Who’s Keeping Score?

“Falling down is what we humans do. If we can acknowledge that fact, judgment softens and we allow the world to be as it is, forgiving ourselves and others for our humanity. The Buddha’s First Noble Truth – that suffering exists – is, in itself, a permission to be human and not demand more of ourselves than we’re capable of. Our compassion arises from our very fallibility, and love takes root in the soils of human error.” – Lin Jenson, founding teacher of Chico Zen Center

This is the time of year in our American culture when many students (young and sometimes old!) have just recently graduated from one educational institution or another. It’s a time of ritual and ceremony as one chapter of a person’s life comes to an end and another chapter begins. It’s a time when we gather to celebrate accomplishments, hard work, and the overcoming of obstacles; a time when we set our sites on the hopefully bright future ahead.

Once upon a time in our American story, these events took place primarily on high school and college campuses, but nowadays we frequently find ourselves at middle, elementary, and even preschool graduations! And while I find these rites of passage to be deeply meaningful, I sometimes question if they’re feeding our individual and cultural need to be “good,” to be “successful?” If they’re supporting a cycle where we measure our internal self worth through external accomplishment? It’s a layered inquiry, with many possible answers and interpretations, but it guides me in the direction of something I would invite us all to explore: our relationship with our “failures.

And in this investigation of our relationship with our “failures,” in the spending of some quality time simply acknowledging our own humanity, I invite you to reflect upon this question: Who’s keeping score?

There’s a teaching in Buddhism known as the Eight Worldly Winds, pairs of opposites that we can all get swept away in. The Buddha, in an ancient Pali text known as the Lokavipatti Sutta, named these opposite winds as follows: gain and loss; fame and disrepute; praise and blame; pleasure and pain. In this teaching, the Buddha shares that these winds are “inconsistent, impermanent, subject to change,” but that we often spend a majority of our time welcoming the pleasant and rebelling against the unpleasant. We spend a great amount of energy inflating and/or deflating our ego’s sense of itself.

Sound familiar? Again: Who’s keeping score?

When we’re swept up in these winds, what is it we’re after?

In a 2014 commencement address that Pema Chodron gave to the graduating students at Naropa University, Chodron turned the concepts of “success” and “failure” inside-out by stating that failure is actually an underutilized skill. That failure can be “the portal to creativity, to learning something new, to having a fresh perspective.”

So, when we’re caught up in the often habitual response of labeling ourselves as “good” or “bad,” when the worldly winds of “success” and “failure” are blowing strong, it may be of benefit to simply widen the lens, soften our hearts, and get a little curious about what’s going on? It may be of benefit to gently meet our strong emotions and great expectations with kindness, compassion, and a small (or large!) dose of Who’s keeping score?

Cultivating Our Capacity for Kindness is Key to Our Liberation

I began my meditation practice in earnest about 11 years ago. I was originally motivated to practice because of a desire to overcome anxiety and depression, feelings that had followed me around for most of my life. For the first couple of years, I focused on trying to “perfect” my practice in order to become happy. I had a “goal” and that goal was to rid myself of the unpleasant feelings that had caused me so much suffering. While all of my efforts helped improve my ability to sit for long periods of time, it did little to alter my temperament.

I was beginning to feel frustrated with meditation and even considered quitting, when I made the fortunate decision to attend a residential retreat at Sprit Rock led by Arinna Weisman. During the retreat she led several guided meditations on lovingkindness (metta) that opened my heart in ways I had never experienced before. While I was familiar with metta practice, I hadn’t until then taken it very seriously. What I learned from Arinna was that even when I don’t feel particularly lovable, I can still plant seeds of friendliness and care towards myself and others, knowing that in time they will bear fruit.

If you practice meditation for any time, you’ll quickly see that cultivating a spirit of kindness towards yourself is key to staying on the path towards liberation. Having the capacity to touch this feeling of metta – this innate sense of genuine love and kindness – allows us to open our heart and let the world in without expectations. We can see this when we are around people that radiate this sense of genuine kindness. They can make us feel important and at ease, not because of anything we’ve done, but because we are a fellow human being. Great spiritual leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King, Jr. exude this quality, as well as many ordinary people who somehow have this great gift and capacity.

This quality of metta manifests as a generous and openness of heart that simply wishes happiness for all beings. Metta is unconditional. It does not seek self-benefit, but is offered without expectations. Because this feeling is not dependent on external conditions, on people or events behaving a certain way, it is not easily disappointed or dissatisfied. As metta grows within us we become more open to ourselves, our neighbors and the world.

Like all qualities of the mind, metta can be strengthened with practice. We can begin in our meditation practice by silently repeating simple phrases that are meant to evoke metta within ourselves, for example some typical phrases suggested by Sharon Salzberg are:

May I be happy

May I be peaceful

May I be healthy

May I live with ease

The exact phrases we use do not particularly matter, it is the underlying feeling that they are intended to evoke where we want to focus our awareness. As we continue to repeat the phrases, we can begin sending metta to our friends by wishing that they may be happy, peaceful, healthy and at ease. Finally, we can expand our practice further to include people we don’t know very well, difficult people and eventually to all beings.

When practicing metta for ourselves or others, it is not unusual to feel that we are not loving enough, or that the practice is not working. Maybe we have an idea of what metta should feel like, an ecstatic feeling, waves of bliss, etc., and end up feeling discourage when these states don’t arise. All of these emotions are simply part of the practice and objects for mindfulness. They are a chance for us to open our hearts to whatever arises and allow the world in.

The Buddha suggested that we can also strengthen this feeling of metta by focusing on the good qualities of others in our daily lives. Finding fault and criticizing others is really a seductive habit that can be hard to break. Focusing on the positive qualities of others doesn’t mean we ignore their faults. Instead it helps us see the whole person for who they are without becoming sentimental about it. When we cultivate metta in this way, it helps us foster a greater sense of well-being towards ourselves and a greater appreciation of the joy and sorrows experienced by all beings.

The Gift of Loving-Kindness

There is a belief, I’ve often heard, repeated that meditation practice, and metta or loving-kindness practice in particular, is self-indulgent. That by focusing so much attention on ourselves, we are withdrawing from the problems of the world. This view, however, ignores the fact that without a sense of self-love and compassion for ourselves, our actions in the world can often end up doing more harm than good, even if our intentions are noble. As Sharon Salzberg writes “Generosity coming from self-hated becomes martyrdom. Morality born of self-hate becomes rigid repression. Love for others without the foundation of love for ourselves becomes a loss of boundaries, codependency, and a painful and fruitless search for intimacy.”

Loving-kindness and compassion are the mental states at the root of wise action. Given the state of the world today, and the immense challenges and emotional difficulties that can arise for us as we face these challenges, deepening our meditation practice by cultivating metta is one of the most effective actions we can take to help alleviate the suffering of others. Practicing metta strengthens our ability to bring greater compassion and awareness to everything — every moment, person, situation, emotion, thought, experience. The more we are able to be present, clear and non-reactive to the way things are, the greater the chance that our actions will help others, rather than bring harm.

Donald Rothberg writes in his book The Engaged Spiritual Life, that “our times call for both spiritual and social commitments. There is the irony of attempting to overcome self-centeredness, hatred, fear and confusion through meditation practice while ignoring the cries of the world.” It is the cries of the world that call us to begin the process of self-transformation. Without transforming the world reflected within us, there is no telling how our actions may unconsciously affect others. The gift of metta is that it can transform our minds so that we are able to act in ways that benefit ourselves, as wells as others. This is a gift we give to the world.

Loving Ourselves Takes Courage

Like many western practitioners of Buddhism, when I first started practicing loving-kindness meditation I found it most difficult to focus this energy towards myself. I can remember being on retreat and having no problem practicing the metta phrase for others – my friends, my mentors, people I barely know, even some of the more unpleasant people in my life – yet, when I’d try and direct that love towards myself, I’d balk. I’d often feel guilty, anxious and annoyed. The practice seemed so pointless and completely self-absorbed.

What I’ve learned over the past ten years is that without self-love, much of the energy I put into helping others is completely co-dependent. I felt pain and loneliness inside and was trying to heal these wounds by playing the saint. As I’ve worked with the metta phrases over time, directing them towards myself as well as other, I have felt a shift in consciousness and a greater sense of acceptance. I fee l like I’m less likely to hurt others out of a desire to have my “needs” meet. I still slip up, but that’s why they call it a practice. We move forward slowly, learning to love ourselves more, bringing greater awareness to the layers of pain and sadness that may surround our hearts, and then allowing our light to radiate out into the world.

Metta and Wise Intention

Metta practice can help us cultivated wise intention, part of the eight fold path leading to the liberation of suffering. It does this by helping us overcome negative and unwholesome thought patterns by bringing awareness to our intention to foster greater goodwill, compassion and kindness towards ourselves and others. Silently directing phrases or “well-wishes” to ourselves, a benefactor, a dear one, a neutral person, a difficult person, and all beings helps us to “water” the seeds of joy, peace, mindfulness, understanding, and love that already exist in our minds. This in turn strengthens those thought patterns that lead us to take wholesome actions in the world.

Neuroscience tells us that setting an intention ‘primes’ our nervous system to be on the lookout for whatever will support our intentions.  In his book “The Mindful Brain”, Daniel Siegel talks about the effect paying “attention to intention” has on our brain and how this affects our experience of our surroundings. He writes, “Intentions create an integrated state of priming, a gearing up of our neural system to be in the mode of that specific intention: we can be readying to receive, to sense, to focus, to behave in a certain manner.” In other words, when we pay attention to our intentions, we are more likely to notice and connect with the relevant actions, opportunities and people that will make our intentions come to fruition.

As we pay attention to our intention to cultivate greater goodwill and compassion by practicing metta, we are training our brains to connect with the wholesome thoughts that can bring us greater happiness. We are also creating the conditions that allow us to let go of unwholesome thoughts grounded in greed, hate and delusion that bring greater suffering. That is a gift to the world. That is the power of metta.

Instructions for Practicing Metta Meditation

For those new to metta, below is a guided loving-kindness (metta) meditation by Sharron Salzberg. May you be happy and peaceful.

Cultivating Joy in Daily Life

The Buddha taught that joy and happiness already reside within us. To cultivate these qualities, we just need to develop wholesome states of mind that allow us to experience our true nature. Such change, however, requires effort. It’s no different than the effort required to develop a wholesome life style aimed at keeping our bodies in shape. If we focus on eating right, exercising and doing yoga, we find that we feel healthier, our muscles can get stronger and we become more limber. The ability of bodies to get healthier and stronger is endemic to all bodies. Similarly, the ability of the mind to experience inner peace and well-being is endemic to all minds. In fact according to neuroscience, the default state of the mind is a sense of ease. When the mind is calm and clear it returns to its default state. Thus, happiness is not something you need to pursue, you just have to learn how to access it.

But accessing “it” is not so easy for most of us because we’ve developed mental habits based on a misunderstanding that our happiness and joy are dependent on external conditions – conditions that are unceasingly changing on an unreliable bias. As neuroscientist Sam Harris says, “The problem of finding happiness in the world arrives with our first breath – and our needs and desires seem to multiply by the hour.” And so, from day one, we are developing habits that seek out pleasurable experiences and avoid unpleasurable experiences in the hopes that our needs and desires will be met – that we ‘find’ happiness. What we find instead is that all of our pleasures – however refined or easily acquired- are fleeting. You can’t get enough of your favorite meal and you keep eating until the next moment you are so stuffed you feel sick, and yet by some miracle of science you still have room for desert, then seconds after the taste no longer lingers you feel regret, so you download a new app that’s guaranteed to help you lose weight, and so it goes.

The habits of ego are hard to change, but the good news is that like all habits change is possible with the right “exercise.” Bad habits can be replaced by good habits. The exercises themselves are fairly simple in concept, but not so easy to keep up. Our tendency is to get lazy and fall back into familiar and comfortable patterns. So effort is required by us to sustain our practice. In Buddhism, wise effort refers to the energy we need to abandon unwholesome states of minds (bad habits) and to cultivate wholesome states of mind (good habits). The good news is that all habits can be changed over time; it just takes practice and patience.

Simple Daily Exercises for Developing Greater Joy

Our meditation practice begins with sitting on a cushion or chair, and it is here where we first begin to cultivate joy and loving-kindness. Eventually, however, we must move our practice off the cushion and out into daily life. Learning to cultivate and experience joy in the work place, at home, in our relationships, etc. is an important part of our spiritual journey. Of course we’ll make mistakes — we’ll lose our tempers, harbor resentments, express dislikes, fail to be compassionate even when our friends are suffering — but making mistakes is just a part of the process of learning any skill.

The important point to remember is that if we are trying to cultivate joy in meditation, but always act in ways that undermines our joy in daily life, then we’re obviously going to get “stuck” in our development. Part of the trick is just remembering to practice when we’re in the world. For myself, I have found three simple practices that help me remember to stay conscious in daily life. They are calming the mind, attending to joy and evoking kindness. Below, I describe each of these practices and offer some simple exercises you can try for yourself.

Calming the mind

Calming the mind helps to bring us back to our default set point, which is a sense of ease or abiding in peace. While it is difficult to maintain this inner peace very long, given our mind’s tendency to wander, we can, with exercise, experience inner peace on a moment by moment basis. The more we practice the longer these moments become.

There are many methods for calming the mind, but three that I have found useful are “Anchoring”, “Imaging” and “Using a Mantra.” Anchoring refers to focusing your mental awareness on a single object and trying to keep it there. Generally, this is the breath, but it could also be a particular body sensation, like the feelings in your hands, or the warmth in your belly. If you use the breath, it is best to focus on where you notice it the strongest, in your nostrils, chest, abdomen, or even surrounding your whole body. The idea is that when your mind is active or agitated, triggered by the ongoing conditions of the world, you can bring it back to a state of calm by refocusing your attention on your anchor. You anchor becomes a refuge in the storm – a safe harbor when there is turbulence in the mind.

Imaging refers to using a mental image that you associate with a calm meditative state of mind. One possibility is the image of a butterfly landing on a flower. The idea is that as we calm our mind, we are able to slowly make the butterfly become still enough to stay on the flower for a short period of time.

A mantra is any sound, word or short phrase that you find attractive, easy to remember and conducive to relaxation. It can have meaning or no meaning. Some people do better with a meaningful word or phrase while others experience the meaning as a distraction and hence prefer a simple sound. One mantra I have found helpful to me is “No one to be, Nothing to do.” Or you might try the word “Calm” on the in breath and “Peace” on the out breath. Often connecting your breath with your mantra can help maintain a calm mind for longer periods of time.

Daily Exercise

Experiment with each of these methods during your day. See which one works best for inducing and maintaining a clam state of mind. You might start by committing to your “calming the mind” practice for one minute every day for the next week. Try it at work, at home, or wherever feels right. Gradually increase the time if it feels right for you. See if when you practice you notice a shift in you state of mind. When your mind is calm do you notice a greater sense of inner peace? What does this inner peace feel like in the moment? Does it change from moment to moment of stay the same?

Attending to Joy

Experiencing the inner peace that comes from a calm mind is the first step towards cultivating loving-kindness. The second step is to begin attending to the moments of joy in our lives. Every time you have a joyful experience, simply give it your full attention. It only takes one moment, this moment, to bring full attention to the joy that you are feeling at any one time – walking with a loved one, seeing a sunset, holding a baby, taking a bite of a delicious meal.

Joy is everywhere if we set our intention to look for it. It’s like setting an intention to look for blue cars. When we do, we quickly notice they are everywhere. The fact that we are not in pain, are healthy, are safe, are able to get water and food when we need it, live in a beautiful area, have the resources that allow us to practice mediation, are miracles that we often take for granted. Like blue cars, momentary joy is all around us, even in the midst of struggle, and the more we set our intention to look for it, the more were realize that many moments in our day are filled with joy. Attending to joy trains our minds to more readily access the joy that is already here.

Noticing the good in our life strengthens our inner sense of peace, which helps calm the mind. For most of us, our habitual tendency is to focus on the negative aspects of our life. What scientists call our brain’s built-in “negativity bias.” Instead of focusing on the fifty things that went right for us at the end of the day, we ruminant on the one that went wrong. By focusing on the good, however, we can overcome this habit. This makes it easier for us over time to return to our minds default state of ease and friendliness towards ourselves.

Daily Exercise

Try paying calm mindful attention to three activities a day (one minute each) that bring you a sense of ease and well-being. Perhaps when you first step into the shower, just notice without analyzing how your body feels. Take in the sensations. Or when you first start eating a meal, notice how the food feels in your mouth, notice its temperature, colors, and texture, focus on its aroma and taste. Or when you find yourself walking. Just notice how it feels to walk, what are the sensations like in your body in the present moment as you move through space. The possibilities are endless.

Evoking Kindness

The practice of loving-kindness is central to all schools of Buddhism and is key to finding and staying on the path. There is often a lot of confusion about what is meant by the concept of loving-kindness, or by terms like joy and happiness in the Buddhist sense of the words. What we are talking about is not some esoteric feeling that will carry us away on waves of bliss, only to crash down to the ground again when conditions change and we feel discouraged. Loving-kindness can best be understood as a friendly response to ourselves and the people around us. It is a feeling of good-will or a kind heart that we can always access in the present moment, if we are awake enough to look. This is the fertile ground from which happiness and joy can arise in our lives.

As our ability to access inner peace and inner joy grows, our natural tendency is to feel more compassion for ourselves and others. Actively evoking kindness to others helps us make this characteristic a habit. Wishing for others to be well, to be free from suffering, to have good health and success opens up our hearts and connects us with our own sense of well-being.

As we practice evoking kindness it may sometimes seem that we have more aversion than when we started. We may even become irritable. If we can stay mindful of the feelings that occur, we may notice a powerful purifying process taking place over time. Joseph Goldstein likens this purification to drops of water falling on a piece of red hot metal. As the drops of water hit the metal over and over again there is the sound of steam rising…”whoosh.” Gradually as the metal cools off the sound rising from the drops diminishes and the reactions of the metal to water drops cease. We all carry a vast storehouse of judgments, hurts, resentments and old reactions. As we begin evoking kindness to ourselves, our storehouse of negative emotions may percolate to the surface…”whoosh.” As our mind calms and are able to take in more of the good things in life, our reactions to evoking kindness, even to those we may not intrinsically like, loss strength and we find ourselves living with greater ease and joy.

Daily Exercise

At least once a day randomly choose two human beings and wish them happiness. Just sit quietly and visualize the first person in your mind and then evoke phrases like, “May you be happy, may you have peace, may you find joy and success in your life.” Do this for 10 – 15 seconds and then visualize the second person and repeat the exercise. Experiment with the phrases you use so that they have meaning to you. If you feel more ambitious you might try evoking kindness towards two people every hour at work. Simple take a break from your daily routine for 30 seconds, sit quietly calming your mind and randomly evoke kindness to two people. Do it as a free will giving – with no expectations for any benefits for yourself. See if over time you notice the sound of the steam abating and a greater sense of joy arising in your heart.

Car Alarm Lovingkindness

As I move through my daily life, I know that one of my motivations to stay steadfast in my practice is to support my capacity to respond to the moments of everyday life with more patience, wisdom and care. I have the direct experience of how my practice lessons my suffering and, thus, the suffering of those whom I come in contact with throughout the day. I also know that I am practicing for the inevitable moments when the alarm bells will ring.

I had just one of those “alarm bell” moments recently: While at the gym, relaxed in the let-it-all-go end-of-yoga-class resting pose, I heard my name and “please come to the front desk” ring down the hall. Before I could get there, front desk staff found and informed me that my car had been broken into in the parking lot. My purse was in the trunk.

Fortunately, though my trunk was opened, somehow my purse wasn’t stolen, I was able to quickly change out my bank accounts, and everything turned out fine. What was challenging was my internal experience– a nervous system kicked into survival mode despite a false alarm.

On the day of the event and in the days following, the seeds I’d planted (over years) in my lovingkindness practice produced fruits that lessened my suffering. I had compassion for myself and, on a day following the event, in a moment when I was acknowledging the suffering of the man who broke into my car and sending him well-wishes for healing and peace, the fear running through my mind and body dropped– we were both human beings experiencing suffering, both human beings wanting healing and peace. It was all ok. This level of ease did not last, as a nervous system calms down in its own time, but that moment of no longer experiencing the man who broke into my car as “other” set my mind/heart free. This is the healing power of lovingkindness.

How might our lives change if we were to cultivate the capacity to turn unconditional friendliness, unobstructed well-wishes toward ourselves throughout our daily life? How might this lovingkindness towards our own being then ripple out towards others? Surely, we will each have multitudes of opportunities to inquire, to receive and know our direct experience, as we continue to walk our path.

May all beings be well.

May all beings know healing and peace.

‘Tis The Season To Take Refuge

Each holiday season, as winter approaches, I often find myself drawn to reflect upon what supports us in staying centered within ourselves throughout this busy season. While the world swirls in gift purchases, holiday events and social plans, I often find myself longing to move inward vs. outward, to balance the busy with the quiet, to reflect upon and recommit to the values and intentions I choose to live from, this holiday season and beyond.

If it fits, I invite you to carve out some quiet space this week to explore what helps to center, nourish and support you throughout the holiday and winter season. In Buddhist terms, “What will you take refuge in?” Or, said another way, “What activities or practices help point you back to awareness, your own inner goodness, the way things actually are, the truth of interconnection?” Practices might include certain helpful views or personal mantras that you hold in your mind. Perhaps something like, “All things are of the nature to change… this, too, will change” or meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein’s mantra, “May I meet this moment fully, may I meet it as a friend.” Our personal mantras, like the whisper of a quiet wind on a summer’s day, can be gentle, kind reminders to the mind to lean back into our refuge again and again.

Other practices and wholesome activities might include: exercise, talking with a kind friend, practicing generosity, enjoying time in nature, meditation, yoga, experiencing your body and sound as you sip a cup of tea, being mindful of your sense experiences while doing the dishes or preparing a meal, noticing the goodness in others, taking in the sound of the birds outside your office window, connecting with a spiritual community that supports your spiritual practice, gardening, taking a few deeper breaths each time you come to a stop light, etc.

If you currently have a refuge practice, you might explore whether it still fits or what deepens your commitment to it. What do you take refuge in now? If you don’t have a current refuge practice and would like to create one, you might explore what your intention is for this season. Your intention might even become the mantra you whisper to yourself: “Peace, peace, peace”, “Let” (on the in breath) “Go” (on the out breath), “Just” (on the in breath) “Here” (on the out breath), for example. What will you take refuge in?

May all beings know peace and their own inner goodness.
May all beings be well.