Category Archives: Spacious Action

Wise Action

 

alt=The next aspect of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path we’ll explore is Wise Action. We can all easily come up with examples in our lives of unwise action: Maybe the time we tripped and hurt ourselves, the time we left the burner on in the kitchen and forgot about it, or the time we ended up with indigestion from over-indulging.

Unwise action is often frustrating, sometimes painful and can be dangerous. So how do we develop more Wise Action in our lives?

First we check in with our intention. This is always the first place to go whenever we feel out of sorts. Is our intention wise? Is it a wise loving intention that promotes taking care of this gift of a physical body to the best of our ability? Or are our actions seated in some sense of self-hatred that assures that they are likely to be unskillful?

We can also look at our effort. We might see that we are trying so hard to accomplish something that we are not taking good care of ourselves. Or, we are under-efforting, and not meeting our body’s needs. Wise Effort arises from Wise Intention and the two work together to bring balance and effectiveness. It’s an area to explore.

What about Wise Mindfulness? If we hurt ourselves or others it’s often because we weren’t being mindful. We were thinking about other things and we had an accident of some kind. Is there any accident that we caused that didn’t arise out of not being fully present in the moment? If everyone on the road were being mindful as they drive, would there be any accidents? This is why self-driving vehicles are safer. A computer-driver is not making grocery store lists, talking on the phone or texting, daydreaming or caught up in an emotional storm. Instead it is constantly noting all causes and conditions. Theoretically we could drive as well as computers, but instead we let our minds wander and boom. This is no small problem! In the US alone, there are over 30,000 traffic deaths per year, and many more serious injuries.

What about Wise View? Our actions become unskillful in relationship to other people when we believe them to be separate, alien and threatening. It’s a scientific fact that we are not just made of the same stuff, but are seamlessly interconnected with all being, but coming home that reality is sometimes difficult because we are caught up in destructive patterns of emotion and thought. And the result is violence. When we are able to come to Wise View, our actions are more skillful.

Beyond violence, other unskillful actions arise from unwise view: All manor of addictive behavior that is destructive to ourselves and those around us.

Last post we looked at Wise Speech. Now we can recognize how unwise action can be activated by unwise speech. Words that are hurtful can lead to bodily harm.

See how all the aspects of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path work together? When we recognize that something in our life is off kilter, that we aren’t being skillful or wise in our actions, we can explore more fully where exactly is the lack of wisdom in this particular case.

Often our actions are reactions. This makes them intrinsically unskillful and likely to cause trouble for ourselves and those around us. As we cultivate wisdom, our actions rise out of that wisdom. They are not reactive. They are, instead, responsive. What’s the difference? Reactivity is mindless, on auto-pilot and rooted in fear. Responsiveness rises out of a sense of being interconnected to all life. The action is rooted in Wise Intention, a loving intention that has no expectation.

Wise Action in a Changing World

In general we are uncomfortable with change, even change we had hoped for. It takes us time to adapt, to mourn the loss of what was and come into some comfortable relationship with what is new. In part this is due to our habitual nature. We are used to doing things a certain way and suddenly we have to pay more attention. For example, moving into a new home can be exciting but stressful, not just because of all the boxes to unload and phone calls to make and things to arrange, but also because we were operating on autopilot in our old situation. We didn’t have to think about it. We knew where everything was. We knew the route by heart to the old home, and our body just naturally goes there. This new route takes some purposeful thinking.

This is true with a new job, a new relationship, a new physical challenge or a new leader. It all takes some getting used to. And that’s not easy.

If the change was something we chose, then we are buoyed by the excitement of an opportunity or challenge. We can still find it stressful, but overall we feel good about it. But if the change was not of our choosing then there is no excitement to buoy us up. We find ourselves floating and sometimes drowning in a sea of difficult emotions.

If that sounds at all familiar, then let’s explore skillful means to survive and even thrive in that sea of change.

First, we need to recognize that change is the only constant. From the day we were born, we and everything around us has been in flux, growing up, altering circumstances, changing course. Walking in nature we recognize the cycles of seasons. Nothing stays the same.  

Second, we can see that we have always somehow dealt with change and have survived. But is survival enough? Most of us want a little more from life than mere survival.

We can look at the way we have dealt with change to see if it was skillful. Or are we reacting to what comes up in our lives with emotions and actions that seemed skillful when we were eight years old? As adults, if we take the time to pay attention, we have the capacity to see that these are not skillful. But because we are not taking the time to explore, evaluate and reassess, we may still be handling things in childish ways: sulking, lashing out, acting up, hiding out, unwilling to look at all sides of an issue. We may still see from a child’s eye view: That the world or someone in our lives is the cause of all our problems and we totally helpless to do anything about it.

Is this true? For most of us this may be true in some areas and not in others, because we have paid attention and grown in some areas, but are still on autopilot in regard to others.

Insight meditation is developing a strong healthy habit of meditation, mindfulness and compassion. AND doing self-inquiry. Especially after a period of meditation, when the mind is quieted down enough so that our innate inner wisdom can be heard, we can begin to question some of our assumptions about things.

So when we feel adrift in a sea of change, meditation and inquiry can allow us to become like dolphins, able to inhabit the experience more fully and more joyfully. Coming into the moment, we can recognize our reactivity, and how we are causing ourselves misery. We can see how we get stuck in nostalgia, stuck in anger, or lost in despair. We don’t get unstuck by pushing any of these emotions away. We get unstuck by cultivating spaciousness, compassion for ourselves and others, allowing whatever is present to be there, but also noticing what else is also present in this moment.

At any moment, in our body and in the world, there are both pleasant and unpleasant things going on. Noticing both allows us to expand our view, to hold all that is going on in a skillful way. And from this noticing we find we are able to be fully present and rooted in a more peaceful and loving intention, so that we make wiser choices and wiser actions.

Past dharma talks on Wise Action:

https://stephanienoble.com/2013/09/30/wise-action/

https://stephanienoble.com/2011/04/02/the-five-precepts-intrinsic-to-right-wise-or-spacious-action/

https://stephanienoble.com/2009/03/11/eightfold-path-right-or-wise-action/

Spacious Action – ‘It’s not the load that breaks you down’

When we look at our cooking pot analogy of the Eightfold Path, we can see how Right Action or, as we are experimenting with it, spacious action arises as steam out of mindfulness. So, theoretically, if we tend the pot, i.e. hold our consciousness in spacious view, fueled by spacious effort, sparked by spacious intention and stirred by spacious concentration, then spacious action will arise quite naturally. Theoretically. In reality that doesn’t always happen. Why not?

Many of us compartmentalize our lives, so that once we are done with our meditation or our silent retreat, we re-enter our ‘real life’ as if it is something quite separate from what we have just been doing. Thus we quickly fall right back into unconsciousness, back into that murky soup of habituated patterns of thought, behavior and speech. We forget that the practice of meditation is to develop skillful means to stay aware, to stay conscious, and to stay clear and compassionate throughout our lives, not just during meditation. Not just on retreat!

Action, how we conduct ourselves in all areas, is not some separate function but an intertwined co-arising aspect of the Eightfold Path. It can be an entry point to the path if we become aware of how our behavior is impacting our well being and the well being of others. This observation may come upon us at any time with or without the benefit of meditation. The difference is that with a strong meditation practice we have skillful means to see the whole of what is happening. Without the practice, the recognition of unskillful action may be used as just another way to beat ourselves up, another way to blame someone else or some cause or condition for our behavior, another binge, and another sinking into deeper and deeper murkiness. But, sometimes the recognition comes with an insight that leads us to begin meditating, and thus it can be an entry point to the Noble Eightfold Path. Perhaps it was yours.

If so, the next step is still and always to return to our skillful intention to be present in every moment and our intention to be compassionate. Thus we are able to see our actions more clearly and we can look at them without running away.

Through this skillful process, this Eightfold Path of developing more clarity and compassion in our minds, our hearts and our lives, we begin to understand that even though we are fully responsible for our actions, they do not define us. Absolutely we need to rectify any suffering we have caused to whatever degree is possible, but we do not need to defend our behavior. There is no excuse possible. Coming up with one is just another self-protective device, based on the erroneous assumption that we are a unique isolated fortress rather than an intrinsic and beloved part of the rich and wondrous flow of life. Excuses keep us churning in the miasma of misery and foster more and more unskillful action. So when we are unskillful, we own up to it. We recognize the error. We understand that error is part of the human experience, arising mostly out of fear and unconsciousness. Think of anything you have done that you wish you had not done and see if you weren’t afraid of something. It might have been a little something but the ramifications were great, like you were afraid of being late so you were speeding in your car and had an accident. But that little fear of being late might be seated in a larger fear of losing love or respect, of being separate. (Being on time is a show of respect to others, of course, and is skillful behavior that starts well before we get into the car, but once we are in that heavy vehicle with all its capacity for harm, with the responsibility for the well being of ourselves, our passengers and everyone else on the road, then driving mindfully is our highest priority.)

Most of us don’t like to own up to how very afraid we are. It helps to see that it is a common part of the human experience to lose our awareness of our interconnection with all of life.

Through meditation practice, renewing again and again our intention to be present (conscious) and compassionate (sensing our deep connection), we begin to be more skillful in our behavior. We become more even in our behavior, not treating some people one way and others another. We behave as if everyone matters. Everyone does! We relate to people from that deeper more connected source of being, and we respond to that deeper more connected source in them. (Think about the phrase ‘namaste’ — the God in me bows to the God in you.)

We stop worrying about what others think about us, and we find we care more about them as an integral part of life. We lose any desire to impress them and instead gain the joy of seeing them happy, finding that when we stop needing to defend ourselves, to prove ourselves then we can focus on what we can share with others, with the world that brings more joy and awakening.

This is a huge and wondrous shift! And it comes through awareness practice. Not just during meditation, but continuing throughout our day, day after day. The ongoing support of our practice enables us take responsibility for our actions, to correct our errors, to loosen the stranglehold of destructive habits and to feel our actions as a dance of interconnectivity rather than a battle that saps us of our will to live.

So, actions are not automatically wise, skillful or spacious because we see meditation as separate from the rest of our lives. But there may be other reasons as well. Old patterns of behavior, deep seated fears as yet unexplored erupt in ways that create unskillful actions. When they do we may be disappointed and feel that our practice isn’t working. But it is! Because now we are able to see the unskillful action, and begin to see the patterns of fear that are still operative because still unconscious, still stuck in the sludge at the bottom of the pot!

Remember that at first, before we started having a regular meditation practice, we couldn’t see these patterns. We justified the behavior they caused and pooh-poohed that the matter could have been handled any other way.

Once we begin to see our unskillfulness we might feel ashamed and guilty. We might stop meditating because we don’t like what we see. This is a challenging stage because we are still defining ourselves by our thoughts and actions and now we see ourselves as ‘a person who does bad things.’ We are still unaware of but firmly attached to the fear-based patterns that caused the unskillfulness. But at some point, if we can just hang in there and give ourselves as much loving-kindness as possible, we begin to see more clearly and the patterns are much more noticeable because they don’t fit anymore. They stand out against the more spacious experience of our life as the tight and toxic sludge that can still be stirred up by certain events and conditions.

I remember finding myself almost twenty years ago in a shouting match with my then teenage daughter. That had been our pattern for a while, but on that day I saw myself more clearly. I saw my out of control and shouting behavior and I started to laugh. It was so absurd to be once again in this pattern of behavior that in no way expressed my true feelings for this child I loved so much. Needless to say she was a little surprised. I’m pretty sure that was the last shouting match we ever had. We found other ways to communicate, ways that were more accurate expressions of my concerns for her well being and her desires for the freedom to live her own life. This is not to say that we never had misunderstandings, but it was a great breakthrough for me to see a leftover destructive pattern arise in my growing awareness. These kinds of breakthroughs remind us that the practice is working! If they feel few and far between, just keep resetting your intention to be present and compassionate.

At times this kind of exploration and self-discovery is painful. We may simply want to get rid of or bury patterns, but this just fuels them. We might be over-efforting, digging too deep too fast. Insights arise out of awareness. If you have to put on an oxygen mask and dive into the depths, you may be forcing the exploration beyond what is skillful in this moment.

We are simply noticing patterns of behavior as they arise in this moment through awareness, compassion and inquiry. In the light of our growing mindfulness, we can see them for what they are, acknowledge them, learn from them and let them go. (Remember our image of holding the world in an open embrace, neither clutching nor pushing away.) Then our actions will be more spacious, arising from compassionate mindfulness. Until then we use the unskillful actions we notice as information for our inquiry to discover what we are afraid of and what old patterns of fear are still holding such power over our behavior.

Where do we begin this exploration? We start from where we are and work with what we have. Discovering what that is takes spaciousness as well. Chances are we have readymade long-held assumptions about who we are and how we are, but spaciousness allows us to take the time to inquire into the veracity of our assumptions. Many of our assumptions were made when we were quite young, when we were sponges for any information about ourselves and were ready to accept other people’s opinions without questioning the source. Conversely we may have been overwhelmed by other peoples’ opinions and in an effort to protect ourselves we shut out even useful insightful perception.

Either way, we have cobbled together the vehicle of our beliefs about ourselves into a reasonably functional means of getting around in the world. So what if the wheels are square and the ride is painful?

We suffer because we keep relying on this cobbled together transport instead of taking the time to investigate what it is that’s creating the rough ride. For some of us, this investigation might be therapy because what is coming up is too difficult to deal with alone, or because a more formal relationship is useful to keep us on track with our investigation. But even then, meditation is a great aid to the process. Learning how to meditate every day and set the intention to be present and compassionate with whatever arises can be the process or can aid the process. In either case the Eightfold Path supports us by offering the means to discover the source or sources of our misery through spacious inquiry and noticing our patterns of thinking, our patterns of behavior and our beliefs about ourselves and the world as expressed through our thoughts, emotions and sensations.

Lena Horne is quoted as saying, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” This is exactly what the dharma tells us. It is not our mother-in-law or spouse or child or job that is the problem. It is the vehicle of our beliefs, this cobbled together contraption of dispirit malfunctioning parts that causes pain every time we carry our load along. And when we hit a bump or a pothole in the road, an especially challenging time in life, then it makes the load feel even more difficult to carry.

So do we need a mechanic? Maybe! Like a good mechanic we need a keen ability to listen and notice where there is discord in the functioning of these patterns of thinking and behavior.
The literal translation of the word dukkha (suffering) is ‘ill-fitting axle hole,’ so this vehicle analogy has deep roots in the dharma.

In Jack Kornfield’s book called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry he reminds us that meditation is not an escape from life, that it is not about going off and having mind-altering experiences, the ultimate legal high. Yes, in meditation we lay our load down, but after meditation, or after our silent retreat, we pick it up again. If we are grumpy that we still have a load to bear, if we are sad to have our meditative experience over and ‘real life’ back to deal with, if we are thinking ahead to the next time we can get away to the cushion, the retreat center, the walk in the woods or the tropical beach, then we are missing a crucial aspect of the dharma: “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”

I am not a backpacker, mainly because I backpacked across Europe when I was nineteen and it was painful in every possible way so I have had no inclination to replicate any portion of that experience. But I see how backpacks today are designed of lighter materials and designed to carry the load differently, taking into account laws of physics and human anatomy, so that even if carrying the same amount of stuff, the load is lighter. So that’s what we are doing with our spaciously imbued Eightfold Path. We are giving ourselves the means to investigate how we are carrying our load so that we can pick it up again and carry it more joyfully.

Spacious Action

As we continue on our second exploration of the Eightfold Path together (see early 2009 posts for first exploration,) we are experimenting with inserting the word ‘spacious’ instead of ‘right’ or ‘wise’ before each of the eight aspects to see how it affects our understanding, fully understanding that this is just an exploration, not a rewriting of the traditional teachings.

What does spaciousness affect our understanding of right action? Is there a difference between right or wise action and spacious action?

For me ‘spacious action’ feels like there is time to act skillfully and from the source. There’s no need to hurry when we have the time to act in a way that honors our intention to be present and compassionate in all we do.

Spacious action arises out of the sense of interconnection with all that is, fully aware of the supportive nature of the web of being, giving us time to consider the rightness of our action, to be sure that it is kind, conscious, caring, timely and true.

Have you had the experience of walking fully embodied, fully sensing in to the sensation of foot meeting ground, arms swinging through air, the texture of clothes shifting on thighs, the sights, sounds and smells that we encounter as we walk? Our first instruction in meditation is to sense in to the body, to become aware of the breath and other sensations in order to be fully present in this moment. So likewise our first action would follow the same course, sensing in to the body and all its sensations, grounding ourselves in the full awareness of this present moment.

I remember having dinner one night at Il Fornaio and on the way back to the table from the restroom, I practiced being fully present, walking at a normal pace – not slowed down as I usually am in a walking meditation – and feeling fully ensconced in life in that moment. The destination existed in my consciousness as a slender thread of thought rather than a dominating goal. I was able to fully savor all aspects of that rich experience – walking in the soft light of a restaurant filled with people dining and talking and enjoying themselves, and feeling very much at one with the whole of the experience, with the whole of life.

This is spacious action, this being fully present in this moment. So fully in the moment that it is quite unlikely I would have bumped into anyone, causing a disruption or accident. It felt like a beautiful dance, as if I was awake to appreciate a particularly lovely sequence in an ongoing dream.

Let’s contrast this to my usual experience of returning from a restaurant restroom where my mind is already back at the table, and my body is hurrying to catch up, so eager am I to not miss any of the conversation. What poverty there is in an action that perceives only two points on the path – the bathroom to meet a physical need and the return to the table to meet a social need. The point of spacious action is to have a full awareness of the whole experience, not just the two end points.

Now if on the way back to the table, I got so caught up in the goings on that I lost sight of my final destination then that would be spacey action, not spacious action. Spacious action seeks a balance between our sensory ability to savor the moment and fulfilling whatever we set out to accomplish.

Any advanced practitioner of Tai Chi, Chi Gung or other ways of working with the body to align with the universal energy (called Chi or Qi in these traditions, but has many other names in other traditions,) would probably find Spacious Action to be a familiar way of being in the world. The instructor teaches the right way to do something, but until the action is aligned with that universal energy, arising out of a sense of connection, the student is only trying to replicate what he or she sees the teacher doing. At some point there may be a subtle shift into Spacious Action, and the teacher will recognize that the student ‘gets it.’ The student then tries to get it again, and may get caught in a struggle of over-efforting, but eventually is able to recognize that subtle shift, that releasing into a sense of being held and interconnected instead of an isolated bag of bones and muscles that must slog through the world on will power alone, doing battle against all comers.

Now of course it’s one thing to feel spacious while relaxed in a restaurant or engaged in doing Tai Chi, but what about in all those other more challenging situations that we find ourselves in on a daily basis? And what about when some extra challenge arrives in the form of a loss or a threat? Where’s our spacious action then?

This is why we have the practice, returning again and again to our intention to be present and compassionate. In this way our minds become spacious, our hearts become spacious and our lives, in turn, become more spacious.

In this and coming weeks we will explore what Spacious Action means in the various areas of our lives. We will share teaching stories that reveal the universal patterns of behavior that either cause suffering from a sense of isolation or joy from a sense of interconnection.

As we explore, we may begin to notice that it is always in relationship that actions take place. In relationship to our bodies, our families, our homes, our friends, our co-workers, the earth and all inhabitants of all species, our work, our play, and our way of being in the world. It is not our body, our family or anyone else that is the cause of our problems. It is how we relate to them, our habituated patterns of behavior, and often our tight fearful un-spacious action.

Spacious Action then is really Spacious Interaction, acknowledging that it is all in the relationships, the connections, and whether we feel connected, supported and supportive.

Because we begin meditation practice by sensing in to the body, it seemed appropriate to start our exploration with our relationship to our body and how we hold this aspect of our being in awareness. This is an area many of us struggle with. I do. I observe my struggle, am sometimes a bit bemused by it, but it is certainly an area where Spacious Action is often lacking in my life.

Why? Well, it shifts over time, but currently I’m noticing a dialog, sometimes an argument, between a voice that wants me to be as healthy and able-bodied as possible and a voice that waxes poetic about how grandmas get to be round, roly-poly and cozy, and certainly don’t have to deny themselves sweets or anything else wonderful. In fact they should be producing delicious baked goods for all their loved ones, even if it kills them!

Just being aware of the players in an inner dialog is enough to start a rich journey of noticing. So I won’t put on a little play here with my cast of characters. Instead I ask you to notice your own cast of characters. You can begin by identifying at least one major player in your life right now in the area of your body or your health. This might bring up issues about aging, the natural changes that happen to the body that bring up other issues perhaps. Just be noticing the voices and sort them out a bit.

Although I began doing inner dialogs on my own before I became a student of Buddhism, I was delighted to later discover that it is a time-honored Buddhist practice as well. It is a skillful way to recognize the variety of thoughts going on in our minds and to explore the sources and associative images that come forth in attitudes, beliefs and expressions that more often than not are harsh and abusive. I teach it in the way that I practice it, and that has been useful to me. I don’t know if it strays from traditional teachings, but I do know that it is a valuable and effective tool for self-discovery.

You may be saying ‘Wait a minute! What voices in my head?’ This practice is for meditators who have sufficient experience to recognize that their thoughts are not pure expressions of self, but more a river of mostly unconscious patterns that pass through our awareness, that could just as easily be anyone else’s thoughts. This is not to say that we do not have a certain amount of unique expression as these thoughts travel through the patterns of filters created by our inherited tendencies and acquired experiences. But through meditation and the development of mindfulness, we see with growing clarity that these thoughts do not define us.

This understanding liberates us to feel free to explore them and learn from them. We do not bar the doors or evict them, as that technique doesn’t work and has long term negative repercussions. Instead we bring our compassionate respectful attention to discover what it is that these inner aspects are afraid of and then we respectfully negotiate a reasonable way to address these fears without letting the aspect/voice dictate our actions.

So first we notice a thought going through our mind, some generally negative statement that we recognize as ongoing or recurring, a belief about ourselves or the world and our relationship to it. Recognizing the general tone and area of focus of this thought helps us to see it more clearly, and is further enhanced if we give it an affectionate descriptive nickname, so that we will recognize it each time it arises. I remember at one point having a full cast of characters, one named Lumpy because he was kind of a lump on a log, not wanting to do anything. Another was named Striver because he had such over-efforting exhausting ambition. And I’ve talked in the past about Slug, who hated exercise and just wanted to stay in bed because it was like a big mommy hug and he missed his mommy.

Hmmm, why are all these inner voices male? That’s something to explore for me.

Once we notice and name an aspect, we are ready to have a dialog. We can develop a set of questions to help us understand them better, and the first and foremost question to ask of any negatively charged voice within our thoughts is “What are you afraid of?” This question is not a challenge. It is not calling the aspect a scared-y-cat, which would just shut down any possibility of fruitful inner dialog. If this happens we need to pause and access our deepest most compassionate awareness to call forth and be respectful of the truth of each aspect’s fear-based view of the world.

It isn’t very helpful to have two fear-based aspects carrying on a dialog. Therefore, the dialog process is only useful once we have begun to experience Spacious Mindfulness. From that clarity, we can be skillful in our inquiry. If we are unable to access that compassionate clear inner voice, the one that has no agenda but to hold all life in an open embrace, then we will want to focus on our meditation practice and just practice noticing and simply questioning the veracity of our harsh judgments. ‘Is that true? How do I know that’s true?’

So I hope you will find time during the week, perhaps after meditation or after a walk in nature, to record an inner conversation with an aspect that has the strongest opinions about your body. Making a record in a journal or in whatever form is comfortable for you, helps to stay on track, making a distinction between a formal dialog and a meandering train of thought.

This working with our relationship to our bodies is probably one of the most personal areas we will be exploring, and we won’t be discussing our discoveries in next week’s class. This homework is for ourselves alone. Bring as much spaciousness to the inner exploration as possible.

In coming weeks we will be looking at different areas where spacious interaction would bring about joy rather than suffering.