Happy Arbitrary New Year!

winter-solstice-pegs-500Just ten days after the winter solstice — which few people even notice let alone celebrate — everyone around the world celebrates this totally arbitrary change from one year to the next. On the solstice, we have a brief celebration at the neighbors, watching the sun set and making a toast. Beyond that, to make things even more clear, they created a series of holes in the stone railing of their west facing balcony, where on the solstices and equinoxes they set metal stakes that register the shadows cast by the setting sun. One stake aligns with each of the three others in turn, the furthest left on the winter solstice, the furthest right on the summer solstice, and the middle one on both the equinoxes.

And on each of those occasions, without variance, the shadows of the stakes align. It is so comforting, especially in these very topsy-turvy feeling times, to see that solid recurring natural phenomenon. The earth is still circling around the sun just as it has been doing for a really long time, and likely will continue to do, no matter what we humans get ourselves up to. The reality of that is like solid ground to stand on.

What is real about New Year? It is based not on some physical reality but on a mutual agreement. Since there are multiple ways that we measure the years passing on multiple dates (Jewish New Year, Chinese New Year, etc.) it’s not even really a total agreement. But for the convenience of global commerce, January 1, 2018 is the official new year. I have no problem with this! In fact, I relish a global community and appreciate all that makes it possible. But it seems important to remember that a mutual agreement is not a physical reality. The calendar we rely on has been changed several times in history, and theoretically could change again. So the calendar isn’t based on physical reality.

The marking of time in minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years is arbitrary, very loosely based on nature, but straying when nature isn’t sufficiently ‘orderly’. It wasn’t all that long ago that a universal clock was invented for trains to run on time. Before that each community set its own time. And not long before that, mostly agrarian societies were attuned to the sun, the moon and the cows in need of milking. In tribal life and in small towns they lived in such close community, there was no need to say ‘I’ll meet you there at 4 o’clock’. They just looked around to see who was about, or they met up at sunset, the way we do with our neighbors on the solstices and equinoxes. Of course, clouds can play havoc with this system, which, combined with growing population and travel made the establishment of measured time necessary.

But even though measured time is just a mutual agreement, it feels concrete, doesn’t it? I certainly felt a great sense of satisfaction this morning when I tossed our 2017 calendar in the recycling bin!

Because the New Year feels very real, it is often a powerful time to review, release, and press the reset button on life. We are more inclined to want to establish good habits in the new year. So powerful is this belief in the ‘turning over a new leaf’ that I successfully used it to quit smoking 46 years ago. Had I not, what a very different condition I would likely be in now. So great gratitude for the power of the New Year!

Whether these New Year’s traditions are powerful for you or not, it’s still wise to distinguish between things that are agreed-upon human creations and things that are physical facts. You don’t have to be a scientist to make this distinction. The insight meditation tradition is based on questioning the veracity of what we have always accepted as true. After meditation, we have quieted the pool of our minds enough to see more clearly all our assumptions about life. Our practice of inquiry works with this increased clarity and compassion, as we come alive with questions rather than being numb to the experience of life.

But it’s important to know that not all questions are useful. In the coming weeks we will be looking at questions that leave us in a tailspin and questions that cultivate clarity. Please join me in this exploration, either in person in my Thursday morning women’s meditation class in Marin County, or by following this blog (Click on ‘Follow Stephanie’) at the top of this page.

Happy New Year! May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. May you be happy.

 

This little light of mine

Here we are in the deepest darkness of the year. Most of us have challenging relationships with darkness. Why? Our fearful thoughts and feelings are activated in the dark because we can’t see, so we don’t know what there is there. And in the quiet of the dark night our other senses are heightened. We hear things. What is that? We don’t know!! Yikes. Then our imaginations, already activated with the patterns of dream-making in the dark, can create all manner of things to be afraid of. So yes, the dark can be difficult.

But the dark is also where the riches can be found — all those hidden treasures stored away in the dark cavernous basement or the dark dusty attic of our inner world. But if we are going to explore these areas, we need a flashlight, right? Through the regular practice of meditation, that’s exactly what we are developing: the ability to shine a light in our own darkness.The ability to calm our fears and see more clearly. Our practice is illumination! We actively cultivate the light of clarity and the infinite loving light of kindness and compassion. We are well equipped to be present with whatever we find, and our discoveries will very likely be of benefit to us and in turn to all beings.

So on this longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, I wish you Happy Solstice! I attended a granddaughter’s holiday chorus and was delighted to hear her group singing ‘This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!’ That shall be my theme song for the season and beyond. Try it for yourself and feel the glow. 😉

Here is a video of my illustrated solstice poem, and below that is the poem for reading. Enjoy and share widely. You never know who among all your friends, family and acquaintances might be afraid of the dark and in need of some soulful fortification. 

Stephanie Noble

In Celebration of the Winter Solstice
a poem by Stephanie Noble

Do not be afraid of the darkness.
Dark is the rich fertile earth
that cradles the seed, nourishing growth.
Dark is the soft night that cradles us to rest.
Only in darkness
can stars shine across the vastness of space.
Only in darkness
is the moon’s dance so clear.
There is mystery woven in the dark quiet hours,
There is magic in the darkness.
Do not be afraid.
We are born of this magic.
It fills our dreams
that root, unravel and reweave themselves
in the shelter of the deep dark night.
The dark has its own hue,
its own resonance, its own breath.
It fills our soul,
not with despair, but with promise.
Dark is the gestation of our deep and knowing self.
Dark is the cave where we  rest and renew our soul.
We are born of the darkness,
and each night we return
to the deep moist womb of our beginnings.
Do not be afraid of the darkness,
for in the depth of that very darkness
comes a first glimpse of our own light,
the pure inner light of love and knowing.
As it glows and grows, the darkness recedes.
As we shed our light, we shed our fear,
and revel in the wonder of all that is revealed.
So, do not rush the coming of the sun.
Do not crave the lengthening of the day.
Celebrate the darkness.
Here and now. A time of richness. A time of joy.

– copyright 1994 Stephanie Noble

 

Befriending or battling?

Noticing how we are in relationship with whatever is arising in our current experience is an important part of our insight meditation practice. The most fertile time to do this gentle inner investigation is right after meditating when we have actively cultivated clarity and compassion.

Whatever thoughts come to mind, we can look at them — the people, the problems, the plans, the situations — and notice if we are judging, blaming, avoiding or treating them as an enemy. Are we caught up in a bitter battle or participating in a joyful dance?

Maybe what is arising is a health crisis fraught with worry, pain and self-blame. This was the case for one student in class this week. She was also frustrated that she wasn’t managing to handle it all more graciously. Graciously? Excuse me? We are not white gloved ladies trying to be well-mannered to appease our mothers. How easily we fall into patterns that don’t serve us and how challenging it can be to see them. In our practice we aspire to wise speech which is kind, truthful and timely. That is plenty challenging, but no part of the requirement is to diminish ourselves or to put on a false front for the perceived benefit of others. What is called for is more regular metta practice. With infinite loving-kindness, we hold ourselves in a truly caring way.

If this speaks to you — either as something you crave or fear — feel the full power of your innate maternal or paternal self parenting yourself with love and kindness. Even if this is not the kind of parenting you received as a child, you can do this for yourself now. This is not self-indulgent. We all need to be held in this way. We might wish someone else would provide this to us, but waiting for someone else to provide it is like diverting fresh spring water away to another source, thinking it’s more valuable when offered in a cup from the hands of another. We all have direct access to infinite loving-kindness. Practicing it on ourselves first is the only way to be truly loving to anyone else. Access the infinite, then become a conduit for it.

Another student noticed how much time she needs to spend calming herself down to deal with a whirlwind of responsibilities. Well, first, great gratitude and celebration to have developed the resources to calm herself down. May everyone everywhere have those resources. Whatever skillful things we can do to take care of ourselves in order to manage our lives are to be appreciated. Kudos for having a regular practice and the ability to notice when a little time-out self-care is needed.

 

Although this student has a uniquely complex array of details to manage in her work, all of us can relate to at least at times having to manage preparations for some upcoming event. We know exactly how heavily it all can sit on our shoulders, and how we can get caught up in living in that future time when the event is fully realized, rather than giving ourselves the gift of fully engaging in this moment. This makes us less able to do what we need to do, and more miserable about doing it.

These kinds of projects often loom large and shadowy. We expend a lot of energy procrastinating and nagging ourselves about our failure to meet the challenge. The compassion and clarity that comes from regular meditation makes simply doing what we need to do much easier. It’s suddenly clear that we just have to break the work down into incremental bits and get to it.

Finding the time to fit a project into an already busy life can be tricky. But assigning it a regular time slot in your day or week can help to formalize the process. If you have ever been on a meditation retreat, then you probably were assigned a yogi job, some small daily chore that contributes to the well-being of everyone. It might be chopping vegetables, sweeping a porch or cleaning a bathroom. It’s always a very specific task, and it’s easy enough to do in a meditative way.

I once was assigned the yogi job of scrubbing the showers in one of the dormitories at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. It was interesting to notice how day by day my attitude and thought processes around my yogi job shifted. The first day was all aversion: Ugh to the claustrophobic tiled space. Ugh to the repetitive scrubbing and bending. Second day I was more accepting of the task at hand, and decided I would be the best shower scrubber ever. Third day I realized that these were

the showers used by the retreat teachers, so I shifted from proving my worth to expressing my gratitude. Fourth day I let go of all of that. I simply sensed into the movement of my arms and body wielding the scrub brush, sponge and spray bottle. Fifth day more of the same but also the awareness of being part of a continuum of shower scrubbing yogis who had all been here and would all be here day after day, retreat after retreat, for hopefully many years to come, scrubbing earnestly, dealing with their own range of thoughts and emotions. There was a sense of community, camaraderie and a relief that it wasn’t all up to me to keep this tile shining. And there was something about that that woke me up to what it is to be alive and to participate fully in life, whatever we are doing. Can we be fully present with the work itself? Can we see our own efforts as part of a pattern of dedication and even devotion? The work we do, and especially the way we do it, can be experienced as life loving itself through us.

Whatever is arising in our current experience can be met in so many different ways. Pause and consider what challenges or struggles you are currently dealing with. How are you relating to the experience? Are you avoiding it? Making an enemy of it? Can you add compassion and clarity into the mix and see what happens? Please let me know how it goes!

 

This too shall pass.

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Hell in a hand basket?

Despair is in the air this season, coming to the end of a year full of disasters, nuclear brinkmanship and sickening revelations. It’s enough to make a meditation teacher wonder what is the point of teaching how to find personal happiness. It seems equal parts selfishness and delusion.

But then I remember that Pollyanna happiness is not what I teach. Looking on the bright side and wearing blinders is not what I teach. I teach how to be present with whatever is happening with clarity and compassion for ourselves and all beings. That’s all I teach. And it’s always in season.

Last week I had a very bad cold, the first in many years. It wiped me out physically and mentally. I felt like all the color of life had been washed out of me. There was not one creative thought, not one ounce of curiosity. I was completely drained of everything except pain. One particular pain that went on for days was especially challenging: a sinus drip on a nerve ending in my temple. Every time it hit — erratically seconds and minutes apart — my whole body would clench up. No drugs alleviated it. And the only thing that helped was the reminder of the nature of impermanence: This too shall pass.

We can trust in impermanence when the world around us seems to be spinning off kilter. This too shall pass. Lord, I hope so! In class I opened the gates of despair and gave a big permission slip for students to express their feelings. And they did. And there were tears. And you know what? It was good.

Recently I was on a poetry retreat with Kim Stafford, and once we had all written a few poems, he encouraged us to go back and find the ‘B’ story in each poem. The ‘B’ story, he explained, is the hidden truth in what we write, the part that was trained out of us because it might not be nice glossy version our parents would approve.

So this week, after meditating and sending loving kindness to ourselves and out into the world that is so in need of it, we shared our deepest concerns, sorrows, longings and fears for ourselves and the world as honestly and openly as we could.

Part of the reason we resist such looking is the fear of seeing things we can’t cope with, can’t explain, can’t talk ourselves out of. We may worry that we will get lost there, get stuck in the murky mire, succumb to depression and never return.  But when we are looking with clarity and compassion, we can sit with fear. We can embrace uncertainty. The ongoing regular practice of meditation makes this possible.

I meditate every morning and am deeply grateful for my practice. But it is when we gather and meditate together that the real solace of the practice comes. There is something so rich and sacred in the shared silence. And out of that sacredness comes the antidote for despair.

First we discover we are not alone. The group gathers, each person feeling so isolated, stressed out and exhausted. And then, somehow, after ninety minutes together of sitting in silence and then exploring the dharma, we come away feeling refreshed, renewed and awakened.

Meditation lightens us to an awareness of the infinite nature of being. There is no way to explain what happens, but it feels to me like we relax into the flow of the ongoing dance of energy transforming into and out of matter. It’s a joyous dance of welcoming and letting go all that arises as we release into the continuum of being. Oh life! What a miracle! Wacky and wondrous and woeful, all at once.

With this expansive view, we see that, as bad as current times seem, history is full of parallel examples, that life is like this. We see through the lie of our nostalgia, that somehow we were all better, more noble, more exemplary in some long past day. In fact quite the reverse might be true in many cases, but we don’t need to compare. We can just remind ourselves that there is a tendency for the rear view mirror to be rose-colored.

Our tendency toward current events is to focus on negative news. The life we see is the result of the choices we make of what to pay attention to. We who are alive today have the capacity to be ultra-informed about every horror in every part of the world by an information industry playing on our inbred negativity bias ready and willing to scare us to death. If we are looking clearly we can also see that the distressing events are met by heroic and touching actions. We can see that horror, humor and honor all are represented. Yes, this awfulness exists. But so does this beauty, this communion of being, this sweetness, this enlightened awakening of deep appreciation of being here in this moment to experience whatever is arising.

It’s useful to remember that our ancestors had many challenges, hardships and losses, but they also had long periods of quiet and a deep interaction with the rest of nature. This is why meditation feels like a homecoming — it is a natural and necessary part of our experience.

Human evolution is not so quick as technological revolution, so here we are, ill-equipped to cope with all that confronts us moment to moment in our various devices. We are wise to give ourselves permission to turn them off, to step away, to reconnect with nature and with the natural eye-to-eye contact with our fellow beings. And even when we are using these devices, can we be sure to balance our exposure? Can we find a video of a flash mob Handel’s Messiah in a mall food court? And baby animals doing adorable things? This too is our world. Aw and awe!

When we give ourselves this permission, we find more balance in our lives. It is not turning a blind eye to suffering, just acknowledging the truth of our situation as one of 7.6 billion people in the world and it’s not all up to us in every minute so solve every problem. If we give ourselves the gift of clarity and compassion through regular meditation practice, and especially gathering to practice together, we are rendered more alive, more ready to spread the joy of the season, all year long.

Gratitude is Timeless!

I hope you enjoyed your Thanksgiving, however you spent it, whatever you are grateful for. I am grateful for you, long time readers and those who have just come upon this site. Also for the opportunity to be of use with my teaching and writing.

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Our walking meditation garden in November

 

Yesterday I had a fun conversation with my great-niece, a high school math teacher, and now we are working together to formulate a suitable mini-meditation at the beginning of her classes to help her students focus and overcome math anxiety. The more meditation is accepted in our culture, the more it benefits everyone. I am grateful to be a part of the process of sharing this simple rich practice.

At Thanksgiving dinner I was talking with my daughter-in-law’s aunt who when asked what she’s been up to told me she was being lazy, just having fun with friends. And I said that’s not lazy! Research is showing that socializing is high up in importance for overall health. And anyway, one of her weekly social activities is hiking. Lazy indeed! How hard we can be on ourselves with these labels. What labels do you have for yourself that you might look at anew, question and liberate?

There are many posts on gratitude on this site. If you are interested, search ‘gratitude’ in the field in the right-hand column and see all that comes up. I did, and here’s a link to one from 2008 that is just as true today as it was nine years ago. Check it out!

 

Celebrate the Harvest!

cornucopia.jpgThe old saying ‘you reap what you sow’ means that with every word and action in our lives, we are planting seeds that will grow. Are they seeds of kindness? Seeds of compassion? Seeds of wisdom? If you find that you are striving and you spend a lot of time judging, comparing and scolding yourself, you might ask yourself why you are planting such a thorny and poisonous garden?

But if in your meditation practice you have been making wise effort with wise intention, then pause to look around and enjoy the bounty! See if there is something blooming in your life that wasn’t there before. See if there is something growing within you that you hadn’t appreciated before.

The first blossoms of practice are insights, both ones you hear that resonate and inspire you, and ones you have in your own experience that stay with you and nourish you at the very core of your being. (These happen spontaneously, at any time during your normal day when you have a regular meditation practice. The simplest noticing might bring an insight perfectly tailored by your own inner wisdom to be of value to you.)

In class I passed out small pieces of paper and gave the students some time after meditation to write down what they noticed as the fruits of their practice. Afterwards they shared to whatever degree they wanted. One found that she no longer reacted in an ‘eye for an eye’ way when her feelings had been hurt. She could so clearly see now that the hurtful words of a friend came from a place of pain and fear, and nothing was helped by exacerbating it.

Another student said she noticed a greater sense of ease, an ability to establish boundaries and a growing self-confidence. Another noted a greater sense of balance. One noticed that her to do list wasn’t so aggravating, that the word ‘should’ was fading from her vocabulary. Everyone noticed something. In fact they all wrote for quite a while.

After their sharing, I read what I had written when preparing my dharma talk, and it mirrored exactly what the students had found for themselves: ‘The fruit of the practice is greater ease, a lightening of being, a sense of balance, a sense of clarity and a growing access to inner wisdom that guides you to make wise choices.’

Having just been on a retreat, I noted that I felt lighter, like a butterfly alighting on this flower of life, not plotting to get to the next bigger brighter flower but simply living fully in this moment with great appreciation but not attachment, knowing as a butterfly knows, to just keep doing what I’m doing.

I suggested the students fold their little papers up and put them in their wallets for review in moments of doubt. And I suggest to you that you do the same. Who doesn’t at times have moments of doubt? Who couldn’t use a little encouragement, a little reminder in your own words that the practice is working?

This becomes particularly valuable when we falter in our practice. It is so easy to let the demands of daily life take precedence. Women can be particularly prone to giving our time away. Yet on closer examination, how rare it is in life that we actually are required to give up the exact time of our practice, or our weekly meditation class. Say, for example, we call to make an appointment for a medical checkup, and the first appointment time mentioned conflicts with our practice or class. Do we just take it instead of asking for another time? For some reason, the way we were raised perhaps, we are susceptible to not claiming what is of value to our own well being. What we forget is that our practice is of benefit not just to ourselves but to everyone around us. Sure, on rare occasions there are emergencies, but even then the daily practice can be postponed instead of cancelled.

Notice for yourself if this willingness to give up what is of deep value is a tendency of yours.

Daily practice is like the sun, the rain and the rich soil that makes it possible to grow. We can’t really expect much wisdom to arise if we haven’t planted ourselves in our practice, if we just practice on random occasions and hope for the best. If you want to practice but find it difficult to fit into your schedule, I am happy to work with you. You might be surprised how naturally practice can be incorporated into a busy life.

Once we have a practice in place, the rest takes care of itself. We are actually saving time because we can put away all the invasive tools we are in the habit of using: harsh views about our self worth, doubts about what we are doing, doubts as to whether anything beneficial will come from this, comparing ourselves to others who seem to be wiser or happier.

The blossoms of insight and awareness reveal and release old habits of mind: the words that we torment ourselves with like ‘should’, ‘ought’ and ‘must’, for example. We see them as left over from some past way of seeing. We let them go to whatever degree we are able, gently as if they are dried up leaves that drift away on the breeze.

This is the season of the harvest. If you have been regularly practicing meditation, then pause to appreciate the bounty of your practice.

Trying to capture an experience is not the experience itself

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The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

I recently had the good fortune to stand in front of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting ‘The Starry Night’ while visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was an ordinary fall weekday but there were at least a dozen people standing in front of this one painting. I could deal with that. But almost everyone but my husband and me had their phones held above their heads to take pictures of the painting. This is quite different from standing with a group simply admiring the work in quiet shared appreciation. We couldn’t even see the artwork through the sea of cellphones.

Why were they taking photos anyway? There are thousands of photos of this famous painting readily available on the internet, including this one, so I’m not sure what they gained.

But I do know what they missed. They missed the opportunity to be fully present with the painting itself, up close and personal, not through a lens trying to frame it. They missed the chance to simply gaze and allow their eyes to travel around it, to appreciate each element, to notice details of color, texture, imagery, contrast and other choices the artist made. They missed the chance to really open to the gift of seeing close up those swirly brushstrokes (something no camera can replicate), to allow themselves to be immersed in the experience of its creation, to let go and enter a world not of their own making. A painting has the capacity to move us, but only if we are present to experience it.

This is not a complaint or a request for museum etiquette, as much as it may sound like one. It was for me, and perhaps for you, a dharma lesson. Because it’s an example of how we miss living fully in the moment when we try to ‘capture’ it for later enjoyment. We can’t capture a moment. A moment is fleeting. And we can’t relive an experience, especially one we weren’t present enough to fully live in the first place

What is it to be fully in the moment? I encourage you right now to pause and look around you. Let all your senses fully explore this moment. Notice patterns, the interplay of light and shadow, color. Go beyond making a mental note of objects you can name. Notice their shapes and the arrangement of them in space.

Now use your hands to rub and touch the texture of things within your reach. Feel the inside of your mouth, the slippery sliding, the wet warmth.

Then listen, hear whatever there is to hear in this moment. And whatever else you notice in this moment, without getting caught up in a lot of thoughts about it.

For me, right now as I’m writing this, there is the sound of footsteps on the stairs, the clearing of a throat, the sound of the dishwasher — ordinary. Yet held in an open embrace, life being lived and loved, just as it is.

Can you be that present all the time? Probably not, and that’s okay, but what a wondrous thing to aspire to. Can you see how when we try to re-live memories of ‘special’ moments it dishonors this very moment. Everything in the whole universe fell into place in a particular way to bring this moment into being. Let’s have some appreciation for this, just this, just as it is.

Another lesson from this same experience of standing in the crowd in front of that painting: A few of the phone-photographers actually turned their back on the painting to take a selfie — ‘me and Vinnie, we be buds’ —  for sharing on social media. This is a perfect example of how we try to shore up our identity, fearfully putting together and promoting the self as an object to be admired, respected, loved and seen. Great compassion to that suffering being who fails to feel how supported and appreciated they are by the whole universe. How the whole universe came together to create them, just as they are.

Buddha discovered for himself and shared how there is no separate self. Sure, we function in this life as if we are separate — just as a drop of water flying over a wave seems separate, but it’s not. And we’re not. We are literally all stardust. Each body-mind is a unique but inseparable manifestation of life loving itself. Life is a complex system of ever-changing patterns of being, arising and falling away, forming and dissolving. There is nothing to prove on social media. There is no reason to feel isolated. We are all of us in this together.

So can we put down that phone and simply enjoy what is present in this moment? Ah. Welcome home.