Volume 6, Number 3, September 1998

We have talked of this question: Can an infinite God expand? If it already is everywhere, where would it go? If our answer is "No, it cannot expand," then we put a finiteness on infinity. We limit the unlimited. This is not a paradox. If it is already infinite and already everywhere, and yet is still fluid, changing, expanding, then "Unchanging" is its ultimate reality and fluidity, change, expansion are the ways in which it manifests. Because there is no duality, unchanging and changing are nondual. Again, no paradox.



Barbara's Letter

June 15, 1998. Dharma Talk by Barbara at the Emrich Retreat

Aaron's Pages

June 13, 1998. Dharma talk at the Emrich Retreat

Barbara's Letter

Dear Friends,

I'm writing in July from the "tree house," the cabin in a forest where I've spent part of recent summers. This morning as usual, I rose in the predawn quiet, walked down the hill to a lake blanketed by mist, and stepped into the warm, still water. I couldn't see more than five feet ahead, but swam in the general direction of west, away from the pinkening sky. Suddenly the raft loomed ahead and, with a dazzle of flapping wings, a great blue heron launched himself from his resting place there. Less than five seconds and he was gone. Had I really seen him?

Twenty minutes further, on into the mist, I felt alone in a watery world, edged by the omnipresent gray horizon just beyond my reach. Then a mama duck and a handful of infants no more than three inches long cut through my path and paused for awhile until a subtle movement from me sent them scurrying. As I reached the far shore, the morning sun touched the tree tops, the red haze of sky beginning to brighten into morning. Before it could open the day, a cloud swallowed it, plunging us back into gray mist. I swam home in a gentle rain. The heron was back on the raft!

Life is full of the unexpected. This daily morning swim reminds me to be present and take what is offered, to enjoy it to its fullest before it goes its way. Storm and sunshine, solitude and friends, all have their perfect place.

At home there's change as well. Deep Spring Center has grown a lot in the past two years, and outgrown its prior quarters. Our files and supplies have been in my laundry room all of these years, while computer work took place in an adjacent cellar room, and all the classes were in the living room. My family tiptoed around all of this work. My children often found volunteers pecking at a computer in the hallway or stamping and addressing newsletters atop the washing machine. This past spring the living room housed close to eighty students for classes each week! This was only the continuing classes. Almost 200 people attended one of our introductory meditation class sessions or meditation days, held elsewhere, in the period of September 1997 to May 1998. Truly, we've grown since 1990 when we were a dozen people gathered once a week in my home.

[Picture] Frank and Jack help transform Barbara's garage into office and meditation space.

In April about twenty-five of us considered the situation together and the decision was made to embrace this expansion and support it in more formal ways. Many volunteers have come forth to do the work, including a new teacher training class of nine. The next question is, where do we put all these industrious people? This fall we'll move the large classes to a rented, spacious site. We're rebuilding the large garage into an office and meditation space for the smaller classes and refinishing the living room, replacing worn out furniture to more comfortably house the evenings with Aaron. The transition has been the work of many loving volunteers. It's exciting to see the changes take place. And yet the move was not without sadness as I let go of the old contents of that garage, for the room was my sculpture studio for seventeen years, and a beautiful studio too, where I spent many hours daily immersed in my art work. Life changes, and we must let go or suffer.

Yesterday the back brick wall was opened to create a large door-wall, to let in light and air. Next week we'll start to put wall board over the now insulated walls. It will be wonderful to have this home for the Center, accessible to our community, allowing people to come and work or meditate without needing to worry about disturbing my family. Wonderful also to emerge from the cellar into the sunshine. All our tape archives which have been boxed in the furnace room will have accessible storage. File cabinets will no longer block the laundry tub. Deep Spring will have its own computer where office volunteers can work without displacing my family. We hope to be finished by mid-September.

If you would like to join this effort, and are too far away to come and nail up walls, your financial support would be deeply appreciated. The tear-off section of the inner back page has a space to mark off for your donations. The building is truly a leap of faith; we're going ahead with the trust that the approximately $5,000 we need to finish will become available.

For this issue of the newsletter, in place of my usual letter, there's a talk given at our June retreat. I wish you all a summer of balance-clouds and sunshine, work and rest. In the winter issue, look for a photo of our new quarters.

with love

June 15, 1998. Dharma Talk by Barbara at the Emrich Retreat

We're three days into the retreat and people are practicing in a very focused way, resting in the breath, noting the arising and dissolution of sensations and thoughts as directed in the instructions. A few people have said to me, "I feel like I'm not completely in my heart as I do this." Sometimes the practice can seem sterile and we need to step back and reconnect with our hearts by considering daily life issues. Then we see how the practice relates to everyday life. "No-self" can be the "ultimate" escape if we use it to sidestep painful daily issues. If our practice doesn't lead us deeper into the heart, deeper into compassionate and skillful action in the world, then we're not practicing in a skillful way. We must balance wisdom with compassion.

Somebody asked me this week, "Sometimes I feel confused because I really want to offer my energy lovingly. Somebody else may be making a request of me, and I really want to meet that person's needs. I really love that person. But I also feel I need to meet my own needs. Wisdom suggests there are no 'my needs' versus 'his needs,' but I still experience that separation." He asked me how to live from that wisdom, and I replied that when it's difficult to live from our wisdom, we need to inquire as to what separates us from it. I suggested that what was most useful here was to be more in the heart, to acknowledge and hear whatever fears or feelings might be present. We may understand they're not ultimate truth, but we can't deny the experience of them.

We talked about the four part practice of clear comprehension, which is an aspect of mindfulness. The first two parts are clear comprehension of purpose and of suitability. In clear comprehension of purpose, we ask ourselves, "What really is my highest purpose here? Acknowledging that I've got a number of different purposes, what's my highest purpose?" In clear comprehension of suitability, we ask if what we're about to do or say is suitable to that highest purpose. For example, if I want to keep myself safe and I also want to try something new, which one is really my highest purpose? There's no right or wrong response. Sometimes the answer might be to keep myself safe. Then I'm not going to take a risk. If the answer is to move out beyond known territory and try something new as a way of learning, then I will try something new, will take a risk; that will be a suitable choice.

Aaron taught me this practice years ago when John first invited me to lead retreats with him. I had only recently begun teaching. I said, "Me? Lead a retreat? I don't know how to do that!" And Aaron asked me, "What's your highest purpose? Is it to stay safe or to share the dharma? If it's to stay safe, not to lose face nor risk making a fool of yourself, then don't teach. If it's to share the dharma then do teach."

The question is easy when it's clear what our highest purpose is and what's suitable to that purpose. But what about when we don't know what's suitable? For the person who raised the question yesterday, that person's partner was feeling a bit abandoned because of his coming to the retreat. Out of love for the partner and the desire to support and maintain the relationship, does one stay home? What about the voice in oneself that says, "But I ought to go to the retreat. I really need to do that, for myself and for everybody." It's not always clear. Saturday morning one person in a couple says, "It's a beautiful day, I want to play golf." And the other one says, "It's a beautiful day, I want to go to the lake." So the one who wants to go to the lake says, "You play golf and then if you want to, you can meet me back at the lake." And the other one says, "No, I don't want to play golf alone. I want you to come with me. And I don't want to go to the lake afterward." In other words, "I not only don't want to do what you want to do, but I'm putting pressure on you to do what I want to do." When is it loving to give of your self to the other? When is it more loving to say no?

Sometimes as hard as we try, we can't seem to get to where we really understand what is most skillful or to where we're able to say no skillfully. Sometimes we just feel confused. We keep thinking, "I should take care of the other. I should give myself more fully to this relationship or to my job, to my boss," or whatever. Then resentment arises.

Especially when we think of ourselves as kind people and generous people, disappointing others is a big deal. Sometimes it's from a place of wanting to be loved, wanting people to admire us and love us and so forth, but often it's also from a place of not wanting to do harm. We do get confused. Then the confusion really becomes the primary object, just sitting and being with "confusion." How does that feel. We seem to need to control that feeling immediately. It is unpleasant. "Confused … confused …" Can we allow ourselves to be confused, and to feel the tension in "confused"? It may seem obvious but we cannot see into the nature of "confusion" and how it serves as the ground for further arising unless we allow the experience of confusion.

When we must say "no," the next question is, how do we say no with love. Who is saying no? Is fear saying no? Is there the thought "this person is going to drown me-No!" in which case, the reply comes out laced with anger and fear. Or is love saying no, in which case there is simply knowing, "I really need to do this for myself, but I do hear your need, preference or fear," so that kindness is the primary force. We're so afraid of getting it wrong! It's important to remember that whatever happens, if we're present, we're able to learn and to grow. Our mistakes can be useful tools for learning.

There are a number of thoughts I'd like you to consider. There's one that comes from Thich Nhat Hanh. I'd like to read you a paragraph from page 2 of his book Miracle of Mindfulness. He's talking to his friend Alan. Alan has a wife named Sue, a little boy who is seven years old, Joey, and a newborn baby, Anna.

Thich Nhat Hanh asks him about family life. Does he find time for himself? I'm reading here. "Then Alan said, 'I've discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts: one part reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Anna, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks. But now I try not to divide time into parts any more. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is now I have unlimited time for myself.'"

This is wonderful if we can learn to see it this way! (Laughter) Truly all the time we spend doing things with our families, this is our time, because every moment is practice. Years ago when my children were younger, they were used to spending the summer with me. We would go camping or to the lake. Suddenly one summer I found myself both with a large piece of sculpture (a big commission that I had to finish) and wanting to spend more time in meditation. When the children said to me, "Let's do an art project," or "Can we go to the lake today?" I felt torn. Aaron kept reminding me, "Do it with love or not at all." I kept looking at what stopped me from doing it with love. And it was just the fear, "My needs won't be met." The fear was ancient; in that moment, my needs were being met! I did need to get the sculpture done, but I had enough time for that. I didn't have to spend eight hours a day, seven days a week on it that summer. And meditation: I had yet to learn that presence in life was my practice!

With Aaron's "Do it with love or not at all" ringing in my ears, I would take them out to the lake and certainly enjoy being with them but also observe the fear "My needs won't be met." Of course, in that observing, I was doing just the meditation practice I needed to be doing, but at first I didn't see it that way. What I felt was that this busy day and inner turmoil was preventing me from a peaceful, quiet meditation!

At this point my youngest son was a little boy so he needed to be watched. He couldn't go swimming alone, for example. He needed my attention. "My needs won't be met. I can't even take a long swim. I can't read a book. I have to watch him." Watching the anger come up, watching the fear come up, working with that anger and fear in loving ways, just that became my practice for the summer, although it took me most of the summer to recognize the gift. I learned to make more space around fear, really bring myself and my fear into my heart instead of condemning myself and saying, "I should love my child enough not to resent this." (Laughter) I began to see how, the more self-criticism, the more solid the self. The more kindness, the more spacious the awareness.

Lake time became my time simply because I used the emotions that were present in me as part of my practice and right there, sitting on the raft, watching the kids swimming, I simply meditated with my eyes open. I learned to be lifeguard and to meditate at the same time, it's not a big trick! (Laughter) Lifeguarding meditation!

Being present. This is the secret. Just being present. Being present with one's own experience, being honest with one's own experience. Take the word "should" out of the vocabulary, flush it down the toilet. There's nothing we "should" be doing. As soon as we say "should" we fragment ourselves into what I want and what others expect of me, and it becomes a burden. "Burden" is one of ego's games! With "burden" there is so much somebody, feeling the burden, judging it, fixing it. Let it all go! Come back to this moment, with kindness!

We still come to the question, "I really want to give my energy lovingly to another, to deepen a relationship, or to commit myself to my work and give of myself to the people I serve in my work, and I also feel that there are things I want for myself." No matter how much clarity we might have at moments, we just keep getting trapped in that dilemma of separation. Can there be kindness for the human who feels thus trapped without buying into the story of "burdened" or "should"?

I began to look at "burdened" again this year, studying the metta sutra which we read here in meditation hall yesterday. In the beginning, the Buddha says, "This is what should be done by one who is skilled in goodness and who knows the path of peace. Let them be able and upright, straight-forward and gentle in speech. Humble and not conceited. Contented and easily satisfied. Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways." Unburdened with duties? Ahhh! Anybody here unburdened with duties? There must be one of you! (Laughter)

Unburdened with duties. It's clear to me the Buddha did not mean drop all your responsibilities and go off and be a hermit. That may be part of what he meant, that may be right for some people. But I don't feel that he was giving that advice to everyone. I feel what he was saying was: Reach a place where "burdened" ceases to exist. In order to do that one has to understand the roots of "burdened."

J was talking the other day about the puppy, how much they loved the puppy and the ways the puppy felt like a burden. It needs a lot of care. "Burden" is not about not loving something, nor about how much work we need to do, it's an attitude related to the arising of fear and the delusion of separate self. In the dissolution of "burdened" is the dissolution of separation.

When does it start to be a burden? What do we do as soon as we feel that sense of "burden"? If we get into an argument with ourselves, say, "I shouldn't be feeling burdened," and force ourselves to do what we think we "should" do, then "burdened" gets solider. Resentment deepens. Then after awhile, going back to my example of golf or the lake, after you play golf every week, seemingly willingly, finally once more that person says, "I want to play golf today." You reply again, "I want to go to the lake." He says on cue, "Aw, come on, come and play golf with me." And suddenly there's all this rage! Where did it come from?

It came because we weren't paying attention. It doesn't have anything to do with whether we actually played golf or went to the lake. It has much more to do with how we played golf or went to the lake. If we were able to play golf with a clear statement to the other person, "This is really not my preference but I do want to be with you. I'm able to put aside my preferred activity to give the two of us this shared time together to enjoy our relationship and have fun together. But please also hear my needs to do other things." You're not a martyr nor trying to create guilt; it's your choice to play golf with him. "Do it with love or not at all." Know why you're choosing to play golf.

Saying "no" fits here too. We learn to say "no" with love. And to do that, we need to be present; we need to know what we're doing. We tend to drift along and don't really know what we're doing. We take the path of least resistance and we play golf, and we play golf, and we don't go to the lake, we don't go to the retreat. Resentment builds up and then boom!

Each time the other person or situation pushes at you a little bit more, it feels more like a burden. I said that I was exploring this in myself this year. I really love my work, find tremendous joy in it. But I do work a very long week. At times things that I really enjoy doing feel like a burden, and I need to stop and ask myself, well if it's a burden, what's really happening here? How do I return to "unburdened with duties"?

For me, I had to begin to look at the roots of burdened, at what made something shift into a burden for me. This winter I was on retreat. There was a lot of snow and ice on the ground and I kept losing my balance. I'd slip and there'd be a contracted thought, "No! Don't fall!" I could see how tight I was with the idea of falling. And in meditation, mind was tight, contracted. Spacious awareness kept being lost. Finally one morning about 4 AM, I was sitting in meditation, and aware of this tightness of mind. Aaron suggested to me, "Go out into the woods and take a walk." I have no balance. Because of my ears I have a completely visual balance, so it's very hard for me to walk in a dark place. It's hard for me to walk in the snow. To walk in the snow in a dark place is virtually impossible. I said, "I'll fall." He said, "Yes, this is true. Go out in the woods and take a walk." At that point I was using ski poles for balance as I walked outdoors. I walked up the path into the woods with the poles. There was soft deep snow approaching my knees. The moon was overhead, a full moon. I walked. And I fell. It was soft, of course. I got up and walked and I fell and I got up and I walked and I fell. I wasn't sure why I needed to do this. I hadn't made the connection yet. I was just investigating falling, that's all I knew.

Falling was easy. Once I started to topple over there was this soft cushion of snow. Allowing myself to fall was difficult. So I began to see that in myself which figuratively and literally needed to be upright. I took that back and sat with it for much of the day. What is this need to stay upright, and might that have any connection with "burdened?" What does staying upright mean, not just in walking in the woods but in my whole life? This was the reflection. I dropped it into my mind and then just sat, choiceless awareness, not trying to figure out answers. The insights came of needing to be the good one, expressed as a very strong resolve not to do any harm-to be upright in those ways; to guard everything to make sure no action or speech came out of me that would do harm to others. Of course we all try to do this. But when it comes from the heart and a loving place it's different than when it comes from a place of fear that says, "I must not" because that's a very heavy burden to place upon oneself. So I watched the ways in which I was trying to be upright all the time, and shutting myself out of my heart. I saw that habitual tendency, and the grasping at upright, the suffering so much "somebodyness" caused.

I had a sense that I still wasn't done with it so finally later that afternoon I went out into the woods again. I found a beautiful clearing. It had been snowing all night and morning and by now the snow was above my knees. I didn't have far to fall! (Laughter) It was snowing, big flakes coming down. I closed my eyes. As soon as I closed my eyes, I just fell. I began to watch even more closely the whole process of letting myself fall. Primary was no longer the fear, "need to be upright," but simply giving myself permission to fall, giving myself permission not to be upright. And I did it again and again and again. I would fall, and just sit where I landed for a few minutes. Stand up again. Close my eyes. Fall. Tears were running down my cheeks. There was such a sense of release of this whole need to be upright. It was just a process of letting go of it. Allowing myself to practice not being upright, literally. Just to let go, to let go of all those old myths. To fall.

It was a very powerful experience for me. I had another two weeks of retreat after that and looked more at other aspects of "burdened." But this was the central thing for me. I'm not suggesting that it is for you; I'm only offering you the way that I approached it. When I came home, no surprise, burden really didn't come up any more, at least not in relationship to my work. I found it very wonderful that after investigating this whole area of needing to be the capable one or the good one or any of these old myths of self, and finding no substance to them, there was just working and doing what needed to be done, and much joy in it. I've found in these months that it is much easier to say no to people. If people ask me, "Can I call today and talk to you about something?" and I know that's not something I can do, I find it very easy to say, "No, I can't do that. Make an appointment for next week." Of course if somebody calls me and it's an emergency, I'm happy to talk to them. But even there, once it goes beyond the immediate stage, I find myself much more able to say no. I'm finding that learning to set limits in that way is a real gift. I think I'm much clearer to myself and to other people. Some people don't like it. Suddenly I'm doing something different. I'm not as available. This is what I need to do to dispel "burden" and to shake the myth of "somebody" that rode along with "burden."

For myself, I found that the myth no longer had roots. I spent the next two weeks looking at what are called "latent tendencies" and discovered that some still have roots and some are rootless. When the roots remain, we need to investigate them. This process may lead us all the way to the investigation of that which we called "self" and of the real experience of emptiness. Where the roots have already dissolved, only old myth holds the tendencies in place and they fall away quickly. So this has been my way of working with "burdened."

In relationship to the question that we started with, "Somebody wants me to do this and I want to do that, what is the most loving thing to do?" My answer is still to attend to it before it builds up into burden and resentment. If "burden" is already there, then stop and look at what "burden" is about. "Who" is burdened?

I recognize in the question that was asked there was the dilemma, "Do I choose to go on retreat to deepen my own self-awareness or do I choose to spend that week with my partner to deepen our relationship?" Sometimes there's no immediate answer. This is the heartbreaker, because we want an answer. We demand an answer, another of ego's games! Can there be no answer? Is that okay?

But there still must be a decision. One might reflect, "In what ways can I become more capable of giving by stretching myself and being at home with my partner in a loving and mindful way and watching any anger or resentment that comes up. In what ways can I grow as a person by going to the retreat. You've really got to let yourself be intuitive about it and really, there's no right answer. There's no wrong or right way to do it. Put "problem" aside, along with should! Don't get stuck in the story and in "somebody." What does the heart say? How can you listen to your heart?

On the relative plane there's a somebody with a dilemma and we regard that somebody with a dilemma with as much open-heartedness and kindness as we can. And on the ultimate level there never was a problem. There's just this myth that there's a problem. There's a somebody so there's a problem. And the more we get stuck in "problem," the more we're somebody! You can't escape into nobody to avoid the issue of "do I do this for the other person or not do this for the other person?" Rather, you allow yourself to observe the whole conditioned self as it arises and solidifies and contracts around the question. You see how mind gets caught, see the process that grows out of delusion, feel the contractedness. Then you back off and give the whole thing more space. See how within that space the innate pure awareness returns, understands the issue completely and knows what to do.

D was talking today about a practice he's been doing the past couple of years breathing in and rather than having the breath at the nostrils be the primary focus, feeling the breath literally coming into the heart. Feeling the heart open. We talk sometimes about breathing into the heart or smiling into the heart, really bringing this expression of presence, of being into the heart and allowing the heart to open. Metta (lovingkindness meditation) is another way we can let the heart open. Tonglen practice too. There are many kinds of heart-opening and devotional practices. When we are in our hearts, we are more likely to make clear decisions based on love, presence and awareness and not based on fear. If we do make a decision based on fear, can we note it? Watch the results. If you keep making that same decision to go and play golf with your partner each weekend, and resentment keeps building, clearly something is askew. It's not the wisest or most skillful decision. Instead of then erupting at your partner or yourself, stop and ask, "What's really happening here? How has this golf been my decision? Why am I unable to state what I need for myself?" Why is that so hard for many of us? So many of us are so good at taking care of other people and so unskilled at taking care of or even knowing our own needs. How can we get more into the heart and hear ourselves more?

There's a story I think is relevant to this question. I have a dear friend who many years ago was in India to attend a retreat led by the vipassana teacher, Goenka. She was in the city the night before the retreat. She had not met Goenka. She was walking down a busy street. Suddenly she heard squealing and there was a puppy that had been hit by a car. It was yelping and bleeding and nobody was paying any attention to it. She ran out into the street and picked it up. It bled all over her, crying and squealing. She said she stood there holding it, tears running down her face, and said aloud, "I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do." Suddenly she felt a hand on her shoulder. She just got a glimpse of the face but the voice in her ear said with great quiet reassurance, "You do know what to do." The voice and the hand just quieted her. Immediately she shifted from the ego self saying, "What am I going to do? I've got a big problem. I've got to get it right." to the very calm pure awareness self that acknowledged, "Yes, I do know what to do." She realized a puppy that young must have a mother nearby. So she walked up and down for five minutes and found the mother. Put the puppy down and the mother very worriedly washed the puppy and licked its wounds. The puppy began to nurse and stopped its crying. She went on her way. The next day she came to begin the retreat; the students were sitting and Goenka came into the room. She was sitting with her eyes closed when she heard his voice, and it was the same voice. "You do know what to do."

You do know what to do. The real question is, what is speaking, fear or love? This ego voice says, "I don't know what to do." Here is the opportunity to regard the whole process of building up the solid ego self, and without getting rid of the self, to allow yourself to experience the pure awareness mind which is always there. It may be very hidden, it may be very hard to find. You've got to be very quiet to here it. Aaron says, "Ego shouts. Pure awareness whispers."

We're all afraid of being selfish. It seems to be a, dare I use the word "burden," of spiritual life, that we all want to give our energy lovingly and purely to others, we don't want to be selfish. And so we see any impulse to take care of the self as selfish. Stop and reflect in that situation, What am I really asking for? Is this selfish or is this both a way of being responsible to myself and equally responsible to the other person in this situation? Is setting limits a loving thing to do? Once more, it's not whether we set limits, it's how we set limits. Can you set limits and do it with love? The other person may not under-stand what you're doing, if you're not used to setting limits. There's got to be a lot of discussion about it.

Sometimes in a work situation we feel we can't really discuss it. The boss has just come in and piled work on us, really abused us, taken advantage, as is his habit. But nobody can take advantage of you unless you let them. Somebody spoke to me this spring about a dilemma where their boss was doing that and they were afraid to say no because, "Well, I'll lose my job. So I just have to do this." Nobody has to do it. Is this the job you want? Do you want to continue a relationship with somebody who abuses you? And why are you so sure you are going to lose your job? There may be a risk to be taken here. But if you are able to say no in a loving and kind way rather than an eruption of anger, perhaps the other person can hear. We can all hear attempted resolution much better than attack. At what point can you say, "I really am feeling that I can't do this all now, but I hear your need to have it done. How can we make it work for both of us?" Why are we so afraid to talk to people like that? Why are we so afraid to simply say, "This is my need and I hear your need. How can we do it so both our needs are met?" I'm not going to give you answers. I have a lot of ideas but I'd like you to consider the question.

What creates burden in your life? (Reading) "Let them be able and upright, straightforward"-there's a hint-"and gentle in speech"-another hint. "Humble and not conceited. Contented and easily satisfied. Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways. Peaceful and wise and calm and skillful. Not proud and demanding in nature. Let them not do the slightest thing that the wise would later reprove."

This is not something that we "should" do, this is something we can increasingly allow ourselves to be. We begin to open doors, to let that aspect of us which is humble and wise, calm, and so forth, emerge. We invite it out. Where do we get the idea that we've got to be controlling and fearful? People just say, "Well that's how I am." Well fine, that's the side of you that's emerged, what about the other side of you?

If a part of you is not straightforward, where's the part of you that's straightforward? If part of you is not gentle in speech, where's the part that is? What are you going to nurture? Which seed? All the seeds are there. How have you been nurturing the seeds of fear, of delusion? How do you begin to nurture the seeds of clarity, of love? This returns us full circle. Here, at last, the wisdom mind and the compassionate heart come together.

Aaron's Pages

June 13, 1998. Dharma talk at the Emrich retreat

Aaron: I am Aaron. Good evening, and my love to you all. It is a privilege to be invited to speak to you and to participate in this way in your retreat. I thank you for your gracious invitation.

Bring your attention to your breath. Join me in breathing in a long breath and breathing out a long breath. When you are breathing in a long breath, know you are breathing in a long breath, and the same for the out breath. Now, breathe in several short, shallow breaths, and breathe them out. Know you are breathing in a short breath and breathing out a short breath.

The breath is one of the expressions of the body. When you are present with the breath, you are present in your body. Meditation practice is not to control the breath but to be present and observe the breath, to let the breath breathe itself.

What if I said to you, "Now you should breathe only in a certain pattern of breathing," and you used your willpower to breathe that way? Do you imagine it would be relaxing and settling? Let's try it. I'm going to ask you for about one minute to breathe in and out only a very short shallow breath. Let us do this together.

Now end by allowing the body to breathe in any kind of breath it wishes to take.

The breathe is natural. Sometimes it's long and deep; sometimes it's short and shallow. The body knows how to breathe. The breath breathes itself. When you try to fix or change the breath, it creates tension. Certainly if you trained enough using your willpower, you could learn to breathe in a specific pattern. If I said to you, "This is a good breathing pattern. You should breathe this way," you could do it. But it would not be free of tension to hold to a fixed pattern, to force the body.

The breath is a conditioned object. It arises because conditions are present for it to arise. The exhale arises because there are conditions for it to arise. The inhale arises because there are conditions for it to arise. When those conditions cease, eventually the breath will cease.

The pulse is a conditioned object. Perhaps you could also learn by willpower and practice to control the pace of your heartbeat. If someone told you it was good to have this pace of heartbeat rather than that paced heartbeat, perhaps you could learn to control it in that way. Again, there would be no joy and peace in it. The heartbeat arises based on conditions. To force those conditions, to hold the object immobile against its natural movement, is to create tension. This has often been our definition of suffering, to be obsessed about making things different than they are, or holding things the same.

Thoughts are conditioned objects. They arise when certain conditions are present for them to arise. They cease when those conditions cease. You could also learn to control your thoughts with willpower to put aside every thought that seemed self-involved, greedy, or hostile, and say, "No, I won't think that thought." But this does not lead to peace and happiness. This is not the cessation of suffering.

The life story of the Buddha is quite illuminating. First of all, the Buddha was not a god, he was a man. He was a man who was determined to find the alleviation of suffering for all beings. This story goes, that this young man, Siddartha Gautama, was raised in a very protected environment and he never saw sickness, old age or death. One day he left his protected, cloistered home and went traveling through the city and saw these things. He was shocked and became aware for the first time, "Sickness exists and it will also happen to me and the ones I love. Old age exists and it will happen to me and the ones I love. Death exists and it will happen to me and the ones I love. And these will happen to all beings everywhere."

He also saw on that same evening one devoted to the religious life, one who had taken as his primary purpose to renounce his home, money, indulgences of the body and the other kind of things that usually attract men, and to move into living a spiritual path to seek the end to suffering. So Siddartha said, "I can do this. I can also go out and find the end to suffering, and I feel that I am ready to do that." So he left his home, his wife, his infant son, his parents, his fortune, his kingdom, and he became a spiritual seeker, a monk.

One of the paths that he investigated was that of severe renunciation. Those who followed this path believed that if they could tame the body's desires through willpower they could likewise tame the mind. He practiced like this for quite a long time and he almost starved. He saw that he could gain great control over his mind but as soon as something shook loose that control, he was back to where he started. He was not yet free of suffering and he was not free of this cycle of birth and death.

He had already studied the high concentration practices and there he had found very blissful states. But he had seen that that didn't lead him to freedom either. As soon as he came out of those blissful states, the suffering of the conditioned realm was still present. So he practiced with his blissful states and then he practiced with renunciation and self mortification. Finally he came to understand what he called a "middle way" teaching. That is, neither to renounce the body and mind nor try to control them in desperate and judgmental ways, nor to indulge oneself in luxury and grasp at everything and take everything that one craves. He learned instead to use the whole process of body and mind as grounds for awakening. He ceased to be afraid of the arising of sensations, pleasant or unpleasant, in the body. He ceased to be afraid of the arising of thoughts and emotions, pleasant or unpleasant, in the mind. Instead he took these as the ground for his practice.

For most humans, if you get into a situation that's very frustrating or unpleasant in some way, you want to get away from it and you seek diversion. Perhaps you have a toothache and you think, "If I go and see a good movie, I'll feel better." Perhaps you really do feel better as long as the movie lasts. Then what? Perhaps you are sad because someone you love has gone away for awhile. You think, "Well, I'll have a drink, or piece of pie," and maybe temporarily those do assuage your pain. But you can eat and drink your way into oblivion. In the long run it doesn't help.

In our practice we ask ourselves to remain present with the experiences of body and mind. There is a beautiful scripture, a sutra, called the "Bhayabherava" sutra. In this particular example the Buddha was talking about working with fear and greed. There was a forest that was believed to be haunted. People said there were ghosts there and it was a scary place to go. And in the forest there were shrines that were believed to have much power. The Buddha wanted to go there in the middle of the night and meditate. He was not the Buddha yet. This was during the time before his awakening. So he wanted to go and meditate. He thought, "Fear and greed will arise in me as it does in others who try to meditate in there." Then he made the resolution to himself to, in his words, sit with the fear and dread and allow the experience of it until it dissolves itself.

When you have a toothache or a heartache, you feel discomforted and perhaps even afraid of it, afraid that you'll be overwhelmed, out of control. You do not stay with the experience of the toothache or the heartache, most of you, but you seek some solace from this pain or some escape from the pain. Thus, you never have that remarkable experience of which the Buddha spoke, to remain with it until it dissolves itself. Many of you believe in arising because you see discomforting situations and experiences arise. But you don't believe in cessation or dissolution. I use these terms in a precise way, dissolution being the slow dissolving of an experience until it ceases. So dissolution is the process which ends in cessation.

If someone you love is angry at you and you are experiencing great sadness, and you go out and get drunk, you never have the opportunity to see what will happen to the sadness. Where does it go after it arises? Drinking merely offers it a disguise, does not lead to cessation. If you go and watch a movie, or even read a good book, your culture teaches that these are skillful ways to work with pain. But most of those ways do involve some form of escape. There's nothing wrong with knowing that right now you're feeling intense loneliness because the one you love has gone away, and that you choose some non-harmful form of escape, such as reading a book, just to divert yourself from your pain. But you must know that when you finish the book and close it, the pain is not going to have gone anywhere. You haven't looked at the pain, you've side-skirted the pain. Some people become such experts at side-skirting the pain that they leave little piles of buried pain behind them, the rubble of many lifetimes. How many chests of pain and discomfort can you bury and pretend don't exist?

What happens when you acknowledge their existence? Sometimes Buddhism is accused of being negative, seeing only the down side of life. The Buddha never made a statement that everything was constantly pain. Our practice is not a negative one. There is enormous joy and peace and love; enormous beauty and passion.

After his enlightenment, when the Buddha began to teach he talked of what he had seen in this night of enlightenment experience. He spoke of what are called the Four Noble Truths. The first one is, "dukha exists." This is commonly translated as "suffering" and it's part of what gives people the misconception about Buddhism that Buddhism dwells on suffering and negativity. What the Buddha said was very simple, "dukha exists." This word derives from the words "du" and "kha." "Kha" is the hub of a wheel. "Du" means off-center. It's a wheel that's not straight on the cart so the cart lurches. It's very dissatisfying. You're riding along feeling balanced and suddenly it lurches. And then you just begin feeling balanced again and it lurches the other way. Life is like that. You can't trust anything to stay the same. You just get to the lake to swim and it starts to storm. The sun is gone. You come home and by the time you get home the sun is out again and it's hot. You find something delicious to eat and you finish it with no mindfulness and it has vanished. Where did it go? (Laughter)

The loss of the sun when you wish to swim, and the coming out again of the sun when you've left the lake, finishing the apple or the ice cream cone, these things in themselves are not dukha. These are simply examples of the fact that everything is impermanent. The dissatisfaction arises because we want things to be different than they are. When the sun is hot and we drive to the lake, we want the sun to stay hot so we can swim. When suddenly lightning starts to shoot across the sky, we feel a sense of disappointment. There's craving for the sky to have stayed clear, craving for that swim. One is so deep in the imagined swim that one can't entertain the wonders of the present, of the storm, which cools the air and feeds the soil, allows our food to grow.

When you finish the ice cream cone and it wasn't enough, but was a tiny ice cream cone, and you want more, there's craving. When you bite into a peach that you thought was going to be sweet and juicy-you could almost smell and taste it before you bit into it, seeing it sitting in the bowl all blushing rosy and pink, "Ahhh! Heaven!"-and then you bite into it and it's dry and mealy and bitter, it's not the peach's fault. The peach is just being an unripe peach. (Laughter) The peach is not the cause of the suffering, of dukha. Your expectations, your craving, your unwillingness to let the peach be as it is, but to want it to be different, this is the cause of your suffering.

Thus the second Noble Truth, the cause of suffering is clinging and craving. You might say that aversion is also cause of suffering. Of course. But aversion is really an aspect of craving. We want to have our needs met. We want to be happy. We want to be loved. When things don't go our way, don't lead us to those wishes, then we feel a sense of aversion to that which has blocked our happiness. So we are back to craving and clinging.

The third Noble Truth is simply that there is freedom from suffering. The Buddha saw this truth and was willing to teach it. And in the fourth Noble Truth, he outlines the path to freedom from suffering, which is based on the Sila, Panna, Samadhi tripod (1) of which your teachers have spoken. My purpose here tonight is not to deeply explain the Four Noble Truths, but to speak about the truths of suffering, of dukha, and of cessation and vipassana as a vehicle for clarity. When something arises which is unpleasant and you run away from it, whether by skillful or unskillful means, by which I mean, reading a book which is a very non-harmful, perhaps educational, device, or getting drunk and getting into a fist fight which is not skillful, in either case, all you are doing is leaving this pile of buried dukha behind you. You may think, "Mind over matter. I can control my sadness or my anger or my greed. I'm just going to push these thoughts away." And at times it may be skillful to do so. But eventually you have to come back to that teaching in the Bhayabherava Sutra. It doesn't matter whether we're talking about fear and dread or pain in the body, pain in the heart, sadness, grief, anger, jealousy, pride. When you decide that you no longer can bury these behind you, that this is really not allowing you to find permanent peace and happiness, there's only one choice left: to allow the experience of it until it dissolves itself.

What does "dissolve itself" mean? Your thought is not going to last forever. Eventually some kind of change will happen. You can go through a terrible experience of physical pain, a great infection or broken bones; eventually it's all going to change. You could go to the dentist and have your filling replaced, and the toothache is gone. With the toothache gone, where does the aversion go? None of it is solid. If the toothache remains, you may start to experience not the mass of "toothache" but the subtle sensations in the jaw. You start to experience not the mass of aversion to the toothache but all of the subtle movements of body and mind related to resistance to this unpleasant physical experience.

Now, if you could really will the toothache away, it could be different. But the situation is this: no matter how many books you read or drinks you have, it's not going to affect the toothache. It can distract you but when you come back to it, the toothache is still there. But when you go into the heart of the experience, you begin to develop a different relationship to it. I'm using toothache here both as reality and as metaphor. It may be grief. It may be anger over unkind treatment from another person. It may be a strong desire, "Oooh, I've got to have that new job, or new car, or to have this person whom I think I'm falling in love with love me back. I've got to have it." It doesn't matter what the experience is, whether it's a body experience or a mental experience. When you allow yourself to practice with it, to say, "Right here, my toothache and my aversion to it, these are my practice," then you begin to see how everything changes, how everything does dissolve. You begin to entertain a much more spacious relationship with the entire conditioned realm. If it's raining today, well, I'll find something else to do and perhaps tomorrow I can have my picnic. If I don't get this job, what can I do to improve my skills and my chances to get a similar job? Next month, next year. Do I really want this job? What else might I be doing? What is the wanting about? We have the opportunity to investigate it all. There's a spaciousness that allows everything in our physical, mental and emotional experience to arise and dissolve without so much contraction around it.

My dear ones, this is not quite how the Buddha phrased it, but I would say that lack of being stuck in such a contracted state is freedom, literally is freedom from karma, is freedom from suffering. You can feel that lack of contraction but you cannot manufacture it. You can say, "I'm not going to get uptight about this." Then you just get uptight about your decision to use your willpower not to get uptight. It is self-perpetuating, this desire to be elsewhere! Presence with what is, is freedom!

What supports this freedom? You can begin to know a deeper purpose, to live your lives in truth, even deeper than ego's purpose to be safe and to control. All of you are familiar with the fear-based sides of yourself. You can begin to become familiar with the fearless side of yourself. All of you are familiar with that which seems broken in yourself. You can begin to become familiar with that which is whole, with the ever-perfect.

In our practice, then, we go into things just as they are. We investigate the experience of body, of the feelings of pleasant and unpleasant and neutral, and the conditions out of which all of this arises. We investigate the texture or mood of mind and the objects of mind.

We might put that body or mind object aside and say, "How can I get away from this? I don't like it." We take it right there, that desire to escape, that's the object. As soon as you see yourself wanting to escape, don't go any farther. No stories about that from which you want to escape, or about self judgment at such wanting. Just stop and meditate with the craving of "wanting to escape." Does wanting to escape make you feel peaceful? How much suffering is there in wanting to escape? Is there any ultimate escape? Feel the intensity of the craving. What happens to it if you are willing to allow the experience of it? While allowing, can there be a sense of kindness to this human who so badly wants out? Knowing there is pain, one can offer metta. (2) Does the wanting and aversion continue to be "yours" or does mind expand to know this as the condition of all sentient beings, to wish them all freedom from such suffering. You are on your way. Spaciousness begins to return.

You can even get away from it for awhile, and in some situations perhaps it's even skillful to do so. I think of a situation here where a loved one is dying. You sit day and night by the sick bed watching them die. It's very painful. Perhaps what you need to do most for you and for that person is to go have dinner with a friend. See a movie. Relax a bit. But you're not doing it to escape the grief, you're doing it simply to give yourself a break from the intensity of the situation.

So when I say to step aside from the situation, that sometimes it can be helpful, I would phrase that specifically: to step aside with no intention to escape but only intention to find a bit more spaciousness. This can be helpful.

When you come back to whatever physical, emotional or mental situation was causing your discomfort and stay with that until it dissolves itself, something very wonderful happens. When you stay right with it until that moment of dissolution, you find yourself in a wondrously spacious place. The next sensation or thought has not yet pulled your attention away from this space. Just for a moment you're in a space where nothing is arising or dissolving. You get a glimmer of understanding, "This is peace." Then of course a new craving arises, a craving to hold onto that space of no arising and dissolving and you're off suffering again! (Laughter.)

This spaciousness is a bit like resting in the eye of the hurricane. The difference between resting in the Unconditioned and resting in the eye of the hurricane is that the eye of the hurricane itself is a conditioned object and subject to dissolution. So you can't stay in the eye of the hurricane. A different kind of tension arises based on your desire to stay in the eye of the hurricane. You can't do it. But the Unconditioned is infinite. It's eternal. It has no beginning and no end. When you rest there you truly are home. It's an unshakable foundation. Each time you allow yourself to stay with an experience and watch it dissolve, you give yourself the opportunity to understand the experience of the Unconditioned, and to find the way that you can rest in that space. And you don't have to go anywhere to get to it. A poet has used the illustration of going out in the woods and looking for whatever animal when it's right here at home on your hearth. Where would you go to find the Unconditioned? This is the wonderful part of it. It's right here within the heart, always available.

I'd like you to try something with me. Sit up. Move yourself into a comfortable meditation position. Bring your attention to your breath. Breathing in, breathing out. Breathing in, breathing out. I'll ask you to see that the inhale has a beginning and a middle and an end. Breathe in and see it. And then the exhale has a beginning and a middle and an end. At the end of the exhale now, I would ask you to notice a short aperture or pause. Note how the exhale fades away and then (clap) stop. Then note the beginning of the inhale again. Middle, and the end of the inhale when the lungs are full (clap) stop. Exhale, beginning, middle, end, (clap) stop. Inhale, beginning, middle, end (clap) stop.

What I request you to do is try this at your own pace for a few minutes. If it feels too busy noting both pauses between inhale and exhale and between exhale and inhale, just note one, either one, it doesn't matter which. It's a fraction of a second. You can string it out just a bit longer but not long enough to create any tension of wanting to inhale or wanting to exhale. I want you just to rest in that space, watching the arising of the inhale, the fullness of it, its dissolution, the space, the arising of the exhale and the end of the exhale. At either end or both, what do you find in that brief pause? I'll be quiet now for a few minutes while you do this.

Some of you are experiencing a brief moment of nothing arising or dissolving. Just a glimmer of the spaciousness and peace of that non-arising or dissolving. Some of you are not and that's okay. No effort. Just relax and let the breath be, and watch it, rest in it. No effort!

We'll do one other related exercise which may give some of you a clearer sense of this space. This instrument is going to ring the bell just once. I ask you to listen to the sound, stay with the sound until it dies away. You've got to stay with it until it's completely gone from hearing experience. There may or may not be a moment before another thought or sensation becomes primary. What is in that space? What is the sound? Can you go with it? As it dies away, what is the experience when you stay with it.


We'll do it again. Relax. Make no effort. Just be.


You can learn to rest in that space. This is the space of no arising or dissolution. It's a brief entrance into the Unconditioned itself. You cannot grasp at resting in that space, that's just more suffering. You simply can begin to relax enough to allow yourself to rest there. There are two levels of mind: the discursive mind, which is your common, everyday mind, and this pure awareness mind.

Pure awareness mind doesn't have to go anywhere to experience the Unconditioned. Pure awareness mind is right there in the Unconditioned. Each time that you practice, allow yourself to be with the experience as object rather than trying to escape the experience, or if trying to escape is very strong then that craving for escape becomes the primary object. Can you watch craving to escape until it dissolves? Just like the bell!

When you stay with it, you begin to learn two things. First, that everything in the conditioned realm that arises will dissolve, that everything is impermanent. And, you begin to get a deep glimpse of the Unconditioned realm out of which this whole conditioned world arises. At first it may not be a deep or stable glimpse, but enough. It gives you a foundation for faith and a sense of courage for your work. It allows you spaciousness. Insights deepen. Slowly you begin to know every-thing that arises in the conditioned realm is what we call empty of a separate self. You can't find any one condition out of which anything arose.

If we look at something as simple as the wooden bench that was pointed out yesterday, it arose because there was a tree. It arose because there was a seed. It arose because there was soil and sun and water. It arose because of the movement of the winds across the sky bringing rain. It arose because of a need for a place to sit, because of a carpenter and because of the carpenter's parents who helped allow the carpenter to exist. There's nothing there that you can point to and say, "This is the condition out of which the bench arose." That doesn't mean the bench doesn't exist. It doesn't mean that you as human don't exist. It doesn't mean your thoughts and emotions don't exist. But they arise and dissolve unrelated to anything we would call self. If none of those things are who you are, then maybe you don't need to perpetuate the identity with them as "me" or "mine." Maybe you can begin to see how much suffering that identity creates.

As has already been noted in this retreat, you're still responsible for attending to what arose. If you spill a glass of water on the table, you need to wipe it up or it will damage the finish on the table. If anger arises in you, you need to attend to it so it doesn't spill out and affect other things. But there's no contraction about it as "me" or "mine." There's no fear of it. There's not craving even to make it go away. There's just this or that physical or mental state that has arisen, is acknowledged and attended to with kindness and spaciousness and eventually dissolves.

Throughout all this practice, the Unconditioned begins to glow brighter and brighter. I can't explain this to you, I can only promise you that it happens. You grow lighter. Not enlightenment, just lightened, divested of the burden of self, and of all of the attachments and aversions that grow out of that identity.

The way begins with mindfulness. Mindfulness of the body, of the feelings of pleasant and unpleasant and neutral, of the textures and the needs of mind, and of the objects of mind. Everything is part of your practice. Here at the retreat there is a special opportunity to practice, a slowdown; nobody is talking to you, nothing external demands your action. So you have the gift of these days to observe what arises. Observe the whole process of arising through to dissolution and even to cessation. And then rest in that space before something else arises. I cannot think of any greater gift. You have the opportunity not to escape but instead to investigate the whole habitual tendency to escape, to desire to escape. Here is the gift not to indulge the habitual tendencies but to see into them deeply.

There's a story that many of you have heard but I tell it again because to me it so clearly states the nature of freedom. It's a simple story. A man is running from a tiger. He comes to the edge of a cliff and begins to climb down a heavy vine. He knows the tiger can't climb down after it. It's a sheer cliff. Then he looks down and he sees there are more tigers at the bottom. Mice come out from cracks in the rock and begin to chew the vine. What is he going to do? Right in front of him, growing out of the cliff side, he observes a patch of beautiful juicy blueberries. So, he picks the berries and eats them.

Do you understand the story? You cannot escape from what's behind you. You cannot hold back from what's in front of you. But right now in this present moment, there is freedom. There is joy and there is peace.

This doesn't mean you have no control over your life. If you make skillful decisions today, you reap the fruits of those decisions tomorrow. But freedom is being in the present moment with an open heart. After all, if our friend on the cliff is going to die, falling down with the chewed vine to the tigers below, or climbing back up to face the tigers above, he might as well have this moment of joy with the berries. Is it going to help him to die with fear and anger? Is it going to help you to live your life with the perpetuation of the habitual mindstates which you each carry? Is it going to help you to continue to escape from that which is uncomfortable? Why not find deeper truth? Therein, I promise you, is peace, not only for yourself but peace and joy which you may share out so broadly with the world that it really will touch all beings.

I began this talk by asking you to observe how the breath breathes itself, and that you cannot find peace and happiness by controlling the breath. We took that illustration to the arising of thoughts, that if conditions are present, thoughts will arise. Right effort is not to stop the thought but to observe how it arose and use the whole process of arising thought as vehicle for liberation. With non-ownership of the thought (not-self), one watches it arise and dissolve.

I request you to use this week in this pursuit, to observe how everything that arises does so based on conditions and is impermanent, and not-self. When there is dissolution and a moment of deep stillness just rest there. When arising resumes, do not control it but continue to observe the entire movement of it. In this present moment, whether of cessation and stillness, or of arising and spaciousness around arising, there is unlimited peace and happiness.

I thank you for your attention. I would ask you to sit in silence for a few minutes and reflect on what I've said. I would be glad to speak to your questions. That is all.

Question: We were told a story by a nun at Plum Village in which she used mindfulness practice when she was desperately sad and angry and hopeless. She returned to Plum Village and practiced mindfulness in gardening or cooking to help her keep focused. As Aaron talked tonight, I was wondering how that mindfulness practice led her eventually to peace. It seemed as if it was a kind of escape.

Aaron: I am Aaron. I hear your question. To escape would have been to seek mindlessness. To try to find some way to bury the pain through not being present. Instead, she understood that she needed to be present but temporarily she needed a buffer between her and the most severe pain.

Always in these talks I acknowledge the possibility of misunderstanding what I have said because in an hour's talk I cannot be complete. I made a statement that sometimes it is useful to allow yourself some space. I didn't elaborate on that.

There are two ways of allowing yourself space. One is evasion and one is simply stepping to the edge. The example I used was taking a break for dinner or a movie when your loved one is dying in the hospital because you can't stay with the intensity of that experience. But I didn't say go off and get drunk or use drugs or have an unwholesome sexual affair as some way of totally obliterating the experience of your mind. Go out to dinner with your friend. Talk about things other than your loved one. You're coming to the edge of the experience, finding that it's not the whole thing. Life goes on. Your friend is still there. The dinner still tastes good. As for the sister in Plum Village, life goes on. She still has to cook, to brush her teeth, to make her bed, to work in the field. By doing it mindfully, she allows herself to nurture the seeds of presence, which, when she is ready, she can bring back to the depth of the pain itself.

I quoted to you from the Bhayabherava sutra in which the Buddha says, "Allow the experience of that fear and dread until it dissolves itself." He doesn't say this, but perhaps he spent some weeks first meditating on the outskirts of the forest, allowing himself to consider the possibility of entering. He didn't crack a whip over himself and say, "Now! Go do it!" I teach gentleness. The example you gave is simply an example of gentle presence, leading one back slowly into the heart of the experience. Does this answer your question? I pause. (Yes.)

Question: I find that sometimes sitting it's so hard to focus. It seems not worth it. But when I do movement, walking or yoga or as Cassie mentioned about the sister doing something mindfully, I seem to be able to be more present.

Barbara: I'm paraphrasing Aaron. He's saying that this is another way of staying at the edge and slowly, gently coming back into the center of the area of pain. That you don't have to shove yourself into the center. Eventually you move in toward the center as long as you have the intention to stay mindful and to learn. He's saying, doing this kind of movement can be a very skillful thing. You must intuitively assess when it's time to stop doing that mindful movement and bring yourself back to sitting again. At what point is it the edge of skillful means of staying present with what seems to be unendurable, and at what point does it become escape or evasion. And that point, he says, will differ for each of us in different situations. One cannot say, this is the point. For some people it might be years before somebody can go back; for somebody else it might be 10 minutes. When is one ready to look at something that was traumatic? How long do we need? Whatever it takes. Whatever invites us back.

He is suggesting that when there is restlessness and difficulty sitting, if you get up and need to walk or tend your garden or do yoga, that you do it not only mindfully but that when you sit again, you let yourself take that resistance or tension as the primary object in the sitting. Just knowing, "tension is present in me," and being there with the tension, watching what happens to it as you're there in a very spacious and merciful way with it, not saying tension is bad and it should go. Just there and witness to it. What happens to it?

Question: I feel my breathing is blocked sometimes from just chronic muscle tension. How does awareness practice fit in with an approach of bodywork or massage to relieve the tension?

Aaron: The issue here is not whether it is skillful or not skillful to relieve the tension. The issue is, what is the primary motivation for relieving the tension. If it comes from a place of kindness to attend to that which feels unbalanced in the self, to show mercy to the self and offer support to the various systems in the self, then such bodywork is a very loving, skillful choice. If it grows out of a desire to fix the tension, to get rid of it as if it were something bad and broken that needed to be fixed, then it would be wise to reconsider and resolve the motivation before you enter into the bodywork experience. Does this sufficiently answer your question? I pause. (Yes.)

Copyright © 2000 by Barbara Brodsky