Category Archives: thoughts

Grudges, pet peeves and other tangled mental knots

 

San Anselmo Creek detail

Detail of San Anselmo Creek, watercolor by Will Noble

One of the greatest benefits of meditation for me has been to be able to see thoughts and emotions as threads passing through my spacious field of experience rather than as aspects of myself that define and confine me. The thoughts may be shaped by a series of life events, just as the flow of water is determined by the shape of the landscape. But the landscape is also shaped by the water, constantly being carved. Neither is completely solid, and neither are my thoughts nor the patterns of behavior they may shape within my experience of being alive at this moment in time.

Imagine in this ever-changing stream there are little eddies, whirlpools where twigs and leaves get tangled and stuck. This is a good metaphor for the tightly-knotted mental formations that in the past I either didn’t notice or just accepted as unavoidable parts of my inner landscape. I now see them too as transient. Just because they’ve been hanging out there for decades doesn’t mean they are solid and impenetrable.

But those knots of thought and emotion do entangle us, don’t they? We might not even realize it as we go about our busy lives, maybe a bit mindless because who has the time to be mindful? Out of seemingly nowhere and for no reason we can explain, maybe we find ourselves caught up in painful thinking. Was it something someone said? That will likely send us off into a whirlpool of anger or hurt feelings. It could have been something someone said a long time ago that we replay again and again. It could even be something we imagine someone saying to us that they would never do! We have the capacity to hurt our own feelings! Amazing.

If we don’t bring ourselves into the present moment and develop a practice that helps us notice these recurring thoughts and emotions, then we can get stuck in a painful pattern.

It’s a bit like if your home was full of poorly arranged furniture. Maybe there’s a couch that sticks out into the hallway that keeps banging your shin or stubbing your toe as you walk by. Maybe you rail against the pain but don’t notice what caused it. You’re so used to that unpleasant sensation that you think this is just how it is. And then maybe you start paying a bit more attention, and you learn how to navigate the space mindfully, rerouting yourself around that sticking out couch. And then one day you recognize that the couch is not locked down in place. So it is with these mental formations. Avoiding them is a stopgap measure. Investigating them is at the heart of our practice. Investigation is one of the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Awakening.

Investigating with compassion and clarity, we may be able to see what’s causing us pain, and then with time and continued practice to see the permeable and impermanent nature of all things, including mental knots.

You know that first line of the AA serenity prayer? “May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” We’re cultivating that kind of wisdom with our practice and our willingness to investigate in a way that brings insight. (Not all that surprisingly, mindfulness meditation is becoming part of the AA experience in many meetings as a useful tool to do the important work of freeing oneself from addiction.)

My little grudge fest
A grudge is definitely a mental knot, whirling clump in the stream of my mind activity. Lately I’ve been noticing when a grudge arises. It keeps surprising me how many grudges I have and how long I can hold them. Decades! A lifetime! Oh my. That’s not very compassionate, I tell myself. Shouldn’t I have forgiven that person long ago and forgotten whatever they did to offend me so?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Forgiveness, it is often said, is not about the other person, but about our own tight holding onto bad feelings. Forgiving is letting go of those feelings and embracing the here and now. All good. But it’s possible that forgetting may not be as wise. Let’s investigate.

Recently I was reading a regular column about relationships in our local Pacific Sun weekly. A man was asking how he could get over the girl friend who had dumped him when he loved her so much. Amy Alkon, the ‘Advice Goddess’, cited some research that said it is useful to purposely remember all the negative things about the past love that you can conjure up, as a counterbalance to the idealized version you have been conjuring up.

Interesting. In the past I had a friend who I enjoyed so much, but who, time and time again, ended up verbally attacking me. Clearly, in the parlance of Buddhism, that friend was not a part of my sangha — the community of people that support me in my meditation practice and wish me well. Looking back, I can see that maybe in order to get over that friendship and not be sucked back into it, always with the same painful result, somehow I knew to develop a strong mental formation of all the harmful things that person had done to me. So there it is: That tight knot of strong opinions that have protected me well all the years since. A grudge that serves a purpose.

Sounds good. But let me not be too quick to tie that knot in a bow. An important part of my process has always been, even as I seem to have developed this grudge for my own well being, to send that person metta, loving-kindness, whenever she comes to mind. And I believe that makes all the difference in any relationship and in any mental formation. Otherwise, it can be a knot of anger straining to explode.

So it looks like my grudge served a purpose, but I can investigate further and ask myself if it still serves a purpose. Is it still necessary to remember her ill-will and vicious words in order to keep clear of her? It’s been decades and I have no idea where lives or even if she is still alive. But here’s the thing: If she were to show up at my door, I might very well still need that grudge, that purposeful reminder, to stave off the desire to engage in the fun we had together, and maybe I would convince myself that she has changed so much that we could be friends again. So even now, that grudge needs to be there, sorry to say. May she be well. May she be happy.

Perhaps this brings to mind for you a past relationship that you know you are well out of. Maybe it was more than just a casual friendship, but a life-partner relationship. Perhaps you have a mix of memories, some wonderful, some painful. What is of value for you here and now to remember? Are your negative memories serving a purpose to protect you? If so, is it possible to see them in that way rather than a torrent of torment that throws you into a dark place even now? Is it possible, even though you never want to see them again (or at least the wisest part of you doesn’t!) to wish them well. May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be peaceful. May you be happy. We wish this for all beings, without exception. And when we cultivate loving-kindness as an ongoing practice, feeling it wholeheartedly for ourselves first and then extending out into the greater community of beings, we also create a path of return from getting lost in the past or the future. We send loving-kindness to whomever we were thinking about, and we return to this moment, just as it is.

I will keep noticing my grudges as they arise, and I’ll check them out to see if they are serving me in some way or if they are just causing me unnecessary pain. Such investigation is useful and powerful!

What about you? Are you having a little grudge-fest too?


Pet Peeves
I notice my pet peeves popping up from time to time, those irrational irritations that I have a hard time overcoming. The other night I was at a poetry reading and there was a poet sitting a few seats away from me, waiting for her turn to step up to the mike. Instead of being attentive to the beautiful reading by the poet at the microphone, she kept rustling through her papers in preparation for her time up. That really bugged me. It was so disrespectful. It was so self-centered. It was so not in the moment. Oh, I could go on. But here I am, a meditator and meditation teacher who says in my guided intro, ‘Let all sounds arising in this moment be part of the symphony of now’, (I kid you not! I do say that, and it makes sense in context.) So why do I find so much irritation around this particular sound. Why was this woman’s rustling of papers not part of my ‘symphony of now’?

Every sound we hear can affect us, registering as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The rustling sound was not unpleasant in and of itself, but it was a distraction, making it even harder to hear the reading over an aging muddled sound system.

Noting the sound isn’t all that goes on when we register an unpleasant sound or other sensation, is it? We could stop there, and that’s part of the practice of meditation, to notice that pleasant-unpleasant-neutral experience, and then return to the breath. We do that practice because that feeling tone, especially an unpleasant one, acts like a diving board into the vast sea of thoughts that drown us in waves from other times and other places, adding buoyancy to our harsh judgments and anchored opinions.

In the case of the rustling papers, to me it seemed disrespectful to the current speaker and to the rest of us, so my mind felt the pull of the sea of remembering other occasions where I may have felt disrespected, and that lent an out-of-proportion reaction to the situation.

Sound familiar? Out of proportion reactions, either within ourselves or in others, operate in just this way. They take a current irritation, bolster it up with past examples, and boom! Scary stuff in some cases, right? Not all people curb their impulses arising from such irritation, do they? Lucky for that poet, and for me, I didn’t act out my pet peeve. 😉

Instead, when someone annoys me, I try to muster some understanding of what their experience is and how it might adversely affect their current behavior. As a poet myself, I can relate to a poet who is next up on the reading roster wanting to be ready. But why had she waited until now to organize her writing? I always know what I’ll be reading in advance. Well, goodie for me. Maybe she has a lot going on in her life, and this was her first chance to prepare. Maybe she’s holding down two jobs, taking care of a dying parent and… Okay, okay. Bless her heart. May she be well. May she be at ease. May she be happy. May I let my annoyances go.

Noticing pet peeves, it’s useful to see what other experiences may be compounding our irritation. We’ve looked at the supporting cast of memories that act like a little cheer-leading team, egging us on. But our irritation is also exacerbated by our mood, having had a rough day, experiencing physical pain and other factors. For me in that moment, I had pain in my hip and sitting in a hard chair was difficult. Without that would I have even noticed the rustling? Hard to say.

Another important contributor to our annoyance is if we think the perpetrator is doing it on purpose to annoy us or for any other reason. A student in class this week noted that we get in the habit of taking bad behavior by others quite personally. Someone cuts us off in traffic. Can we remember it’s not about us? Yes they put us in harm’s way, but that wasn’t their intention. Yes, they should have been more skillful, but are we going to let the fear they brought up spark a rant that will no doubt make us less mindful of our own driving?

Here’s a Buddhist story that fits in well here.
A man is sitting in a rowboat fishing on a foggy morning, when he notices another boat coming toward him. In the mist he can’t see the person steering the boat, but it’s clear the boat is going to hit his, so he calls out. But the boat keeps coming at him. So he calls out louder, this time more aggressively, fueled by his fear that the boat might hit him and the dread of the harm and hassle that might entail. But the boat keeps coming! Now he’s really angry. This other boater is clearly ignoring him and is purposely attacking him. So he yells curses and uses his oar, not just to fend off the approaching boat to keep himself safe, but to clobber the stupid expletive deleted at the helm.

Only then is he able to see that the other boat is empty. Suddenly all his feelings change. He has no hard feelings about a boat floating aimlessly. It had just come loose from its mooring. He doesn’t think it is out to attack him. He just pushes it away and checks his fishing line.

You are not your knots
We all have pet peeves and grudges to one degree or another. These preferences are worth noticing and exploring. What isn’t useful is taking them on as identity, seeing them as who we are: ‘I’m the kind of person who…’ This need to identify with the free-floating patterns of mind and to use them to shore up a sense of separate self, comes from fear of not being seen, loved or respected. The fear can activate unskillful and even dangerous behavior. So it’s definitely something to notice.

Next time you find yourself caught up in a mental knot, see if you can recognize it as permeable, impermanent. Maybe it’s there to serve a purpose, maybe not. Either way, it’s worth exploring. And if you explore, practice kindness. Your grudges and pet peeves are not enemies nor badges of shame. Greet them as holders of useful information they are oh so ready to share. Are you ready to pay attention?

Worried? Read on!

Last week I had jury duty, so I made sure my calendar was clear in case I had to serve on a longish trial. It turned out that I didn’t. But it gave me the opportunity to see how it felt to have a clear calendar, and wow, I have to say, it felt very very pleasant.

That sense of ease and openness made me realize that in my inner landscape of mental activity, future events are sometimes like black holes that suck up a lot of energy. This goes beyond simple planning. Long after the planning is done, the mind might be drawn into that black hole, circling around the anticipated event — a trip, a social gathering or something like jury duty — pretty much anything that has unknown elements, which is everything in the future, isn’t it? Being a woman, charged full of oxytocin, the ‘bonding hormone’, I also expend a lot of mental energy worrying about the well being of my loved ones.

Sound familiar? Well, don’t worry about it. It’s part of the human condition. Over 2600 years ago, the Buddha identified worry as one of the Five Hindrances (Sensual Desire, Aversion, Restlessness & Worry, Sloth & Torpor, and Doubt). Maybe for you, one of the other Hindrances is more a presence in your life. Most of us have all of them to varying degrees. But why did he call them ‘hindrances’? What are they hindrances to? They can get in the way of opening to and receiving this moment fully. This doesn’t mean we have to get rid of these hindrances. Good luck with that! But we benefit by noticing them when they arise in our awareness, seeing them for what they are. Simply noticing them in a spacious compassionate way weakens their power to hold us.

I have written about all the hindrances in the past, and you are welcome to check out those posts, but let’s stay with worry for now. You can see how worry gets in the way of being fully present. The mind is stuck circling that black hole of future event or the black hole of what someone we love is experiencing, and it keeps going there even when there is absolutely nothing more we can do about it now.

When we meditate, we are practicing making ourselves fully available to the sensations of this moment. With openness to whatever arises in our experience and compassion for ourselves when we find we’ve gotten lost in thought, we return our attention to the breath or other physical sensation. In that moment we come to understand the way of things: We see that there is impermanence, so we know that this too shall pass. We see that we are all of a piece here, made of the same microscopic stuff as the air we breath the earth we walk on and each other. And we see how when we forget those two things – impermanence and no-separate self — we suffer because we get caught up in grasping at lifesavers and clinging to cliffs, shoring up barriers, chasing after empty promises and running away from imagined monsters. All of which takes a whole lot of mental energy.

So worry if you will, but be aware of the quality of worrying. Don’t make an enemy of worry, but see it for what it is. Be compassionate with whatever arises. There’s nothing wrong here.


Yesterday Will and I went on a hike on Hoo-Koo-e-Koo trail up in the hills of Kentfield, CA. Most of the trail is fairly level, following the contours of the mountain, in and out of canyons. In normal years there is at least a little waterfall running down each canyon, but now in early fall, after four years of drought, even the deepest cool dark canyon is dry. Standing there, surrounded by hillsides of bay trees, ferns and dried leaves and the boulders normally covered with a cascade, we stood still to listen to the absolute silence. The stillness I experienced there is akin to the stillness deep in a meditation. So peaceful. Accepting the moment as it is, not wishing the water was running; not worrying, in that moment, about whether there will be rain in our future: That is what we are learning to do with our practice.

 

Thoughts & emotions in meditation, continuing the Anapanasati Sutta

In our continuing exploration of the Anapanasati Sutta, the Buddha’s teaching on mindfulness of the breath, we now come to the third Tetrad, the Mind Group. Here we bring our friendly focused attention to the whole of the mind, which includes the heart in this tradition so that we notice both thoughts and emotions as they pass through our spacious field of awareness.

The second step of this group instructs us to ‘gladden the mind’. This is not an instruction to put on a happy face. It is asking us to notice and in that noticing appreciate this joyous state of being fully alive and aware. It knocks us out of the temporal reactivity of our normal state and allows us to sense into the quality of infinite being. The Sutta doesn’t use those words, just ‘gladden the mind’ but see where it takes you.

The third step instructs us to steady the mind, bringing some balance into the mix. We’re not floating off into ecstasy. We want to develop states that are functional, that end suffering in our daily lives, not just a temporary escape from our personal challenges.

The last step of this tetrad instructs us to ‘liberate the mind’. This isn’t freeing the mind to run amuk. This is liberation from mindlessness, from assumptions not based in fact, from auto-pilot, and from habitual thinking. If you remember our investigation of the Hindrances in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, at this stage you can really observe them in action: the clinging, aversion, restlessness, worry, torpor, sloth and doubt.

Deepening in this practice of following the breath and noticing the mental processes, we can begin to see the tenacity with which we hold onto lifelong habits, patterns and processes. We notice the activation of judgment, justification and argument, as well as various emotions that fuel aversion and desire to do anything but simply be with what is in this moment.

But if we can expand our spacious field of awareness to hold all of those difficult thoughts and emotions, without acting on the desire to push them away, then we discover we can live with them in a kind of intimacy that is softening and illuminating. We see for ourselves the pain of attachment. Then with consistent compassionate attention we might see the superfluous nature of attachment. Then eventually, without effort beyond the wise effort of our sitting practice, quite naturally the attachment softens and perhaps dissolve.  

This kind of liberation of the mind leads to awakening and a deepening of wisdom. It is a willingness to be present with whatever arises and see it with a clarity, and a willingness to question everything. ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’

Next week we will complete this brief look at the Anapanasati Sutta.

Gravitational Pull and the Five Hindrances

Meditation is the practice of being present in this moment, becoming more skillful in how we relate to our experience and becoming more compassionate with ourselves and others. With practice we develop mindfulness throughout the day. With mindfulness we are able to notice the nature of the thoughts that pass through our field of awareness. I have begun to notice how sometimes these thoughts have a gravitational pull, drawn to a certain future event, like the treat I’ve promised myself later in the day or a concern I have about whether the layover on an upcoming trip is long enough for us to catch our next plane. Or the pull might be toward something that happened in the past, something I’m still feeling emotional ripples from experiencing, or something I’m figuring out how I might have handled differently with better results.

That sense of gravitational pull makes these small future or past events feel like the center of my mental universe. They are where my mind is drawn if I’m not busy with something else. 

Have you noticed any gravitational thoughts — events in the past or future that hold your attention? Maybe it’s the dread of some chore, the daydream of some future situation, anticipating or longing for pleasure, questioning whether you are up to the task you set out to do, or maybe your thoughts are more muddled and you just want to sleep. Each of these kinds of thoughts can be categorized in what the Buddha called the Hindrances: Sense Desire, Aversion, Restlessness & Worry, Sloth & Torpor, and Doubt. [Read more about the Five Hindrances.]

Being able to identify the nature of our thoughts in these categories hones mindfulness skills. It reminds us that our thoughts are not ‘ours’ but natural byproducts of the universal nature of thinking mind. This depersonalizes our investigation, making it feel safer. Many people avoid this kind of inner exploration because they fear discovering something awful that will make them feel even worse about themselves. These five hindrances are not labels to brand ourselves. To have a slothful thought does not make me a lazy person. To have a lustful thought does not make me a slut. If we understand that the thoughts are not personal and do not define us, then it makes the idea of mindfulness and inner investigation much less scary.


‘The Five Hindrances’ is one of the Buddha’s useful lists found in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This one identifies mental obstacles to awakening to the present moment.  Noticing the nature of our thought patterns brings them into the light, creates spaciousness with which we can take wise action in regard to the thought.

For example, since I found that I kept worrying about that short layover, I was able to determine that the wise action was to call the airlines and discuss whether I needed to change one of the flights. Having made the change, that worry has dissolved and therefore has no gravitational pull. I am able to be present in this moment with whatever is happening here and now. Yay! If I didn’t pay attention and had not identified the thought that was causing my discomfort, I would have carried it with me for days.
Sound familiar? Stop, close your eyes, anchor your awareness in physical sensation for a moment, and then notice your thoughts as they pass through your field of awareness. Is there a recurring thought that comes up for you? Maybe it is so powerful it is draws you in and you find yourself caught up in a tangle of story.

Once you have identified the thought that has you in its gravitational pull, ask yourself:
  • Does this thought pull you into the past or the future?
  • If it’s in the past, would you say it is mostly regret or nostalgia? Is there a strong emotional content? Is there anger? Is there shame?
  • If it’s in the future, would you say it’s mostly worry, dread, excitement, restlessness?
  • Notice how the thought feels in your body. Is there tension? Is there an ache in the chest? Does all the energy drain from your body?
  • Notice what associated emotions, memories and images arise. Bring that past experience into your spacious compassionate field of awareness where you can see it clearly. Keep breathing, stay present, be kind. If judgments arise, notice them too. Replenish the field with as much spaciousness and compassion as you can muster. Release all expectations. (If what you come upon is so extremely painful that you don’t feel you can continue on your own, find a skilled therapist who knows how to walk you through the process of this kind of self-investigation.)
  • If you are worried about something, what is a skillful action you can do to address or alleviate your concerns? For example, if you are dreading some overwhelming chore, you might break it down into incremental bits and allot an hour a day to it.
  • Is there a wall you come up against, some lack of information or a sense of self-doubt, for example? Noticing what is needed opens the door to being able to get the information or alleviate the doubt, either by developing the skills necessary, finding someone else who has those skills to help with the task at hand, or confirming that you indeed can do this.
  • If there is nothing in your power to do about it, or it is not your problem to solve but you’re still concerned, you can always send metta, infinite loving-kindness, to the person or situation. Sometimes this is the best we can do, and it is actually quite a lot to do!

To see the nature of thoughts and emotions is the gift of the practice of meditation. More and more we are able to live mindfully. Seeing how these thought patterns fall into the categories the Buddha delineated 2600 years ago certainly depersonalizes them.  When we understand this is a universal experience of being human, it is much less intimidating to face our fears, to see them for what they are, and to use this understanding to further bring mindfulness to our current struggles so that we can alleviate suffering. But remember that to strive to get beyond hindrances is just another hindrance (aversion). Striving is not the way. We do this practice with wise balanced effort. All that is necessary is to have the paired intentions to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be compassionate with ourselves and others when we discover that we (or they) haven’t been present at all.

And why aren’t we present? Because some thought or emotion is holding us in its gravitational orbit, pulling us in like a black hole. Wake up!

It’s a Jungle In There! Coming into Healthy Relationship with Our Minds

Continuing with our focus on the Third Foundation of Mindfulness… 
Imagine ‘pleasant’ ‘unpleasant and ‘neutral’ as seeds scattered in the garden of our minds. If we leave them to their own devices, if we are not mindful of them, they root and grow into a jungle of thoughts and emotions made up of desire, greed, aversion, hatred and delusion. We get entangled in the vines and feel trapped. We are so entwined we can’t see sky, can’t feel the ground beneath our feet, can’t imagine anything beyond this strangling-vine existence that we take to be who we are. We are lost deep in the jungle, and this is normal for most of us.

When we meditate, we develop the skill of mindfulness. This is a radiant quality that sheds light infinitely in all directions. This light allows us to use all our senses to become fully aware of this moment and our current experience. We can feel the earth beneath our feet, see the sky and feel the rain. In this state of awareness, we see the tangle for what it is — not us! Not who we are. Just a jungle of thought and emotion that now has more and more space between the trunks and vines so we can explore mindfully.

At this point, we might develop an aversion to the jungle. We might think meditation is our ticket outta-here. But that is just planting another ‘unpleasant’ seed that grows quickly into a tangle of aversion. 


So we look at those seeds more carefully. When we notice ‘unpleasant’ arising in our experience in response to some cause or condition, before it can turn into a full-blown angry rant that twists us so tight we cannot breath, we shed the light of awareness on it and the seed, exposed, dries out and dissolves. 

Next we notice ‘pleasant’ arising, and before it grows into a kudzu vine of craving more of this pleasant experience, we shine our full light of awareness on it. We find we can be with a sense of pleasant without being taken over by desire for more and more and more of it.

Shedding the full light of awareness is what the Buddha did as he sat under the Bodhi tree confronted again and again with all manner of ‘pleasant’ and ‘unpleasant’ thoughts and emotions that could easily have gotten him entangled, and surely had in the past. But his purpose was clear: To stay mindful, to stay present, and to see the manifestations that taunted and tempted him for what they were. In this skillful way, he was able to see the causes of suffering.

When we are entangled in the jungle of thought and emotion, thinking ourselves kings or queens of this jungle, claiming it proudly as our own — while in reality we are as much its victim as a bug caught in a spider’s web — then we are suffering. We might not be aware that our entrapment and attachment to that entrapment is the cause of our suffering, but with mindfulness we see it clearly for what it is.

Now in this same garden of our existence there are also seeds that are pleasant, unpleasant and neutral that thrive in the full light of mindfulness, that root and grow in ways that are beneficial. There is the pleasantness of sitting and knowing we are sitting. If we can simply allow that pleasant seed to grow into a dedication to practice, it will bear the fruit of pure joy and wisdom. There is the unpleasantness of forgetting to do our meditation practice, and with the light of awareness it will grow to remind us that mindfulness requires dedication to practice. 


There is the pleasantness that comes with being kind and generous, and there is the unpleasantness that comes from having said or done something hurtful. Both of these seeds, when noticed, inform us in a way that we become more skillful in our words and actions, bring more joy into the world and into ourselves. 

There is the neutral of noticing all aspects of a situation, not ignoring things that might make us uncomfortable or don’t support our argument to which we may be very attached.

It is important not to embellish this jungle analogy with chores beyond what is prescribed by the Foundations of Mindfulness. Shedding compassionate radiant light is all we need to do. We do not need to weed, eradicate, dig or spray toxic chemicals in the jungle-like garden of our mind, and doing so would be counterproductive. We are not doing a makeover! Whatever changes happen arise naturally as a result of our paired intentions to be present in this moment, and to be compassionate with ourselves when we discover we have not been present at all.

In class students said that this analogy helped them to visualize the way thoughts and emotions work. Does it help you? I’m always happy to read your comments or answer any questions. Just click on ‘comments & questions’ below.

Third Foundation of Mindfulness – Awareness of Mental Phenomena

Last week we discussed the Second Foundation of Mindfulness and in class we practiced noting whether a current experience was ‘pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.’ The homework was to continue noting throughout the week, in meditation and in life. This noting is in addition to anchoring awareness in physical sensation. That is our foremost practice. All other practices within The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are done in conjunction with the First Foundation.

The practice of noting sets the stage for the Third Foundation of Mindfulness, the awareness of the arising and falling away of mental phenomena — thoughts and emotions.

It is surprising to me, looking through my translation of the original instruction for the Third Foundation of Mindfulness in the Satipatthana, to see how short it is. For us in the modern era, the exploration of thoughts and emotions seems such a huge topic, almost insurmountably complex — as if all life is lived in the realm of thought and emotion. That is because we are steeped within the thoughts, so enmeshed in them that we can’t see them clearly. Yet we take all our cues for our speech and behavior from these thoughts and emotions that have us caught up in their tidal pull. 


What the Buddha taught is a practice that enables us to swim in the ocean of thoughts and emotions, fully aware of the nature of waves and tides. We can stop struggling, thrashing about, thinking we are drowning, and begin floating, enjoying ourselves and swim. Or surf!

My friend Mary Wagstaff, after years of dedicated study of Buddhism, at the age of 50 took up surfing. Being on the ocean gave her the insights that had been eluding her in her studies. Nature’s like that. So smart and instructive if only we would pay attention! Her years of practice and instruction taught her to pay that kind of attention. Mary’s still surfing and was featured in ‘O’ Magazine as an inspiration and illustration of ‘no limits.’

What we are learning in this Third Foundation is how to apply the skills we have developed in the first and second foundations to the way that thoughts and emotions arise, transform into other thoughts and emotions. To use another nature analogy, we watch them like we might watch clouds form and transform as they drift across the sky.

In this practice, the thoughts and emotions are simply phenomena for us to notice. We can see how the Second Foundation’s ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’ experience transforms into a multiplicity of reaction thoughts and emotions right before our eyes. The unpleasant experience quickly turns to aversion, to a thought of how to change the scene or situation, that might then turn just as quickly into a judgment of ourselves for not being able to stick with the assignment, and then we launch into a reminder that we are supposed to be compassionate, and then maybe a story about how we don’t deserve compassion. And on and on. You know the drill!

Key to seeing clearly the constant unfolding of thoughts and emotions is quieting down. This is why an extended silent retreat is so valuable for developing this mindfulness practice. But we can give ourselves the gift of silence also in our daily lives. We can turn off the radio, television, cell phone, computer. We can give ourselves permission to be unplugged for a while so that we can plug into the universal wisdom that is right here and now, whenever we are ready to pay attention.

Through this awareness we are liberated from being strangled by the tangle of thoughts and emotions. We neither run from them, push them away or chase after them. We allow them to exist, noting the arc of their arising and falling away within the field of our awareness. (In this blog you will find many dharma talk posts on the subject of thoughts and emotions. If you would like to read more, you’ll see the links listed under ‘Labels’ when you scroll down in the column on the right.)

We are not our thoughts
As we unplug from the busy world and plug into universal wisdom of the here and now, we also come to understand that all these thoughts and feelings do not define us. Just as we notice the physical sensation of hot or cold without identifying it as who we are, we can notice the arising and falling away of thoughts and emotions without any sense that they define us.

They are just the universal ocean of thought and emotion. They are not who we are. They do not make us more or less special, unique, weird or despicable. This is a great relief for most of us! We take responsibility for our actions and speech, but our thoughts and  emotions, just like our dreams, are of a different nature. We are neither their masters nor their victims. When we notice them, we can take a much wider view and hold the whole process in an easeful way. By doing so the contents of our thoughts and emotions will settle down.

If you balk at the statement ‘We are not our thoughts,’ you are not alone. In any given meditation circle there might be one student brave enough to say, ‘Hey, that’s not my experience. I am my thoughts!’ That student is probably saying what at least some of the others are thinking as well.

There is nothing a teacher can say that will change their minds. This is an insight that arises out of the experience of meditation practice. But a teacher can give guidance to create conditions where such an insight might arise. So in response to that statement in our meditation circle, I led the group in my ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ letting go exercise. Several requested I send them a copy and wrote me back to say they found it helpful, so I include the link here.

Why does it matter whether we believe ourselves to be our thoughts and emotions or not?

First, if we believe ourselves to be our thoughts and emotions, we are too enmeshed in them to see the habituated patterns that keep us in bondage, where we are tossed about at the whim of our thoughts and emotions. A more liberated view comes only when we recognize that thoughts and emotions arise and fall away as part of a process — like breathing. The mind processes thoughts and emotions in the same way the lungs process air.

Second, if we think we are our beliefs, opinions, etc. then we can’t safely examine them or question them. We might find something too awful, too shameful. After all we are ‘stuck’ with ourselves for the course of this lifetime. Why would we want to find out that we are basically rotten at the core? This belief that we are our thoughts and emotions, that we are the accumulation of our experiences and personality traits, makes us rigid and fearful. We develop strong attachments to this idea of self because we carefully seal off our intrinsic awareness of our beingness at a deeper level, the way in which we are not separate from all of life in a sack of skin that is our sole dominion. We fill our lives with busy noisy goings-on, afraid that peace and quiet would open a door we would rather keep shut. But my students would not be attending class and you would not be reading this post, if some deeper sense of knowing wasn’t present. Trust in that inner wisdom.

If a sense of deep connection is difficult, practice metta, sending loving kindness. Remember that we have two paired intentions: to be present, anchored in sensation and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. They work together and create a balance. One fuels the other. So if you find yourself struggling with a concept, let go of the concept and send metta to all beings. To the cashier, to the careless driver, to the texting teen, to the man muttering to himself on the street corner, to the politician who blundered, to the person you love most in the world, to the person who represents all that is evil to you, to the earth itself and all its inhabitants. May they be well. May they be happy. May they be at ease. May they be at peace.

Sending metta calms the heart and attunes us to the unitive nature of our being in a way that thinking cannot.

From this state of kindness and connection we can see that clinging to a sense of separate self means living in a disconnected way where we feel we have something to fear, something to hide and something to prove — that we are ‘good enough’ in whatever form that takes. When we live from that kind of motivation, our life is a misery. The lives of those around us are made more miserable as well. We live in a state of dysfunction, prickly or cloying, always working from some agenda that can never be met. This is what the Buddha called suffering. This is what he spent his lifetime developing practices to alleviate, including, and perhaps most especially the practices of The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

When we sit or walk in silence, hearts and minds open, we offer a large container for the ocean of thoughts and emotions to show us its tides and wave patterns, and to eventually quiet down. Even if it doesn’t quiet down, it is seen with greater clarity.

So this is the practice, to give an attentive dispassionate awareness to thought and emotion, just as we do to physical sensation, just as we do to noticing the pleasant, unpleasant and neutral experience. And by doing so, we come fully into the present moment.

The simplest instruction for meditation is to sit and know that you are sitting. The Third Foundation of Mindfulness is to recognize thoughts and emotions. To think and know that you are thinking. We can name the kind of thought or emotion that arises. Judging, planning, worrying, anger, longing, etc. This gives us an activity that short-circuits the story the mind wants to tell. The story gets started and as soon as we recognize it we can name it ‘planning’ (or whatever) and we are back in full awareness, anchored in physical sensation.

Add this technique into your meditation practice if you are ready to do so. Notice the tendency to judge the thought, to judge the wandering mind, and name it ‘judging.’

Here is a poem I wrote about the wandering mind that might help to bring more compassion to your own wanderer.


Prodigal Mind

When my mind
returns to the breath
there is such a sense
of homecoming
such a celebration of
this most perfect union

that I would not be surprised
if the invitations were sent out
the band hired
and the cake decorated

were there only enough time
before my wayward mind
sets off to wandering again.

– Stephanie Noble



Eightfold Path: Spacious Effort

Imagine a bird soaring in the sky, held aloft by the air currents. Spacious effort is like that. Out of a sense of connection with all that is, we are held aloft, so that we are not alone and solely responsible to carry the weight of the world upon our shoulders or push a boulder uphill over and over like Sisyphus. We can instead be like sailors who know the tides and the ways of the winds, and with a slight shift of the rudder and choice of sails, align with the already existing energy of the universe to do whatever needs to be done.

How does this play out on dry land? Through the Spacious Intention to be present, to sense in to the energy of the universe as it courses through our own bodies, we can come into Spacious View, seeing the interconnection, feeling the support of that vibrant web of life.

Although this would not be the traditional way of explaining right or wise effort*, and actually seems more akin to the Taoist term Wu Wei**, it still feels accurate to me to describe Spacious Effort as aligning with and feeling supported by the infinite energy of which we are made and that breathes through us. From this sense of connection and support, our effort will be fruitful, sincere and well-received.

But how often does that happen? For most of us accessing and riding the infinite energy of the universe seems like a fantasy. The world we live in is full of challenges, difficulties and obstacles to be overcome, and it certainly seems that none of it will happen without serious effort on our part. Even as I say this I can feel the locking down of my muscles, the clamping of my jaw, the clenching of my heart and the overloading of my brain. It’s true, I cry, it’s true. Life is hard and I sometimes have a hard time coping.

Life is a challenge! Any given life at any given time has a set of responsibilities that can be daunting to contemplate. Perhaps we really do feel as if we are carrying the world on our shoulders up a steep incline with no summit in sight. Or maybe we feel like a waiter with too many plates to carry and too many hungry diners making excessive demands. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well, wouldn’t it be great to have a sailboat to ‘align with the universe! Wouldn’t that be just dandy! But that’s not how life is. Give me a break.”

Okay, okay. Reality check! But here’s the reality: Most of what we are dealing with on a daily basis is not reality, but perception.

Whatever seems true in our lives right now is a mirage, as much a lie as what we see when we look in the mirror. Think about it: What we see in the mirror is flipped horizontally, only the front of our body, probably cropped, fixed in an unusual stationary moment, and distorted by our filters of selective perception. That false mirror distortion of our body actually mirrors how it is in our lives as well.

Think about your own to-do list. Think about the people who depend on you. Think about your fears of what will happen if you don’t fulfill your obligations. Bring everything to mind, everything you can think of.

Now sense in to your body. Notice any tension that may have escalated just that quickly. Feel the clamping down. This is the adrenaline of fear coursing through us. Most of us live in this constant bath of adrenaline, putting strain on our bodies and minds.

Now focus on your breath. Breathe in the generous infinite air that surrounds us. Allow the breath to ease the tightness of muscles, soften the heart and open the mind. Allow yourself to be held in this spacious presence of sensing in.

Sensing in, we relax. Sensing in, we become aware of what is true in this present moment. Sensing in we find reality, beyond the mirage of our perceptions.

When we access the moment, we bring ourselves into alignment with the ever present infinite energy that is a simple factual scientific truth, not something requiring belief. There is nothing woo-woo about it, as we discussed when studying Spacious View.

(I admit I am finding that this word ‘spacious’ does seem to have some quasi-magical incantation quality. I find saying to myself ‘spacious mind, spacious heart, spacious life’ gives me access to a calm centered place where I can remember that I am just one of six billion people on the planet and it’s not all up to me. I have had feedback from some of you that the word spacious has the same effect on you!)

Whatever challenge we are facing, being grounded in spacious awareness allows us to meet the challenge. There is a quality of release and letting go in spaciousness. For those of us who find we are tense and determined to accomplish goals, to get something right, to become the best we can be, we can begin to question the value of our exertions. ‘What is it I hope to accomplish? Are my efforts effective? If I feel tense, is my tension serving me or sabotaging me? When have I exerted effort and felt joy in the exertion?’

Let’s play a little with this last question. Perhaps you remember a physical activity like swimming where the pure pleasure of the strokes and the sensation of the water against your skin brought you more fully into the moment, and you felt alive, awake and joyful. This was an experience of Spacious Effort. Sensing in, you felt the joy of using your muscles, and hopefully, sensing in you knew when your body was ready to stop, and you did, rather than forcing some over-efforting thought control onto what was a joyous and healthy experience. Studies now show that forcing ourselves to do exercise that we don’t enjoy actually adds so much stress that it negates any health benefit.

Connecting to the isness of being is plugging into creative energy as well. I remember when I used to write advertising copy, whenever a co-worker and I brainstormed together and laughed until our jaws ached in the creative process, the resulting ads were the best work either of us every did. Quality results arise from joy and a unitive state of ease! A worker in a factory who stays fully present in the moment and honors the work being done as almost a ritual and a gift offered in joy will also produce a finer product than a worker who is tensed, afraid of making a mistake, or sluggish, grumpy or daydreaming, potentially causing harm to the product, themselves and others. We’ll discuss that more when we get to Spacious Livelihood, but you can see the nature of Spacious Effort in these two work examples.

Unskillful effort comes from not being fully here and in this moment. With over-efforting, mostly likely we have a goal, an expectation or a desire that keeps us feeling locked out of the moment, stuck in some future moment of triumph, accomplishment or relief. How often do we keep ourselves slogging away with mental visions of a hot shower, a cool drink or a cozy bed? We are avoiding being present because of discomfort, when it would be more skillful to honor the moment, pay attention to our bodies’ cues, take a break from the activity, have a sip of water, a change of pace, and sense in to the sensations of the moment before proceeding. Slogging away is a sure way to end up falling down on a hike or making errors in our work. Spacious Effort honors the body’s cues and responds with compassion.

With under-efforting, we have some inner conversation that is making such a convincing argument that we can’t seem to get off the couch to do what needs to be done. Spacious Effort brings us into the moment, into noticing the inner conversation and compassionately working with the inner messages we hear.

Before we start really listening we might think of our thoughts as a monolog, as ‘our’ thoughts, an expression of our true selves. But when we begin to listen more closely with spaciousness and compassion, we begin to see that it’s not a monolog but a dialog. There’s the voice that says ‘I want….” and another voice that questions the veracity of that statement. The more we pay attention, the more voices we begin to notice, until we see that our thoughts are more of a symphony of various component parts. Now this is not a case of split personality. It’s just the nature of thought. Thoughts are drawn from all over the place throughout the course of our lives. When we meditate and give ourselves space to explore, we can begin to see the source of some of our thoughts. Maybe we believe something about ourselves because someone in high school said something hurtful. We incorporated it into our thinking and haven’t bothered to question it since. Giving our minds space, and noticing, we can see the associative images and memories that fuel these thoughts. Once we see them, sometimes they simply vanish because the source revealed is so obviously unreliable we can no longer believe it. But most often this noticing is just the beginning of a very sweet process of inner exploration.

An effective way of working with all these messages is to begin to notice their variations of voice and tone, and begin to assign them pet names that have something of the nature of their general message, so that we recognize them more easily when the message arises in our minds. In this way we can say, ‘Ah, yes, I know you,’ just as the Buddha recognized Mara in all its guises as he sat under the Bodhi tree.

Here’s an example: Many years ago when I had a problem getting myself to exert some effort to exercise, I noticed the inner aspect of myself that hated exercise and loved bed and, once identified, I gave it the pet name ‘Slug’ to help me notice when those kinds of thoughts arose, and to give me a way to address this aspect in an inner dialog.

Slug told me that he loved bed because it was like a big mommy hug, and he missed his mommy. This was in the early 1990’s. My mother had died in 1989 and I had not taken sufficient time to honor her passing and to honor my grief.

Being compassionate toward an inner aspect, it is possible to negotiate a way to meet its needs without sabotaging my own. Because Slug missed his mommy, I decided it might work to attend the yoga class of a friend who was the same age as my mother and who at the end of class when we would lie on the floor in shavasana (corpse) pose, would come around with blankets and lovingly tuck each of us in. Well, needless to say Slug was in heaven with this motherly treatment, and I could begin to rediscover the joy of stretching and moving my body. Eventually I was able to add other forms of exercise without Slug complaining.

You can see how the Spacious Intention that we discussed last week is so important here. The intention to be present allows us to be aware of thoughts that push too hard or sabotage our efforts. Our intention to be compassionate enables us to explore in a loving way the roots of our over or under efforting.

We can notice if we are tense, frantic, frenzied, or sluggish, lethargic, exhausted. Spacious Effort will feel calm, balanced, infused with an enthusiasm that is whole- hearted and centered. We will feel both at ease and alert.

We can notice what is sabotaging our ability to exert Spacious Effort. Noticing the quality of our effort gives us valuable information as to how we feel about the project at hand and how we feel about ourselves. If we are trying too hard, who are we trying to please? What goal are we trying to reach? Why is it so important to us? If we are feeling sluggish and resistant, what is it that we are resisting? What aspect of self is telling a story here? And what is the story being told? There are many questions that can lead to rich exploration. But we can only begin the journey if we first notice what’s happening.

Over-efforting often has to do with people pleasing which has to do with seeing ourselves as the objects of others’ views rather than the subject of our own lives. I talk about this a lot in my book ‘Tapping the Wisdom Within.’ It is not something that I have ever heard addressed in my years as a student of Buddhism. I think it might be more of (though not exclusively) a ‘girl thing.’ The Buddha probably didn’t have this issue so didn’t think to address it. But it is epidemic among girls and women in our culture. Think about how we are objectified, how important our packaging is and how effectively advertisers work our fear of not being the most desirable object. We get stuck trying to be what we imagine others want us to be, whether it’s pretty, smart, funny, efficient, capable, etc. We imagine that if we are not all these things we will not be lovable and we will be alone.

Our fear of separation drives us out of balance. We have no center. And when we have no center we can’t connect with others because we’re not where they expect us to be. They try to get to know us, but we are too busy trying to figure out what would make them like us to let them in! We are imagining how they see us and making constant adjustments.

I certainly had this object-orientation for the first forty or so years of my life. It wasn’t until I was flat on my back with a nine-month illness that I was able to quiet down enough to see what was happening. I spent that nine months meditating and taking notes on the insights that arose. The subject versus object issue was high on the list of topics of concern. And over that time I began to get to know myself, my own preferences, my own opinions, my own feelings. It was fascinating to discover them, to discover myself without the until-then all-important feedback of others.

The over-efforting that was a part of my having seen myself as object rather than subject of my own life led to my illness. It is very stressful to always be trying to figure out what others want from you and how to please them! So part of my healing was coming back to center, coming back to acknowledging that the only person I can be is me, even if everyone dumps me. But what happened was quite the opposite. When I was well enough to socialize, my simply being myself instead of the person I thought people wanted me to be actually improved all my relationships. I was who I was and they could find me where they expected to find me and understand me in a way that they couldn’t before, back when I was a shape-shifting blob of desire to please them.

So over-efforting and under-efforting are clearly unskillful, landing us in states that are even more unpleasant than the one we are trying to escape through under-efforting or over-efforting!

What do you notice for yourself about effort? What stories drive you or keep you from bothering? Take on this valuable exploration, a gift of the Eightfold Path. In the coming weeks notice where you over-effort and where you under-effort. Notice it in the areas of work, relationships, food and exercise, or any place else. Begin to notice the thoughts that are the source of what drives you or undermines you. This is the beginning of coming into clarity, balance and Spacious Effort.

To read more about this subject, check out the post on Right Effort from our first go round exploring the Eightfold Path in 2009.

———————

* ‘avoiding unhealthy mind states, abandoning unhealthy mind states once they have arisen, moving the mind to healthy mind states, and maintaining the mind on healthy mind states that have already arisen.’

Now I imagine that the majority of the Buddha’s students were younger men, and I understand that getting a guy to stop thinking about sex would be a huge challenge. Also with all that testosterone, perhaps the challenge is also to stop fantasizing about acting out anger through violence. But my students are mostly mature women. For most of us this is not our challenge. We have other challenges, which I address in a way that feels more useful to me. If of course, any of you do have runaway thoughts of sex and violence, then that is what you will be noticing and questioning.

The Buddha always encouraged questioning the veracity of any statement. I don’t question that inclining the mind toward healthy states is useful, but I believe most of my students have been attempting to focus on healthy mind states most of their lives and don’t need my reminder to do so. The duality of healthy vs. unhealthy thoughts seems more likely to keep us in the ongoing inner battle rather than shifting our focus to the spacious interconnection that has room for it all, even the errant negative thoughts that are clues that are more useful being respectfully questioned rather than suppressed.

** Wu wei is the ‘action of non-action,’ when our actions are in alignment with the ebb and flow of the cycles of the natural world.