Category Archives: tree

Coping with what life gives us

The tenth Paramita* is Equanimity, the ability to hold all that is going on in our lives in an easeful way. In the past I have used the analogy of being like the sky, holding fluffy white clouds, rainbows, storms and lightning bolts all at once.

Many years ago a woman in our sangha out at Spirit Rock asked how was it possible for her to attend her daughter’s wedding with true joyousness of spirit when her dearest friend was dying in the hospital. This question has always stayed with me as an example of what is asked of us in life, and how equanimity serves us. The answer to the question is to stay as present in the moment as we can and to be compassionate with ourselves when we find that our awareness of joy is shot through with a thread of sorrow. So we can be fully where we are (at the daughter’s wedding) and be fully who we are (a caring friend and mother). One does not negate the other.

In fact, these kinds of contrasts are often the richest moments in our lives. I remember at the memorial we gave for my father in his home on his birthday the week after he died. I remember the beauty of the cherry blossoms that completely surrounded his deck and how much he loved them, and how sorry he felt that his beloved wife was no longer there to enjoy them. And I remember how I came upon my son changing the diapers of his month-old daughter on my father’s bed where just the week before, Dad and I had watched Wheel of Fortune and I had begged him to let me spend the night on the couch, sensing the end was near. One week apart, two sets of fathers and daughters: one set at the end of life, the other set at the beginning. To be able to hold the beauty of that is a great gift of equanimity.

There are other ways to describe equanimity. One is to find your center of gravity, that way of being in your body and in your life that you are sufficiently grounded that nothing throws you. Recently I heard a zen teacher from Nova Scotia talking about equanimity. He shared how his teacher had demonstrated it. He stood up and held his body rigid and told two men to try to knock him over. It was easy. Then he changed his stance, relaxing, going limp, being rooted in place with the release of tension. And when the men tried to move him, they couldn’t do it.
oaks
My students, all female, did not feel very inspired by this image. Is the real goal in life to be unmoved?  But they responded with more enthusiasm when I suggested that trees are grounded in this way.

Here’s a poem I recently wrote that captures some of that feeling:

Oak Sisters

Three oaks entwine on the hillside:
Minoan snake goddesses with burl breasts.

I, with the good fortune to sit below them,
rarely bow in gratitude,

while they bow to the wind, the rain,
the sun and the moon.

I am footloose, but rarely dance,
while they, despite earthly constraints,

sway together in ecstasy.
I imagine underground a mirror dance

of roots rollicking round rock,
deeper and deeper into the soil of being.

 

Of course, California live oaks are beautiful trees but not necessarily the best example to aspire to when we want to remain upright come what may. In a severe storm or even in the middle of a drought, an oak will occasionally crack and fall to the forest floor. We might choose instead a more supple tree for our role model! But you get the idea.

So now we have two ways of seeing equanimity:

  • Being spacious like the sky to hold whatever arises
  • Being like a supple tree, rooted and able to dance in the winds of life, resilient

Both of those views are helpful. Some others less so. For example, when we think of balancing, we might picture a tightrope walker on a highwire. Life might feel like that at times, but it’s a worldview that is bound to create fear and tension. If you find yourself in that position, let go! Discover that life will support you.

Another image that comes up is the art of balancing stones. Perhaps you’ve seen the results, or have watched in fascination as the artist gives his or her full attention to setting the stones, and perhaps you have even tried it yourself. At Spirit Rock on retreat I have walked up the hill to an area that was full of stones that were fun to stack. They weren’t the more challenging rounded stones the artists use, but the process still required my full attention. It’s a lovely meditative process.

That view of equanimity reminds us to be fully present, to sink into full awareness and a sense of connection with whatever we are doing. But the image could backfire if we are attached to the stones staying stacked! It could easily bring out perfectionist tendencies and the fear of things falling apart and personal failure.

In my ‘Oak Sisters’ poem there was a quality of dancing, and I am reminded of how for many years I did Nia, a dance exercise class that develops a supple grace in the body. I had no idea how stiff and ungraceful I was until I started that class! But over time I softened in my movements and gained greater balance. I felt centered and joyous. We worked from our core, just as you do in Pilates or yoga, and were trained to not overextend our limbs. What a good lesson for life that is! Where in life are you feeling overextended?

Part of the reason we overextend is that we are trying to please or impress someone else. So we are seeing ourselves from the outside, the way we think others see us. This is ‘object mode’. This is a good way to get way off balance! We need to be the subject of our own lives, the center of our own universe. This is not selfish. This is growing where we were planted. Remember that when we send metta (lovingkindness) we always begin with ourselves before sending it out to others and ultimately to all beings. Because we can’t give what we don’t have.

In meditation we find that when we go rigid we get easily distracted, and getting caught up in thinking and emotion will cause tension in the body. But when we relax our muscles and find a balanced posture, we are able to sustain a seated practice for quite sometime. And as our mind relaxes that spacious quality of sky is able to arise and fill the whole of our awareness.

And then when we go about our lives, perhaps we can develop a greater sense of ease and natural grace, able to carry whatever challenges life has given us. We may even find that what we have held as burdens will gently reveal their gifts.

May we be dancers on this earth, sensing into the music of life.

So these are all ways of looking at equanimity. What resonates with you? What questions does it bring up? What is your experience of equanimity? Please comment below.

*Paramita or parami is a state of quality of Buddha mind that we are cultivating. Equanimity (Upekkha) is the last of the ten paramitas we have been studying. See the rest in earlier posts. You can type ‘paramita’ in the search bar in the right-hand column.

Finding Balance

Here we are in September. Notice how that feels, what thoughts come up for you around the end of summer, the coming of fall.

We are coming into the time of the autumnal equinox, where day and night are equal in length, so I’m drawn to think about balance — finding balance in our lives, noticing where we get out of balance.

Do you notice where you get out of balance in life? Where you over-indulge or over-effort? It’s often in certain specific areas — in our relationship with food, work, family, friends, coworkers, entertainment, exercise or access to nature. Finding balance begins with noticing what’s true in our current experience.

If you have ever watched a gyroscope in motion, you can see that it is always in balance. This example of one shows how the center portion is stable while the rest circle in all directions. The two parts of the upright pole extending vertically from the level disk remind me of our paired intentions to stay present and compassionate. Where the pole intersects with the disk can be seen as the still point of center that we cultivate through meditation and these intentions.

One kind of gyroscope animation from Wikipedia

The three outer circles in constant motion represent the causes and conditions of life, the events that are unpredictable and beyond our control. With practice our attention stays more and more centered, able to be present with all that occurs without being thrown off by it.

Finding balance is not making sure that everything is even, equal and easy in our lives, but rather that however wildly the circles of life rotate, we are grounded through our sense of presence and sense of compassion to be able to be with it. In looking at this center level disk that represents awareness, I imagine it as having grown from a very small point, the point of a pin that I’ve mentioned before to describe how it may initially feel to be present for a brief moment or two. Now awareness has grown to be this stable ample disk where we can maintain awareness for longer periods without grabbing for one of those rings.

Looking at the gyroscope animated image above, can you imagine trying to hang on to one of the outer edges, the wild swings and loops, being tossed this way and that, and trying to hold on for dear life? Imagine how easy it would be to be thrown off.

When we ride the edges of our experience, allowing ourselves to be thrown by causes and conditions, we suffer and those around us suffer. But when through regular meditation practice we stay present and compassionate, we can find joy in simply being alive even in the most difficult circumstances, while still being fully present for whatever arises. We don’t have to find a ‘better ring’ to hang onto. We simply practice awareness.

If this gyroscope image is useful for you, you might gaze at it for awhile and incorporate that image into your practice.

In our lives, sometimes we may focus more in one area than another, but we can still stay in balance. When we get out of balance, it is because we have gone unconscious and grabbed one of the outer rings of our experience. Perhaps we’re spending too much time at the computer and we’re overriding our sense of presence with a sense of need to get things done. We get into future thinking, grinding through this time in order to get to the reward time when we can relax.

Pause for a moment and think of where in your life you might be out of balance now. If nothing comes up, that’s fine. You might think of a recent example, or an area of your life where you often get out of balance.

Once you have it in mind, think of ways you seek balance when you notice it. For example, when we find we are eating to extremes and growing by leaps and bounds, a typical reaction is to determine to go on a strict diet. Often because the diet is so devoid of joy we put it off until some future date, and then knowing it is coming we figure we better eat up while we can, thus getting ourselves further out of balance!

Then when we actually go on the diet, maybe we get really into it, maybe we enjoy the rigors of self-discipline as a fresh contrast to the over-indulgence we had been experiencing. Yes, but what else is happening? Are we so focused on this regime that we are making it our life? Are we talking about it with others to the exclusion of any potentially more interesting topic? Are we defining ourselves by our ability to stick to a diet and lose weight? Are we spending more time in front of the mirror? Are we living for a future date when we will be at our target weight, promising ourselves the perfect weight wardrobe?

And then what happens? Well, let’s just say there’s a reason that diet programs always say ‘Results not typical’ under the before and after photos of celebrities that followed their program.

It’s not that it’s impossible to lose weight and keep it off. It’s just that the above example, which IS typical, is how we try to balance and extreme with another extreme. This looks more like a teeter totter than a gyroscope, with us soaring and plunging and ultimately falling off.

So I am living with this in my own life: noticing where I am living at an extreme and noticing the reaction to counterbalance it with another extreme. And instead of following through with that plan, which I have seen over and over again doesn’t work, I am simply being as present as I can be and as compassionate as I can be. I am making note of little traps that I fall into and figuring out little work-arounds that help me avoid them. For example, lately at meetings I attend there have been tempting snack foods put out within arm’s reach. I am finding there is another option besides indulgence or denial, even for me. I deny myself the food until I am leaving, and then I take one piece and enjoy it. So this is an example of how each of us can find our own way around things that throw us out of balance and into unconscious behavior. Noticing what happens, and instead of over-reacting or making it someone else’s problem — i.e. “Let’s make a rule that no treats can be brought to meetings.” — simply finding ways to negotiate a workable solution that is balanced.

I’ve noticed that when I am over-efforting — spending too much time on the computer working on a project or being focused on preparing for a future event that needs to be perfect in every way (an example brought up by a student that I think many of us can relate to!) — that if I stop to think about it I realize I have gone into people-pleasing mode. This desire for perfection, for making everything right, is our fear of not being accepted, not being enough, and not being loved. It is a form of appeasement we may have developed in childhood to cope with parents whose critical faculties were in high gear, or some other such challenging situation. It’s the way we’ve dealt with it and we can’t find fault with it because working hard is a virtue, is it not?

I think we can agree there is nothing wrong with hard work, but when it begins to crowd everything out, then we know we are dealing with a matter of extremes. In the example of preparing for an event, the student mentioned that by party time she was wiped out and not present to enjoy it or to be available for others except to make sure they had what they needed. But what they needed was her! Her presence!

So that need to please and appease is something to look at when we find we are over-efforting. If that doesn’t exactly fit, we might think of it in even a broader term of needing to exist, and acknowledgement from others for a job well done is a way of knowing we exist. Of course it is only a temporary fix and doesn’t truly satisfy.

When we are under-efforting or over-indulging, as in the case of over-eating, we might look at what we are avoiding or denying ourselves. What is this indulgence a stand-in for? Where in our lives are we denying ourselves some aliveness, some joy?

When I’m looking for inner answers, I often turn to nature. When I think of balance in nature, one of the best examples for me is the tree.

A classic tree image is of roots reaching down and out in balance to the outreach of its branches. As I think about the tree with its branches reaching up to the sky, its leaves absorbing nourishment from the sun, its roots absorbing nourishment from the soil, and its whole being functioning in balance with all of life, as it takes sin carbon dioxide and releases oxygen for mobile life forms to breathe; as it provides shade, shelter and nourishment to woodland creatures; and its roots keep the earth together. Just by being, existing, a tree performs its balanced functions that benefit all of life.

Just by being, existing, attuned with our own inner wisdom, there is a distinct possibility that we too are fulfilling our natural function. Perhaps we don’t have to go to extremes! Perhaps we just need to stay present and compassionate to be fully alive and balanced.

Speaking of roots, we can revisit our exploration of shallow-rooted fear-based living versus deeply rooting in the spacious nourishing soil of life. Another way we get out of balance is between our creative non-linear impulses and our inner desire for structure and rules.  In psychological terms these are the puer and the senex. I have been rereading ‘The Wisdom of Imperfection’ by Rob Preece, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher and Jungian psychotherapist, and he mentions these terms. So let me bring my own exploration of shallow and deep rooting to these two aspects. The puer when it is well-rooted, coming from a sense of love and wholeness, is a font of creativity and freshness. The senex when it is well-rooted is the ability to take that creativity to its fullest expression through supplying a grounded organization for it. Preece uses the example of a craftsperson who develops senex-based skills and systems to bring to fruition the puer-based creativity of their craft. But now let’s look at the shallow-rooted fear-based puer: infantile, childish, erratic, different just to be different, using imagination to create conspiracy theories, mischief and destruction. And the senex when it is shallowly rooted in fear becomes rigid, autocratic, bureaucratic, heavy-handed, punitive and authoritarian, squelching all creativity and fresh thinking as threatening to the systems it has established.

So when the puer and senex are deeply rooted, nourished and tapped into a loving inner wisdom, they are a powerhouse of combined creativity and the supportive structure and systems that build upon and maintain the fruits of that creativity. When they are shallow-rooted in fear, puer and senex fight each other because they feel threatened by each other.

We can see this when it happens in ourselves, and we can clearly see it happening in the world around us. So that gives us a way of looking at what happens that can be very helpful to remind ourselves to attune to the inner wisdom, to stay present and deeply-rooted, knowing ourselves to be a natural expression of the universe loving itself. Just like the tree! And in that alignment we find a natural way to find balance in our lives.