Wk6, Day7: Revisiting the Refuges

I was struggling last night after struggling for a week with the increasingly frequent realizations that I know nothing. Not from a spiritual space of not-knowing or don’t-know-mind. Rather, this was more of a sub-grade freneticism of desperately wanting to know and frustratingly realizing how much I don’t know. And yet I continued to act—forging ahead without knowing. Forging ahead without knowing how much I don’t know.

Suddenly, I realize in hindsight how uninformed, and therefore how unskillful, my actions were. Perhaps more frustrating has been that I thought I was being conscientious, seeking the information I needed, and being planful before I acted. This is more than a thought; I was being conscientious and planful. And still, having done those things, there was far more that I did not know—did not even think to wonder about—before moving ahead.

I thought I was being mindful. I was, but it was limited by mindlessness. For me, it’s in the habit of pre-deciding that I’m sure of a fundamental piece of the picture. I investigate the other pieces. But with the fundamental understanding taken for granted a priori, the conscientiousness that follows means nothing.

A small example: my cat needed shots this month. I did some research and discovered my vet has a Thursday night shot clinic. It’s walk-in, and they don’t charge exam fees. This is a great idea to encourage people to keep their pets’ shots current. I called in advance to make sure the clinic was truly happening on that day and during those hours. I found out the prices so I could be sure I had the money for it this month. I brought Amelia over in her cat carrier. Amelia’s name was called, and the vet informed me that she’s not due until March. This pre-decided, fundamental piece of the puzzle—that she’s due this month—crumbled the whole structure of my due diligence.

I did not think to question what I was certain I knew. The certainty even obscured itself as something to question.

I spent several days in meditation last week with the frustration, confusion, self-doubt that arose from this event. The more I re-examined supposed certainties, the more I uncovered what turned out to be many similar such events. What can I trust that I know? I began to feel alone, so I began to feel frantic.

I meditated and journaled about ‘not knowing.’ I reached an insight about the difference between egoic not-knowing and spiritual not knowing. Egoic not-knowing has the frantic quality I referenced earlier—a desperate need to know as a pre-condition for calm. False ground. By contrast, spiritual not-knowing, is calm itself, the groundless ground I’ve described experiencing at the Grand Canyon, then at Enchanted Rock, and in meditation at times.

Still, I felt so alone and even let down in some ways: by myself, by meditation. How could I be so unknowing (and as a result so unskillful) when I’ve never been more present, more regularly in my life?

Then I found a poem called “Walk Slowly” by Danna Faulds, posted on Tara Brach’s Facebook page. It can also be found here. In it, Danna describes the moment we can take to breathe, to be still, to settle and soften. To notice the judgment arising, to realize it’s okay that we catch ourselves rushing ahead unskillfully with incomplete knowledge. That will happen, she assures us, and we can go back to the breath.

Reading this poem, I felt so grateful for its timing. For a short time, the mind had (successfully) convinced me of the futility of practice, of the isolated nature of this struggle. And with Danna Faulds’ words, she reminded me that others experience the same thing. I am fundamentally alone, but so is everyone else. In that, we are together. The third refuge (community), offered through the second refuge (the teachings), bringing me back to the first refuge (Buddha nature).

Wk6, Day6: Sometimes I Wonder

Sometimes I wonder if I’m mad. Not angry; crazy.

I wonder, sometimes, if it’s mad to pause while reading Carl Rogers’ work on my front porch. Looking up to the clouds, feeling grateful for his words, his care for people, his earnest efforts on humanity’s behalf. Book to my chest, I’m lost in thought, as Miss Gail says for what might be the third time, loudly and laughing by now, “Denise! I said did you see the Big Brother finale?” Laughing along—not as self-consciously as I would if we hadn’t been sharing a wall in our duplex homes for the past decade—I report proudly that I have sworn off TV. Gail knows well about me and TV. “You’re so crazy,” she says, both intrigued and endeared. “Go back to your books, doctor,” she chides.

Do others gaze at the sky and imagine connecting with the collective unconscious, or something greater? Settling into an upright posture, opening to the felt sense of the body in space. An invitation to welcome no-space, no-time—where these points of inquiry exist infinitely. Beckoning, stable, available to all who seek them. “I’m here. Are you?”

I wonder if it’s possible that this practice extends beyond mere expansion of our personal neural networks. I wonder if it’s possible that beyond each individual brain in this moment in time, in this concrete space that we’re building pathways that connect us to something much larger. For the benefit of all life everywhere, as the saying goes.

I want to live in a world where this could be what’s happening. Is that mad?

Seeking answers outside myself makes me wonder. Searching inside, I find the truth.

Wk6, Day5: The Smoking Story

I smoked from my late teens through my 20s. I was a child of the 80s, we did not know better back then. On second thought, we knew better, but we thought we were invulnerable. Nevertheless, beginning in my mid-20s, I would occasionally get the urge to quit smoking.

I only smoked when I drank, I reasoned, so it should be easy to quit.

My approach was to stop buying cigarettes. Parlaying introversion into a deterrent. When I wasn’t drinking, this worked like a charm. After a beer or two, however, inhibition disappeared. I smoked as much as before and alienated many of my smoking friends in the process. (Admittedly, the latter might have been beneficial in the long-term.) After several failed attempts over as many years, I stopped trying to quit.

Unrelatedly, I took up exercise at this time. I began by walking, then alternating each ¼-mile with faster-walking, and gradually increasing my overall distance from 1 mile to 2.5. As the distance increased, so did the speed. Fast-walking soon became jogging, which was a source of genuine pride. I enjoyed running Town Lake in Austin so much, I increased it to daily. Over time, it became clear my performance lagged on weekends, after ‘partying.’ There were even whole weekends that I’d wind up not running, or delaying it until Sunday evening. I missed it!

I wanted to jog more than I wanted to smoke. Within one month, I kicked the habit.

I’ve been meditating since August of 2007. Like quitting smoking, starting a regular meditation practice is simple at first. And just as easy to break, it turned out. Like quitting smoking, I kept getting back on the horse and sometimes fall off again.

But like jogging, meditation feels good. Even when it doesn’t feel good in the moment, it feels good overall. As with jogging, I have gradually realized the importance of attenuating my pace, with my distance, with my frequency. Iteratively building up, steadily rebuilding trust that I would keep—I am keeping—this commitment.

Wk6, Day4: Stories We Tell

Wk6, Day4: Stories We Tell

Beginning in my early 20s, I used to get bronchitis. A lot. At least twice a winter season, and each time it lasted two to four weeks. From this ongoing, seasonal experience, I developed the idea that “I’m a person who gets bronchitis every year.”

In my late 20s, after several failed attempts to quit smoking, instead I took up jogging. I loved it and was a natural—quickly increasing speed, distance, and frequency. Over time, I noticed that heavy smoking on weekends interfered. I’d wind up not running both days, or delaying it until Sunday evening. Soon, I’d had enough and stopped smoking altogether.

That was the first winter since high school that I didn’t get bronchitis.

Sharon Salzberg talks about meditation as a way to uncover the stories we tell to ourselves: about ourselves, about others, and the world. As we sit, we observe the plot lines and over time develop the space to release our identification with them. I’m discovering, as part of this process, that seemingly stable circumstances, series of events that long appeared to be repetitively fated foregone conclusions are opening up in the light of awareness.

Back then, it never occurred to me that smoking was connected to getting bronchitis. When I no longer smoke, I am no longer “a person who gets bronchitis,” a character in that story. Similarly, in meditation, identifying our stories and dis-identifying from them opens us to new possible actions.


Thanks to my (non-smoking) friend and this morning’s writing partner, Alison, for this post’s inspiration. Bronchitis is no fun; I hope you feel better soon!

Wk6, Day3: Clouded Vision

Wk6, Day3: Clouded Vision

I teach a Child Development course for undergraduates at a local university. Last week, we talked about the concept of object permanence–the understanding that objects still exist even when they’re out of sight. An infant lacks this ability, and therefore remains enthralled with peek-a-boo for hours. (Where’s mommy? There she is!) When object permanence is acquired, the game loses its charm.

On Sunday night, I was unable to see the lunar eclipse. It was cloudy in Maryland. Friends told me it was cloudy in Missouri, too. The internet had some wonderful photographs. I particularly enjoyed the time-lapse images of the event.

The lunar eclipse still happened; we just couldn’t see it. The clouds blocked our view.

The unseen yet indubitable existence of the lunar eclipse provides an analogy for the relationship between dukkha and the refuges. Dukkha clouds my vision sometimes, so I lose sight of the refuges (Buddha nature, the teachings, and community). The refuges are still there; I just can’t see them.

Meditation practice alters this relationship. Sometimes the clouds lift in the moment. (Peek-a-boo.) Other times, the meditation practice is to remember that the refuges remain regardless. Whether I am able to detect the presence of Buddha nature (mine or others), it’s still there.