change

When your meditation practice doesn’t seem to be going anywhere…

Buddha statue head embedded in a tree

I often hear from people who are worried because their meditation practice doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I think it’s good to be aware of the different ways that change happens when we meditate since your practice hitting a plateau may not be a problem, but just part of a natural process.

Sometimes change happens rapidly. This may happen early on, or at any point in your practice. One striking example was told to me by a friend who owns a health club. One of his employees was very prickly and hard to work with, but my friend realize that this woman had really mellowed out, almost overnight. She was now relaxed and friendly. The prickliness and aggression had just gone. He asked one of his other employees if the woman was on medication, and was told, “No, it’s meditation!” This woman had only been meditating for a couple of weeks. Sometimes that’s how it goes.

This isn’t just a phenomenon that affects beginners, though. Sometimes you’ll have a breakthrough in your practice and change happens rapidly. At those times there can be a sense of excitement about getting on the cushion.

But people are equally likely to find that change comes slowly, or appears not to be happening at all. The meditation itself may be OK, but there’s no sense of it going anywhere. And that can be boring, or downright worrying.

So here’s what I think’s going on during those phases of fast and slow change.

First, we often have untapped resources in the mind. For example there may be pathways that allow us to regulate our emotions, but we’re not aware that they’re there, or that we can use them, or we simply forget to use them. Perhaps quite suddenly, we realize that we have choices about how we think, act, and feel. Maybe a word that we can drop into the mind, or the sensations in a particular part of the body, remind us to come back to this mindful state of awareness in which we are able to regulate ourselves and in which we feel more relaxed, spacious, calmer, kinder — whatever it is that’s changing.

But after this period of rapid change, things settle down. They might settle down in a good place, but there isn’t the excitement of rapid change.

Second, there’s the slow, gradual change of developing a habit, in which new pathways are being established in the brain, old pathways and habits are being unlearned. Some parts of the brain are developing new neurons, while other parts of the brain, because they’re being misused, are shrinking away. This is the result of regular practice — working at developing mindfulness and lovingkindness, for example. Day by day, habits becoming, on the whole, stronger.

Some people are fine with slow, gradual progress. The Buddha described this as being like a tool wearing away over time. In any given day you don’t see much change, but over a longer timescale you see transformation taking place. But some people feel frustrated, and think that there’s something wrong with them or with their practice.

So you can accept that change is sometimes slow. If you’re putting any effort at all into your meditation practice then it’s working. Change is happening, but on a slow scale. If you glance at the hour hand of a watch you don’t see it change, do you? It looks like it’s just sitting there, unmoving. You need to look away and them look back a while later if you want to see any change. So you can learn to trust the practice; trust that effort plus time equals progress.

If you think that meditation should be exciting, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. Nothing in life is always exciting.

Slow change and fast change are not unrelated. Sometimes the slow change of laying down new pathways in the brain takes you eventually to a “tipping point.” Possibly what happens is that you realize that you’ve developed new abilities, or you have a new-found clarity about what you’re working on in your practice — and so we’re back to the fast change of realizing that we can act and feel differently. Then that’s exciting for a while, but then inevitably things settle down again, and you’re back to the slow construction project of daily meditation.

But you need to make sure that you are, in fact, making an effort. You need to make sure you are clear about what you’re doing in meditation. You need to have a purpose, or goal. And you need to be making some effort to realize that purpose or goal. Without that, you may not even be on a plateau; you might just be coasting downhill.

So the takeaway message is this: practice will have its ups and downs. It’ll also have flat, boring stretches. Don’t thing there’s something wrong because you’ve hit a boring patch, but do make sure you have a clear purpose and are actually engaging with your practice rather than just coasting. Things will change.

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Appreciation and impermanence (Day 73)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Jack Kornfield, in his lovely Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, says “The trouble is, you think you have time.” He doesn’t say what we don’t have time for, but presumably he means that we put off important things because we assume that we can do them later. The trouble is, there may not be any “later.”

Recognizing that our time here is short can help us appreciate life more. I opened my book, Living as a River, by discussing how an awareness of impermanence can enhance our appreciation of our loved ones. When married people were asked to reflect on the death of their (still living) spouse, they found that they could more easily overlook their partner’s flaws — those socks on the bedroom floor seemed less significant — and found it easier to appreciate their good qualities. You might think that reflecting on death would be a downer, but in fact an awareness of impermanence enhances appreciation.

This applies to everything in life, including our lives themselves. One of the things the Buddha encouraged us to do was to reflect on our own impermanence, and how old age, sickness, and death are inevitable. And in the light of that we reflect that we’re responsible for our own lives and our own actions. He was saying, in essence, life is short, make good use of it. When people hear this they sometimes think it means “life is short, have as much fun as possible.” But that’s a rather alienated view, I think. If you really take on board how short life is, you’re forced to recognize what’s truly most valuable in your life. And for most of us that’s experiencing and giving as much love as possible, and doing things that are meaningful. “Fun” comes pretty far down the list, if it’s there at all.

Being aware that each breath you take is impermanent makes it seem more significant and worthy of attention. Notice your breathing, aware that each breath comes only once. Each breath is unique.

In fact, as you pay attention to your breathing, notice how each moment is unique. That moment and that moment and that moment — each one is there so fleetingly. Each one is precious. This may sound like a platitude until you “get” it. Then it’s a simple and profound truth: each moment is precious.

But let’s think again about those around us, about those close to us, about those we’re connected to with ties of blood or love, about those who barely register as feeling beings, about those we don’t like or can’t stand to be around. You’re going to die. They’re all going to die.

Life is unpredictable. You have no idea if you’ll ever see them again, or if they’ll ever see you again. The people you see today — this may be the last time you see them. And maybe you should behave as if this was indeed the last time you were going to see them. What last words would you like them to remember you having said to them, should you die tomorrow? What last words would you like to remember having said, should they die tomorrow?

Look at those people, as if you’re never going to see them again. Let yourself feel vulnerable and tender. And let yourself feel affection for them. Let yourself appreciate their basic goodness. Let your judgements and your tendency to focus on the negative fall away, and recognize that you’re surrounded by good people who are struggling to be happy. Let yourself love.

The trouble is, you think you’ll have time to love later, and you might not, so behave as if you don’t have time to waste, and let yourself love — now.

PS. You can see all our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Compassion and impermanence (Day 48)

As I wrote in my book, Living as a River:

Relating to someone as a “self”—on the basis of how we see them right now—is like seeing a video reduced to a single frame, or seeing a ball hurtling through the air in a freeze-frame photograph. It’s life-denying. It’s a static way of seeing things. In taking a snapshot of a thing we lose its sense of trajectory, the sense that it’s headed somewhere. We’re disconnected from the reality of change and process. But imagine if we could consistently see a person not as a thing but as a process—if we could, at least in our imagination—see that person evolving towards wisdom and compassion. How might that change both them and us? That’s the challenge for us all.

I’d like to suggest an experiment to you, and I’d be delighted if you’d write a few words below about your experience of trying this. The experiment will only take two or three minutes of your time.

  • I’d like you to call to mind someone you have a conflict with. Perhaps they have an annoying habit, or have done something to hurt you. Imagine that this person is in front of you.
  • Call to mind the thing that bothers you about this person. Feel the annoyance that’s connected with that thing.
  • Now, imagine, to the left of the person you’re thinking of, a much younger version of them. Perhaps at about 10 months old, when they were a baby, able to sit up, perhaps, but not yet able to walk or talk. And realize that these are both the same person.
  • Then, on the right side of the person you’re calling to mind, see a much older version of them — perhaps in their nineties. Really old. And realize that all three forms are the same person.
  • Now, call to mind that same thing that annoyed you about this person.

So, what happened for you?

I’ve recently been asking people to try this, and almost everyone has said that they experience sadness. They move from irritation or resentment, to sadness. Very quickly. Often people mention a sense of love or compassion as well, mingled with the sadness.

100 Days of LovingkindnessI think this is a very positive thing. It’s much healthier and less destructive, on the whole, to experience sadness than it is to experience hatred.

Why might we feel sad?

For me, it’s a number of things. I feel sad that I’ve taken one thing about a person’s life that I don’t like, and related to them on the basis of that, ignoring the rest of their being. I feel sad because life is too short to waste on petty ill will. And perhaps I’m a little sad at reminding myself of the brevity of life, and the inevitability of death.

But there’s a sense of sadness, too, that’s almost esthetic. Seen as just one part of an entire life, this irritating flaw makes the whole more beautiful, like the craquelure on an old painting, the creases on an old, faded photograph, or the peeling paint and sagging timbers of an old New England barn.

The sadness is, for me at least, mingled with love and compassion. It’s freeing myself from the prison of the moment, and seeing the person not as a static thing, but as an ever-changing continuum that allows that to happen. When a person is seen as a fixed point in time and space, there is much to dislike. When a person is seen as an ever-evolving process, there is much to love.

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Six ways of reflecting on impermanence

hand holding an hourglass

In the Google Plus Community that I’ve set up for people who have a connection with my work (my classes, my CDs, MP3s, books, Wildmind, etc.) we discuss our practice. [Update: That community has now been replaced by a private version for supporters of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative.] It’s turned out to be a very supportive and inspiring community. My own practice has benefited a lot, and as I put it this morning in a post there, “We’re all each other’s teachers.”

Someone in the community said they’d been reflecting on impermanence, and that led me to write a few words about the various ways that I reflect about impermanence in meditation. Here’s what I wrote:

I reflect on impermanence at different degrees of resolution. Here they are, roughly in order:

  1. On the macro level we’re all going to die. I think about that sometimes, in order that I’ll live my life meaningfully.
  2. We’re all changing and growing. When I reflect on this it’s easier to forgive others, and to feel compassion for them. This was one of the themes of my TEDx talk.
  3. My body is constantly changing. In the Six Element practice I realize that what I take to be a separate and permanent object is in fact a constant flow of matter and energy.
  4. Experiences come and go. I reflect on this both when life is pleasant and when it’s unpleasant, so that I cling less to the pleasant and don’t fret about the unpleasant. This too shall pass.
  5. I notice that every breath has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each in-breath has a beginning, an middle, and an end. And so does each out-breath. Observing this helps me to more fully appreciate each breath, and to stay focused on the present moment.
  6. At the most refined level of resolution, the micro level, each moment is different. Each moment of every in-breath and every out-breath is a new moment. Our experience is a sequence of moments, each one tantalizingly brief and ungraspable. And this applies not only to the breathing, but to every experience that is arising in the body or mind. My entire sense of self can dissolve away into something like mist. The body becomes transparent, light. Even the mind that notices this change is itself changing in every moment. It expands and contracts, it flows, it dims and brightens, it coheres and disintegrates.

All of these levels of resolution are valuable experiences of impermanence for us to cultivate. And they’re all interrelated. I’ve found, though, that even a lot of experienced practitioners tend to focus more on the macro level and not to pay so much attention (or even don’t pay attention at all) to the micro level. And yet it’s at that level that, for me, at least, insight arose. I suspect that’s the case for many people — perhaps for everyone. And this micro level is not that hard to appreciate. It’s not as if impermanence is a secret — it’s there all the time, and we just need to train ourselves to stop ignoring it.

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Embrace fragility

The truth of anything is like a mosaic with many tiles, many parts.

One part of the truth of things is that they are robust and enduring, whether it’s El Capitan in Yosemite or the love of a child for her mother and father.

Another part of the truth is that things bruise, tear, erode, disperse, or end – fundamentally, they’re fragile. Speaking of El Capitan, I knew of someone climbing it who had just placed anchors above a long horizontal crack when the sheet of granite he was standing on broke off to fall like a thousand-ton pancake to the valley floor below (he lived, clutching his anchors). Love and other feelings often change in a family. Bodies get ill, age, and die. Milk spills, glasses break, people mistreat you, good feelings fade. One’s sense of calm or worth is easily disturbed. Wars start and then end badly. Planets heat up and hurricanes flood cities. Earthquakes cause tidal waves and damage nuclear reactors.

A life is like a house of cards, and a single gust – a layoff at work, an injury, a misjudgment, a bit of bad luck – can knock it over. Taking a longer view, several billion years from now, our Sun will swell into a red giant star that consumes Mercury, Venus, and Earth: the Grand Canyon, Pacific Ocean, and all the works of humankind will come to an end, utterly fragile.

Sometimes we overestimate the fragility of things, as when we don’t recognize the deep wells of inner strength in ourselves and others. But I think we are more likely to deny or downplay the true extent of fragility: it’s scary to realize how delicate and vulnerable your body is, or the threads that bind you to others – so easily frayed by a single word – or the balance of climate and ecology on our planet. It’s scary and humbling – neither of which people like – to face the underlying frailty of the body, how easy it is for a relationship to go awry, the ways that so many of us are over-extended and running on fumes, the rickety underpinnings of the global financial system, the deep fissures within many nations, or the unpredictability and intensity of Mother Nature.

But if we don’t recognize fragility, we’ll miss chances to protect and nurture so many things that matter, and we’ll be needlessly surprised and upset when things do inevitably fall apart. We need to embrace fragility – to see it clearly and take it into our arms – to be grounded in truth, peaceful amidst life’s changes and endings, and resourceful in our stewardship of the things we care about.

How?

Simply be mindful of fragility – both actual and potential. Notice how many things do break – defined broadly – and notice how many more there are that could break and eventually will: “things” such as physical objects (e.g., cup, blouse, body, species, ecosystem, earth’s crust), relationships, projects, agreements, states of mind, lives, and societies.

Notice any discomfort with recognizing fragility. Be aware of the other tiles in the mosaic – such as stability, resilience, and repair – that can help you push through this discomfort. Appreciate that it is the fragility of things that often makes them most precious.

See the fragility of others, and their pains and losses related to all the things that have “broken” or could break for them. See the delicacy of their feelings, the sensitivities and vulnerabilities in their sense of worth or well-being. Let this knowing about others – both people you’re close to and those you’re not, even people who are difficult for you – open your heart to them. Knowing the fragility of others will naturally lead you away from being harsh or unkind to them.

See the brevity and flimsiness of your own life, and the fragility of your hopes and dreams: why wait another day to do all that you reasonably can to fulfill them?

Consider where you are unnecessarily fragile – perhaps too prickly about criticism, too vulnerable to a slumping mood, too prone to illness, too indebted, too isolated at work (or in life altogether), or too under-resourced in any significant area – and make a realistic plan for shoring these up. For example, I’ve been getting run-down and have realized I really need to make sleep a higher priority.

Do what’s in your heart about what’s fragile in our world – whether it’s an ailing elderly person next door or disaster victims across an ocean.

Ultimately, try to come to peace with the inevitable: all things fall apart, one way or another. Everything cracks. And yet there is something so beautiful about this part of the truth, as Leonard Cohen says much more eloquently than I can:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in

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Find stillness

empty bench seen from behind. Beyond it is a foggy landscape.

Things keep changing. The clock ticks, the day unfolds, trees grow, leaves turn brown, hair turns gray, children grow up and leave home, attention skitters from this to that, the cookie is delicious but then it’s all gone, you’re mad about something for awhile and then get over it, consciousness streams on and on and on.

Many changes are certainly good. Most people are glad to put middle school behind them. I’m still happy about shifting thirty years ago from single to married. Painkillers, flush toilets, and the internet seem like pretty good ideas. It’s lovely to watch grass waving in the wind or a river passing. Fundamentally, if there were no change, nothing could happen, reality would be frozen forever. I once asked my friend Tom what he thought God was and he said “possibility.”

On the other hand, many changes are uncomfortable, even awful. The body gets creaky, and worse. We lose those we love and eventually lose life itself. Families drift apart, companies fail, dictators tighten their grip, nations go to war. The planet warms at human hands, as each day we pour nearly a billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Countless species go extinct. As William Yeats wrote: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

And change itself is often – maybe innately – stressful. When you really open to the fact always in front of our noses that each moment of now decays and disappears in the instant it arises – it can feel rather alarming. Life and time sweep us along. As soon as something pleasant occurs in the mind’s flow we reach for it but whoosh it passes away right through our fingers leaving disappointment behind. Inherently, anything that changes is not a reliable basis for enduring contentment and fulfillment.

Yet it is also true that some things remain always the same. In their stillness you can find a refuge, an island in the stream of changes, a place to stand for perspective and wisdom about events and your reactions to them, a respite from the race, quiet amidst the noise. Perhaps even find a sense of something transcendental, outside the frame of passing phenomena.

How?

Stillness, a sense of the unchanging, is all around, and at different levels. Look for it, explore its effects on you, and let it sink in.

For example, it’s not the ultimate stillness, but there is that lovely feeling when the house is quiet and you’re sitting in peace, the dishes are done and the kids are fine (or the equivalent), and you can really let down and let go. In your character, you have enduring strengths and virtues and values; situations change, but your good intentions persist. In relationships, love abides – even for people who drive you crazy!

More subtly, there is the moment at the very top of a tossed ball’s trajectory when it’s neither rising nor falling, the pause before the first stroke of the brush, that space between exhalation and inhalation, the silence in which sounds occur, or the discernible gap between thoughts when your mind is quiet.

In your mind there is always an underlying calm and well-being that contains emotional reactions, like a riverbed that is still even as the flood rushes over it (if you’re not aware of this, truly, with practice you can find and stabilize a sense of it). There is also the unchanging field of awareness, itself never altered by the thoughts passing through it.

More abstractly, 2+2=4 forever; the area of a circle will always be pi times the radius squared; etc. The fact that something has occurred will never change. The people who have loved you will always have loved you; they will always have found you lovable. Whatever is fundamentally true – including, ironically, the truth of impermanence – has an unchanging stillness at its heart. Things change, but the nature of things – emergent, interdependent, transient – does not.

Moving toward ultimate matters, and where language fails, you may have a sense of something unchangingly transcendental, divine. Or, perhaps related, an intuition of that which is unconditioned always just prior to the emergence of conditioned phenomena.

Wherever you find it, enjoy stillness and let it feed you. It’s a relief from the noise and bustle, a source of clarity and peace. Give yourself the space, the permission, to be still – at least in your mind – amidst those who are busy. To use a traditional saying:

May that which is still
be that in which your mind delights.

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Benchmarks of spiritual practice

tape measure loosly wrapped around a sparkly pink heart

Here is a list of 12 benchmarks of spiritual practice (Saskia Davis’s Symptoms of Inner Peace) with examples of how I work with them. This list is also a way to know that our spiritual practice is bearing fruit.

1. An increased tendency to allow things happen rather than make them happen

As a mom of two children I spent many years trying to make things happen. I wanted my children to act in certain ways, eat certain foods, choose certain clothing, etc. etc. As they got older and I watched myself trying to be “in control”, I realized I could trust them to be themselves. I realized I could allow them to make choices and guide them when necessary. This realization brought feelings of relief and a sense of freedom. I brought that realization to my work and relationships and have enjoyed watching the process of things rather than trying to control them.

2. Frequent attacks of joy, unexplained smiling and random bursts of laughter

Real joy and comes from delighting in simple pleasures and acts of kindness. Happiness is inherent in being mindful during each and every day. As a result of enjoying simple pleasures and the beauty that surrounds me, I do not chase after excitement through traveling, attending the latest retreat, purchasing the newest technological toys or other material possessions.

3. Feelings of being closely connected with others and nature

When I feel reactive to someone I remind myself that we are all connected. We all want to be happy and in most situations we do the best we can. This does not mean that I accept everything everyone does, but it does help me to soften when I realize someone might be coming from a sense of their own pain when they do something that results in causing pain in others.

4. Frequent overwhelming, almost dizzying, episodes of appreciation

I have kept a gratitude journal for several years and I share my weekly writing with two friends each Sunday. Making the commitment with friends to share the journal reminds me to write in it daily or weekly. There have been some weeks that seem to be marked by difficulty and sorrow. When I write what I am grateful for, I realize even the challenging times have moments of beauty and offer things/people/situations to be grateful for.

5. A tendency to think and act spontaneously rather than from fears based on past experience

When I react habitually, based on past experience, rather than being mindful of the present circumstances, I am acting on automatic pilot. All situations, even if we think they resemble past situations, are really new situations. Coming into situations with an open mind brings new possibilities for creative responses.

6. An unmistakable ability to enjoy each moment

The attitude we bring into situations can determine our responses to them. Being open to each moment, bringing mindfulness to each moment, allows us to experience enjoyment in even mundane tasks.

7. A loss of ability to worry

I have learned that worry is not helpful and often what I worry about does not happen. Recently I was experiencing pain on the right side of my mouth. I thought my bottom right molar was the source of the pain. I called my dentist and made an appointment. I was thinking I might need a crown or a root canal. I worried that it would be expensive and painful, especially since the tooth is in the back of my mouth and difficult to reach. I decided to have the tooth extracted. I worried about the procedure. How is a tooth extracted? Will there be cutting and bleeding? How long will it take for the gums to heal? Will I have to postpone my appointments? I went to see the Dentist. He took an ex-ray and asked me a couple questions questions. Was there throbbing pain?  Were my gums swollen?  The tooth, it seems, was fine. The pain I experienced was due to an infection which could be cleared up with penicillin. All that worry about crowns, root canals and extractions was for naught.  I have not yet lost my ability to worry, but I worry less now, so there’s progress.

8. A loss of desire for conflict

Does anyone actually desire conflict?  Perhaps.  I don’t!  When I see an opportunity for conflict, I remember two things:

a. There is another way of looking at things. When I bring lovingkindness to situations, there is no need for conflict.
b. Do I want to be right or happy? When I let go of needing to be right, I also let go of conflict – and that makes me happy.

9. A loss of interest in taking things personally

Sometimes things people say or do feel so personal. At these times I remind myself that people do what they do as a result of their conditions (upbringing, personalities, life circumstances and perspectives) that do not have anything to do with me.

10. A loss of appetite for drama and judgment

The drama I enjoy is found at movie theaters. Drama in life is tiresome and unnecessary.

When I find myself judging others, I look inward and find my judgment has to do with what I want to change in myself.

11. A loss of interest in judging yourself

As a result of understanding the importance and power of kindness I am much kinder to myself and to others.

12. Prone to giving love without expecting anything in return

I find giving love to be the most satisfying thing I do. When I am loving, my heart feels open and expansive and I am truly happy.

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Learning to love the flaws

As I wrote in my most recent book, Living as a River:

Relating to someone as a “self”—on the basis of how we see them right now—is like seeing a video reduced to a single frame, or seeing a ball hurtling through the air in a freeze-frame photograph. It’s life-denying. It’s a static way of seeing things. In taking a snapshot of a thing we lose its sense of trajectory, the sense that it’s headed somewhere. We’re disconnected from the reality of change and process. But imagine if we could consistently see a person not as a thing but as a process—if we could, at least in our imagination—see that person evolving towards wisdom and compassion. How might that change both them and us? That’s the challenge for us all.

I’d like to suggest an experiment to you, and I’d be delighted if you’d write a few words below about your experience of trying this. The experiment will only take two or three minutes of your time.

  • I’d like you to call to mind someone you have a conflict with. Perhaps they have an annoying habit, or have done something to hurt you. Imagine that this person is in front of you.
  • Call to mind the thing that bothers you about this person. Feel the annoyance that’s connected with that thing.
  • Now, imagine, to the left of the person you’re thinking of, a much younger version of them. Perhaps at about 10 months old, when they were a baby, able to sit up, perhaps, but not yet able to walk or talk. And realize that these are both the same person.
  • Then, on the right side of the person you’re calling to mind, see a much older version of them — perhaps in their nineties. Really old. And realize that all three forms are the same person.
  • Now, call to mind that same thing that annoyed you about this person.

So, what happened for you?

I’ve recently been asking people to try this, and almost everyone has said that they experience sadness. They move from irritation or resentment, to sadness. Very quickly. Often people mention a sense of love or compassion as well, mingled with the sadness.

I think this is a very positive thing. It’s much healthier and less destructive, on the whole, to experience sadness than it is to experience hatred.

Why might we feel sad?

For me, it’s a number of things. I feel sad that I’ve taken one thing about a person’s life that I don’t like, and related to them on the basis of that, ignoring the rest of their being. I feel sad because life is too short to waste on petty ill will. And perhaps I’m a little sad at reminding myself of the brevity of life, and the inevitability of death.

But there’s a sense of sadness, too, that’s almost esthetic. Seen as just one part of an entire life, this irritating flaw makes the whole more beautiful, like the craquelure on an old painting, the creases on an old, faded photograph, or the peeling paint and sagging timbers of an old New England barn.

The sadness is, for me at least, mingled with love and compassion. It’s freeing myself from the prison of the moment, and seeing the person not as a static thing, but as an ever-changing continuum that allows that to happen. When a person is seen as a fixed point in time and space, there is much to dislike. When a person is seen as an ever-evolving process, there is much to love.

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Birthing our butterflies

Butterflies

One of my clients – I’ll call her Kathryn – came to me because she was feeling overwhelmed. Her relationship of five years is fraying. Her career has stagnated. She has money concerns. She feels trapped in the small town she lives in. And she has a little two-year-old daughter to care for through all this. What to do? Where to start?

We live in such a quick-fix, instant gratification culture. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking we need to DO something about this. Right away.

But is that really the most constructive thing to do?

When the ground underneath us falls away like this, we’ve got an open invitation to break out into something new. But creating a new life is an organic process. It has its own natural stages and pace. We can’t rush it.

And Kathryn has been working with that process beautifully. More than anything else, she’s understood that she needs to take time for herself. And get to know herself better. She’s recommitted to her daily meditation practice. And her daily writing practice. And gardening. All these things make her feel grounded and whole. For the first time, she’s allowing herself to quietly savor what comes naturally to her, without guilt.

It’s true this isn’t doing much about solving her big dilemmas. Not yet at least. But that’s OK. More than OK. It’s a great place to start.

If you’re thinking she’s just avoiding her problems – that’s not the case at all. While gardening or meditating, all sorts of fears come up. Could she make it on her own? Will she be poor forever? Will she be stuck in this small town? The big questions swirl around in her head. And she sits, mindfully, being present with it all. She’s deliberately NOT taking any steps to change things yet. She’s just sitting with herself, and taking in all her hopes, fears, disappointments, and sadness. It’s hard, she says. But it’s stretching her in a healthy way. And it feels so honest to be facing her reality in this way.

We can’t hurry through something like this. Every birth of a new life form needs a gestation period. We can’t skip it because it’s uncomfortable. Because skipping means skipping out of the process altogether. Without clinging to the past, or grasping toward the future, we sit and let the shaky, formless, icky stuff take shape on its own. We have to trust that the answers will come out from this mess. Because they always do, if we’re willing to wait and watch.

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I’m reminded of the story of the boy who watched a butterfly struggling to be born. Out of a wish to help, he took his scissors and cut away the outer shell of the chrysalis, hoping to help the butterfly break free. But to his horror, it came out as a shriveled thing. It never opened its wings, and died. What he didn’t know is that the struggle serves a purpose. By squeezing through the tiny opening, the fluid from the emerging butterfly’s body gets pushed out into the wings, giving them the moisture they need to open. In his impatience, he had killed the butterfly.

So often we kill our own butterflies with our impatience. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we really want to transform, there are times when the best thing to do is just sit still.

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“All the elements of nature are interwoven and united with each other.” Gospel of Mary Magdalene

In this extract from his book, Living as a River, Bodhipaksa discusses how we have mistaken views that limit our sense of who we are.

In 1911, a 32-year-old sportsman and daredevil called Calbraith Perry Rodgers, with a scant 60 hours of airtime in his logbook, set off to cross the United States from coast to coast in his specially modified Wright airplane—the first in private ownership. His dream was to win the $50,000 that tycoon publisher William Randolph Hearst was offering to the first person to fly across the continent within 30 days, but Rodgers, as much a canny businessman as an adventurous pioneer, had a financial backup plan in case the trip took longer than the month allowed. He’d persuaded J. Ogden Armour, a Chicago entrepreneur, to underwrite the costs of the mission in exchange for the words “Vin Fiz”—Armour’s brand of grape-flavored soda—being emblazoned on the tail-fin and wings of the craft. And so, The Vin Fiz Flyer became the name of Rodger’s airplane.

Title: Living as a River
Author: Bodhipaksa
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 978-1-59179-910-8
Available from: Sounds True, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, and Apple’s App Store.

The Vin Fiz took to the air from a field in Sheepshead Bay, near New York City, late in the afternoon of September 17, its pilot swaddled in layers of sweaters and sheepskin to provide warmth in the unheated cockpit. Seven weeks and almost seventy landings later the craft touched down at a racetrack in Pasadena, California. Sadly, Rodgers failed to win Hearst’s prize. For all his courage and persistence, his flight had taken far longer than the 30 days allowed, and as a further blow to Rodgers’ hopes, the year-long window for participating in the competition had expired before the Vin Fiz reached Pasadena. But a week later, buoyed by the glory of having made aviation history with his epic voyage, Rodgers set off to cover the remaining 20 miles to Long Beach and the Pacific Ocean. In retrospect that was not such a good idea. The last leg alone took almost a month, with two crashes, one of which was serious enough to result in a broken ankle. All for a distance could be comfortably cycled in two hours.

All that is born, all that is created, all the elements of nature are interwoven and united with each other. All that is composed shall be decomposed; everything returns to its roots; matter returns to the origins of matter.
—Gospel of Mary Magdalen

Although he didn’t win Hearst’s $50,000, for Rodgers to cross the country in such a primitive aircraft was an astonishing achievement. The Vin Fiz was a fragile thing made from a spruce frame covered with linen, its body looking more like a box kite than a modern plane. It was powered by a tiny 35 horsepower engine: no more powerful than some modern lawnmowers. Rodgers had no navigational instruments, and he found his way across country by the simple expedient of following a train, which also pulled a boxcar packed with spare parts for the journey. And Rodgers was to need a lot of spares. The doughty Vin Fiz malfunctioned, crashed, or was damaged in rough landings so many times during the 84-day crossing that by the end of the journey only one wing-strut and a rudder remained from the original machine that had left New York.

Without in any way undermining the magnificence of Rodgers’ achievement, when I first heard this tale many years ago, I found myself wondering in what sense The Vin Fiz had actually completed the journey. Only two components survived the trip, and given a few more miles it’s possible that even those remaining parts of the original airplane would have been replaced from the dwindling supply of spares in the white railroad car, in which case nothing would have remained of the original craft. In a sense, one plane took off from Sheepshead Bay and another landed in California. With each repair, the machine had become in some sense a new aircraft. The Vin Fiz struck me as being a perfect example of the Buddhist teaching of anatta, or the non-permanence and insubstantiality of the self.

Flight of imagination

Compressing time and space in the theater of the imagination, let’s visualize the cross-country flight of the Vin Fiz. Let’s see the frail craft at the mid-point of each of its hops across the country, suspended in mid air, the images strung together to form a brief movie. Squeezing the entire journey into the space of a minute, notice that the craft is continually changing. In a sudden jump of perception a tattered wing becomes whole again. A rattling bolt falls to earth and at that same moment is replaced. A propeller, a wing-strut, a stretch of linen, a wheel, an entire engine—each vanishes and is instantaneously regenerated. As we watch the Vin Fiz in this way, it is a plane that is forever in the process of becoming another plane. And when at last we visualize the final touch-town, only that stubborn wing-strut and hardy rudder remain unchanged. And we can, if we wish, imagine one more frame of this imaginary movie and see even those components being replaced.

So what was it that flew across the United States? What was the Vin Fiz? The craft that arrived in Pasadena was not physically the same one that had departed New York. The form was the same, the name was the same, but almost everything constituting the aircraft had changed. No one component was the Vin Fiz. No single component contained the essence of the aircraft: certainly not the wing-strut and rudder that happened to survive the journey, and which were merely accidental survivors. The Vin Fiz was also not the entirety of its components, since they were forever changing. When we try to look for the Vin Fiz it becomes mirage-like, its “thingness” vanishing under scrutiny.

The Vin Fiz clearly existed. But it was a process rather than a thing, an ever-changing assemblage of parts functioning in a particular way, rather than a static object. It was a process that had continuity rather than identity. It had no essence, but consisted of a series of ever-changing components that were brought together in a manner that allowed an ever-changing form to cross a continent. What arrived in Pasadena was not identical to what left Sheepshead Bay, but there was a continuous process connecting the various iterations of the craft as it evolved over the course of its journey. The continuity of the Vin Fiz is also maintained in the mind. Had the Viz Fiz suffered only one devastating crash half-way from coast to coast, and had a new craft been assembled from the parts in the railroad car (including only one wing strut and a rudder from the original aircraft) and continued the journey, would Rodgers be credited with the first continental crossing by air? Naturally not. We would not have believed that one craft had made the crossing. It would seem like a stunt had been pulled. And yet an assemblage of replacement parts (including one wing strut and a rudder from the original aircraft) was precisely what did arrive on the West coast. What held together the Vin Fiz, just as much as the rivets and bolts, was the sense of continuity that the mind sees, which allows us to say that a process had continually functioned as an aircraft, despite modifications. When we look for a “thing” called the Vin Fiz, it now seems mirage-like, and undefinable.

The same is true of the human body. As the body makes a journey across the continent of life, from the coast of conception to the far shore we call death, it too is continually changing, the physical and mental components forever being replaced. What arrives at the final touchdown is a far cry from what originally departed at the beginning of life. The body you’re born with is not the one you’ll die with. Looking at the body in the same way as we looked at the Vin Fiz, we can see there is similarly no essence within it. There is no locus within the body where a self can be found. Our physical selves seem mirage-like, held together not so much by chemical bonds but a physical process of continuity and by an idea of selfhood.

Our ideas of what constituted the boundaries of the Vin Fiz are also limited. At some point after its historic flight, the Vin Fiz was broken up, its parts dispersed to rot or burn. We no longer have the sense that there is a thing or process that we can label “Vin Fiz,” and yet the continuity has simply taken a different form. Parts of the aircraft – the ash from burned wood and linen, metal parts that long ago turned to rust – have become soil, supporting manifold forms of life. The carbon dioxide from its burning has become plants, which have since been eaten and transformed into uncountable living things. Just a few years before it crossed the continental Unites States, the Vin Fiz had not yet come into being; it was trees, flax, soil, and ores buried deep underground. We could look at these things and never dream that they would one day fly across a vast continent. When we look in this way we can see that there was no beginning to the Vin Fiz. Nor was there an end of it. But the mind tries to impose boundaries on processes that in essence are boundless. We think of the Vin Fiz beginning and ending. We see the craft in the air as being the Vin Fiz, but the components on the train as not being the Vin Fiz. We impute to the Vin Fiz a false sense of separateness.

We impute the same false sense of separateness to ourselves as well, and the purpose of reflecting on the elements is to dispel the mistaken assumption that the self is a thing—static, separate, and enduring. The purpose of reflecting on the elements is to see the truth of flow, of impermanence, of insubstantiality, and of interconnectedness. And on the way to seeing this truth we have to let go of the idea that the body is a thing – that it is separate and that it has some kind of permanent essence. When we do that, we start to realize that we can’t “own” the body. The body is not ours in any real sense, nor is the body “us” in any real sense. The self cannot be found within it. This, as we’ll see, isn’t to diminish ourselves. Rather, it’s to free ourselves from a limited way of seeing the self so that we can appreciate that we’re much, much more than we habitually assume.

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