathing, dressing, cleaning the house, organizing, reading inspirational words, playing with or reading to a child. The list is endless because anything can become a ritual, not because it is repeated but because it is done with mindfulness and loving-kindness, given whatever time it takes to do it.

The Chore Door
If you life is full to the brim with commitments and appointments, then it may seem all very nice but near impossible to find tranquility. But begin where you are. Take that next commitment or appointment and be fully present for it. Be fully present as you go wherever you need to go, not plotting and planning but just driving or walking in a mindful way. This will prepare you for wherever you are going because it will help develop the habit of being present.

The Ethics Door
It’s near to impossible to be tranquil if you are in a state of regret for unskillful words and behavior, or are unclear what is and what isn’t skillful. In Buddhism, there are the precepts of non-harming that make choices clearer, as well as the Noble Eightfold Path which offers insight into where the quandary might have arisen. When we live in a way that is kind to ourselves and all beings, tranquility follows.

As you can see, there are a lot of ways to enter into tranquility. But the most important part is to incorporate it into your life in every moment rather than thinking of it as an escape from a frenzied reality.

Doors to Ignore
As mentioned in the beginning of this list, the key to all the doors to tranquility is the senses. When you pay attention to physical sensation, not only does it center you to be receptive to tranquility-producing experiences, it also helps you to recognize when you have opened a door that will take you far from tranquility. This might be entertainment full of violence and horror, scaring you senseless or making blood and gore seem normal. When you notice extreme tension, an adrenaline rush, your heart leaping, you can remind yourself that this is pulling you away from any possibility of cultivating tranquility. And, if you’re really paying attention, you might notice the rippling effects of exposing yourself to such things.

This is not to put up a wall between ourselves and the world we live in or turn a blind eye to what goes on. It is to question the value of finding entertainment there, so that our hearts are more able to be compassionate and recognize the nature of suffering.

Are there are doors you have found to tranquility? Perhaps stroking the fur of your beloved pet? Whatever door you find, keep it as a presence in your life, not some distant destination, always on the horizon, that you’ll get to when you’ve got the time.

Make the time right now. Open the door!