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.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Padma - the wisdom of discriminating awareness

This post is derived from a series of essays I wrote last year on the five Buddha families, represented by the five-colored prayer flags hung outside to catch the breeze, which spreads the prayers to all beings. Each family has a season, a symbol, and an energy quality which can be experienced in either its wisdom or neurotic aspect. We all have the capacity for expressing and experiencing each of the five Buddha family energies.

The heat of summer, the flowers, the sultry air, all speak of the red Buddha family, Padma.

The symbol of Padma is the lotus, which is rooted in murky depths and blossoms in the clear open surface of the water. Padma is about
relationships, and moving from confusion toward clarity. Padma in its neurotic state is seductive, fantasy-oriented and indiscriminate. This confusion leads to codependence, narcissism and poor boundaries. “I’ll do anything, you can treat me however you want, just love me and make me feel worthwhile” is the refrain of Padma neurosis. A feeling of desperation and self-absorption prevails; a clinging to what we think will make us happy. In Padma neurosis we reject anything that does not fit our notion of how things should be in our personal universe. We do not see how things actually are. Denial rules.

In its wisdom aspect, Padma manifests as Discriminating-Awareness Wisdom. This means we see clearly what is happening in the moment, and what is called for. We understand the details of our interpersonal dynamics and are able to take precise action to correct misunderstandings and imbalances. Chogyam Trungpa says, “When Padma neurosis is transmuted, it becomes fantastically precise and aware; it turns into tremendous interest andinquisitiveness… The genuine character of Padma…is real openness, a willingness to demonstrate what we have and what we are to the phenomenal world.”

The wisdom and neurosis aspects of any way of being in the world are inextricably linked. The path to wisdom is simply
being present with whatever we are experiencing. Padma energy supports the practice of presence with a devotion to detail and a basically curious nature. If we are to understand how we do things, and the impact of our beliefs and actions, we need to investigate with a sense of friendly curiosity. In our willingness to see our situation and ourselves clearly, without judgment and criticism, we make friends with ourselves in whatever state we are in. In this open awareness arises the understanding that wisdom is present in whatever we do. With this clear seeing, we can relax a bit and enjoy the open moment, appreciate the delicate scent of a blossom or the path a bird traces through the air.