There is a quality of patience with cultivating. You plant a seed and trust that with regular watering something will happen. There is no immediate expectation. The process involves us but is not completely a product of our will. We are tapping into the nature of things. It is the nature of things to grow. It is within our nature to be peaceful, to have more clarity in our minds and more compassion in our hearts.
In our last exploration of the Eightfold Path two years ago, I said that Right or Wise Intention is the way we keep our spacious view from becoming spacey. But can there be such a thing as spacious intention?
Intention clarifies, takes us out of the fog or miasma of our amorphous thoughts and emotions and adds a sense of precision and presence. But does something need to be solid to be clear? No! Think of air, think of a clear pool of water. Spaciousness allows us to have clarity without rigidity. So Spacious Intention is possible because intention is the clarity of purpose that arises out of spaciousness.
To review, our intentions, wise, right or spacious, are three-fold:
• to develop a regular practice of meditation
• to stay in the present moment
• to be compassionate to ourselves and others.
If this is new information for you, I recommend rereading the post from January 2009 about Right Intention. When we talk about spacious intention, we are looking to see how spaciousness might enhance each of these intentions.
The intention to set a regular practice
The first thing we need in order to establish a practice is to claim some space in our often busy day. For some people this seems impossible. Where would they find the time? A sense of spaciousness allows us to see the day differently. We can see space between activities perhaps. With Spacious View we can look at our day and see the times when we are sensing our interconnection, expanding that sense of presence and compassion. We can see the times we are not spacious but spacey, either in repetitive circular thinking patterns that become mindless and exhausting or in succumbing to mind-numbing activities that we think of as restful, like surfing the internet, watching television, playing video games, going shopping without needing anything, etc. When we get into Spacious Action, we’ll look at these kinds of activities more closely, but for now, let’s accept that most of us have some form or another of escapist activity that doesn’t serve us very well.
Many of the things we do to ‘give ourselves a break’ are misguided attempts to connect with Spacious View. When we can see this is true, we can replace at least some of the activities with a regular practice of meditation for twenty, thirty or forty minutes a day. Even ten minutes to start will make room for the possibility of developing Spacious View. (Read more about setting up a meditation practice.)
The intention to be present
Setting the intention to be present is setting the intention to anchor our awareness in our senses, the ground of the present moment out of which the infinite field of awareness is able to keep expanding to hold whatever arises in our experience. Notice that we talk about the senses, not about the body, because the image that we hold about the body is usually finite, bounded in our skin. In truth, the body’s edges are much less defined than we imagine, as the skin is a permeable collection of cells and pores, and the breath that enters our bodies and is then released blurs the boundaries as well. But, for the purposes of navigating around in the world, we have developed a strong awareness of edges and have made them more ‘real’ than is useful for purposes of our intention to be present. For this purpose, we are better off sensing, noticing what arises in the vast field of our awareness that is free of boundaries. This field is full of energy waves that our senses perceive as sound, light, felt sensation, taste and odor. We set the intention to notice without naming, without forcing the edges onto the sound that we recognize as the chirp of a bird, for example. By letting go of the naming, we can also let go of judging. If judgment arises, we notice it, but it too is simply an amorphous arising wave of thought that is simply passing through our awareness.
Being present and noticing in this way is a practice. Part of what we might notice are feelings of frustration caused by our expectation that a lifetime of not being present will suddenly evaporate simply because we want it to. Our expectations, our wanting, and our frustration are all part of the experience, all to be noticed and given spaciousness. And because we are prone to experience such frustration and harsh judgment of ourselves, our third intention is to be compassionate.
The intention to be compassionate
Lack of compassion arises out of fear and a sense of separation. All the harsh judgments that live inside us – judgments of ourselves, family, friends, public figures, and the way of the world – come from a tight state of anxiety and defensiveness, what has been called a vestigial fear ingrained in us since the days when we had many predators and few skillful defenses. I read somewhere that after we had discovered fire, invented spears and developed a strong sense of community to defend against and ultimately decimate species that preyed upon us, that vestigial fear still remained. Once we were safe from predators, we needed to pin that fear on something, so we began seeing differences among ourselves, naming ‘other,’ defining boundaries and creating war.
Now our ability to make boundaries and see differences has become such a highly developed skill that we feel totally separate, even from our closest kin. We encourage individualism and celebrate our uniqueness, but at the same time we have, out of fear, created absolute isolation! We have dysfunctional community relations because what we think we want from each other – admiration, recognition of specialness, etc. – is not what we need from each other: a sense of connection. That feeling of isolation can cause all manner of fear-based acts of aggression. Then the fear seems reasonable, as we feel we must protect ourselves from those who, out of fear, perpetrate these acts.
Wouldn’t it be great if we all could notice the fear as it arises and have skillful means to deal with it? Then perhaps together we could release the fear. Groups that form to foster peace and understanding are trying to do just this. And so are we who meditate on a regular basis. Some Buddhists take the bodhisattva vow to be reborn again and again in this world until all beings are able to awaken together.
Developing an awareness of our vestigial fear enables us to hold it up to the light to see if it is necessary. We are developing the ability to be conscious in our thoughts, emotions and actions. But consciousness can only show us the truth. Compassion enables us to hold what we discover in a way that is beneficial to ourselves and all beings.
So we set the intention to cultivate compassion. How does spaciousness come into play with compassion? A sense of spaciousness creates room for compassion to arise within us. Compassion is a spacious generosity of being, beyond the tightness of unfounded fears and a false sense of separation.
Compassion helps us to release what is held so tight within us. A number of years ago I had an insight on a retreat and I still have it pinned to my bulletin board. It says: ‘I have nothing to fear, nothing to lose, nothing to defend and nothing to prove.’ What a breakthrough that was for me! It was like discovering the big tight knot in the core of my being – that vestigial fear, that fortress of isolation – and being able to loosen the knot a bit, to liberate myself, if only momentarily. These insights come and awaken something within us, something that once seen may begin to dissolve in the light of awareness.
Now if this statement that I have nothing to fear, nothing to lose, nothing to defend and nothing to prove sounds misguided, it’s because in a finite sense, in a world of separation and isolation, of course I could lose loved ones, material wealth, health and life; and therefore I have plenty to lose, fear and defend!
But as we discussed last week Spacious View sees the oneness of all that is. This is the great inner shift of awareness, an expansive perspective from which we see the energy waves rising and falling and the rhythm of life pulsing, and all the experiences that arise out of causes and conditions — all the pleasure and pain possible in this life — as vibrant threads in the fabric of being. And when we experience pain, if we have access to this Spacious View and this sense of compassionate awareness, then we feel sustained in a way that would not have seemed possible.
This is not to discount the emotions we experience. Grief at the loss of a loved one is still grief. But when grief is freed to be itself, alive in the moment, experienced as it is, without being blindly compounded by a sense of isolation, vestigial fear, physical tension that hangs on to all the dregs of past associative pain and all the images of a future filled with this same intensity of grief; when we are able to sense in to the spacious energy of life itself, without needing to make sense of it, without needing to justify it, without needing to make up stories around it in order to gain some sense of control, then we can rest in compassionate spaciousness and hold ourselves with tenderness.
Out of this restful spaciousness, we can bring kindness and joy into the world, providing ourselves and others with a sense of connection and well being. Spaciousness allows us to see that our way is not the only way, or that someone else’s way does not have to be our way, and that these seeming differences are just a place to hang our fears left over from the Stone Age. There’s a part of us that doesn’t want to let them go! We are nostalgic for the saber tooth tiger! But spaciousness allows us to live from our deep sense of connection, a sense that cultivates compassion for ourselves and all beings.
As with most aspects of our practice, one feeds the other. So we can arrive at Spacious View through the practice of compassion. Setting our intention to be compassionate and to send metta to ourselves and to others as part of our practice, develops a way of experiencing the world that fosters our ability to sense the oneness.
So that is Spacious Intention!
In the summer we studied the First and Second Noble Truth, and then the Third in September. We decided to hold off looking at the Fourth, the Eightfold Path, until the beginning of the year because it works so well with New Year’s feelings of new beginnings and setting intention.
We first encountered the Eightfold Path together in this class exactly two years ago and during our exploration this time we may review previous dharma talks. You can also look in the archive to expand your understanding. They will be in Jan and Feb 2009.
The Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s recommended course for coping with the First Noble Truth: That life contains suffering. It guides us to develop personal insight into the revelation of his Second Noble Truth: That although there is unavoidable pain in life through birth, death, loss and aging, most of our suffering is caused by our grasping, clinging and pushing away of our current experience.
You may remember my talk about holding the world in an open embrace, where I showed pictures of three little girls, one holding on tight to her dolls as if someone was about to steal them away, one pouting with her arms crossed as if something in her experience was unacceptable, and one holding her hands together, palms up, in front of her, and enjoying the frog that was perched there, free to leap off at any moment. (The class saw these photos but I didn’t feel I could put them on the blog as I don’t have rights to them. I am waiting for my great niece or granddaughter to provide the perfect illustrations!)
The Eight Fold Path allows us to experience the Third Noble Truth, wherein the Buddha points the way to end this in-effect voluntary suffering. The Eightfold Path, gives us guideposts that shed light on how to develop a meditative practice, how to be present in the moment and guidelines on how to lead a life that fosters joy, peace and compassion.
Here is a chart of one of the ways I like to envision the Eightfold Path to helps us develop an understanding of how the eight aspects work together. You can see that it is not a path but a circle. Because there is no one right entry point for the Eightfold Path. You can see the lines that connect each aspect to all the others. So that when we are exploring the aspect of Speech, we can see how Intention, Effort, View, etc. play an important role as well.
This circular or more accurately spherical interconnectivity is an accurate representation of life itself, the nature of energy and matter. This diagram has edges and limits, but what it represents is an infinite interconnection. And, not surprisingly, in class the diagram brought to students’ minds images and symbols from some of the world’s oldest spiritual traditions, based in a deep connection with nature.
Now last time we discussed the eight aspects, we used the perfectly acceptable term ‘Right’ when we talked about each of the aspects, so we had Right View, Right Intention, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Effort, Right Action, Right Speech and Right Livelihood. This time we could choose the other term that is used: ‘Wise.’ So we would have Wise View, Wise Intention, Wise Mindfulness, Wise Concentration, Wise Effort, Wise Action, Wise Speech and Wise Livelihood. How does this change your feeling toward the Eightfold Path? Language is so powerful that we can accept something with a change of name that perhaps we bristled at with a different name. Something to notice!
My guess is that neither ‘right’ nor ‘wise’ is perfectly accurate. The word ‘right’ holds tight to judgment and might make us feel confined and tentative, rebellious or afraid to be ‘wrong.’ The word ‘wise’ seems kinder, but also implies that until we ‘get with the program’ we are unwise or foolish…which we may well be, but no need to be rude!
The implied judgment of these two words doesn’t seem very useful to me. Nor does it feel compassionate. So I am going to suggest that we work with another word, a word that has become valuable in our exploration, and that word is ‘spacious.’
Just close your eyes, then say ‘Spacious View’ and ‘Spacious Effort’ and notice how that feels in your body.
For me, there’s no sense of judgment, but instead a physical opening, a relaxing breath, as if a door has been opened. How does it feel for you to translate the Buddha’s terms in this way?
Remember that ‘right’ and ‘wise’ are just translations from the original Pali language. To keep the dharma fresh we are always, through our own explorations, our own meditative practice, rediscovering the Buddha’s wisdom for ourselves. So there is no rule that says because early twentieth century English and American translators chose the words ‘wise’ or ‘right’ that these are the most accurate words to help us understand the dharma. These translators were students just like us, doing the best they could, bringing their best understanding, but also their own upbringing and personal and cultural baggage into the mix, their own grounding in the Judeo-Christian traditions and the Ten Commandments. There is no reason to hold their translations as sacred. When we do this instead of following the wisdom revealed through our own explorations and questioning them for veracity, when we lock ourselves in to other people’s interpretations instead of seeing for ourselves, then what we have is dogma, not dharma.
When I went to research the original Pali for these terms to see what other words might come up, I didn’t find them (I’m not much of a Buddhist scholar!) but what came up was a quote of the Buddha’s saying that ‘wisdom is neither hearsay nor tradition.’ This for me meant I am on the right track in exploring language that best reflects my understanding of the teachings.
In class we talked about discussing these aspects using the word ‘spacious’ instead of ‘right’ or even ‘wise.’ The class caught on a lot faster than I did, and in our discussion, I was habitually saying ‘right’ and had the whole group piping up to correct me saying ‘spacious!’ My years of having learned it in the traditional way are giving me a challenge now!
It is my hope that by using this less judgmental and open word, we will keep our own spacious awareness ever present, as we listen, discuss and explore together these key teachings.
If you haven’t been in class or following along on the blog, then this idea of spaciousness might be confused with spacey-ness. But spacey-ness is unconscious or numbed by fear, while spaciousness is a subtle but profound shift into clarity and awareness of the interconnection of all being. Spaciousness provides the ability to be fully present in every moment in order to respond to life, even challenging situations and emotions, with understanding and compassion rather than fear. Spaciousness is the ground out of which all effective and meaningful action arises. Ineffective and negative behavior arises out of fear. If this sounds strange to you, please take the time to revisit the posts on fear and spaciousness.
For quite a while now we have been and will continue to practice noticing our physical sensations, thoughts and emotions as they arise in our spacious field of awareness. So notice this: the thoughts, the body sensations and the emotions that come up for you upon being presented with this idea of spending time focusing on what might be seen as a ‘to do’ list; and secondly how it feels to be a little creative with our interpretation of what this list is called.
Remember how last week we talked about the many component parts of any emotion we may observe in our experience? Well, the Eightfold Path is a tool that helps us to explore and discover the components of any experience.
So we are not changing the subject by taking on the Eightfold Path, but adding a whole wonderful skill set to our ability to be present with our experience and notice what is happening. It’s like we have been handed a microscope and a telescope. Our understanding has the ability to deepen exponentially by using what is offered here.
Over the coming weeks we will explore each of these aspects individually, and especially when we come to Spacious Action, Speech and Livelihood, we will be bringing in examples from our own lives and lives we have observed to work with. We will share these examples and apply what we have learned to noticing what works and what doesn’t.
The Buddha’s world was full of challenges, but we’ll want to explore how to apply his Eightfold Path to the challenges of our world, such as cell phones, emails and texting when we explore Spacious Speech. When we explore Spacious Livelihood, which includes all the commerce aspects of our lives, we’ll want to look at our behavior in the area of conscious consuming when so much of what is offered comes from half way around the world perhaps at great environmental cost and human degradation such as underpaid or child labor. We’ll want to explore how we can make living less of a tightrope with so many ways to go wrong, and more of an interconnected supportive net. With spacious awareness and an understanding of the Eightfold Path, we will explore and discuss, finding ways to stay mindful and kind in the world we live in as it is.
So this is an adventure of enriching personal and universal discovery, not a scolding to conform to rules of behavior. Each time we come round to a teaching we have visited before, we deepen our understanding, we shift from thinking about it as something abstract outside of our experience, to experiencing it directly and finding it helpful, and then to living it fully, operating from that place of deep understanding.
And so we embark again on the Eightfold Path, or we might call it this time the Eightfold Circle of Interconnection, since we’re in a renaming mode! We set our intention to keep the dharma alive by fully experiencing it in our own way, applying this received wisdom to the specific challenges of the age we live in, and by using, with gratitude, the Buddha’s teachings to spark our own insights and deepen our understanding.
Walking on the ocean’s edge yesterday, I noticed huge clumps of kelp, all tangled like beached whales. This, I thought, is how thoughts are when they get tumbled in the rough storm of emotion.
The beach was so clear that even the delicate tide lines showed, even the impressions of tidal bubbles left lacey tracks. And I thought: This is like the meditative mind, so quiet that even the most subtle thoughts, emotions and sensations become clearly visible.
I looked at the interwoven smooth and salty surfaces of the maroon and ochre kelp, remembering how as a child I would take that bulbous length and run with it, whipping up the sand for the sheer joy and exuberance of such a vast expanse of space.
In some of the clumps were tangles of turquoise rope. I imagined the small boat from which it came, for this was not a shipboard purchase but the choice made in a boat shop where the color promised tropical sea sailing instead of the cold cruelty of the choppy Bay, Gate and Pacific Ocean. Nearby on the beach there was what looked to be a peach-colored oval stone, but when I picked it up it was light-weight, with four evenly spaced holes and a wedge cut the full length of both sides for line to slide, so I knew it to be nautical in nature. I suppose there are some sloppy sailors, but I noticed how images of some mid-ocean mishap arose within my mind.
There was a dark green plastic garbage can stranded on the beach, without wheels or lid. I noticed how this object launched a long involved fantasy beginning with imagining dragging it along, picking up the detritus of human life, leaving the shore devoid of all but footprints. But there seemed so much, and I thought how it’s a long way to April 22nd, so I imagined an ‘earth day every day’ party where we would don gloves and carry garbage bags to pick up the oil cans, the bottle caps and bags. And people would come to help and come for the tasty picnic part with rich conversation and camaraderie and leave feeling nourished in every way.
Together my husband Will and I imagined a lot of photos we might have taken had we remembered the camera – especially of the dune grasses thatched so decoratively against the russet cliffs in the distance. We framed potential paintings and planned to return, camera in hand, while knowing no moment can ever be recaptured, that the light would shift and the grasses would fade.
We watched, enchanted by the chubby little sanderlings racing on their tiny legs, chasing each receding wave as it exposed choice tidbits, with precious few seconds to poke, suck and swallow before rushing to escape the incoming flow that followed.
And now I share this experience with you, not in the hopes to take you there yesterday at the beach, though it would have been fun, but to offer up this example of a typical mind at work, and all the kinds of thoughts that traverse through it like the kelp through the storm, like the turquoise rope through the oval fitting, that now washed ashore whispers scary stories, like the plastic leavings and the thatched grasses calling up regrets, wishes and plans.
And the shore birds bringing attention back to this moment, as they need — as we need — every moment to be conscious.
So we become conscious of the thoughts that are just the tangled detritus of our nature. And if we find that we are caught in the tight tangle of thoughts, we can, through meditation and metta (loving kindness), give ourselves the spaciousness of the vast expanse of beautiful beach that is contained in our every breath, our every awareness of physical sensation.
The thoughts do not disappear. We simply see them in the context of how the brain functions, a part of the experience of being alive in human form. By broadening our spacious awareness through practice we make room for all of life. And this making room for what is arising in this moment is the key to finding joy and relieving suffering.
But how do we practice it? During meditation we practice opening into the silence, releasing tension, setting intention, and paying compassionate attention to a sensory experience – the breath, the sounds in the room, etc.
What about after we open our eyes? I would like to encourage a continuing of this kind of awareness practice even after the meditation is over. The meditation shows us what’s possible, but if we treat it as a getaway vacation instead of instruction for living our lives, we are peeling the apple, tossing away the most nutritious part.
The most nutritious part of meditation comes outside of formal practice when we continue to maintain a level of awareness. Meditation is training us to be present, but if we don’t practice being present in every moment, then what is the training for?
In our post-meditation discussion this week we did this. And it is something you can do on your own, with friends or in a meditation group.
We adjust our bodies to be relaxed but alert. We stay present with the rising and falling of the breath or other sensory focus, even as we listen to each other, even as we notice our thoughts, our judgments, or questions, our feelings. And in our discussions we actively practice using our language in a way that helps us to continue to recognize the nature of our thoughts. Instead of stating our opinions or facts, we can actually say, “I notice that when you say ________ a judging thought comes up for me, or a question comes up for me, or tension arises in my body, or a feeling of ______ comes up.” Now this is by nature a slow and maybe at times awkward structure, BUT it is a way for us to intensify our practice and bring it into the rest of our lives where it might serve us well.
This process is at once deeply personal yet universal. The thoughts we each have are not our thoughts. They are just the nature of thoughts, and we all experience them as they pass through, given a wide variety of factors, causes and conditions. Perhaps some system of thoughts gets stuck in a holding pattern, like the eddy of a stream where branches get stuck, and it easy to think of them as ours because we become so familiar with them we begin to define ourselves by their existence. But there is no thought that defines who we are. Knowing this frees us to greet thoughts with curiosity and loving kindness, neither grasping them nor pushing them away.
So try this exercise of speaking from your most conscious spacious awareness, bringing to light with loving kindness the process of your thoughts.
Enjoy the spacious beach-ocean-sky of the human mind, including all the thought forms that pass through it!
A More Effective Way to Deal
with Destructive Behavior
The spacious mind that arises out of the regular practice of meditation is a perfect stage for noticing a self-destructive behavior, and then noticing the voice inside us that activates or instigates that behavior. This noticing and listening is much more effective than trying to strong arm ourselves into stopping the behavior. How many times have you quit smoking or gone on a diet only to sabotage yourself? This is clearly a painful self-destructive pattern. Each failure makes us feel like a failure. Each hope dashed lowers our view of our own abilities.
Remembering when we have been successful at changing a behavior, we also remember a feeling of being whole-hearted, of being completely clear, and that it felt as if the change came about naturally. That sense of wholeness and clarity allows for positive change. Otherwise, the thundering roar of a cacophony of conflicting inner directives – desires, urges, fears – may totally derail us. The clarity comes from all the inner voices being in tune and in harmony. All our inner aspects need to be on board before a real shift can happen.
If we are really noticing, we find that on every journey to an unskillful action there is a conversation between inner aspects. At first we may notice only the most urgent voice demanding that cookie right now. The urgency is uncomfortable or exhilarating, and it may feel like our only choice is to comply. But when we pay closer attention, we find there is at least one other voice as well. If we recognize that the urgency doesn’t necessarily require immediate action, that we actually can tolerate ‘listening to the inner baby cry’ a bit before responding, we might begin to hear another voice as well.
There is a quiet voice within each of us that we may never notice until we are really paying attention. The silence of meditation allows us to become aware of a calm inner spacious wisdom. Through the regular practice of meditation, we can seek this wise inner resource out, as I did in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.
As we begin to listen to this inner wisdom, we can allow it to have loving diplomatic conversations with our other aspects, negotiating inner peace. We can shift the internal power structure so that the urgent caffeinated aspects that have been yelling so loud that we give them what they want just to shut them up for a while, are no longer calling the shots.
At first it may be hard to find that wise inner voice, mostly because our more rambunctious aspects are running the show. But with regular meditative practice, quiet walks in nature, setting the intention to stay in the present moment and be kind, we create a spaciousness that allows us to notice and listen with curiosity. With that spaciousness, our journey of self-discovery truly begins.
Any self discovery we have done in the past, without this spaciousness, is more likely to have been a grabbing at identity clues and claiming them. I am that, I am like that, I am that kind of person. Our discoveries may be interesting or comforting, but really they are just decorative accessories of identity.
The self-discovery we embark on through this meditative practice is not a grabbing identity as if our behaviors or preferences are life preservers to save us.
Often it is our attachment to a certain identity that causes us and those around us suffering. My mother died of emphysema. She said she could have quit smoking much sooner, but she was so sure she would be an incredibly boring person without a cigarette in her hand to make her glamorous! Those artful smoke swirls of 1930’s movies had done their number on her. Of course when she finally quit she was even more interesting and enjoyable to be around.
A good question to ask ourselves when we are wanting to quit a habit but are finding it impossible: Who would I be without my cigarette? or Who would I be without my sweet treats? or Who would I be without my quick temper? The answers may set us on a fruitful journey of exploration.
Perhaps you have known a child whose room is piled high with all manner of garbage – discarded soda cans, gum wrappers, etc. – and they refuse to acknowledge this is trash. What’s up with that? Perhaps they are desperately building an identity for themselves, and everything they have touched defines them. So throwing away the soda can is for them throwing away a bit of themselves. This is an extreme example of something we all do to varying degrees. We take pride in our choices of the objects we have chosen to fill our lives, and vest them with the power to define us, to represent us to the world and even to ourselves. We can be very rigid in our definition. I would never wear that! I hate that kind of food. I’m the kind of person who lives in this kind of house, decorated in this particular style. I can’t imagine myself in a different setting. All of these kinds of statements are not just preferences, they are the life preservers of our identity, and we cling to them pretty fiercely.
When we come into a vaster vantage point of Right View, we begin to see that none of these things are us at all. What is offered is much greater than all of this little detritus floating around in the sea that we’ve been clinging to for dear life. It is the invitation to recognize that we are the sea itself. We don’t need life preservers of identity to rescue us. We are already rescued! We only need to recognize our true nature.
Notice the little voice in you saying, But I want the cool things! This is not about giving up the things. It’s about shifting our relationship to them and the world around us, not believing that these things define us. And then not being attached to the identity of being a person who can do without things. It’s an ongoing process!
If you are not yet ready to give up the life raft of identity, don’t fret. Don’t add yet another voice to the cacophony within that says you haven’t got it. Baloney! You’ve got it. It’s all there. In your own time, in your own way, at your own pace, you will reveal all to yourself. Patience. Practice. Intention to be present in this moment and to be kind. Let that be absolutely enough. It truly is.
And with that regular meditative practice comes:
– The spaciousness to notice a thought, a desire, an urge, passing through
– The patience to stay with the thought a while before fulfilling its demand through action.
– The ability to see that the thought has a voice, an agenda, an intention that may be rooted in fear.
– The time to pause and follow that thought thread down to its roots
– The willingness to become familiar with this voice, to give it an affectionate name,
– The wisdom not to claim it as identity but to recognize its concerns
– The skill to negotiate a workable solution that circumvents the unskillful behavior it requests, while fulfilling the deeper need for a sense of safety and security that it desires.
Listening to the voice that is promoting the behavior, naming it, asking questions, negotiating some equitable solution. Voice by voice, we get ourselves together, speaking with one clear intention.
That’s when resistance to the change we want to make falls away. We haven’t ripped it out, we haven’t thrown any part of ourselves away, we haven’t sacrificed anything. We have simply made friends with ourselves and become whole-hearted and able to do what we need to do.
The tight tangle of our lives becomes more spacious through the regular practice of meditation. We find that increasingly we can see our thoughts and emotions as they arise. Instead of succumbing to their seduction or going into battle with them, we can more often simply notice them. It may seem as if there is more time and space around them to evaluate the most skillful response to any given situation.
In this increasing spaciousness, we are able to be more gracious hosts to our thoughts and emotions. We are not at their mercy or here to do their bidding. We begin to learn more about them, their histories and motivations. Why does a particular thought keep recurring? Why does dealing this person always bring up this negative emotion? With a greater sense of ease than we ever thought possible, we can focus on these thoughts and emotions and begin to see patterns. We see the loving intention of all these various aspects of our personality. We see the fear behind their misguided strategies. And by giving them our attention we begin to see how some of our beliefs are at odds with each other, causing an inner sense of imbalance and strife.
I am still touched by a conversation I had many weeks ago with a young woman in Colorado whom I called as part of my volunteering for Obama. She was holding down two jobs and had two small children, so she just hadn’t had time to really look at the candidates and make up her mind. So I asked her what her issues were. “Well, I’m against abortion and gay marriage. What does Obama believe?”
“Senator Obama believes in equality for all people,” I told her.
“Oh! I believe in that!”
“Then Obama’s your man.” I went on to tell her that perhaps if she was working two jobs and had small children, she should vote for whoever was going to give her the best tax break and the best health care for her kids. But I was then and still am struck by her very human capacity to hold two opposite ideas in the same brain. That she could support equality for all people but feel okay denying gays the right to marry did not seem like a contradiction in her mind. Probably because she hadn’t had the time to really look at her various beliefs for the same reason she hadn’t had time to choose her candidate.
But for those of us who are meditating regularly over long periods of time, somehow we do have time to notice conflicting beliefs and to see which ones are aligned with the core values that arise out of being in touch with our deep sense of connection. This level of observation and awareness enables us to more easily release old beliefs that don’t serve us, that just got a free ride all these years because we never bothered to examine them.
Often these beliefs were never ours to begin with but were hand-me-downs or borrowed briefly just to try on and we kept them around, and after awhile we forgot where we got them and assumed ownership. But now they are just piles of clutter that get in the way of living fully.
If there are beliefs that we are ready to release, where do we begin to look for them? We don’t need to search them out. They are ever present. We just have to pay attention to those moments when they crop up as statements or judgments that we think or say. Chances are these will be strained moments. Since these beliefs are at odds with our core values, when we hear ourselves voicing them, they sound discordant to our ears. We may feel a sense of discomfort: guilt, embarrassment, confusion, astonishment, or maybe amusement, depending on how vested we are in believing that we are our thoughts.
A wonderful way to deal with whatever comes up is to ask a question. The teacher and author Byron Katie suggests asking, “How do I know this is true?” The inner dialog that follows begins the process of self discovery and potentially to letting go of whatever doesn’t serve us well.
The inner dialog needs to be compassionate, patient and truly curious in order to be useful. Judgment, criticism and ridicule shut the process down, but if they arise, simply switch the dialog’s focus to them. Ask “What am I afraid of in this exploration?” Because all three are rooted in fear.
This kind of inner work can be rich and satisfying. Journaling inner dialogs can be very useful as we are more likely to stay focused on writing than just thinking, and we can read the conversation later from a different vantage point and see things we might not have seen at the time.
In my book, Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living, I suggest the possibility of giving personality to these beliefs, desires and fears in order to engage in dialog exploration. I find this a very useful and enjoyable way to really notice patterns of thoughts that arise — thoughts of self-doubt, thoughts that undermine my intentions, thoughts that keep me from living the fully engaged and grounded life I want to live. I give them names so that when I meet them again – as I certainly will – I can recognize them.
This recognition is something like the Buddha’s experience of being tempted by Mara as he sat under the bodhi tree. By recognizing Mara as the tempter in various forms, trying to seduce him away from his intention, the Buddha was able to reach enlightenment. The key part of his relationship with this tempter was that he always welcomed Mara, saying “I know you.” And in knowing Mara, in all its forms, he was able to be patient, compassionate but unseduced.
In inner dialog exploration, we can come to know these various seductive voices by name, and we can extend them the courtesy of compassion and respect. Inner civility is key! We can ask these tempters questions about what they want and what they fear. What we discover is that they always want the best for us, that their purpose is always loving. But their strategies are misguided because they are operating out of fear.
EXAMPLE: Many of us have a voice we could call “Little Sweetie” – that sweet tooth that draws us continually to the ice cream, pastry and candy shops. Or maybe you have a “Little Salty” – so hard for me to understand since Little Sweetie rules in my panoply of characters. So what would a conversation with Little Sweetie be like? We could say, “What do you want, Little Sweetie?”
And maybe Little Sweetie would say, “I want sugar!” as if that was obvious.
“Why do you want sugar?” we might continue.
“To sweeten up this life. Everything about sugar is pretty, festive and fun. Every time we eat it we are having a party.”
“And you want to party?” we might ask.
“Yes, I love to party!”
“Could we party without the sugar?”
“What kind of party would that be?”
“It could be a party with music and dancing.”
“I’d like that. But what about a cake?”
“It could be a party with lots of interesting conversation.”
“Yes, I’d like that. I like people and connection.”
“If you were sitting in deep conversation with someone and a cake suddenly appeared on the table across the room, would you stop mid-sentence and run across the room?”
“Hmmm, well not mid-sentence. A really good conversation? Like really interesting and rich?”
“Well, then no. I wouldn’t even notice the cake.”
“So when there isn’t a party or deep conversation, you are bored?”
“And sweets are interesting?”
“But you can’t talk to them. You can’t dance with them. You can’t interact with them.”
“No, but they are so easy to find and so forbidden!”
“Yes, they are everywhere. But what’s so good about them being forbidden?”
“It adds spice to life! Sugar and spice! ha ha!”
“So our life needs spicing up? Is it boring, plain, uninteresting?”
“Well, in a word, YES!”
“Okay, what, besides sweets, would make it more interesting for you?”
“More sweet moments!”
“Sweet moments like when?”
“Sweet moments like last night standing on Ring Mountain in the moonlight looking at the twinkling lights of San Francisco across the Bay. That was a very sweet moment.”
“Indeed it was. This is a sweet moment too.”
“Yes, here we are having a dialog, sitting in a comfortable spot with a beautiful view of the mountain lightening in the morning sun.”
“Yes, this is sweet.”
“Any moment can be sweet, don’t you agree? If we are really paying attention?”
“Shall we try it? Shall every time you ask for sweets, I take it as a request for noticing the sweetness of this moment?”
“No harm in trying, but if it doesn’t work, I vote for chocolate.”
So there’s a sample inner dialog. Let’s review what just happened:
– I recognized a chronic tempter in my life: the urge to eat sweets.
– I recognized it as a problem, something that thwarts me in maintaining my health and weight.
– I gave it a name. This name captures something about the tempter’s character and has an endearing quality so that I am more likely to speak to it with love and affection.
– The conversation begins with a simple question: “What do you want?”
– The conversation follows, speaking as honestly and openly as possible from the point of view of this aspect of our personality.
– The questions are created from open curiosity and deep compassion.
At first the questions are more open ended, just trying to discover the root fear, concern, lack, etc. of the aspect.
– When that is discerned – in the example, the aspect Little Sweetie was bored – then the questions can switch to ‘what if’ scenarios in a ‘negotiation’ stage.
– Whatever is negotiated must be something that addresses the deep need, that is in line with core values, not the surface desires of the tempter aspect, whether the ones originally stated or replacement ones.
– In this sample conversation, I didn’t offer to provide a continuous set of exotic locales, more parties or any other surface distraction. What I offered was to be more fully present in every moment so that Little Sweetie could find the sweetness in life, just as it is.
This kind of exercise may or may not appeal to you, but inner dialoging in whatever form suits you can be very valuable in identifying and examining beliefs that cause suffering in your life.
Sending metta (loving kindness) to ourselves and others has value whether or not you believe that it is effective! If you feel resistant to the idea of ‘transmitting loving energy,’ rest assured that this practice doesn’t rely on beliefs of any kind to be valuable.
The practice itself shifts our relationships with people in our lives, and it changes the way we think and feel about ourselves. It can release the tight patterns of self-loathing that may have rendered us poorly equipped to function in the world. So if you feel at odds with the world and even with yourself, neither ever being quite up to your critical standards, then this is a great practice for you!
Metta is a conscious focus, so even if it were only that it would be a benefit, keeping us present, training our minds to be able to concentrate. For those who have difficulty simply paying attention to the breath in meditation, metta practice feels more active, providing something to DO.
But it provides much more than that: Metta offers a tonal shift, a warm loving attitude that has the capacity to open our hearts, creating spaciousness in our thoughts, and developing the deep innate caring that may have been dormant.
Everyone is different, of course, but for many of us this may be a huge shift – especially in relationship to ourselves. Wishing ourselves well may be a totally new concept for us. “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from harm.” These words hardly seem unreasonable, but it is surprising how few of us allow ourselves to feel worthy of such simple blessings. We may be more inclined to put ourselves down, scold ourselves for our ineptitudes, our thoughtlessness, our forgetfulness, our lack of skill, generosity or guts.
As we practice, we begin to hear how we talk to ourselves, the names we call ourselves, the anger we feel toward ourselves. Now these habitual thoughts are seen in such contrast to our metta practice that we see them more clearly. We may never have even noticed the harsh tone of our thoughts. Without any real effort except the ongoing practice of metta, our awareness begins the shift. We may begin to sense a softening and an opening in the tangled knot of our inner lives.
We may find that our metta practice makes us more patient, less irritated with others as well. When driving we may be less likely to curse out other drivers, remembering that there are many, often painful, reasons that people drive badly, that we ourselves have driven mindlessly perhaps. A little metta sent to them and to ourselves eases our experience, and allows us to return more readily to our focus: driving the car!
At first glance, these simple blessings don’t seem to pack a lot of punch, but if you send metta to yourself and others with any regularity, you may be surprised how powerful this practice can be.