Today’s sharing is a bit like a patchwork quilt, little bits of beauty that I think go together to make an interesting whole. These are the bits that have been going around in my heart recently, quilting themselves together in a way I have appreciated. So I want to offer them to you.
First, somewhere recently I heard about a research study looking at our natural inclination to feel good from feeling useful in the world. I don’t actually remember where I heard this, maybe the podcast Hidden Brain, which I like very much. Anyway, the researchers, whoever they were, looked at several ways that feeling useful, having a purpose feels good. The one that has stuck with me was about babies.
When babies are first born, they don’t actually perceive any boundaries between themselves and their world, a sense of self and other. Fairly young however, I think they said somewhere around 2 - 3 months, babies start by accident finding out about “self” and “other.” One of the first ways this happens is from waving their arms about enough that eventually their arm contacts an object and causing it to move.
Babies are naturally curious. We’re just born that way! So the baby sees the movement and then begins to pay attention. Inevitably the baby has this moment of understanding that they can purposely move their arm in a particular way and effect change on their world. What the researchers studied was— what was the emotional effect for the baby when understanding he/she could have impact on their world. The answer was across the board— joy.
The babies always smiled when they realized that could affect things in their world. It feels good to know we can affect things, and that is a good thing to know.
This is a natural joy mindfulness can bring as well. Mindfulness teaches us we can always affect things in our lives. This doesn’t mean we can make life happen the way we want it too, but rather we can impact what kind of experience we have with whatever life brings us, and knowing this sense of self-efficacy feels good.
I had an example of this for myself this week. I found a new lump under my right arm on the side that I had my breast cancer— so of course my mind goes to single mom of young adults who still need me and the possibility of metastatic breast cancer. So the first part of knowing I could affect my situation involved knowing how to allow room to acknowledge any emotions arising without proliferating an unnecessary worry story before knowing the facts. That’s really nice not to reactively go down that road with something like this!
Then, while obviously hoping the lump would turn out to be something else (it did— scar tissue), I also knew that I could find my footing with whatever the lump turned out to be. Not that that footing would necessary be neat, clean or easy, not that there wouldn’t be ups and downs, maybe even massive ups and downs, but rather that even with metastatic breast cancer, I knew I could again and again re-find my footing and the strongest path forward as needed. This is a good thing to know. It feels good in a strong grounding, to know we have this possibility of affecting how we are with things in our world.
Second bit in the quilt fits this perfectly. I read a recent blogpost written by Jody Green from the San Francisco Zen Center about life in the pandemic. I loved one part of it so much, I printed it out and put it on my desk where I could see it regularly. Here is what it says:
Jody Green https://blogs.sfzc.org/blog/2020/04/27/every-day-is-a-good-day-zen-and-the-art-of-sheltering-in-place/
A beloved Zen koan insists, “every day is a good day.” I worry that the aphorism rings somewhere between outrageous and obscene, in a time of so much suffering and loss, and yet it has been in my head a lot these days, a quiet pulse of words within the silence.
The teaching does not mean that every day is happy, easy, or pleasing to my personal preferences. It means, as I understand it, that when I am willing to be intimate with the circumstances arising right now, no matter how difficult or perilous, no matter how constrained, when I am willing not to turn away or to try to escape, at that moment I begin to live my life.
Wishing that this day were another or a “better” day is tantamount to wishing my life away. It is a way of refusing to take care of the life I have, which seems like a terrible response in a time when so many are dying. Every day is a good day because this day is the only day I have, and because having a day, no matter how grief-stricken, terror-filled, or dragon-faced, is a gift, even in the midst of a pandemic.
Learning how to feel into the goodness of a day even when I just found what might be a significant lump under my arm, that’s when I learn about and touch the sacredness of being alive. This koan, Every day is a good day, allows us to tap into something that is always bigger and stronger than the particulars of even the most painful circumstances. It’s beyond logic or the rational mind— which is what sacred is, a perception of a beauty and wholeness that is beyond what the logic or the rational mind can ever make sense of.
Third bit to share: I read a quote from Joanna Macy who, if you don’t know her is an environmental activist and a sort of grandmother to the Deep Ecology movement. She speaks directly to this.
To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe — to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it — is a wonder beyond words.
That’s kind of the center design of the quilt, the light that holds it all together. This quote is also sitting on my desk.
The last bit to share might seem at first like it doesn’t quite match. But this is the beauty of a patchwork quilt, those odd bits that make it really interesting. This is a poem from Kabir, a 15th century Indian poet, that I first heard in 2002 in my initial MBSR training. It has stuck with me all these years, but never enough to actually to share it out loud with others. For the first time I can ever remember, I actually went looking for this poem this week.
All that named goodness and sacredness and beauty and joy, that’s nice, but sometimes we still just get distracted and go down a rabbit hole in a different direction. Traveling down that rabbit hole myself this week in a way that didn’t feel good, this poem popped into my mind and I read it with a whole new understanding. For me, it fits:
I Said To The Wanting-Creature Inside Me
I said to the wanting-creature inside me:
What is this river you want to cross?
(Ooo that line! Isn’t it helpful? Do you know what he means?— this inside yearning for the imaginary other side of the river that, because it is imaginary, we can never quite get there no matter how hard we try!)
There are no travelers on the river-road, and no road.
Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or nesting?
There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.
There is no tow rope either, and no one to pull it. There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no ford! And there is no body, and no mind!
Do you believe there is some place that will make the
soul less thirsty?
In that great absence you will find nothing.
Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
there you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully!
Don't go off somewhere else!
Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of
and stand firm in that which you are.
This poem brings me full circle back into remembering the baby’s joy at recognizing they can affect their world. I can too. We all can too. When we throw away imaginary thoughts of wanting things to be the way we think they should be, and stand in this body, breathe this breath, open these eyes, this heart and mind to what is here, we taste again the wonder beyond words that is the goodness of the day.
Community Drop In Group 6/24/20
I recently heard a very helpful teaching. I’ve been doing a wonderful online course from
tricycle.org with Christina Feldman and Chris Cullen called Universal Empathy. I love having
the structure of the course to follow over the week, and even more, I love their way of looking at
the Brahma Viharas, a root teaching of Buddhist psychology on the foundational qualities of
lovingkindness, joy, compassion and equanimity.
I will likely make this into a series of talks, but for today I just want to hone in on one teaching
of theirs that I find particularly useful.
When practicing with the heart qualities, it’s not the feeling that matters most, but rather the
Kindness, compassion, gratitude— these are all qualities that can be challenging at times for us.
If we are feeling stressed, anxious, depressed or even just a bit hyper, or down, and then someone
tells us to open to kindness, compassion or gratitude, these qualities are likely to not feel
immediately accessible. And when we can’t generate these feelings on demand, then we likely to
add a layer of self-judgement or blame for “what’s wrong with me that I can’t feel kind or
This was certainly my experience early in the practice. Teachers would guide a beautiful
lovingkindness meditation, and I’d try to connect but just couldn’t generate any of the warm,
soft, ease I thought I was suppose to be feeling. So these practices ended up leaving me feeling
more cold and alienated at first instead of connected to resources of strong heart. It actually took
me years to muddle my way into a lovingkindness practice that I could connect to. If I had had
this teaching earlier, this would have been much easier...
Just taking the time to meditate is at its essence an act of self care. Therefore it is a kind or
compassionate act by definition. Therefore, because it is the intention that matters most, not the
feeling, just by doing the practice, we are already in the field of the strong heart. The important
piece is not a warm, soft, ease generated on demand, but rather waking up an awareness that our
intention to meditate, however it unfolds, is putting us in the direction of the strong heart.
Feldman calls this inclining the heart towards care. Knowing that we are inclining in this
direction is enough
So our practice becomes much more about strengthening our awareness of intention in the
direction of care than about generating a feeling tone we think we should have. Ironically just by
doing this, the feeling tone is much more likely to open on its own, but we always know that it is
okay if it doesn’t.
Community Drop In Group 6/16/20
I’ve been listening to many people describe a certain kind of anxiety in these challenging times
that is starting to make me think of chronic pain.
Instead of chronic physical pain, many people are experiencing chronic emotional pain, which of
course physically hurts in the body.
I have a beautiful article by longterm mindfulness practitioner Darlene Cohen, called One Button
at a Time, and I often share it with people working with chronic pain. Everything she says in this
article about learning how to live well, even with the debilitating pain of rheumatoid arthritis,
feels really useful for dealing with chronic emotional pain as well. Her basic approach is to
always see beyond the confines of the pain and strengthen herself by an appreciative practice of
opening the eyes, heart and mind to see all that is present in a given moment—not just the pain.
So I want to share from her words of wisdom today.
Cohen had been a serious Zen meditation student for a number of years before developing
rheumatoid arthritis. Initially, feeling “overcome by unremitting pain,” she thought she had
wasted all those years with meditation practice. Meditation was suppose to help with just such
an occasion but at first it seemed a failure instead. Yet, it didn’t take long for her to find out that
she was wrong. She began to uncover numerous ways practice did support this new life with
pain. She says:
First of all, though ravaged by pain and disease, my body was deeply settled. ... My body had
been developing the tremendous stability associated with regular sitting practice.
So even though she was “overwhelmed and consumed by the pain,” she found she was able to let
go, surrender into what she calls the “physicality” of the moment— meaning opening to all of
the physical felt sensations present in any given moment. She says,
I discovered that wherever I looked, there were experiences other than pain waiting to be
noticed: here is bending, here is breath, here is sun warming, here is unbearable fire, here is
tightness. All these perceptions were fresh and fascinating.
Fresh and fascinating even when not all pleasant. What she learned was opening to a wide array
of sensations gave her a powerful means of being with the unpleasant. But it takes a kind of
dedication to keep widening the scope when the pain is challenging:
If it any given moment I am aware of 10 different elements—my bottom on the chair, the sound of
cars passing outside, the though of the laundry I have to do, the hum of the air conditioner, an
unpleasant stab of sharp knee pain, cool air entering my nostrils warm air going out— and one
of them is pain, that pain will dominate my life. But if I am aware of 100 elements, those 10 plus
more subtle sensations – the animal presence of other people sitting quietly in the room, the
shadow of the lamp against the wall, the brush of my hair against my ear, The pressure of my
clothes against my skin – then pain is merely one of the elements of my consciousness, and that is
pain I can live with.
This widening of perspective is very useful. Our survival minds want to send us into tunnel
vision where problem is the only thing that can occupy any mental space. If I am in a life/death
situation, I probably want problem to be my full occupation. But if I am trying to live daily life,
then only seeing problem and not anything else means a daily living hell instead.
Clearly, having the mind space to be aware of a hundred different sensations present in a moment
involves practice, training and patience. As she says, it was through her extensive sitting practice
that she cultivated this skill. That depth of practice might feel unattainable in these times, but in
reality times have always been hard. There is nothing unusual in this human experience of
challenging times, and people for eons have been learning how to do the practice and training
necessary to shift our experience away from a survival only mode of just getting by and to
greater resiliency and well-being in the midst of the difficult. If we stick with the intention of
compassionate practice, put in the time and right work, this shift will happen for us as well.
Putting in any time in formal practice, even just 5 - 10 min a day, starts to make a difference if
we do it with a deep intention of persistence, goodwill, compassion and letting go. That formal
practice begins to change the quality of our day. As Cohen says:
With such a mind, life becomes richly textured. Consciously putting a cup on the table and
feeling the flat surfaces meet becomes a rare, satisfying, “just-right” kind of experience.
Washing dishes is not just about getting the dishes clean; it’s also about feeling the warm, soapy
water soothing my arthritic fingers. Doing laundry, I can smell its cleanness and luxuriate in the
simple movements of folding, a counterpoint to my complex life.
This is not about someone having rarified good conditions present in life to be able to take this
kind of time to notice. This is her learning to do this in the midst of serious pain. As Cohen
For people in pain, tapping into this wisdom beyond wisdom is simply how to survive. When we
have nothing left to hold onto, we must find comfort and support in the mundane details of our
every day lives, which are less than mundane when they’re the reason we’re willing to stay alive.
This is the upside of impermanence: the shiny uniqueness of beings and objects when we begin to
notice their comforting presence. When preferences for a particular experience fade, the myriad
things come forward to play, shimmering was suchness. Obviously, flowers and trees do this, but
so do beer cans and microwaves, they’re all waiting for our embrace. It is enormously
empowering to inhabit the world so vibrant was singularity.
She notes that after living with this condition for 30+ years that she never enters a room without
looking for what sources of comfort and ease might be there – always noticing not only the
recliner, or the pillow, but also the light from the window, a homemade vase or the muffled drone
of the air-conditioning— all sources of potential comfort and pleasure.
She’s learned to bring a sense of companionship and friendliness to items like her toothbrush, her
her dishes, her spoon, and her car. She finds that by taking notice of the supports around her all
the time, not only is she better able to manage the pain, but life is just more interesting, rich and
full, even in the midst of pain. The practice hasn’t magically made her pain go away, but it has
freed her to live a life that has joy and meaning even with the pain.
How might this kind of appreciative mindfulness support you? Do you have a habit of gliding
over what’s good in your life and focusing only on what’s hard or unwanted? What happens
when you draw from the heart to broaden what you see with your eyes in any given moment?
I set down last night to watch a Netflix show with my daughter, and really took in the beauty and
sweetness of this moment— not just being with her, but also the sweet cat curled up between us,
the fact that we had a TV that was working and Netflix, after a long pause actually opened, that
some people in Canada had bothered to make this wonderful show about Kim’s Convenience
store and the family that runs it, that we have my mother’s old red couch that is so comfortable, a
roof over our head and a floor beneath our feet keeping us dry and warm on a rainy cool evening.
When we learn to pause and open our eyes with the strength of our hearts, we start to see into a
sacredness present in every moment. Mindfulness teacher Chris Cullen talks about the
interdependence of eyes and heart. He says, the attitude of the heart defines what the eyes will
be able to see.
Darlene Cohen is pointing to an attitude of heart that helps reveal supports all around. It is using
the strength of the heart to open our eyes to an appreciative wonder of what is here. This is all
basic grounding practice that helps clear our minds to function better in our lives.
And by practicing this kind of basic, but sacred, re-grounding moment by moment, we come to
know the wisdom beyond wisdom that allows us to live a life with joy and meaning right in the
midst of our pain as well.
Community Drop In Groups
There are so many ways to look at this that are useful, but in light of events in our nation over the past week, I feel strongly called to look at this in one particular way— how the assumptions we are making about others in our nation are so destructive.
First in light of this past week, I want to name George Floyd so we can pause in compassionate awareness of him and everyone like him who has had any experience of our structural and institutional forms of violence. And pause for a moment of compassionate awareness for anyone anywhere who has experienced violence. I invite us to orient with an intention that this practice of ours be useful for healing and greater healing action in this world.
So if any growth and healing for us all is possible, first we need to look at what ways we might be contributing to these problems. Here is where this agreement of “Don’t make any assumptions” can be so powerful.
Community Drop In Group
We are looking at Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements, and this week, we are continuing with the 2nd Agreement— Don’t take anything personally.
Before I start however, in one of the zoom groups last week, I mentioned how much I appreciated his framing of this in terms of agreements. Someone in the group wanted to know more, so here are some thoughts on why the word agreement is powerful in this context for me.
Agreement for me feels somehow more purposely binding that just setting my intention. When you make an agreement, it means you are willing to follow it. But there is also a particular tone in the word agreement that is helpful to pull out. For example if two people are in conflict, and they come to an agreement for how to move forward, it implies a finding of a mutually acceptable way to put down the fight. It implies finding some goodwill from which moving forward then is possible.
Community Drop In Group
Last week we talked about Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements, and in particular the first agreement, “Be impeccable with your word” and how that relates to self-acceptance. I learned about this book from the Prison Mindfulness Institute where many people have found it to be powerfully helpful in meeting the hard stuff we carry.
This week I want to look at the Second Agreement— Don’t take anything personally, and I want to look at it today a little differently than Ruiz does. His way is very useful and we will get there next week. But I think this further context of not taking things personally is a useful starting place with this agreement. Both Buddhist psychology and modern science have a similar idea that all things are unfolding in light of what’s come before. In Buddhist psychology, this is called Dependent Origination and the scientific terminology is evolution. As evolutionary biologist Lynn Margolis says:
Independence is a political term, not a scientific one.
This is another way of saying, don’t take anything personally…
Community Drop In Group 5/5/20
I want to start with the Cinderella story. The basic gist of this well known story is:
Cinderella, after an early sweet childhood, finds herself at the mercy of a cruel step mother and step sisters. Even so, she does the work they ask of her without complaint. Eventually through the help of a fairy godmother, she makes her way out of this situation back to happiness.
One thing that is really interesting about this story is that this is one of the most common archetypal stories in the world, and by some estimates, it is the most common. Versions of the story appear back in ancient times all the way to present Disney, and in cultures across the world. The name and details vary widely, but the basic gist of that young woman in an oppressive situation who finds her way to joy and happiness is amazingly common, and in all of these stories, she is an embodiment of kindness and balance throughout her journey.
This last bit has given her somewhat of a bad name in modern times. The Cinderella figure can
be reduced to a sort of saccharin sweet do-gooder who needs rescuing by others— but the true
Cinderella archetype is actually quite powerful, and it is an image that obviously resonates
deeply in the human mind considering how far spread through both time and space this story
Community Drop In Group 4/15/20
I was recently reminded of a story I first heard from one of my mindfulness teachers at UMass years ago who knew the person in the story. It is a beautiful story of meeting challenge in a way that disarms the challenge, changes its nature.
It is interesting how a story can take on a life of its own. The version I came across last week was a very watered down version which had lost sight of Terry Dobson, the actual person it happened to. So I want to share his version with its full depth of insight.
He was an American Aikido student who went to study with a teacher in Japan. After 3 years of study, he found himself becoming restless with the basic ideas. He had learned high level martial arts moves, but always with an instruction that to resort to using this is not needed in true Aikido.
His teacher, who was actually the founder of Aikido, taught that the art of aikido was devoted to peace. Dobson quotes his teacher as saying:
Community Drop In Group 4/8/20
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks
Community Drop In Group 4/1/20
Today we are looking at the quality of curiosity as inspired by the Unwinding Anxiety app. This is a beautiful app for very practical mindfulness based skills for working with anxiety that can make a big difference.
One of the first steps named on the app is learning to catch when we are getting hooked by our anxiety— and therefore doing all of those things that in the long run are just compounding the situation, driving us deeper into an anxiety vortex — and instead, finding that beautiful witnessing possibility that allows us to step back, unhook, begin to patiently learn a different freer possibility.
A key to this new step is curiosity. Judson Brewer, the lead author of the app, says it this way:
Inviting curiosity allows us to hack into our brain’s natural reward system in a way that actually feels good.