Category Archives: temporal nature of life

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.

Gratitude & Generosity in an Infinite Loop

On our cultural calendar we have a day of giving thanks, feeling gratitude, followed by a season of giving and being generous. It strikes me how natural the flow is in this arrangement. When we feel grateful and count our blessings, high among them is usually the people we love – our family and friends. The upwelling of that sense of gratitude quite naturally turns into a desire to express that gratitude to them in the form of generosity. Because we care about them we want to do what we can to give them joy. Voila! Tis the season of giving! We are also thankful for our health, safety, the roof over our heads, and the food on our table. So it’s no surprise that what follows is a desire for others to be housed, fed, healthy and free from harm. So it’s not surprising that  we are much more likely to give and to volunteer during the season that follows. Clearly gratitude should come with a warning label! ‘Caution: May cause a tender heart.’

But what if we are not feeling grateful? This is also a season of feeling overwhelmed, stressed, exhausted and put upon. Traditions put us in a choke hold, making us do things we just don’t feel up for. Christmas again? Are you kidding me?

And some of us are dealing with loss — of health, a loved one, abilities, freedoms, hope — and it’s challenging to feel anything but the suffering we are experiencing.

Oddly, that’s when a deeper sense of gratitude, one that  has nothing do do with what we have, is actually easier to find. When our lives are in a turmoil we tend to hunker down. If we don’t get lost in distractions or addictions, we can sense into this present moment as a refuge from all the trials and tribulations we have been experiencing and all the worry of what is to come. This moment fully experienced can be a sweet haven.

One student in class this week said that before she falls asleep at night she thinks of three things she is grateful for. Lovely! But if she has had a really rough day and it’s too hard to come up with anything, she is grateful for the softness of her mattress. Fabulous! In that moment she is fully present, anchored in physical sensation. That is exactly where we need to be in any given moment to go deeply into the joy of being present with what is.

(For more about this deep kind of gratitude, check out this post from 2009, titled ‘Gratitude for Everything”.)

Here is a poem that captures what we’re talking about:


Tumbling down the cliff,
I couldn’t help but notice
the cherry blossoms.
—  KuKu Kichigai,
18th century Japanese poet
In a sense, we are all tumbling down the cliff. We are all living temporal lives with a knowledge of the ending — not the when or the how necessarily, but we all share the same fate. This is a simple truth that we tend to avoid most of the time. And yet we are naturally attracted to temporal things in our experience. Our eyes are drawn to the new, to the thing that is moving, to the things that are fleeting, like cherry blossoms.

Noticing the fleeting nature of life causes us to pay attention and be grateful. We may also go into states of fear, disappointment, longing. We may ask why can’t it stay like this? Without pondering too deeply, we find we wish for extensions on pleasurable moments. But a delicious meal if we eat too much becomes painful. A great party if we stay too long becomes tiresome. It is the fleeting nature of what delights our senses that makes them so delightful and makes us so grateful. So openly accepting the temporal nature of life helps us to receive it with grace and gratitude.

When we are struggling in our lives and gratitude is hard to come by, another door to find gratitude is to do an act of generosity. I am sure you have had the experience of doing something for someone and feeling lifted up by it, more alive and grateful.

So gratitude leads to generosity, and generosity leads to gratitude in an infinite loop. Wherever we are in any moment we can find one or the other. And the way to both is through being fully present in this moment and compassionate with ourselves and others.

Pilgrimage: Kusinara/Kushinagar

The final stop on our four week pilgrimage is the place where the Buddha died, the place of his parinirvana, the final nirvana which occurs upon the death of the body of an awakened being.
Shown here is the reclining Buddha statue at the Mahaparinirvana Temple.

He died in the small town of Kushinagar or Kusinara in Northern India, in the same Utter Pradesh province where he gave his first dharma talk to those scorning ascetic companions.

The Buddha lived to the age of eighty. We are fortunate that he lived as long as he did, for he had time to refine his message, to correct any errors in understanding in his students so that the dharma he taught could survive over 2500 years. Because he insisted that students sense into their own connection and insights, using the teachings for guidance when they lose sight of the importance of the practice, the dharma hasn’t become dry dogma, but feels as fresh and alive today as I imagine it to have been in his time.

He was such a dedicated and generous teacher that even on his deathbed he is said to have asked his followers if there were any last questions they wanted clarified before he passed on. They were naturally distressed over the impending loss of their dear teacher and leader. They couldn’t imagine, perhaps, how they would go on without him.

According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, he told them, “Be a lamp unto yourself, be a refuge to yourself. Take yourself to no external refuge. Hold fast to the dharma as a lamp; hold fast to the dharma as a refuge. Look not for a refuge in anyone beside yourself. And those who either now or after I am dead shall be a lamp unto themselves, who take themselves to no external refuge, but holding fast to the dharma as their lamp, and holding fast to the dharma as their refuge, shall not look for refuge to anyone beside themselves, it is they who shall reach the highest goal.”

‘Be a lamp unto yourself.’ This is a vital core of the teachings that keeps it a living practice. It is what drew me initially to Buddhism. And when I did begin to seriously study and adapt my own meditation to Buddhist Vipassana style practice, I didn’t feel I was discovering anything new. It was more of a homecoming and a reassurance that my own findings were grounded in the dharma. I felt like I was finding a wonderful ready-made structure upon which I could drape my inner explorations, like a dress form for a seamstress. The dharma allows me the freedom to work on my own insights, but gives me a solid foundation.

In these words, ‘Be a lamp unto yourself,’ we are encouraged to practice, and to notice and explore the validity of our own insights. We are reminded not to accept any teachings on blind faith. Another time the Buddha is quoted to have said, “Believe nothing on the faith of traditions, even though they have been held in honor for many generations and in diverse places. Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it. Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past. Do not believe what you yourself have imagined, persuading yourself that a God inspires you. Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests. After examination, believe what you yourself have tested and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto.”

So that reminder to be a lamp unto yourself, given from his deathbed, was core teaching. How different Buddhism would have been without it!

But how did the Buddha die? There are several versions of the story, but recently a medical doctor did a careful analysis of all the accounts and came up with the hypothesis that makes the most medical sense from our current perspective. He said it was unlikely that it was food poisoning, but rather, caused by a mesenteric infarction, an intestinal condition that can be aggravated by eating a meal.

As any of you know who have lost someone near to you, the details of their death, as involving as they were at the time, become less interesting after a while. Instead, the celebration of their life becomes more encompassing. So perhaps we aren’t that interested in how the Buddha died. We are just grateful that he lived.

But the Buddha encourages us to look death in the face and not turn away from it. To be fearless when it comes to recognizing the nature of life and our tendency to act as if it is a given, that it will not be taken away, as if it’s a game of chance that we might just win. How often do people say, “If I die..” as if there was some option. We all die. Life is terminal. It is an incurable condition.

There is a Buddhist meditative practice of sitting in the charnel grounds amidst the cremated remains of the dead. Reality of the temporal nature of this earthly existence is a key acknowledgement. It is not a fascination with death or some death cult. Instead it is accepting the occasional naturally occurring reminder of life’s temporal nature, and is to be valued as such. With each occurrence there is the breaking of the shell of illusion that builds around each of us when we think nothing will change in our lives and that we and those we love will live forever.

I remember in the early days at Spirit Rock there was a skeleton on a stand in the corner of the community hall. It was a great weekly reminder. I wonder whatever happened to it? Did someone become like Siddhartha’s father and decide it was better if we weren’t exposed to it? Were they trying to protect us from the truth of impermanence in a place where the whole point is to remember it?

Did they remove it because they were afraid of facing it themselves? I think about the young Siddhartha’s discovery of illness, old age and death, and I think of my own generation’s plea, as sung by The Who ‘…hope I die before I get old.’ Death is not as scary to youth as old age, because death doesn’t seem real, something casually accomplished repeatedly in violent movies. Youth are known for taking outrageous risks of death, taunting it to take them. Death is more dashing than old age, which is ever present, both frustratingly authoritative and ‘ugly,’ — wrinkled, slow, hard of hearing, holding its own antiquated views of things. One of our family stories is how my father on receiving his granddaughter’s baseball-capped boyfriend into the house, roughly said, “We take our hats off in this house, young man.” Well, thanks for the welcome, you old fart, the boyfriend must have thought.

I remember when I was around twelve and my best friend and I had talks about old age, how horrible it seemed. We would play at being old, stacking our chins or stretching our necks to be fat old lady or skinny old lady, talking with our old lady voices, the ones we used for the wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel. All old age seemed wicked to us. We were more terrified of becoming decrepit than we were of dying. What was death anyway?

Each generation vilifies old age out of terror of growing old. Then each generation ages and becomes the old ones. And suddenly it doesn’t seem so terrible. There are sayings like ‘old age isn’t for sissies,’ recognizing that illness and old age often come together, but not necessarily. I am to the stage now where I am able to see the benefits of good diet and exercise on some friends and family members and the effects of bad habits on others, and though there is no escaping death, and some diseases seem to be the genetic luck of the draw, still, the responsibility people are taking for their well being seems to be paying off. May it continue to be so! And may we deal with whatever arises, whatever losses or limitations, with an open mind that allows us to accept, not resign to, this new vantage point, this ‘new normal’ that is now our life in the present moment.

As we age, death does become more present. We lose more loved ones more frequently. I remember my mother when she was in her early seventies, returning to the dinner table after receiving a phone call that yet another friend had died. I think it had been three that week alone. “Dropping like flies,” she said. I was shocked at her casual statement, so distant was death from my own experience at the time. I’ll never forget that! Within a couple of years, she was dead, too. That was no casually received event for me, of course. Still, twenty-one years later, it breaks my heart all over again to say it. Yet I notice that the little piercings of pain glimmer like jewels. To have known her, to have loved her, to have been her daughter -what a precious gift that was, and still is. Having her only in photos, letters and memory is not the same as being able to hug her, to hear her laugh, to see her full of life. But this is what normal is for me now, and the other day I realized I am looking more like her. I look at my hands and I see how they are a combination of her hands and my paternal grandmother’s hands — an odd pairing, her dry skin with grandma’s wondrous raised veins I loved to push around when I was small. Clearly these are not hand model hands, but for me they hold so much more than any pretty pair of hands possibly could.


Ultimately, how the Buddha died, how anyone died, is not as important as the reminder that death is woven into the fabric of our lives. In nature, we step over the fallen trunks of trees that have succumbed to disease, a lightening strike, a fierce storm or time, reminding us that to everything there is a season.

Awareness of our own mortality can be held in a spacious way, acknowledging any fear or heaviness, and staying with it until we can carry it with true acceptance, even gratitude for the reminder to live fully while we are here.

It helps us to dwell more fully in the present moment, not because we are afraid of the future, but because we know that the only reality is right here and right now. We know that death comes to us all, and we practice in part so that when it comes to us we will be present for the great transition from this corporal body to what we do not know.

A friend of mine was frantic with worry about her step-mother whose doctors could not predict the course of her illness. She wanted to know what would come. But the doctors could not tell her that, and she felt that all the wonders of medical science were failing her.
But none of us knows what the future will bring for our loved ones or ourselves. And finding a way to be comfortable with the not knowing is a huge benefit of meditative practice. It helps us so that if we sense the end of this corporal life is near, we can rest in the moment, in the ‘I don’t know’ mind. We only think we know, based on entries in our appointment book, what lies beyond our next breath at any given moment!

We practice meditation in part because we don’t want to realize, as we recline on our own deathbeds, that we should have been paying more attention, should have been savoring each moment fully. If only we had understood how fleeting it is, this rare and precious gift of life, of breath, of the senses. And so we are grateful for these reminders of mortality, even when they bring painful emotions and sensations. This is the nature of life. This is what it is to be alive in a human body on this earth — a precious fleeting gift.
———————
So we come to the end of our pilgrimage to the places where the Buddha was born, became enlightened, first taught and died. This pilgrimage has not been about devotion to the Buddha. He made it clear that he was not a god. He discouraged his followers from distracting themselves with honoring too much his mortal remains (which, by the way, did not discourage them from dividing up the little bits of bones and teeth and placing them in stupas where to this day devotees come, some doing ritual prostration all the way.)

For us, this pilgrimage is about learning from his life, and in turn from our own. From his youth, we can see ourselves as the young people we once were, and have compassion and understanding.

We can see the pivotal moment or moments in our own lives where we looked at the world with our blinders off. Even now, we can notice where we are still blinded by various causes and conditions, and how we can let the blame go and find our way.

We can take inspiration from his self-discipline in mastering his wandering mind and his intention to awaken in this moment.

We can be inspired by his compassion and generosity, his awareness of the intricate interconnection of all beings, his intense appreciation and valuation of all life, without a sense of entitlement or separation.

And we can remember his words on his death bed to his followers, and be a lamp unto ourselves, not taking the words of any teacher as the truth without giving ourselves the time and space to experience it directly. Each of us has Buddha nature within us, each of us is on our own path to awakening, and in our own way in our own time. We best honor the Buddha by honoring that Buddha nature within ourselves and within all beings.