Saturday, September 18, 2010

Transforming Habit Energy

Recently, I wrote about the ways in which we’re regularly carried off by our habitual responses (Hold Your Horses, 9/4/10). Whether the external event is dramatic or mundane, something is touched within us and we react.

While the particulars vary from person to person, we all have ingrained patterns that shape our experience of living. One’s spirituality, though, can be a tremendous resource for transforming these recurring themes. At the very least, a consistent spiritual practice allows us a calm starting point from which to venture into the world.

Meditation is especially helpful in bolstering a steady center, a claim now verified by decades of research. Meditation can go a step further, however, providing a method for directly refining our unhelpful tendencies. We can do this by embracing them with awareness.

Embrace fear, anger and despair?!! I gotta be kidding, right? Nope! For eons, folks have successfully worked in just this way with the full range of bothersome human impulses.

To begin, we simply observe our responses as they occur, naming them accurately and noticing their quality. We refrain from acting and, instead, simply breathe through our physical, emotional or mental reactions. A minute or two of this kind of attentive awareness will often do much to soothe us. Understanding then has the opportunity to arise, perhaps bringing with it a more helpful response.

However, sometimes our reactions are not so compliant. Deeper work may be needed. If so, we must assess our situation honestly. Some issues require a friend’s presence or the assistance of a professional. Others are less taxing, though we may not have the time or energy to grapple with them in that moment. If either is the case, it’s still best not to fuel our upset. We would do well to “change the CD” by exchanging our current experience for a more pleasurable and quieting activity or thought process, recognizing that we can address our difficulty at another time.

If the moment is ripe, however, it would be wise to first calm ourselves through some sitting or walking meditation. This is when a steady practice comes in handy. By learning to regularly move into a peaceful state, it becomes more accessible to us when needed. After all, if a bicycle was your only mode of transportation, ya wouldn't want to wait for a crisis to learn to ride, would ya?!!

Once an inner stillness has been reached, we invite our upset into our awareness and simply continue with a mindful embrace, noting minute shifts in our experience. “I keep following it in the present moment and recognize and name whatever it is right now,” Buddhist monk, Brother Phap Thanh, explains. “A seed manifests, I observe it and I notice that at some point it changes. I just keep following it and naming it.”

When we invite anxiety, for example, to sit with us, we simply notice as it grows stronger, weakens or subtly shifts into another emotion. We welcome, without judgment, whatever arises through employing what Phap Thanh terms “a radical openness”.

In this way, we tend our painful places as a mother cradles her infant or as a big brother cares for a younger sibling. Calming occurs and a friendly relationship begins to replace an adversarial one. Over time, our rough places soften and we grow more adept at ascertaining the true impetus for our discomfort. Our developing skills can then move deeper, transforming our wounds closer to their root.

When we sit with ourselves like this, we touch a spaciousness our internal whirlwinds usually obscure. Before, our upset consumed us. Now, as we tenderly hold our distress, we realize we are so much larger. This expanded awareness gradually becomes our steady ground, allowing us to notice sooner when we’re being carried away by our reactions.

As we continue to cleanse our inner experience, we grow too in our ability to rest deeply within that unfathomable vastness that embraces and sustains us all.

I wish you well returning to your calm center, no matter the winds that blow.


Loanne Marie

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hold Your Horses!

In an old Zen tale, a man on horseback streaks through a village at breakneck speed. “Hey, Mister!” a child calls out as he races by. “Where ya goin’?” “I don’t know,” the man yells over his shoulder as he disappears from view. “Ask the horse!”

As with most parables, this one can be read on various levels. So often, life seems to carry us in directions not of our choosing. Whether in relationships, careers, or the particulars of a given day, we often view ourselves as passive participants, shuttled here and there without conscious choice. While there is much to be said for giving ourselves over to the flow of what is, this story reminds us that, ultimately, we bear responsibility for how we fashion this precious life of ours.

This allegory also calls attention to how we are repeatedly carried off by our accustomed ways of thinking and reacting. Perhaps anger, sadness or hopelessness automatically arise when things don’t go as we wish. Maybe anxiety is our frequent companion, accompanying us into the unknown. We might slide easily into well~worn mental grooves of mistrust, negativity, reverie or busyness. Perhaps we display a quickness to judge others or to find ourselves lacking or slighted.

Whatever the habitual responses might be, they color our perceptions. They also lead us to make certain choices and, thus, their effect streams out into the world, further influencing our experience and affecting others through our demeanor and actions. In Buddhist psychology, these phenomena~~these horses that rapidly carry us away~~are term habit energies. We are encouraged to transform them through the shining light of our awareness.

To do so, we must first increase our capacity to identify these responses as they occur. Changes in the rate or quality of our breathing are the surest, most immediate indicators that we’ve been hauled off by one horse or another. By then following our breath~~attending to it and nothing else~~we begin to slow down. Depending on the nature of our upset, this process can take a few moments or much longer.

But sooner or later, our mad gallop becomes a canter, and then a slow walk. If we stay with it, we eventually arrive at a poised stillness that offers an opportunity to look deeply into our reaction and see what really caused it. Since not everyone responds the same, external events cannot truly be the origin of our agitation.

By delving deeply into our pattern of responses, we can often detect the influence of a past set of experiences or a dispositional makeup we’ve inherited through our bloodline. These conditioned reactions, reinforced with each passing year, seem to most often trigger our disturbances. Rather than continuing to respond unconsciously, however, increased clarity brings the possibility of fresh responses. We also begin to take profound responsibility for how we are in the world and become freer to ripen into the person we wish to be.

Scheduling time for structured meditation and prayer is enormously helpful in this regard. Such a proactive approach allows us to work with this material on a regular basis, rather than waiting for difficulties to occur. It also helps us grow in our ability to return, again and again, to a simple, open delight in the present moment, our true home.

These horses of ours are frisky creatures. However, they will slow down if we provide consistent soothing opportunities~~regular watering holes, so to speak, on this path of life.

Happy trails, ya'll, and namaste!

Loanne Marie

PS. For more on this, see Transforming Habit Energy, 9/18/10.