Monday, March 14, 2016

Hello, all!

So, it's been seven years (nearly) since I wrote a post here. I have been busy, or lazy, or shy. But I think the time has come... I have been restless in my writing life, not having a particular venue for my thoughts-turned-to-words. I keep thinking I should start a blog, then I remember I have a blog, then I think it has been too long and maybe it doesn't exist anymore (but nothing really goes away in cyberspace...unless it's that file you need desperately to find that you think you stored in the cloud or something...).

Anyway, this blog still exists, for better or worse, and I have decided, for today, anyway, that I will do some posting on it and see what happens. I know it should be linked to my website for better optimization or something, but I can't be bothered with that right now. I could detail myself to death with those things (and doing the dishes, walking the dogs, etc) but the writing would never get done. And I really want to get writing done. The kind that I dare to put out there and see what happens.

So, let's go.

Of course, some of what has been on my mind is the current roiling of politics in this country, the US. (We never should have called it the "US" - a set up to breed narcissists if I ever saw one!)

All I really want to say is please, let's try to be our best selves here. All of us. As best we can. I know it is frightening. There is a tsunami of fear (disguised as hatred) washing over us right now. Dive into it. Find your way to surface and gasp for air. Then look around you and see who else you can help.

Play to your strengths.

Start small.

Stay present.

Bear witness.

Take action.

Take care of yourselves.

Take care of each other.

Think globally, act locally.

Mindfulness and awareness and compassion are stronger than you think.

When all else fails, remember that the scary people were little kids once, and nobody taught them a better way to deal with their difficult feelings. It's true, they have some power now. But you have power now, too. And you can harness yours and meet them with the kind of heart you want to live in.

I am not saying be all sweetness and light, the good guys always win. (Nobody wins. This shit just keeps cycling through.) Check out Mahakala and the wrathful deities of Tibetan Buddhism. It's not all sitting quietly under a tree. Check out the bodhisattva Manjushri, with his flaming sword of truth, which cuts through delusion and fear. This is fierce wisdom in action, based in clear-seeing and deep compassion. Cultivating these qualities and moving from this heart of inner wisdom is truly our only hope, if we are to overcome the fear and hatred of our times. Recognizing the affliction in ourselves and healing it there gives us the power and insight to take right action in the world around us. This will protect us from blind flailing and causing more harm, which is never what we intend to do.

Take heart, dear friends, there is much to do but there are many to do it. Onwards.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

How the Light Gets In

It is popular at the moment to bemoan the state of the economy, the financial and emotional upheaval that seems to be everywhere. I find myself wondering how to make use of this in my spiritual practice, and how to use the rampant fear and anxiety to develop compassion and wisdom.

Bernard Madoff stole billions of dollars from people who trusted him. We respond in various ways to this story. Some of us think those people who gave Madoff their money were stupid, or greedy, or got what they deserved. We reject them. We reject Madoff, and feel angry with him for hurting people. Some of us grow frightened about our own money, and worried that our financial people are cheating us. We try to figure out how to keep our money safe, to hang on to it. We worry about spending or buying. Some of us couldn’t care less. Those people, that amount of money ? We can’t relate. We barely know, maybe haven’t even heard of Bernie Madoff. We aren’t really noticing that stuff. Life goes on.

These are a few examples of reasonable, ordinary human responses. These, and most of our habitual responses, fall into three categories, known as the three poisons: rejecting, grasping and ignoring. That’s pretty much how we humans react to our perceptions of the world. If you observe your mind closely, you will see this is true. It is also no big deal. The only problem with responding habitually is that we miss out on the real experience: the opportunity to connect deeply with ourselves and each other.

The “poisons” are also medicine, and hold the key to their own antidotes. Each of them is a clue to how we can deepen our relationship with the world as it is, how to open our hearts. Each time we notice ourselves rejecting an experience, thinking we should be feeling differently than we are, or believing things should be happening some other way, this is our opportunity to practice patience. We could remember to bring compassion and a friendly curiosity to that moment. When we find ourselves trying to cling to and protect what we like, and hope to keep forever, this is our signal to offer up generosity, to cultivate contentment, to rest at ease. When we notice – and we do notice eventually, it is our nature to be aware – that we are in denial or ignoring what is happening around or within us, this is a chance to realize our innate wisdom, the insightful and awake qualities we carry within us, everywhere we go.

We can use these moments of aversion, attachment and ignorance to remind us to empathize and feel compassion. To fully feel how scary it is to lose all that money, how painful to have one’s trust destroyed, how frightening to walk around in a bullet-proof vest because your actions caused people such pain they might want to kill you. To wonder, is it a relief to be found out and stopped? To wonder what it might be like to (perhaps) be resting in security, only to have it all fall apart in seconds.

We could allow ourselves to feel the pain of the whole situation, up to and including the pain of hoping for any kind of security in this life, while knowing – and seeing it demonstrated – that it can’t really be found. This is a difficult task. We might prefer to keep our judgment and illusion, to remove ourselves and run and hide. But we’d miss out. For these are the times we have an opportunity to connect with the deepest heart of our humanity.

Everyone is looking for the same things: happiness, peace, safety. We all want to love and be loved. We cannot hope to accomplish any of this with our minds cast down and our hearts clamped shut. We can only hope to touch these things, these common goals, by breathing in and breathing out, noticing that we are breathing and so is everyone else. We can notice our thoughts and feelings, our judgments and preferences, our stances and habits and reactions, and we can meet them with a tender, open curiosity. We can look beneath those habitual, automatic responses and wonder what it is like to be connected to all those other beings on the planet, every single one. Breathe in the suffering we each know, breathe out the wish to end suffering, and let our hearts crack open, together. As Leonard Cohen noted, that’s how the light gets in.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

I am forever telling people (including myself) to be a little friendlier to themselves in times of stress.

What does that mean? When I say friendliness, kindness or compassion, I am not talking about some vague, spiritual shouldism of how to behave. I mean our innate, natural human response to any being in pain (yelping puppy, crying child), the organic heart-sense we offer freely to anyone who needs it, except, usually, us!

We don’t have to invent kindness, learn it, or even think about it much. All we really need is get out of our own way. With a little intention, practice, and an adjustment in our field of vision, we can include ourselves in our own natural circles of kindness.

How it works:
When we begin to have awareness of how we cause ourselves problems – through ways we act or think, or beliefs we hold – many of us come down hard on ourselves. We tell ourselves we shouldn’t do that or think that or feel that. We object to whatever we have noticed. This awareness is tender, a hidden part of ourselves we are just beginning to communicate with. A harsh response is only going to send our awareness scurrying away. It won’t heal the pain, and it won’t “cure” the behavior (thought pattern, feeling…). If we are trying to understand something about ourselves, we won’t get there through being mean.
If we berate ourselves, we resort to mindlessness to manage the pain and fear of berating ourselves, and we don’t get any further with our investigation. We become our own least cooperative witness.
True mindfulness – the path to developing deeper relationships with ourselves and others, healing our pain and enjoying our lives – requires us to meld awareness with compassion. Otherwise we are just grimly staring ourselves down.

What to do?
  • Take a step back from what you discover about yourself. Let it be simply information. You are not your thoughts, you are not your behavior.
  • Meet everything about yourself with kindness, and a friendly curiosity. Ask yourself, “How does this work?” rather than “Why the heck did I do that?”
  • Consider how you would speak to a friend having a hard time, or a small child who fell and skinned her knee: There, there, it will be okay. Let this be your mantra.
  • Set your intention to befriend yourself no matter what. Befriend even the harsh voice that says you’re not doing it right, you’re supposed to befriend yourself, you idiot! That voice really needs love!
Why bother?
If we keep berating ourselves for our feelings and thoughts, we will keep hiding from ourselves. Hiding increases our feelings of isolation, loneliness, depression, and anxiety. It is unnecessary to suffer this way. If we show ourselves kindness, we blossom. Connecting with ourselves connects us to the world at large, which could use more kindness and connection.

As we go, so goes the world.

When we stop judging ourselves, even for a moment, the possibility of happiness arises. Our hearts begin to open. Acceptance of ourselves, as we find ourselves to be in each moment, is the kindest gift we can bring. It is all we want, after all, and all we really, truly need.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A friend asked me for help with her holiday stress, and this is what I wrote:

Is there something you're eating that is affecting you? Sugar makes me feel and behave like you describe (happy one minute and weepy the next). Caffeine is also a rough ride...

Sometimes just accepting the feelings we don't want to be having can soothe us incredibly. As in: I accept that I can't accept the feelings I'm having that I don't want to have!

I wonder also about expectations - this time of year (and life in general). It can be so easy to have high expectations about how we'll feel, what we'll get done, how everyone else will feel/behave/respond, etc. Life is messy. Present moment awareness - even of the stuff we don't like, or especially of that stuff - is the only antidote I know. Along with a kindly attitude towards oneself.

I don't know if this helps, but I may go post it on my blog just in case.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Maitri, Yourtri, We all yearn for Maitri

Dear Ones,

If you are feeling stressed by upheavals in the world, if the season brings on old unwanted feelings, or if proximity to family members is hard for you, perhaps this will help. Being kind to ourselves and practicing maitri can help when we are triggered into old habits we’d rather not act out.

Very early, even as babies, we figure out strategies to keep us safe and alive in the face of threats to our wellbeing. Strategies vary, but eventually harden into habitual patterns of defense. We learned to shut up and shut down, disappear, get big and loud, go to anger, entertain, walk on eggshells, lose our boundaries, deny our feelings, and become excessively vigilant for subtle changes in people around us. How we react to stress indicates our survival strategies.

Unfortunately, at some point the strategies that kept us safe begin to backfire. We find we don’t handle stress well, and our lives begin to feel unworkable. Friends, lovers and bosses complain about our behaviors, and we have trouble feeling happy, safe and connected with ourselves and others.

We try to get rid of these behaviors, rejecting them and attempting to force ourselves to react differently. This only increases our stress and sense of being attacked. We respond with – surprise! – more of our habitual survival patterns. What else can we do?

Since these patterns developed in order to protect us, any attempt to destroy them will be met with resistance. Our deepest allegiance is with survival, so it is impossible to alter these habits by force. Think about it – would you pass through a door more easily if it was opened for you with kindness, or if someone tried to shove you out from behind? These are survival patterns; any aggression towards them will be perceived (rightly) as a threat, and will only reinforce them.

The only effective path to resolving old problematic habitual patterns is a path of loving kindness, friendliness and appreciation. After all, these patterns kept us alive. We are living proof of their effectiveness. If they were going to leave easily, they wouldn’t have been much use to us, would they? They deserve more than a shove out the door.

Even small events can trigger these habits. Triggered means we are suddenly acting out of an old pattern, beyond our control. When we are triggered, it is virtually impossible to change paths in midstream. However, if we practice unconditional, nonjudgmental friendliness toward ourselves on a regular basis, we become more able to resolve our triggered moments, and possibly have fewer of them.

Maitri Practice
Maitri (“my tree”) is a Sanskrit word meaning “unconditional friendliness towards self which radiates out to others.” Practicing maitri is an antidote for habitual self-hatred and fear.

Settle into a comfortable place where you will not be interrupted for 5-10 minutes and close your eyes.

To begin, imagine or recall a time when you were hurt or upset and someone showed you kindness, and cared for you in a way that was helpful. Maybe they picked you up when you scraped your knee, or hugged you when you were lonely or gave you direction when you were lost. If you can’t recall a time, imagine what it would be like. What thoughts and feelings accompany this experience? What body sensations? What other sense impressions do you get: smells, sounds, visuals? Relax into the experience of receiving for a few minutes.

Next, recall or imagine a time when you showed compassion for another, a human or an animal, who was hurt or upset. How did you feel in your body? What thoughts or emotions did you experience? Let yourself deeply touch this experience of sending out kindness, and settle into it for a few minutes.

Now, complete the circle by both sending and receiving loving-kindness, compassion, maitri with yourself. Let yourself take it in and offer it to yourself unconditionally. You don’t have to need it, or think you deserve it, or feel any particular way about it. Just let it flow through you, breathing in compassion, breathing out compassion, breathing in kindness, breathing out kindness, breathing in maitri, breathing out maitri. Notice thoughts, feelings and body sensations without judging or attaching to them. Stay with it for a few minutes.

To end, simply rest in a natural manner, spacious and peaceful. Repeat daily.

One of the most interesting side-effects of this practice is that we actually become more relaxed and comfortable human beings, able to express love and genuine compassion for others spontaneously and with ease. Isn’t this what we’ve been trying to accomplish all along?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Compassion practices for political divisiveness

Lately I find myself returning to the Four Immeasurables practice. I take refuge there, for these times cry out for compassion, and this is the best way I know to generate and stabilize a stream of compassion to send out into the world. The practice is simple enough. Focusing first on myself, then a beloved, then a neutral person, then a person with whom I have trouble (known as the “enemy”), then out into the world, I pray that we may all be free from suffering. The more deeply and frequently I practice, the more peace I feel and bring to my interactions.

I have been teaching this practice in my classes, planting the seed of possibility. We all want to behave compassionately in difficult times. It is our natural impulse. We forget we need to train to be able to do this. The Four Immeasurables is our training.

As the practice develops, we work with increasingly challenging people (though of course just wishing ourselves well can be surprisingly hard). In today’s political climate, there is no shortage of “enemies” with whom to work. As I look around me, I see incredible suffering being self-inflicted as the elections in this country draw closer. When we allow ourselves to divide into “us” and “them” and decide that some people are more worthy of our care and others of our derision, we solidify the very ground of all conflict, throughout history. This inevitably causes us pain, and does very little to rectify the wrongs we object to.

I hear my loved ones express stark fear at the idea of someone else’s candidate being elected. I want to soothe them, to remind them that it isn’t the end of the world. Many people are feeling this way, regardless of which candidates they identify with. Ultimately, however, each of us - no politician - is responsible for our own wellbeing, and the wellbeing of those around us.

I hear people say meditation won’t solve anything; the bad guys will take over while we’re sitting around wishing them well. I understand the fear. I also understand that when I let my practices slide, my vision clouds and I cannot perceive right action. I flail about and make things worse, the way a panicked person in the water will drown themselves and the person trying to save them. The traditional metaphor is a person sitting by a pond, stirring it with a stick while trying to see the bottom. The only way to see clearly is to allow the water to settle. The Four Immeasurables, or any contemplative practice you may use, allow the waters of our minds to settle, so we can see clearly what is required of us now.

I take comfort in His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He has every reason to feel agitated, angry, and bitter about how his people have been tortured and imprisoned and killed. Yet he is renowned for his gentleness, his grace, his humor. He bears no ill will. He is calm. He spends hours a day in meditation and practice, and he is one of the most respected and active agents for change in the world today.

My hope in writing this is to offer alternatives to stressing out about elections, financial institutions and intense weather events. This practice is a tool you can use to alleviate some of the suffering arising these days, and clarify your own path.

The Four Immeasurables
(Love, Compassion, Equanimity and Joy)
Repeat 3 times, or as many as possible:

May I be filled with lovingkindness
May I be well
May I be peaceful and at ease
May I be happy

May you be filled with lovingkindness
May you be well
May you be peaceful and at ease
May you be happy

May all beings be filled with lovingkindness
May all beings be well
May all beings be peaceful and at ease
May all beings be happy

Begin with yourself, recalling how you felt when someone showed you compassion. Then repeat for a beloved (even a pet), then a neutral person (like a store clerk), an enemy, and the whole world. It can take months or years to fully work this practice. Have patience. See Sharon Salzberg’s book Lovingkindness for further information.

Blessings, and may you be free from suffering.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Ratna, autumn and equanimity

The autumn equinox is about balance. In the Buddha families, autumn is the time of Ratna, the yellow in prayer flags. Ratna’s wisdom aspect is equanimity. Each Buddha family has both a wisdom and a neurosis, two sides of one coin. In its neurotic aspect, Ratna is represented by the Hungry Ghost, whose body is as huge as a mountain and whose mouth is the diameter of a hair. No matter what the Hungry Ghost tries to take in, it can never be enough. When we indulge our cravings, whether for food, possessions, power, anger or control, we are in the Hungry Ghost realm, being run by our belief that something can fill the emptiness inside. We think something is wrong, we dislike our current experience of hunger or craving, and we race after whatever we think will fix it. (Do I need to point out here that it doesn’t actually work? We aren’t broken, so we can’t get fixed.)

The antidote to craving is to cultivate equanimity of mind. Equanimity has no preferences, is easy with not knowing, and refrains from leaping to judgment about situations and the people in them. This takes practice. Equanimity is illustrated in this story:
An old man’s only horse ran away. The villagers said, “Oh, how awful!” The old man said, “Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see.” Then the horse came back, followed by several wild horses. Now the old man was wealthy! The villagers said, “Oh, how wonderful!” The old man said, “Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see.” (This old man sounds a lot like my mother!) Then the old man’s only son was thrown off one of the wild horses he was trying to train, and broke his leg. Now the old man had no help on his farm.
“Oh, how terrible!” the villagers cried. “Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see.” Soon after, the local lord declared war on a neighboring land, and sent soldiers to all the farms to round up young men to go fight in battle. The old man’s son was left behind, unfit because of his broken leg. “Oh, that is so good!” said the villagers (having still not figured out how the old man saw things). What do you think the old man said?

We could use the old man’s words as our mantra in times of lost balance. When hunger and craving arise as resistance to what is, and we try to pigeonhole our experience, like the villagers, rather than just having it, we could use a little equanimity. For we never truly know the outcome, and jumping to conclusions does not even count as exercise. It can be a relief to release the need to know, and to let go of the illusion of control.

I have been working with this approach myself for about twenty years, and am recently noting some real progress. So, have patience! Car cut you off in traffic? Is the other driver an idiot? Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see.