Resting in the Embrace of Awareness

All of the ingredients of both awakening and bondage exist in the present moment and nowhere else. In this moment, no matter how disconnected we feel from the whole, this “small I” can be met, welcomed and offered deep compassion. The fear can be held too. Awareness, when we let it, can embrace us just as we are with no conflict, no effort, nothing left out. We can relax for a while and rest in presence.

Why do most of us find it so difficult to access this sweet relief that is readily available? A primary reason is our ingrained identification with ego or self, the one who feels inadequate. If we’re honest, this is a life long struggle most of us are intimately familiar with. But if we simply switch to self-affirmation and positivity, we’re still identifying with and living out of this small and limited idea of self. Inevitably once the positivity wears off we revert to feelings of inadequacy because at the core, we are still identifying with an idea of fixed self, which is never enough.

As a child I was sexually abused by my father, as a teenager gang raped. To cope I entered my adult life with a story that I was strong and that being a women in no way marginalized me. This positive narrative did help me climb the ladder of business success. Simultaneously, at a deeper level I was in denial about the profound sense of inadequacy I felt – the surface positivity was my survival mechanism. I remember visiting various tech companies in Silicon Valley to meet with the top executives. I was in a leadership position in the tech world, a woman executive around mostly men. I held a mental narrative that being a woman didn’t limit me. But underneath I felt like an impostor who didn’t belong there. I couldn’t acknowledge or access how strongly this underlying feeling affected me. I desperately wanted to leave that life behind and a buyout opportunity gave me the chance at a young age.

Several years passed before I felt strong enough to acknowledge and touch my deep vulnerability, work with the trauma directly and finally, restore my energy and confidence. As I felt stronger at my core, beyond self-identity, I could welcome the vulnerability and fear. During daily meditation, the great embrace of awareness allowed me to let down my guard and release the armoring of false identity I had lived with for so long. Off the cushion I no longer had to pretend to be strong to cover over feelings inadequacy. I could finally relax and live a more joyful and equanimous life.

Many of us have powerful experiences of no self during meditation. But getting off the cushion, its easy to revert, again and again, to a life that feels incomplete. We may be aware of a subtle discomfort just under the surface and spend most of our time seeking strategies to eliminate it. Even efforts that seem in accordance with the dharma can easily turn into a trap of self improvement. We’re actually seeking to fill what is already full.

But if we can let go for a while, put down our (often unconscious) attempts to build a better self and touch with compassion what’s really here, no matter how broken and small we may feel, we gain access to true strength. Resting in the embrace of awareness, we relate our experience and our imperfections in a kinder, more inclusive way.

 

Walking Where There is No Ground

We’re now moving into a new phase of the pandemic with many states partially reopening or even phasing out the quarantine. For some of us, it seems far too soon for safety. Uncertainty and a sense of groundlessness remain a significant part of this landscape. Personally I’m doing my best to walk where there is no ground and ride the unknowns without a map. Some days its easier than others. It helps to remember that the maps we hold in our minds are based on past experience or an approximation of what is present.

When our feet touch ground and the terrain differs from the map, we are in unknown territory that may feel groundless. Yet getting comfortable with this empty ground is the very heart of dharma practice, a doorway to liberation from a mind that clings to what it knows, or what it thinks it knows. Yes, it feels scary at times and compassion is essential when we explore this unknown terrain. But without allowing for these variations in the landscape, our experience hardens into an outdated map that doesn’t reflect the territory.

We can struggle to make the terrain conform to our old map, or let go and become intimate with the ground (or no-ground) we actually inhabit. We can relax with what is truly here and know in our hearts that we’ve never really been anywhere else. This great heart/mind of awareness holds us in a more reliable and spacious ground that we can learn to trust.

Teaching My First Zoom Residential Retreat: Better and Deeper than Expected

In April I taught my first online retreat and, to my surprise, it turned out much better than I expected.

The non profit I founded, One Dharma Nashville, holds an annual spring residential just outside of Nashville at Bethany Hills, a beautiful sport that is surrounded by nature. I knew by early March that the odds of this retreat happening were slim because of the virus. I began contemplating switching to an online offering to replace it, but felt hesitant, doubting the efficacy of meeting together on zoom while practicing at home.

Once we officially cancelled the in person retreat, I saw two choices: practice together online or skip the spring retreat entirely. Reluctantly, I chose the former. I have to admit initially I wasn’t looking forward to teaching a retreat online and only went ahead to accommodate those in our sangha who had voiced support for this format. Slowly as we got closer to the start date, I warmed up to the idea and even looked forward to leading home practice with sangha while on quarantine.

But I wondered, will people actually practice outside of our zoom meeting times? Can folks navigate home life, spouses, pets, maybe even children, wile meditating multiple times a day? Some decided they couldn’t, especially those with multiple kids at home or difficult work challenges. But many in our sangha and beyond decided it was worth a try. Everyone who attended was an online retreat beginner even though most were experienced retreat practitioners.

Observing full silence while also sharing home space with others is almost impossible, so most found a practical “middle way,” observing silence part of the time but still connecting and communicating with those at home. People living alone set up their time as a traditional silent meditation retreat.

I was surprised at how connected we felt meditating together multiple times a day. Having a schedule and sticking to it, even though it wasn’t as intensive as an in person retreat, allowed us to feel solidarity in the practice and in the dharma in a way that sitting alone doesn’t. Even when practicing during the offline times during the weekend, many people reported feeling a sense of connection to the sangha.

Retreating at home in this way isn’t as conducive to experiencing the deep samadhi (meditative absorption) that many meditators encounter on residential retreat. Yet other benefits emerged that are equally valuable. Many of our retreat participants reported how the barriers of retreat and home life dissolved. They were able to clearly observe and bring awareness to conditioned patterns that show up in daily life. Some of our retreat practitioners have reported that this mindful intervention has already had lasting positive effects. Often on residential retreats, reentry into everyday life feels challenging. But in this format, the line between the two was so subtle that reentry felt more natural.

I now believe home retreat is a valuable development in our practice that allows the barriers between retreat practice and home life to dissolve. As we bring our retreat practice more deeply into our everyday lives, the penetrating wisdom of the dharma sheds a light on parts of ourselves, and the way we function day to day, that may be obscured otherwise. It opens additional capacity to choose, with compassion and wisdom, a more responsive and aware relationship with ourselves and others.

I’m still a firm believer in retreating together in nature and look forward to the time when we can do this again safely. But for now, and even once quarantine ends, I believe online home retreat practice is here to stay. Both formats have value in differing ways. And I’m personally on board for more home Zoom retreats, both as a practitioner and a teacher. In fact, I have one coming up this weekend. See you on the other side!

Waking Up to This Stillness, This Peace

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Yesterday morning my husband and I went out early to hike at Radnor Lake, a nearby, very popular nature preserve. We thought if we arrived before 6:30 we would have the place mostly to ourselves. But when we arrived the parking lot was already half full. We shifted to a backup plan, a nearby park that is much less well known than Radnor Lake. We pulled in to an empty parking lot and enjoyed brisk walk on the park loop, seeing only one other person the entire time we were there. I deeply appreciated being immersed in nature as the sun rose over the trees and cast long, golden shadows across the fields. For a while, life felt normal and unhindered by a global pandemic encroaching ever more deeply on our city. Immersed in a moment of beauty on a brisk morning, my heart was full of gratitude, joy and presence.

On our drive home during what is normally the morning rush hour, we saw few cars on the main arteries. I felt a pervading sense of stillness as the engines of our economy have come to a near halt and the pressures to produce have, to some extent, been lifted. Inside I felt the waves of activity and doership fully paused and my heart at peace. It struck me how our perceptions of activity and movement, the worldly winds, are like a phantom and a dream, largely created by the mind and fulfilled by restlessness, desire and greed. This deep pause refreshed of my heart and mind at a level I normally access during deep meditation or while on retreat and removed from everyday life.

To be clear, many people do not have this privilege. Many must report to work outside their homes no matter what and my heart breaks for those who must be in harm’s way. On a less dire level, this slowdown is affecting my livelihood and, like most, my retirement account has been crushed. Yet in these moments of stillness and presence all is well no matter what else may be true at a relative level. This is the peace that is always here but too often obscured when our minds look outward to seek fulfillment through busyness, consumption, or greed.

Our wise hearts have the capacity to pause and find peace even during a time of great upheaval. The environment is also resting, pollution is down along with global travel and other forms of consumption. What is stark to me are the extremes of this continuum: an economy that can’t or won’t wake up to the realty of climate change on one end and a global pandemic on the other that shuts everything down and thus, the earth comes to rest for a while. We humans have not yet found a middle way and it is unclear if we will. So for now we can begin with our own hearts and minds, coming to rest when we can and allowing ourselves to retreat.

During a recent talk, Jack Kornfield spoke of leading a zoom conference for a large group people in China who were on lockdown. He explained to them that hundreds of people at Spirit Rock Meditation Center paid a lot of money to be on retreat, while they were on retreat in their homes for free. He encouraged them to take the opportunity while they could.

Many of us have this same opportunity right now, to slow down for a while, to retreat right where we are and find this stillness, for ourselves and for those around us. As Jack recently said, “This is the time to steady yourself – and it affects everyone else.”

This opportunity won’t come again in just this way, so please join me if you can and allow this time to be one of returning, not just to your physical home, but this home of your body, your breath and the great awareness that holds you in times of stillness and movement, stress and release, sorrow and joy. As Martin Luther King said long ago, “Be the peace you want to see in the world.” Now is the time.

May we all be safe and well, may we be held in compassion and filled with lovingkindess. May we find peace.

 

 

As Fearful as You Need to Be: Steadiness in the Midst of Fear

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There’s a popular saying about how to eliminate fear, I’m sure you’ve heard it: “Choose love, not fear.” This is reassuring; it makes people feel that they always have a choice not to be afraid if they can love instead. It is the principle of replacing what’s considered a negative, fear, with a perceived positive, love. But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes we just feel afraid and there’s nothing we can do to eliminate the fear. We can try, perhaps we can do it for a while, but often the fear just pops back up in another way, just like grief or anger. Maneuvering to get rid of it can have unwanted repercussions and often intensifies the anxiety.

So what do you do when your maneuvering fails? Be as fearful as you need to be. Pause and open to it, feel it in your body, don’t try to get rid of it. Stop viewing it as a problem and approach it as a friend who needs your attention. But also be aware of the thoughts and projections that are feeding the fear. You don’t have to nourish those thoughts. What would happen if you just let your fear live inside your body for a while, just as it is? What if you quit viewing fear as the enemy, something to get rid of? Would it overrun you and eat you up? Not if you cultivate a steady mind and an open heart in the presence of the fear. You’ll slowly see that this present moment awareness is bigger than fear. Take a few deep breaths and step in, readily or slowly, at whatever pace works for you. Through this practice you can reach a still and open dwelling place where wisdom lives. You can steadiness in the midst of fear, and maybe even love.

“Perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest being, something that needs our love.” -Rilke

 

Calm in The Storm

When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”
–Thich Nhat Hanh

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Waking Up or Waking Down?

By Lisa Ernst

I’ve been reflecting lately that “waking down” is a more descriptive phrase for the process of awakening than “waking up.”

A friend and I recently visited a small lotus pond a short distance from my house. The plants in early February are dead but still quite visible. The leaves, stems and pods endure and are surprisingly hardy. My friend had never seen lotus plants in winter and observed how they visibly “go back down into the mud.” The stems break and turn down, along with the leaves and pods that rest where the water and mud meet. These dead plants nourish and feed the mud that supports the lotus when it comes back to life in spring.

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Few photographers document dead lotus plants; we normally see only images of the gorgeous and prolific flowers of summer. Since discovering this nearby pond, I’ve made it a point to visit and photograph the lotus plant in all seasons. Especially in winter, the well known phrase, “no mud, no lotus,” is on full display as the lotus plants so visibly turn down to the mud. We humans too, if we wish to awaken, need to turn our awareness down into our hearts, our bodies, right into the messiness and muddiness of our humanity.

Thich Nhat Nahh said, “When we learn how to suffer, we suffer much, much less.” In this way, we don’t escape to an idealized version of waking up and overlook what is right here. My own years of practice have led me down into my body and heart again and again, finding lovingkindness and dharma wisdom through resting in the midst of everything that is present, rather than seeking a special place where everything is pristine and perfect.

Often during meditation retreats I read Pema Chodron’s lovely, short piece called “Waking Down to Bodhichitta.” Here’s the reading:

“In the process of discovering bodhichitta, the journey goes down, not up. It’s as if the mountain pointed toward the center of the earth instead of reaching into the sky. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward the turbulence and doubt. We jump into it. We slide into it. We tiptoe into it. We move toward it however we can. We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away. If it takes years, if it takes lifetimes, we let it be as it is. At our own pace, without speed or aggression, we move down and down and down. With us move millions of others, our companions in awakening from fear. At the bottom we discover water, the healing water of bodhichitta. Right down there in the thick of things, we discover the love that will not die.”

I observe in many meditation students a tendency to try to wake up through subtly pushing away what feels incongruent with their narrative of spiritual awakening. They primarily try to avoid the very muddiness that is inviting them into their lived experience. Even long-term meditators often do this. When this happens, their center of awareness mostly rests above the body. My work is to gently guide them into settling their awareness enough to include their bodies, hearts, emotions, nothing left out. This practice often leads them to the wisdom they’re seeking elsewhere.

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“Waking down” practice imbues our physical and mental tension and vulnerability with a quality of compassionate space. This process initiates a deep unwinding, no matter how closed off it may have seemed when we were attempting to wake up.

On reflection, we may realize this practice of waking down is the most obvious thing in the world, yet not so easy to do. Why? Because settling awareness down inevitably leads us to whatever level of armoring and vulnerability we live with as human beings.

Embodiment starts with the capacity to rest in an unarmored, open state. This unbound presence is essential to “waking down” to our wisdom, our compassion and ultimately, our unbound awareness. There is also power here, a capacity to see and respond to life skillfully.

This remains a lesson I re-learn again and again.

“I have no right to call myself one who knows. I was one who seeks, and I still am, but I no longer seek in the stars or in books; I’m beginning to hear the teachings of my blood pulsing within me. My story isn’t pleasant, it’s not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves.”
― Hermann Hesse

 

Tolerance and Acceptance: What is The Difference?

By Lisa Ernst

Tolerance – the willingness to endure, to put up with
Acceptance – the action of consenting to receive something offered

What is the difference between acceptance and tolerance? Sometimes the line is blurred. We may think we’re accepting an experience, a feeling, a pattern or cluster of persistent thoughts when we’re actually only tolerating them. Knowing the difference is essential in our practice if we want to reduce our suffering.

In his beautiful poem “The Guest House,” Rumi encourages us to welcome and entertain all of the visitors that come our way. The visitors are metaphors for what arises in our experience: joy, depression, meanness, even a crowd of sorrows. At times we will struggle to welcome them all with open arms and that’s ok. Sometimes we can only muster tolerance. When we know the difference, we can navigate our challenges more skillfully.

Staying with the guest analogy, imagine a relative is visiting over the holidays. Someone you tolerate yet you always feel relieved when they leave. Let’s say this year your relative is in the midst of a messy divorce and asks to extend their stay. Compelled by compassion, you agree. But accommodating this guest is challenging and after several weeks your tolerance is stretched thin. You do your best to extend patience and conceal your internal strain. But gradually this arrangement presses you down, it has weight. This “pressing down” is the entomology of depression. Tolerance of the unpleasant, when extended for long periods and not met with awareness, often leads to depression.

I suffered with untreated clinical depression for many years. Unconsciously, I developed tolerance for grief and loneliness while my truest, most intimate experience of depression went unexamined. I lived with it like a guest who overstays their welcome. I mistook this tolerant attitude for acceptance rather than recognizing my resistance. Like the guest overstaying their welcome, I said, “I will tolerate you for a while because I expect you to leave.” But when the guest didn’t leave the depression grew deeper along with hopelessness and uncertainly.

Gradually, though my dharma practice I came to know the depression experientially, how it showed up in my body and thoughts. I also learned how to hold it in loving, compassionate awareness. Though this intimacy, space opened that allowed me to find my way through depression’s dark tunnel.

Intimacy is quite difference from tolerance. When people say to me that they are “with” their suffering, often they are just tolerating it. Yes, they definitely feel it, but still kept it at arms length, held only in truce. When they practice tolerance only in order to feel better, the visitor won’t budge. Prolonged tolerance leads to inaction, resentment or abrupt anger. True acceptance, on the other hand, paves the way for skillful action. This is what many people overlook – they believe acceptance is resignation or passivity. But authentic acceptance opens our heart to what is true and this clarity reveals a wise path.

Engaging your visitors with awareness, knowing them intimately is the acceptance that brings peace. You may need time and patience but gradually the sense of self entangled in the depression begins to lighten up and even dissolve.

The Guest House by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

 

Perception, Compassion and The Other

Sometimes during meditation I reflect on those I have put out of my heart. Not necessarily specific people at first: rather opening the doors where my heart feels closed. Whenever I do this I feel the underlying energy of what I’ve locked away. It isn’t pleasant but its totally ok. This practice shows me how “self and other” forms around subtle ideas of who I am and how I perceive others.

Buddha taught that there are three distortions of view – seeing what is impermanent as permanent, what is unsatisfying as satisfying and what is non-self as self.

Let’s look at the third one, seeing no self as self in terms of how we identify with and relate to others. Inadvertently we may use the idea of self to create views about others based on our own karma and conditioning. We make very complex decisions about other people in mere moments. Sometimes our perceptions are clear and intuitive, but often they are distorted simply because of our own conditioning. If we don’t bring awareness to this, we will then concretize those mistaken perceptions into reality. In many cases, the actual person is entirely different from the one in our head.

This hit home several years ago when I attended a celebration of life for a friend who died of cancer at an early age. As people enumerated the ways she touched their lives, I was shocked that the woman they described only vaguely resembled the one I knew, or thought I knew. This taught me a great lesson in letting go of fixed perceptions.

In the course of a day, week or month, how often do we create unexamined value judgments about others? This is far more pervasive than we might want to believe unless we examine it. Often we unconsciously favor those who help us uphold and solidify our sense of self over those who don’t. This can lead to loss of connection, it can also of course lead to prejudice and hatred.

Compassion practice can help us open our hearts to those we ignore or shut out; when practiced deeply, compassion shows us where our hearts are closed. When we are meditating we can examine our perceptions within a more spacious medium that includes our wise heart.

Take a moment to gently identify who you angry or frustrated with, who you have closed from your heart. Who do you ignore or attribute characteristics that you know in your heart may not be true? Sometimes the first step is simply to identify and acknowledge these beings. You don’t need to force people into your heart if you’re not ready. As you investigate, allow any sadness, anger or other emotions to be as they are. What thoughts are associated with these feelings? As you sit with it, does an action present itself, one you already identified but haven’t yet acted on, or an unexpected prompt to take your insight and compassion into the world? If not, that’s fine too.

More than once during challenging times I have discovered that the person who most needs including in my heart is me. First the “self” of my imagining, which allows me to see the ways I distort and cling to identity. Then I see the “imperfect self,” the one who will never live up to my ideals. Awareness dissolves this illusion of self into the open heart of kindness and wisdom.

This practice allows me to let go of self-identity and realize emptiness. As my false ideas of who I am fade away into silence, any rigid perceptions I hold about others also melt away. Interconnection is fully evident here. I’m left with a kinder, more open heart and a way forward that is far more inclusive than when I began.

For more on compassion practices for people we ignore or keep out of our hearts: Invisible People: Why They’re Important in Lovingkindss Practice.

Practice Tip: Three Steps to Releasing Difficult Thoughts in Meditation

When we meditate, at times difficult, unresolved encounters with friends, loved ones or co-workers may dominate our thoughts. If we don’t repress them (and normally we shouldn’t) they may instead begin to take over our meditation session as we swing from replaying the encounter to trying to figure out how to address it. So what to do? How do we find the wise middle way between over-identification and repression?

As an example, let’s say you and your boss were brainstorming how to solve a problem and your boss failed to listen to an idea you felt was important based on your firsthand knowledge of the situation. Instead, your boss decided on a plan you knew missed important information. You tried to convey this but your boss wouldn’t listen and ended the session. You left the encounter feeling frustrated and unheard.

The next morning during meditation, the situation came back full force. You replayed the encounter several times wondering what you could have done differently, then tried to figure out the next step, whether to approach you boss about it and what to say. Then you realize 10 plus minutes have passed on the cushion and you were completely unaware of your breath, body and immediate surroundings.

In situations like this, I have found a three step process helpful for creating space to work with unresolved situations. Staying with our example, first recognize the thoughts replaying the meeting with your boss as “past.” This may sound obvious but consciously noting that the thought content is focused on the past, without repressing it, can reduce its seeming solidity. Then notice and explore what sensations and emotions are present that accompany these thoughts.

Now, looking forward to your thoughts of how to address the situation with your boss, note that these thoughts are about the “future” but also be aware of how these thoughts show up here and now. Perhaps when you think back to the encounter with your boss you notice anger or even sadness for not being heard. When you think ahead to your possible next step, maybe you notice anxiety and tension.

Now bring it all into the present. Of course thoughts only exist in the present moment. While we may think about the past or future, every thought is only arising in the present moment. So now we see the past and future thoughts as “present” and our physical responses, sensations and emotions as “present.”

Past, future and present are all just this moment of awareness. As we see them coalesce, chances are they will lose their grip, soften and begin to settle. The sense of me against the other begins to fade. From this more settled, less self identified place, we have more possibility of seeing the situation clearly and with insight. This is not about passivity. In fact, a clear plan of action may arise from this emptier, steadier state. (If nothing arises, that’s fine too.)

You can use this three step process for most situations that begin to dominate your meditation. Occasionally a situation may be too charged to work this way. In that case, its fine to move to a more neutral focus of attention such as the breath, body or sound. Only return to the investigation if you feel able.

This practice can help us let go of the sense of self at the center of our narratives. Seeing our challenges with the clarity of present moment awareness broadens perspective, reduces the suffering of reactivity and opens new possibilities.