Amidst all the conflicts going on — the mental illness that leads to massacre, the fear that leads to hate, the anger that leads to violence, the centuries old ill will between whole groups of peoples, the bristling at even listening to the views of the ‘other side’ — how are we to find even a smidgen of happiness? And is that even something we should care about at times like these? Are we like small children crying for lack of something fun to do when the whole house is burning down around us?
After a difficult night’s sleep, this morning I woke to just that sense of despair. So much sorrow, so much injustice, so much hopelessness in the world. And I felt disdain for my feeble attempts at personal happiness when the world is crumbling around me.
But then I remembered.
I remembered that I can’t help anyone else if I am drowning. So it’s not just okay but imperative that I be sure I keep my head above water, able to breathe.
Ah the breath. Yes. I come back to the breath, just noticing, but also appreciating that it is still there, still breathing me, that it is my greatest support. Gratitude arises. Appreciation. Deeper noticing. I find my footing. I feel grounded. I’m not drowning in despair.
Just like that, I land fully in this experience of life. This here right now is all I have to work with for whatever I want or need to do. This moment, this breath, this sense of connection: This is my personal point of power. I am anchored by the breath the way a tree is anchored by its roots — supported in all the ways it grows. I grow where I am planted, branching out in all directions, responding with the wisest intention and wisest effort I can manifest to the ever-changing causes and conditions of life.
In what other ways can I learn from the trees? Just like the tree, sometimes our greatest offerings are hard for us to see. Does the tree know that it offers a way for the squirrels and birds to navigate, feel safe and nest? Does it know it provides shade for the weary wanderer to rest?
What do each of us offer the world around us that we aren’t even aware of providing?
My brother John and me under a tree
I think about that in relationship to my brother this week in particular, as the days lead up to his life celebration and I will briefly speak about him. What will I say? How will I say it? What will help those gathered? What is better left unsaid? We are all so tender in our own grief. But we also need each other at this difficult time of shared loss.
The moon is getting so full, and my heart with it. The clear night bright light keeps me awake. But in my sleeplessness, trying to wend my way back into dreams, I find myself instead re-inhabiting those last difficult days of his life, and how helpless I felt to save him as he slipped away before our eyes. I think about what I might have done differently, but nothing would have made a difference in the outcome. And I think about his life, what a difference he made every day in the lives of those who knew him. Like most of us, his life at times took dead end roads and contained some actions with painful consequences. Yet he died surrounded by loving family and life-long friends who have gone on to create beautiful memorials for him. He touched so many lives in so many wonderful ways, just by being his kind funny generous self.
They say there are no failures, but that’s not true. There’s the failure to understand our own intrinsic value and the value of every being we encounter in our lives. We can take lessons from the trees. We can stay present, stay rooted, keep growing, keep providing for ourselves and others whatever it is in our nature to offer when we release our fear and rest in awareness and compassion.
Swinging Limb for my brother John Culler, 1942 – 2017
Out beyond the field that edged our neighborhood: A tree we kids called Swinging Limb. Upon it we would climb to laze the summer days away, at rest in its dip and rise.
— Stephanie Noble
In the last blog post we looked at how we can be imprisoned by our preferences. I suggested we notice during the week any preferences arising and what effect they had. In class we had an interesting discussion about our various findings. I have heard from some readers that this was a valuable topic for them. Maybe for you as well?
Let me confess right up front that, despite my intentions, I didn’t give up any of my preferences, my little darlings. The very idea!
But I did pay attention. When a leaf blower started making its noise when I was reading outside one day, I noticed my habitual reactivity…irritation, muscle tightening, asking why now?, etc. Then I challenged myself to simply allow that sound to be a presence. This exercise did not make me pro-leaf-blowers, but it did let me see how allowing my preferences to dictate my happiness is my choice, that it is my reactivity that makes me suffer.
I found it much easier to notice other people’s preferences rather than my own. Of course! (And that’s a perfectly valid place to start in any kind of inner investigation as long as we do it with kindness and the understanding that we have our foibles too.) I saw many examples of misery by preference:
One evening this week I was sitting on the deck of a friend’s house, savoring the lingering warmth of early autumn, surrounded by redwoods and enjoying the conversation of old friends. Then at the sound of a few crows cawing, the hostess, who is one of the most loving and thoughtful people I know, said she wished she had a gun! Goodness! She also has a sense of humor, but I wasn’t absolutely sure she wasn’t serious. Among the assembled there were those of us who loved crows and those who hated them. There seems no neutral ground when it comes to crows. I love them, especially the spectacle of them filling the vast sky at dusk. But I have many friends who are bothered by them, especially first thing in the morning when they can set up quite a cackle fest. I might feel differently about crows if they woke me out of a delicious dream. And I admit there’s a red squirrel who one summer totally decimated our Japanese maple. If that varmint shows up again, there’s no telling what my preferences might cause me to do!
I noticed how our own preferences can affect others. I was standing in line at the fabric store with my husband and little granddaughter, having her choices of gloriously tacky gold lame and pink with sparkly hearts fabrics cut so we could add a few more items to the dress up box. The employee was cheery, chatting with us as she cut. Then the woman behind us asked if they could get another cutter to come up. Not an unreasonable request. She was in a hurry, she had other things on her to do list. I could understand that. But at the same time, the air of happy collaboration on making a little girl’s imaginative play come true shifted to the employee feeling hurried and somehow failing in her job, even though she had been cutting right along; and my feeling we were somehow in this woman’s way with our few ribbons and fabrics. Even though it was indeed a reasonable request, it still sucked some of the air out of the room.
Living our lives as we do, most of us spend a lot of time in lines, and our preferences are easily apparent there. Some of us spend a lot of time online in order to avoid standing in line. But there’s such an opportunity for awareness practice in line. Can we be present? Can we take the opportunity to be kind, to send a little metta, to notice what is pleasant in this moment? Must everything have a driven quality of just wanting to get things done, so we can…what? What is it at the end of the day of errands and chores and whatever else that we are rushing to get to so we can be present?
If we’re not practicing being present in all situations, regardless of our preferences, we won’t be present at the moment we’ve been waiting for. Being present is an ongoing practice.
In class, one student said that she always tries to give herself more than enough time to get places so that she can relax and enjoy the ride. It was a preference that she noted. That’s a preference rooted in Wise Intention. We all have many preferences rooted in Wise Intention. Noticing our preferences helps us to distinguish between those and the ones that sabotage, undermine and deaden us to life.
Another student said that she found resistance to exploring her preferences during the week, and some confusion between preference and choice. I suggested that we have a choice in particular situations, but our preferences are underlying habituated patterns of thought that strongly influence what choices we make. So we might say, ‘I prefer seafood, so if there’s shrimp on the menu, I’ll choose that.’
One day this week I was walking out of an air-conditioned classroom with a fellow poetry student who said that she didn’t like heat. It felt pleasantly warm outside to me. She added that she was an autumn and winter person. That’s an example of suffering by preference. It illustrates how we take it to the next step of defining ourselves by our preferences. In her case, she was ‘dooming’ herself to feeling out of sorts half the year — so half of her life.
A friend who follows the blog said she particularly appreciated the post on preferences because it’s been something she has been thinking about a lot since she read about a woman who was traveling and stayed someplace with no hot water. She was avoiding bathing because she had a strong preference for hot water, as most of us do. But after a few days she noted how her preference was causing discomfort of another sort. So she took a cold shower and much to her surprise discovered it was refreshing.
We can surprise ourselves by challenging our preferences. It’s easier to do when traveling, when we are often confronted with new and different situations. I will be traveling in a few weeks and I will take this challenge up with renewed vigor then, especially that preference for sleeping in my own bed.
The class was full of good noticing, and I hope if you have been following the blog, that you took on the challenge and had some aha moments about your preferences, or those of other people. I’d love to hear about them. Just click on ‘reply’ above this post and let me know. (If you’ve never commented before, there’s a one-time request to register. This is simply to avoid trolls and spam.)
Just as a reminder, these kinds of explorations are not done with instruments of torture or combat. They are done with respectful tenderness. If you find that you are being hypercritical of yourself for anything you’ve noticed, see if you can be kinder. Not indulgent, but kind, like a parent caring for their child. We parent ourselves in this way, and we grow in the process.
In the last few posts of my dharma talks we have been looking at the Brahma-viharas, spacious mind-states where we can dwell in loving-kindness, compassion and happiness for others. Now we look at the fourth of these mind states: Equanimity.
Equanimity is the ability to hold all that arises in an open embrace. It is the last of the four mind states because it naturally arises out of the continued practice of loving-kindness, compassion and happiness for others.
We have all had moments of equanimity when, for no particular reason, we feel relaxed, joyful, and in sync with life. At such moments we don’t feel victim to the whims of circumstance. We handle things that come up with an ease that surprises us. We are able to see how ‘this too shall pass’ and that a comment we might otherwise have taken as a slight isn’t really about us. We find we can be present and enjoy all that is arising, without muckraking up past offenses and future fears. Thus we don’t make mountains out of molehills. It’s as if gravity has become lighter so what we had been carrying as a burden is now a transparent bubble, and sometimes even a gift.
What if equanimity could be our natural state, even when things are not going well and we are faced with major losses and difficulties? It can be! Just by continuing our regular practice of meditation, we are cultivating equanimity. At first it comes upon us seemingly at random for brief periods. Maybe we get caught up in liking it so much that we begin to grasp at it, cling to it and strive for it. Then we lose it. Frustrating! But as we get the hang of being present with all that arises in our experience, as we practice sending metta (infinite loving-kindness to ourselves and out to all beings), equanimity becomes a more natural state.
That may sound good, or maybe too good to be true, and there may be some resistance to the idea. We may believe that we are locked into our habitual ways of reacting to life, unskillful as they may be. We may even be attached to ‘our ways’, thinking that they define us, make us distinctively who we are. This is something to notice. We can hold these thoughts in a more spacious way, respectfully questioning their veracity: ‘Is this true?’ ‘How do I know this is true?’ The thoughts may hang in there, but they will hold less power to throw us out of kilter or sabotage our wise intentions.
In the practice of mindfulness, we develop skillful ways to be in relationship with all that arises in our field of experience. We are not finding fault with our habitual reactivity or trying to ‘fix’ ourselves. Nothing is broken here. Nothing is lacking. Nothing has to be discarded or destroyed. We are simply learning how to exercise a muscle that has always been here, just under-used.
In the process of regularly flexing our muscles of awareness and compassion, we have insights that expand our understanding and our capacity for equanimity.
These insights generally fall in one of three categories:
Recognizing the nature of impermanence. This is not just accepting that everything changes, but actually realizing that there would be no life at all without impermanence. Neither death nor birth, neither decay nor growth. We see how all of the patterns and processes of life are in a constant state of coming together and dissolving and reforming. Just the way clouds in the sky were quite recently mist rising from the sea and before that the sea itself and before that the rain and before that cloud. The cycle of life is revealed in every aspect of being when we pause to pay attention.
Recognizing that, even though for practical purposes we live our lives as if we are separate beings, taking responsibility for this body-mind and all its interactions; in truth we are not separate at all! We are made up of the same stuff as the earth and stars. We are interconnected on the deepest level to all beings, in the past, present and future, in a continuous flux and flow. We are in this moment like a water drop leaping in the air over a cascade, experiencing a life that feels independent, but is in fact a fully integrated part of all being.
And finally, recognizing that when we resist these first two understandings, we make ourselves (and often those around us) miserable. Out of fear of things changing, out of fear of being isolated, we engage in unskillful grasping/clinging to whatever gives us pleasure and pushing away anything that doesn’t please us, we suffer. This is not the simple pain of living life in a body. It is suffering that we actively create again and again through our own unwillingness to be present in our experience, just as it is.
Studies show that meditation alone is powerful in many ways, but that the practice of metta, loving-kindness, is more powerful still. There’s no reason to choose one practice over the other. They work together. I always end my daily meditation, and the meditations I lead in class, with metta practice: May I be well/at ease/at peace/happy; May all beings be well/at ease/at peace/happy. Wording varies from practitioner to practitioner, but you get the idea. This audio is an example of sending metta. It is an extended practice, including sending metta to difficult people. Adapt the practice to suit yourself.
If we get into the good habit of sending metta to any person or situation that crops up in our thoughts, especially the difficult ones that can entangle us in emotional upheaval, we bring our mind back to the present moment, and at the same time do a great kindness to ourselves and to whomever we send loving-kindness.
Metta practice activates deep compassion within us. As we become aware of the nature of suffering and the interconnection of all beings, our natural generosity of spirit springs forth, providing help that is responsive, balanced and useful.
As we cultivate loving-kindness and compassion, we feel other people’s happiness as if it is our own. We have breached the previously-perceived divide between us. That divide dissolves and we are able to fully experience sympathetic joy. We see that happiness is contagious, unlimited and available in every moment if we are open to it, even if we aren’t getting everything we crave.
The skillful cultivation of loving-kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy creates equanimity in our lives. Instead of feeling tossed around by what’s going on in our lives, we become like the sky, spacious of mind and able to hold all that arises — clouds, fog, lightning, airplanes, etc. — without losing touch with our natural state of being.
When something delightful and something sorrowful happen at the same time, equanimity allows us to hold it all in an open embrace. We can be present for the joyful event, even as slender threads of sorrow arise.
As we age, we experience these kinds of situations more often. Loved ones become ill or die. Babies are born. Joys and sorrows abound. It is with equanimity that we are able to hold them just as the sky holds rainbows and hurricanes at the same time. The sky is still the sky. We too can cultivate compassionate spaciousness to hold all of our experience without getting lost or toppled. We are not devoid of emotion. But we can be present for them as well.
Imagine the sky dealing what passes through in a typically human way. Try to picture the sky running away from clouds, striving to overcome fog, getting lost in the pursuit of rainbows, turning its back on lightning, throwing up its hands at hurricanes, falling apart in a tornado, turning to drugs to numb itself to days of rain. Ridiculous, right?
We have the capacity to be like the sky! Whatever arises in our experience, we can hold in an open embrace. With attention, respect, compassion and kindness, but without clinging or grasping. If a thought is tenacious, we send metta to the person or situation, and return fully to the present moment.
Teaching in class about equanimity, I felt my whole chest opening as I expanded my arms out in a welcoming embrace. Words felt insufficient to express the meaning of equanimity. Maybe this physical sense of expansiveness is an additional way of opening to the possibility of equanimity in your life. Try it!
Equanimity is a spacious mind-state that naturally arises out of the regular practice of meditation. It is not a goal, not something to try hard to do, strive for or aim at. It’s not something to achieve. All of these ways of approaching any quality of mindfulness only entangle us in a tight knot of fear-based thoughts and emotions.
If you want to experience equanimity, the path is simple: Practice meditation every day. Attend weekly classes for inspiration and support. Go on retreats when you can for deeper insights. Go for walks in the woods, on the beach or wherever you can connect with trees, water and sky. Then don’t get lost in conversation with others or your own thoughts. Instead just listen to the sounds of nature, look around you, and feel your body moving through space. Find your place in nature. Give yourself quiet times to be present with all that is arising, send metta to yourself and all beings and equanimity will rise up within you.