Category Archives: Wise Action

Compassion is life loving itself

20150916_182714

Kwan Yin, Goddess of Mercy and Compassion

Part of mindfulness practice is cultivating compassion for ourselves. For example, when we are meditating and we get lost in thought, our habituated reaction may be to give ourselves a hard time. This just throws us into another tangle of thoughts and emotions about past ‘failures’ and/or future hopelessness. But if we cultivate compassion for ourselves, we gently shift back to here and now.

Having cultivated compassion for ourselves, we are better able to cultivate compassion for others. But it’s important to distinguish between compassion and empathy. When we encounter someone who is struggling, we may feel empathy, especially if what they are going through is similar to our own experience now or in the past. We literally feel their pain as if it is our own. Because it is painful, we may turn away as a form of self-protection. Or we may be drawn in because it is so familiar. In either case, it doesn’t help the other person, does it? And it doesn’t help us, because we either feel guilty for turning away or we feel like we’re drowning in someone else’s misery.

Compassion is recognizing suffering and responding in a way that is useful. If I see an insect stuck on the inside of a screen door, compassion sparks me to open the door to let it out. If I was just feeling empathy, I might stand there and say ‘Oh, you poor little bug! Look how you struggle. Me too! Boo hoo!’ And if I had no empathy and no compassion, I’d grab the fly swatter, seeing the bug as a potential danger or at least an annoyance, threatening my own happiness and peace of mind.

Compassion respects all life. It isn’t limited to beings we find ‘relatable’, whose experience mirrors our own. Compassion recognizes suffering but expands to hold it in an open and loving way rather than succumbing to it.

Compassion is action. When we see someone in distress and we help them in whatever way is skillful, that is compassion. Many instances of compassion we might recognize as simply being human, being neighborly or ‘doing the right thing’. Compassion comes naturally to most of us, at least in certain situations.

I am sure you have performed many acts of compassion this week. Maybe you let a car merge in front of you. Maybe in the grocery store you helped someone get something off a high shelf beyond their reach. Maybe you gave a respectful nod to someone sitting on the sidewalk. Maybe you saw or heard about a community in distress from flooding or earthquake or other disaster, and you sent a donation. Compassion is action, but it comes in all shapes and sizes: From a nod of respect to giving a majority of your waking hours to a cause you care about or a person in need. As citizens in a democracy, we cultivate compassion when we vote and make our voices heard for the benefit of our community, our nation, all beings and the earth itself.

Compassion doesn’t register within us as an identity — “I am a compassionate person” — trying to be seen as a hero, taking credit for actions, or being concerned about how we are perceived by others. Shoring up a personal identity just knocks us into seeing ourselves as separate, rather than a part of the celebration of the oneness of all being that sparks true compassion, life loving and taking care of itself.

There are many among us whose whole lives are devoted to compassionate action. And for them especially it is important to discern between compassion and empathy. Over the years I have had a number of insight meditation students who are psychologists, counselors and therapists. Some have complained about the weight of carrying their patient/clients problems into their own lives after the appointment is over. I suggest, for the benefit of their clients and for themselves, that they think of the client’s sharing as being laid out in the space between them for both to examine in a spacious way. Trying this out, my students found that they could bring all their practice and wisdom to the challenge without taking it on as their own. For their clients it helped to see their sharing as a story passing through their experience rather than an aspect of their identity. It makes sense that people who choose professions in the field of psychology are empathetic and want to be of help to those that suffer. But the empathy can become a source of misery.

It’s important to acknowledge that this misery is not just experienced by the empathetic person. When when you share your grief and your friend cries, you are unlikely to feel you can share freely. It is painful to cause suffering in another. Sharing our suffering with a person who has cultivated compassion feels safer. They receive it with loving-kindness, respect and full attention, but they don’t make it their own.

An experiment conducted by neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki comparing empathy and compassion showed that empathy training activated motion in different parts of the brain than compassion training. The outcome was that the empathy-trained group found empathy ‘uncomfortable and troublesome’ while the compassion group felt kinder and more eager to help others.

This makes sense. Taking on the suffering of others as if it is our own is not very comfortable, is it? Being so empathetic we become drained when we spend time around others, because we are taking on their suffering. We may need to get away just to allow ourselves to reconnect with our own experience. While I encourage everyone to take time for themselves, having to be alone a lot can certainly be challenging in maintaining satisfying relationships. If this is your experience, you might notice whether being overly empathetic is at play, and whether cultivating active compassion might help to channel it more skillfully.

But whether we lack empathy or are inundated in it, how do we cultivate compassion? Again, cultivating compassion begins with ourselves: compassion for our own suffering and grief, but also for our ignorance, blundering and foolishness. We do this, in part, to soften the rigid pattern of harsh self-judgment and the resulting suffering that becomes toxic and contagious. This doesn’t mean we ‘let ourselves off the hook’ when we have done something unskillful. A part of our mindfulness practice is cultivating ethical behavior, speech and livelihood (See Noble Eightfold Path). But if we enforce our behavior with cruel words or punitive actions, then we are compounding our unethical behavior.

Instead we do what we can to right any wrong, make amends, apologize, and investigate what went wrong in order to learn from our experience and not repeat the unskillful behavior. But this is only possible if we also actively cultivate compassion, because without compassion we beat ourselves up or avoid dealing with it through all manner of addictive and distracting behaviors.

Once we have cultivated more compassion for ourselves, we are better able to extend compassion to others. We see the suffering at the root of the unskillfulness of those around us. For example, driving around we may be quick to judge someone who drives too closely, too fast, changes lanes erratically, etc. At that moment we might recognize their suffering, and feel compassion. Who among us has not at times driven mindlessly? Who among us has not been lost in our own suffering, or been lost in a hormonal high that makes us feel immortal. That last one is most often the realm of the young who haven’t quite connected with the reality of the two ton metal weapon they are wildly wielding on the road. But knowing that they are not immune to suffering in this life, we can have compassion for them as well, even if at this very moment it is challenging to do so. The compassionate action that arises within us is to not react or retaliate as we drive, but to maintain mindful safe driving and actively send lovingkindness. ‘May you be well. May you be safe.’

For most of us it is easy to feel compassion for someone in a temporarily difficult situation that we can relate to. We tend to have a harder time cultivating compassion for someone who seems to have made poor life choices and is now living with the consequences. It helps to recognize that our harsh judgments function as a bypass to avoid feeling other people’s pain or recognizing our own poor choices in life. Perhaps our poor choices did not have substantial adverse effects on our lives. Do we take that good fortune as a credit to ourselves? None of us is perfect. And none of us is immune to suffering, no matter how fortunate.

Compassion does not command us to be saviors. It offers us the opportunity to live fully in the joy of being alive, and to recognize all life as deserving of respect and kindness, and a little help from a fellow being now and then.

 

Wise Action

 

alt=The next aspect of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path we’ll explore is Wise Action. We can all easily come up with examples in our lives of unwise action: Maybe the time we tripped and hurt ourselves, the time we left the burner on in the kitchen and forgot about it, or the time we ended up with indigestion from over-indulging.

Unwise action is often frustrating, sometimes painful and can be dangerous. So how do we develop more Wise Action in our lives?

First we check in with our intention. This is always the first place to go whenever we feel out of sorts. Is our intention wise? Is it a wise loving intention that promotes taking care of this gift of a physical body to the best of our ability? Or are our actions seated in some sense of self-hatred that assures that they are likely to be unskillful?

We can also look at our effort. We might see that we are trying so hard to accomplish something that we are not taking good care of ourselves. Or, we are under-efforting, and not meeting our body’s needs. Wise Effort arises from Wise Intention and the two work together to bring balance and effectiveness. It’s an area to explore.

What about Wise Mindfulness? If we hurt ourselves or others it’s often because we weren’t being mindful. We were thinking about other things and we had an accident of some kind. Is there any accident that we caused that didn’t arise out of not being fully present in the moment? If everyone on the road were being mindful as they drive, would there be any accidents? This is why self-driving vehicles are safer. A computer-driver is not making grocery store lists, talking on the phone or texting, daydreaming or caught up in an emotional storm. Instead it is constantly noting all causes and conditions. Theoretically we could drive as well as computers, but instead we let our minds wander and boom. This is no small problem! In the US alone, there are over 30,000 traffic deaths per year, and many more serious injuries.

What about Wise View? Our actions become unskillful in relationship to other people when we believe them to be separate, alien and threatening. It’s a scientific fact that we are not just made of the same stuff, but are seamlessly interconnected with all being, but coming home that reality is sometimes difficult because we are caught up in destructive patterns of emotion and thought. And the result is violence. When we are able to come to Wise View, our actions are more skillful.

Beyond violence, other unskillful actions arise from unwise view: All manor of addictive behavior that is destructive to ourselves and those around us.

Last post we looked at Wise Speech. Now we can recognize how unwise action can be activated by unwise speech. Words that are hurtful can lead to bodily harm.

See how all the aspects of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path work together? When we recognize that something in our life is off kilter, that we aren’t being skillful or wise in our actions, we can explore more fully where exactly is the lack of wisdom in this particular case.

Often our actions are reactions. This makes them intrinsically unskillful and likely to cause trouble for ourselves and those around us. As we cultivate wisdom, our actions rise out of that wisdom. They are not reactive. They are, instead, responsive. What’s the difference? Reactivity is mindless, on auto-pilot and rooted in fear. Responsiveness rises out of a sense of being interconnected to all life. The action is rooted in Wise Intention, a loving intention that has no expectation.

Wise Action in a Changing World

In general we are uncomfortable with change, even change we had hoped for. It takes us time to adapt, to mourn the loss of what was and come into some comfortable relationship with what is new. In part this is due to our habitual nature. We are used to doing things a certain way and suddenly we have to pay more attention. For example, moving into a new home can be exciting but stressful, not just because of all the boxes to unload and phone calls to make and things to arrange, but also because we were operating on autopilot in our old situation. We didn’t have to think about it. We knew where everything was. We knew the route by heart to the old home, and our body just naturally goes there. This new route takes some purposeful thinking.

This is true with a new job, a new relationship, a new physical challenge or a new leader. It all takes some getting used to. And that’s not easy.

If the change was something we chose, then we are buoyed by the excitement of an opportunity or challenge. We can still find it stressful, but overall we feel good about it. But if the change was not of our choosing then there is no excitement to buoy us up. We find ourselves floating and sometimes drowning in a sea of difficult emotions.

If that sounds at all familiar, then let’s explore skillful means to survive and even thrive in that sea of change.

First, we need to recognize that change is the only constant. From the day we were born, we and everything around us has been in flux, growing up, altering circumstances, changing course. Walking in nature we recognize the cycles of seasons. Nothing stays the same.  

Second, we can see that we have always somehow dealt with change and have survived. But is survival enough? Most of us want a little more from life than mere survival.

We can look at the way we have dealt with change to see if it was skillful. Or are we reacting to what comes up in our lives with emotions and actions that seemed skillful when we were eight years old? As adults, if we take the time to pay attention, we have the capacity to see that these are not skillful. But because we are not taking the time to explore, evaluate and reassess, we may still be handling things in childish ways: sulking, lashing out, acting up, hiding out, unwilling to look at all sides of an issue. We may still see from a child’s eye view: That the world or someone in our lives is the cause of all our problems and we totally helpless to do anything about it.

Is this true? For most of us this may be true in some areas and not in others, because we have paid attention and grown in some areas, but are still on autopilot in regard to others.

Insight meditation is developing a strong healthy habit of meditation, mindfulness and compassion. AND doing self-inquiry. Especially after a period of meditation, when the mind is quieted down enough so that our innate inner wisdom can be heard, we can begin to question some of our assumptions about things.

So when we feel adrift in a sea of change, meditation and inquiry can allow us to become like dolphins, able to inhabit the experience more fully and more joyfully. Coming into the moment, we can recognize our reactivity, and how we are causing ourselves misery. We can see how we get stuck in nostalgia, stuck in anger, or lost in despair. We don’t get unstuck by pushing any of these emotions away. We get unstuck by cultivating spaciousness, compassion for ourselves and others, allowing whatever is present to be there, but also noticing what else is also present in this moment.

At any moment, in our body and in the world, there are both pleasant and unpleasant things going on. Noticing both allows us to expand our view, to hold all that is going on in a skillful way. And from this noticing we find we are able to be fully present and rooted in a more peaceful and loving intention, so that we make wiser choices and wiser actions.

Past dharma talks on Wise Action:

https://stephanienoble.com/2013/09/30/wise-action/

https://stephanienoble.com/2011/04/02/the-five-precepts-intrinsic-to-right-wise-or-spacious-action/

https://stephanienoble.com/2009/03/11/eightfold-path-right-or-wise-action/

Patience is not just waiting around

Patience is considered a virtue, yet in our go-getter culture where decisive action and taking the lead is prized, patience is often undervalued, as if it is just sitting around and waiting for someone else to give us what we want.

But patience is not just waiting. It’s learning to be present with what is, even when what is present is challenging. Impatience causes us to throw up our hands and give up when things don’t happen quickly. It can also make us do dangerous things. Just yesterday, we were behind a vehicle that was parallel parking. And not very well. Oh brother! We’ll be here for a bit! We sure know how to pick lanes. You know the drill. Impatience rose up. But we waited. A couple of drivers behind us also felt impatience arise, and acted on it in a way that put all of us in danger. Just to save another twenty seconds. Sound familiar?

A student in class mentioned the grocery checkout line and how people complain that the new chip system on the credit card reader is so slow. And then you get stuck behind someone writing a check. A check! Really? In this day and age? And, please, could you have a more involved signature? Impatience arises. And when it does, there’s an opportunity to pause and notice it: The sense of urgency to be somewhere else, the boredom with being here, the judgment of others for doddering and of ourselves for poor time management or always managing to pick the slowest line. And while we are noticing that, we can take a moment to notice the sensations in the body: first the tension from our impatience, and then ones that might be more pleasant or neutral. A grocery store is a wondrous place to awaken to the present moment. All those colors and patterns! Very trippy. And then there are the people. When we come into the present moment a sense of wonder and tenderness can rise up and surprise us. We feel a sense of camraderie and even deep compassion for the people in line, even for the lady writing a check.

So patience is the result of being present with whatever is arising in our experience at this moment. And impatience is the trigger to awakening to the present moment, if we stop to notice it. If we don’t, it could trigger a bad mood, or poor judgment that puts us and those around us in danger.

So that’s patience as an antidote to rushing. But there’s another kind of patience that has to do with letting go of our need to see immediate results.

Patience sustains us for the long haul of whatever challenges we face. I was so impressed by my little granddaughter’s patience when learning to sew. She didn’t give up or get angry. She kept trying to thread the needle, even though it seemed the thread might never go into the needle. She seems to know that learning anything new takes time and patience.

She didn’t inherit her patience from me! I remember when I was twenty and took a belly dancing class. I enjoyed the first class. I got the rhythm and could shake my hips easily. But in the next class the teacher had us try to coordinate playing cymbals in our fingers while we were shaking our hips. Suddenly I felt totally out of my depths. I couldn’t do it! Oh no! I didn’t like that feeling. So I never went back! I was so attached to the idea of being a good dancer, even in a dance I was just learning, that I couldn’t sustain the difficult feelings of failure, even if it was only temporary.

It’s uncomfortable to be really unskillful at something. It takes patience. Is there anything you wanted to do but didn’t because it would take you into that uncomfortable identity-threatening place? That’s where the quality of patience really shines. To be patient with our own ineptness is definitely a perfection of the heart.

representativesPatience can also be used as a powerful force for change. Recently Democratic representatives sat on the floor of the House of Representatives Chamber in order to bring gun reform to a vote. The patience to sit until the opposition understands their commitment is not some passing fancy, is a vital action, isn’t it?

But, one might ask, why now? Why didn’t they do this before? Well, they could have, and perhaps they should have, but one part of patience is learning how to be present to notice the flow of energy. In the teachings of the Tao there is the concept of Wu Wei, which I like to talk  about using a sailing analogy, and Wu Wei is the guiding rudder of the boat. Being fully present we observe the tides, currents and winds so that we can chart our course and be present enough to recognize when the time is most auspicious for a particular action. The same action done at a different time would have a different result.

Patience, then, is not just waiting around hoping for things to go our way. It is being fully present with whatever arises in our field of experience. It is embodying our wise intention and using wise effort. We act at the moment that our effort is most effective. At that moment it may feel almost effortless and even joyful.

My mother was a lifelong peace activist, and there were times when she seemed beaten down by the whole process. She felt a sense of defeat because all her effort seemed for naught. All she lacked at these times was insight into the nature of karma, and the patience to trust that as long as she was doing her work out of love for all beings, a difference would be felt. I think of this especially this year when Senator Barbara Boxer is retiring. My mother worked tirelessly, organizing door-to-door volunteers for Boxer’s first run for the House of Representatives. Mom didn’t live to see the amazing span of Senator Boxer’s long career and her many important contributions to the world, based on values my mother shared. Just so, we won’t necessarily see all the results of our efforts, and our impatience to see the results can wear on us. But if we act with wise intention and wise effort, there is a sense of immediate satisfaction in that, and maybe we can let go of needing to see the fruits of our labor. That is patience!

Sometimes we get impatient with ourselves, causing negative self-talk and misery. We can be impatient with others whose way of doing things and sense of timing is at odds with our own. We’ve seen how that plays out on the road or in the grocery store, but this also happens in our primary relationships. Couples often have a discord in this area. My father was always prompt and impatient for my mother to get ready to go out. She preferred to be fashionably late and that drove him crazy. When they traveled he had a schedule of museums they would visit and sites they would see, but she preferred leisurely strolls, impromptu discoveries and hanging out in outdoor cafes. She let herself get absorbed in the daily life of the place she was visiting, open to whatever might happen. So they would get impatient with each other. Much later in life they learned to occasionally go on separate trips.

We might be impatient if we live with someone who has a different idea of tidy, clean or organized. Can we find some compromise? Can we choose to take care of the things that matter to us and not hold a grudge if they don’t matter to the other person?

One of my favorite stories Anne Cushman used to tell, and maybe still does, is about her son Skye when he was a toddler and they would walk to the neighborhood park. Anne was all about getting to the park, but he was all about whatever was happening in this moment, wherever they were. He would get engrossed checking out an ant on the sidewalk perhaps. So for her it felt like it took forever to get to the park, until it would dawn on her that Skye was her best dharma teacher because he was showing her how to be fully present as he held up some interesting find for her to appreciate.

We all get impatient from time to time, but it’s worth noticing when we are feeling that way so we can observe what is actually going on. This is not to scold ourselves, but to see the truth of our experience.

If we can create enough spaciousness and compassion to hold our current experience we can calm our restless eager need to rush past the wonder and on to the next great thing. This, right here and now, is the great thing, if we can only be present to experience it.

What has been your experience with patience? Is it a major challenge? What have you found helps you to be more patient? Or do you consider patience of value?

I have made it even easier to comment below, so if you’ve had problems with it in the past, please try again. Also please ‘like’ and ‘share’!

Is your mouth getting you in trouble?

mouth-guardsThis time of year we can get into a lot of trouble with our mouths. What goes into them can so easily be too much, too rich, too sweet or too inebriating. What comes out of them might be thoughtless comments, backhanded compliments or casual remarks that are way off the mark. One way to stay out of trouble is to avoid all social gatherings for the duration. But if we do engage, do we have to stand guard, inspecting all content coming in and going out with a careful eye? Ugh! Where’s the fun in that?

Fortunately there is a way to stay out of trouble with our words and our eating without declaring ‘Bah humbug’. Compassionate noticing is joyous, not a duty call or an inner police state. The Buddha called it Wise Action and Wise Speech.

Wise Action during the holidays means being present in our bodies, finding balance, resting as needed, and gently stepping away from the buffet table when we are not hungry but find we are grazing to pass the time. We can wake up out of autopilot and really enjoy the party!

Wise Speech invites us we use three questions to gauge whether speech is indeed wise.
We ask:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it timely?

All three need a ‘yes’ answer for our speech to be wise.

One of my students said, ‘If I had to ask those every time I wanted to say something, I’d never speak!’
‘Is that true?’ I asked her. ‘Is everything you say a mean lie spoken at the most inopportune moment?’
Of course not. In my own experience her words are truthful, kind and timely, and I would bet that is more often the case than not. But hearing this set of questions can sound daunting, so I’m sympathetic to her concern.

We have all been witness to and perhaps participants in situations where unskillful words or the wrong tone of voice have ruined the mood at a gathering, sometimes creating a hostile atmosphere. Words are powerful! They can even put a relationship in jeopardy. A family dinner can be a minefield of potential emotional explosions. Having a few simple questions we can ask ourselves before venturing forth into conversation is actually a comforting gift. If what we are about to say is true, kind and timely, we can feel confident in our participation. We won’t be left with that gnawing feeling of guilt, wondering ‘Was it something I said?’

But why are we ever motivated to say things that are untrue or unkind? We may be under stress, worried about something, in a hurry, reacting to a perceived slight, or blaming a loved one for our own grumpy mood. With family there can be a river of long-held gripes running just under the surface, so these gatherings can get out of hand quite easily. We may balk at the idea that we need to be mindful of our words. ‘I just want to be me,’ we say. But is mindlessness who we are? Is unkindness who we are? Is saying untruths who we are? Really?

Of course not. When we speak mindlessly we are most often not speaking from our true selves but repeating some social patter we’ve heard somewhere just to fill the space and pass the time. The ‘filters’ of truth and kindness are ways of finding our own authentic voice, not quashing it.

The question of whether what we are about to say is timely really has to do with being present with what’s going on. We take a moment to notice that the person we want to speak to has their hands full at this moment and would not be able to pay real attention. Or we may realize these are words for a private conversation and think better of blurting out something in the group. Finding the right moment doesn’t have to be a monumental task, but considering timeliness helps to insure a more productive conversation.

If you can remember those three questions, hooray. If that’s just way too easy, consider a few more questions you could use as well:

‘What is my intention here?’ You might notice any sensations in the body — tension, for example — that indicate you are probably motivated by fear. Not much good comes from fear. We tend to make enemies. We feel we need to defend our isolated sense of self so we use our speech as as a sword to ‘protect’ ourselves. It doesn’t work, of course. It just makes us feel more isolated as people pull away or attack in kind.

Another motivation can be exposed with the question ‘Am I trying to prove something?’ Maybe some sibling seems to have it all together, and it feels important to be heard and seen as the accomplished person you are. (Remember not to compare your insides with their outsides. You present a pretty polished surface too.) That’s also a good question to ask yourself when you find you are doing most of the talking. If people’s eyes are glazing over or their looking away, you may be thrusting information that was not requested and pontificating about something just to show how much you know.

‘Is this my story to tell?’ is a useful question that helps to curb gossip. All information we receive is not fodder for conversation. Sometimes people share personal information with us and we are not meant to pass it on! It is not necessarily a secret, but it is just not our story to tell. Much as we may want to ‘fill the void’ by sharing stories about others to mutual friends or family members, it’s really a destructive pattern. But if not everyone is able to attend a family gathering, then what are we supposed to say when Aunt Sarah asks after her absent great nephew? Maybe it would be skillful to anticipate that there will be such a question and tell the one who plans to be absent that if he doesn’t want you to share his contact information with relatives, please provide some (true, kind) brief answer for the question of how he is doing so that you can feel confident you are not speaking out of turn. If none is forthcoming, fall back on, ‘Oh he’s fine.’ and if the probe continues, smile and ask the inquisitor a question.

 

When being mindful of your words in general, you can also look more deeply at the first question ‘Is it true?’ Your first response may be, ‘Well of course it’s true!’ but if you look a little more deeply you might see that we don’t know for certain if it is true. Investigating the truth of what we hear and read, seeing things in context, considering the source, and trying to see the bigger picture are all useful activities when we are looking at information. If we are going to repeat it, we don’t want to do so mindlessly, just passing on fabrications, urban myths or unfounded rumors. In an election year, it is especially easy to align ourselves rather mindlessly with the candidates who we assume represent us, without questioning what we really believe.

Sometimes we talk just to avoid ‘awkward silences’. You might ask yourself, ‘Can I be at home in silence?’ It is often our discomfort with silence that prompts us to say just about anything to keep the conversation going. We get so myopic we don’t recognize how much else is going on besides conversation. When silence arises try resting in it, deepening into noticing sensation. What is present in this moment besides words? A relationship that only has words to bind it is waiting for a deepening that resting in silence can bring: a smile, a pat on the back, a hug, a look, a sensing into the emotional state of the other person.

All these questions are not to make us uncomfortable with speaking. They help us develop language that has more meaning, resonance and connection; and less misunderstanding, boredom, hurt feelings and confusion.

When we pause in our obsessive need to fill the supposed void or to prove that we exist, we might find that the best form of speech of all is really listening. Less focus on monitoring the mouth, and more on activating the ears!

May all these suggestions help you further enjoy your holidays.

Ours is not a caravan of despair

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Even if you have broken your vow a hundred times,
Come, come again.
— Jalal ad-din Muhammad Rumi, 13th century poet and Sufi mystic


Ours is not a caravan of despair! Why? Because we carry within us an oasis that, if only we take the time to sit and savor, fills us with joy, a sense of connection, a lightness of being. Yet so often we fill our meditation period with harsh inner commentary about our sorry state, how ill-fitted we are to the task of meditation. We do this at the very moment of realization that our mind has been wandering. If only we could realize that in that moment we are quite fully present in our experience, and this is cause for celebration. Instead of gratitude for this moment of presence, we so often choose instead to sit in judgment of the minutes before. Instead of sensing the pleasure of awareness, we fall back into an oh-so-familiar but uncomfortable pattern of making disparaging remarks. Off our mind goes again, into the brutal desert, into despair. We do this in other parts of our life as well, don’t we? We think of someone we care about, and instead of feeling joy, we suffer guilt, shame, dread or some other discomfort, because somehow we believe we have not done enough for them, have not done right by them or have not stayed in touch. Is this based in truth? Or is the very discomfort that arises what keeps us from fully engaging? Who put the discomfort there? Most often we create it ourselves. Sometimes we have in mind something we want to do with our lives, yet we spin our wheels in this very same cycle of despair, torturing ourselves with schoolyard bully taunts, and we are stopped in our tracks. Sometimes these taunts set us up for non-action. Sometimes they set us up for destructive action. Listening in, recognizing the fear-based quality of these inner conversations is very important in order to recognize the the murky, sometimes downright nasty, motivations, so that we can apply the wisdom of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path to help us. After a period of meditation is an especially good time to explore and question, one by one, as they arise in our field of awareness, these murky motivations. Resetting Intention — Wise Action includes resetting our intentions, our vows, again and again. In this we understand and accept that we are human, by our very nature prone to error. This resetting of intentions is not casually undertaken, the way my granddaughter gaily calls out ‘Sorry!’ as she repeats whatever annoying thing she has done. (We’re hoping it’s just a phase.) Most of us know someone who is equally casual with their apologies and doesn’t have the excuse of being only three years old. We don’t want to be that person who thinks an oft-repeated ‘Sorry!’ is sufficient to repair damage done, who justifies unskillful actions as if they are the hapless victim of some incorrigible personality trait, a trait that they seem in fact to find particularly endearing. Through meditation and working with the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, we learn to see the patterns of our own behavior. We see how our mind creates justifications and excuses, how it takes shortcuts and dodges around any reasonable challenges to what we believe to be true. We have skillful questions we can ask of these thoughts that prompted this unskillful action: What was our motivation in that action? If it wasn’t grounded in our intention to be present and compassionate with ourselves and all life, then we were operating out of the murky mire of mindless motivations! We believed we had something to fear, something to hide, or something to prove. Whenever we get bogged down in these motivations, we can pause to recognize the nature of our current quagmire, and reset our intentions to be present in this moment, however uncomfortable, and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. What was the nature of our effort in that action? We were striving, focused on our goal, becoming mindless? Or half-hearted in our effort? Wise Effort is anchored in the present moment, attune to what is needed now. Did we stay on the couch channel surfing when the body wanted to move? Did we keep working on a project when the body wanted to rest? Did we push our agenda through without regard to others? What was the nature of our world view in that action? Did we believe that:
  • The world is a hostile place filled with threats?
  • We are this body, separate from the flow of being?
  • We are these thoughts, unique and in need of defending?
  • If we just held on tight enough things would stay the same?
  • If we grab onto something new, it will make things all better?
  • We are the appointed referee of others’ behavior?

These kinds of beliefs constrict us and force misery upon us and potentially on those around us as well. It’s worthwhile to question all beliefs that fly in the face of Wise View which sees clearly the nature of impermanence (anicca), no separate self (anatta) and the ways we create suffering through clinging to and pushing away our current experience (dukkha). Were we being mindful in that action? Very unlikely. Wise Mindfulness tends to keep us out of trouble. It offers more spaciousness within any moment to make wise choices. Mindfulness is an ongoing practice, stirred by Wise Concentration. The more we develop this muscle of mindfulness, the less often we will cause harm through our actions. The Eightfold Path sheds light on where we strayed and what to do about it now. We attend this moment, and the next as it comes. In this way we deepen our experience of being, and we learn the wisdom and beauty that is present in every moment. If we have wronged someone else, once we recognize it and have reset our intentions, we can do whatever is mindful and compassionate to right the wrong, and if there is nothing that can make it right, a whole-hearted recognition of the wrong may be appreciated. With the help of the Eightfold Path we can see where we went wrong and how we can assure that we will be wiser in the future. Our intention is not to remake ourselves into paragons of virtue. That is just grasping at some identity, and any identity we try to create just sets us up for misery, and Miz Perfect is particularly fraught. We will err, time and again. But with the handy dandy Eightfold Path to show us how we we came to make that mistake, we will spend less time steeped in misery and more time actively engaged in life, with deep appreciation for this fleeting gift. When Others Mess Up
We might notice that our thoughts and emotions are not just entangled in how we may have erred, but in the errors of other people. We might be caught up in blame. We might be stuck in defending the state of victim-hood. The Eightfold Path can also help here. We can look at the action of this other person and see where they strayed off the path. And in so doing, we can begin to see that the action came from mindlessness, from murky motivations, from over- or under-efforting. Seeing this, we can perhaps activate a little more compassion within ourselves. Certainly we have seen how easy it is to go mindless, to follow misguided motivations instead of Wise Intention. If we are struggling with the effects of what someone did to us, the Eightfold Path offers us the means to understand both the other person and what we can do in this moment ourselves. We can look at our intentions toward them. We can see how we may be held in the past by what is unresolved in our heart. We can see how our sense of defending this separate self that has been wronged keeps us from accessing the infinite nature of being. But it is not just people who did us wrong whom we have difficulty with. Perhaps we are in the habit of playing the referee in this game of life, and getting upset over other people’s behavior, even when it does not affect us and we have no say in the matter.In this process, we begin to recognize that those who do wrong are also in a state of mindlessness and lack of understanding of the way of things. How does this alter our feelings towards them? Can we send them metta, loving-kindness, in the form of well-wishes like: May you be well, May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. Perhaps metta practice is most challenging when it comes to people convicted of horrendous crimes, people who are serving life sentences or who are sitting on death row. We in Marin County are given the often uncomfortable gift of thinking about these very people every time we take the ferry to and from San Francisco, as we pass close by San Quentin State Penitentiary. That old dilapidated structure holds within its walls men who have committed the most heinously unskillful actions possible. Metta is not selective. It is like the sun, shining on everything in its path. This can be a really big challenge, but it is a challenge worthy of the effort. It is a challenge that requires us to be mindful, to notice our own resistance and be compassionate with that within ourselves that struggles, that reacts, that wants to strike out in anger against perpetrators who struck out in anger. We can see how anger for anger hyper-reactivity creates a dense field of fear-based misery. As we practice compassion and mindfulness, we create spaciousness to hold everything with equanimity, even the existence of the most troubled and unskillful actions. Over the past decade there has been a great revolution inside prison walls all around the world. Prisoners are learning to meditate, to spend time noticing the patterns of their thoughts, to contemplate the actions they have done and to look more clearly at what pain they have caused and to feel compassion for the victims of their actions. This simple practice has transformed many hearts and minds. And in the process it has begun a potential transformation of prisons from violence compression chambers that exacerbate the problem into places of potential healing for both the perpetrators and the victims of crime. May this trend continue! Whoever we are, a regular practice of meditation helps assure that ours is not a caravan of despair, but a caravan of clarity, compassion and joy!

Wise Action Keeps Us Moving

At the core of Wise Action is the felt sense of our physical bodies moving through space. So often we go mindless as we move about, distracted by thoughts, sights and other multitasking activities. Is this wise? Think about some time when you had an accident while moving your body (or a vehicle) through space. Would that accident have happened if you had been totally present in your body? When I brought this subject up to the class, every student responded to the topic with a story of having fallen down. So even though this is an important topic for everyone, it clearly becomes increasingly important as we age. I led the meditators in a walking exercise that was similar to a walking meditation, in that our focus was to be present in the felt sense of our bodies, particularly the lower part of the body. It differed from a typical walking meditation in that, to whatever degree we were able, we maintained the mindfulness while bringing the pace up to a more normal level. The aim is to be able to be present while going about our daily activities. Is it possible to be so present? Yes, we can train the mind to use a percentage of our awareness to anchor into the felt sense of moving through space. We can use a percentage of our visual awareness to purposefully notice the relationship of our body to other objects. This is not a fear-based instruction in how to navigate through a minefield of hazards, as if we were playing a video game. If we are rooted in fear, we create more tension and a self-consciousness that makes us second guess and doubt our movements instead of fully inhabiting this physical experience. When we bring more awareness to the dance of life, we experience with gratitude the pleasure of being present and alive. Awareness creates more fluidity and agility. I have put the directions for the walking practice at the end of this post, but first let’s look more specifically at the cause of most accidents: Being distracted, rushed or exhausted. Let’s look at each and apply Wise Action:
Destination Focus/Goal Oriented
We know where we are going and we will get there, but to arrive safely, refreshed and fully ready for anything, we need to stay present for the journey itself. Lost in Thought
We may be in the habit of getting a lot of thinking done when we are walking or driving. We put movement on automatic pilot. That is a danger to ourselves and others. And by using that time to think instead of be fully present in the experience of being alive in this moment, we miss out on so much! Devices
This more recent addition to the list of distractions has really been taking a toll in the emergency room. If you receive a call or a text, ignore it until you can stop in a safe place to attend to it. Everyone thinks they are the exception to the finding that we can’t safely do more than one thing at a time. The Wise Action is to do only one thing and do it wholeheartedly for the benefit of ourselves and all beings. Visual Delight
We may be enjoying being in the present moment, but we are putting too much focus on the sights around us, and not enough on the path in front of us. We can enjoy our surroundings with all our senses, but some percentage of our awareness needs to stay with the felt sense of moving through space and the relationship of our body to objects in our path. This also applies to driving if we are sight-seeing or getting caught up in thoughts about fellow drivers or interesting spectacles. Rushing
This is another health hazard. We know that when we feel rushed we can get reckless. Our judgment becomes impaired and our sense of connection and kindness are likely to get tossed out the window in our compelling need to get somewhere on time. While it is skillful to meet our social agreements to meet a certain place at a certain time, once it is clear that that is not going to happen, and once we are moving through space, either on foot or driving a potential death delivery system on the road, we need to let go of that urgency to get there, and just be mindful. It will take as long as it takes and no amount of rushing will help. Rushing may hurt or even kill someone! So slow down! Be present. Exhaustion
Accidents also happen when we push too hard, when we are determine to finish a project or get somewhere, and push through our body’s request for rest with determination. This is not Wise Effort. If we are in tune with our body, we take its cues seriously. We acknowledge thirst, hunger and the need to sit or lie down. Usually these needs are easily met and won’t necessarily take a lot of time. Perhaps the rest that’s needed is just a time out for ten or twenty minutes. Then the body is refreshed and better able to do what’s needed without all the attending frustration, expletives, shoddy results and physical danger. Wise Action Walking Meditation Practice
Start with standing meditation, coming fully present in the body, adjusting the body to be balanced.
Then start walking, sensing the movement of the limbs. Move as slowly as you need to in order to stay present. Then start moving your arms and stay present with the sense of the arms moving in space, the legs moving in space, the muscles contracting and extending. You can walk normally and be fully present in the body. Simply set your destination, then be present in the walking itself. If we can be present in physical movement we will have a much greater chance of arriving wherever we go in safety. And — bonus! — we’ll arrive full present to enjoy the experience of being there.

So Much To Do, So Little Time!

We had a lively Wise Action discussion prompted by a question posed by one of the students which boils down to: How do I make time for everything I want to do in life?

We are a group of women of a certain age, who, having led busy lives between work and family, are now, for the most part, at a time in our lives when we are able to choose the things we really want to do. Most of us have a lighter load of the things we feel we have to do, thanks to retirement, an empty nest, husbands taking on a greater role around the house, etc. Of course, some of us have more responsibilities, taking care of loved ones who are ill, reaching out into the community, etc. But in general, we feel more empowered to choose our actions and activities.

Perhaps because women are inherently multi-taskers (to keep the toddler from drowning in the river while we gather berries and firewood), we often find that our thoughts during any activity include a little anxiety about something else we should be doing instead. This keeps us from being fully present in the moment to enjoy what we are doing and to do it well.

One way to bring full mindfulness to every activity is to organize our day as if we were on retreat. Vipassana meditation retreats are quite structured, which we might think would create limitations, but actually creates freedom. When it is time to sit, we simply sit, and don’t feel we should be elsewhere. Likewise, when we are doing a walking meditation, eating a meal, or resting.

Part of every retreat day is a designated period where we do our yogi job. This is a voluntary chore of cleaning or food preparation that helps keep the retreat running smoothly. During that period we do our work mindfully, noticing the arising of misguided motivations (‘This will be the cleanest shower anyone’s ever seen! I’ll be the best yogi ever!’ or ‘Why on earth did I pick this yogi job? I bet sweeping the terrace would be a lot better.’) We might notice unskillful effort: striving too hard with our thoughts only on the goal instead of living the activity; or sloughing off, doing the least we can ‘get away with.’

This sense of a yogi job, that we do to the best of our ability with mindfulness and wise effort for a set amount of time during the day, works very well for doing household chores, bookkeeping and errands. Without that boundary-setting of a limited time frame, we have a running To Do list in our heads that keeps us on a never ending treadmill of feeling we are not doing enough, when we may very well be doing too much.

One thing that several students and I found was that email and online activity gobbles up time in a way that is quite unnerving. I liken my circling round to check email as having the same addictive quality I have felt at times in my life when I have mindlessly circled round to the refrigerator. If it feels like an addiction, then we can either go cold turkey by not having this technology at all, or we can set limits.

Limits might be as simple as using a timer. Make a note of what we originally wanted to accomplish on the computer/smart phone beforehand, then do that first before opening email and getting off track. This sounds easier than it is in practice, but I am setting the challenge for myself to see if it can be done.

A Surfeit of Options
One student said she imagined that at this time of life she would have SO much time and yet she sees that she doesn’t, that she has to pick the top three or four things she wants to do and let go of the rest.


When it comes to the surfeit of options we are so fortunate to have, we all expressed our great gratitude for the wondrous opportunities, but having stuff doesn’t create wisdom, so we can still be incredibly unskillful and cause ourselves suffering. How do we make wise choices?

How can we determine what we can let go of? What is beneficial and what is just filling time, or dragging us down? Try this exercise:

Bring to mind something you do during an average day or week.
Now ask the following questions:

– What is my intention with this action?
If you feel motivated by having something to prove rather than something to give, then this isn’t Wise Action. Remember Wise Intention is to be fully present with lovingkindness.


– Who am I doing this for?
Sometimes we get our signals crossed. We think we are doing something someone we love wants us to do. But our assumptions are not based in fact. Time to have a conversation!
– What benefits come from this action?
Make a list. and then ask:
– Is this true?
This is where the rich exploration really begins. When we question our assumptions we breathe new life into our actions.
– When I think about this action, what do I feel in my body?
If a lightness, a sense of enlivening, then I know that this action is nourishing me and no more needs to be explored. I have my answer. This action stays!


If there are any sensations of tightening, deadening, pressure, heaviness or dread, then ask:
– What are the thoughts that prompt these feelings?
– What are the fears I have about this activity?

Within each exploration, every time you make a statement, ask again, ‘Is this true?’
The result is an inner dialogue that effectively determines the value of the action. Then you can decide whether the activity is a valuable part of your life, or discover perhaps that you were doing it for the wrong reasons, or it no longer fits, etc. You can make adjustments to the activity, instilling it with Wise Intention and Wise Effort, or you can let that activity go.


– Is this my job to do, or is there someone else who could do it?
Sometimes we forget that there are other people in the world who might enjoy and appreciate the opportunity to do what it is we are doing. If we are able to hire someone to do a chore we find tiresome, certainly we are contributing to the economic well being of our community by doing so. If this is not financially feasible, hire yourself! What payment would you like? Equal time with a good book? A day at the beach? A walk with a friend? It’s yours!


If you find through this exploration that any of your activities are not Wise Action, then the wise course of action is to make a change in as mindful and compassionate a way as possible.


11/12/13 P.S. I just received a link to a post on TinyBuddha that totally fits into this discussion and offers more valuable questions we can ask ourselves when we are looking at all we have to do.