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.
On especially hot days I am reminded of the summers I spent in Philadelphia when I was in my late teens. My parents had moved there from California, so when I went ‘home’ for the summer it was to this place that didn’t feel like home at all. It was a brick oven of a place, a sauna — so different from the San Francisco Bay Area where ‘nature’s air conditioner’ rolled in from the ocean most evenings. And yet there was something wonderful about a ‘hot town summer in the city’ experience, walking about Center City in the warm evening and meeting up with other young people in Rittenhouse Square. I made friends with a girl who lived around the corner and she was my guide. She taught me, for example, that how you walk across town when you are a young woman is not always a direct route. If guys are out cruising and start saying ‘Hey baby’ etc. and won’t let up, then how convenient that Philly has lots of one way streets. You just turn up the next street that goes in a direction his car can’t go. Oh yes, she taught me the ropes.
Upon returning home we’d often spend the night at each other’s homes, and finding it difficult to get to sleep in the oppressive heat, even at midnight, we’d make up lists. Our favorite list was of all the things we would get rid of if we had the power to do so. We could easily get to one hundred, taking turns naming, for example, people who do obnoxious things. We would get very specific. So, ‘boys who won’t take no for an answer’ might be on the list. Or ‘people who leave gum on the street’ or ‘girls who wear…’ whatever fashion we didn’t find becoming. I don’t remember the details of the list, just that we made one and that we were perfectly ready to wipe them off the planet for their offenses.
In retrospect, of course, this seems at the very least harsh, and at most horrifying. It was all in good fun, a shared complaint about the state of a world over which we had no power.
As a mature woman, I recognize that there is still an internal list, not as lengthy and not of people I would wipe off the face of the earth, but of things I perceive as a threat. And I know for a fact I am not alone in this regard.
At a time when so much saber rattling is going on in the world, it’s worthwhile to take a look at what we identify as ‘enemy’. We don’t have to be at war to have an enemy, do we? Throughout the day we find ourselves at odds and finding fault with all manner of people, situations and aspects of ourselves.
In the Buddhist tradition, we practice kindness, but not ‘nice-nice’ in the way of my mother and perhaps yours, who if I said I felt a certain way told me I shouldn’t feel that way. No, in this tradition we look at what is arising with as much compassionate awareness as we can. If we can look honestly at our thoughts and our fears, we can cultivate a more loving skillful relationship with all that arises in our lives, recognizing its true nature.
So if you are game, take a moment to bring to mind someone or something that you react to as an enemy. Take note of the physical/emotional reaction as your body tightens up and fear or anger arises. This enemy may be a specific person or group of people. It may be a concept. It may be something that causes you pain. Just whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t need to be just one thing. It can be a list! Feel free to write them down if you want.
Now, assuming you were able to come up with at least something that feels threatening to you, let’s look at some common traits that things we perceive as ‘the enemy’ have in common, and see if this is true for yours.
The enemy causes a visceral reaction. We can feel ourselves tensing up and/or negative emotions arising when we think about the enemy. If there’s no visceral reaction, then it’s just an opinion, not something that feels threatening.
The enemy takes up a lot of space in our thoughts and emotions. It’s not just a passing thought. It’s not just someone with whom we disagree. If you doubt it takes up a lot of space, then how did you so easily come up with one or more ‘enemies’? They were right there, readily accessible.
The enemy has power. For example, an enemy might be:
A leader with whom we strongly disagree feels threatening, while a past-leader now ‘ordinary citizen’ doesn’t. Yet perhaps we can remember when they felt threatening to our well being, back when they had the power.
Pain has power to lay us low, sometimes change our personality and even cause us to feel life is not worth living.
Age has power to diminish our abilities in a number of ways.
A boss has the power to fire us.
A coworker has the power to make us miserable forty hours a week.
A parent can feel like an enemy at times simply because when we’re in their care they have power over us. (Any power we give them after we become independent is an unexamined patterned response worth taking time to investigate.)
Disease in ourselves or in a loved one has the power to kill, disable and break our hearts.
What power does your ‘enemy’ have over you?
The enemy has volition. We are more inclined to perceive as ‘enemy’ someone who made a choice rather than, for example, an act of nature. There is a classic story of a man rowing his boat on a misty morning when he sees another boat heading towards him. As it comes closer and closer he gets more and more upset. Why is that person not watching where he’s going? Is that person purposely aiming for his boat? Who is it? What did I ever do to him? etc. etc. Enemy alert to the max. And then the boat bumps against his and he sees that it is empty, just a lost boat adrift in the water. All his anger vanishes. The boat is not the enemy. It is just carried on the currents. There is no enemy with whom to be angry.
Abstract concepts are not as powerful as personal experiences. We might be against violence in general, but it isn’t a palpable enemy unless it is happening to us (or did happen to us and we are still processing it), or it happens or happened to someone we love, or to someone right in front of us, whether in person or on a video or in a book. Abstracts do not activate our emotions in the same way.
Those are some things I have noticed as common traits of ‘the enemy’. What else do you notice? This is an exploration. Feel free to check it out for yourself and report back by commenting. (Click on reply at the top of this post.)
HOW TO COME INTO SKILLFUL RELATIONSHIP WITH ‘ENEMIES’
NOTE: If you are in a situation where you are in that moment being threatened, you will do whatever you feel in that moment that you need to do — your flight or flight response will likely kick in and nothing we discuss here will make a bit of difference. However, regular meditation practice will help you to be more mindful and better able to see the situation clearly, and perhaps will have cultivated some compassion that could help to ameliorate certain threatening situations. But street smarts and a call to 911 may be what’s needed. Just sayin’.
But, assuming we are talking about someone or something that is not holding a gun to our heads in this moment, but which satisfy the definition of ‘enemy’ for our purposes here, let’s proceed.
All of this ‘other’ making, this ‘me’ against the world or ‘us’ against ‘them’ thinking, takes a serious toll on our mental and physical health. It depletes our capacity for ease, joy and kindness to ourselves or anyone else. But it isn’t skillful to push these thoughts away or pretend they don’t exist. It is equally unskillful to actively antagonize an external designated enemy. This only adds to their power by fueling it with similar energy. So what are we to do?
Know your enemy We’ve already made a first step by defining who or what we are perceiving as enemy. We have ruled out anything that’s just an opinion and anything that is abstract. Now we can focus on something that does activate a visceral reaction, that does cause us to feel threatened in some way. We get to know the enemy not to strategize how to defeat them, but in order to understand their true nature and the nature of our own mind.
Here are some ways to come into a more skillful relationship with the enemy or enemies we have named.
Expand awareness We tend to get caught up in the story or the rant about whatever we perceive to be enemy. We probably don’t even listen to ourselves anymore, we just blather on in a habitual way. But we have a choice. Without pushing the enemy away, we can notice all else that is going on in this moment. We can come into an awareness of our senses — sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. We can notice pleasant sensations also going on right now. The enemy may still be present, but we see that it is just one part of all that is happening in this moment, a slender thread in the whole fabric of being. We can take in all of this moment with gratitude for being alive to experience it, enemy and all.
Interview, inquire, investigate When we feel up for it, perhaps after meditation, we can invite the enemy into our thoughts for clearer observation and investigation. We can breathe into the discomfort. We can take care of ourselves. We can remind ourselves that the enemy in this moment is just a pattern of thought and emotion. It is safe to look more closely and to do some insightful investigation.
Part of this investigation might be actual fact checking. When we perceive something or someone as ‘enemy’ we might not be able to talk ourselves out of it, but it is worthwhile to know at least whether it is as dangerous as we think. So, for example, if we have a fear of flying, the fact that it is statistically much safer than driving may be little comfort, but it is an important fact to keep handy. Other typical fears — spiders and snakes, for example — can also be aided by discovering their benign and helpful aspects, and perhaps how unlikely it is that we would encounter a dangerous variety in our area. Some things are easier to fact check than others. We need to be sure our sources are reliable, that our enemy is not the product of some random thing read online or the irrational ranting of some pundit with an ax to grind and bills to pay. We might notice how willing we are to believe someone who reinforces our existing view, and let that be a red flag for us to make further inquiry rather than getting more entrenched in our position which is causing us, and perhaps others, such suffering.
Consider whether the enemy is a projection We can recognize the possibility that what annoys us about another person is the very thing that we are either suppressing or judging in ourselves, especially if it’s always the same ‘type’ of person who annoys us.
Back when I was too shy to speak my own truth, I found I was often judgmental toward powerful women. ‘Who does she think she is?’ But it was just my own insecurities and my own desire to feel that freedom to speak up that was making enemies of perfectly nice people who were more worthy of admiration than condemnation.
If the ‘enemy’ that you defined is not necessarily powerful, then there’s an even stronger reason to look at the idea of projection. Perhaps you’re annoyed by people who are virtually powerless. Then what part of you feels powerless? This is not an accusatory investigation. We inquire with respect and kindness.
Recognize the enemy as messenger We can look at the possibility that what we have taken to be an enemy with a weapon to harm us is in fact a messenger with an offering that has the potential to heal us. The image shown here could be carrying a weapon or a scroll with an important message for us. We won’t know until we take the time to look.
Let’s take tension, for example. It is the one thing we actively work to diminish in our meditation practice. So it is easy to see it as the enemy. But in fact it is the messenger. It tells us that our thoughts are caught up in the past and/or future. When we befriend the messenger — come on in, take a load off, care for some tea? — then the tension releases to whatever degree is possible in that moment, and we can be fully present with what is arising in that moment. Noticing the tension, we recognize where our thoughts have wandered. The tension is the messenger.
Let’s look at some other ‘enemies’ we might encounter and what their message is:
If you experience any degree of impatience or even road rage, then your ‘enemies’ may be:
Someone driving slower than you want to drive. The message is to cultivate patience and to stay more present in the moment rather than rushing to be somewhere else.
Someone cutting you off, being discourteous. The message is to cultivate compassion, to recognize that everyone is carrying a burden we are unaware of.
Someone driving recklessly, putting you and everyone else in danger. The message is to be mindful ourselves, to be aware we have great power to do harm as we drive around at high speeds in these metal ‘killing machines’.
You get the idea. So what we’re learning is how to be present with someone or something we perceive as enemy by cultivating a spacious field of awareness to hold whatever is arising.
As we stay present with the enemy in that spacious field of awareness, we can inquire about the message it is bearing. We can ask ‘What do you want me to know?’ for example. This would be very skillful in post meditation inquiry if a challenging ‘enemy’ is present.
Practice meditation on regular basis. By doing so we become more and more attuned to recognize the infinite interconnection – all one, that there is no separate self that needs to be defended against some outside enemy. In that way we are able to see through the faulty filter of fear that has named something or someone ‘enemy’.
‘Feed your Demons’ This is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that can be very skillful in working through a difficult relationship with an aspect of self that presents as enemy.
Send Metta A powerful practice is to send metta, infinite loving-kindness, always beginning with ourselves and always ending with sending it to all beings. In between we can send it to a difficult person. I have heard so many first-hand accounts of the power of metta practice — May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. May you be happy. — to shift a relationship and reveal that in fact the ‘enemy’ is a vulnerable suffering being, worthy of kindness and compassion.
Here’s a recording of me leading an extended metta practice.
Speak our truth to whomever is in power, whether in government or in our private lives. Once we have cultivated compassionate awareness, we are ready to use wise speech to address any concerns we have. Instead of aggravating the enemy, turning off their ability to listen to us, we touch a deeper place and inspire their own inner wisdom to look more closely at their own way of being with difficult emotions.
I hope that these suggestions help to whittle down your enemy list, and create some powerful positive changes in the process. Let me know!
As I was meditating the other morning, I noticed fear arising. This is not unusual. Fear appears in many guises — worry, planning, anxiety, hurt feelings, self-doubt, anger, etc. Fear is felt in the body as tension. Fear is a presence I usually recognize when it shows up, but this time I saw the fear in a very different way. That new way of seeing fear has helped me. Maybe it will help you, too.
An important part of our practice, especially when things aren’t going well, is to do a little self-inquiry. A key question we ask ourselves is ‘How am I in relationship to this?’ I could see that I was relating to my experience with fear. But how am I in relationship with fear itself? In that moment I could see that the fear is not part of the fabric of my being, but is, instead, a lens or a filter through which I am looking at experience. The fear is not me, not even an aspect of me, though almost every aspect of who I perceive myself to be looks at the world through the distorting faulty filter of fear.
If fear is simply a filter or a lens, suddenly it is neutral and more manageable. It is neither friend nor foe. It is not the boss of me. I don’t have to go into battle with it. It is simply an increasingly transparent filter that when in place distorts my view of things. Just noticing this gives me tremendous power! Whenever I become aware of fear arising, I can recognize it as the filter it is, and I have options: I can continue in my habituated way to look through the filter, or I can open my senses in this moment to see a world teeming with beauty and life ever unfolding in cycles of energy and matter. I can feel how this body, this transient gift, is intrinsically interconnected to all beings. And in that moment, that filter of fear reveals itself to be myopic and unreliable.
‘Now wait a minute’, you may be thinking, ‘fear is important and useful. Where would we be without fear? Would we have even survived as a species?’
These are interesting questions. So let’s look at fear more closely.
Let’s look at a situation where some innate sense in our body perceives a danger. Perhaps hair stands up on the back of the neck, or some other physical sensation that lets us know we might want to steer clear. Not walking into a situation that might put us at risk is a biological imperative. It’s instinctive. Point taken.
But I wonder when we live so steeped in fear all the time, if we really pick up on the instinctive cues. Fortunately I have not had the opportunity to see for myself. But I do follow my neighborhood online community and there was an interesting discussion about a ‘colorful character’ in town who wears different costumes on our main street, including one of a Buddhist monk! Another outfit is a kilt. Those are the only two I’ve seen. Anyway, the online conversation ranged from concern for the fellow to concern for public safety. But only one person in the group had actually had a conversation with the man. He found him to be a very sweet, not altogether ‘there’ person, who was clearly not a threat to anyone. Yet his very calm presence in his various guises really rattled up a lot of fear in a number of people. The filter of fear is full of faulty assumptions.
There are those hopefully rare times when an adrenaline rush sparked by fear gives us extra strength and speed to, for example, get out of the way of a moving vehicle. Okay, life saved! Good job! But upon closer inspection, we might ask how did we get in that position? Could we have been more mindful? More in touch with all our senses so that we could see that car coming? Maybe if we weren’t distracted by our phone, our planning mind, etc. But, yes, let’s acknowledge that adrenaline is useful in very small doses on such occasions. It’s when adrenaline is pouring through the body constantly keeping us on high alert that it can cause all kinds of problems in our bodies and minds.
Everyone in class this week recognized the existence of fear in an ongoing way. some immediately, some after an autopilot declaration of ‘I’m not afraid of anything.’ After a few minutes of looking more closely, they could see that it was fear itself that was making that bold statement.
It may help to consider whether fear itself is disruptive, or if it is our blindness to it that causes us trouble. For example, I am afraid right now, anxious about whether the medical treatments for my brother will work. If I don’t acknowledge how this fear is impacting me, how my whole torso is tense as a direct result of my concern, then I won’t treat myself tenderly. I won’t make room for all that is arising. And as a result I will be, I guarantee it, unskillful in some way: anxious mindless eating, prickly in relationships, exhausted and grumpy, or some other of many possible totally useless and sometimes destructive ‘coping’ mechanisms. And making an enemy of fear causes even more upset that may play out badly.
Just now from the other room I heard my brother on the phone telling his friend he didn’t know why Stephanie wasn’t able to find those other pills in his bag. Opportunity to notice my reaction: Okay, yup, there it is: Hurt, fury, ‘after all I’ve done for you’ yada yada, worry about being seen as a lousy caregiver by whoever he was talking to. word spreads, elder abuse – oh my! Okay now a little revenge, plotting to give my brother the cold shoulder for his lack of appreciation, (even as I know I won’t do that, because after all he’s operating out of fear too, and he’s in a fight for his life). All this mental storm in a matter of thirty seconds! Wow. Fear in the house!
Acknowledging the fear, I allow myself the time, space and compassion needed to be skillful in my life, taking care of the needs of others more ably and lovingly because I continue to be present and compassionate with myself. If this sounds self-centered, remember the oxygen mask directions on an airplane. Put your own mask on first before helping someone else. Especially for many women, this is a necessary reminder. How much of our willingness to give ourselves away, to always put others first even to the detriment of our own health, has to do with fear? ALL of it, in one way or another.
So we recognize fear. We feel it in the tension in the body. We don’t try to talk ourselves out of it, because that is just an inner battle between — let’s nickname them — ‘logical mind’ and ‘scaredy cat’. There’s no kindness or respect there. It’s more skillful to simply listen, using the infinite inner wisdom that rises up when we take the time to listen in. Every little aspect of self except that infinite inner wisdom is terrified of something. And it’s useful to see the nature of that fear. There’s the fear of making a fool of ourselves, so that aspect keeps us from speaking. There’s the fear of getting hurt in love, so that aspect keeps us from exposing our vulnerability. With awareness and compassion, we can recognize the specific fear-based message of any fear we identify. It can also be helpful to investigate where that message came from. But all of this is done in a loving and respectful way. Not to change or get rid of anything. Fear sets in when we let unexamined assumptions motivate us. Past experience perhaps has taught us to be cautious in certain situations or with certain people. People who were major influencers in our lives handed down their own fear-based views, and we accepted them without question, too. So here we are, full of fear. But it’s just a lens distorting reality. And we have our tools of skillful questions: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Is the man wearing a kilt one day and a monk’s robe the next a threat?
For some fears, we don’t need to go on an inner journey. We just have to recognize what we are surrounding ourselves with in our daily lives. If the news is churning out endless images, headlines and opinions that are contrived to activate a fear-based addiction, is it any surprise we feel overwhelmed with fear?
When we don’t take the time to question the veracity of our beliefs and assumptions, then fear holds the reins of our lives, causing us to behave in ways that are destructive to ourselves, those around us and, since we’re all a part of the same living system, ultimately all life on down through generations.
‘Now wait a minute’, you may say again, ‘where would we be without fear? It’s a great motivator to do the right thing. Without the fear of negative consequences, wouldn’t we all just run around doing all kinds of damage?’ I don’t know the answer to that. Certainly people are motivated by fear to do the right thing: Fear of going to hell. Fear of a spanking. Fear of losing our job. Fear of getting a ticket. Fear of getting fat. Fear of being seen as less than admirable. Fear is a powerful motivator, no doubt about it. But the results of acting out of fear quite naturally fail.
Let’s take the example of the fear of getting a ticket. That’s a pretty common fear, one that all drivers tend to have. But we could drive with mindfulness and compassion, aware of the fact that we are driving a potential weapon of death, maintaining safe speeds, watching for pedestrians and other vehicles, sharing the road with kindness and consideration, and we would be skillful drivers. The fear of getting a ticket could make us think that as long as there isn’t a police car in the vicinity we could pretty much run rampant and ‘get away with it’. What are we getting away with? While not all laws are perfect, the majority of laws were made up to keep us safe. The laws are based in common sense, and if we use common sense, awareness and compassion, we don’t have to be afraid of getting a ticket.
For me now, the direction of this exploration takes a fearful turn. Because of the advent of videos capturing incidents of police violence against unarmed black men, there is a heightened awareness and what feels like a very reasonable fear. Because the majority of the men in my family are black, my chest tightens with fear when I think about it. When it comes to this particular fear, I am currently unable to talk myself down from the ledge. But I will keep looking at it, and that’s all any of us can do: Just keep practicing, and keep exploring. I have noticed that I am less fearful when I am able to actively do something, so that might be something to also explore.
Our practice is to notice what is arising. Noticing fear is not always comfortable. But finding a way to be present with fear, without pushing it away or making it the enemy, really does help us to come into more skillful relationship with all that arises in our experience.
See for yourself if you are looking at your experience or the world through a faulty filter. And please let me know what you discover!