Invisible Signposts in the Mind

One of my granddaughters momentarily gagged on a sticky piece of Mozzarella on her pizza when she was eight years old and even now as a young adult does not eat cheese of any kind. I have also heard people say, “When I was in the second grade the music teacher said I should just mouth the words of the songs we sang because I could not carry a tune and even now I do not join a sing-along.”  I recently overheard a luncheon table-mate at a conference I attended explaining her passing up all the vegetables: “When I was a child, my mother forced me to eat vegetables.” The person who had noticed replied, “That was a long time ago.” The fact that emotionally charged situations leave powerful signs in the mind, “Never eat cheese!”, “Do not sing out loud!”, “Defend your right to refuse vegetables!” whether or not the situations were actually life threatening (like chocking) or now relevant (like singing in key) seem beside the point. They endure in our instinctive memory as protections against feeling threatened. Our nervous systems, for complex reasons that certainly include genetics as well as life experiences, mark certain situations as dangerous and we respond as automatically as the foot goes onto the brake when the light turns red up ahead.

I’ve also recognized other patterns in my mind that the Buddha would have named as the affliction of Nervous Worrying and Fretting. I imagine signs in my mind that say,“When in doubt, worry. This might be a catastrophe.” I am glad to have the opportunity to teach about my experience because it reassures people that whatever afflictive habit they struggle with—lusting, raging, doubting, or surrendering too easily to despair—is workable. Recognizing an afflictive mind habit as just a habit—an annoying and painful one, certainly—but fundamentally just a habit is what makes it workable. I tell people that I am a Recovering Fretter. I am still easily startled: “Why doesn’t she call me back?”, “Why is he so late?”, “What if [anything] happens?” Alarmed responses still arise in my mind in situations of ambiguity. What is different now is that I recognize the signs of alarm. I can say, “There goes my fretting response again, just ready to take over my mind. I do not have to do that. I can wait and see what happens next.” The more I practice that, the better I get at it.

It often happens when I teach about afflictive habits of the mind that someone suggests, “Of course you have fretful genes. You have Jewish genes, inherited from generations of people whose lives were imperiled because of their identity.” I don’t know. My parents were not nervous people. And, when I poll any large group of people I’m teaching about their most afflictive mind habit, about half raise their hands and they aren’t Jews. It’s mysterious.

In situations of terrible trauma, like battlefields, some people come away with long-enduring signs in their minds, “Fall to the ground when you hear a loud noise!” That life-saving injunction in battle becomes a painful life-limiting reminder in peace circumstances that often requires trauma psychotherapy and loving communal support as well as compassionate mindful awareness. The awareness, “This is a habit and so it can change,” is a crucial step in recovery.

Sometimes the source of a sign in the mind is obvious. Knowing it is there is important. Compassionate mindful awareness begins the de-activation of limiting signs in the mind, regardless of their origin. Erasing signs entirely might not be possible. I am hoping to accustom my mind to noticing when a painful response is about to fill my mind so that I can say to myself, “Relax! No need to feel frightened [greedy, angry, exhausted, or insecure]. You can choose otherwise. Take a breath. Now is now.”

Tidying as a Spiritual Practice

When I learned that “Tidying” is currently the subject of several best-selling books I remembered with pleasure that in the book The Vision of Dhamma by Nyanaponika Thera, one of the definitions that the Venerable Mahathera offers for Mindfulness is that it functions as a tidier of the mind. At the time, I thought of the word “tidy” as being quaint and probably reminiscent of the meticulous housekeeping of his German Jewish mother. I recall teaching about it and extending that furniture metaphor to saying that if I tidied my mind I would know what was in it and where it all was so I would not trip on anything and cause pain.

What I am thinking about now is that tidying, more than knowing what and where everything is, includes knowing what I no longer need to hold on to and what I am better off not having. And, it includes taking steps to disencumber.

De-cluttering closets and minds are both spiritual practices, interrelated of course, but one visible and one invisible.

My daughter Elizabeth, when I discussed my idea with her, said I should use the rubric WWTBGA, What Would The Buddha Give Away. Traditionally, Buddhist monks and nuns have only the bare necessities of clothing which they keep with them and rely on others for supplying food and medicine and other basic care items. I know that what Elizabeth means is using discriminating awareness to discern wise life choices. My friend MaryKay Sweeney who runs the homeless services of the county we live in once gave me a magnet reminder for my refrigerator door: “The sweater in your closet that you have not worn in a year is not yours. It belongs to a homeless person waiting for you to return it to them.” I think about how many pairs of socks I actually need given that I do laundry once a week. How many anything do I actually need? Do I need to keep the sweatshirt with the cute logo on it just because my adolescent child gave it to me as a Valentine gift 30 years ago? Do I really need the contents of numerous plastic bags of half-knitted sweaters that I might someday finish or aren’t they better off as a gift, with extra yarn and needles, to the senior residence nearby that has a knitting group? And the tiny plastic bag of mini-cassettes with scratchy barely audible conversations I had with my 98 year old grandfather 35 years ago? I do not have a player for them. I hear his voice in my mind. Who else, other than me, needs or wants to hear them? I once had a reel-to-reel tape of a conversation that my mother and my husband’s aunt Celia had 59 years ago when my son, Michael, was born and every time I go through certain old boxes I have the hope I’ll find it again. I surely won’t. It positively does not matter. I remember what they said and I hear them in my mind and I am always happy when I think of them. I do not need the tape.

The Buddha’s central teaching is that imperative in the mind, the sense of needing something to be different from how it is, is suffering.

(Check my blog in three days. There is a lot more to say about un-cluttering. Next we’ll move from the closet to the mind where finding clutter and addressing it becomes more complex.)

The World Competes for our Attention: Staying Focused and Steady Amidst Election-Game-Award-News Hype

As I listen to the news of yesterday’s election results in Iowa and realize that for all the carrying on in the media for the past few weeks as if this is a definitive moment in history, not really very much at all has been settled and all of candidates are saying, “Well, from here on it becomes really important!” Of course I believe that elections matter, and voting matters.  I have never missed a single opportunity to vote since I voted for John Kennedy in 1960, the first year I was eligible. What I am thinking about this morning is how easily the mind becomes bewildered by fervor and then, in confusion, over-reacts with greed or negativity compounding its confusion and setting itself up for potentially unwise response.

I also noticed that since the election happened yesterday, the Super Bowl this Sunday became center-stage in the morning news, along with recipes for tail-gate party recipes, “At least if your team loses the game you can win the cooking prize for the day!”  Reminders of the Academy Awards coming up and which dress designers might be represented has also become the subject of television speculation. The mind is an omnivore: it appears to eat everything that it’s fed.

I like watching football. I am a very good cook. And, I enjoy the drama of the Academy Awards and will probably watch it from the very beginning to see the Red Carpet fashion display. I am not at all advocating distancing oneself from the panorama of life events that include competitions in which the outcomes, to me, represent various levels of significance. The election of the president is more important to me than the winner of the Best Actor award. I speak openly in my teaching about my goals for the world and how I understand the relevance of the Buddha’s teachings to achieving a world dedicated to peace and compassion. What I am advocating for is careful compassionate attention that leads to clear discernment.

The point is not getting excited and emotionally involved, or not. In every situation, there is the possibility of saying, “I am thrilled…,” or “I am dismayed…,” or “I am overjoyed…,” or “I am deeply pained…,” and still be aware of having enough poise in the mind to steady it through the time of powerful emotion until it is able, through its innate wisdom, to realize, “This is temporal. It will pass. I (and often “we”) will figure out what is the best thing to do next.”

This is all part of Mindfulness. I tell students, “My two main mindfulness practices are TIO and GAG, Think It Over and Get a Grip. Life is manageable. Sometimes terrible, but manageable.”

Informed Citizenship as Spiritual Practice

I’ve noticed that when I explain Mindfulness these days I am especially emphasizing the active ending of the definition: Mindfulness is the balanced recognition of arising experiences, external and internal, moment to moment, so that the mind remains clear and energetic enough to respond wisely and kindly. The words, “to respond” are crucial. Twenty years ago, I wrote a book titled Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There.  The title was meant to be a playful riff on the injunction to children by parents and teachers to do homework rather than daydream. I meant it to mean, “Try meditating.” I still mean that, but I am aware also that it’s possible to mistake the instruction for cultivating balance and non-reactivity, for developing passivity or even submissiveness. Inactivity when there are choices to be made is indifference and a form of aversion. What I want for people to understand is that Mindfulness is the best guarantee that our responses will be alleviating suffering, and certainly not causing suffering. The poet Pablo Neruda, in his poem, “Keeping Quiet” says, “What I want should not be confused with inactivity. Life is what it is about…”
I think about voting as an expression of Mindful attention. Spirit Rock is soon planning to revive a class we had a decade ago called “Informed Citizenship as Spiritual Practice.” Each month we had people representing different views about a particular social issue present their views. I look forward to inaugurating that class. 


Meditation and Music: Dedication to Practice

I was giving instructions at a meditation retreat yesterday and I heard myself say,"Try repeating these blessings for feelings of joy and contentment for yourself and for others over and over in your mind. It's important, on behalf of cultivating these feelings, to be rhythmic and steady and continuous, moving from one to the next, not lingering to think about each blessing analytically." Then, as I sat with the group, all of us quietly practicing, I found I wanted to add, "Except, if you find as you practice that one or another of those feelings---joy or contentment---arises in your mind strongly, delighting it and filling it with ease, stop the recitation of blessings and rest all of your attention in the feeling." I said, "I have the sense, when I do that, that I am marinating my neurons in joy or contentment, habituating them to those feelings so that they become more and more the natural context of my mind."

As I said that, I thought, "I'll say exactly this when I teach with my friends Barbara Bogatin and Cliff Saron next month at Spirit Rock." Barbara is a cellist with the San Francisco Symphony who has studied and practiced mindfulness for decades. She describes her practice of the cellist in similar terms. "Sometimes I'll play the same note over and over," she might say, "listening for when it is exactly right and then repeating that note." I have the feeling as I listen to her play that Barbara and the cello and the note are not separate from each other. Her husband, Cliff Saron, a neuroscientist, will teach about how the research on mindfulness practice confirms what mindfulness practitioners have always reported, that dedicated practice transforms the mind from habits of suffering to habits that create happiness, like joy and contentment.

Barbara, Cliff and I will be teaching the day-long class "Tuning Your Instrument: The Buddha, the Brain, and Bach" at Spirit Rock on February 21, 2016. Click here for information.

Here is a video of Barbara and her cello visiting the Wednesday morning class at Spirit Rock and teaching about mindfulness and practice!