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Saturday, March 31, 2012

An apology to the small woman with the big question

I go to talks by different teachers whenever I can. It's all one dhamma, and it's not all that complicated -- suffering and liberation from suffering, but everyone presents it differently and adds the intelligence of their own experience.

I was at a talk last week where the teacher was wise, intelligent, and funny (although perhaps not as funny as he thought he was.*) Good talk.

But I was bothered by his response to a question. It happens sometimes that I think the teacher misses the real question. This was one of those times. The woman, a petite woman with big glasses and a great lime-green sweater, said a lot of words about her background her experience, her difficulty with settling her mind. When she did get away from her busy thoughts, what she found scared her: ugly images, threatening feelings. Maybe she shouldn't meditate?

The teacher gave her guidelines for establishing a meditation practice. Just 10 minutes a day. Just stay with your breath. And when you lose it come back. He didn't address the ugly feelings that lay under the thoughts. And that, I think, was her real question.

Now, as a teacher, you have to give an answer to an individual question that may be of benefit to more people than just the questioner. You have to respond to one individual's quandry in a way that may answer other's questions.

But as a student, I've been in the position of hiding my real question. Of putting forth a lot of background and buzzwords to prove that I'm not new at this, that I'm a serious student. Of voicing my question at the end of a string of sentences because I'm afraid that my true question shows that I'm stupid or inferior or unworthy.

I was sitting behind this woman, but in a staff position that prevented me from touching her on the shoulder and saying "talk to me after." I could feel the skepticism, the frustration oozing out of her at his answer. I saw her later at the reception, giving off sharp, angry, frustrated energy.

I should have sat down and talked to her then. But I didn't. I was tired. The room was really hot, and I wasn't wide awake. I couldn't think of a way to approach her except to say, "Gee, you seem angry." And I didn't have the capacity to deal with her energy at that moment. (More than just sleepy, I'd gotten back the day before from a long and draining trip.)

Here is what I want her to know:

Don't give up on meditation. There may be ugly stuff under all those thoughts. You may, as you said, be using busyness to hide from that stuff. That doesn't mean that you are ugly. That doesn't mean you put that stuff there.

If you stick with it, underneath the ugliness, there is goodness. In you. Brilliant, clear wisdom and kindness and strength. What do you think knows that stuff is ugly? It is the part of you that is under that.

Do go gently into that dark night. Sit with kindness and compassion. Don't stare into the face of ugliness. Start by saying, "I see you," as the Buddha did with Mara, and then look away. Or back away, if just knowing that it's there is too much. Eventually, you can sit with kindness and gentleness and strength while the ugliness is there, in your peripheral vision. And someday, maybe, you can look at it with compassion, shine your basic goodness on it and watch it burn away, like fog in sun.

Do what the teacher said and sit. It builds your strength and your capacity to go deeper. Work with a meditation instructor. If you have to, work with several until you find one who resonates with your deepest self.

Back off when you need to; go back when you can. Your very question shows that the beauty is in you. Let that -- and your awareness of that -- be your refuge.

May you be safe (you can be, even from the monsters in your mind)
May you be happy (you can be, even with the monsters in your mind)
May you be healthy (having monsters is not a sign of psychosis)
May you know ease (it is possible, in this very moment, under these very conditions. I completely believe that.)

*Nancy's rules of teaching: Don't speculate on what your students will say about you when they leave. "You're going to go home and tell your friends that teacher was so XXX." You're assuming you know your students' experience and that yours is somehow more XXX than theirs. It's Northhampton. There are different standards for XXX there.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Up your meds

Feeling stressed? (Who isn't?)

Up your meds. As in meditation.

That's how Priscilla Warner, author of "Learning to Breath: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to my Life," refers to sitting and calming her mind.

New research finds that meditation builds your brain.

KABC News in Los Angeles reports that UCLA researchers found people who meditate long-term have more gyrification in the brain. Gyrification means more folding in the cortex. It's what gives the brain its ridge-like appearance. The theory is people with more ridges are able to process information better.

"Well one of the possibilities is that with an increase folding comes an increased number of neurons. And if we have an increased number of neurons, you might process certain information differently," said neuroscientist Eileen Luders.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The gift that keeps giving

To undertake a period of meditation is to offer a gift to yourself. It is an act of caring for your own well-being and consciously nurturing inner connection.
-- Christina Felman
"Woman Awake"

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The road to happiness is paved with good intentions

When someone bumps into you in the hallway, what's your reaction? If they cut you off in traffic or track mud past your desk, do you decry their inattention, their sloppiness, the difficulty they create for you? Is everyone out to get you? Is every difficulty an insult?

Or do you assume they made an error -- with no evil in their hearts, no intention to cause you pain?

A recent study found that pain hurt less, candy tasted better, and a massage was more satisfying when the subject believed the person providing whichever stimulus had good intentions. Or, in research terms, "whether physical experience is influenced by the interpersonal context in which stimuli occur."

The results confirm that good intentions—even misguided ones—can sooth pain, increase pleasure, and make things taste better. More broadly, these studies suggest that basic physical experience depends upon how we perceive the minds of others. (study author Kurt Gray, University of College Park, Maryland)

From a Buddhist perspective, this makes perfect sense. Rather than telling ourselves a story about how others wish us harm, intentionally or not, or how we're the most unlucky person in the universe or however we explain our own version of Murphy's Law, we see what is. Maybe we even try to cultivate the good and cast interactions in a positive light.

Maybe the store cashier really wants you to have a good day. I really want them to have a pleasant shift. The person who asks you to sign a petition in support of a cause -- most likely they really care about it. It matters to them, and they think your support matters. They aren't doing it to annoy you. Really.

For a start, see if you can catch the thought each interaction brings. The phone rings. Is it a bother? A potential connection? An opportunity? Is there a story behind your reaction?

You can give it a happy ending.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The road from good intentions

A new study finds that our perception of others' intentions plays a big role in how much we suffer from their actions:

"The general message is that being suspicious leads to a very unhappy life. Trusting in people's good intentions makes for a happier one. This doesn't mean that you should give away the house. But constantly seeing hidden agendas will take its toll. You'll be much better off giving people the benefit of the doubt."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Look at the sky

The sky is stunning this month. For an explanation of what everything is, go here

But to experience it, just go outside and look at the stars. Don't try to name them. Don't look for constellations. Don't try to remember the story of Orion or find his belt. Just look.

How do you feel when you see those points of light? Do you want to attach labels? Do you want to spin stories, research facts? Is it comfortable -- or do you want to get back into enclosed places?

What do you see in the night sky?