Category Archives: three poisons

Come up for air!

Every swimmer comes up for air and the skillful ones have developed a method of incorporating their breathing so that it is natural and effortless

Just so, our meditation practice might be seen as coming up for air, rising above the sea of thoughts that are ‘drowning’ us. While in the insight meditation tradition, we simply focus on the breath and other sensations, sometimes it’s useful to try a little imagery to refocus our attention. Most of my students found this very helpful, but it’s not for everyone. If the metaphor of water is uncomfortable for any reason, you can dry the experience out and still have that sense of coming up for air, of rising above the world of busy thoughts.


MEDITATION
Settle in as you would for any meditation, relaxing and releasing tension and noticing sensation, Now focus on the light on your eyelids. Then, if you can, lift your gaze just a bit more. That sense of lift enables you to rise above all the thinking-thinking and to breathe clear air in.

Rest here awhile, breathing out and in.
Let the air breathe you!
Let the freshness in!

If you find yourself sinking, just begin again.
This is a lot to take in,
but you were made to swim, not wallow

Spend as long as you like meditating.


Here are the instructions for after meditation, when you are relaxed and have the time to notice thoughts as they arise in your experience. If you’ve been following these dharma posts, you’ll recognize the Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion. One of my students found it helped to remember the three with the acronym GAD. To take her thought a little further, when we find ourselves caught up in Greed/Aversion/Delusion, we are GADabouts, and when we come across one of them, we might say e-GAD! I’m all for any way to help us skillfully recognize them when they are present, and help us compassionately release them.

AFTER MEDITATION EXPLORATION

If you want to dive deeper, keep coming up for air
so it stays clear what you’re seeing down there.
You’ll find all kinds of creatures in the deep
but notice how they fall into three categories:

There are greedy gulpers, eating more than they need

There are grumpy gashers, attacking everything they see,

and the go along to get alongs can’t see up from down or right from wrong

Greed, aversion and delusion:
They are all there, and they pair down there.
They take all forms and create all kinds of drama
and once you buy into it, oh baby, you’re a goner.

See what you see but make no enemies.

When you’re running with the pack
and fear drives your every move
come up for air, come for air, come up for air!

When you’re gorging on the goodies
and you still feel unsatisfied
come up for air, come for air, come up for air!

When you’re so convinced you’re right
that you’re uncomfortable with questions
come up for air, come for air, come up for air!

The air is fresh and free and you’ll feel fine again
you were meant to breathe even while you swim


Having only had this idea a week ago, I am still experimenting, and you can too. I am finding that ‘Come up for air’ is useful instruction at any time during the day if I am caught up in thinking-thinking. It’s very clarifying.
Let me know if this is helpful to you, both the meditation and the self-exploration. Comment by clicking on ‘reply’. — Stephanie

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

If you’re struggling, this will be music to your ears

In the last post we looked at the Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion the Buddha identified as the source of dukkha (suffering). I offered some questions to help you investigate these three in your own experience. You may have had some aversion to this task, and I imagine many turned away. If you took the time to do it, perhaps you made an enemy of what you found, activating feelings of regret, remorse, shame or anger.

Maybe this additional teaching from the Buddha will help put things into perspective:

Having lived his life at both extremes — the lap of luxury and near starvation — Siddhartha Gautama knew them both to be empty of insight. So after six years of self-deprivation he gave up the ascetic path. After accepting some nourishment (to the horror of his fellow ascetics), he sat down with renewed intention and meditated under a ficus tree for many hours. Mara (illusion) tried hard to distract him by activating greed, aversion and delusion: all manner of delights and frights. As they appeared, he found that he could dissolve these lures by simply seeing them for what they were, illusions, and by acknowledging them without rancor. “Mara, I see you. Mara, I know you.”

We do know the delights and frights in our own lives that distract us and push our buttons. (You might think of those buttons as having labels on them: GREED | AVERSION | DELUSION.) That simple act of noticing is key to our practice. When we get caught up in a fantasy, can we just recognize it instead of shaming ourselves? Can we simply say “Greed, I see you.”? It’s just greed. It’s just aversion. It’s just delusion — lifelong companions we are growing weary of entertaining and tangling with. Then we come back to the fresh aliveness of the present moment, just as it is, anchoring our awareness in the breath and other physical sensations that arise and fall away.

When the lures of Mara finally faded away because Siddhartha was firmly present in the moment, he got up from the base of the tree.
In this awakened state, he listened to a woman playing a lute. This prompted an insight that made all the difference in the way he would practice and what he would teach. He noticed that the strings on the instrument were neither too tight nor too loose, in order to play sweet music.
Just so, he thought, when we strive too hard or don’t bother trying, we suffer. Denying ourselves creature comforts or over-indulging in them both cause us to suffer. Being mindful in the moment we can sense when we are attuned to life. We and those around us benefit when we are not living ‘off key’, when we are not so stressed out that we’re ‘breaking the strings’ or so lethargic that there’s no music.

It would be very easy to take the teachings of the Three Poisons and over-react or turn away in discomfort. Instead we can find what the Buddha came to call The Middle Way. We notice greed, aversion and delusion in our lives without falling into the blame and shame game. This teaching enables us to investigate without causing additional pain. Keep the lute in mind as you explore the thoughts and emotions that arise in your experience.

The Three Poisons combine in toxic ways
Identifying a specific poison may be difficult. For example, in class one student noticed she was experiencing comparing mind but she couldn’t assign it to one of the poisons. This is because all three poisons are present. Greed shows up in envying someone else’s life, looks, accomplishments, etc. Aversion shows up in the negative opinions we have about ourselves by comparison. And delusion shows up because we are deluded in believing that someone else’s life is somehow perfect and that they don’t suffer as we do.

As you give yourself the opportunity after meditation to notice thoughts and emotions arising, look for those Three Poisons in their infinite combinations. No need to make an enemy of them. Just recognizing them is enough — just as the Siddhartha recognized illusion, greeting it by name.

Reflections on the Climate Crisis Summit at Spirit Rock

No Time to Lose: A Dharma Response to Climate Change
In the beautiful community hall of Spirit Rock Meditation Center over four hundred people gathered on Sunday, September 15, 2019, joined by many more live streaming. Led by Buddhist teacher and author James Baraz, the event was filled with the big names of insight meditation, including Buddhist teacher/authors Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach and Joanna Macy, who has for decades actively advocated for environmental responsibility.

The Great Hall at Spirit Rock Meditation Center holding our beloved planet

The event was a fundraiser for OneEarthSangha, a key player in the emergence of a Buddhist response to climate change, providing a hub for information, connection and organizing. Founded five years ago by a graduate of the dharma leadership program and a burned out executive from World Wildlife Fund who found sustenance and strength to renew his dedication to the environment through Buddhist practice, the 10,000 member organization offers EcoSattva training to anyone, or any group, interested in deepening their understanding of environmental issues and finding a way to help. They work in partnership with other Buddhist environmental organizations such as Earth Holder, Buddhist Climate Action Network and Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective.

A few environmental organizations had tables in the lobby to help attendees find other direct ways to get involved: Citizens Climate Lobby, Sustainable Fairfax, Marin350, and Pachmama Alliance.

There were in person presentations by James Baraz, Joanna Macy, Belvie Rooks, and others, as well as video-conferences with the co-founders of OneEarth Sangha and Tara Brach. There was a recorded interview with the revered Buddhist monk and scholar Analayo, a dharma talk by Jack Kornfield and a sharing of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunburg’s talk to the United Nations.

We were offered several opportunities to actively participate. Canadian musician and environmental songwriter Jennifer Berezan and her group had us standing, singing and swaying with ‘Praises for the world’. The hall has amazing acoustics (funny for a room where a majority of time is spent in silence!) so when we were all standing and singing and swaying the words “praises for the world” was powerful.

We were offered the opportunity to write down on a piece of paper our personal intentions of how to use our gifts for the benefit of the earth. We were asked to make a copy for ourselves and put the other one in a basket. All the gathered intentions will be put into the dharma wheel at the entrance to the retreat area.

The effect of offering heartbreaking information, uplifting music, insights and the opportunity to express our own hopes and fears, made for an emotional roller coaster of an experience. We were allowed to crack open and encouraged to feel our sadness, but we were also given means to take care of ourselves and to use whatever gifts we have to help.

The key takeaways from the event are these:

This is no time to play small, asking ‘who am I to….’ make a difference.

Action absorbs anxiety.

“We’re like children playing with their toys in the attic while the house is burning down.” – Buddha

“Climate change is the most important topic for the dharma hall.” – Analayo

The dharma holds the key to sustainability.

Let go of the need to know how it will turn out. Just do what you are doing wholeheartedly.

The harm that has been and is being done to the earth is done out of ignorance and confusion. If we can understand that, we can let go of the anger and come from a more empowered place that can truly make a difference. Anger, even righteous anger, is poisonous and will not bring the desired results. It is a toxic fuel.

“You have no moral authority over those who can feel your underlying contempt.” – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Othering (us against them, seeing people with different understanding as the ‘enemy’) is the primary disease of the world. Hatred ceases by love alone.

Greed, anger and delusion (which the Buddha called the Three Poisons) are the challenges we all face. We can see the greed embraced by our culture and inherent to our economic system. Joanna Macy said ‘The Industrial Growth Society’ thrives on these three poisons. You can see the greedy, ‘I’ve got mine and I want more’ mentality on which the whole system is built.

Delusion keeps people blind to what’s happening and the causes and effects of their actions and inactions. Resignation is also a part of delusion. The majority of us live in delusion about climate crisis, but we are waking up.

Part of the resistance to waking up to what is going on is the uncomfortable feeling of ‘I’m responsible’. It is far better to say ‘I am taking responsibility to change the situation.’

‘Just fall in love with what is.’ – Joanna Macy
Can we love the earth just as it is right now, wounds and all? Can we love the earth as it burns? We can never return to what was, but we can craft a life-sustaining society through the collapse by learning how to take care of each other.

Then Joanna led us in a dyad exercise where we took turns finishing the sentences:
“As the current world order collapses, I am grateful for___________________”
“As the current world order collapses, I fear ___________________________”
“As the current world order collapses, I want to remember _______________”

She said that the current order keeps power by pathologizing our disobedience and grief. Big Pharma has a pill for that, and others industries offer distractions from our grief. We need to allow ourselves to be sad!

She talked about the Great Unraveling. Since she was talking to a Buddhist group she didn’t need to educate us about the nature of impermanence, how things fall apart. This is the way of all life. Then she talked about the Great Turning, the welling up of consciousness to meet the challenges we face together to build a sustainable community of all beings.

Belvie Rooks’ presentation was profoundly touching as she shared her poetry and her personal process of grieving the loss of her husband. She is a cofounder of Growing a Global Heart.  She shared something her grandmother told her: “But for such a time as this that you were born.”

There was such a powerful sense that yes, we were born for this time. And it is not by accident that so many of us are waking up from the numbness of going along to get along, of reacting with greed, hatred and delusion to life; of feeling separate and lost. But for such a time as this that we were born. If a woman who was born into slavery could recognize her own purpose and power, then surely we can stop making excuses for our self-absorption and inaction. Yes, we need to take care of ourselves, and recognizing the Three Poisons active in us is an important part of that. Can we see greed, hatred and delusion at work in ourselves and in our world? And can we see ourselves as intrinsic and vital to what the earth and all life needs now?

What keeps us from awakening?

3marks-3poisons500

At the very center of the graphic chart of all the Buddhist teachings are the Three Marks of Existence:

anicca, the impermanence of all life; anatta, no separate self; and dhukka, suffering that comes from our ongoing argument against the truth of the first two Marks. Hmm, they must be super important to be at the very center, right? They are! When we deeply understand these, then we awaken to a sense of aliveness and joy that lets us celebrate with gratitude this very moment, just as it is.
But most of us just can’t seem to embrace these Marks as true. We either don’t know about them because they’re not talked about in our culture, or we can’t make sense of them. They seem obscure. So, we suffer.
For example, if we get depressed or upset when we see wrinkles or we lose some abilities, we suffer, don’t we? We are not suffering because we are aging, but because we don’t see impermanence as a natural part of life.

The poet Mary Oliver died this week. Her ability to celebrate the natural world and bring meaning into our own lives was a powerful gift. May she be at peace. If anyone knew the nature of impermanence, it was she; for she observed it intimately every morning on her walks in the woods and marshes. That’s the kind of understanding of the nature of things that is not some cerebral notion, but a deep awareness. I am so grateful that she was able to share that wisdom in a way that resonated with so many. (In a 2015 interview, she said, “Lucretius says everything’s a little energy. You go back and you’re these little bits of energy and pretty soon you’re something else.“)
We also suffer when we believe that we are separate isolated entities encased in skin sacks, and that our main job is to polish and promote this separate self we call ‘me’ to obtain respect, power, love, admiration, etc. When our underlying reason to do things is to build up a separate-seeming self, then we feel lost and out of balance, dependent on the approval of others to be okay, and so we suffer.
We are not suffering because we are unlovable or because other people don’t understand us. We are suffering because we believe ourselves to be impermeable solid objects interacting with other solid objects in a stressful game we might win or lose.
If we look more closely at the nature of our existence, how every breath we inhale and exhale reminds us that we are intrinsically connected to all life, then we begin to open to the possibility that we are not alone. Further investigation shows us that skin is not an impermeable barrier that defines the boundary of our being, but is porous and very much engaged in life. And, if we take our investigation to a molecular level, we can see that all life is made up of the same stuff creatively arranged in constantly shifting formations, in a mind-boggling complexity of patterns, systems and networks that, once understood, release any sense of being isolated that we might have. We are all stardust. Not separate at all. And releasing our attachment to the idea of being separate frees us from a great deal of suffering.
Now notice how on the same chart of Buddhist teachings, encircling the Three Marks of Existence at the center are the ‘Three Poisons’: Greed, Aversion and Delusion.
Why, we might wonder, of all the Buddha’s teachings, would these two sets of three be so intimately entwined? Let’s investigate.
Might we say that the Three Poisons keep us from understanding and embracing the Three Marks of Existence? If so, how?
If we see impermanence as something to fight against, then we activate greed to shore up a sense of permanence: ‘If I just had that job, that house, that perfect body, that relationship, etc., then my life would be perfect forevermore.
We activate aversion to go into battle with the idea of impermanence. ‘I refuse to get old and I’ll do everything I can to look younger.’
And, to support the greed and aversion, delusion blinds us to the true nature of existence and creates a smoke screen that tells us that greed is good and we must protect ourselves from all that is ‘other’. Delusion tells us that if we can just get and do all the right things then permanent perfection is possible. Maybe even guaranteed.
If we feel isolated, then we activate greed to build up our fortress of self, believing that the more stuff we have, the more experiences we have, the more respected and desirable this separate self will be.
Aversion is activated at the scary notion of a separate seeming self, something that is learned when we are very young children. We feel we need to always defend this separate self against the ‘enemies’ that we perceive through our lens of fear.
Delusion delights in all this drama, creating mythologies, beliefs and a disorienting fog that together reinforce our belief in a separate self. Think of all the collective cultural myths that support the idea, for example, that life is a competition, that people who look different are dangerous, etc. It’s so easy for people in power to play on these delusions, and then we all suffer.
So the Three Poisons encircle the Three Characteristic of Marks as a hyper-vigilant barrier to deep understanding and awakening. Can we notice these Poisons arising in our experience, prompting our thoughts to play out all kinds of dramas? And instead of condemning what arises, can we just see them for what they are and hold them with a sense of compassion?
When we can do that, when we can perceive the patterns of the threads of thoughts, how they arise and fall away, impermanent and not us, then we can find the heart of the Buddha’s teachings coming alive in our awareness. That’s awakening!

A Triad of Collusion

toxic-symbol-3-poisonsWe have been looking at the Three Poisons, the patterns of reactivity that we humans tend to fall into, thus losing our ability to be awake to this moment. While the Poisons of aversion/hatred and greed/craving are fairly obvious to notice, it is much harder to tell when we are experiencing delusion. As I write this, outside my window is a thick January ground fog. How appropriate! Delusion masks the lay of the land. In class, during meditation, I heard fog horns out in the Bay. It could have been someone’s cell phone on vibrate instead of mute, but it sounded like a fog horn. Either way, it made me realize that as we investigate and discover delusion in our experience, we are a bit like ship captains recognizing fog, sounding our fog horns.

But with delusion, more often than not we don’t recognize the fog we are in as fog at all. If it’s a lifelong delusion, how could we know we’re in it? If someone told us we wouldn’t believe them. It is easier for us to see when someone else is walking around in a cloud of delusion. Can we cultivate compassion and understanding for them? When we are able to do that we discover that whatever aversion we may have had for them softens. We’re not buying into their myopic view, but we can feel compassion for them as fellow beings caught up in the suffering of delusion.

Once we have begun to recognize delusion in others, we can gently open to the possibility of the existence of delusion in our own experience. It’s tricky, but having extended compassion to someone else, we have the capacity to extend it to ourselves, allowing us to see delusion without aversion blocking our way. 

Delusion is manufactured and supported by the other two Poisons of greed and aversion. And in turn, delusion provides a blindness that is necessary to sustain craving and hatred.

Say, for example, as I am passing by an ice cream shop, craving arises. Delusion rushes to that craving’s aid by whispering very selective pieces of information, like how much protein there is in ice cream, or the memory of how as a child ice cream was a reward and a sign of parental affection, etc., and so I find myself standing at the counter reaching for that cone.

But before I can enjoy it, maybe aversion rushes in — shame on me, I’m so weak, etc. — supported by more selective bits of information about how much sugar and calories are in this cone, how fat I am, how people will be judging me, making the cone feel like a handful of embarrassment instead of a simple pleasure. Of course with all this going on, there’s not much room for being present with the experience of tasting and enjoying the flavor, texture, coldness, etc. so that I end up feeling both guilty and unsatisfied.

Whether or not you relate to this particular example, you can no doubt find other examples that show how the three Poisons support each other in what we might call a triad of collusion.

There are many more facets to delusion than just providing cover and shame in the purchase of an ice cream cone. There is a difficulty in seeing things as they are and a willingness to buy into stories that under analysis make no sense. These stories can be part of our family mythology that feel like the bond that holds family together. If you think about your family, notice if there are any unspoken agreements about how to explain uncomfortable things. You might think of it as the oil that makes the machinery of family run more smoothly. The story may have begun with the best of intentions, a white lie to avoid hurting people’s feelings or sharing what might be considered shameful truths. But the acceptance and solidifying of the lie into the family story is delusion in action, supported by the two other poisons: craving normalcy and hating to be seen as abnormal or immoral, etc. In class I shared a story from my own family, which is not for sharing on the internet, but it was a good example of the delusion of family mythology.

Our collective cultural mythology is supported by propaganda and our desire to be a part of something positive and powerful, not something subject to human failings. It’s frighteningly easy to prey on our human desires and aversions by fueling it with resonate selective truths or total fabrications. We can be suckers for persuasion if it plays into what we want to believe is true. Facts be damned! Again, it’s much easier to see how ‘the other side’ is delusional. The idea of there being sides may be the biggest delusion of all. Who knows?

Our ongoing investigation is asking, ‘How can I be in skillful compassionate relationship with this?’ When it comes to a body of information, especially the complex intricacies of the family mythology, perhaps the most skillful compassionate way is to acknowledge that we don’t know.

If the story is harming us, it’s worth investigating, getting beyond delusion. This is certainly the case in sustaining a viable democracy. Whether a bit of familial folklore is actually causing harm is debatable. But in either case, it’s skillful to recognize that we don’t know the whole truth. We can see how we have the tendency to cling to what we want to believe, and the tendency to believe anything negative about anyone we don’t like.

Can we see that our happiness is not dependent on any story being true or false? Whether it’s about ourselves, our family or our country, can we acknowledge that we don’t know everything? Can we be open to other views and new facts we hadn’t previously known? This kind of open exploration doesn’t threaten us. Our identity is not built on what we believe to be true being true! We can find a wonderful richness in being able to relax our stranglehold on our precious truths. We can hold them in an open embrace, look at them with a more discerning eye, and know that they do not define us.

‘I don’t know’ is a powerful liberating phrase. Once on a retreat I spent a whole day discovering the proverbial tip of the iceberg of all the things I don’t know, and seeing my assumptions of knowing fall by the wayside. For example, I was doing walking meditation across a patio of concrete squares, and there were some things I took for granted that I knew about them, but there was so much more that I didn’t know — how thick they were, what was under them, who laid them, where the material came from, etc. etc.

I looked at trees this way and discovered that my ‘knowledge’ about any given tree is only what I’ve been told or have learned from seeing fallen trees with innards exposed, but in fact I know very little about any particular tree — what all is going on inside, what life forms reside there, where the roots actually run underground, etc. The more I investigated, the more I realized I don’t know.

And that was a joyous recognition. Because there’s no way to know everything and I could let go of the presumption of knowing and the need to accumulate knowledge as if there will be a test. I can explore the world following whatever veins interest me, and learn as much or as little as I please, and no matter how much I learn, even about subjects I study in depth, there will always be lots of room for acknowledging that I don’t know, that the information I received is incomplete or misleading. Making room for that possibility, that likelihood, freed me from feeling incomplete for not knowing everything.

So joyful a discovery was this that I wrote a note to my teacher and pinned it on the board saying simply ‘I don’t know!!!’ A few hours later a note appeared on the board with my name on it and inside was her reply: ‘Yay!!!!’

Consider how, if you’ve ever looked through a microscope, you might have been astounded by the worlds within the world we think we know. The world as we know it is totally based on the lens of our own perceptions through senses that, while amazing, are quite limited. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know! So we stop assuming we do. Yay!

‘I don’t know’ may on the face of it seem like a delusional state, but it is not the dulled down ‘duh’ of delusion. Instead it is a sense of awakening to the interconnected complexity of all life’s systems, networks, patterns, infinitesimal to infinite space, all in a constant state of flux, expansion and contraction, in cycles of birth, growth, death, decay that nourishes new life. I am, you are, we all are, a part of all this, and for me that is more than enough to know! Even as I thirst for knowledge, it is enjoying the process of investigation rather than the idea of accumulation and becoming a walking encyclopedia of indisputable truths.

Sensing the infinite and interconnected complexity of life, perhaps we can relax our misguided efforts to be separate from it. We can let go of our need to stand out in a crowd in order to be admired or loved. Each of us is an intrinsic part of it all, radiating and receiving in every moment, a living breathing-thinking-feeling floating, ever-changing field of aliveness we call ‘me’. Whee!

The pursuit of enlightenment: One more thing to let go of

tree-sitOne of my students said that the least interesting thing to her in the study of Buddhism is enlightenment. ‘That’s funny,’ I said, ‘because that’s exactly what I planned to talk about today.’ But maybe not the enlightenment she was imagining. If we think of enlightenment as some goal of miraculous transformation, I agree with her, because focusing on ‘achieving enlightenment’ sabotages our practice. A practice that enlightens us!

In class and in these blog posts we’ve been exploring the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Awakening or Enlightenment. The factors are Mindfulness, Investigation, Energy/effort, Joy, Concentration, Tranquility and Equanimity. Each factor is full of potential for rich inner discovery. Speaking of enlightenment, I feel lighter for having explored them. In the process there’s been a lot of letting go, Ahh! And in the lightening up, there has been a lot of gratitude. I hope if you have been following along and doing a regular meditation practice that you have found some benefits as well.

What does ‘awakening’ or ‘enlightenment’ actually mean?
For many it is seen as a means of escaping the difficulties of life, the ‘rat race’, ‘emotional roller coaster’ or however we want to describe the suffering we experience. But is enlightenment just another version of a beach hut on Bora Bora with a Mai Tai? There are plenty of shows you can watch that let you tag along as people, mostly overworked but highly paid executives, pursue just such a getaway. There’s even one where you can buy a whole island, just for you. Given global warming, these multi-million dollar purchases seem like a poor bet. But an equally poor bet is believing that escaping is the way to happiness. Because once the initial euphoria wears off, our patterns resurface and we’re back where we started, just thousands of miles away from what we thought was the source of our suffering. Hopefully we realize that, just like Jon Kabat Zinn’s book title, Wherever You Go, There You Are.

As uncomfortable as it may be to recognize that suffering travels with us, it’s enlightening to see that we are the ones who are cultivating suffering. We’re not helpless and there’s nothing wrong with us. We’ve just been barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. This recognition empowers us to try out new more wholesome ways of being in relationship to all that arises in our experience. That’s the heart of our practice.

Another book title, Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape, reminds us that it is skillful to stop thinking this (whatever ‘this’ is for each of us) is something we have to get away from. Of course, there are certain situations — abusive relationships, for example — where it is skillful to leave and to notice the patterns of excuses we make that deter us from doing so. But if we are beating ourselves up about, say, not having the funds, the smarts, the talent, the luck, etc. to buy an island or our dream home, or a perfect job, body, family, life, etc. — or we blame the world, our parents, the system, etc. and let that pattern of blaming sabotage us into inaction — then coming home to this moment, just as it is, and finding compassion for ourselves and all beings is the absolute best thing we can do.

With wise intention and wise effort and the help of the wisdom teachings we can gently cultivate awakening, which the Buddha defined as the end of the three causes of suffering: greed, aversion and delusion (which I think of as Yum! Yuck! and Huh?)

Since greed, aversion and delusion are the ways we habitually react to our experience, this is indeed a challenge. But being present to notice what’s arising, not running away from it, but allowing ourselves to be curious, aware and compassionate, is a more wholesome way of relating to all that arises. Daily practice for even ten to twenty minutes can make a world of difference to our whole lives. Add in a weekly class and an occasional retreat, and you’ll be amazed at how much clearer, kinder and lighter you feel!

Spirit Rock Meditation Center co-founder and author Jack Kornfield in an article titled ‘Enlightenments’ (in the Fall 2010 issue of Inquiring Mind, recently republished by Tricycle’s ‘Trike Daily’) suggested that there is more than one kind of enlightenment. Under his teachers Ajahn Chah in Thailand and Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma, he was given two very different means of awakening. With Sayadaw he was taught complete ongoing immersion into the retreat experience of sensory moment-to-moment awareness. When after a year he returned to study again with Ajahn Chah, he shared all the wondrous meditative experiences he had. Ajahn Chah nodded and appreciated all he had shared, and then said ‘Just one more thing to let go of.’

Ajahn Chah taught simply notice all that arises moment to moment in this daily life just as it is. Both of these ways are in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, and we have the opportunity to do both practices, as one supports the other. But attaching too much importance to going on retreat in order to experience the factors of awakening can undermine our understanding that awakening is available in every moment. There’s no place we have to go to ‘get’ it.

That said, given the opportunity to go on retreat, take it! It’s much easier to practice when that’s all that is asked of you and you are completely supported by all around you. Certainly some of the deepest insights that stay with me came to me when I was on retreat, and I am so grateful to have had those opportunities. It is relatively recently that we in the West have had retreats to go on, and it’s important to value and support the centers that provide them. That said, the most awake I ever felt and the deepest insights I ever had came from a period of dedicated meditation on my own, when, due to illness, I had a choice of going mindless watching endless television or taking a weekly meditation class and doing the practice extensively on my own. This was back when classes were rare and retreat centers unavailable.

Whether on retreat or in daily meditation practice, we set the intention to be fully present and compassionate with all that arises in every moment of our lives. That seed of intention planted firmly blooms into wise effort and mindfulness throughout the rest of our lives.

With that intention and effort, the Seven Factors of Awakening bloom within us. They are qualities we cultivate and states we experience more and more through our practice. Each Factor supports and enhances the others. There is a dependent co-arising of awakening.

Since we have recently looked at how language shapes our inner landscape, we might look at the traditional translations of the teachings of the definition of enlightenment: ‘extinguishing’ or ‘getting rid of’ greed, aversion and delusion. Do these verbs put us in a combative relationship with greed, aversion and delusion? Another word that is often used is ‘cessation’ that seems less combative, and then there’s the very simple word ‘end’ that for me seems relatively neutral. The overall term for greed, aversion and delusion is the Three Poisons. I think that’s a good description because dealing skillfully with poison is first a matter of noticing it, being aware of its toxicity, and then not swallowing it! The process of recognizing that these are indeed poisons could take some time. But noticing that they exist and then noticing how they cause suffering in our lives is central to our practice. If we are really looking, we can see how the endless desires and cravings make us unhappy. We can look at our judgments, annoyances and anger and see how they make us miserable. It’s harder to look at delusion, but we can often see it after the fact and we can let that awareness be a reminder of the likelihood of its presence in our lives.

Here is a practice that cultivates light:

Exercise

  • Notice greed, aversion and delusion as they arise in your experience.
  • Sense how they feel in the body, how tightness and tension arises.
  • Breathe more spaciousness to be able to stay present with the greed, aversion or delusion.
  • Cultivate compassion and clarity to dissipate fear and bring understanding.
  • Investigate instead of judging whatever arises; see the pattern and maybe the source.
  • Release with lovingkindness and loving intention whatever is passing away.
  • Notice whatever arises now with a sense of friendliness and gentle curiosity.
  • Let go of the goal of enlightenment, and let the light in. Let it fill you to overflowing.
  • Radiate infinite light!

I look forward to your thoughts on this topic. Click on ‘leave a reply’ above the post.

Naming Our Poisons

The Buddha taught of the three poisons, the mental states that manifest in unskillful action and cause us and those around us to suffer. They are greed, aversion and delusion. As our minds become clearer through the practice of meditation, we begin to see these three states as they arise within us. We can notice how our actions are rooted in and fed by one or the other of these states.

Right now, for example, I am sitting here feeling greedy for the dharma as I write, hungering to learn more, and the desire to share it in the clearest way possible so that my students may benefit from knowing it. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, and it isn’t. Especially noticing it as it arises is a good thing. But noticing also brings an awareness of a tinge of energetic urgency, panic and fear that are also present in this hunger. Fear of it not being enough, of me not being enough, of my being an imperfect vessel for this information.

At the same time I am noticing a strong aversion to a phone call I am expecting from someone I have never talked with before but who appears to have anger issues as shown in his email. He is not a direct client of mine but is someone my client has to deal with. Suddenly I am ‘having to deal with’ him too. I don’t want to! I’m afraid! I feel the tension in my body rising up. I have held this tension since yesterday when we made this appointment for him to call me. And to top it off, he is already 47 minutes late in calling, which leaves me in this purgatorial state of dread.

Noticing these states, there may be a tendency to work with them, as in ‘fix’ them. That is just another form of aversion arising. I feel aversion for this state of aversion. How does that help? It really doesn’t.

So instead I breathe. Admittedly the breath started out as a sigh, but that reminded me to breathe! I send myself a little compassion. Compassion releases some of the tightness, infusing a sense of expansiveness that allows me to see more clearly. Already my shoulders have dropped an inch. However, I notice my jaw is tight. The buzz in my body is present.

I look out the window, the green and grey morning is calming. The tree outside my window doesn’t see my challenge and yet lives in this world. I don’t want to be the tree, but I am not unlike the tree. I don’t know what the tree experiences, but I can be pretty sure it is not currently dreading a phone call.

The tree is rooted in the earth. I sense my rootedness in the earth. The tree relies on its roots to weather high winds and powerful storms. I am anticipating some high wind this morning, so I sink into my roots, my connection. Thanks tree! Good advice!

The phone call went very well, by the way. A friendly constructive exchange with full agreement and goals achieved all around. Was that just a fluke? Or did my grounding myself help me to remember the humanness of the caller?

Having had a positive experience when anticipating a negative one is something I try to notice, adding it to my learned experiences. I am surprised that with attention, I actually do find I can reason with myself, saying, “Chances are, based on past experience, this will be fine. I will see how I wasted my time dreading an experience that much more often than not is a positive one.”

Noticing when we are operating out of greed or aversion is easier than noticing when we are operating out of delusion. What is delusion anyway? It’s like walking around in a fog and being constantly surprised when things happen. It can be operating as if we are an object being acted upon rather than the subject of our own lives, able to make decisions.

If we are in a state of delusion, how can we notice it? We can’t! At the moment of delusion the mind is enveloped in a cloud or fog, drifting, lost and unaware. But if we have set our intention to be present, then we can notice when it clears a bit. Just noticing that begins the development of awareness of delusion, and that awareness thins the fog. When the fog is thin, we have more options. We can drift or we can stay present. We can notice when the clarity begins to fade and we can take that as a reminder to reset our intention to be present with compassion, to notice the cloud of delusion as it comes and goes. Delusion has a very different felt sense than aversion or greed, but all three take practice to notice.

How do we work with these Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion? I remember when I first started studying Buddhism at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, there was a good deal of talk about how we are generally more inclined to one or the other of these mental states. People would say things like, “I am a greedy personality.” For me this seemed like just another way to label ourselves. We are often attracted to self-labeling, even if it’s an unattractive label.

Defining who we are seems to give us a place in the world, but it locks us in to a false sense of self. While we each do physically fill a finite place in this earthly life, defining it with limiting labels does not satisfy the deeper longing for a sense of understanding our infinite connection, the true nature of our existence.
We have talked before about the shift from the finite to the infinite view. For purposes of convenience in functioning in the world, we see ourselves as finite, singular and separate. But we discover through meditation, or perhaps through spontaneous insight, the infinite view that is always available to us, wherein we recognize that we are not separate at all, that we are a vibrant expression of life loving itself, like a drop of water flying through the sky knowing that it is a part of the sea-evaporation-cloud-rain-river-sea cycle of being which is a part of an even larger circle of life, and that all is one. With this infinite view, more fully discussed in previous discussions in the Eightfold Path, we are able to live more fully and joyfully in the world, even while being able to maintain our seemingly finite path with its various responsibilities, relationships and choices.

In the past few weeks, when discussing our clinging to the rock with our roots believing it to be our identity instead of releasing into the rich nourishing soil and allowing ourselves to grow to the fullness of our being, what we are talking about is letting go of the finite and releasing into the infinite. That shift from finite to infinite comes with our ability to be present and relaxed, releasing the tension that is our body’s way of holding the past and the future. This present moment fully experienced is the portal to understanding our interconnection, our being a part of and being supported by the infinite web of life.

While it may be tempting to label ourselves, it is more skillful to notice greed, aversion and delusion arising in our experience, and not get tangled up in saying, ‘I am an aversive personality type.’ Observing and judging ourselves to be more inclined to one of these three states may seem like it helps but it runs the risk of blinding us to the arising of the other two poisons, for we are tuning ourselves to notice the one above the others. All of us have all three poisons, even if not in equal measure.

The habit of self-labeling can make us passive, as if we have been indelibly stamped with this tendency and there’s nothing we can do. In truth, there’s nothing we NEED to do except be present and compassionate with all that arises in our experience, but that’s very different from a sense of helplessness that there’s nothing to be done about it, as if we are stuck. We are not stuck, we simply perceive ourselves to be stuck. In fact we are quite free, but we choose to pick out new wallpaper for our prison cell, remaking ourselves, rather than simply be present and watch the bars dissolve. We explored the whole concept of freedom in dharma talks quite a while ago. If that word resonates, perhaps you’ll want to read them. If freedom scares you, then that’s important to notice as well. Question in: “What am I afraid of?”

We can fall a little bit in love with even negative labels for at least they give us a sense of definition to cling to. But clinging to the hard rock of who we believe ourselves to be is the essence of what keeps us from opening to our true nature.

In a talk last year on ‘Holding the World in an Open Embrace’ I presented greed and aversion in the form of photos of two little girls, one holding tight to all her toys representing greed; the other with crossed arms and a pouty face representing aversion.

My sixteen month old granddaughter Lucy for the first time in my presence yesterday crossed her arms and pouted! Ah, aversion! This is the first manifestation in this form, though of course she has shown her preferences and dissatisfactions in a myriad of ways. But to actually see her cross her tiny chubby arms and pout with her little cupid bow mouth was quite something!

Where did she learn this particular manifestation? Lucy is my current teacher. I have been learning what is inherently human. When she wakes she does a natural yogi full body stretch, and she has done this since she was just a few months old. Now I try to remember to do that when I wake too. Where did I lose my natural inclination to do so?

And now seeing her pouting and crossing her arms I have to wonder how she developed this classic aversion pose? She doesn’t watch television, and has no older sibling to imitate. Where does she get this little Shirley Temple imitation? It’s a wonder. And it’s adorable and yes a little frightening. Aversion arises in Lucy and displays itself. We could easily go uh-oh and label her an aversive personality and be afraid, very afraid, of what the future holds with this crossed-armed pouty force to be reckoned with. But all that does is fuel our fear, lock her in a box of our labels, a box she will either stay in or break out of unless she can wear these labels lightly, knowing they do not define her true self.

In the past few weeks we have been discussing the inner aspects, what in psychological terms are also called sub-personalities, especially those we keep most hidden from our awareness that make up the shadow. When we are having a skillful inner conversation with an aspect, we might benefit from noticing whether it seems to be fueled by greed, aversion or delusion. I had mentioned Striver and Underminer, two aspects that have resurfaced in my awareness. Clearly Striver operates more from greed and Underminer from aversion, and both are delusional. (As some people might think I am to name inner aspects!! But it is a valuable exercise for the orderly exploration of a very complex lacy-patterned infrastructure of thoughts, emotions and beliefs that form a part of our experience that most influence, and sometime sabotage, our ability to live with awareness and a love of life.)

As a tool for self-exploration, knowledge of the three poisons of greed, aversion and delusion provide insight and clarity. We can use them as clues to see the fear at the root of the aspect we are exploring. These fears — the fear of separation, of exclusion, of not being acceptable, of disappearing, of being overwhelmed and washed away, of being judged, or of failing — are just a few of the ways we forget our connection to all that is and the universal oneness of being.