Category Archives: suffering

Barnacles can’t dance, but we can!

Every time I come home after a retreat I feel as if I’ve been released into a more natural way of being, as if I’m lightly dancing with life. I am able to see more clearly the nature of suffering and how I tend to create it.

barnacleAn image from my childhood comes to mind: The barnacles on the boats in the Marina where my friend and I used to play on sunny San Francisco days. We humans often act like barnacles, attaching ourselves to all manner of things.

We may do this in our relationships. Clinging is corrosive and can destroy natural loving bonds and connections. Think about how you react when someone clings to you. It feels more like a drain, an imposition or a demand that you are unable to fulfill, doesn’t it? The person who is clinging doesn’t realize that they are having the opposite effect of what they are trying so hard to achieve. They can’t see that what they are offering is not love or friendship at all. Love is like a dance of the interplay of energy. How does a barnacle dance? Not very well!

I think you get the idea. Where else in our lives might we be clinging rather than dancing?

We cling to our ideas of who we are. With barnacle-like persistence we fasten ourselves to an identity made up of all kinds of things to varying degrees: political affiliation, personal style, religious belief, culture, profession, physical characteristics, personality traits, possessions, family, ancestry, relationship roles, experiences, preferences, etc. These amalgams of how we see ourselves can get locked in early in life, long before we have the wisdom, experience, judgment, or understanding to question the veracity of these views. But it’s never too late to pause in a moment of mindfulness and question our barnacle grip.

The film critic Mick LaSalle was asked by a reader about his favorite films and actors. Mick replied “…I think self-definition through the announcement of favorites can sometimes shut the door on discovery.” Then he went on to list his favorites. But in that acknowledgement he kept the door open to discovery, didn’t he? And that’s what we all want to do, even while enjoying what we know and love.

In class we discussed how whole generations brand themselves by set ideas of fashion, music, hairstyles, vehicles, etc. Recently I heard the term ‘perennials’ to describe people of any generation who are less interested in age-based divisions and are fully engaged in life, ever new and unfolding. I liked that. I might even get a little attached to it!

So here we are, attached to these ideas about this self we hold ourselves to be. We may promote or berate this self, but we rarely question that it is exactly who we are. If we are not totally thrilled with this self, we want a makeover. We find the most offensive aspect or the one that is most readily changeable — weight, for example — and we focus all our distress, unhappiness and dissatisfaction on the idea that if only we lost some pounds, then we’d be happy. Or perhaps it’s wrinkles that worry us, and we invest in fancy creams, facials or surgery. Or maybe it’s fame or wealth that we believe will finally make us okay. Whatever it is, there is no end to the wanting. Achieving the perfect weight, flawless skin, rave reviews or mountains of money — none of it is ever quite enough. It doesn’t deliver on promised results. If we can check off a goal reached, we just reset the goal. It still leaves us in a state of ‘if only’.

Of course, there’s practical wisdom in maintaining a healthy weight, in taking care of our bodies and creating financial stability. But we are talking about the craving for perfection, the striving for some ideal that will right all the wrongs in our life. We expend a lot of energy chasing those ‘if only’ goals without seeing that none of them address the core challenge we face.

The core challenge is that barnacle behavior, the way we cling to the erroneous idea of self: that we are separate and must create the most appealing or impressive identity in order to navigate life’s dangerous waters.

Our meditation practice gives rise to insights that tell us something quite different. We begin to understand in an embodied way that we are natural expressions of life, interconnected to all life. We understand that all life forms a pattern — a dance, if you will — of ongoing cycles of birth, growth, death and decay that nourishes new life. What we thought was solid and permanent is instead processes, systems and patterns. Perhaps we watch a murmuration of sparrows in the sky at dusk and we realize our true nature is a dance of life, not an isolated fortress we need to defend. We no longer believe that our job is to keep repackaging ourselves to be the most attractive gift under the Christmas tree or the most impressive accumulator of stuff, power and experience

But it’s not just in our meditation practice that insights come. At any time, especially if we are troubled, we can ask skillful questions that help us see more clearly. We listen to what we are telling ourselves, and we ask, ‘Is this true?’ and ‘How do I know this is true? Another useful question is ‘How am I in relationship to this?’ Instead of running around in mental circles, telling ourselves a story about a situation, person or belief, we can examine the way we are relating to them. Can we recognize that we are grasping, clinging or pushing away? Through meditation we cultivate awareness and compassion. Then we can skillfully investigate what’s going on in any moment and gain insight. Aha!

Through the regular practice of meditation we don’t necessarily lose all the various elements of identity we believed ourselves to be. We just see them for what they are and we can hold them lightly. We let go. We un-barnacle. And in doing so we reveal the beauty of all life.

We awaken to our passion and purpose, not to claim it as ‘our thing’ or wear it as a badge that defines us, but to participate more fully in each moment, blooming where we are planted with naturally arising kindness, compassion, freedom and the grace of a dancer who’s attuned to the rhythms of life.

Dat Darn Dukkha

I always enjoy including this Uncle Remus tale when teaching and exploring the concept of dukkha. Now remember how Brer Fox was always out to catch Brer Rabbit? Well, this one day Brer Fox figured a sure way to get ‘em. He knew Brer Rabbit had a sociable nature and would always stop to talk to anyone in his path, so Brer Fox decided to build a trap with a lure in the form of a tar baby. He dipped some sticks in pitch mixed with turpentine, put them together and studded the figure with gewgaws until he figured it was gussied up enough to appeal to Brer Rabbit, then he stuck it along the road where he knew Brer Rabbit passed by on a regular basis, and hid himself behind a bush. He didn’t have to wait long.

Soon enough Brer Rabbit came hopping on down the road – lippity-clippity, clippity-lippity, just as sassy as a jaybird – and spotted this dark alluring creature sitting there and stopped to say hello. But the tar baby didn’t respond to his greeting. He tried to make civil conversation with her, and still the tar baby wouldn’t speak. He asked her if she was deaf, because if so he could talk louder, but still she said nothing.
All the while, Brer Fox, he lay low, having some inkling how this would go. And sure enough, the next words out of Brer Rabbit’s mouth were angry. “Well, you’re just stuck up that’s what you are. I’m going to have to teach you how to talk to respectable folk.” He warned the tar baby, but the tar baby didn’t respond, so Brer Rabbit pulled back and hit her on the side of her head.
But his fist got stuck and he couldn’t pull it loose. The tar held him. Now Brer Fox had to stop himself from laughing out loud as he watched from behind his bush. “If you don’t let me loose,” Brer Rabbit said, “I’ll butt you!” She didn’t. He did. And now his head was stuck too.
All the while the tar baby doesn’t say a word, which makes Brer Rabbit even madder. “If you don’t turn me loose, I’ll kick the stuffing out of you!” She didn’t, he did, and now his foot was stuck too. The more Brer Rabbit reacted to the Tar Baby, the more stuck he got. Sound  familiar?

This is how we are in our lives with our dukkha, the suffering we cause by the way we react to our experience. Perhaps there’s a person in our lives who brings out a lot of reactivity in us, and becomes our tar baby. We react, then we struggle to get free of all the dukkha that comes up around our reaction. But it doesn’t have to be a person, this tar baby. It’s any situation, cause or condition to which we automatically react with a set pattern of thoughts, emotions and behaviors that drag us deep into the tar of our dukkha.
How do we create the sticky tar of our suffering? That certainly wasn’t our intention. Or was it? It’s hard to know what our true intentions are without really paying attention to our experience. When we really are paying attention we might see that we hold some pretty dukkha-prone intentions.
This is something we have been discovering as we work with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. One of the Five Aggregates is Volition, aka urges, impulses and intentions. We might not even know we have these intentions until we become more mindful. They are likely rooted in one of the Hindrances that we studied — Desire, Aversion, Restlessness & Worry, Sloth & Torpor and Doubt.
Let’s talk about a few very common mostly-unconscious intentions many of us have:

The Need to Be Perfect
The strive for perfection is laden with dukkha. The tar is very thick when we get caught up in comparing ourselves to some ideal that is unattainable, not just by us, but by anyone. We can see now that there is a dangerous mix of Hindrances in that concoction of an intention to be perfect. There’s desire as well as aversion and a quality of self-doubt. There is the belief that unless we are perfect then we cannot be at peace, we cannot be loved or respected. It’s rooted very deeply the fear of disappearing because we hold ourselves to be separate, we hold ourselves apart from the wholeness of being, and we create misery for ourselves and others.


The Need for Approval
Another closely associated dukkha-prone intention is our desire to receive approval from others. Talk about self-doubt! Talk about worry! This intention throws us completely off-balance as we try to imagine what someone else wants from us, then from that flawed imagining, try to modify ourselves to suit. Striving

The intention to achieve great wealth, fame or success, in whatever form that takes for us is the hindrance of desire, lusting after something that will shore up this separate self we feel we must defend. Goal setting where the goal post is a bigger presence in our lives than what is happening in this moment creates dukkha — a sticky place of disappointment, perhaps guilt over unskillful actions done in pursuit of our goal, and perpetual fantasizing.

Having Something to Prove
The intention to prove something to the world or to someone who once told us we could not achieve something can drive us even after that person is long gone. We internalize the words, never revisit the possibility that the person did not intend them as we took them, or even if they did it was coming from their own mindless dukkha misery.
But we still are stuck in the dukkha of reactivity. What hindrance or hindrances is this rooted in? There’s an anger there, maybe even hatred, so at least aversion, but probably other hindrances combined in that help to shore up that sense of separate self.
There are many more unexamined intentions that could be marketed as Deluxe Dukkha Delivery Systems because they are so effective at transporting us directly into deep sticky dense suffering.

So what happened to Brer Rabbit and his dukkha?
Well, when he was as thoroughly stuck as possible, Brer Fox came out from behind that bush. He couldn’t help laughing and gloating over Brer Rabbit’s predicament. And he made it clear he was going to barbeque him for dinner. Or maybe he would boil him. Hmm, he discussed his choices, and Brer Rabbit just kept telling him to go ahead and do that, but begged him, no matter what, to please not throw him in that briar patch. Old Brer Fox had some dukkha issues too. Even though he had his meal in hand, his desire to make Brer Rabbit suffer was greater than his hunger. So he pulled the rabbit off the tar baby and flung him into the briar patch. Once there, Brer Rabbit laughed and called out, ‘Bred ‘n born in the briar-patch, Brer Fox– bred ‘n born in the briar-patch!’ as he used some handy briars to pick off the remaining pitch from his fur and went on his merry way.
Bred and born in the briar patch. Brer Rabbit freed himself from his tar baby dukkha dilemma by returning to his source, the place where he felt most comfortable in all the world.
So what is our briar patch? Where is the place in ourselves where we feel most at home, where we don’t have to defend ourselves or struggle? It’s ourselves fully relaxed in this moment, accepting ourselves as we are and this situation as it is in this moment, even if it is painful or challenging. This is the place where we are grounded, where the energy is spacious, joyous and supportive. It is a place of conscious awareness, of clear seeing and deep pure intention.
This is the place we come to know through sitting in meditation, through walking in nature in silence, through noticing moments of simple contentment in our lives. We rest in a state of gratitude for this moment of being fully alive.
For most of us these moments are fleeting. We enjoy them but then can’t help but wish they would stay longer, or that we would make ourselves available to them more often, and suddenly we’ve created a little tar baby to tangle with.
At these times maybe we can remember Brer Rabbit and get ourselves back to our briar patch – back to noticing the rising and falling of our breath, the sensations in our body, and the light in our surroundings. Because we were born in this state of being fully present, and we can return to it through our intentions to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be compassionate with ourselves when we discover that we’re stuck in the tar of dukkha yet again.

Three Marks or Characteristics

Over the past many months of exploring the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, we have looked at the nature of impermanence. We’ve looked at physical form, the world around us and our own bodies, and we’ve seen that the only constant is change.

We’ve also come to understand that there is no separate self, that every time we think we can say ‘I am this’, when we investigate we see that we are not that. So there is no isolated fortress of self that we need to defend.

We have learned Anicca (impermanence) and Anatta (no self). These are two of the three Marks or Characteristics that are key to understanding the nature of things. The third mark or characteristic is Dukkha, the quality of unsatisfactoriness that is part of this experience of being alive. Understanding that there is dukkha is the First Noble Truth.

Let’s look more closely at what the word actually means. It’s tricky because there is no perfect English translation. The word dukkha, when broken down into root parts literally means an ill-fitting axle hole. Now that would be very uncomfortable wouldn’t it, to be on a journey and at every turn of the wheel there’s a jolt from the wheel not being properly fitted?


Staying with that image, we can all think of at least a time in our lives when this was certainly how it felt. And if we look closely at the nature of things, we might recognize that quality of ongoing friction or the wheels of our lives being slightly out of balance. This is the quality of suffering the Buddha asks us to acknowledge.

For many of us when we hear the word ‘suffering’ we don’t think of ourselves. We look around at all we have, where we live, all our good fortune, and we feel we would be ungrateful to see suffering in our lives. We put suffering outside ourselves in those who are victims of all the natural and man-made disasters in the news, and certainly there is pain in the world and our compassion is called upon to acknowledge it and perhaps act on that acknowledgement with generosity of spirit, time and resources.

But the kind of suffering we are talking about here is a chronic human condition that most of us ignore. When we tie suffering only to a particular cause or condition, then as long as the conditions of our life are fine, then we are not suffering. If we and our loved ones are healthy and none of them has died recently, then we are fine. We are blind to the chronic suffering of ourselves and others, because we just look at the nice house, the shiny car, the successful career, the healthy body, etc. and conclude that we or they must be happy. But if we are really paying attention, we might notice that even when everything is fine we hope these conditions will continue and fear illness, turns of fortune, aging and death for ourselves and our loved ones. This wanting things to stay the same or wanting things to be different is dukkha, and it’s universal.


We may feel we have no right to such feelings, given all these favorable conditions, so we hide our fear, subsume our feelings in self-destructive behavior, and/or focus on the ‘positive.’ We may ignore the truth that gnaws inside us and we create a false persona. Constantly trying to sustain that false persona is one bumpy ride where we never feel completely at ease, isn’t it?

So the Buddha asks us to look at dukkha, that ill-fitting axle hole of life experience, and acknowledge it. That is the First Noble Truth.

Fortunately there are three more Noble Truths that disprove the rumor that Buddhism is a gloom and doom tradition. In fact, there is infinite joy in the Buddha’s teachings. But the joy is not conditioned on external causes. As we explored in the Awakening Factors in the previous post, this joy is a pervading quality that arises out of the practice of being fully present and compassionate with ourselves when we haven’t been present. We can experience a quiet balanced sense of joy and gratitude regardless of what we are going through in our lives, regardless of the bad news we’ve just received. This is not a training to be insensitive or uncaring. It’s a training in being spacious enough to hold all that comes in loving kindness, compassion and equanimity.

If you’ve been following along in our investigation of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, you might notice that this quality of dukkha pretty much sums up what it’s like to live with the Hindrances and Aggregates we studied earlier. The Five Hindrances are: lust/craving, aversion, sloth & torpor, restlessness & worry, and doubt. The Five Aggregates — our body, our preferences, our knowledge or understanding of the world, our urges and intentions, and our consciousness —  get us into trouble when we believe them to be permanent, separate and under our control.

Not understanding annata (impermanence) and annica (no self) leaves us with the experience of dukkha (suffering). Conversely, as we come to understand the nature of annata and annica, then we develop the ability to be soften and even dissolve patterns of dukkha.

So we can see why the Buddha developed the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: Through them we can see for ourselves the truth of impermanence and no self, and we are given the tools to release suffering that we create in our lives.

This is an ongoing practice, so do not despair if you feel you haven’t ‘got it’. Just keep practicing the paired intentions to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be compassionate with yourself when you discover you haven’t been present at all. Remind yourself that in this moment of recognition you are present! That is cause for celebration not harsh judgment.

Second Look at the Second Foundation of Mindfulness

Before the holidays, when our minds were distracted with so much else, we began to explore of the Second Foundation of Mindfulness. Now with fresh minds and a New Year we begin again.

To review, the Second Foundation of Mindfulness is noting whether something in our present experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. This kind of noting gives us another way to anchor into present experience. But there are other benefits as well.

The basic experience of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral is something we share with all species. A cat purrs at a pleasant experience or hisses at an unpleasant one. A lizard basks in the sun or darts under a rock. A bird chooses one tree limb, then changes its mind and flies to another.

As we spend time noting feeling tones, we become aware of their impermanence. Just as the wind might be pleasantly balmy one moment, then neutral or unpleasantly harsh and cold, these feelings arise and fall away, arise and fall away. Becoming aware of their nature, we are better able to let go of any sense of attachment to them, or any sense that we must act upon them.

Imagine: There is a fly in the room, but you don’t know it. Out of sight, out of mind. You are having a pleasant time, reading perhaps. But then the fly buzzes into your awareness. Suddenly your experience changes to unpleasant. Perhaps an opinion arises: Flies are filthy and don’t belong in the house. Maybe a grievance arises: I was having such a nice time and now I have to deal with this damn fly. Then maybe planning arises: How will I get this fly out of the room so I can return to having a pleasant experience? Perhaps a belief arises: This fly is ruining my good time. And then it’s likely an emotion arises: I hate flies, this one in particular.

As all this busy mind activity goes on, the fly settles down somewhere out of sight. So now, in relationship to the fly, you might have a neutral experience, because without the stimulus of the fly flying around, your mind fills with other things. But perhaps your mind had become so agitated that you are still thinking about the fly. Does any of this sound familiar? For most of us it certainly will. If not about a fly, then about some other minor annoyance.

The fly is not the cause of our jumble of complex reactions. The fly is just living its life as best it can. It is our mind’s habituated patterns of reactivity that make our experience infinitely more unpleasant.

In this scenario, we see how we run through a range of feelings. We can see how a feeling can lead to thoughts and emotions. We see that these feelings are impermanent. They travel through our field of awareness as the wind travels through a field of wheat. Can we be resilient like the wheat? Can we develop both awareness of and detachment to these feeling tones.


(Detachment is a tricky word. In the Buddhist sense it does not mean not caring or feeling separate from. It is an expanded view in which the experience can happen without setting in motion a chain reaction. We can hold all experience in an open loving embrace.)

Through noticing these simple preferences, we see the very beginning of our reactivity to an experience, before emotions and thoughts, fueled by memory, get us all entangled in complex patterns and beliefs we have created over the years.

We will delve more deeply into that very complexity in the Third Foundation of Mindfulness. But for now, it is enough to notice that we can fine tune our attention to that simple noticing. Pleasant. Unpleasant. Neutral. In this way we further anchor into this moment. We begin to see the seeds of grasping, aversion and delusion.

Hmmm, grasping, aversion and delusion. Where have we heard that before? In the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth. The First Noble Truth: That there is suffering in the world. The Second Noble Truth: That the cause of that suffering is our tendency toward grasping, aversion and delusion. If these are not familiar to you, look on the index on the lower right side of the page. There are a number of dharma talks on the subject.

The Second Foundation of Mindfulness offers us an exercise that effectively allows us to see the beginnings of that manifestation of our suffering. In his teachings the Buddha identified the cause of suffering and then set about to develop techniques to end suffering.

Mindfulness is a core technique for the end of suffering. And this simple practice of noticing pleasant, unpleasant and neutral has real value. It builds upon the First Foundation — sensing into physical sensation to anchor our awareness in the present moment — and sets the stage for the Third Foundation.

So please take time as part of your meditation practice, and any time throughout the day, to notice whether something in your current experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. If you find yourself thinking, ‘Well this sucks!’ you can add, ‘Oh, unpleasant!’ This addition might remind you that life is one big opportunity for dharma practice — an expanded view that can poke holes in the solidity of our experience of suffering.

Second Noble Truth: Insight

With the First Noble Truth we recognize the fact that there is suffering in life. Though it sounds harsh, this recognition to a degree relieves us of the anxiety about why we aren’t always perfectly happy. Once we have this recognition, once we sit with it awhile and mull it over in our minds, we may come to the Second Noble Truth.

The Second Noble Truth is an insight into the cause of our suffering. The Buddha had this insight when he sat under the Bodhi tree. He saw how there is pain that is a natural part of earthly existence, but that we create suffering on top of the pain. How do we do that?
The Buddha saw how we cause suffering by clinging to what we like and pushing away or denying what we don’t like.

He recognized a trait that has since been identified as part of the make up of all multi-celled creatures. These chemically-driven states of desire for pleasure and fear of pain are produced by our brains in order to help us survive.

So why would we want to get rid of these traits? First, we are not focusing on getting rid of anything. Instead we open to everything that arises in our experience, holding it in an open embrace of awareness.

As we become aware of these traits in our own nature and when we see them in others, we may see that often times we are not using them just for survival. We are grasping, clinging and pushing away or denying everything in our lives, not just things that are necessary for our survival or threaten it. These inherent traits of all animals have in humans turned into hyper-activated habituated tendencies.

Why is this so? Perhaps with our more developed frontal cortex — the part of the brain that enables us to imagine infinite possible outcomes — we are constantly activating physical and chemical reactions to imagined situations. Our overactive imaginations in our constantly thinking minds with all the re-runs, re-dos, application of acquired knowledge and sheer fabrications, have put us into mental over-drive. The result is an almost constant state of fear. This is not the fear of something we are actually facing in this moment, the way a deer will run away from anyone that comes too close. This is an ongoing state of mind that, lacking any current threat, will create imagined ones to fill the void.

What does fear do to us physically? If you’ve ever noticed a spider shrink into itself when it feels threatened, you know that that is what we do as well. A baby at four months is suddenly a little more wary of strangers, and her first response is to shrink a little into herself for a moment while she assesses the situation.

We adults do this too, but we easily end up staying there, tightened up into knots of tension, where we get stuck in a state of perpetual sense of alarm and isolation. We can’t sense our connection because we are locked into a hard separate stance. When we discover a connection with some particular person, situation or object, we are so relieved that we cling to them, and can’t bear to let this moment pass where we feel some relief from our ongoing sense of isolation. So we go from Teflon to Velcro with no place in between, with no way to inhabit our bodies and our being that is truly comfortable and easy.

Over the past weeks of exploring the First Noble Truth, I have been asking you to really notice how you cause suffering in your life. And what you have mentioned are the very tendencies the Buddha saw in his insight about how we create suffering in our lives: greed, aversion and delusion. Most of us fall more heavily into one of these tendencies, but all of us have some of each. So let’s take them one at a time.

Greed
When we experience pleasure and get attached to it, want it to continue, don’t want to let it go, begin to identify with it, start to need it like an addictive fix, go unconscious around it – a bit of a brain bypass that has a quality of time-out relief to it – this is the grasping, clinging, clamping down upon nature of the greedy mind.

Aversion
The tendency toward aversion brings up critical thoughts, judgments about people, behaviors, environments, aesthetics, conditions and situations. Nothing is every quite right. Even the most delightful situation could be improved upon, if only….

Delusion
This tendency is the head in the sand, or a certain grogginess that can be easily swayed and confused. If it takes a stand, it’s a stand of denial, not wanting to face facts.

Now all these traits have some positive aspects: Greed can be experienced as a zest for life. Aversion can be creative, transformational and problem solving. The delusive trait can see all sides of an issue and may pave agreement among disparate ideologies. But all can cause suffering.

These three tendencies – this grasping, clinging, pushing away and denying – are simply things to notice as they arise in our experience. Recognizing them is useful. Using the labels of greedy, aversive or delusive is not useful. We have more than enough labels already, thank you very much!

Seeing a tendency in ourselves is cause for celebration, not shame. It’s not our fault that these tendencies exist. Nature programmed us this way to keep us alive.

Our impressively developed brains continue to make an increasingly complex system of technological developments. When we steep ourselves in this hive of activity constantly, when we keep pace with the rapid-fire nature of modern life in our culture, we quite naturally succumb to one or more of these traits that cause suffering. Needing a retreat from the hubbub, we may choose unskillful means to numb ourselves with drugs, intoxicants, gambling, shopping, mindless eating, and other addictive behaviors. These are the answers readily provided by advertisers, so they are usually the first recourse.

Yet it is not just in this advanced technological age that humans cause themselves suffering. The Buddha didn’t have a cell phone or a computer, nor was he a jet-lagged jet-setter. In fact he spent his whole life within a very small mostly rural area, living amidst nature. Yet he knew suffering, and he saw it manifest in all the humans he knew as well.

Sometimes people get misty-eyed about some more quiet ‘simpler’ time, thinking that happiness was much easier to come by in the old days. ‘Simple for whom?’ is what I always wonder, because when I look back I see intolerance, enslavement and injustice. I am so grateful to be living now!

Not to exonerate the era we are in from these same forms of blindness. We continue to disrespect and trash the earth and, because of our vastly greater numbers, the impact is much greater. We trash our own bodies with faux food, and our governments wage war against each other over access to resources. And we live at a pace that is unsustainable and cannot be compensated by a week on the beach every summer.

But we are also, to a much greater degree than in past centuries, recognizing ourselves in each other, recognizing our connection to all of the inhabitants of this small blue planet. There are many movements afoot — not just in spiritual communities — that are slowing down the pace of life, acknowledging the value of this moment, of staying present.

Regardless of what era we live in, the development of the human brain has created this potential for creating misery, for getting out of balance. And the further refinement of it, through the insights of the Buddha and many other awakened beings, offers us skillful means to end, or at least cope with, our suffering.

The first step on this path is being able to recognize these traits of grasping, clinging, pushing away and denying as they arise in our experience. This is a great step to awakening! Don’t shut down now just because it feels uncomfortable to acknowledge something that seems to reflect badly on you. It doesn’t! Relax! We’re all in the same boat here.

So now as we explore for ourselves the Second Noble Truth, the challenge is to stay open. Yes, I know, this feels so personal, but it’s universal. And if we can gently but firmly be present to notice these tendencies in ourselves, we can begin to experience more spaciousness.

The key to sitting with the Second Noble Truth is to tap into compassion. We approach it with a great deal of metta, loving-kindness so that we won’t be swallowed up by the aversiveness that might be prompted by this inner discovery. Agh! I don’t want to be like that! Or I’m not like that!

No one said this work is easy, but there are ways to make it easier. I had a wonderful teaching a few months ago, watching my newborn granddaughter sleeping peacefully in her bassinette. Then suddenly she started rooting and struggling, waving her fists and poking her tongue in and out, wanting, wanting, wanting something, anything to stick in her mouth. How strongly I related to that! I recognized myself, the way I will sometimes roam the kitchen, looking in the refrigerator and the cupboards looking for a little something to stick in my mouth.

What an awakening it was for me to see that this is something born in me. My granddaughter was two weeks old! I didn’t invent this craving, I don’t have to feel shame for it! Of course, it’s not a free pass to eat everything in sight, but it is a deep acceptance of my own nature.

And then she gave me another insight, one that reined me in from forging my way to the kitchen. I noticed that after 30 seconds or so, her wanting, wanting, wanting passed, and she slipped into deeper sleep. She let it go. It passed. And if I pay attention, if I don’t rush to fulfill my wanting, if I sit with it a bit, I notice that yes indeed, she’s right: the wanting does pass.

So working with the Second Noble Truth is both humbling and enlightening. We are not trying to see how bad we are. We are accepting that we are human and finding some peace in that awareness. And perhaps we can hold it lightly, take ourselves less seriously, and feel less as if we have some fortress to defend.

Acknowledging and noticing is a continual process of creating spaciousness and awakening. It is made more painful if we see ourselves as isolated individuals up on a stage with judges about to call us out. If we can let view go, let ourselves be held in loving-kindness, if we can see ourselves as the small children we once were and hold ourselves with parental love, then we can begin to see each of these traits as clues to suffering, rather than one more reason to beat ourselves up.

So I hope during the week you will allow this level of noticing to bring about insights. And I hope that you receive the insights with great compassion.

This is the practice.

First Noble Truth: Embodiment as Awareness

We’ve been exploring the First Noble Truth, that there is suffering in life. We have re-visited a couple of dharma talks on the topic and discussed our own experience of the First Noble Truth.

When we revisit a subject, especially one as big as the First Noble Truth, naturally we see areas that were not covered in the first go-round. For me, one of these areas is embodiment. What is embodiment? It is, quite simply, coming home to our bodies, to the sensations in our bodies, to anchoring our awareness in these sensations in order to stay present in the moment.

In class we do a lot of embodiment practice as we settle in to our meditation. We come into awareness of the whole body, as an energetic field, and we practice concentration practice on specific areas of the body, or on specific sensation, like the rising and/or falling of the breath or the sounds we hear as we sit.

But I don’t believe I have focused on this embodiment in my dharma talks, and as I reread the talks, with an eye to editing them into book-form, I see that this is a gaping hole in my writing, especially since I happen to be reading a book of essays titled Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment.

Exploring our relationship with our bodies is a vital and valid practice. It is a primary relationship and for most women, one that is fraught with much suffering — physical, emotional and mental. So it is a very useful place to explore the First Noble Truth. There is suffering. Yeah! So I’ve noticed! Ouch!

I just read an essay by Linda Chrisman titled ‘Birth.’ As a Buddhist practitioner and a woman who had done a great deal of body-focused awareness practice in many different forms, she had a hard time accepting the fact, in retrospect, that she had experienced so much pain in childbirth. She had thought all her meditation and body awareness practice would exempt her from the pain that birthing women have experienced throughout history.

She writes, “..it was only after giving birth and feeling like a failure that I realized I had expected these practices to protect me from pain.”

Through the process of writing about her experience, she saw that the point of all her practices was not to protect her from pain. Instead, they had given her the gift of being conscious and fully present for the powerful sensations that are a part of the birthing process.

This brings up such a good question about our own motivations for meditation practice. Are we expecting our practice to protect us from pain? When we experience mental, emotional or physical pain, do we feel like we must not be doing something right, that an awakened being is beyond pain?
Let’s be clear that the only being beyond pain is a corpse. And even though that’s where we will all end up, practice or no, let’s not get ahead of ourselves!

As you may recall Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert, wrote a book titled Be Here Now, and was a key figure in turning people on to awareness in the 1960’s. In the late 1990’s he had a stroke, and I remember his account of being strapped to a gurney and being pushed through the hospital corridor. He felt that all his years of meditative practice had forsaken him. What was it all for, if, at this moment of crisis, he was absolutely terrified and confused?

His experience of a stroke momentarily threw him for a loop. But after that initial derailment, his lifelong focus on awareness gave him a way to be with his experience, with all the losses of ability, with the loss of the life as he had known it, and he was able to find his way again. He was able to complete his book on conscious aging, titled Still Here.

That moment when he felt forsaken reminds me of how Jesus on the cross asked God, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” I imagine that Jesus must have previously felt so supported in his own ‘practice’ of sensing his connection to God and to his fellow beings. But on that cross, in that moment of extreme physical and emotional pain, despair arose within him as it would for any of us, as it did for Ram Dass. And one can’t help but wonder, ‘What’s the point? If in the moment you most need support, the rug is pulled out from under you, what’s the point of the practice?’

But this moment passes. Whether it’s a moment in meditation where we feel we will never ‘get it’ or a moment on the scale when we feel no matter what we do we will never lose those pounds, or a moment where we have received awful news, personal or global, that leaves us wondering why bother going on when life is so sad or scary? Meditation does not make us immune to this experience. Meditative practice is not a vaccine that protects us from pain. To believe that is just one more prescription for suffering.

There is no practice, belief or behavior that will create a magic protective shield against life. And really, is that what we want? To arrive at death’s door untouched by life, as if we’d never pecked open the shell of our lives and allowed ourselves room to grow?

No, if we are honest with ourselves, we find that we want to experience this earthly life fully, not by simply checking off a bucket list of things we want to do before we die, but by being fully available for whatever experience we go through, planned or unplanned, deserved or undeserved, pleasant or unpleasant. We live fully by letting life in, by letting it carve our hearts a little deeper, fill our skin with wrinkles, sags and cellulite, and letting life use up our cartilage, leaving us aching. We let life in so that we may know what it is to be alive as soft complex animals on a verdant planet traveling through vast space.

So the point of the practice is to develop awareness, not to create an insulating shield. The point is to develop compassion for ourselves and all life, to feel deeply connected to this collective is-ness of energetic being, purring in the delight of being alive.

So if you have been feeling a failure because your practice has not yet delivered the pure perfect contentment you desire, ask yourself instead if it has delivered on the only promise it ever made: that you might become more aware and more compassionate.

If things are so painful, why do we want to be aware of them? Because when we are not aware, when we go numb or unconscious, we not only experience pain but we create incredible amounts of additional suffering for ourselves and others.

The distinction between pain and suffering is crucial. This earthly existence provides abundant opportunities to experience pain — pain in our bodies through accident or illness, and pain in our hearts through loss and misunderstanding. But when we compound this pain by borrowing from the past or the future — remembering previous pains and fearing this pain will go on forever – then we suffer.

Embodiment, the practice of centering our awareness in physical sensation, helps us to make this distinction. When we notice pain, with awareness we can distinguish between the sensations that we are experiencing as unpleasant, sometimes unbearable, and the emotions and thoughts that rush in around the experience. This is the practice.

The practice does not erase pain. And at moments of extreme pain, it might even seem as if the practice has forsaken us, as it did for Ram Dass in that moment of panic flat on his back on a gurney, his body screaming, his mind in anguish, being pushed through the hospital corridors.

But in fact, when our panic subsides, we find the benefits of the practice we have cultivated are there to support us. The practice doesn’t flatten the sea of our experience. Instead it provides us the means to navigate more skillfully, even allowing us to be present enough to surf the waves, savoring the experience of life as it is in this moment.

First Noble Truth – Review

This week we started our Summer Rerun Series, so the posts will be shorter than usual, as we will be re-reading an older post and then discussing it in class. I will provide links to the original post so you can follow along.

The class requested this review period because they feel that now that they have been meditating for a couple of years, they want to bring their deeper understanding to the Buddha’s basic teachings. (Also, we have several new students in class for whom this is not review.)

You can never step in the same river twice. Even if you read the dharma talk before, or studied these concepts elsewhere, you are in a different place now. You will hear the words differently, and you will have different insights. So I encourage you to join us!

I began the series by reading the post on the First Noble Truth. After reading this dharma talk for yourself, you are invited to join the class in noticing during the coming week when you are in pain. See if you can sit with the pain, whether it is physical, mental or emotional. We are practicing awareness, in this case awareness of pain, and noticing how we amplify whatever pain exists by piling on emotionally charged associated memories from the past or fears for the future.

In class we shared current physical and emotional pains to use as examples to work with. This wasn’t a bunch of whining, but an informed exploration of the experience, and the physical sensations that arise around pain of any kind. ‘Where do I feel this in my body?’ is an important question to ask ourselves when we notice ourselves suffering.