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Thoughts

MLK w datesDarkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  — Martin Luther King, Jr.

For a dozen years, I lived and drove in Boston.  The city’s twisting streets, heavy traffic at all hours and impatient, angry drivers are all notorious – and with good reason.  One afternoon, I was driving from Boston into Cambridge with my beloved friend, Joni.  We were going to a new gourmet store to buy something extraordinary (cheese, probably) and I wasn’t sure where I was going.  As I hesitated at an intersection, the car behind me honked hard and insistent.  I immediately felt embarrassed and upset.  I continued on and another car nudged out of a parking space hoping to merge into the flow of traffic.  I honked nastily to keep her back.  Joni laughed and looked at me, “What are you doing, silly?” she said.  “You just honked at her because somebody else honked at you.”

It seems obvious, doesn’t it?  If there is a dark place that we want to be lighter, we bring light to it, not more darkness.  And yet when there is hate or anger or fear, so often what we bring is more hate, anger and fear.

We see this everywhere:  in politics, between countries, between siblings, in marriages, and inside ourselves.  One side is angry or hateful and the other side pushes back with more of the same.  It’s an ancient response from our threat/defense system and ultimately, it doesn’t serve us.

Anyone who hurts is hurting.  Over and over, I’m struck by the truth of this.  If someone hurts you, it is because they, themselves are hurting.  Tara Brach, psychologist and Buddhist teacher, uses the image of coming upon a snarling, snapping, growling dog.  Our first reaction is to pull away, thinking this is a wild and dangerous creature.  Upon looking closer, however, we see that the dog’s leg is caught in a trap.  Suddenly, our response changes entirely to one of compassion, care, and a desire to relieve the poor creature’s suffering.

The next time someone honks at you in traffic, or speaks to you harshly, or even guns down dozens of elementary school students, think of the dog in the trap.  This perspective doesn’t make the hurtful, hateful actions right, but it gives us an understanding that is far more skillful than hating them back.

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”― Gandhi

The place to start, of course, is where you are.  In your own skin.  In your own head.  I know that I spend a startlingly large amount of time each day judging, criticizing and chastising myself within the confines of my own noggin.  How could I miss that appointment?  Why did I say that thoughtless thing?  Why did I have to eat all of Kate’s chia seed cookies?  In some way, I think that if I stay on myself, keep the bar high, keep cracking the whip, then I’ll get better, be kinder, act smarter.  But imagine a close friend or a beloved child committing the same infraction.  Imagine them missing the appointment or eating the cookies.  What would you say to them?  Do you really think that harshness will beget happiness, or that relentless criticism will lead to love?

There is neuroscience that explains both our tendency to be hyper-self-critical and why self-compassion works to ease the suffering.  I notice something about myself that I don’t like (it could be anything from the shape of my thighs to the way I spoke to my teenager) and I react with anger or fear that awakens our threat/defense system.  The amygdala, in an effort to keep me safe, fires and shifts me into the lower, limbic brain to attack the threat.  The problem is that the threat is me!  So a more skillful approach is to ask “What can I do other than being harsh and critical to keep me safe?”  (Rick Hanson led an amazing series of talks last fall called The Compassionate Brain.  The sixth talk in the series was with Dr. Kristin Neff who is an expert in self-compassion.  She talks brilliantly about this phenomenon and how we can address it skillfully.  The series is free and I recommend it highly.)

This week, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we will play with moving with kindness and compassion.  This is an internal, personal practice that I can feel in my body.  When my eyes are soft and my hands are receptive, it is a way of being kinder to myself.  When I meet my shortcomings or unskillful actions with the recognition that I’m hurting in some way, I can recognize that I need love, not hate.  Only light can drive out darkness.  Only love can drive out hate.  And we have to start where we are, with ourselves.

May you be safe and well,

Love,

Susan

“Don’t Believe Everything You Think.” – bumper sticker

“Thoughts become things.” – motto of Mike Dooley and Notes from the Universe

I am in the second half of my Radical Sabbatical and I’m thinking a lot about thoughts.  For those of you who know me or follow this blog, this, I expect, is no great shock.  I love to think and learn and ponder…and obsess and worry and stew.  I recently stumbled into a paradox of thoughts and I am still rolling around with it.  My understanding is nascent, no doubt.  Still, there are some tender new learnings that I wanted to share.

Recently, when I found myself tangled in my thoughts like wrestling with a big spool of fly paper, a friend said kindly and with a laugh, “Don’t forget, Susan, thoughts don’t really mean anything.”

Her comment caught me up short.  On one level, I knew she was right.  In meditation, we observe our thoughts and let them float past like clouds in a vast blue sky.  The “Don’t Believe Everything You Think” bumper sticker reminds me that not everything I think is even true – let alone wise.  Honestly, sometimes the things I think are total baloney.  When I was tripping over myself, totally entangled in my judgments and criticisms of myself and others, my friend was right:  thoughts don’t mean anything.  They don’t mean I’m a bad person or that I should act on them or share them.  The brain is designed to constantly judge and evaluate and compare.  My thoughts are just thoughts.

However.  I also know that what I think often leads to how I feel and what I manifest in my life.  I love getting Mike Dooley’s daily Notes from the Universe (You can get them, too!  Click here to go to the Web site to sign up.) and the rallying cry of “Thoughts become things so choose good ones!”  I’ve witnessed the affect that negative and positive thoughts have even when no words are spoken, no facial expressions are used and no other information is exchanged.  Thoughts have energy.  Thoughts have power.  While my thoughts may have been total baloney, I felt bad when I was tangled up in their negative, judgmental energy.

So what up with the thoughts?  Meaningless?  Or Masters of Manifestation?  Which is it?  In the past couple of weeks, I came across a few teachings that shed some light for me.

First, I discovered Dr. Daniel Siegel’s model of The Wheel of Awareness.  Dr. Siegel’s Wheel is completely rooted in neuroscience (my understanding is that he created the practice based on his knowledge of how the brain works, and it was only after he created it that he found out there were ancient practices of meditation and mindfulness!).  He observed his clients in his psychiatric practice and when people practiced consciously directing their attention – to the senses, the felt sense of the body, to their thoughts and to their connections with others – he found that they got better … fast.   (Click here to download a guided version of The Wheel of Awareness – I recommend version III from March 21, 2011 as it is most complete – and there are lots of information online if you do a search.)

Intrigued, I practiced it myself.  As in other mindfulness practices, The Wheel of Awareness invited me to direct my attention to breath and sensation.  Then, in the third section of The Wheel, I was invited to allow all kinds of mental activity in:  thoughts, feelings, images, dreams, beliefs, opinions…anything.  Already this was new to me since most mindfulness practices in my experience invite thoughts to move through without paying particular attention to them.  The next stage of The Wheel allows the flow of mental activity to continue, and while consciously following the nature of that mental activity.   This baffled me.  I was challenged to even figure out how to do it.  Then I started to notice that some thoughts would be involved and elaborate and I would noodle and build on them, adding complication and complexity.   Other times, watching my thoughts was like watching popcorn pop:  one would leap to the fore and then another and another.  Sometimes one hatched another and other times they felt utterly random.  Whew.  Brain muscles challenged!

In the midst of my experimentation with The Wheel of Awareness, I listened to a dharma talk from Dharma Seed* by French Buddhist teacher, Pascal AuClair. The whole talk is wonderful and touching and funny.  (Click here to listen to or download his talk.)  About half way through (at 32:40 if you want to just hear this piece), he describes an image the Buddha used in regards to mental constructions.  Mental creations are like banana trees:  they seem big and solid and strong with broad leaves and enormous flowers.  But, as soon as the banana tree bears fruit – FLOP! – the whole thing collapses and falls flat.  The banana tree is actually not solid at all but hollow in the middle.  Our mental constructions are like that:  they seem big and solid, substantial and compelling and as soon as we come back to the present moment or sensation – FLOP! – the whole, constructed, hollow thing falls flat.

When I was getting all caught up in judgment and criticism, I was growing myself a big ol’ banana tree!  It felt real and solid and true – and as soon as my friend reminded me that it was hollow inside – FLOP! – I could see that it wasn’t real at all.

On July 4, at about 9:15pm, I was doing what I expect a lot of Americans were doing:  lying on a quilt on a football field with my family watching an awesome display of fireworks.  I love fireworks and hardly want to blink for fear of missing a single spark.  Each one shot up with different sounds and expanded into colors and patterns.  Each one was breathtaking.  And in a second, each one was gone – leaving only smoke blowing across the night sky.  As I lay there watching the display with rapt attention (and holding my 8-year-old nephew’s hand since sometimes the loud ones startle me a little bit), I realized that this is sometimes what my thoughts are like.  They explode into my mind with vividness and a sense of urgency and substance and as fast as they came, they are gone again.  I can get pulled or triggered or excited or alarmed by them, but quick as you please, they have disappeared and are replaced with another.  Sometimes, they come really fast and furious like the San Diego fireworks snafoo this year when the whole 17 minute show was shot off at once!  (Click here to see it.  Maybe your mind feels like this a little bit sometimes. )

What my friend said was true:  thoughts don’t mean anything.  We build them up, cultivate a whole plantation of them.  Or they shoot and explode and fascinate us…and then they are gone.  Meaningless.

But.

Thoughts have energy to them:  they affect me.  Some thoughts feel good and expansive, some don’t feel good.  For me, some things just drive me crazy or bum me out to think about.  Some things lift me up and feel like fuel in my tank.  When I listen to the news a lot, with all its disasters and death or  – heavens to Betsy – when I listen to political coverage these days, I can feel helpless and my heart feels pancaked to the floor.  When I do a loving kindness meditation and send thoughts of love and care and compassion to myself and others, I feel good.  And after I’ve hung out with those kinds of thoughts, I’m nicer to people, more patient, more relaxed.  My thoughts create experience.  Masters of Manifestation.

Yeah, I know it’s lame to ask an either/or question and then say – aHA! – it’s both!  But thoughts are both – ephemeral hollow creations of spark and air and powerful movers of energy.  My invitation this week is to check it out for it yourself.  Investigate your experience of your own mental activity.  Maybe even do the Wheel of Awareness practice yourself and notice what you notice.

Allow the magic of inquiry to take you into the banana farm of your mind, the firework show of your thoughts – and the experiences they create.  I’d so love to hear about what you discover.

* OMG, friends, Dharma Seed is a treasure trove of wonderful teachings by internationally recognized teachers.  Hundreds and hundreds of talks are available and they are all FREE.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Click here to check it out and I’ve also added a link under the helpful resources menu on the right.

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