Category Archives: Wise Intention

Are you imprisoned by your preferences?

In the past four posts, I’ve written about the mind states of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity: the Brahma-viharas, heavenly abodes, that we cultivate through our practice of mindfulness.

But part of cultivating any mind-state is noticing what obstacles arise, causing disruption. One of these obstacles, easily discernible, is our collection of preferences and our attachment to them. So let’s take a look at preferences. We all have them. I certainly do. Most of my preferences I earned the hard way, by trial and error. Why would I even think to question them? I feel resistance at the very idea. Perhaps you do too. But because we know there is value in those four expansive mind states, let’s just open to the possibility that there is something worth examining here.

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Darlene Cohen

Recently I was rereading an essay by Darlene Cohen, a Zen priest at Green Gulch who died in 2011. She compared her experiences of going through two surgeries twenty years apart. In the first, she felt that the period of surgery and recovery was completely separate from her normal life. I can imagine how she wanted to ‘get back to normal.’ But after years of Buddhist practice, when she had the second surgery, she found there was ‘no rent in the fabric’ of her life. Her days were ‘all of a piece’. She wrote, “I see students, I get cut open, I eat Jell-O, I receive visitors, I feel as sick as a barfing dog, I pace the corridors, I ride home with the passenger seat all the way down, and so on, to the experience of golden apricot colors, helplessness, dread, and being borne on a sheet carried by angels.’

(In class I was able to read more extensively from her essay, but because of copyright laws, I can only offer you brief quotes. If you are a woman living in Marin, I encourage you to attend the Thursday morning class so you don’t miss out on the wholeness of experience. There’s a lot that doesn’t make it into the blog post. And I encourage all readers to consider purchasing the book of essays: Buddha’s Daughters, Teachings by Women Who Are Shaping Buddhism in the West. My copy is filled with post-it notes, so as I revisit those pages, I expect to draw inspiration from other Buddhist women in the West. And you might too!)

Darlene Cohen found for herself how her preferences created obstacles. Without making an enemy of the obstacle, we can notice how when we get caught up in preferences, we grasp at and cling to some experiences and push others away. That is the Buddha’s very definition of the cause of suffering.

Attached to our preferences, we become calcified in our little ruts of what is acceptable and what is not. Something as simple as a favorite flavor of ice cream can be an experiment in preferences. Darlene wrote that she dared herself to go beyond chocolate and chose blindly, ending up with a flavor she never would have chosen. But she discovered it was amazingly delicious. I know I certainly don’t stray far from my preferences. But what am I missing? Is it true that my life is dictated by preferences? And aren’t some preferences valuable?

At least some, hopefully many, choices we make in life are rooted in Wise Intention: Doing no harm to ourselves and others. Aren’t these choices preferences? It seems skillful to look to the source of our preference when we come upon it. Is it rooted in fear? Or is it rooted in kindness, compassion, awareness? Is it a habit that allows us to go mindless? These questions and more can help us understand the nature of how we are in relationship to the world around us. And how our world is shaped by our preferences.

I came across this quote the other day that fits in well here:
“What is freedom? It is the moment by moment experience of not being run by one’s own reactive mechanisms.” – Ken McLeod, Freedom and Choice

Preferences could certainly be called ‘reactive mechanisms’. They establish a set of reactions that may cause stress, distress, discomfort and dissatisfaction. Even the positive experiences are a little numb. Darlene mentioned ice cream, so let’s stay with that tasty subject about which most of us have strong preferences, one way or another. I have a preference for chocolate ice cream so that’s what I order, and in repeatedly choosing that over other flavor options, I enter a habituated reaction to the experience of having a chocolate ice cream cone. Is my mind even in the experience, sensing the taste, texture and temperature of what’s in my mouth? Or am just ‘happy’ to have something I craved? Is that truly happiness? There’s often some mixture of regret in having succumbed to temptation and fear of adverse effects. Whatever happiness there is certainly doesn’t last very long. It literally melts away!

We can look at where our preferences come from. Are we really still anti-brussel sprouts or is it just because the one time we tried them the cook didn’t do them justice? It’s worth questioning every preference we come upon, even those that seem benign.

Living in the rut of our preferences, we don’t recognize the freedom we have to reshape our experience. And if we are in relationships, we may be limiting others as well. In Darlene’s essay, she used the example of how her preferences shaped her younger life and the life of her small son. There was no way was she going to attend a ‘stupid Muppets movie’ or go to Disneyland, leaving her son to rely on other parents for those activities. Looking back, she regretted how much she missed by letting her preferences rule her in that way, saying, ‘What kind of twit chooses her aesthetic tastes over spending exuberant time with her child!’

Indeed! We can each look at our own choices and see if we are letting our preferences limit our ability to live fully and openly. Yes, perhaps some unpleasantness may occur if our preference filters are dropped. But in our practice we learn how to be present with unpleasantness, don’t we? We simply notice all that arises in our expansive field of compassionate awareness. If there is a pain, we stay present with the whole of the experience, noting all the small ever-changing sensations within it. We notice how our thoughts lurch into the past and future — ‘Oh no not this again!’ or ‘How long will this go on?’ We notice also whatever pleasant or neutral sensations are also present in this moment, so that we are not stuck in our automatic negativity bias. Imagine how liberating it would be to be able to be open to whatever comes. How much do we live in fear that things won’t be just as we want them to be. How attached are we to the belief that our slightest discomfort is intolerable?

In noting our preferences, we might also see to what degree we allow them to define us. This is especially noticeable if you or someone you know gets upset that a purported loved one doesn’t remember their preferences. ‘How could he not remember that I hate yellow! He doesn’t really love me.’ As if the preferences are the person. If you feel this way, it’s worth examining! Do you really believe that what people love about you is your preferences?

As we practice being fully present with whatever arises, we tap into a powerful freedom. We can be in situations where we have little control and still have equanimity and the resilience to respond skillfully to changing situations.

The past two weeks we have seen how natural disasters can play havoc with our nice ordered life, rooted in preferences. None of the people affected by hurricanes and earthquakes were consulted as to their preferences before finding themselves in those situations. And the more entangled they are in preferences, the more they suffer.

Of course, no one would actively choose disaster, loss of home, loved ones, power, communications, food, water, health care, etc. So doesn’t everyone suffer in these situations?  Everyone experiences pain, but there is a distinction between the pain we experience being alive in this life and the suffering we cause ourselves, compounding the pain many times over. If we are actively practicing being fully present and cultivating skillful ways of being in relationship with all that arises in our experience, then that experience shifts dramatically.

My heart goes out to all who have been affected by these natural disasters. As I watch, helpless to do anything but send metta and money, I am awed by the instantaneous outreach and self-organizing rescue aid that arises at times like these. It reminds me that a person at the mercy of their personal preferences may not be able to respond skillfully to changing circumstances. They are so caught up in a tight knot of reactivity that setting their personal preferences aside to meet the needs of the moment could be a huge challenge. It might be a moment of awakening, of breaking out of that dull deadening rut, but just as likely their reactivity to things not being the way they want them may make them turn away, rushing to find solace in something familiar, perhaps something self-destructive.

In Darlene’s essay she says that “a life lived openly without filters includes pain, heartbreak, Disneyland, and unpleasant occurrences. But you do have a satisfying feeling of being infinitely approachable; the universe gets through to you, whatever scenery it’s hauling.” Infinitely approachable. I love that!

So just as an exercise, perhaps as a little homage to Darlene Cohen and her wise teachings, but also as a gift to yourself, try opening to something beyond your habituated preferences, and see what happens. If you give it a try, please report back. And I will be taking note of and challenging my beloved preferences. Oh dear!

 

Do You Get an ‘A’ for Effort?

wise-effort-handsAs we look at the aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, at first glance Wise Effort seems the easiest to understand. We see from our own experience and by observing others how over-efforting and under-efforting cause all kinds of problems in life, from the tense host striving to make everything ‘perfect’, causing her guests to feel uneasy; to the couch potato who seems unable to move forward in life; to the ambitious dreamer who seems always in motion but whose wheels are spinning.

Any of these sound familiar? Using the Eightfold Path as a guide for self-exploration, we see that this is not about self-improvement or changing who we are. We are instead looking at patterns in our thoughts, emotions, words and actions that are causing us, and probably those around us, unhappiness. These patterns do not define us. But they may be confining us a bit, and that’s why we want to look more closely.

To investigate, we don’t use our overdeveloped muscle of critical facility, the fault-finder that is often particularly adept at turning inward and causing misery. Instead, with regular meditation, we cultivate mindfulness, compassion and spaciousness where all the tight patterns are able to loosen, soften and quiet down. Only when the cacophony of harsh judgments and strident opinions have been given enough space to settle down, do we have the opportunity to hear the quiet, calm, loving voice of our own inner wisdom, our Buddha nature. This is one of the great gifts of regular meditation practice.

Once we have accessed that inner wisdom in meditation, we can recognize it at other times as well. We can actively seek it out at any time, just by quieting down and listening in. And over time we begin to align more and more with that wiser way of seeing what is actually going on in our experience. We become less reactive and more responsive. When it comes to effort, we are better able to identify the cause of our unskillfulness. We can see what’s really happening with the examples I gave above:

If you relate to the host who wants everything perfect for her guests but instead creates tension, let’s review Wise Intention from the previous blog post. We can see that her intention is not wise. Why? She is fearfully caught up in wanting people to see her in a certain way, in order to admire, respect and love her. She is busy shoring up her separate identity. That is literally off-putting. She puts people off by setting herself apart. She wants to be seen as the kind of person she aspires to be.

A wise intention, such as the intention to be compassionate to herself and all beings, would ensure that she takes care of herself, takes on only as much as she can handle, asks for help or, if she can afford it, hire help, so that she can be fully present to interact with her guests. If this means she doesn’t get a write-up on the society page, so be it! If that was her intention, it was painfully unwise. What people respond to is coming into a space and being greeted by a person who is fully present, fully engaged and not freaking out about whether the space or the food is up to the standards of some magazine editor who probably eats mostly take out in her NYC apartment anyway.

After a dharma talk of setting truest intentions one student came up to me and said that she thinks her truest intention is authenticity, but she wasn’t sure about the wording. That reminded me of an insight I had on a silent retreat that has stayed with me for many years, and has helped me and students I’ve shared it with again and again. I promised my students I would include it here. It is:

I have nothing to hide.
I have nothing to prove.
I have nothing to fear.
I have something to give.

See if this phrase empowers you to live without regard to how people see you. For me, it helped me to stop seeing myself as an object being viewed by others, and allowed me to simply live from the center of my being. This is a challenge women often relate to more than men. Men are generally encouraged to ‘Be your own man.’ But women, traditionally, have been encouraged to put others first and to polish themselves up to be beautiful objects in body and manner in order to attract a mate. Even the princesses among us who promote themselves as the center of the universe are caught up in needing to be objects to be adored, totally dependent on exterior approval. Plenty of men fall into this pattern as well. But rather than demanding that others see us as the center of their worlds, it is possible to live with ease and clarity, making all our efforts grounded in wisdom.

If you related more to the couch potato, your compassionate investigation will not include derogatory terms like ‘couch potato’! That’s not your wise inner voice but one of the many judgmental ones that contributed to the pattern of lethargy you find yourself succumbing to. Set a wise intention — to meditate regularly, to be compassionate, and to attune to the muscles that want to move and the mind that wants a challenge. As a kindness to your heart, eat sensibly and get up and move about. Find the natural strength and fluidity that is within you, waiting to be set free. That is compassion. If you just can’t muster the will to make an effort, ask for help. But choose someone who will help you investigate what’s going on rather than a drill sergeant who makes you feel even more miserable about yourself even as you ‘get into shape.’ Compassion is not giving in to your most fear-based patterns of thinking, but attuning to the vibrant potential for living fully in every moment.

You might be inspired by this story from PBS Newshour called ‘Back on my feet’ : http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/morning-run-can-first-step-homelessness/

If you recognize yourself in the dreamer with the spinning wheels, your compassionate investigation will be to notice the circular patterns, the walls you have set up and the short circuits in your thinking that bounce you back to square one again and again. By living in the future, imagining some perfect life, you are completely missing the offerings of this moment. No matter what your situation, no matter how imperfect, there is in this moment some beauty, some light, something funny, something touching. There is a zen story that speaks to this:

There was once a man who was being chased by a ferocious tiger across a field. At the edge of the field there was a cliff. In order to escape the jaws of the tiger, the man caught hold of a vine and swung himself over the edge of the cliff. Dangling down, he saw, to his dismay, there were more tigers on the ground below him! And, furthermore, two little mice were gnawing on the vine to which he clung. He knew that at any moment he would fall to certain death. That’s when he noticed a wild strawberry growing on the cliff wall. Clutching the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other and put it in his mouth.

He never before realized how sweet a strawberry could taste.

So set the intention to meditate, then listen in to that wise inner voice, the one that helps you set an intention to be present in this moment, compassionate with yourself and all beings. Discover how to live fully in this moment and your life will unfold in its own way, more and more aligned with your truest intention. Let your life surprise you with its gifts!

Wise effort is not how much we accomplish, but the kind of the effort we are making in whatever we do. Often when we are exercising we are caught up in a goal: To get to the end of the course, the trail, the time period allotted; to change the way our body appears so that it will be more attractive or acceptable; to have bragging rights that we are able to run or even won a marathon. There’s nothing at all wrong with winning, but focusing on that isn’t wise effort. We can win with wise effort and go on to enjoy the activity. Winning with unskillful effort leaves us exhausted and without a sense of purpose in our lives.

Wise Effort is meditating on a regular basis, setting up and sustaining a daily practice. Kudos for that! Once we are sitting, we continue to use Wise Effort to stay present and compassionate with ourselves, to adjust our posture as we so that it is both erect and relaxed, and we rely on the bones instead of the muscles to support us, and if we notice any tension, relaxing and releasing it to whatever degree we are able.

Goal-setting in meditation is not wise effort, sabotaging our ability to stay present and compassionate. The goal stays ever distant, always on the horizon. When we shift away from imagining the outcome and instead cultivate in this moment a spacious way to be in relationship with all that is occurring right now, we become available to insight and deepened understanding.

Awakening is both potentially instantaneous and a lifelong rich exploration. It happens each time we become fully present, each time our heart is cracked open a bit more with compassion, each time we recognize that we and all beings are intrinsic to the whole of being. We become more and more familiar with our Buddha nature, that wise inner wisdom that speaks softly, has no agenda and all the time in the world. So it really is up to our Wise Intention and our Wise Effort to practice meditation, become more spacious and available to attune to that inner wisdom. All the fear-based judgments and opinions within our thinking mind have enough room to co-exist and feel heard, even if they don’t get to rule the roust. We understand the protective impulse of their fear-based intentions. Over time we begin to see them for what they are: patterns of thought initially launched by some words or actions of someone long ago, who was unskillful because of all the fear-based patterns they were dealing with. Another opportunity for compassion. Which is not the same as condoning or approval of behavior.

Our Wise Effort is to keep cultivating spaciousness and compassion, for ourselves, for everyone in our lives, even those who push our buttons, and for the contributors from the past whose own unskillfulness set off an unskillful pattern within us. This is our practice. Sometimes it is skillful to put distance between ourselves and someone who pushes our buttons. Although we are developing inner wisdom, there is no reason to force ourselves to confront our demons constantly. In fact, we are actively seeking our community of people who support us in our wise effort, and letting go of actively involving ourselves with people whose fear pushes them to antagonize us. At some time we may be ready to sit with them, but we can give ourselves permission to wait until the time is right. Meanwhile we send them infinite lovingkindness whenever we think of them: May you be well. 

Wise Effort has a quality of effortlessness because the exertion is appropriate for this body, mind, time and place. It is enough to keep us engaged in an optimum way and mindful so that we are not prone to accidents.

What are some examples in your own life of wise or unwise effort? What might be a skillful way address the challenge?

On silent retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, all attendees are given yogi jobs so they have a hand in helping to maintain cleanliness or create meals. Over the years I have worked in the kitchen, vacuumed dormitory hallways, swept porches, cleaned bathrooms and maintained the Council House. But on one retreat I really wanted as little potential interaction with other retreatants as possible, so they gave me the job of scrubbing shower stalls.
Right away I noticed my lack of enthusiasm for such a task, including an aversion to being in a small windowless space.

Since I was in a state of mindfulness from seven or so hours of meditation a day, each day as I took up my sponge, squeegee and scrub brush, I discovered a shift in my attitude toward the work. It started with bare tolerance, trying to be a good sport. Then I noticed some hope of praise for a good job, or at least a lack of criticism for a poorly done job.
Then, because these were the showers the retreat teachers used, I did it as a service in kind, out of gratitude for their teachings.
A few days in I sensed into my body — my arm rotating as I scrubbed, my legs supporting me as I reached or crouched. I felt my mind attend this as a simple meditation, a place to put my consciousness. I felt my breath steadily fueling this engine of activity.
I let go of any concern for the outcome. The shower stalls were scrubbed every day, by me on this retreat, but by other dedicated retreatants throughout the years before and after me.

As a practice of mindfulness. This exercise trained me in Wise Effort more than anything else I have ever done. The first thing I did when I got home after the retreat was to scrub our shower stall! But the lasting effect was a change in how I tend all my necessary tasks. They are yogi jobs I do for a set period each day, and with daily application, I can trust that all will be done.

So coming into the present, noticing all the judgments and opinions that arise in relationship to what we are doing, we develop a skillful relationship with even the most mundane tasks. In this way all we do becomes part of our practice. That’s Wise Effort.

No one has our individual answers. But if we notice that we are out of balance in the area of effort and that this under or over efforting is causing problems, then we can skillfully test out either taking on physical or mental challenges, or we can let up on the whip a bit.

I have written many posts over the years on Wise Effort. Feel free to explore more.

Peace empowers intention, but what is peace?

I’d like to start off this continued exploration of the Paramita of Resolve with a guided exploration. It’s just two minutes, but it’s easier to talk it through rather than have you try to do it while reading.

EXERCISE (two minute audio recording)

(If for some reason you are not able to play the recording: Think about an intention that you have or a resolution that you have made either now or in the past. It doesn’t have to be your highest or most meaningful intention, just whatever comes up when I say that.
Now sense into your body and see how that intention sits. Where do you feel it? Does it stir up anxiety? Does it feel tight anywhere? Or does it make you feel more open and spacious, more clear and focused?)

Having done that little exercise, if you noticed tension come up in your body after stating your intention or resolution, then that intention is rooted in fear and confusion rather than compassion and clarity.

Let’s look at a common intention: ‘I want to lose weight.’ Why is it so difficult to follow through on that intention or sustain it? I don’t know about you, but when I say that intention, I tense up at the thought of people judging me for being overweight; of my jeans not zipping up, of having to buy a bigger size, and feeling some shame in my lack of control around certain foods.

How does that intention feel in my body? Heavy! Weighted down with shame, remorse, self-loathing, and a sense of hopelessness that has me giving up before I even get started. Well, how is that intention going to work for me?

Not very well, I can assure you. But then I had a little confab with a cardiologist who said to me, ‘As a kindness to your heart you could lose a little weight.’ Suddenly my intention was restated in a way that really spoke to me. Kindness was something I could get behind! So I reset my intention to be rooted not in fear or shame but in loving-kindness. In my body, instead of feeling tension and heaviness, I felt an upwelling of love and gratitude for my dear reliable heart that just pumps away all day and night for all these years. I have been able more often to come up with some kindness at the refrigerator door when my inner sweet tooth or just plain boredom has me lingering there. It’s also helped when I’m preparing a meal, when I’m sitting at the table, and when I’m shopping. I can put more love into the whole experience of eating, and more awareness into noticing when I am full or when I am eating mindlessly.

If you found tension or some other challenging sensation as you stated your intention in the exercise, how might you reword it to be rooted in love, gratitude and joyful celebration of life?

This experiential exercise might help you to rewrite your intention or it might erase an intention that doesn’t resonate with qualities we are cultivating here. There are fear-based intentions that activate desire, striving, and other qualities that drag us out of this moment. They are like glaring roadside billboards trying to make us believe some other moment is better than this one. This is a root cause of suffering: pushing away this experience in favor of some imagined past or future experience; and clinging to this fleeting experience hoping it will last forever.

A wise intention is not a distant goal that clogs up this present experience. It is a companion, a guide, deepening our resolve to be present and compassionate. It helps us to be more skillful in our interactions.

We can see from this experiential exercise that our bodies are the best indicators we have to discern whether our intention is wise. If it’s not wise, our body will tell us loud and clear: by tensing up or being painful in some way. When we pay attention to our thoughts — all those judgments and opinions — we can tell if we are going to be able to stay with our intention. If there’s a cacophony of voices fighting it out in there, it’s unlikely. But if our body and mind remains peaceful, and even gets a little tingle of expansive connectedness going on, then we know that we have named our intention in a way that we can follow through. Because there is inner peace.

Peace is the fourth way we are asked to look at the Paramita of Resolve, after discernment, truthfulness and relinquishment. But what if there’s not inner peace? Then we need to create more inner spaciousness, so the various thoughts can have their say but aren’t in constant conflict with each other. As we get to know the various patterns of our thoughts, we can respectfully discover what drives them.

We can create some inner peace if we are willing to pay attention. These various urges, drives, etc. all have well-meaning intentions: to help us survive. It’s just that those intentions are rooted in fear, and so the results are often ineffective and sometimes harmful. As we listen to them, we can use metta, lovingkindness, to allow them to exist as part of our experience without giving them everything they demand. We can create peace by creating spaciousness within ourselves so that it isn’t an tense tangle, but a vast field where all manner of thoughts and emotions can arise and fall away without creating conflict.

Maybe you would think it would be peaceful if everyone was in agreement, whether our internal voices or everyone in the world community. But we are not a mono-mind species either individually or collectively. We have different opinions, and two different opinions can seem equally valid, true, well-thought out, loving, etc. This is how it is to be human, isn’t it? So how can there be peace, ever?

Here’s how I see it: Peace is not the same note played by every instrument in the orchestra. Peace is the harmony that comes from each instrument playing its part so the resulting concert is beautiful. So then do we need a conductor? Not in my experience. With our young toy instrumentsgranddaughters we have a tradition of making music with the various toy instruments we have at hand. We march in a parade around the house with great exuberance banging and drumming and blowing on wooden flutes. From the outside it probably sounds horrendous, but for us it is a joyful celebration.

Every moment that I attend with awareness and compassion reveals its beauty. The challenge is always whether I can pay attention. With my dedicated daily meditation practice, I find that often I can. When I don’t pay attention to this moment, it can sound like a cacophony. But when I listen with spacious awareness and compassion, the beauty is revealed.

With that definition of peace, there is peace possible in every moment. It is not the peace of the dead or the dreamless sleep. It is the peace of life being lived in concert.

Resolve

 

resolveResolve. I like that word. The wordsmith in me likes the sound of it better than ‘intention’ where the ‘tin’ rings a little hollow at times. ‘Resolve’ sounds deeper. It resounds in the body. It feels like a powerful river carving stone. Resolve.

If resolve feels more powerful for you than intention, practice using it when you set a course and see if it empowers you to follow it. If you prefer intention, stick with that. We all find what works best for our own practice. But for now, I will use ‘Resolve’ and we’ll see where it takes us.

Resolve is affiliated with the word ‘resolution’. Is that a powerful word? Or is it one we don’t take that seriously after so many failed New Year’s resolutions? One student in class said she thought of resolution as a problem that has been resolved, another way to use the word. That way of using it helps us to understand a key point about Resolve: Until all our inner voices come to some kind of resolution — have negotiated a sustainable agreement — we can’t effectively move forward on our course. Instead we get stuck in a quagmire of conflicting thoughts.

Sound familiar? We all have a bit of an internal cacophony. It’s not multiple personalities; just a lot of unexamined thought patterns that hold competing and conflicting opinions. Until we become fully aware of them, they hold the invisible reins to our behaviors, often sabotaging our best intentions without us knowing why. We end up frustrated that we don’t seem to get anywhere and feel so ‘weak-willed’. But will is not the problem. Our not taking the time to investigate who’s in charge here is the real challenge we all face.

One way to ‘out’ these conflicting rein-holders is to purposely set the trap of a little resolution or intention: something simple but for some reason difficult to carry out, like ‘clean out the closet’. Then wholeheartedly endeavor to do it. Maybe the closet gets cleaned out. (Yay! Now choose another more challenging resolution.) Or maybe the closet is still full of stuff that falls on you when you open the door. Or you got started but got tired or distracted and all the stuff just ends up in a pile elsewhere. Maybe half the closet gets done. Maybe you never get to the closet because life gets in the way. But during the process of having set this resolution, you come to the real purpose of this exercise: To activate and pay attention to the conflicting thoughts and emotions you have about whatever intention you have set.

Once you notice a thought that conflicts with your intention, this is an opportunity to have a dialog. I suggest journaling or maybe even recording the dialog. Most important in this process is to keep the dialog friendly, curious, respectful and compassionate. It needs to be a dialog between the sabotaging aspect of self and your deepest wisdom. If it’s a dialog between two aspects of self, it will escalate into a shooting match, a tantrum or a shut down. If your deepest wisdom interviews the aspect that’s being troublesome, the exchange will be valuable and potentially transformative. Inner wisdom is not trying to destroy or get rid of any part of ourselves or our experience. Nor is it trying to protect, defend, justify or coddle that aspect. It simply wants to investigate in a loving way what that aspects deepest fear is, what motivates it to sabotage us, and what could make it feel better without sabotaging well being.

Some skillful negotiation can be useful here. I once got my inner aspect I’d nicknamed Slug to go to a yoga class because I found a teacher who during the last period of savasana pose came around to each student and covered her with a blanket and tucked her in. In my interview with Slug I had discovered that he loved to hang out in bed because it reminded him of a big mommy hug and he missed his mommy. My mother had died the year before. So I found a motherly woman who made yoga possible for Slug. And it worked. After a while Slug no longer needed to be tucked in and I joined an aerobic exercise class as well.

So it really does work! But we need to identify the aspect, give it an affectionate but identifiable nickname, and find out what it’s afraid of, what it thinks it’s protecting us from, what it wants and how we could perhaps make use of its energy rather than be ruled by it.

In attempting to live up to a resolution, we may expose the mixed messages we are getting from our inner aspects. I found one the other day. I noticed that I give myself a hard time if I spend money (‘OMG, this month’s credit card bill is huge!’) and I give myself a hard time if I don’t! (‘Why didn’t I give more to that charity?’ ‘Why didn’t I splurge more on my child, grandchild or friend?’) I can’t seem to win in regard to money. So what is the answer for me? Perhaps I could spend more time exploring the First Paramita of ‘Generosity’. And part of that exploration could be an investigation of these two warring factions within me. Hmm, what shall I name them? Stingy and Benny (for beneficent)? After a meditation session, I’ll interview them and see how it goes. That’s my current challenge. Pause for a moment to see if you can notice yours.

Resolve is cultivated through our meditation practice. It arises out of our deepening understanding of the nature of things. As we begin to see more clearly, we can resolve to, for example, practice meditation every day, in a way that acknowledges its true value in our lives and in the way we interact with the world.

JUST TWO INTENTIONS

For the past five years or so I have been conducting an experiment by setting just two intentions: To be present and to be compassionate with myself and others. I wanted to see how just those two might work out. I’ve found that they do seem to be sufficient. If I find myself in a muddle, I reset the intention to be present, which creates inner spaciousness, calm and clarity. If things don’t clear up, then some compassion helps to remind me to take some needed rest.

If I find myself judging either myself or someone else, my intention of compassion softens the harsh edges and reminds me how we are all in this together, how each of us, including myself is doing the best we can. Compassion also helps me to maintain my health. ‘As a kindness to my heart’ a cardiologist once told me I could lose some weight. That spoke to me in a way none of my inner dictates and rude name-calling had done, because it was attune to my intention to be compassionate. And my intention to be present helps me to really taste what I am eating and enjoy it rather than wolf it down, and to notice when I am satisfied and when I am just eating mindlessly. This has always been a challenging area for me, but I am more present more of the time.

You might try using those two intentions yourself. Resolve to be present. Resolve to be compassionate with yourself and others, especially when you realize you haven’t been present at all, or you see that the other person is just not present but lost in their thoughts. See how setting these two intentions affects your daily life. I would love to hear about your experience.

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?

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Wise Intention to the rescue!

Intention plays such an important role in our lives but so often we are completely unaware of what our intentions are in any particular endeavor.

If we look again at the Eightfold Path cooking pot analogy, we can see that Wise Intention is the flame that lights the fire that cooks the pot that creates the steam. Without that flame of intention, there will be no cooking tonight!

In all activity and non-activity we have motivations — thoughts that provoke us, inspire us or give us an excuse to do something unskillful. These instigators are clearly not always wise, and the least wise aspect of them is that they are running around directing the show without our being conscious of them!

It’s easy to understand why Wise Intention is first and foremost to be aware, mindful, present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the first of our paired intentions when we begin to meditate.

The second is to be kind. This kindness is not a thin layer of niceness but a deeply rooted and infinite well-wishing for all beings. You can’t fake this! But it does arise quite naturally through meditation. It even arises just when we slow down a bit in our lives.

Ever notice how when you’ve given yourself plenty of time to do your shopping, you have a pleasant time, get along with fellow shoppers and sales clerks, and you aren’t bothered by anything? When we try to do too much in too little time, our motivation is neither to be present or kind but to be outtahere as fast as possible, and we can be ruthless in our mindless rush. The funny thing is that we are much more effective when we slow down and make time for enjoying being present. We make better decisions and fewer mistakes. We don’t have to go back to the store later for the thing we in haste forgot. We don’t have to appear in court or traffic school because of the speeding ticket we got. Slowing down and being present creates kindness, and it also creates more time!

When we talk about intention, you might remember that we looked at it in the Five Aggregates. It is one aspect of Volition, which also includes urges and impulses.

Intention is purposeful. But not all intention is mindful or kind, so we benefit by looking at our intentions in any given situation. You might think of a situation in your life where you feel you keep trying but never get anywhere. Perhaps you feel stuck in a motivational quagmire. You set a goal but never get there. When you slow down and pay attention to the motivations you try to inspire yourself with, you might find that these intentions aren’t sufficiently powerful. They are not rooted deeply enough to be truly inspiring.

Here’s an example:

“I had been gaining weight and knew it would be good to lose that weight, but it was difficult to find a compelling motivation. The strongest I had was that I wanted to fit in the clothes I had and not have to go out and buy the next size up. I also didn’t want people to think ill of me, that I had no will power. But I could also feel some motivations that kept me from losing weight: I knew people who got cancer and lost a lot of weight and it seemed like a good idea to have extra weight to lose. I was afraid that maybe if I lost weight I’d draw attention from unwanted sources. I’m a grandmother and my image of a good grandma is well-padded. And I had the feeling that I would look back and regret not having indulged myself while I had the chance to really enjoy treats I like. 

“But then I had a little medical scare and ended up in the cardiology ward of my hospital. Everything turned out to be fine, but the cardiologist told me I should lose some weight because that would be kind to my heart. 

“Kindness to my heart felt like one of my intentions in meditation. And the doctor’s words filled me with a strong sense of kind intention. I had never thought of being kind to my heart before, but now I saw the sense in it. 

“Then I realized that the other intention — to be present in the moment, anchored in physical sensation — is often lacking from my mindless grazing activity. I set these two intentions and feel much more solid in my plan to lose weight. As if I’d been wading around in a quagmire of confusing emotions and now had found a solid rock of Wise Intention to stand upon.”

You can see from this example that we make many unskillful choices in a mindless way, and this mindlessness can become an unkindness, sometimes even a cruelty, to ourselves or to others. We don’t realize it because we are mindless! With Wise Intention we set the stage to apply Wise Effort that is sustainable, and to see more clearly, helping us develop Wise View.

We look at the feelings we are experiencing and see that they are centered around a particular situation, problem, challenge or concern. We look to see if the cause of our suffering is the unskillful actions or words of ourselves or others.

When you look at an area where you struggle with motivation, perhaps you can see unskillful motivations that sabotage your intention. Perhaps all these conflicting motivations feel like a bit of a quagmire, dragging you down in the mud of muddled thinking.

Now look at where there might be an unkindness or even a cruelty involved that you may not have even considered before.

Reframe your intention in the form of our paired intentions at the beginning of meditation: To be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation so that you are aware of what is happening and not getting lost in the quagmire; and to kind to yourself and to others. Because often our unskillful actions cause harm to others and in our mindlessness we conveniently ignore noticing how that happens.

If there isn’t any specific challenge you are dealing with and you don’t feel there is any area in which you struggle in the quagmire of conflicting motivation, that’s great. But even so you can notice the motivation at the core of any situation or interaction. You can see if things turned sour at some point, and ask, ‘Okay, what was my intention in that interaction?’

Most of us do not examine our intentions.
If we did we might discover that our intention is to shore up our belief in a separate self and to deny the nature of impermanence.

Remember that formula of how dukkha (suffering) is created?
Denial of annica (impermanence) and annata (no separate self) creates dukkha.
When we hold on tight to the belief that we can somehow keep the world from turning, we suffer.
When we hold on tight to the belief that we are defined by this body-mind as a unique disconnected isolated separate self that needs to be puffed up, shored up, pointed out, admired, singled out, awarded, etc. rather than an intrinsic part of the ongoing and ever-changing whirl of life that thrives on the joy of that sense of connection, then we suffer.

Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Prove
On a long silent retreat a few years back, I realized that I had nothing to fear, nothing to hide and nothing to prove. This was a deeply liberating insight for me. I made note of it and pinned it up on my bulletin board at home, and it’s a phrase I have turned to again and again. When we have these insights, these understandings, it is like we’ve given ourselves the key to unlock our patterns of suffering. Again and again, when my mind would be gnawing away at some personal dilemma, just repeating those words would once again free me.

So let’s look at the intentions we hold at times when we believe we have something to fear, something to hide and something to prove.

Believing we have something to fear is seeing the world as separate from us, a dangerous foreign place where there is no room for trust. Our intention is to protect our separate-seeming self, to hold back, to feel in control, to not reach out to others, to be cautious and wait for them to reveal their intentions first.

What happens when we act on that intention? Even if we think we are holding back, we are always putting out a certain quality of energy that is felt, so others read that resistance and react with caution or perhaps even aggression. By believing the world is an unsafe place, we make it unsafe for us..We put ourselves in the role of victim and those around us pick up on and possibly act on that.

Believing we have something to hide is seeing ourselves as separate and uniquely flawed, as if everyone else is somehow perfect, very different from us. We feel shame about the most universal experiences. We somehow believe we are unique in this, that everyone around us is as put-together as they appear when we see them walking about. We can’t imagine that they too have the same struggles and imperfections. We do ourselves such a disservice with this false belief.

What happens when we act on that intention to hide, protecting our natural beingness from view? We withdraw and don’t connect with others. It took me a long time to realize that it is in our very imperfections that we find connections with others. When we acknowledge our flaws, people relate, and in that moment there is warmth and interaction. When we are so perfectly polished, others believe us to be totally self-sufficient without any need of them, and that polished surface reflects back only judgments about them.

So by hiding our failings, we cut off connection. By being open (not over-sharing personal information, but just being the vulnerable beings we are) there is an ease and simple joy in being alive, all in this messy thing called life together.

Believing we have something to prove is also seeing ourselves as separate and in need of shoring up, to be ‘special’ in some way that will be admired and accepted.
What happens when we act on that intention? First, it’s a lot of work so we are exhausted from all that ambition! By having something to prove we set up a competitive rather than collaborative relationship with others. We cut ourselves off from true connection and joy. The comparing mind is very demanding and mostly miserable. Even accomplishments and accolades are difficult to celebrate, because there is such a sense of not-enough-ness.

So when we are stuck in a difficult situation and find ourselves struggling, we can pause in our struggles to look first at our intention. We can ask:
  • What am I afraid of?
  • What am I trying to hide?
  • What am I trying to prove?


The answers to these questions will remind us that we are delusional to rail against the impermanence of life and to hold on doggedly to the belief that there is any separate self that needs shoring up. This exploration opens us to the very real possibility that we have nothing to fear, nothing to hide, and nothing to prove.

There is a last part of the insight I had on that retreat, and it is: I have something to give.

We each have something to give. All life does. There is no expression of the life force that isn’t there to offer something. This recognition acknowledges the oneness of being, our intrinsic connection with all life, that every leaf on every plant has a role to play and so do each of us. This frees us to grow, explore and discover the nature of what we have to offer. We don’t have to struggle with it; we simply allow it to come forth in as natural a way as possible.

That recognition that we each have something to give allows our intention to be more wholesome, without the distortions of misunderstanding the nature of things that cause us to suffer.

Recently my beloved aunt told me that she and her boyfriend, both blind and feeling their advanced age, recognize that they are not just taking up space in life, that when they are just sitting there they often find they are listening to other people tell them their stories. This simple act of being present and listening is a form of giving, a generosity of time and attention. Perhaps it’s not the only giving we do, but it is a big part of it. If we are bringing our full attention to this moment, whatever this moment holds, and we are holding whatever is going on in kindness, then we are giving!

It is important to look at the motley assortment of motivations that drive us, acknowledge them as very human but essentially destructive, and to come home to the intentions to be present in this moment with whatever is going on, and to be kind to ourselves and others.

This is Wise Intention.