Category Archives: wisdom

Working with the Eightfold Path

For eight weeks we have been exploring the Buddha’s Wise Eightfold Path in order to incorporate it into our lives in a way that truly serves us.

At any moment we may find ourselves distressed about something. When we recognize the turmoil in our minds, we have options: We can take ourselves into full freak-out mode, distract ourselves with mind-numbing addictions, climb back in bed and pull the covers over our head, mull the problem over endlessly in our thoughts and in conversations with our declining number of friends and family willing to listen, OR, here’s an idea: We can turn to the Eightfold Path to see how we got here and what to do about it.

For example:

If I just got some sad news and my heart is heavy, I can remember Wise Mindfulness and simply be present with what is arising. I can acknowledge that, as uncomfortable as the thoughts and emotions are, there is nothing to fix here. This is part of life loving itself. I can attend all that arises with the compassionate awareness that the pain will shift, change and diminish in time, as all experience does.

Or maybe I feel guilty about something. Can I greet guilt as a useful messenger? Can I open to receive the message, deal with it and then let the messenger go? Yes I can, if I stay present and do some inquiry: Do I feel guilty because of something I said? Then I can look to Wise Speech and see where I misspoke. Was it something I did? Then I can look at Wise Action. In either case, if I am being honest, I can see just how I got myself into trouble. If I can be more conscious of how my words and actions have an impact, I can make apologies and reparations to whatever degree is possible. Then, and only then,  I can let go of the guilt. It’s served its purpose.

Am I feeling ashamed for the way I’m making a living, investing or spending money? Then I can look at Wise Livelihood and see how I might make some adjustments. Sometimes it seems so challenging to make big changes, but the biggest change comes afterwards, with the sense of inner freedom attuning to Wise Livelihood brings.

When looking at any of those three — speech, action and livelihood — I can ask ‘What was my intention there?’ I might discover that my words and actions weren’t aligned with Wise Intention. I might say, ‘Oh, yes, I see that I wasn’t present in the moment. Instead my mind was elsewhere.’ And I might see that I wasn’t being compassionate, either with myself or another.

And if I wasn’t being present, wasn’t activating Wise Mindfulness, then I need to use Wise Concentration practices more in my meditation. So I rededicate my daily meditation practice, consider going on a silent retreat, and make a point of noticing in each moment all the beauty around me, with deep appreciation for this gift of life — even when it feels difficult, painful and challenging.

If I notice myself striving, so focused on some goal that I’m blinded to the moment, or if I see that I’ve fallen into a habit of mindless boredom, stuck on the couch with the remote, never getting the things done that I say I want to do, then I can revisit Wise Effort to see how to bring myself back into balance.

If I feel isolated, defensive, judgmental and am more concerned with how people see me than how I can contribute to the general well being, then I can look to Wise View. I can recognize how my skewed perceptions are causing me misery. Over time, through mindfulness practices, my view naturally shifts into deeper understanding of the way of things. But even without that, I can at least identify that this is where my current challenge lies, and that will inspire me to keep meditating, to do compassionate self-inquiry, to spend time in nature, the greatest dharma teacher of all.

 

See how all of the aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path work together to guide us back to being fully present with joy and gratitude? What a useful tool! But the challenge for many people is how to remember all the aspects. How to become so comfortable with them that we can turn to them in our greatest need. For me, and for many of my students, a list is a hard thing to commit to memory in a way that is meaningful. So a number of years ago I came up with what I call the ‘Cooking Pot Analogy’. I have used it to teach the Eightfold Path over the years, and students agree it makes it so much easier to remember and work with.

31eb9-cooking-pot-analogy-8fp-tifHere is a downloadable copy of the Eightfold Path Cooking Analogy Sheet: 

eightfoldpathcookingpotanalogy 

for you to have on hand for any moment you feel you need it. Keep it handy! Feel free to share.
– Stephanie

How to access your own inner wisdom

tapping-coverTo conclude our exploration of the Wisdom Paramita, I’ll share an excerpt from my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living, on how to find your own access to universal wisdom:

In your hectic daily life where your priorities always seem to be outside yourself, the internal voices you are likely to hear are the ones that speak the loudest. The squeakiest wheel. But when you take the time to listen in — through meditation, nature walks, time alone in a quiet place without distractions — the wise inner voice with its rich deep true resonance, rises above the clamor.

You can be sure it is your wise inner voice because it is calm, loving, positive, and non-judgmental.  Unlike the other voices in your repertoire, it is never hurried or desperate. Next to it the other voices feel jangly, almost caffeinated. The wise inner voice will never tell you to do something violent, unethical or wrong. It will never demand that you do what it says. It is not a master, but a guide. Its purpose is to put you in harmony with your own nature, not to change you into something other than yourself.

Once you have found your inner voice, and it may take time, be sure to continue listening in. Never take your wise inner voice for granted.

The language most effective to stir the inner voice to action is the question. Ask yourself “Why am I so upset?” “What is going on here?” “What should I do about…” or simply “What do you want me to know?”

After each question be very quiet and let your own wise inner voice answer you. Be patient. Your inner voice speaks in many different languages — symbolic, synchronistic, intuitive, and dream. Pay attention. Perhaps the book with an answer for you will pop off the library shelf into your hands. Perhaps you will feel suddenly compelled to call a friend, whose experience will help you with your problem. And always listen when you find yourself giving someone else advice. It is often meant for you as well!

If you listen in on a consistent basis, you will eventually be able to hear your clear wise inner voice speaking in very plain language. It is the voice of the wellspring that feeds you, rooted in the collective consciousness, deeply connected with all that is. Staying in touch with that inner voice will keep you balanced, assure you that you belong right where you are, deepen your sense of connection, and enhance your pleasure in every moment.

That is joyous living.

I wrote this book in the early 1990’s when I was physically incapacitated for almost a year. It is a compilation of notes I took during intensive meditative sessions that I organized in a way that made them readily accessible. I did not change a word of the writing, just rearranged it.

You may notice that, unlike anything else I write, it is written to ‘you’. The ‘you’ was me. I was asking questions and the answers rose up from within. I never considered this channeled writing with some other being or entity. It was just an inner conversation with the universal wisdom available to all of us. Still, I wasn’t willing to claim the words as mine, so on the cover of the book it doesn’t say ‘by’ Stephanie Noble, but ‘from the meditations of’ Stephanie Noble.

I still have a few dozen copies of Tapping left, so I gave each student in attendance their own copy of the book as a gift of appreciation for their practice. Together we read through some of the ‘Roots of Joy’ — the common themes that run throughout the book. Some of the themes are much the same as the Buddha’s teachings, even though this was before I ever attended a Buddhist class or studied Buddhism. For example, ‘All is one’, ‘Be Present in the Moment’, and ‘Meditation as Connection’. But a few, while compatible with Buddhist thought, are very specific to chronic challenges women in particular face. Here is one such example:

Be the subject of your own life

If you are not the center of your own universe, who is? And why? Of course you are the center of your own universe. Each person, animal and plant is the center of its own universe. You must hold that perspective, or no one will. That is the perspective allotted to you in this life. That is where your consciousness seeded and grew. To pretend that you are not the center of your own universe is to go against nature. And who will thank you? Who are you expecting to fill the void you have vacated? Where have you put your consciousness? And isn’t it crowded over there? Is that person thanking you for moving in on his or her space? Of course not.

To be in a subject mode does not exclude developing empathy and understanding. Quite the contrary. It gives a piercingly straight connection to others, a direct line into their hearts. When you are subject, you are residing where others expect to find you. It is like having an ‘Open’ sign on the door to your heart. When you are object, your sign reads ‘Out to Lunch’ and no connections can be made. Because you are out trying to guess what others are thinking of you. Always of you. The object mode spends a lot more time thinking about the self.  The derogatory term ‘self-centered’ refers to people who are being objects, always looking from the outside in, imagining what the world thinks of them, and adapting themselves to suit.

Climb back inside yourself. Explore who you are, what you like, what you care about. Learn what activities and experiences replenish your inner wellspring, and take the time to give that to yourself.

Then, from that centered grounded position, that great sense of belonging and completion, look outside yourself, tap into that infinite bounty within you and share your talents with the world.

Only as the subject of your own life can you function effectively in the world.

My women students nodded their heads to the shared challenge we face in being there for everyone we care about, sometimes almost or completely forgetting our own needs and preferences.

The body of the book is ‘Topics of Concern’ arranged alphabetically. Readers of the book often told me that they just open to any page and find just what they need in that moment. So we tried that in class, and there were several ahas of understanding as to why the topic on that page was relevant for each person right now. One student awoke to her calling! So who knows what riches are possible when we open to the wisdom available to us all at any moment?

If we practice quieting down and being open to it, wisdom shines through with a warm loving light on all that had seemed dark and scary. Learning to listen in is part of what we do in our meditation practice. That’s why it’s called Insight Meditation. Aha!

Thoughts? Comments? (I appreciate all the emails I receive, but even more would appreciate comments right here, where we can all appreciate them.)  – Stephanie

 

 

It’s not the road that’s bumpy!

We’ve been looking at the three characteristics of awakening as clues to what wisdom might be. We looked at anatta (no separate self) and anicca (impermanence), and now we will look at the third, dukkha, and how it relates to the other two.

deluxe-dukkha-delivery-serviceThe word dukkha has no exact English translation. In Pali, the language of the Buddha, it literally means ‘ill-fitting axle hole.’ So imagine yourself driving along and one of your wheels is out of whack so that at every revolution you go ka-bum. Ka-bum. Ka-bum. Eventually you probably get used to it, but there’s an underlying discomfort and dissatisfaction with the experience, right? That feeling, that way of being in relationship with our experience, is dukkha.

What a perfect word! There’s no English word that comes close to so accurately describing this experience. Dukkha combines the scatological sounds of doo-doo and cah-cah. So whenever you could use the word ‘shitty’ in regard to your current experience, you’ll be reminded, ‘Oh, this is dukkha!’ And that is a really important bit of awareness! The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is about the importance of acknowledging dukkha.

Note that dukkha is not the external situation or the condition we are going through but the way we are relating to whatever is going on. We are ka-bum, ka-bum, ka-bumming along the road of life, dissatisfied and not knowing why.

When we pause to pay attention to this moment of angst or misery, we might notice how we take the naturally occurring pain of life — physical or emotional — and exacerbate it by piling on thoughts about the past and the future. We might say to ourselves, ‘Oh no, not this again! I thought I was over this pain,’ and ‘How long will this pain go on?’ imagining relentless agony for the rest of our lives.

Anicca, anatta and dukkha, the three characteristics of awakening, have a relationship to each other. Without the insight into the oneness of all being, we suffer dukkha because we struggle to connect, to be seen, to be loved. We are like fish swimming around in the ocean wishing for water, not knowing we are already at home.

Without the insight into into the dance of impermanence, we rail against the natural systems and patterns of life, longing for and fearful of change, thus creating dukkha.

Conversely, when we embrace the oneness and the impermanence that is this life,  the dukkha is released. We experience pain, sorrow, grief and all human emotion, but we don’t add to it.

Once we understand the nature of dukkha, it’s easy to see how we activate the Deluxe Dukkha Delivery System in our lives and the ways we make ourselves more dukkha-prone. Maybe we’re striving to be perfect. Maybe we are seeking approval and validation. Maybe we are caught up in longing or feel strangled by fear. But instead of making an enemy of dukkha, thus creating more of it, we can befriend it as a messenger. We maintain our practice of meditation and practice being mindful and compassionate in our lives to whatever degree we are able. In this way we set the stage for awakening to the wisdom of no separate self and the cyclical dance of impermanence, and thus free ourselves from the ka-bum, ka-bum, ka-bum of that ill-fitting axle hole of dukkha.

Things fall apart and it’s not your fault

 

Here we sit, the mountain and I, until only the mountain remains. – Li Po

photo of mountainAs I write this I look out my window and see the mountain. Just yesterday at this time it was hidden by fog. The weather is one of the most changeable aspects of our lives. And for some of us that changeability is a source of anxiety. Our mood may hang on whether the weather suits us. It’s useful to notice our relationship with the weather, because it’s a good indicator of how we are in relationship with change in general. To what degree does our happiness hang on external causes and conditions?

I remember strolling in the garden with my one-year-old granddaughter in my arms. We paused to look more closely at the flowers. There was one pale pink rose that earned her full wide-eyed attention. Then, all of a sudden, as she watched, a petal fell to the ground. She gasped, turned away, and wept on my shoulder. For her in that moment a lovely thing had broken. It was ruined. She didn’t know it was a naturally occurring phenomenon, a part of the cycle of life, the way of things. At six she knows that now and isn’t phased by petals falling off flowers.

We all have moments where we suffer for lack of a more expansive understanding of the way of things. We cling to a belief that life is ordered in a certain way, and when that order is shaken up, we get upset. One of the greatest challenges to our sense of order is if a loved one younger than ourselves dies. This goes beyond natural mourning of a great loss in our lives. It disrupts our sense of order, how life should be. I know when my nephew died at the age of 46, it just felt wrong. How could it not? I remember I was staring out the window on a rainy morning and began to watch how the raindrops seem to chase each other down the window pane. There was no order there. Some clung longer, some raced straight to the bottom. Somehow that helped me. Not with my grief. Grief is a process that runs its own course. But it did help with my railing against the injustice of nature felling a life ‘out of order.’

As we mature, most of us recognize that change is a naturally occurring part of life. This is wisdom, or one aspect of it anyway. Understanding the inevitable nature of change or impermanence is one of the three central characteristics of awakening. In Pali it is called Anicca (pronounced ‘a-knee-cha’).

We can each look at our own relationship to change. To what degree do we fight it? To what degree do we chase it, trying to get away from the way things are in this moment? To what degree are we deluded that change is the cause of our unhappiness or the answer to our prayers?

In our class discussion we looked at how in our culture we try to hide from impermanence. While our ancestors lived closely with birth and death, over the last century we have somehow made both separate and sanitized — off to the hospital or off to the undertakers where everything’s handled under wraps — et voila, a swaddled tidy infant or a beautifully appointed closed coffin or a little box or urn of ashes. All the gritty grunt and groan of life’s natural transitions have been carefully hidden from view.

As women, impermanence can feel especially threatening because we are so often made to feel we are objects. Our culture tells us that our looks are the currency that secure our fates. Every magazine ad and every commercial reminds us of our duty to maintain the dewy glow of youth — to be always lovely, and therefore lovable. No matter how wise or intelligent we are, to some degree we succumb to the lure of products or procedures that promise to wipe away all signs of aging. We paw at our faces in mirrors wondering how others see us. A friend recently said that she only sees her own wrinkles, not her friends’. I think that’s true for most of us. It is a rare woman that isn’t harsh on herself in the mirror and doesn’t fear what time will reveal.

As one student pointed out, thanks to advances in the field of medicine, we now feel we have some control over impermanence. Our ancestors had to accept that many babies would die before reaching a year old, that many women would die in childbirth, that a cut or a broken bone could get lethally infected, and that various scourges could wipe out large portions of the population. Today we live in a world of everyday miracles. (So much so that people forget what vaccines were invented to save us from and choose not to vaccinate their children, and others overuse wonder drugs so that drug-resistant bacteria develop.) Cancers that used to be death sentences are now being cured on a regular basis. So when doctors’ procedures and drugs can’t save us or our loved ones, unlike our ancestors, we’re shocked. What went wrong?

When we think we have control over things and it turns out we don’t, we feel a sense of failure. That is how we are in relationship with impermanence at this point in time in our culture. We succeed at fending off aging and illness through diet, exercise, hygiene, medical checkups, beauty products and treatments. But ultimately we ‘fail’, because no matter how we delude ourselves to think otherwise, nature calls the shots. The deck is stacked against us. The house always wins.

Depressing? In Buddhism the very things we try to avoid — illness, aging, death — are, when faced and greeted as friends, the greatest messengers. So while we can have gratitude for modern miracles, we can still have the wisdom to see impermanence as the way of all life.

We have opportunities aplenty to practice being in a more joyful relationship with it. In most places the weather is constantly changing. We can notice if we are allowing the weather to dictate our moods. Are we only happy at the perfect temperature, or if the wind’s not blowing or if the sky is clear? Or can we enjoy the vital variations? Can we embrace each season for its particular offerings? Can we look more closely at what’s happening in this moment, registering it with all our senses, before offering up a blanket condemnation?

Take a walk in nature, always the best dharma teacher, and discover the nature of impermanence all around you. See how on the forest floor the disintegration of what was once green and vibrant is now dull and desiccated, but in that process is breaking down and fertilizing the soil to nourish new life in the ongoing cycle of being. This too is our nature. These human bodies are not separate from the flow of all life. Going to battle with impermanence is futile, and at a certain point, like a botched facelift, really really creepy.

So embrace life in all its facets. Take care of this gift of a human body. But don’t be fooled into thinking it can be sustained in its present shape forever. And that’s not your fault!

 

What’s Wisdom? I don’t know. Yay!

We have been exploring the third Paramita*: Letting Go, learning how to hold whatever arises in our experience lightly. This naturally leads to the fourth Paramita, Wisdom. At the center of the beautifully-crafted structure of Buddhist concepts are the three universal characteristics of awakening. When looking at wisdom from a Buddhist perspective, these three essential concepts are key. Each deepens our understanding and softens our need to grasp, cling or make enemies of what arises in our experience. We will be exploring them over the coming weeks.

But first, what is wisdom anyway? It seems easier to say what it is not: It is not something we can acquire. It is not a body of knowledge that if we just study hard enough we get to claim as an accomplishment. There is no test to take, no grade to achieve, no Masters of Wisdom degree to be awarded, and nothing to put on the resume.

laos buddha-curt firestone

Buddha statue in Laos. Photo by Curt Firestone

 

Nor is wisdom a personality trait we are born with. Admittedly some babies look like ancient sages and some children have more common sense than others. A few seem in touch with the mysteries, but then that umbilicus to the unknown dries up and falls away, as they focus on learning the many skills needed to navigate this earthly life.

When we develop a regular practice of meditation, we find that we become more present, more alert, more relaxed and more compassionate with ourselves and others. The tight tangle of our thoughts that held us captive now has more space, so we can see the process of the thoughts arising and falling away. It is certainly easier to hold whatever arises in our experience lightly when we are not so enthralled with the tangle of life.

Especially if we go on long silent retreats, we may experience letting go enough to experience ourselves and everyone around us less as solid separate objects, and become more aware of the fluid motion of patterns, energy, vibration, light. (Caveat: If we go in expecting to find this, we won’t. Expectation and striving are just more barriers to let go of!)

This may sound like a spacy way to live, but perhaps we could say that one aspect of wisdom is finding the balance, the ‘both/and’ of living in a way that we can skillfully function in this corporal existence while having that more expansive understanding that informs our intentions and actions.

In our practice we are not looking to escape this life but to embrace it lightly, with greater understanding of the true nature of being. We can understand this nature based on our scientific knowledge of the make up of atoms — how every solid-seeming object is actually mostly space at the atomic level. And we might sense it in a spiritual way, feeling at one with God, nature, all that is — however we name that experience for ourselves.

It helps to let go of the need to have everything locked down, categorized and figured out. This frees us to embrace the mystery, the not knowing. We let go of fear and the crushing need to define ourselves and our world, and to constantly be shoring up that separate-seeming identity and belief. We can still pursue whatever knowledge draws us, but we do it out of the joy of exploration rather than the fear of not knowing or the need to accumulate knowledge.

One of the most liberating statements we can ever make is ‘I don’t know.’ It is not an admission of failure, but a celebration of sorts. I had a joyful time one afternoon on a silent retreat walking around recognizing all the things I don’t know and can never know by direct experience, from what lies behind the bark of the tree or where the roots are underground to who laid the patio I was walking on. I even left a note on the message board for my teacher with the scribble ‘I don’t know!!!’ and she posted a message back. ‘Good!!!!’

The kind of meditation I teach is called ‘insight meditation’. In this tradition, insights are a common part of the meditator’s experience, especially the retreat experience. Sometimes they happen. Sometimes they don’t. It’s important to do the practice and set the stage for them, but also to accept that they show up when we are ready for them. We only need to do the practice and trust the pace. When insights arise, they may feel very subtle or absolutely amazing. Holding them lightly, lovingly and respectfully,  we can savor them and allow them to open us up in surprising ways.

Insights may reveal to us flashes of sensing our infinite nature and connectedness. Sitting beside a waterfall or staring at a pane of glass on a rainy day can remind us how we are like drops of water: ultimately not separate. We are just having a briefly individuated experience, a separate-seeming ‘moment’ in time.

So we can perceive there is a ‘both/and’ truth: We can operate on a daily basis inhabiting this body and life as if we are separate beings in order to get around, do our errands, etc., but we are also suffused with knowing that what we hold to be ‘me’ is simply a brief expression of the overall oneness of being. And we find that we are much more joyful and compassionate when we live from the awareness of that oneness. We don’t have to choose one perspective over another. We allow our awareness to expand to hold both. That is one aspect of wisdom. In Buddhism it is called Anatta, no separate self, and it is one of three characteristics of awakening.

If that resonates with you, then you have probably had moments of deep understanding. If it doesn’t, if it sounds strange or even scary, then just know that it is something that is available through your practice. Don’t strive to understand it. Don’t struggle with it. Don’t judge yourself as lacking. Let it go. And for all of us, it is skillful to focus on acts of generosity and ethical conduct that help us feel connected with others. Practice letting go and holding whatever is going on lightly. In this way, the first three Paramitas help to pave the way toward insights and wisdom.

 

*The ten paramitas, aka paramis and perfections of the heart, are qualities of being that end suffering and activate joy.