acceptance

Entrusting yourself to the waves

I was drawn to my first Buddhist mindfulness retreat during a time when my son, Narayan, was four, and I was on the verge of divorce. During a slow, icy drive through a winter snowstorm on the way to the retreat center, I had plenty of time to reflect on what most mattered to me. I didn’t want a breakup that would bury the love I still shared with my husband; I didn’t want us to turn into uncaring, even hostile, strangers. And I didn’t want a breakup that would deprive Narayan of feeling secure and loved. My deep prayer was that through all that was happening, I’d find a way to stay connected with my heart.

Over the next five days, through hours of silent meditation, I cycled many times through periods of clarity and attentiveness, followed by stretches when I was swamped in sleepiness, plagued by physical discomfort, or lost in a wandering mind. Early one evening I became inundated by thoughts about the upcoming months: Should my husband and I hire lawyers or a mediator to handle the process of divorce? When should we move to separate residences? And, most importantly, how should I be there for our son during this painful transition?

As each anxious thought surfaced, I wanted to really dig in and work everything out in my mind. Yet something in me knew I needed to stay with the unpleasant feelings in my body. A verse from Ryokan, an eighteenth-century Zen poet, came to mind: “To find the Buddhist law, drift east and west, come and go, entrusting yourself to the waves.” The “Buddhist law” refers to the truth of how things really are. We can’t understand the nature of reality until we let go of controlling our experience. There’s no way to see clearly what’s going on if on some level we’re attempting to ignore or bypass the stormy weather.

During the last few days of the retreat I tried to let go, over and over, but felt repeatedly stymied by my well-worn strategy for feeling better—figuring things out. Now Ryokan’s verse was rife with possibility: Perhaps I could entrust myself to the waves. Perhaps the only way to real peace was by opening to life just as it was. Otherwise, behind my efforts to manage things, I’d always sense a lurking threat, something right around the corner that was going to cause trouble.

My old habits didn’t give up easily, though. As soon as I’d contact some tightness in my chest, I’d flip right back into worrying about my son’s new preschool, carpooling, or about how to find a baby-sitter with more flexible hours. Then I’d become hypercritical, harshly judging myself for “wasting” my retreat time. Gradually, I recognized that my heart was clenched tight, afraid to let the intensity of life wash through me. I needed help “entrusting.”

Each afternoon, the teachers had been leading us in a lovingkindness meditation. I decided to try weaving this into my sitting. The classical form of the meditation consists of sending loving prayers to ourselves and widening circles of other beings. I began to offer kind wishes to myself: “May I be happy and at ease; may I be happy and at ease.” At first, repeating the words felt like a superficial mental exercise, but soon something shifted. My heart meant it: I cared about my own life, and becoming conscious of that caring softened some of the tightness around my heart.

Now I could more easily give myself to the waves of fear and sorrow, and simply notice the drifting thoughts and physical sensations—squeezing and soreness—that were coming and going. Whenever the worries that had been snagging me appeared, I sensed that they too were waves, tenacious ones that pressed uncomfortably on my chest. By not resisting, by letting the waves wash through me, I began to relax. Rather than fighting the stormy surges, I rested in an ocean of awareness that embraced all the moving waves. I’d arrived in a sanctuary that felt large enough to hold whatever was going on in my life.

After my retreat, I returned home with the intention of taking refuge in presence whenever I was irritated, anxious, and tight. I was alert when the first flare-up occurred, a week later. My ex-husband called to say he couldn’t take care of Narayan that evening, leaving me scrambling to find a baby-sitter. “I’m the breadwinner, and I can’t even count on him for this!” my mind sputtered. “Once again he’s not doing his share, once again he’s letting me down!”

But when I was done for the day, I took some time to pause and touch into the judgment and blame lingering in my body, and my righteous stance softened. I sat still as the blaming thoughts and swells of irritation came and went. Underneath the resentment was an anxious question: “How will I manage?” As I let the subterranean waves of anxiety move through me, I found a quiet inner space that had more breathing room—and more perspective.

Of course I couldn’t figure out how the future would play out. The only time I had was right now, and this moment was okay. From this space I could sense my ex-husband’s stress about finding a new place to live, working out our schedules, and, more deeply, adapting to a different future than he had imagined. This helped me feel more tolerant and kind. It also revealed the power of entrusting myself to the waves. My husband and I continue to be dear friends. With him and in countless instances with others, this gateway to presence has reawakened me to a space of loving that feels like home.

Adapted from Tara’s upcoming book, True Refuge – Finding Peace and Freedom in your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, Feb, 2013)

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Let it R.A.I.N.

Rain on a window, with out-of-focus car lights behind.

When you’re young, the territory of the psyche is like a vast estate, with rolling hills, forests and plains, swamps and meadows. So many things can be experienced, expressed, wanted, and loved.

But as life goes along, most people pull back from major parts of their psyche. Perhaps a swamp of sadness was painful, or fumes of toxic wishes were alarming, or jumping exuberantly in a meadow of joy irritated a parent into a scolding. Or maybe you saw someone else get in trouble for feeling, saying, or doing something and you resolved, consciously or unconsciously, to Stay Away From That Place Forever.

In whatever way it happens, most of us end up by mid-adulthood living in the gate house, venturing out a bit, but lacking much sense of the whole estate, the great endowment of the whole psyche. Emotions are shut down, energetic and erotic wellsprings of vitality are capped, deep longings are set aside, sub-personalities are shackled and silenced, old pain and troubles are buried, the roots of reactions – hurt, anger, feelings of inadequacy – are veiled so we can’t get at them, and we live at odds with both Nature and our own nature.

Sure, the processes of the psyche need some regulation. Not all thoughts should be spoken, and not all desires should be acted upon! But if you suppress, disown, push away, recoil from, or deny major parts of yourself, then you feel cut off, alienated from yourself, lacking vital information about what is really going on inside, no longer at home in your own skin or your own mind – which feels bad, lowers effectiveness at home and work, fuels interpersonal issues, and contributes to health problems.

So what can we do? How can we reclaim, use, enjoy, and be at peace with our whole estate – without being overwhelmed by its occasional swamps and fumes?

This is where R.A.I.N. comes in.

How?

R.A.I.N. is an acronym developed by Michelle McDonald, a senior mindfulness teacher, to summarize a powerful way to expand self-awareness. (I’ve adapted it a bit below, and any flaws in the adaptation are my own, not Michelle’s.)

R = Recognize: Notice that you are experiencing something, such as irritation at the tone of voice used by your partner, child, or co-worker. Step back into observation rather than reaction. Without getting into story, simply name what is present, such as “annoyance,” “thoughts of being mistreated,” “body firing up,” “hurt,” “wanting to cry.”

A = Accept (Allow): Acknowledge that your experience is what it is, even if it’s unpleasant. Be with it without attempting to change it. Try to have self-compassion instead of self-criticism. Don’t add to the difficulty by being hard on yourself.

I = Investigate (Inquire): Try to find an attitude of interest, curiosity, and openness. Not detached intellectual analysis but a gently engaged exploration, often with a sense of tenderness or friendliness toward what it finds. Open to other aspects of the experience, such as softer feelings of hurt under the brittle armor of anger. It’s OK for your inquiry to be guided by a bit of insight into your own history and personality, but try to stay close to the raw experience and out of psychoanalyzing yourself.

N = Not-identify (Not-self): Have a feeling/thought/etc., instead of being it. Disentangle yourself from the various parts of the experience, knowing that they are small, fleeting aspects of the totality you are. See the streaming nature of sights, sounds, thoughts, and other contents of mind, arising and passing away due mainly to causes that have nothing to do with you, that are impersonal. Feel the contraction, stress, and pain that comes from claiming any part of this stream as “I,” or “me,” or “mine” – and sense the spaciousness and peace that comes when experiences simply flow.

* * *

R.A.I.N. and related practices of spacious awareness are fundamental to mental health, and always worth doing in their own right. Additionally, sometimes they alone enable painful or challenging contents of mind to dissipate and pass away.

But often it is not enough to simply be with the mind, even in as profound a way as R.A.I.N. Then we need to work with the mind, by reducing what’s negative and increasing what’s positive. (It’s also necessary to work with the mind to build up the inner resources needed to be with it; being with and working with the mind are not at odds with each other as some say, but in fact support each other.)

And whatever ways we work with the garden of the mind – pulling weeds and planting flowers – will be more successful after it R.A.I.N.s.

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Presence in the face of dying

At the end of a daylong meditation workshop, Pam, a woman in her late sixties, drew me aside. Her husband, Jerry, was near death after three years of suffering from lymphoma. “I wanted so much to save him,” she told me. “I looked into ayurvedic medicine, acupuncture, Chinese herbs, every alternative treatment I could find, tracked every test result . . . We were going to beat this thing.” She sat back wearily in her chair, shoulders slumped. “And now I’m keeping in touch with everyone, giving updates, coordinating hospice care. If he’s not napping I try to make him comfortable, read to him . . .”

I responded gently, “It sounds like you’ve been trying really hard to take good care of Jerry . . . and it’s been very busy.” At these words, she gave me a smile of recognition. “Hmm, busy. That sounds crazy, doesn’t it?” She paused. “As far back as I can remember I’ve really been busy. But now . . . well, I just can’t sit back and let him go without a fight.”

Pam was silent for a few moments, then looked at me anxiously. “He could die any day now, Tara. Isn’t there some Buddhist practice or ritual that I should learn? Is there something I should be reading? How can I help him with this . . . with dying?”

“Pam,” I said, “you’ve already done so much . . . but the time for all that kind of activity is over. At this point, you don’t have to make anything happen, you don’t need to do anything.” I waited a moment and then added, “Just be with him. Let him know your love through the fullness of your presence.”

At this difficult time I was calling on a simple teaching that is central to my work with my meditation students and therapy clients: It is through realizing loving presence as our very essence, through being that presence, that we discover true freedom. In the face of inevitable loss, this timeless presence brings healing and peace to our own hearts and to the hearts of others.

“In those most difficult moments,” I suggested, “you might pause and recognize what you are feeling — the fear or anger or grief — and then inwardly whisper the phrase ‘I consent.’” I’d recently heard this phrase from Father Thomas Keating, and thought that as a Catholic, Pam might find it particularly valuable. Saying “I consent,” or as I more frequently teach, “yes,” relaxes our armoring against the present moment and allows us to meet life’s challenges with a more open heart.

Pam was nodding, but she had an intent, worried look. “I want to do this, Tara, but when I’m most upset, my mind speeds up. I start talking to myself . . . I talk to him . . . How will I remember to pause?”

“You probably will forget, at least some of the time,” I said, “and that’s totally natural. All you can do is have the intention to pause, the intention to feel what is going on and ‘let be.’” Pam’s face softened with understanding. “That I can do. I can intend, with all my heart, to be there for Jerry.”

A month after my conversation with Pam, she called to tell me what had happened after the workshop. She acknowledged that, even in those final weeks of her husband’s life, she had struggled with the urge to be busy, to find ways to feel useful. She shared that, one afternoon, Jerry began talking about having only a short time left, and about not being afraid of death. She bent over, gave him a kiss, and said quickly, “Oh dear, today’s been a good day, you seemed to have more energy. Let me make you some herbal tea.”

He fell silent, and the quietness shook her. “It became so clear to me in those moments that anything other than listening to what was really going on—anything other than being fully present—actually separated us … I avoided reality by suggesting a cup of tea. But my attempt to steer away from the truth took me away from him, and that was heartbreaking.”

While Pam boiled water for tea, she prayed, asking that her heart be fully present with Jerry. This prayer guided her in the days that followed. During those last few weeks, Pam said she had to keep letting go of all of her ideas about how her husband’s dying should be and what else she should be doing, and just remind herself to say “I consent.”

At first she was mechanically repeating the words, but after a few days she felt as if her heart actually started consenting. When her gut tightened with clutches of fear and feelings of helplessness, she’d stay with those feelings, consenting to the depth of her vulnerability. When the restless urge to “do something” arose, she’d notice that and be still, letting it come and go. And as the great waves of grief rolled through, she’d again say, “I consent,” opening to the huge aching weight of loss.

This intimate presence with her inner experience allowed Pam to fully attend to Jerry. As she put it, “When all of me was truly consenting to the fear and pain, I knew how to take care of him. I sensed when to whisper words of encouragement or just listen, ways to reassure him with touch . . . how to sing to him, be quiet with him. How to be with him.”

Before she ended the call, Pam shared with me what she considered to be the gift of her last days with Jerry, the answer to her prayers: “In the silence, I could see past a sense of ‘him’ and ‘me.’ It became clear that we were a field of loving—total openness, warmth, light. He’s gone, but that field of loving is always with me. My heart knows that I came home . . . truly I came home to love.”

Pam’s willingness to be present with her inner life, no matter how painful, made it possible for her to connect with the vastness of love. Her growing capacity for staying with the truth of her moment-to-moment experience, for embracing the true refuge of presence, enabled her to find her way home, even in the midst of great loss.

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Practice when life gets tough

Sometimes life comes at us full force and overwhelms us. That’s what happened to me the last few months. Things happened that were so overpowering that all my usual routines went out the window just so I could get through each day. My work, my social life – and yes, my sitting practice – pretty much dropped off my plate.

At times like this, people often say, “Life got in my way.” But that’s so not true. This IS my life. Just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s standing in my way. Actually, I think it’s exactly the opposite. It’s showing me exactly where I need to go to push beyond my comfort zone. It’s like a custom designed life lesson created just for me.

So what happened? My husband and I had been thinking about moving. He has a disability that’s making it increasingly difficult to live in our three-level townhouse. So our plan was to slowly fix up the house over the next year or so in preparation for selling, while casually looking for a new place.

But life rarely goes according to plan.

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Our casual looking turned up the ideal place for us – all on one floor, fully wheelchair accessible, in the city, near public transportation (which we need), that we could afford. A rare find. But we couldn’t buy it outright. We had to sell our place first to pay for it. Could we do it? Could we commit to buying this place and then get our current house fixed up and sold in time to pay for it? A major part of our life savings is tied up in our house, so taking big risks wasn’t something we were keen to do.

To make a long story short, we decided to jump. After agonizing about it for a day, we committed to a) buying that property, and b) doing 22 years worth of fixing, cleaning, and clearing out of stuff, under a very tight deadline, to pay for it. And because my husband has that disability, it was pretty much up to yours truly to manage the whole thing.

During the worst of it, it went something like this. I’d wake up, having slept on the couch because the bed had been taken apart and cleared out for the carpet cleaners. I’d go to turn on the light in the bathroom, but the fixture had been ripped out. The microwave, which I needed to make breakfast, was on the floor in the living room. And I had to move the vacuum cleaner and boxes of stuff aside to open the door. Every plate and spoon I used had to be washed and put away immediately after use because the kitchen counter was being sanded and refinished. Workmen were around the house, banging and clanging. Meanwhile, every delay and setback — and there were several — meant that unmovable deadline loomed closer and closer.

As the weeks dragged on, I grew exhausted and irritable. I snapped at my husband. I got into arguments with our broker. I felt grouchy and miserable, but I was too stressed out to do much better. And no surprise, my meditation practice was in tatters. If I could sit at all, my mind was racing around all the things I was worrying and feeling anxious about.

But even though my daily sits were a mess, I tried to stay close to my practice — my informal practice, that is. I noted all the ways I screwed up, flew off the handle, and didn’t live up to my expectations. I also saw when I handled things gracefully, resolved a dispute, and calmed myself down. It wasn’t about beating myself up over my mistakes, or congratulating myself for doing well. It was simply to see myself more clearly, and learn from it.

These are some of the ways I practiced during this period.

  1. Don’t fight it. My mind was all over the place – both when I sat and otherwise. This was expected. There was no point in getting upset about it. Why not just observe that mile-a-minute mind? Sure, I didn’t like it, but that’s never relevant. Why make things worse by getting all wound up about something I can’t change? Some forces of nature are bigger than me, so I need to step aside and let them play themselves out. They will pass, given time. This was my practice of acceptance.
  2. Do what I can. As far as my formal practice, I did what I could, which meant some days it didn’t happen at all. No regrets, no beating myself up. I knew this was just a rough phase, and it too would change. I could try again the next day. This was my practice of patience and non-judgment.
  3. Return to my breath. When my worries and anxieties got overwhelming, I kept coming back to my body and my breath. What’s really going on here? This was my practice of staying in the present moment.
  4. Be aware that I’m in a negative state of mind. When feeling stressed, I’m likely to take things personally or see things in the worst possible light. I often stopped and took a breath. What’s really important here? Often I did this only well AFTER I snapped at someone. So be it. That’s better than not noticing. This was my practice of keeping a bigger perspective.
  5. Take ownership of my mistakes. When I said or did things to another person that I later regretted, I went back to apologize as soon as possible. This was my practice of taking responsibility for my actions.
  6. Don’t forget to take care of myself. With all my health issues, eating right and getting enough sleep are essential. I never cut corners on those. But I admit my yoga and exercise routine fell apart. Since I was being somewhat physically active, I allowed myself to slip on those. I felt reasonably sure I could get myself back on track once it was all over. I was doing the best I could. This was my practice of self-compassion.
  7. Stay committed to my aspirations. Even at my worst, I kept connected to my longer term aspiration to be a better person, to live up to my highest ideals. I didn’t always succeed, obviously. But I didn’t give up on them. This was my practice of keeping my intentions.
  8. Let go, and trust that things will work out. One of my weaknesses is that I’m a control freak. It’s incredibly hard for me to let go of doing everything myself, my own way. But even though things don’t go as I think they should, they always end up at what I need. I was constantly reminded that the universe is working the way it should – and I am held in its wise and compassionate embrace.

Practice isn’t just about what we do when conditions are perfect, when we succeed at being mindful and kind. Those times when we’re out of control, feeling crummy, and stressed out – they’re also a great time to observe ourselves and learn how we are in the world. After all, don’t we take up meditation so we could learn how to navigate life’s difficulties more gracefully? Life gave me a perfect opportunity to practice exactly that.

By the way, we sold our house last week. We move to our new place in mid-September. All is well, and hopefully life will return to normal soon.

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The suffering of rejecting desire

“We have been raised to fear … our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for … many facets of our own oppression.” – Audre Lourde

In the myth of Eden, God created the garden and dropped the tree of knowledge, with its delicious and dangerous fruits, right smack dab in the middle. He then deposited some humans close by and forbade these curious, fruit-loving creatures from taking a taste. It was a set up. Eve naturally grasped at the fruit and then was shamed and punished for having done so.

We experience this situation daily inside our own psyche. We are encouraged by our culture to keep ourselves comfortable, to be right, to possess things, to be better than others, to look good, to be admired. We are also told that we should feel ashamed of our selfishness, that we are flawed for being so self-centered, sinful when we are indulgent.

Most mainstream religions—Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Confucian—teach that our wanting, passion, and greed cause suffering. While this certainly can be true, their blanket teachings about the dangers of desire often deepen self-hatred. We are counseled to transcend, overcome or somehow manage the hungers of our physical and emotional being. We are taught to mistrust the wildness and intensity of our natural passions, to fear being out of control.

Equating spiritual purity with elimination of desire is a common misunderstanding I also see in students on the Buddhist path. This is not just a contemporary issue. The struggle to understand the relationship between awakening and desire in the context of the Buddhist teachings has gone on since the time of the Buddha himself.

A classical Chinese Zen tale brings this to light: An old woman had supported a monk for twenty years, letting him live in a hut on her land. After all this time she figured the monk, now a man in the prime of life, must have attained some degree of enlightenment. So she decided to test him.

Rather than taking his daily meal to him herself, she asked a beautiful young girl to deliver it. She instructed the girl to embrace the monk warmly—and then to report back to her how he responded. When the girl returned, she said that the monk had simply stood stock still, as if frozen.

The old woman then headed for the monk’s hut. What was it like, she asked him, when he felt the girl’s warm body against his? With some bitterness he answered, “Like a withering tree on a rock in winter, utterly without warmth.” Furious, the old woman threw him out and burned down his hut, exclaiming, “How could I have wasted all these years on such a fraud.”

To some the monk’s response might seem virtuous. After all, he resisted temptation, he even seemed to have pulled desire out by the roots. Still the old woman considered him a fraud. Is his way of experiencing the young girl—“like a withering tree on a rock in winter”—the point of spiritual practice? Instead of appreciating the girl’s youth and loveliness, instead of noting the arising of a natural sexual response and its passing away without acting on it, the monk shut down. This is not enlightenment.

I have worked with many meditation students who have gotten the message that experiencing desire is a sign of being spiritually undeveloped. While it is true that withdrawing attention from certain impulses can diminish their strength, the continued desire for simple pleasures—delicious foods, play, entertainment or sexual gratification—need not be embarrassing evidence of being trapped in lower impulses.

Those same students also assume that “spiritual people” are supposed to call on inner resources as their only refuge, and so they rarely ask for comfort or help from their friends and teachers. I’ve talked with some who have been practicing spiritual disciplines for years, yet have never let themselves acknowledge that they are lonely and long for intimacy.

As the monk in the Zen tale shows, if we push away desire, we disconnect from our tenderness and we harden against life. We become like a “rock in winter.” When we reject desire, we reject the very source of our love and aliveness.

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Radical acceptance of desire

Vipassana romance between two tiny figures made from cardboard boxes.

When I was first introduced to Buddhism in a high school World Studies class, I dismissed it out-of-hand. This was during the hedonistic days of the late ‘60s, and this spiritual path seemed so grim with its concern about attachment and, apparently, anti-pleasure. Buddhism seemed to be telling me to stop seeking after romantic relationships, forego having good times with friends, avoid the highs of marijuana and give up my adventures in nature. In my mind, freedom from desire would take the fun out of life.

Years later I would realize that the Buddha never intended to make desire itself the problem. When he said craving causes suffering, he was referring not to our natural inclination as living beings to have wants and needs, but to our habit of clinging to experience that must, by nature, pass away, and that relating wisely to the powerful and pervasive energy of desire is a pathway into unconditional loving.

I first saw a glimpse of this possibility many years ago in what might be considered the hotbed of desire: romantic relationship. I’d been divorced for several years, and had met a man who seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. In our few casual encounters something had clicked and I was infatuated.

In the midst of the typical rush and excitement of such connections, I left for a weeklong meditation retreat. In the six years that I had been practicing Buddhist meditation, I’d attended a number of such retreats and loved the states of clarity and presence I touched there. But this time, instead of settling into even a semblance of mindful presence, my immediate and compelling draw was to the pleasures of fantasy. I was in the throes of a full-blown “Vipassana Romance,” as such fantasies have come to be known.

In the silence and austerity of retreat, the mind can build a whole erotic world around a person we barely know. Often the object of a VR is another meditator who has attracted our attention. In the time span of a few days we can mentally live through a whole relationship—courting, marrying, having a family together. I’d brought my fantasy person with me from home, and this industrial strength VR withstood all my best strategies for letting go and returning to the here and now.

I tried to relax and direct my attention to the breath, to note what was happening in my body and mind. I could barely complete two cycles of mindful breathing before my mind would once again return to its favorite subject. Then, with a stab of guilt, I’d remember where I was. Sometimes I’d look around and take in the serenity and dignity of the meditation hall. I’d remind myself of the freedom and joy of remaining present, and of the suffering that arises from living in stories and illusions.

This didn’t make a dent—the fantasies would take off again almost immediately. Hoping to get out of my head, I tried doing longer walking meditations on the snowy paths surrounding the retreat center. As my mind churned relentlessly onward, I felt self-indulgent and ashamed of my lack of discipline. Most of all I was frustrated because I felt I was wasting precious time. This retreat was an opportunity to deepen my spiritual practice, and there I was, caught up in wanting and off in the future.

After several days I had a pivotal interview with my teacher. When I described how I’d become so overwhelmed, she asked, “How are you relating to the presence of desire?” I was startled into understanding. For me, desire had become the enemy, and I was losing the battle. Her question pointed me back to the essence of mindfulness practice: It doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is how we are relating to our experience. She advised me to stop fighting my experience and instead investigate the nature of wanting mind. I could accept whatever was going on, she reminded me, but without getting lost in it.

While often uncomfortable, desire is not bad—it is natural. The pull of desire is part of our survival equipment. It keeps us eating, having sex, going to work, doing what we do to thrive. Desire also motivates us to read books, listen to talks and explore spiritual practices that help us realize and inhabit loving awareness. The same life energy that leads to suffering also provides the fuel for profound awakening. Desire becomes a problem only when it takes over our sense of who we are.

In teaching the Middle Way, the Buddha guided us to relate to desire without getting possessed by it and without resisting it. He was talking about every level of desire—for food, sex, love, freedom. He was talking about all degrees of wanting, from small preferences to the most compelling cravings. We are mindful of desire when we experience it with an embodied awareness, recognizing the sensations and thoughts of wanting as arising and passing phenomena. While this isn’t easy, as we cultivate the clear seeing and compassion of Radical Acceptance, we discover we can open fully to this natural force, and remain free in its midst.

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Pain is not wrong

sparks flying up into darkness

Many years ago when I was pregnant with my son, I decided to have a home birth without drugs, assisted by a midwife. My hope was to be as wakeful and present as possible during the birth, and while I knew the pain would be intense, I trusted that my meditation and yoga practices would help me to “go with the flow.”

When labor began I was rested and ready. Knowing that resisting the pain of contractions only made them worse, I relaxed with them, breathing, making sounds without inhibition, letting go as my body’s intelligence took over. Like any animal, I was unthinkingly immersed, instinctively responding to the drama unfolding through me, riding the pain as a natural part of the process.

Then, suddenly, something shifted. When my son’s head started crowning, the pain level shot up. It was no longer something I could breathe into and let surge through me. This much pain has got to mean something is going wrong, I thought. My whole body tightened, and my deep slow breaths turned into the shallow, quick breathing of panic.

Like every aspect of our evolutionary design, the unpleasant sensations we call pain are an intelligent part of our survival equipment: Pain is our body’s call to pay attention, to take care of ourselves. Yet, intense pain, even when it’s part of a seemingly healthy process like birthing, is alarming. When I reacted with fear, I added onto the unpleasant sensations the feeling and belief that something was wrong. Rather than Radical Acceptance, the reaction of my body and mind was to resist and fight the pain.

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While fear of pain is a natural human reaction, it is particularly dominant in our culture where we consider pain as bad, or wrong. Mistrusting our bodies, we use “pain killers,” assuming that whatever removes pain is the right thing to do. In our society’s cultural trance, rather than a natural phenomenon, pain is regarded as the enemy. Pain is the messenger we try to kill, not something we allow and embrace.

At that point of intensity in childbirth, I was fully at war, pitted against the pain. My midwife, used to seeing fear and resistance in response to pain, immediately assured me. “Nothing’s wrong, honey… it’s all completely natural, it’s just painful.” She had to say this several times before I could let it begin to sink in and, in the midst of the burning pain, the explosive pressure, the tearing and exhaustion, remember again to breathe deeply and relax. It was just pain, not wrong, and I could open up and accept it.

Whenever we react to pain with fear and view it as “wrong,” we set in motion a waterfall of reactivity. Fear, itself made up of unpleasant sensations, only compounds the pain—now we not only want to get away from the original pain, but also from the pain of fear. In fact, the fear of pain is often the most unpleasant part of a painful experience. When we assess physical sensations as something to be feared, pain is not just pain. It is something wrong and bad that we must get away from.

Often, this fear of pain proliferates into a web of stories. Yet, when we are habitually immersed in our stories about pain, we prevent ourselves from experiencing it as the changing stream of sensations that it is. Instead, as our muscles contract around it and our stories identify it as the enemy, the pain solidifies into a self-perpetuating, immovable mass. Our resistance can end up creating new layers of symptoms and suffering, since when we abandon our body for our fear-driven stories about pain, we actually trap the pain in our body.

When, instead of Radical Acceptance, our initial response to physical pain is fear and resistance, the ensuing chain of reactivity can be consuming. The moment we believe something is wrong, our world shrinks and we lose ourselves in the effort to combat our pain. This same process unfolds when our pain is emotional—we resist the unpleasant sensations of loneliness, sorrow, anger. Whether physical or emotional, when we react to pain with fear, we pull away from an embodied presence and go into the suffering of trance.

Yet, we need to realize that being alive includes feeling pain, sometimes intense pain. And, as the Buddha taught, we suffer only when we cling to or resist experience; when we want life different than it is. As the saying goes: “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”

When painful sensations arise and we can simply meet them with clarity and presence, we can see that pain is just pain. We can listen to pain’s message and respond appropriately—taking good care. If we are mindful of pain rather than reactive, we do not contract into the experience of a victimized, suffering self. We can meet whatever presents itself with Radical Acceptance, allowing the changing stream of sensations to simply flow through us without making any of it wrong.

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

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Relax, you’ve arrived

We spend so much of our time trying to get somewhere.

Part of this comes from our biological nature. To survive, animals – including us – have to be goal-directed, leaning into the future.

It’s certainly healthy to pursue wholesome aims, like paying the rent on time, raising children well, healing old pain, or improving education.

But it’s also important to see how this focus on the future – on endless striving, on getting the next task done, on climbing the next mountain – can get confused and stressful.

It’s confused because the brain:

  • Overestimates both the pleasure of future gains and the pain of future losses. (This evolved to motivate our ancient ancestors to chase carrots hard and really dodge sticks.)
  • Makes the future seem like a real thing when in fact it doesn’t actually exist and never will. There is only now, forever and always.
  • Overlooks or minimizes the alrightness of this moment – including the many things already resolved or accomplished – in order to keep you looking for the next threat or opportunity. (For more on how the brain makes us stressed and fearful, see Buddha’s Brain.)

Further, this pursuit of the next thing is confused because the mind tends to transfer unfulfilled needs from childhood into the present, such as to be safe, worthy, attractive, successful, or loved. These longings often take on a life of their own – even after the original issues have been largely or even wholly resolved. Then we’re like the proverbial donkey trying to get a carrot held out in front of it on a pole: no matter how long we chase it, it’s always still ahead, never attained. For example, for years I pursued achievement due to underlying feelings of inadequacy; how many accomplishments does a person need to feel like a worthwhile person?

Besides being confused and confusing, striving is stressful. You’ve got to fire up, activating the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system and its related stress hormones. There’s a sense of pressure, of worry about a future that’s inherently uncertain, of entrapment on a neverending treadmill. There’s a lack of soothing and balance that would come from recognizing the truth of things:

You’ve actually already arrived.

How?

Recognize the simple fact that you got here, in this place, and now, in this moment. It may not be perfect. But think of the many things you have certainly done to come here. At a minimum, you survived high school! You’ve taken many steps, solved many problems, put many tasks and challenges behind you.

The word, “arrive,” comes from roots that mean “to reach the shore.” Once you land, of course, life is not over, since the next moment will be a new arrival. But sinking into the sense of having arrived, of having crossed the finish line of this moment, is calming, happy, and deserved. And knowing you’ve arrived, you now are more able to turn your attention toward being of true service to others.

To deepen the sense of arrival, help yourself relax into this moment. From time to time, you could softly say in your mind: arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . .

Draw on your body to strengthen this experience. Let each breath land in your awareness: arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . . Be aware of the bite landing in the mouth, the meal consumed, the body fed. As you walk, notice that, with each step, you have reached another place. Know that your hand has reached a cup, that the eye has received a sunset, that the smile of a friend has landed in your heart.

Consider old longings, old drives, that truly may be fulfilled, at least to a reasonable extent. (And if not fulfilled, maybe it’s time to let something go and move on.) Can you lighten up about these? Or can you accept that you have arrived at a place this moment that contains unfulfilled goals and unmet needs? It’s still an arrival. Plus it’s a “shore” that probably has many good things about it no matter what’s still undone.

In the deepest sense, reflect on the fact that each moment arrives complete in itself. Each wave lands on the shore of Now – complete in its own right.

Arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . . Arrived.

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When we don’t make anything “wrong”

Sometimes when I talk about Radical Acceptance, I like to tell the story about Jacob, a man who at almost seventy and in the mid-stages of Alzheimer’s disease attended a 10-day retreat I was leading.

A clinical psychologist by profession and a meditator for more than twenty years, Jacob was well aware that his faculties were deteriorating. On occasion his mind would go totally blank; he would have no access to words for several minutes and become completely disoriented. He often forgot what he was doing and usually needed assistance with basic tasks—cutting his food, putting on clothes, bathing, getting from place to place.

A couple of days into the retreat, Jacob had his first interview with me. These meetings, which students have regularly with a teacher while on retreat, are an opportunity to check in and receive personal guidance in the practice. During our time together Jacob and I talked about how things were going both on retreat and at home. His attitude towards his disease was interested, sad, grateful, even good-humored.

Intrigued by his resilience, I asked him what allowed him to be so accepting. He responded, “It doesn’t feel like anything is wrong. I feel grief and some fear about it all going, but it feels like real life.” Then he told me about an experience he’d had in an earlier stage of the disease.

Jacob had occasionally given talks about Buddhism to local groups and had accepted an invitation to address a gathering of over a hundred meditation students. He arrived at the event feeling alert and eager to share the teachings he loved. Taking his seat in front of the hall, Jacob looked out at the sea of expectant faces in front of him … and suddenly he didn’t know what he was supposed to say or do. He didn’t know where he was or why he was there. All he knew was that his heart was pounding furiously and his mind was spinning in confusion.

Putting his palms together at his heart, Jacob started naming out loud what was happening: “Afraid, embarrassed, confused, feeling like I’m failing, powerless, shaking, sense of dying, sinking, lost.” For several more minutes he sat, head slightly bowed, continuing to name his experience. As his body began to relax and his mind grew calmer, he also noted that aloud. At last Jacob lifted his head, looked slowly around at those gathered, and apologized.

Many of the students were in tears. As one put it, “No one has ever offered us teachings like this. Your presence has been the deepest dharma teaching.”

Rather than pushing away his experience and deepening his agitation, Jacob had the courage and training simply to name what he was aware of, and, most significantly, to bow to his experience. In some fundamental way he didn’t create an adversary out of feelings of fear and confusion. He didn’t make anything wrong.

We practice Radical Acceptance by pausing and then meeting whatever is happening inside us with this kind of unconditional friendliness. Instead of turning our jealous thoughts or angry feelings into the enemy, we pay attention in a way that enables us to recognize and touch any experience with care. Nothing is wrong—whatever is happening is just “real life.” Such unconditional friendliness is the spirit of Radical Acceptance.

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A path to live life to the fullest

Path through golden woodland

In Buddhism there are four reminders, things we should consider to make the most of our lives and to prepare us for death.

The four reminders are:

  • our lives are precious
  • we are not immortal
  • our actions have consequences and
  • we can learn to transcend pain.

These reminders can make a difference in how we live our lives, if we keep them in mind and reflect on them each day.

1. The preciousness of life – our lives are precious and our physical and mental health, energy, freedom, food, and money give us opportunities to make the most of each and every day. So each day, we might ask ourselves, “Am I making the most of my life?” “Am I using my time wisely?” “Am I aware of my thoughts, speech and actions?” “Do I react by habit or respond creatively to situations and people?” “Am I working at a job that is ethical and helpful to people?” “Am I spending as much time with my family as I want to?” “Am I spending as much time with my friends as I want to?” “Do I take time for leisure activities?” “Am I getting enough rest and sleep?” There may be other questions you would add to this list.

2. We are not immortal, although, in our culture we do not think about death until a loved one is very ill or we hear of someone dear to us who is dying. One thing is for certain — we will all die. We cannot avoid death. We all age, day by day we get older. We may think we are immune, but we are not. And there are other causes of death: illness, accidents, natural disasters and violence. We may die after an illness or we may die suddenly without being able to say good-bye to friends and family. Facing death takes courage and a clear conscience. We become more alive when we contemplate death.

3. Actions have consequences. We are the sum of many influences: family, religion, culture, education, relationships, friendships, diet, exercise and more. We are also the sum total of all the many choices and decisions we have made; our actions and our emotional lives. There may be some things we cannot change and we must accept that we cannot change them. We can, however, change the way we think (rather than letting the mind think in a random, unrestrained way). We can become more positive and loving by practicing meditation and yoga. When our actions are honest; when our speech is kind, helpful and harmonious; when we are positive, generous, loving and wise — all this will affect how we feel. We can commit to acting in a way that is beneficial to ourselves, to those around us, and to the world.

4. Learning to transcend pain and suffering.  Each day there is stress and striving. We are always searching for something: a faster, newer car; an updated computer; the latest technological toy; something different in our marriage; a new relationship; more fashionable clothing; a different job; an understanding boss; people to act differently; a bigger house; or greener grass. The list is endless — take a few moments and consider what you strive for, what you would like to be different or new in your life. Along with striving and stress — there is illness, injury, depression, fear, mental anguish — all of which contribute to feeling that we do not have enough, we are intrinsically not enough, we wish things/people/situations were different. Our bodies continue to grow older, our thoughts never end and keep us awake at night and distracted during the day. This is life, what the Buddha called samsara. We search for happiness and fulfillment in what we do not have, rather than finding contentment and joy in what we do have.

This dissatisfaction often brings us to question the meaning of life, or to a spiritual quest. We often need a wake up call to be jolted out of our complacency. We need to wake up to the truth – that we will not live forever, our actions have consequences for ourselves, others and the world, we can find happiness and joy, and we need to be aware enough to make the most of this precious life.

There are different ways of reflecting on these four reminders: meditation, silent reflection, writing and discussions with others.

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