Tag Archives: stress

Joy in the doing

to-do-list.jpgIn our culture, we may grow up believing that working hard with our eyes on the prize is praise-worthy effort. Some go for it with zeal, some rebel against it, some give up along the way and feel bad about it, but most folks acknowledge that ‘getting ahead’ and ‘making it’ equals success.

Now it’s shown that striving — for perfection, accolades, achievement, a house full of fancy things or a lifestyle that others will envy — is a pattern that is detrimental to health, relationships and the ability to be happy. The stress is causing disease and early death. Loved ones feel neglected, and friends and coworkers suggest lightening up and learning how to have fun.

That advice may lead to a tropical vacation, only to get ambitious and competitive about being fit or adventurous. Relaxing can’t be done without a drink or a drug, and the vacation goes by in a blur.

Someone suggests meditation. It sounds like too much sitting around doing nothing, but if attempted, it’s done with a rigor that should put other meditators to shame. The aim becomes to be the best meditator ever and achieve nirvana in no time.

I’m exhausted just writing about this kind of mentality. But it’s important to recognize that it is the model of effort that our culture puts out there. Without it, how would capitalism survive? Many products would never get sold if they didn’t represent success.

Whether this mode of effort describes you or not, it’s worth noticing that it has an impact on us all. We are all surrounded by efforts to lure us into wanting, craving and fearing we won’t be enough if we don’t have it all. 

We can apply this kind of effort to other things, too: Taking on more commitments to help than we can handle, for example. Not being able to say no to requests, or thinking we’re the only one who can take care of things.

Believing we should strive may set us up for doing the opposite, out of frustration, exhaustion or just needing a break. We may put off necessary tasks endlessly, succumb to lethargy, and feel bad about our ever-growing to do list.

Not surprisingly, neither extreme is wise effort. Wise effort is healthy effort. It’s natural effort akin to the effort made by all species of animals and plants, each true to their own abilities and needs. It’s effort that is able, agile, ready, playful at times and purposeful as needed. Wise effort is tuned in to the body’s own wisdom and natural rhythms. That means noticing sensation and staying in the present moment to recognize what’s needed right now, instead of going on autopilot and mindlessly doing or ignoring the body’s readiness to rise, to move, to nourish itself, and to engage in the wholesome pursuit of interests, needs and natural inclinations to find joy in the doing.

Joy in the doing. Doesn’t that sound lovely? I’m sure you can think of many things that give you joy in the doing. But no doubt you can make an equal list of chores you avoid or when you’re doing them give you anything but joy. Me too! But I learned something about myself in relationship to effort on one of the weeklong retreats I attended at Spirit Rock many years ago.

On a meditation retreat, most times you are given a yogi job, an assigned daily task that is your small part in helping to take care of the retreat center and the retreatants by cleaning specific areas or preparing food. At your first retreat you might have some resistance to the idea of having a job to do. After all, you probably paid good money to be there. Hey, what are they trying to pull? Why should you have to do any work at all?

But after a few days you may have an aha moment and realize that the little yogi job is yet another opportunity to awaken. Noticing how we are in relationship to our yogi job reveals how we are in relationship to the rest of our lives. And that’s valuable insight!

I’ve had a wide variety of yogi jobs on retreats, but since the retreat was in silence, this time I wanted to stay in that deep relaxing wordless space and not be jolted out of it to ask the cook how small to chop the vegetables or where does this bowl go? So they gave me the job of scrubbing shower stalls in one of the dormitories. Oh boy, what had I gotten myself into? At home that was one of my least favorite chores.

The next morning I approached my shower-scrubbing yogi job filled with dread and aversion. As I took the provided box of non-toxic cleaner, sponge, rags, gloves and scrub brush into that white tiled enclosure, I felt claustrophobic. My task seemed insurmountably difficult and uncomfortable, all that repetitive arm movement and bending. In that distressed state, I was doing the job only because I would feel terrible if I didn’t fulfill my commitment, even though no one would check up on me to see if I did it. I had an interior drill sergeant who said ‘hup two’, and my miserable platoon of one scrubbed away. I’ve heard tales from past actual army privates admitting they did their assigned tasks in a slapdash way, just good enough to fulfill the order. And that’s probably how I cleaned the shower that first day, just wanting to be done and out of there.

Is there any job you do in your life that is filled with aversion but you do because you would feel terrible, or be fired or shunned, if you didn’t do it? Notice how your self talk in this state is full of words like ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘have to’, etc. See if you notice a harsh internal drill sergeant that gets angry if not obeyed. That voice, instilled in us early on in life, drains us of any possibility of joy in the doing. In fact, we may be filled with anger at the injustice that we have to do this task when it should be someone else’s turn, etc. How does this kind of effort affect relationships at home or work?

We may ignore the inner drill sergeant altogether as a show of resistance against the injustice of it all, and the task doesn’t get done as we stew in in toxic emotions, as that inner voice gets more abusive, and we feel worse and worse. And how does that work out? The chore, already unpleasant, just gets larger and larger, doesn’t it? The dishes in the sink pile up, the carpet gets grungier and harder to clean, and the clutter becomes impenetrable. Beyond housework, planned projects don’t get done, dreams of the great American novel don’t get written, family gatherings don’t happen, friends don’t get called, and we lose touch with people we love and enjoy. What a mess!

Back at the retreat: On the second day, as I took up my scrub brush, I was more accepting of the task at hand. If I was going to do this thing, I was going to make the best of it and do it well. My own sense of self-respect demanded this, but there may also have been a little bit of ambition to be the best shower scrubber ever.

Does that sound familiar? Are there efforts you make that bring up a sense of competitiveness or a focus on a potential reward? Perhaps there actually are rewards for some of the efforts you make: Awards, trophies, bonuses, raises, advancement, praise or fame. Spirit Rock offers none of that. At the end of the retreat there was no hope that the teachers would pass out ribbons, including one to little Steffie Noble for her excellent efforts at shower scrubbing. So it was easy not to get caught up in chasing such goals as key to my efforts. But many of us spend a lifetime in such a state. And if the rewards and praise are not forthcoming and are doled out instead to others, we may become bitter, forlorn and full of self-doubt.

On the third day I realized that these showers I was scrubbing were used by the retreat teachers, so I shifted from proving my worth to expressing my gratitude for their teachings. May you be well. May you have a nice shower.

Are there any efforts you make in your life that are done for the benefit of others because you feel grateful? Often explorations of effort come back to asking ourselves ‘Who am I doing this for? What is my intention here?’ 

On the fourth day of the retreat I experienced a shift into a deeper, more connected state. When it came to my yogi job, I was able to let go of all the mental reasoning, trying so hard to make my experience okay. Instead I sensed into the movement of my arms and body wielding the scrub brush, sponge and spray bottle. The pleasure of being alive whatever I was doing filled me.

Have you ever had that sensation? You are using the same muscles but now there is pleasure in it. It’s interesting to notice that the body is not averse to movement at all. It is our mindset that creates any aversion. We might object to strenuous movement in some situations, but then dance all night if the music moves us. Explain that! Yoga often provides that profound sense of pleasure in awareness of the body being alive, moving through space, stretching and resting. A yogi job is another form of yoga, once the mind lets go of all that confusion of purpose.

On the fifth day of scrubbing I had the same sensory awareness, but I also became aware of being part of a continuum of shower scrubbing yogis — all who had been here in this sweet little white-tiled stall before me, and all those who would be here day after day, retreat after retreat, scrubbing earnestly, dealing with their own vast range of thoughts and emotions. I sent them all metta — lovingkindness — and opened to the possibility that past yogis had sent metta forward to me. In that isolated space there was a joyful sense of community, camaraderie and a relief that it wasn’t all up to me to keep this tile shining. If I missed a spot, it wasn’t the end of the world. There were others who would follow up, just as I had done for ones before me. Although we each did the best we could, it wasn’t about perfection! It wasn’t really even about the tile! I woke up to what it is to be alive and to participate fully in life, whatever I am doing.

As you go about your day, doing or not doing whatever is on your plate, can you be fully present with the effort itself? Can we all awaken to the joy in the doing? Can we feel loved and loving as we fully participate in the ongoing cycles of life?

Can we notice the thoughts that arise in relationship to tasks we do, plan to do or avoid doing? See if you can pause, relax, ground yourself in being alive in the moment, and do the task as a meditation.

There’s a Zen expression ‘chop wood, carry water’ that came up several times in teaching Wise Effort to three different classes this past week. Can we let go of all sense of accomplishment, reward, praise, aversion and avoidance, and just do what needs to be done with as much awareness and compassion as possible? Several students talked about how good it felt to accomplish a task they had been putting off. Yes, it does. But can it feel good to be doing the task itself? One student said she planned to vacuum the house tomorrow to get that wonderful sense of having accomplished something. I encouraged her to really come into her body and the movement of pushing the vacuum cleaner around, not to accomplish something but as the experience itself. She got it. ‘Oh yes, I’ll pretend I’m chopping wood and carrying water!’  I laughed and encouraged her just to vacuum and see if that could be enough.

There are so many reasons why we don’t make effort. Perhaps the task just looks too daunting. My six year old granddaughter took one look at all the jigsaw puzzle pieces laid out on the table and said, ‘This is too much, we can’t do it, its 500 pieces.’ But as the adults went about assembling the puzzle over the coming days, she began to see it differently. She noticed where a piece might fit. She got excited when she was able to put pieces together, and she discovered joy in doing it.

If you have a big project to tackle, think of that puzzle. It looks daunting at first, but just setting about to do it, in incremental work periods over a series of days or weeks or however long it takes, really makes a difference in how you relate to the project at hand.

The retreat yogi job is a good model for getting things done. Choosing 30-45 minutes a day to work on a particular task does get it done, and done in a wise effort way. Then you don’t have to think about it for the rest of the day!

Out of fear there are tasks that we need to do that we avoid. For example, estate planning and emergency preparedness both bring up things we may not want to think about: The inevitability of our own demise, and the possibility of natural disaster. Facing our fears frees us to prepare without despair.

In our meditation practice we learn how to cultivate wise effort by actively bringing our attention to the breath and other sensations, noting how they arise and fall away. We notice any thoughts or emotions, including those self-condemning voices that tell us we can’t do this, we’re no good at it, we’re hopeless. We practice compassion, and return to the breath. As we go about living our lives, we can keep that sense of being fully present, anchored in physical sensation, aware of thoughts and emotions that pass through, but not sabotaged by them. We can attune to our natural rhythm and discover the joy in the doing.

Inquiry Series: Valuable Question #3: Is what I am telling myself true?

In this series on self-inquiry, we have been posing powerful questions like ‘What is my intention here?’ and ‘What am I afraid of?’ The answers that come up are observable patterns of thought that form the stories we rely on to navigate a complex inner and outer world.

Stories? Yes, the mind weaves stories out of what we experience with our senses, stories still full of the emotions we felt at the time the story was formulated or first encountered. Scientists now say that the most distinctly human trait is the way we organize our experiences into stories that we then tell ourselves, each other and our descendants. Over thousands of years we have co-created a variety of cultures based on the collective stories that guide, enrich, enrage and entertain us. These shared stories greatly influence us as we each create our personal stories to interpret and understand what we are experiencing.

Think of any strong experience you have had recently. You have most likely ‘gone over it in your mind’ a number of times. Each time, maybe without realizing it, you refine and revise how you tell the story of that experience and how it fits in your life. This is the way the mind works. It processes experience. This may be a tale of some wonderful experience, but more often than not the stories we weave are the ones based on difficult challenging experiences, ones full of strong emotion, because they most need our attention to fully process.

I will use a personal example: I recently lost my brother. I have found myself rethinking the whole traumatic experience of the last week of his life when loving dedicated family and friends gathered in our home to give him hospice. At the time I couldn’t help noticing that while on the calendar it was a week for me it felt like ten years. So much emotional content paired with physical exhaustion can alter our experience of time, trying to make room for it all. This sense of time being elastic, of expanding when what we are going through is too much to immediately process, feels odd but is normal. It means we need to give ourselves time and compassion.

A few months later, I attended a writers’ retreat. In that safe dedicated space I was able to process more of my experience through writing poems. (Poetry has always been my most reliable means of inner exploration, but it’s certainly not the only form to be useful in this way.) The retreat teacher, Kim Stafford, encouraged us to go deeper, to tell the hidden story. So often our instinct is to make our story ‘nice’ and inoffensive. We are in such a rush to resolve our feelings, get past the discomfort and get on with our lives. It’s as if we want to just put it all in a blender to make a smoothie so that it will be easier to swallow. But that doesn’t work in the long run, does it? We need to take the time to digest experience. This is not to dwell on things or mull them over incessantly, but to give trauma — where there was so much to process in so little time — the chance to settle into not just a story we can live with, but the most honest account as we understand it in this moment.

Which brings us to this week’s question: ‘Is this true?’, a powerful question we can use in every situation. When we assess incoming information about the world around us, for example, do we just accept what we read or hear? Are the filters we use to process the information prefabricated, so things we hear that resonate with our biases are accepted without question, and things that go against our biases are rejected without question? This is obviously an important use of the question.

But ‘Is this true?’ is also a way to look at the stories we are telling ourselves, the stories we have stirred up with both the skillful ones (What is my intention here? What am I afraid of?) and the toxic ones we examined in the first post of this series, (like Who am I to think I could do this? or Why am I so stupid?)

At first the inner story we uncover might be full of remorse, self-blame or anger at someone else, imagining what we or they could have done differently. Or it might be full of self-righteousness and an unwillingness to look at more aspects of the events upon which the story was based. A gentle but firm ‘Is this true?’ can soften up the calcified shards of painful story we have been clinging to without realizing how much the story has been coloring our perception of the world, perhaps blinding us to a simple truth that could help us see more clearly and compassionately. How does this happen?

messy-files.jpg

The Faulty Filing System
On a daily basis story-making is a handy way for us to file new information to make room for the next experience. For example, we pass a tree and instead of really looking closely, we instantly file it away under ‘tree’, often so quickly we can’t remember seeing a particular tree at all. If we are interested in trees our filing will be a little more refined noting its species, for example, and feeling perhaps a little pleasure in the knowing. But chances are we don’t pause in our thinking mind and our busy day to ponder the tree, to questions our assumptions about it (unless we’re on a meditation retreat where such slowed-down noticing is a naturally-arising valuable experience.)

Back in daily life we might pause only if it’s something we’ve never seen before. We may be curious, often not so much to explore it, but to be able to label it so we can file it away. Perhaps it’s similar to something else we feel we know about, so we say, ‘Oh, it’s a type of _________.’ Then we have preset stories based on culture, family and personal experience, that we rely on to guide us in all matters of internal filing.

Do you see any potential flaws in this system?
Here are a few that I can see:

  1. If we are on autopilot as we process experience, the information is not properly vetted, is it? ‘Garbage in, garbage out.’ How could it be otherwise?
  2. If the system is overloaded it doesn’t always file things correctly.
  3. If the original formative stories were faulty and have never been questioned, then how can we expect this filing system to work at all?

To avoid ‘garbage in garbage out’ we stay as present as we can with our senses in each moment so our experience is processed without building up a backlog. We notice assumptions arising with the rest of what is going on, and we can question their veracity. This is not to undermine ourselves, but to cultivate spaciousness in our awareness so we can see clearly.

To assure things don’t get so overwhelmed that the system misfiles information and takes shortcuts, we take good care of ourselves: Get a good night’s sleep, pace ourselves, meditate regularly, spend time in nature, all with a receptive, responsive, compassionate sense of aliveness that helps us to make wise choices. When we are able to find balance in our lives so that we have sufficient alone time to process our experience, we stay ‘caught up with the inner paperwork’, so to speak. And we discover the joy possible in every moment.

Going through an emotionally stressful time puts this filing system to a real test. If we don’t recognize that we need to give ourselves more time to process and catch up, the system overheats and short-circuits. If we are paying attention, we can sense when we need to pause, spend time alone, take a walk, journal, have a conversation with a trusted friend or seek the guidance of a counselor or therapist.

Now let’s look at the third potential flaw in our filing system: How the original setup of our filing system may be flawed. Uh oh! That can’t be good. But it’s not life-threatening. We just have to be willing to look at what arises in a friendly way.

Think about those toxic questions we have been posing most of our lives. We don’t have to struggle with them. We simply set the intention to stay present, noticing and gently questioning the veracity of the stories we received whole-cloth without question as children and the stories we have constructed over the years to attempt to make sense of the world.

I have had the joy of watching close up the way a child’s brain processes information. as part of the care team for our young granddaughters. Oh my, as bright as they are, how easily they can misunderstand things! For example, when I asked the four year old attending a Lutheran preschool what she was learning about Christmas, she said ‘Well, Grandma, there was this lake of flames.’ Wha’? I’m pretty sure that’s not what they were telling her about the birth of Jesus. That misunderstanding, and the confidence in what we believe with all our heart to be true, is emblematic of the way all our brains received and processed information as children. Then we get busy with our lives and never question our misinformed perceptions again. No wonder we get in trouble!

I hope this little story helps you to be a bit suspicious of the stories you tell yourself and accept as not only true but perhaps sacred in some way. Questioning them might feel like a threat to tear down your whole being. Think of it more like spring cleaning, lightening the load of the useless and often painful clutter of misinformation we all carry around. If not tossing it out, at least holding it more lightly and seeing it more clearly.

We all have a lot of stories. Our purpose is not to replace one story with another one. The question Is this true? allows us to soften the rigid stance that hasn’t supported us very well. By exercising the mental muscles of compassionate and clear-sighted inquiry, we become more authentic and fluid. If we can allow for the possibility that a thought we’ve held for a long time is just an unexamined habit of mind, then we’re not bogged down in defending the fortress we hold ourselves to be.

For a little inspiration, it seems appropriate to leave you with a story! This classic Buddhist tale challenges our habit of reacting to life by fabricating stories about things that can’t be known.

A farmer’s horse gets loose from the corral and disappears. The farmer’s neighbor says, ‘What a calamity! Poor you, stuck without a horse to plow your fields.’ He was surprised when the farmer shrugged and said, ‘Maybe yes, maybe no.’

A few days later the horse returns with six wild horses in tow. Wow! Now the neighbor said, ‘That’s fantastic! What great luck!’ The farmer again says ‘Maybe yes, maybe no.’

Then the farmer’s son falls off the horse while trying to tame it, and he breaks his leg. ‘How terrible!’ the neighbor sympathizes. The farmer seems heartless in his unwillingness to claim this as a catastrophe. “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next week the army comes and takes all able-bodied young men, but not the son hobbling around on crutches. The neighbor cannot believe the farmer’s good fortune.

We stop the story here but you can see how it could go on and on in this way. The neighbor is weaving stories based on automatic assumptions, while the farmer is allowing himself to be open to the possibility that the story is at the very least incomplete, even when it seems patently obvious to the neighbor what the truth of each situation is. If you relate more to the neighbor, you are not alone! Most of us run with these stories, reacting to every change of fortune as a disaster or a stroke of luck. But there is a gift in allowing ourselves to pause in our automatic reactions to ask ‘Is this true?’ and to see that the verdict is never in. We all have stories of misfortune that turned into great gifts. So rushing to judgment is always premature. We don’t know! And far from being scary or weak in some way, living in the ‘I don’t know’ mind a most joyful state, opening a world of wonder.

Again and again the Buddha invites us to ‘not take his word for it’ but to explore for ourselves. It’s rich invitation. Take him up on it!

Inquiry Series: Valuable Question #1

WiseIntention.jpgThis is the second part in a series on inquiry. The first was a look at toxic questions we habitually ask ourselves. I have added to the previous post a few more that my students noticed coming up for themselves during the week — or in some cases noticed not coming up anymore, because, one might assume, her meditation practice is working!

Now we will begin our exploration of valuable questions we can use to cultivate awareness, compassion, joy and meaning in our lives. In the insight meditation tradition, once we are ‘primed’ by our practice and the spacious compassion it creates within us, the Buddha’s teachings encourage us to do skillful inquiry. We can also do this inquiry any time during the day, especially when we are feeling overwhelmed or experiencing inner turmoil.

(NOTE: The only questions asked during meditation are meant to bring us gently bring our attention back to the moment, not to spark a deep investigation. For example, a teacher might ask ‘Where are you now?’. The question we are exploring in this part can be used both ways.)

The question is What is my intention here? If you are feeling stressed, take a mindful pause, center in, notice the breath, and then ask yourself ‘What is my intention here?’ Why am I saying/doing this or about to say or do something that is clearly unkind and unskillful. This question might save you from saying something you’ll regret!

An honest answer to this question might be ‘My intention here is to punish (insert name) for what he/she said/did.” We want only honest answers, of course, as unpleasant as they may be. An honest answer will probably not be rooted in wisdom because if it were, we wouldn’t be in such turmoil. But instead of giving ourselves a hard time about it, we can, if we have time, use it as an opportunity to investigate. If there is no time, it’s an opportunity to send metta (infinite loving-kindness) to ourselves and the other person(s) before proceeding.

When to pose the question ‘What is my intention here?’

  • When you feel exhausted from doing so much for others, you might ask this question and discover that you have been hoping to get praise, affection, gratitude, admiration, or something else from someone else.
  • When you find you can’t help but say or do something mean, you can ask this question and recognize that you have been caught up in defending your fortress of ‘self’.
  • When you feel threatened by the idea that you might not be right –and being seen as right is more important than actually finding the truth — questioning your intention helps you discover how afraid you are of not being seen, appreciated, respected or loved. Seeing that intention liberates the fear, activates your inner compassion, and allows you to live more joyfully with uncertainty.

When we question our intention in any given moment, we can save ourselves and others a lot of suffering. By cultivating a wise intention or two that supports us in all we do, we feel more at ease in the world. My two intentions for many years have been: first, to be present in this moment and second, to be compassionate with myself and others. I started these years ago as an experiment to see if just those were enough, and so far so good. They seem to cover all the bases. Feel free to try these out if you like, or find something similarly helpful.

Wise Intention is one aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path. By setting wise intentions, we can see more clearly when we are venturing into unskillfulness. Wise intentions are rooted in Wise View. Read more about Wise Intention and the Noble Eightfold Path.

The problem with ‘should’

One of the words that comes up a lot when we explore intention is ‘should’ (or ought to, must, etc.). Watch for this word in your thoughts and speech. It indicates that your intention is coming from an external source. How we are in relationship to other people is only authentic and heartfelt when we are attuned to our own inner wisdom. If we are stuck in a storm of disparate inner messages originally encoded by external sources (family and the culture we live in) about how we should be, then we can’t really relax and connect with others in a deep way.

By listening in we discover a number of inner aspects (behavioral psychologists call these ‘modules’, among other things, and we all have them, so not to worry!) that seem to have conflicting agendas, yet all intent on saving us, however unskillfully. By cultivating spaciousness through meditation, we see them more clearly and we allow each of these aspects to feel heard and respected. It’s important to remember that, although misguided, every aspect of self is working hard to protect us. So we can feel gratitude for their intention, but hold their demands up to closer scrutiny before acting upon them.

Accessing Inner Wisdom
With spacious awareness, we are able to access our own inner wisdom that has a distinctly different quality about it than these other voices. Our wise inner voice is deeply aligned with our wisest intention rooted in wise view. Unlike all other aspects, it is not rooted in fear. You can tell the difference because wisdom has no urgency, is not strident nor bossy, and is consistently peaceful and kind. It never makes demands, only offers wise counsel and only when asked. You could go through your whole life without ever hearing it if you never take the time to pause, quiet the mind and listen in! Clearly periods of mindful inquiry are valuable when seeking the counsel of an aspect of self that has all the time in the world. (If you are religious, you might prefer to name that wise inner voice God or the voice of a spiritual figure you honor. This is totally up to you. But please remember the voice is not God’s if its demanding, strident, impulsive or violent.)

If you have set wise intentions, check to see if you are aligned with them. If you haven’t yet set your wise intentions, asking yourself ‘What is my intention here?’ is still a useful way to explore how you got yourself into this pickle! What inner aspect’s agenda were you following? And what is that aspect’s intention?

Taking time for skillful inquiry can lead to a whole wondrous series of self-discoveries. In the next part of this series we will explore more valuable questions. Meanwhile, please give this a try, and if you feel like it, please share your experiences, questions or comments by clicking on ‘Reply’ in this post.

 

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.

Monster Mash :: What are you waiting for?

delayed.jpgLast week we took a trip to the East Coast, a whirlwind week of new sights, old friends, extended family and autumn foliage. Pretty much ‘perfect’ in every way. Until we arrived at the airport for our flight home and were informed it was delayed four hours.

We made the best of the situation and chose a good restaurant to have a leisurely lunch. But eventually we felt the pull of our departure gate, the only place to get real information. Once there we discovered that it wasn’t just our flight to San Francisco that was delayed, but flights to Seattle and L.A. as well. Conflicting explanations as to the cause of the delay were bandied about, leaving our idle minds to go wild with wondering. Had Kim Jong-un pushed the nuclear button and boom? Had there been a seismic event of epic proportions? Were the wildfires still burning creating too much smoke to land? Or was there a Midwest waltz of tornadoes we wouldn’t be able to fly through?

How much easier it would have been to settle in if we knew early on that our intended plane had a problem and had to be replaced with a different one. Of course if there was anything wrong with the plane, we would prefer a new one, thank you very much. It wasn’t until seven hours later, right after we finally boarded, that the pilot shared that helpful information.

So there we all were: passengers for three flights crammed into this relatively small wing of gates at the airport. But we fortunately found seats and set in to wait.

What is waiting anyway?
So often in our lives we are in this state of waiting: In traffic, in the grocery store line, and at the airport. As I sat there I realized that this body of mine has to be somewhere, why not here? I am not in pain or danger. My stomach is satisfied, my bladder is empty. Nothing is actively causing me suffering. Why not simply be present with this experience? After all, even if the plane was on time, I would still be sitting there for a certain amount of time.

The knowledge that I would be there quite a bit longer than anticipated changed everything. Instead of planned passivity I was awash in a flow of impatient emotions, each of which I met with that same statement: ‘The body has to be somewhere. Why not here?’

Over the years I have talked about waiting as an opportunity for practice. I have cited the grocery store line as a place of awakening, if we are present and open to the experience. I have said that I teach a style of meditation I call ‘a portable practice’, that can be done ‘in an airport waiting area.’ Well isn’t this just karmic comeuppance, Miss Meditation Teacher! Let’s see how you deal with what turned out to be a seven hour wait at the gate!

First let’s look at this word ‘waiting’. By waiting we are saying that this moment doesn’t count compared to some future moment we are anticipating. What an opportunity to practice being present with whatever arises.

Waiting is also wanting things to be different than they are. Wanting is a kind of poison that we binge on. Whether we want more of what we have and hate to let go of the experience when things change, or we want things to be different than they are, wanting is the cause of suffering.

This truth is the core of the Buddha’s teaching. And it’s a great place to start any exploration of our relationship with whatever is arising in our current experience.

As I was sitting in Gate 42C at Logan Airport, I had a lot of time to ponder this, to ask myself ‘How am I in relation to my current experience?’ This is not to find fault, to shame myself into looking at the bright side, or to try to change anything. It’s just a way to be present and see the truth of what’s going on.

The wanting things to be different flavors everything in an experience, doesn’t it? If we can set aside that wanting even briefly, we can find all kinds of things to engage us in this moment. Certainly a room packed with travelers is full of entertainment potential. There are children whose antics are amusing, and their weary parents whose situation makes mine feel infinitely less onerous. Great compassion to them. There are friendly people to talk to as well as those trying to carry on their work lives. One man conducted a whole webinar as we all sat around, forced to listen to him expound on contractual marketing in the hospital sector. Huh?

The body has to be somewhere. Why not here? This has so many applications. When we’re stuck in the sick bed or the hospital, or stuck inside due to inclement weather, or stuck in traffic. We can ask ourselves what else is here in this moment besides the idea that ‘I don’t want to be here’?

A little boy expresses joy at seeing an airplane out the window. Can I have such a beginner’s mind as that in regard to all that is arising in my experience? All the simple pleasures?

Instead, so often the mind begins a circular pattern of regret and recrimination: What could I have done differently? In this case, I could have gotten the airline app that would have told me earlier that there would be a delay, and we could have perhaps spent the day sightseeing instead of sitting here. If stuck in traffic, we might think what a difference it would have made to take a different route. At the store, what if we had stood in a different line? And is it statistically possible for us all to be the person that always chooses the wrong line? Or does it just seem that way because we don’t notice all the times we breeze through and things go easily. That’s our natural negativity bias that neuroscientists talk about kicking in. Did I even once say to myself ‘Gosh, of all the flights I’ve taken over the years, this is the first time I’ve had such a delay.’ No. Even though that is true, it didn’t cross my mind.

After almost seven hours hanging out together in this compact space, the carefully crafted formalities between us dissolve. The other two flights to LA and Seattle have gone. We are now a fleeting family with a shared experience. The airline representatives break out Halloween songs and do a little dance to Monster Mash. Reluctantly we are lured into enjoying ourselves. Things fall apart, but in a good way. And I recognize how the magic of shared human experience happens in the places where things don’t run smoothly. But you’d never discover it if the plane ran on time.mon-oj.jpg

Loss & Friendship: Spread like wildfire

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Mt Tamalpais, veiled with smoke for days

A series of natural disasters and senseless tragedies over the past month culminated this week in a firestorm in the counties north and east of us here in Northern California. So intertwined are the lives of people in these counties, that most of us in Marin have relatives and friends who have either lost their homes or have been evacuated and waiting to hear.

We have friends from downtown Sonoma who fled the fire and have been staying with us, so the anxiety is not just something we see on the news but an ongoing palpable presence in our home. Also my closest longtime friend and her husband were evacuated from their home of forty years in Santa Rosa, and my anxiety about them has been ongoing as communication has been difficult.

Yesterday at the end of class, I could hear my friend leaving a message on the answering machine. I did something I have never done before: I excused myself and ran across the house — so urgently did I just need to hear her voice. She told me that their home is safe but currently uninhabitable.

Even if we didn’t know anyone personally affected, the smoke fills our skies, eyes, throats and lungs, keeping us all indoors as much as possible, closing our schools and cancelling flights at the airport.  You can see from the photo our view of usually crystal clear Mt. Tam. And the sun when it sets looks more like a full moon, bright solid tangerine amidst the dusky smoke. How can we not hold those in danger in our thoughts and prayers?

In class I led a metta practice woven throughout the sitting, sending messages of wellness, ease, peace and happiness out to all who are suffering. As always we begin with ourselves, and at times of great stress this is especially important. I have been noticing that my personal practice is improved when I begin with sending metta to myself — ‘May I be well’ etc. — It is very grounding, centering and clears the mass of thoughts that can cloud my mind like smoke.

If you are affected by any of these scary and challenging events, or have any kind of anxiety or stress in your life, try metta practice to find solace and strength to carry on.

A few weeks ago I wrote about equanimity, the ability to hold all of what arises in a spacious balanced embrace. This unparalleled firestorm has delivered stories that remind me how often life offers up joy and sorrow in equal measure. I heard that a member of my high school gang lost his home to the fire just a few days before he will be walking his daughter down the aisle. Such a joyous moment for any father paired with great loss. A reminder of what’s precious and how fragile life is.

One of the friends staying with us had just days before been excitedly sharing the news on Facebook of the birth of her first grandson. Then she and her husband woke to discover their lives and home in grave danger of fire carried on high winds, encircling their town.

I remember one woman years ago asking how it was possible to hold simultaneous joy and sorrow. And now, having these two new examples, I wonder if maybe that’s why we are given two hands — to hold all that arises, whatever life brings.

I want to end with a story that my old friend shared on that phone call I raced to answer. She said that for a long time she had been asking her husband to go through all the accumulated stuff in the garage and get rid of whatever he didn’t want. They were his things so it wasn’t something she could take on. He procrastinated and procrastinated. And then for some reason, last Sunday he decided the time was right to go through it all. They packed the car up to the gills and drove down to their local Salvation Army. But it was closed. Oh well. No problem. They would just take it in on Monday. Then in the wee hours of Monday morning, they woke to the smell of smoke, alerts on their phones and had to rush to evacuate. They were lucky they were given more advance warning than some of their fellow citizens of Santa Rosa. But like many others they were driving a car filled with household possessions.The difference was that their car was filled not with the things they most cherished but all the things they never wanted to see again.

I have been honored to witness with both sets of friends the wisdom, compassion, resilience and willingness to let go that they exemplified. I am so very grateful for their friendship.

May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.