Category Archives: upekka

Autumnal Equinox

We have been exploring the concept of balance, inspired by the coming of the autumnal equinox, when night and day are equal in length. We have looked at: how to be in balance in the midst of chaos and how to create balance in our lives. And here we are at the autumnal equinox (Happy Fall!), only to discover that balance is not any particular moment in time, but something that we can find in any moment, even in the midst of challenging, seemingly out of balance circumstances.

Yet hearing or reading about a concept such as balance is just the first of a series of ways we incorporate it into our lives so that it can be of value. After learning about it, we live with it as an interesting idea. If it holds our interest, we study it in greater depth. With each exposure to the concept, we pause to notice our own response, what it activates within us: curiosity, fear or greed, for example. Our process is to question the concept itself, our understanding of the concept, and our reaction to the concept. By testing it for veracity, opening to it, walking with it, sitting with it, we can ultimately awaken to the truth through our own insights. Through this process we may find that we have incorporated this concept into our own view and our own way of being in the world.


What has come up for you in this exploration? Is the concept of balance valuable for you at this time? Is there a sense of imbalance in your life? If so, what is causing that sense of imbalance? Is it the causes and conditions of life that feel askew and you are struggling to stay centered amidst them? Or are you out of balance in your own patterns, not getting sufficient sleep, exercise, nourishment, meditation, pleasure, social engagement, mental stimulation, peace and quiet, laughter, order, simplicity or space for contemplation?

Through the regular practice of meditation we find the still point of center, a sense of being present and compassionate with whatever arises. From this vantage point, we can accept circumstances beyond our control and be empowered to change what is within our control. This sounds like the AA Serenity Prayer, which is based in deep wisdom. Whether we are prone to addictive behavior or not, we can incorporate this saying into our lives when seeking balance, for it is when we get out of balance that we fall into unskillfulness in whatever form is our personal pattern.
The Serenity Prayer concludes by asking for the wisdom to know the difference between the things we can change and the things that are beyond our control. This kind of discernment, being able to see when we are creating the imbalance in our lives and when it is something that we need to find a way to make peace with, comes with the regular practice of meditation. Without this clarity, we may believe we have no power to change a situation that is destructive, disruptive or out of balance in some way. Conversely we may believe we have it all together and it is our business to ‘correct’ someone else’s situation. We may spend our time railing against the world rather than accepting our seat at the table to co-create the world.

What comes up for you as I say these things? Notice images and associations. Make notes or journal if that is useful. What is the story you have been telling yourself? How has that story prevented you from seeing the balance that exists or seeing the imbalance that exists in your life?

When we talk about balance it is easy to assume that happiness is somehow only attached to one state of being, that happiness will come when all our ducks are in a row, all the stars aligned and we have gotten our act together. If we think we can only find happiness under certain conditions, as if we were hot house flowers, then we are creating a false narrative, an overly narrow and virtually impossible standard for happiness to exist.
Seeking happiness in itself is a sure means of never attaining it. If happiness is always on the horizon, then it is always beyond our reach. We are in a constant state of waiting, of hoping and dreaming. Look at the horizon. Does it ever get closer? No matter how far you travel you will never reach it. Is that not so? So our practice isn’t about some moment days, weeks or years hence, when all will be perfect. Our practice is about this moment: Being present, being compassionate, being here for the only gift we are given, again and again, fresh in each moment. Balance is only possible in this moment.
This sense of presence brings us the gift of being in balance, aka Equilibrium or Upekka, one of the Four Bramaviharas, or divine abodes. The first three Bramaviharas are Metta, loving kindness; Karuna, compassion; and Mudita, sympathetic joy, when we are happy for the happiness of others.
These states of being arise naturally out of the practice of meditation, of being present. We don’t have to go on a trek to find them. They are here and now, always arising from our regular practice of meditation. As you practice with consistency you may notice a sense of lovingkindness arising in you, not just for people you like for a particular reason, but for all beings. That is Metta. May ALL beings be well.
You may notice as you continue to meditate regularly that compassion arises. Compassion for yourself as you let go of erroneous ideas of who you are; and compassion for others, not because you feel sorry for them, but because you feel connected to them – no longer ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ but ‘There go I.’ That is Karuna.
As you practice you may begin to notice that you feel true joy for the happiness of others where before you may have felt gnawing envy, as if their happiness was stolen from you. Now you see that joy creates joy and is contagious. It is an infinite rather than finite resource. That is Mudita.
And you may discover that thanks to your meditation practice you are developing the ability to be present fully even when two strong emotions are vying for your attention. For example, it is not unusual at some point in life to be attending the wedding of a child and at the same time mourning or worrying about the ill-health of a parent or other loved one. In such a situation without the gift of a regular meditation practice, we might feel incapable of holding these two experiences or some other complexities of life without being plowed under by them. With meditation we find emotions can be full, rich and powerful, but there is a spacious awareness that gives us the abiding strength to hold it all in a loving open embrace. That is Upekka.
These four states, these heavenly abodes, are the naturally arising gifts of the practice. And Upekka, equanimity, the ability to live in a balanced way is indeed a great blessing. Explore this concept of balance in your own life and in your way of being in the world. Distinguish between what is within your control and what is not. If it is within your control, find the strength of love and gratitude within you to choose to create in each moment a balanced and harmonious life. If it is beyond your control, find within you that still point of center again and again, using the paired intentions: to be present and compassionate.

The Middle Way

On our pilgrimage to the sites of the Buddha’s life, we talked a bit about the Middle Way. So, thoughts about it have come up for me a number of times these past few weeks. As I talk to friends and relatives, I see this undercurrent of seeking balance, finding the Middle Way in all things.

One old friend in her early sixties finds she is still hanging on to the tail of lifelong ambition in her successful career. She has begun to notice the passing scenery and a part of her wants to let go of the tail and experience life at a slower pace. She talked about how much she hates her computer but needs it to stir up business. She talked about chucking it out. I suggested perhaps a middle way, a compromise: setting an intention to spend a set amount of time, like a half hour a day, on the computer. She said she could never spend that little time on it. It could only be one way or the other. Either she chucks it all, abandoning her career for a life of leisure, and feels guilty for doing so, or she slaves away endless hours at the computer and her career, depriving herself of a great deal of the joy readily available in the rest of her life, if only she looked up from her screen enough to enjoy it. But she feels too guilty when she does. Does this sound familiar?

Setting a sensible daily, weekly or monthly time period for doing some loathed but necessary task, like dealing with an emotionally charged problem that needs regular attention, means that any time outside that prescribed half hour or hour is your own to do whatever else you want or need to do, guilt-free! Procrastination saturated with guilt is one extreme; drudgery and resentment is on the other. Finding the ‘Middle Way’ whenever our life feels out of balance is important for our own well being, and the well being of those around us.

In another conversation, a relative in her early 80’s found herself sinking into an energetic funk when suddenly her main source of socializing, her main squeeze in fact, was out of town for a few weeks. How quickly life suddenly seemed less worth living. She even found herself asking her doctor, only partly in jest, whether he’d be willing to over-prescribe her something. Her view was that we all have to go some time and she’d led a good life. The doctor said he could appreciate her feeling, but that wasn’t his job description. Instead he signed her up for a couple physical therapy classes. Thinking about being in a class with other people cheered her up. She realized that perhaps she had gotten out of balance, relying solely on her boyfriend for her social life. Being out and about in groups, learning new things, was stimulating too. Clearly, finding the Middle Way is sometimes a matter of life or death!

In my own life, I notice that I take on projects with a passion, then feel overwhelmed with mostly self-imposed deadlines, as if I don’t have a moment to rest and breathe. I remind myself that I am doing, for the most part, exactly what I wanted, that at every point I have choices. I try to savor the experience, to relax and enjoy the work itself. Sometimes I lose my balance, veer off the Middle Way into over-doing, over-thinking, over-stimulating and I lose sight of just being.

Finding my way back to the Middle Way is a process of noticing. First, I notice the tension in my body and question its source. Second, I make sure that I am giving myself stable patterns of self-care, like my daily meditation practice, yoga, walks in nature and balanced eating. Third, I try to recognize the difference between these stable patterns and negative habitual ruts, like watching too much television, spending too much time on the computer, and spending too much time indoors. The antidote is not to throw the TV and computer out, sell the house and go on a year long camping trip. The prescription is to be present and aware of what’s happening, to recognize it with compassion, not disgust, and to find some Middle Way that broadens and enriches life rather than narrows and depletes it.

I saw a movie the other night called Bright Star, which I am not recommending, but there was one moment that made it worthwhile for me. Keats was asked by the central character to explain poetry, which she was struggling to work out. He said that to read a poem is like swimming in a lake. There is no purpose other than to experience being in the lake fully with all your senses. You don’t have to ‘work out’ a lake or your experience.

This resonated deeply. It helped me when I was hiking in the redwoods yesterday to just experience with all my senses being in the redwoods. As it happened, on this circular trail we ran into another hiker circumambulating in the opposite direction, whom we had earlier crossed paths with on the other side of the circle. “Oh, you’re making good time too!” she called out. This reminded me how often we get caught up in that aspect of our experience in life, thinking more about our pace, our goal and the rewards that await us at the end – the shower, the rest, the meal, etc. – rather than just ‘being in the lake’ or being in the forest with all its deliciousness.

But what if we are not looking forward to the future? What if it seems to be promising something threatening to our happiness? One member of our sangha talked about her mother in her late 80’s whose apparent low quality of life brought fear into both their lives. I suggested she get to know other elders to get some balanced insight into potential futures. We often look to our parents for clues as to what our experience of aging will be like, but they are not us. We share genes but we are not clones, and we have the benefit of meditation and other practices, a greater understanding of the importance of exercising our brains and our bodies, as well as the ever growing wonders of modern medicine. In any given moment we face abundant choices, virtually infinite paths that change the outcome of our future lives. There is no sure thing, which can be scary, but it can also be liberating.

We can easily get out of balance through the portal of fear. It knocks us off our natural course, constricts us, and has a self-fulfilling quality that then seems to confirm our fears. The Middle Way asks us to challenge all assumptions as they arise in our awareness. ‘How do I know this is true?’ we continually ask ourselves. The Buddha encourages us to be ever present, ever questioning, ever testing for ourselves the truth of any belief we may hold, in this case, the belief that a mother’s experience will be our own. This is an assumption worthy of serious exploration, if holding the belief is diminishing our ability to enjoy our present experience.

When the future or the past casts a deep shadow over the present, the Middle Way is to set aside some dedicated time to explore it, cast light on it, question it, and find out the message hidden in the bottle of fear that has landed on the shores of our experience. We can do this on our own or with the help of a therapist.

The Middle Way is accessed through the practice of mindfulness. What at first might seem like balancing on a slippery point of a pin, with intention and practice begins to expand to a larger platform of awareness. Sustained practice creates a spacious open field where arising situations, emotions, thoughts, chores or worries can pass through without threatening our equilibrium. We find inner balance, or at least are able to recognize it when we experience it, however briefly.

This experience of balance, being able to hold all of life in a balanced way is Upekka, the fourth of the Four Brahmaviharas, or Heavenly Abodes that are the gifts of the practice. The Middle Way is the path that leads to this state of Upekka.

May you walk it with an open heart and mind, your senses fully engaged, experiencing each moment of the walk as a destination.

Taking Refuge

I continue to read Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, and I really appreciate learning the scientific findings of the value of meditation, how it “increases gray matter in the brain regions that handle attention, compassion and empathy.” He says that reports show that “It also helps a variety of medical conditions, strengthens the immune system, and improves psychological functioning.” This has certainly been my experience, and the experience of so many regular meditators I know, but it is fascinating to see the science of it. When I think of how often I was sick as a child and a young adult before I took up meditation, and how strong my immune system is now, according to recent blood work, I have to believe that meditation is a key reason. One of my students, upon hearing that I haven’t had a cold or flu in years said, “Just wait ‘til your granddaughter’s in day care!” She’s right. The health benefits of meditation will be put to the ultimate test!

Back in the 1980’s when I was an ad exec, I remember telling myself I was ‘too busy’ to do any meditative practice, even though I knew full well how nourishing the practice was for me. After a while I got so ill with chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome that I had to quit my job and be flat on my back for the better part of the day for nine months! Who’s too busy now? I had to quit my job and one of the things I still could do was meditate. So I had myself a very deep and extended personal ‘retreat.’ I was very fortunate to have the practice in my life again, for I healed from this usually chronic and life long condition in record time. I’ll never know what part of my treatment effected the cure, but I know that my inner journey at the very least made me available for healing. Now reading the scientific finds, I can allow myself to give the meditation even more of the credit for my well being. And the inner journey resulted in the book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.

There was a week in 2007 when we were buying our casa in Mexico and running around stressing out, feeling very deadline-driven, trying to get the house sufficiently furnished with diminishing funds before our return flight to the US, so we could rent it out, when I was suddenly stricken and bed-bound with a strange dizzy disease. Again, I had had ‘no time’ to meditate! So maybe the illness was just a note to self to slow down and return to regular meditation practice.

While I feel perfectly healthy right now, and have a strong meditation practice in place after being less consistent during our recent stay in Mexico, I am noticing that I have been feeling an incredible amount of physical pressure as I work towards deadlines on taxes and other projects. Sitting with it I notice that it feels like I am being ground and put into sausage casings! Ugh! But what a useful thing to notice. Another note to self.

So it was very helpful to me to come upon Rick Hanson’s mention of the Three Refuges. I realized that I have not addressed them in any dharma talk but they are so important!

They are important to me right now as I go through not just tax time but a period of transitioning back into the American way of life after the easy flow of Mexican living, and trying to be fully present at this time of holding great joy at the birth of my granddaughter and some worry at the same time as a close family member is scheduled for surgery.

When we are skillful enough to be able to hold both extremes of our current experience in an open hearted balance, the result is Upekka, the fourth of the Four Brahmaviharas, the heavenly abodes that are the precious gifts of the practice of meditation.

But what does ‘skillful’ mean? It means that instead of grasping at the joy and pushing away or avoiding thinking about the fear, we are simply aware of them, aware of the effects of them in our lives, our bodies, our thoughts and emotions. Skillfulness is making room for them to exist in our experience without over-dramatizing them, discounting them, getting lost in them, or using them as leverage to catapult some inappropriate behavior out into the world. Instead, through meditation, we create an interior spaciousness for all of our experience to be noticed and acknowledged. This is skillfulness.

When we do feel overwhelmed by what arises, we are encouraged to take refuge.

A person without the benefit of meditative awareness training might be more likely to take ‘refuge’ in things that lead away from mindfulness and potentially become addictive. Typical examples of this are going to extremes with eating, drinking, drugs, gambling, escapist books, computer games or chats, movies, television, computer, exercise, work, shopping, socializing, etc. When we pursue these extreme routes we literally lose ourselves in them, and thus we feel a temporary sense of relief from whatever is bothering us, whatever fear we are trying to avoid. But the route itself creates even more problems and doesn’t allow us to deal with and heal from the experience we are so desperately trying to avoid.

The Buddha advised taking refuge within the experience itself. It may seem counter-intuitive, but being with the experience is the most powerful healing tool we have. But how do we stay present with the experience if it is so painful? How do we cope with this sense of being overwhelmed or not in the driver’s seat of our lives?

We take refuge. Real refuge.

How I experience this in my body is easier to demonstrate than to describe. But I’ll try: Imagine a normal stance. Then imagine that you see a great weight coming your way that you will have to receive and carry. How do you adjust your stance? Well, a skillful adjustment would be to have a solid footing, then let your knees flex, your hips drop a bit, so your whole stance deepens, so that your arms rise up from your core when they open to receive and carry this extra weight. There is also an alert presence to changing conditions.

This is a good way to think about how we cope with emotional weight as well. A solid footing, greater flexibility, a deepening, and working from the core, and staying fully present for our experience.

The Three Refuges don’t talk about stance, but you can see how they too provide a solid footing, flexibility, deepening and staying present with the core of our experience. Perhaps you’ll see that too as we discuss them. Perhaps not. But here they are:

First we take refuge in the Buddha. We take refuge in the historical Buddha’s generosity of spirit, thinking upon how he shared his wisdom freely for forty years as a dedicated teacher. We take refuge in knowing about the struggles he went through, allowing ourselves to be inspired by his dedication to liberate himself and all beings from suffering. We take refuge in the fact that for over 2500 years in this tradition, and in many other traditions as well, there have been other awakened beings, and many practitioners and teachers from whom we can draw strength and inspiration.

We take refuge in the faith that, given all who have trod this path before us, we too have the seed of Buddha nature within us, the potential to wake up to this moment in every moment, if only we set our intention to be available for it’s wisdom to inform us. This is taking refuge in the Buddha.

Secondly we take refuge in the Dharma. Dharma is the Sanskrit word that means ‘truth’ or ‘the teachings.’ (In Pali it is dhamma, and even though the Theravada tradition is based in the Pali language, dharma is often used because it was introduced to the West earlier and it stuck, so either one is acceptable.)

Dharma is the recognition that suffering exists in the world, and in ourselves — the First Noble Truth.

It is the recognition that the cause of suffering is our grasping and pushing away — the Second Noble Truth.

It is the recognition that while pain is unavoidable, it is possible to not amplify the pain by the suffering we cause ourselves and others through our unskillfulness — the Third Noble Truth.

And it is recognizing that the path to skillfulness in overcoming suffering is The Eightfold Path: Right (or Wise) View, Intention, Mindfulness, Concentration, Effort, Action, Speech and Livelihood — the Fourth Noble Truth.

These Four Noble Truths form a solid foundation of Buddhist teachings. We take refuge in this solid foundation for our own exploration of the truth for ourselves in each moment.

Third, we take refuge in the Sangha. Sangha is the pali word for the community of meditation practitioners whose presence helps us to stay on the path, whose wisdom and insights in their own lives helps us to see more clearly when we are suffering or unskillfully trying to escape from the pain in our lives. Like the network of roots in a redwood grove, the sangha supports us all, allowing us to be flexible and resilient.

The Three Refuges are also called the Triple Gem or the Pali word tisarana.

At the beginning of each Buddhist retreat, the assembled retreatants together take these Three Refuges, in a chant. To see the chant, click here.

But we don’t have to be on retreat, the refuges are available to each of us in every moment, and it was so nice to be reminded as I was reading Buddha’s Brain, that this might be a time for me to take refuge.

If the Pali or Sanskrit words don’t resonate for you, or the Buddha isn’t your cuppa, it’s worth taking a little time to determine first of all, the inspirational figure whose wisdom and values you aspire to. This is not in order to be like them, but to notice and strengthen the resonant qualities in yourself through recognition and appreciation.

Accessing the dharma is to tap into the universal wisdom from which the dharma springs. During my almost year-long period of illness back in the early 1990’s, I meditated so intensively that I accessed this universal source of wisdom, through my own quirky lens, and chronicled it in my book long before beginning to study Buddhism.

So it’s not that Buddhism has the corner on the wisdom market. It’s just that it expresses it with such clarity, and has transmitted these teachings through millennia with great success at retaining the original message and inspiring us to look within rather than requiring us to trust blindly in the findings of others.

In different cultures this will take on different forms of expression, but there will be an underlying clarity of truth that brings forth compassion for ourselves and others, a sense of interconnection so that we know that we are not alone in the world, and how that brings both comfort and responsibility, and a willingness to be with whatever arises in the moment with an open heart.

So find the words of wisdom that speak most clearly to you.
Whatever teachings resonate truth for you, work with them in a state of curiosity. Question ‘Is this true?” and sit with the answer. Insight meditation is this active openness to exploration. It is this continual opening and exploring that keeps spiritual life alive. To simply memorize and spout words is not taking them in in a meaningful way. Certainly there are religious personages throughout history who insist that dogma be force-fed and taken on their word alone, but this is not the tradition that the Buddha taught. He taught his own findings along with the means for each of us to find out the truth for ourselves. His way was to empower each of us to find our way, rather than use his knowledge as power over others.

The third refuge, the Sangha, is the people in our lives who support our practice and our spiritual well being. It’s worthwhile to consider who those people are, so that when we are feeling overwhelmed and less able to make such considerations, we will have a ready idea of whom we might call upon to be a refuge in time of need.

When we ourselves are feeling overwhelmed is not the time to spend with those whose energy depletes us. When we are feeling more in balance, we can be there for them, of course. But for now, we send them metta, loving kindness, but take refuge in company that nourishes us.

I have heard it said that taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is the only requirement to be a Buddhist. And although we’re not about ‘being’ Buddhists, but about studying Buddhist concepts and practicing Buddhist techniques for awakening, we can still see that this act of taking refuge is a valuable one, whatever words we use.

Meditation & The Four Brahmaviharas

In the last post I talked about gratitude and how the gratitude we have for temporal things – possessions, relationships, situations – is rooted in fear. This fear I suggested is like a hard cakey soil that isn’t able to offer any nourishment. Whatever is planted there grows distorted and has a tortured look about it. Fortunately, this hard cake of fear is just a shallow crust on the surface. Just below it is a deep nourishing rich soil we can access through regular meditation. When our gratitude is more deeply rooted in that richer soil, we are able to grow strong, resilient, and authentic.

But what is this rich soil below the surface? Well, if in this analogy the shallow layer is fear, then the rich soil is love: A spacious love without boundaries. A rich soil nourishes all roots. It doesn’t favor one plant over another. And this love is the same. This love is infinite.

In Buddhism, this infinite love is called metta. We focused on metta in August, and you can read more about it in the archive.

Metta is the first among equals in the Four Brahmaviharas. Bramavihara is a Pali word meaning heavenly abode. An abode is a dwelling place, in this case a dwelling place for our consciousness, or a state of being.

The Four Bramaviharas are ‘heavenly’ because they are states of well being, in which we are able to see beyond the illusionary boundaries that seem to divide us, and we can feel ourselves held in the infinite embrace of loving awareness.

The Four Brahmaviharas are: Metta/lovingkindness, Karuna/ compassion, Mudita/sympathetic joy and Upekkha/equilibrium.

Each of these states of being are the fruits of the practice of meditation. As you practice you may begin to notice your heart softening so that it is easy to feel loving kindness towards people you previously found difficult to tolerate. You may find yourself letting down your defenses and accessing a level of compassion that you had not dreamed possible. You may surprise yourself that you feel truly happy for someone else, even when they obtain a prize you had sought. And you may find that your practice has brought more balance into your life, so that you can be more skillful in stressful situations and not be so tormented when life seems to throw you a curve.

These states are not something we can achieve through will power or determination. They are not something we can force upon ourselves or scold ourselves into. When we attempt to do so, our efforts are shallowly rooted in that hard cake soil of fear: Fear that we are not good enough as we are, fear that people won’t like us if we don’t exhibit these traits. Anything rooted in that shallow hard cake soil of fear will be distorted and won’t nourish us or anyone around us. When we let go of our striving to attain these states, and simply stay with our intention to maintain a regular practice of meditation, we are more likely to begin to experience them – at first in brief glimpses, then small but more regular doses, until we find ourselves in them more often than not, and finally, the Buddha says, our suffering ceases and we can dwell in these heavenly abodes as our normal condition.

Notice that, like deep gratitude, these states all are infinite in nature.

METTA – loving kindness
This infinite source is radiant like the sun, shining on all. When we access its infinite we are free to be generous with our loving kindness, rather than meting it out to those who we think most deserve it as if from a small precious reserve. In this sweet web of life, where would we draw the line? Why would we withhold our own capacity to nourish and heal from any being?

KARUNA – compassion
From this infinite source compassion wells up within us. Knowing that pain and suffering is a part of the human experience, we do not turn away from it but anchor ourselves in the infinite source and extend our compassion in a fearless open loving embrace.

MUDITA – sympathetic joy
From this infinite source we rejoice in the good fortune of others, for we deeply know that all is one, and joy is contagious and bountiful. From this perspective we can see more clearly that no person’s good fortune is stolen at our expense, and that no human being has a life devoid of pain, no matter how perfect their life may seem to us.

UPEKKA – equanimity
From this infinite source we find ourselves rooted so deeply no storm can knock us down. We find our awareness is so spacious that we can hold great sorrow and great joy in the same moment. We are able to be fully present for whatever arises and see it as it is.

So as we explore these individually in the coming weeks, keep in mind that they are not goals but gifts. Let them rest lightly in your awareness as you rededicate your intention to maintain a regular meditation practice.