Use Your Own Wisdom

Family and teachers commonly admonish children to "use their heads";  to think reasonably and sensibly, and solve problems in accordance with reality, not as a reaction to beliefs or fantasies or wishes about how we want reality to be.   Buddhist philosophy and psychology encourages us to do the same.  Rather than believing in rules or ideas because an authority figure (God or the law) says we should do so, Buddhism suggests we practice its teachings and methods to discover for ourselves their validity and veracity. 

This is explicitly stated in the Kalama Sutta, also known as The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry.  Like us, the Kalama clan were a people confused by the myriad choices of spiritual and ethical systems offered to them by various religions, teachers, statesmen, gurus, priests, and schools.  So many different people and groups seemed to believe they were "right" and held the ultimate truth, yet the contradictions were so great and the choices so great;  who best to follow?  When the Buddha and his students visited their village in Kesaputta, India, they asked him for his advice, and he replied as follows:  

·       Do not be led by what you are told.  (Ma anussavena. Do not believe something just because it has been passed along and retold or is hearsay.)

·       Do not be led by whatever has become traditional or handed down from past generations. See it with fresh eyes. (Ma paramparaya. Do not believe something merely because it has been handed down from past generations.)

·       Do not be led by common opinion. (Ma itikiraya. Do not believe something simply because it is well-known everywhere or on account of rumors or because people talk a a great deal about it.)

·       Do not be led by what the newspapers and books say. (Ma Pitakasampadanena. Do not believe something just because it is cited in a text.)

·       Do not be led by mere logic because logic doesn't always apply. (Ma takkahetu. Do not believe something solely on the grounds of logical reasoning.)

·       Do not believe something merely because it accords with your philosophy. (Ma nayahetu. Do not believe anything merely because presumption is in its favor. Do not be led by mere deduction or inference.)

·       Do not believe something just because it appeals to common sense.  (Ma akaraparivitakkena. Do not be led by considering only outward appearance.)

·       Do not believe something just because you like the idea. (Ma ditthinijjhanakkhantiya. Do not be led by preconceived notions.)

·       Do not believe something because the speaker seems trustworthy.  (Ma bhabbarupataya. Do not be led by what seems acceptable; do not be led by what someone who seems believable says.)

·       Do not believe something, thinking, "This is what our teacher says". (Ma samano no garu ti. Do not accept any doctrine from reverence, but first try it as gold is tried by fire.)

In other words, rather than accepting with blind faith or dogmatism, we utilize constant questioning and personal testing to identify those truths which enable us to reduce our stress or misery or confusion.  We can apply these rules to every aspect of our life;  our personal stories (am I really a bad dancer?), our thoughts (am I right or wrong?), our cultural mores (is it important to be a good employee?), and our societal beliefs (is the U.S. a fair nation?) to discover if they are honest, truthful, and beneficial to our community and world.  

However much we rely upon these guidelines to help us truly understand reality, our ethical and spiritual paths cannot be effective without some kind of faith (in ourselves, in Buddha Nature, in the possibility of transforming our minds).   Bhikku Boddhi's commentary on the Kalama Sutta stresses this necessary quality:

Faith in the Buddha's teaching is never regarded as an end in itself nor as a sufficient guarantee of liberation, but only as the starting point for an evolving process of inner transformation that comes to fulfillment in personal insight. But in order for this insight to exercise a truly liberative function, it must unfold in the context of an accurate grasp of the essential truths concerning our situation in the world and the domain where deliverance is to be sought . . . To accept them in trust after careful consideration is to set foot on a journey which transforms faith into wisdom, confidence into certainty, and culminates in liberation from suffering.

It's Okay to Take Good Care of Yourself

For many of us, simply caring for ourselves is a counterintuitive and confusing process.  We may equate kindness with material goods, and so buy ourselves clothes or goods to quench dissatisfaction; or we might believe an indulgence will make us feel good, and so "treat" ourselves to rich foods or overeat;  or we may feel that drinking or drugs will rid us of our anxiety. Indeed, all of our so-called vices originate in our desire to be happy and suffer less, but we are so befuddled and ignorant of what is truly healthy and wholesome that our methods often generate more suffering and problems.

An easy guide to what it means to care and be kind to yourself is to consider the needs of an infant.  How would you, as a good parent, treat yourself if you were a little baby?  What qualities would you, as your own mother and father, exercise towards your infant-self?  Even, (or especially), if you didn't have adequate parenting when you were a child, the following suggestions are easy and loving ways to practice self-care.

1.  Feeding yourself wholesome food in the right amounts.  Babies eat when they're hungry and stop when sated, and they don't eat junk food. Feed yourself nutritious meals and consider doing your own cooking; what better way to feel special and nurtured than enjoying a home cooked meal?

2. Getting enough sleep and going to bed at the proper time. Babies get crabby when they stay up late, and good parents are very in tune with their child's fatigue levels.  Go to bed a bit earlier and don't be afraid to take a nap when needed.

3. Keeping comfortable.  Babies need to be the proper temperature; not too hot and not too cold.  They need to wear soft and well-fitting clothing.  They are upset by loud noises or crowds.  Notice your clothes (do you need a hat?), if your apartment is over-heated, and avoid over stimulation by limiting your time in stores, loud bars, or large groups of people.

4.  Offering lovingkindness.  Infants are regarded with genuine affection and love; everything they do or say is accepted without judgment and with patience and gentleness.  Good parents never scream or yell at babies, or criticize them.  Instead, they encourage and sincerely wish their child's every happiness, and truly believe that their baby has the potential to be, do, and become everything wonderful and worthwhile.  For adults, regular meditation practice can be the way to offer yourself these feelings; Thich Nhat Hanh considers meditation "deep listening" and likens it to a "friendliness" toward yourself. You being with you without judgment and with true concern and regard for your own well-being, is the path to feeling loved and understood in a deep and abiding way.

Skillful Speech

At breakfast yesterday morning, my dear friend - who is in a Twelve-Step program - explained that he'd begun working on the 8th Step.  This requires that he make a list of all the persons in his life that he's harmed, and then make amends to everyone on the list.  As we discussed each of our lives and past regrets, it became evident to me that the majority of all our harmfulness to others occurs due to unkind, thoughtless, or angry speech.  Certainly some people have difficulty with violent behavior or poor impulse control, but for the majority of us, it's our words, not our actions, that are careless, reactive, and occasionally, dangerous. 

We rely upon spoken and written language to communicate with every other human.  From the moment we awaken, we use our words to get what we need and want, to connect and understand, to be understood, to love, help, encourage, and to get things done.  Speaking is such second nature that I rarely consider that I'm even doing it (can't remember saying, "I'm about to speak now") not to mention what I'm about to say or my intention for those hearing it.   As a result, I sometimes say something thoughtless or impatient or downright rude. 

Cultivating mindfulness teaches us to slow down just a little so that we don't have to just react and say something without thinking.  Authentic "free speech" results from choice;  we can consider what we'd like to express and how we'd like to express it.  In the Abhaya Suttathe Buddha explains to Prince Abhaya that there are only six kinds of speech, and how they should be used: 

1.    True, beneficial, and pleasing to others. This speech the Buddha used on many occasions.

2.    True, beneficial, but not pleasing to others. This speech the Buddha used whenever it was appropriate and correct.

3.    True, not beneficial, but pleasing to others. This speech the Buddha did not use.

4.    True, not beneficial, and not pleasing to others. This speech the Buddha did not use.

5.    False, not beneficial, but pleasing to others. This speech the Buddha did not use.

6.    False, not beneficial, and not pleasing to others. This speech the Buddha did not use.  Why is that? Because the Buddha has compassion for living beings.

Don't forget - your internal dialogue affects you!  If you're using unkind, harsh or impatient speech toward yourself, please stop!

Letting Go

If you're anything like me, you probably think the opposite of clinging is indifference.  If I don't care, then I'm not attached, right?   Wrong.  From a Buddhist perspective, the opposite of clinging is aversion.  Attachment is "an exaggerated not wanting to be separated from someone or something".  Non-attachment doesn't mean you don't care; in fact, non-attachment is equanimity - it means you can truly feel love without expectations or demands or strategies about outcome. Byron Katie says real love is "wanting someone to want what they want", which makes me wonder because most of us learned the opposite - that love means "wanting someone to want what I want them to want".

So don't be afraid to care about a person, a cause, an idea.  And when they or it don't turn out the way you expected, you can see the depths of your attachment and begin to work with it.  You'll start to see that often the real cause of anger and frustration is not getting what you want, and you can begin to feel receptive to different possibilities and humbled by the way life constantly doesn't turn out the way you planned.   It's only when we can see our clinging and attachment that we can begin to see our suffering and longing, and through the application of compassion and patience towards ourselves we can find freedom from our struggles. 

"What happens when we become Buddhist is we think, “Oh, I shouldn’t be attached, I’ll become renounced” and you walk around like some hopeless person, “Would you like tea, Robina?” “Oh, I don’t care” “Would you like coffee?” “Oh, I don’t mind” … This is called indifference and it’s revolting. Don’t be indifferent please!" Venerable Robina Courtin

Hearing Another Opinion

"People with opinions just go around bothering each other."  (Attributed to The Buddha)

These days, it seems like everyone has an opinion, everyone is expected to share their opinion, and everyone must defend their opinion.  Lately I've noticed it's really quite boring and sometimes exhausting, defending and constructing and debating everything -- although the process is often is mistaken for excitement or intimacy.   

Last week, at a meeting with colleagues, I found myself more interested in stating my opinion than listening to the others, and was really surprised to realize that each of us were quite attached to our ideas and ways of doing.  The week before, a friend and I spent nearly an hour in an upscale wine bar disagreeing about American politics.  Although we were both well-informed, passionate, and polite, exchanging opinions and trying to persuade each other of our respective "rightness" isn't really communicating at all.  When the evening ended I didn't feel any connection or closeness to her, and I doubt she to me.  

Real connection can only occur when we let go of clinging to our wants, ideas, and control.  Letting go of our defenses and opening to receptivity and vulnerability, we can meet each other as we are instead of as we want each other to be or how we want others to perceive us.   I'm going to practice listening instead of talking, and saying "yes" instead of saying "no".  I have a feeling I'll be much more at ease if it all turns out the way you think you want it rather than the way I think I want it.  

Gratitude Creates a Generous Heart

"Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others." Cicero

 For Buddhists, the fulfillment of the Paramitas is considered to be the accomplishment of an Awakened Being (i.e., a Buddha), and in the Mahayana tradition, there are six Paramitas: generosity, morality, patience, diligence, meditation, and wisdom. "Paramita" is Sanskrit for "perfection" or "completeness", and it refers to wise actions and mindstates which are generated with an understanding of interdependence.   Each Paramita is said to be dependent others;  that is, Wisdom couldn't function without Effort, and Ethics couldn't exist without Contemplation, and so on.

However, the most important quality, the mindstate which is said to propel us onto the Path of the Paramitas, is not a Paramita at all.  It is gratitude.  

Gratitude is the recognition that we're connected to others, that we're dependent upon causes and conditions way beyond our control for our life and our well-being.  The recent hurricane and the election were powerful reminders of our interdependence, of how none of us live as self-existing, independent people, but rather as inter-beings reliant and influencing each other through infinite causes and conditions each and every moment. To feel grateful is to express genuine appreciation for such circumstances, and recent research studies in the field of Positive Psychology suggest that grateful people are more likely to feel a sense of well-being and happiness, and when gratitude is expressed through acts of patience and kindness and the other paramitas, it's associated with increased levels of energy, optimism, and empathy.

I don't believe an equitable, compassionate society will come about via political means.  Rather, change in our world happens when each of us feels grateful for all that we have or even don't have, and all that we truly mean to each other.  Then we can realize our abundance and our inherent capacity to give and love freely, knowing that giving to another is actually giving to our self. 

Good Relationships

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine reports that kindness is the quality most necessary to create and sustain a happy relationship.  Of course this seems obvious - everyone has an aversion to unkindness - but in practice it's not easy to be truly kind.   It's easy to be kind when you're feeling good and everyone is agreeing with you and giving you want you want.  It's not easy if you're feeling hurt or misunderstood, or if you're told you're wrong, or if you're sick and tired.  So what do you do?

For more than 2500 years, Buddhists have been developing methods to increase kindness, using inherent human qualities of gratitude, generosity, and patience to cultivate better relationships with each other and the world.  Just as The Atlantic explains, those who are kind have a habit of "scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully".     

Buddhists also understand that kindness is like a muscle, and, as the research proves, "it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise".  We also know that Sympathetic Joy, the quality of delighting in another's good fortune, is especially important as "how someone responds to a partner’s good news can have dramatic consequences for the relationship".  Practice lovingkindness meditation for six weeks and see for yourself the power of cultivating these qualities.

Metta Meditation

Metta, also known as Lovingkindness meditation, is a type of meditation described and taught by the historical Buddha.  It's said that nuns and monks sent to meditate in the jungle became so scared of the darkness and the noises and the lions and tigers and bears that they scurried back to the Buddha, too overwhelmed with terror to continue.  The Buddha prescribed Metta meditation as an antidote to fear.

Many of our conditioned and instantaneous responses are based on fear; defensiveness and worry are both rooted in it.  Practicing Metta helps us re-wire our patterns to create responses which are less fearful and more open and receptive to our experiences.  It doesn't mean we won't have anxiety;  but it means we don't have to lead with it. 

The first few times I learned Metta Meditation, it didn't resonate with me at all.   When it was taught as visualization practice, I felt confused and got lost in thought; when taught with the focus on benefiting others, I just felt guilty.   I stopped doing it and assumed it wasn't the right practice for me. 

Then I participated in a week-long meditation retreat, and I began to understand how powerfully this practice generates both compassion and insight.  The three instructions below may help you deepen and open to Metta practice too.

1.  Metta is a concentration practice.  Like mindfulness of breath or body, the phrases of lovingkindness become the object of attention, and when the mind strays, the practice is simply to return to the phrases.  You don't have to worry about generating feeling or visualizing someone, you simply need to keep coming back, to focus and concentrate.   

2.  While doing Metta, you don't need to feel Metta!   It is not necessary to feel good or loving, and it doesn't even matter if you feel bad or hateful when doing the meditation, the outcome is same.  The point of the practice is to begin changing our habitual responses, to re-wire our immediate anxious or negative patterns into more receptive and openhearted ways of being with our experience. 

3. Begin with yourself and a benefactor only.   This practice is one of the original meditations of the Buddha, and he said the best way to learn it is to start with those people that are easiest to care about.  So start by spending a few weeks just focusing the phrases of lovingkindness on yourself and a person or being that you feel has helped and benefited you.  Not usually a relative, but perhaps a teacher, a dear aunt, a pet, or an historical figure who inspires you and to whom you feel grateful.

Whatever living beings there may be without exception, weak or strong, long, large, middling, short, subtle, or gross, visible or invisible, living near or far, born or coming to birth may all beings have happy minds!  Karaniya Metta Sutta

Practicing Metta While Crabby

In personal situations, sometimes I feel very strongly that I'm right and you're wrong. It's very hard for me to see that you have your own point of view, that you don't mean me any harm, and that your needs and concerns are as valid as mine.  I feel pretty sure that the way I see things is the way they are, and the way you see things is confused.  Sometimes I'll even spend time arguing with you to help you see clearly.  

Practicing Metta meditation during this time feels counterintuitive and impossible.  How can I wish you well and happy when you're so annoying?  How can I want for you to be happy when you don't even know the best thing for you?  

But sitting silently and repeating the phrases of lovingkindness, returning again and again to this moment, the barrage of my opinions and viewpoints and certainities starts to lessen. It doesn't seem as urgent or important for you to agree with me.  In fact, maybe it doesn't matter at all.  Maybe what matters is that we can hear each other and wish each other well and still see things differently.  Maybe we'll come to a compromise or one of us will change our minds.  Maybe we'll let the matter drop and remember how much we care about each other.  

Just because I'm a Buddhist doesn't mean I'm immune to feeling frustration, resentment, and crabbiness. What it does mean is that I know the antidote to difficult feelings, both mine and yours, is meeting them with awareness and compassion.  May we be safe, be happy, be healthy, and live with ease.  

Three Scientific Outcomes of Meditation

It seems like everyday there's another news story on the benefits of meditation, and how meditation causes physical changes to the brain.  But what do the changes signify?  Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar explains in an article in Tech Insider

• Understanding yourself (and other people too). Meditation increases your awareness of "minimally conscious thoughts and emotions," or quieter emotions that otherwise go unnoticed. "You have probably experienced many emotions that you're not even aware of," Lazar says. "If you understand them in yourself, you'll understand them better in other people." 

• Emotional strength. When you have a higher resolution image of your emotional landscape, then you're less to be swayed by each individual feeling. "If you have a better handle of all the different emotions, you realize, 'Ok, this emotion isn't useful,'" Lazar says. "It gives you more information, and information is power." 

• Getting less freaked out by stress. "You're less likely to make a rash decision," Lazar says. "You're less stressed, you're less caught up in the hullabaloo around you. I think that's important regardless of what you do. it plays into quality of life. I still get stressed, but it takes more to make me stressed out."

Groundhog Day (Again)

Meditation practice feels a lot like the movie Groundhog Day.  Everytime I sit down to focus it's the same thing, over and over again; my attention is on my breath, then I get distracted by a sound, a memory, a plan, or a fantasy.  The next thing I know, I'm entirely lost in thought.  It takes five, ten, or maybe even 30 minutes before I notice that my attention isn't on my breath and I'm not meditating at all.  Or am I?

"Successful" meditation isn't one-pointed focus on an object.  Successful meditation is _noticing_ when my attention isn't focused where I intend it, and choosing to return it to where I want it to be.    Noticing where my awareness is, and exercising my ability to place it where I want it to be, is the heart of being mindful and developing concentration.  As Sharon Salzberg says, "The essence of practice is to begin again."  And again.  And again.

I Have Arrived, I Am Home

Like a lot of New Yorkers, I'm a busy person!  Rushing from place to place, answering endless emails, Facebooking, Instagraming, Twittering, drinking coffee, attending meetings, scheduling, writing a class outline while riding the subway, planning dinner while walking to work. 

When I get lost in this busy mind, it's hard to break loose - my thoughts flow one to the next in a never-ending stream of associations.   Sometimes I miss my stop or even forget where I'm going.  Where am I?  

The best way to recognize where I am is to ask myself "What's happening in my body?"  Using mindfulness, I pay attention to everything that I can physically feel;  that my feet are cold, that the sun is warming my skin, I can hear the cars honking, and my stomach is churning.  My body and its sensations are always now - not in the past or the future. Feeling my feet I realize Oh!  Here I am!  I guess I wasn't lost at all. 

I have arrived, I am home

In the here, In the now

I am solid, I am free

In the ultimate I dwell

Thich Nhat Hanh