On Purpose

  • On Purpose

Stories & Insights from Mindfulness, Dharma, and Waking Up Each Day

  • This is the last post until the end of May. If you get hungry for a little mindfulness, check out the archives. Every post from the last year is available anytime. Today’s post is adapted from a previous one.  I wish you a wonderful month.

    The thought manifests as the word
    The word manifests as the deed
    The deed develops into habit
    And the habit hardens into character
    So watch the thought and its ways with care
    And let it spring from love
    Born out of concern for all beings

    This is one of my favorite pieces of wisdom from the Buddha because I think it’s really true. I know that when my mind thinks caring and kind thoughts, my speech and actions will likely follow suit. I feel clear and at ease. Or if my mind is caught in contention and my thoughts aren’t so kind or caring, I hope I’ll have enough awareness to keep from acting them out and have the restraint to keep my mouth shut.

    In the classical Buddhist teachings of the Noble Eightfold Path, Wise or Right Action are those actions that are rooted in harmlessness. The Buddha gives specific guidelines in the form of precepts, a code of ethical conduct. Really, they aren’t so specific to Buddhism; they’re simply the moral, skillful and harmless way of living. You’ll recognize them.

    1.      Abstain from taking life; don’t kill

    2.      Abstain from taking anything that has not been freely given; don’t steal

    3.      Abstain from the misuse of sexuality

    4.      Abstain from using harmful or false speech; don’t lie

    5.      Abstain from the use of intoxicants to the degree that the mind becomes clouded and causes heedlessness

    At first glance, these precepts seem quite obvious, but in actuality they may be more difficult to carry out. 

    How far do we take not killing? What about the ants carrying aphids to the artichoke plants or string beans in the garden? What about that magazine on the table in the waiting room at the dentist’s office that has an article you’d like to read? And how do we express our sexuality and in what environments? How about the time we said something in public that was told to us in confidence and caused a friend humiliation? And, the consequences of drinking too much or using other intoxicants are well-known.

    Our actions really do have consequences, whether in the immediate or somewhere down the line. This is the law of karma. In fact, karma translates as action. 

    I remember a difficult time in my life many years ago when I was struggling with an unhealthy relationship, doing everything I could to make it work. It took me quite a while to see that nearly every encounter I had brought me pain, seemingly endless pain. It was like sitting in a chair with a broken leg. Each time I sat in that chair, I fell on the ground and injured my tailbone.

    The Buddha taught that our happiness and unhappiness are dependent upon our own actions, not on anyone else’s wishes for us. This is what it means to be the heir to our own karma. The truth that we really can and do directly influence our lives through our own actions is a profoundly liberating statement. When our motivations and intentions come from harmlessness and goodwill, we are likely to act skillfully and wisely.

    I find that when I really pay attention, I am my own best guide.

    “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion.” 
                                                                          Abraham Lincoln

  • Spring is in full bloom in northern California. The rhododendrons, azaleas, viburnum and flowering cherry trees are bursting with flowers. It’s gorgeous.

    I spent the morning rowing on Humboldt Bay with two dear friends in perfect conditions; flat water, no wind, sun shining and so much birdlife. Even the seals were curiously poking their heads up alongside our boats to check us out. Mornings like this are full of connection and belonging. They’re the threads that weave and bind us to ourselves, to our families and friends, and to our communities and the natural world. It’s the stuff of spiritual practice.

    In our meditation groups, we show up week after week to sit together, to practice together. None of us could do this without the other. Our practice depends on it. We could actually say that our lives depend on it, because they do. I depend on my weekly groups as one of the core supports for my life. 

    Whatever our practice is, whether it’s in a formal setting, out in nature, reading a book, listening to music, talking with a friend, making a meal, it feeds our spirits and we can’t do it alone. We might we think we can, but for practice to really flourish, we need each other.

    Each week in class our meditations include both mindfulness/insight practice as well as metta, the practice of intentionally inclining the mind and heart towards goodwill and kindness. But they’re really not separate practices.  Mindfulness is inherently kind, and being kind is by nature mindful. 

    I don’t think we can be kind without being mindful. It just doesn't work because the intention is ultimately the same; to settle the mind, open the heart, and cultivate a soft resilience that allows us to be engaged in our lives skillfully and wisely without rancor or contention. In fact, the Dalai Lama talks about these practices as “the process of internal disarmament.”

    Mindfulness and kindness are intimately and inextricably linked, and the outcome is a clear mind and a loving heart. When we intentionally infuse our lives with kindness and awareness, our connections deepen and our sense of belonging grows.

    A Rabbit Noticed My Condition

    I was sad one day and went for a walk;

    I sat in a field.

    A rabbit noticed my condition and

    Came near.

    It often does not take more than that to help at times-

    To just be close to creatures who

    Are so full of knowing,

    So full of love

    That they don’t


    They just gaze with their

    Marvelous understanding.

    -St. John of the Cross

  • My daughter Sarah had a beautiful butterfly stroke. She was eight years old and swam with fluidity, strength and desire. I loved sitting in the bleachers watching her swim, marveling at her ease and determination. Sometime that year, her father set up a trampoline in our back yard. The kids were overjoyed and I could feel disaster looming.

    One day after school the kids were having a great time on tramp. I was in the kitchen making dinner when I heard Sarah scream. I looked out the window and saw her crumpled on the ground holding her arm and her brother running in to get me. She had fallen off of the trampoline not while jumping, but while trying to sit down on the edge and missing the rim with her outstretched arm, falling to the ground arm straight palm first. She’d fractured her elbow.

    What does this have to do with mindfulness or meditation? Lately I’ve been thinking about what brought me to practice, why I practice and what sustains me. Sarah’s elbow fracture was really bad. It took lots and lots of physical therapy and many months to heal. It was the end of that beautiful butterfly stroke. 

    One day Sarah and I were talking about what sort of activity she thought would be fun and she suggested yoga. Not long after that, she and I took an Introduction to Yoga class series where my meditation practice crept back into my life and really took hold.

    So when I think about what brought me to practice, it was my husband buying the trampoline and my daughter falling off of it. I can’t say that I’m grateful for the trampoline accident. We got rid of it not long after, but I am grateful to my daughter for choosing yoga and allowing me to go to class with her. 

    I was lucky enough to have a yoga teacher who integrated meditation quite naturally into her teaching, and the same teacher for introducing me to a book written by Sylvia Boorstein, who is now one of my primary teachers and mentors.

    Why I practice and what sustains me are two sides of the same coin and are mutually supportive. Mindfulness practice both in formal meditation and daily life help me live a kinder, more compassionate and wise life through cultivating clarity and patience. 

    I don’t always get it right, but practice supports and sustains these intentions, and keeps me on track. And when I do get it right, I know why I practice. It really works.

    What brought you to practice?
    Why do you practice?

    What sustains you?

    Why do you read this blog?

    “We know what is proper, especially in difficult situations, from the wisdom arising out of contemplation.”

  • After last week’s discussion on the nature of thoughts and how they condition our moods, our emotions and our actions, I serendipitously came across this poem. It’s so funny how the right piece of wisdom can pop up just when we need it.
    The mind is ever a tourist
    Wanting to touch and buy
    New things then throw them
    Into an already full closet.
    Does your mind ever feel like an already full closet? Mine does. And sometimes it feels like it’s full of clothes that don’t fit, worn out shoes, and piled up dust-covered junk on the top shelf that hasn’t moved in years. That’s how it feels when my mind is trying to accommodate way too much, with its insatiable propensity to think about, dream about, and figure out about.
    And that’s the nature of the mind. It makes thoughts. Sometimes these thoughts fit and serve us well, sometimes it’s just clutter, and sometimes it’s like taking stuff out of the garbage that’s already been thoroughly processed and does not need to be recycled yet again.
    I’m very grateful for meditation practice. It calms, sorts through, and clarifies my mind. Here’s a practice you might try when your mind feels too full and it’s hard to see one clear thought through to the next.
    Wherever you are take a breath. Whether you’re in the car, in the line at the grocery store, on the phone with customer service because your flight’s just been cancelled, or sitting on your meditation cushion, take a breath. Really notice the in-breath and the out-breath; its length, its depth, let the breath be felt.
    At the end of the out-breath get a sense of your feet, especially the bottoms of your feet. If you’re standing or sitting in a chair, see if you can feel them on the ground. If you’re sitting on your cushion, just get a sense of the soles of your feet. Imagine breathing in and out of your feet for the next minute.
    You’ll notice that if you really stick with the breath, it instantly changes the mind’s focus and cuts whatever storyline it had going. The mind will not advance two storylines simultaneously. I find that re-directing the mind from the thought clutter to one simple palpable focus calms everything and lets me see more clearly.
    Once I’ve settled, I like using an image of the full moon over the ocean at night resting on the horizon. I imagine standing on the beach while the moonlight shines towards me across the water. It reminds me of this poem.
    Let my doing nothing
    When I have nothing to do
    Become untroubled in its depth
    Of peace like the evening
    In the seashore when the
    Water is silent
                                  Rabindranath Tagore
    Photo, Marcus Armani, armaniphotography.com
  • Recently in one of our sitting groups, we were talking about what we've individually found to be a benefit of mindfulness practice as well as what we've experienced as obstacles.

    One man came in a few minutes late, gently apologized for the interruption, got himself situated on his cushion, and began to weep as he joined in the discussion. He was overwhelmed with relief and gratitude for just being able to show up at all. He shared that mindfulness in general, and meditation specifically allow him to be with the pain of the unexpected loss of a close relationship, his tender heart, his fear, anger and sadness in a way that also allow him to hold himself with a modicum of love and compassion through which he can feel a bit of ease and sometimes even some joy.

    At the end of the sitting, he came up to me and said “You know, I just realized that all thoughts are neutral. It’s everything I do with them that cause the problems.” It was a beautiful moment. He experienced the profound insight into the link of pleasant-unpleasant-neutral thoughts and how they condition our emotions and actions. We talked about how in-between the awareness of a given thought and our response, there’s a space. And it’s in that space, often completely unnoticed or traversed in a nanosecond, we have great power and choice.

    Sometimes I’m asked “why mindfulness, what’s the benefit?” Simply stated, mindfulness allows us to see what’s what with curiosity and acceptance. It is the practice of uncluttering and tidying up the mind. When we see what’s what, the volume is turned down on reactivity, we develop patience and resilience, and we have more access to our innately clear minds, our kind hearts and our discerning wisdom.

    It’s important to recognize that mindfulness is not about becoming a better this or that. It’s about becoming fully aware of whatever is happening, whether we like it or not, whether it’s pleasant or painful, and being at ease even with difficultly. Difficult circumstances do not automatically mean despair or unhappiness. They mean difficult circumstances. Being at ease in the midst of difficulty is not fatalistic, giving up, or sticking one’s head in the sand, but rather it’s the solid rich fertile ground out of which positive change can occur. When we stop being in contention with our circumstances but recognize them as they are, we can make skillful deliberate choices about how to proceed. Mindfulness is the awareness of our direct experience stripped of inference and the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening.

    Using mindfulness to hone our awareness and sharpen our concentration for the purpose of becoming better at our jobs is fine, but I believe it is not the foundational intention of mindfulness. It is not to become a better soldier, a better teacher, a better grocer, a better nurse, a better politician, a better corporate executive. It is to become kinder, more compassionate and wise, and live a life that accommodates all of the joys and sorrows, the twists and turns that comprise being human without harming ourselves or anyone else. And in the process, we just might become better at our jobs, too. 

  • Here's a beautiful new poem published in the March 2014 issue of The Sun magazine. I hope you enjoy it.

    Red Tights

    For Maxine

    When I see my friend’s little girl

    In the produce aisle, she beams, “I’m happy.

    I have new red tights and a boyfriend!”

    We’re standing between the twin peaks

    Of apples and tomatoes,

    Light shining off their taut skins.

    She does not know

    That she will spend her whole life

    At the mercy of the opening and closing

    Of the delicate mechanism of her heart.

    Just this morning, I ran into an old lover.

    When he kissed my cheek,

    I inhaled his scent and was thrown

    Back to a time when all we wanted

    Was to fit completely inside each other’s bodies.

    Something we took as seriously as engineers

    Contemplating how to land a rocket

    On a moon of Jupiter.

    And sometimes we succeeded,

    And for a moment

    The universe seemed to balance

    On a fulcrum, the slight wobble

    Of the earth’s orbit steadied.

    How loyal the heart is, a stray dog.

    Today, when my ex turned and walked

    Into the crowd, all I could do

    Was stand and watch

    As mine trotted after him

    Down the long sidewalk.

    And then he rounded the corner

    And disappeared.

    -Danusha Laméris 
  • I've been thinking a lot about conditioning lately. How we’re conditioned by our genetics, our families, our schools, our cultures, the environments in which we were raised, and the environments in which we choose to spend our lives. They’re all part of the whole.

    What are the filters through which we see the world? What are our default responses? What is the content of our internal monologue? Mindfulness practice is the process of stepping out of the center of our thoughts, seeing what’s there, and pausing to ask “is this true, am I sure?” Stepping aside allows us to see our conditioning, understand its effects, recognize the positive and deliberately let go of those aspects that are not in our best interest. It’s hard work and takes persistence, patience, compassion and curiosity.

    Sylvia Boorstein says that each moment of mindfulness erases a moment of conditioning. As we train in paying attention and practice noticing, we see our thoughts and how they string and weave together to make a pattern, our fabric. As we see these patterns, we get to know the emotions and feelings they trigger. And from there we become more and more skillful in how we respond.

    “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
    ― Viktor E. FranklMan's Search for Meaning

    How many times have we all heard about how we’re acting just like one of our parents? It’s so easy to immediately take this as an insult and think “Oh no!” But maybe it’s really a good thing, a compliment. I have characteristics of both of my parents and I hope that I’ve been able to develop the ones that are a blessing and let go of the ones that don’t fit how I want to live. This is how mindfulness erases conditioning.

    And to the conditioning of beauty…

    “My mother would say to me ‘You can’t eat beauty, it doesn’t feed you.’ And these words played and bothered me until I realized that beauty wasn’t a thing that I could acquire or consume. It was something that I just had to be. And what my mother meant when she said ‘You can’t eat beauty’ was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What actually sustains us, what is fundamentally beautiful is compassion – for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty inflames the heart and enchants the soul, [from this] we get to the deeper business of being beautiful…and there is no shade in that beauty.”

    -Lupita Nyong’o, at her acceptance speech for Best Breakthrough Performance, Black Women in Hollywood luncheon.

  • We’ve spent the last few months looking at the heart practices, and now is a good time to review a little and spend some time practicing. Here are the various practices for cultivating loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity.

    For the next week, choose one each day and make it your practice. Or if you prefer, choose one practice for the whole week. Remember that with steady mindfulness, each one supports the other. By focusing on any of these beautiful and wise expressions of the heart, the others will be engaged and automatically play a supporting role.

    Loving Kindness

    In formal practice, one recites these phrases silently as blessings, intentions or resolves. It can be helpful to visualize yourself (or the person you’re practicing with) feeling contented, peaceful, and happy while saying the phrases. Sometimes I enjoy putting my hand over the heart center while keeping the image in mind and saying the phrases. This connects the mind and heart directly to the intention of the practice. Try gently smiling, too. It relaxes the body. 

    May I be contented and pleased
    May I be protected and safe
    May I be gentle and kind
    May I meet this moment with ease


    We all have people in our lives we find challenging. Regardless of the particulars of the circumstance, sometimes it’s so challenging that we are less than skillful in our interactions. Compassion can really help reduce the sting of these situations. My mentor, Donald Rothberg reminds me that when we can tune into the pain of another, we will be in our right minds. And I want to live in my right mind.

    Take some time to think about that. This is what makes “compassion” a verb. When we get out of our own way, we really can see more clearly and act more wisely.

    Compassion for ourselves works the same way. When we can get underneath the surface of our own muck and see what’s really going on, we’re more likely to feel some relief and be kinder to ourselves. And when we can’t see what’s really going on and all we feel is lousy, we can say 

    “May I hold myself with compassion”

    Appreciative Joy

    Keep this practice simple. Look for the good, smile often, and remember joy. Here are a few phrases that are a lovely meditation directed towards finding joy in another's good fortune.

    May your happiness grow

    May your happiness continue

    May your happiness shine

    Like the moon, the stars, and the sun


    The practices for cultivating a relaxed accommodating even-mindedness, and the capacity to take it all in and say “this, too,” can be done anywhere anytime. As with the other practices, the key is remembering to do it. Try silently saying to yourself:

    May I have balance in this moment

    May I be centered in this moment

    Imagine what being balanced and centered feel like, and drop into that. This part is important. By getting a sense of how this feels in the body, it becomes more easily accessible next time you’re looking for balance. This also applies to the other heart practices.

    And understanding that equanimity is directly connected to actions, whether ours or someone else’s:

    I am the owner of my karma. My happiness and unhappiness depend upon my own actions, not on anyone else’s wishes for me.

    I hope you enjoy the practices.

  • Just a few weeks ago some dear friends had their first baby, five days later my father died, and the next day my husband unexpectedly retired from a full career of hard work. There it was; a tiny bundle of enormous love and joy, a puddle of gratitude and sadness, and the dismay and excitement of what’s to come. Even though I thought I understood that everything changes every moment of the day, that life is one continual accommodation, I still felt disoriented.

    One of my mentors, Sylvia Boorstein, has a simple, yet poignant way of addressing the struggling mind. When difficulty arises, she says, “It’s not what I wanted, but it’s what I got.” When we have the spaciousness of mind to see clearly without a bunch of added stories, opinions and judgments, we’re more able to respond wisely and appropriately, get a better outcome, and be at ease. It’s lemons to lemonade. Equanimity is the capacity to make room for it all, to say “this, too.”

    Equanimity is also inherently linked to karma. Karma is properly translated as “action.” Understanding that all actions have consequences, and the only things we can ever truly control are our own actions, we may as well let go of trying to fix or change anyone else, and direct our efforts toward our own wholesome and skillful actions. When we do this, we naturally become less attached to outcomes because we know that when our actions are rooted in insight and grounded in the ethics of non-harming, the outcomes will naturally lead towards the long-term welfare and happiness of ourselves and others.

    Here is a practice I learned from James Baraz, author of Awakening Joy. The purpose of it is to help us accept the way things are and understand that no matter how much we love someone, no matter how much we want to protect them, no matter how much we might think we know what is best, we cannot prevent them from suffering, no matter what. This goes for ourselves, too.

    From a relaxed place, bring to mind an image of someone you love and silently say:

    You are the owner of your karma. Your happiness and unhappiness are dependent upon your actions, not on my wishes for you.” 

    Think about it, let it sink in and say it again.

    As you work with this practice, you’ll see how true it is. Sometimes it’s quite astonishing to really get it, to deeply understand that our happiness and unhappiness really are dependent on our own actions, our own responses, our own belief systems, and not on anything outside of ourselves. As this sinks in and takes root, our equanimity grows and becomes an accessible, integrated and natural way of being.

    For more on equanimity, see the July 8th post on this blog, “Equanimity, the 7th Factor of Awakening.”

  • Out of the soil of metta

    Grows the bloom of compassion,

    To be watered by tears of joy

    Under the cool shade of equanimity 
         - Longchenpa, 14thC Tibetan Master

    Finally we come to the last of the Brahma-Viharas, equanimity, upekkhain Pali. Even though equanimity is classically taught as the natural summation of loving kindness, compassion, and appreciative joy, it actually functions as a continuous balancing current, an opposable thumb. And even though we can focus on developing metta, developing compassion and joy, none of them really exist in isolation.

    Try it out sometime. Can you really wish goodwill to someone without the thread of compassion? Can you really feel the joy in appreciating someone else’s success without the support of goodwill and kindness? Can you feel compassion without kindness? It doesn’t really work. With equanimity as the through line, the brahma-viharas are mutually supportive and mutually dependent. They function as an integrated whole.

    “When you feel bad, let it be your link to others’ suffering. When you feel good, let it be your link with others’ joy.” 
       –Pema Chodron

    Just like loving kindness, compassion and appreciative joy, equanimity has its “near enemy” or subtle opposite, and in this case it’s indifference. We might think we’re balancing and navigating the big and small storms of our lives with, but if we do it by looking the other way, erecting impenetrable walls, cutting ourselves off from our own hearts, ignoring our direct experience, we actually create denial and indifference, not equanimity. Our exterior may appear calm and balanced, but our interior is working hard to protect ourselves from difficulty and pain.

    I like to think of equanimity as the balanced spacious stillness of mind that easily accommodates everything that naturally arises as it happens, a relaxed even-mindedness that allows me to experience whatever occurs with soft, curious, wise resilience. If I can soften my edges, there’s nothing too sharp to bump up against. Painful experiences don’t sting as much or for as long, and it’s easier to come down from and let go of even the most wonderful, exciting and joyous events. Softening allows me to release the grip of grasping and craving, and not push so hard against adversity.  

    Here is a practice for exploring and cultivating equanimity. It can be used anywhere, either in formal meditation practice or standing in what you thought was going to be the fastest line at the grocery store. I’ve adapted it from James Baraz’ book Awakening Joy.

    Settle in and take a few comfortable mindful breaths.  Let your awareness move slowly through your body arriving, settling, softening and breathing. Silently say to yourself:

    May I have balance and equanimity in this moment


    May I be centered in this moment

    Imagine what being balanced and centered feel like, drop into that. Try to allow any thoughts or emotions that arise to just be there, without needing to grasp onto or push them away. Repeat the phrases as long as you like and see if you can gently relax into equanimity.

  • It’s easy to be frightened, to feel cynical, to judge and criticize, to feel envy or jealousy, and to generally drop into a place of contention without even noticing. Our culture gives us nonstop messages of needing things to be other. It keeps us seeking the next best thing, rarely supporting the value of stopping and enjoying what is already here as it is, without the need to fix or change.

    Mindfulness practice helps us see the habit patterns of the mind. Once we see them and get familiar with them, we start to see whether they lead to happiness or unhappiness, stress or ease. And when this happens, we can make a deliberate choice about how to respond and how to engage.

    Rick Hansen, the neuropsychologist and author of The Buddha’s Brain, and Hardwiring Happiness, teaches that the brain has a natural negativity bias. It’s like velcro for the negative and teflon for the positive. Our basic survival instinct recognizes and hooks into danger much more quickly than it recognizes and hooks into peace, joy, love and the general sense that things are alright. But we can change this. We can look for the good, deliberately.

    The Buddha said “what one frequently thinks and ponders upon will become the inclination of the mind.” For me, I know that if I keep playing the worn out tape of an old painful relationship, what happened, what didn’t happen, I’ll get stuck in the sticky gooey rut of the story. I’ll likely become sad or resentful, angry or hurt all over again. The repetitive thoughts themselves will strengthen the imprint of the memory in my mind making the difficult feelings easy to access, easy feel, cloud the mind and lead nowhere helpful. Joseph Goldstein says “repetitive thoughts are a dead end.” When I can recognize this, I can more easily stop the habitual thought pattern, recognize it for what it is, and avoid replaying the old hurt.

    The bright shining spot here is that the same is true for good memories, good thoughts, and positive experiences, those that nurture and support our well-being and bring happiness. They, too, imprint in the memory. When we take in and deliberately recognize joy, happiness, love, a sense of things being alright, we incline the mind towards well-being and reinforce those neuronal connections. Not only do we look for the good, but we intentionally take the time to let in it and soak it up.

    As these kinds of habit patterns take root and grow, we have greater and easier access to our own innate capacity to feel joy. Our happiness grows. As our own happiness grows, it becomes easier to feel joy for someone else’s good fortune. This is mudita, appreciative joy; the completely natural expression of the open, available and steady heart.

    And here’s a little advice from The Dalai Lama…

    "It is important to understand how much your own happiness is linked to that of others. There is no individual happiness totally independent of others.”  

    “If we derive happiness from the happiness of others, we have at least six billion more opportunities to be happy.”

  • Mudita, or appreciative joy is the next of the Brahma-Viharas, the natural and beautiful reflections of the wise heart. Classically these are taught in order; loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), appreciative joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha) because they tend to develop that way. Ultimately, they arise on their own in response to experience.

    I’m a sap. I frequently cry in movies or while reading books whether sad, funny, or happy, and even at sporting events when something really fantastic happens. I can remember leaping out of my seat and shouting for joy at my son’s high school basketball games when one of the bench players came in the game, got the block or made a basket,  thoroughly embarrassing my son and especially my daughter if she was nearby. That kind of joy, while really exciting is not mudita, it is exuberance, what the Buddha taught as the “near enemy” or close opposite of appreciative joy. My outburst of exhilaration in the moment caused my kids embarrassment, the people around me to roll their eyes, and left me feeling a little foolish.

    A more accurate expression of mudita is the kind of deep joy we feel at the wedding of someone close to us, the birth of a baby to someone we love, when a dear friend gets the job she’s been working towards, or any way we spontaneously feel joy for another’s success. It’s joy completely free from envy or jealousy. It is joy that springs from love.

    For the most part, one who is free of ill will and can whole-heartedly wish kindness towards another develops and easily expresses compassion. A compassionate person can naturally feel joy in another’s success. And from this place equanimity naturally evolves. Each of the brahma-viharas is an expression of the heart in its most stable and unobstructed state.

    Realistically though, sometimes we do have ill will, don’t feel compassionate, cannot feel joy for another’s success, and cannot accommodate the conditions of our lives with any degree of equanimity. We get knocked around because that’s how life is. 

    But, with mindfulness practice we do start seeing more clearly the truth of impermanence, how everything changes every minute of the day, the gritty experience of suffering in all its forms (anxiety, stress, sorrow, loss, grief, anger, blame, shame, pain,) and that things happen because other things happen. Nothing exists purely on its own, but is utterly dependent on myriad causes to create a single condition.

    Think about what it takes to create a single piece of paper; the seedling that grew out of fertile soil into a tree, the clouds that generated the rain to water the tree, the person who cut down the tree had to be born and become strong enough to do the job, tools made from other elements had to be used, fossil fuels necessary to transport the logs to the mill had to be extracted, on and on, just to make a sheet of paper.  

    When we really see the complexity of our interconnection and interdependence, our individual self-involvement naturally diminishes, and we are more likely to act from a place of greater balance, appreciation, compassion and kindness.



    Live in joy,

    In love,

    Even among those who hate.

    Live in joy,

    In health,

    Even among the afflicted.

    Live in joy,

    In peace,

    Even among the troubled.

    Look within.

    Be still.

    Free from fear and attachment,

    Know the sweet joy of the way.

    -The Buddha, the Dhammapada

  • Thinking

    Don’t you wish they would stop,

    all the thoughts swirling around in your head like

    bees in a hive, dancers tapping their way across the stage?

    I should rake the leaves in the carport, buy Christmas lights.

    Is there really life on Mars? What will I cook for dinner?

    There’s frost on the front lawn, dry branches

    on the stoop. I walk up the driveway to put out the garbage

    and think: I should stop using plastic bags,

    call my friend whose husband just left her for the nanny

    from Sweden, a place I might like to visit.

    I wish I hadn’t said Patrick’s painting looked “ominous.”

    Maybe that’s why he hasn’t answered my e-mails.

    Does the car need oil? There’s a hole in the ozone

    the size of Texas, and everything seems to be speeding up.

    Come, let’s stand by the window and look out

    at the light on the field. Let’s watch how

    the clouds cover the sun, and almost nothing

    stirs in the grass.

    Danusha Lameris

  • “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”   Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Today is the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday. I like being reminded of his courage and insistence on the importance of non-violence, compassion, love and his deep belief in our essential innate goodness. These teachings are ancient and we need contemporary leaders to keep them alive. The Buddha taught that what gets in the way of these qualities are greed, hatred and delusion, known as the “three poisons.” They are the cause of our individual and collective pain and suffering. Today this post is about greed and hate.

    Greed is easy to see outside of ourselves, and sometimes more difficult to see inside. It’s difficult to come face-to-face with the myriad ways desire and craving keep us running on the gerbil wheel. It can be blatantly obvious or amazingly subtle. Because our consumer culture is pervasive and invasive, it requires steady discerning mindfulness to manage our desires, to understand them as transitory, to know what is enough, and to guide our actions.

    There’s a local bakery about a block from my office that makes the perfect chewy, soft in the middle crunchy on the outside oat-cranberry-current cookie. It’s delicious, almost a meal in itself. As I walked by the bakery recently, not thinking of this cookie, not even hungry, all of a sudden my mind began telling me I wanted that cookie. First I could see it, then smell it, then even get a sense of tasting it, all from walking by the windows! I had to laugh. It was a perfect opportunity to recognize desire, feel and watch it work, and know that I had a choice about whether or not to get that cookie.  I did get the cookie and enjoyed every bite. And, it gave me a bit of a belly ache.

    This is how desire and greed operate. They tell us stories we do not have to believe. The next time this happens, I hope I can just watch the desire come, tell me the story of satisfying it, and watch it go. The ability to not satisfy our momentary desires reduces reactivity and impulsivity, and likely does not cause harm. It’s a tiny example causing minor suffering, but suffering nonetheless. Seeing the transitory nature of things has profound implications.

    “Better than one hundred years lived

    Without seeing the arising and passing of things

    Is one day lived

    Seeing their arising and passing.”
      -The Buddha, The Dhammapada

    Hatred, or ill-will is also quite easy to see outside of ourselves. External expressions of discontent, anger and violence in our communities, and perpetuated through the continuous media stream, are quite obvious. Internal hatred and ill-will can be more difficult to see. Each time I feel aversion to whatever is happening, the way I talk to myself about it is key. If I carry on with indignation I am more likely to churn up misplaced anger which ties my mind in a knot, keeps me from seeing clearly, and if I’m not careful, acting in a less than kind manner. But if I can understand my discomfort, my dislike, I still may get angry, but I’m more likely to manage it without causing undue harm to myself or those around me. Like greed and desire, hatred and ill-will are states of mind that come and go. The practice is to watch this happen without getting caught. The Dalai Lama calls this “the practice of internal disarmament.”

    “Hatred never ends through hatred.

    By non-hate alone does it end.

    This is an ancient truth.” 
    -The Buddha, The Dhammapada

    And in the words of  Martin Luther King, Jr.,

    “Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
    only light can do that.
    Hate cannot drive out hate; 
    only love can do that.”

  • As I sit inside writing beside the radiant warmth of the fireplace, it’s raining outside, raining really hard. The muddy gravel streaming down our dirt driveway carving long ruts and crevices is making a mess of our road, and yet, I’m relieved. If you’ve been reading this blog lately, you know that I’ve been scared and worried about this very dry winter.

    It’s so easy to be in a continual state of wishing things were other, creating contention and upset with the conditions and circumstances of our lives. But whether it’s a drought or monsoon, it is just how it is. Ajaan Sumedho, the prominent Buddhist teacher says, “It’s like this.” A drought is like this, a monsoon is like this. It’s not personal, it’s how it is.

    Life is a continual accommodation to the circumstances of our lives. And sometimes “just how it is” is difficult, uncomfortable and painful. The teaching “it’s like this,” helps us see more clearly and not take things so personally. It loosens the grip of whatever thoughts or emotions have us caught, eases the tension in the mind and frees us up to respond more wisely.

    With practice, mindfulness lets us see our relationship to our thoughts and emotions, and the habit patterns that get created. So when I look outside and see the dry hills and the low rivers, I also begin to notice that worry and fear creep into my mind. When I can identify the worry and fear, maybe even sense where I feel it in my body, I get to know what worry and fear feel like. It’s like this. Now I am more likely to respond with care and kindness for my own suffering and not start catastrophizing about what dry hills and low rivers might mean. It also lets me see that being in contention with the weather is pretty much a dead end. But how often do I lament the weather? It’s silly when I think about it, but it’s a habit, and habits can be changed.

    Each moment of seeing “it’s like this” is a moment of accommodation and clarity. Each moment of mindfulness is a moment of kindness, and each moment of kindness is a moment of mindfulness. With time, all of these moments accumulate into a life of greater ease, wisdom and compassion.

    When despair for the world grows in me

    and I wake in the night at the least sound

    in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

    I go and lie down where the wood drake

    rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

    I come into the peace of wild things

    who do not tax their lives with forethought

    of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.

    And I feel above me the day-blind stars

    waiting with their light.  For a time

    I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. 

    ~Wendell Berry

  • I’ve always loved the New Year. And even though it’s still not raining and I’m still worried, the coming of the light and the sense of turning a corner into a fresh start feels hopeful and full of possibility. A friend told me The Farmer’s Almanac says we’ll have rain this month. I hope we do. I think she was trying to ease both of our fears with a little compassion and kindness.

    A poem for the new year…

    A Rabbit Noticed My Condition

    I was sad one day and went for a walk;

    I sat in a field.

    A rabbit noticed my condition

    And came near.

    It often does not take

    More than that to help at times –

    To just be close to creatures who

    Are so full of knowing,

    So full of love

    That they don’t - chat,

    They just gaze with their

    Marvelous understanding.

                                                 -St. John of the Cross

    Compassion is like that. It is the natural response of the heart to another’s suffering. When we can no longer close our eyes to truth of another’s suffering, when we’re willing to see things as they actually are, we can no longer look the other way and think “that’s too bad, I feel sorry for her.” That’s pity, not compassion. In fact, the Buddha taught that pity is the “near enemy” of compassion. I like to think of it as the “near opposite” because when I do feel pity and can’t face the truth of my pain or your pain, I don’t want to make an enemy out of it.

    When I feel sorryfor another, I still maintain a very real separation between us as a way of protecting myself from the pain of circumstance. But with mindfulness and time, we see more clearly. As the fog lifts, compassion naturally develops. We become more able to face difficulty, and our responses become wiser and kinder. As we really come to know the truth of our interdependence, we find that the only way to respond that makes any sense at all is with compassion.

    Another poem…

    Love Does That

    All day long a little burro labors, sometimes

    With heavy loads on her back and sometimes

    Just with worries about things that bother only burros.

    And worries, as we know, can be more exhausting

    Than physical labor.

    Once in a while a kind monk comes

    To her stable and brings a pear,

    but more than that, he looks

    into the burro’s eyes and touches her ears

    And for a few seconds the burro is free

    And even seems to laugh,

    Because love does that.

    Love frees.

    -                                                           - Meister Eckhart

  • Recently I was driving south on Hwy 101 from my home in rural Humboldt County, California on my way to San Francisco, about 300 miles away. The route is extremely beautiful as it winds away from the Pacific Coast, through ancient Redwood forests, along the Eel and Russian Rivers, then in and out of endless soft rolling grassy hills of Live Oaks and vineyards that hug the contour of the landscape, arriving finally at the Golden Gate Bridge where the road once again meets the ocean. This is a drive I’ve done regularly for the last 30 years. It’s truly stunning. I’m accustomed to this beauty and depending on the season, I anticipate how it will look each time I travel.

    In the winter it rains here and the hills turn many shades of lush green and the rivers grow wide and full. But this winter is different. There’s been no rain, and the hills aren’t their usual shade of end-of-autumn brown. They’re gray, ashen gray. The rivers are nearly dry, and the water that remains barely moves. The sun shines every day, there is no rain in the forecast, and I am worried. I never imagined a day when waking up to sunshine would give me a sinking feeling. What does an impending drought mean for everything? It’s so big I can barely wrap my mind around it.

    I am, by nature, very optimistic. It’s my default setting. So much so, that in order to not be blind-sided by my own optimism, I have developed the habit of asking myself “what’s wrong with this picture?” before diving into new ventures that have long-range consequences. This sort of discerning question keeps my potential impulsivity in check and helps me stay balanced.

    But over the last several months I’ve found myself on the other side of things; often feeling pessimistic, stuck in the rut of everything sad, rubbing up against grief. Not just my small personal griefs, but the Big Grief, the Grief of World; global environmental degradation, climate disruption, extreme economic inequities, the effects of wide-spread poverty, (to name a few), and the outrageously painful fact that by being alive and living in the world, consuming any goods at all, I am part of the problem.

    So what’s wrong with this picture? Actually, there’s everything right with this picture. It’s right to feel grief. It’s right to see things as they actually are. It’s right to feel outrage, and it’s right to feel up close, in our bones how the small self is deeply and inextricably bound to the Big Self.

    “In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men [and women] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”    -Martin Luther King, Jr.

    From the perspective of mindfulness practice, there are many ways to approach grief, pain, and sadness. When my teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, is caught in a knot she stops and says to herself, “Sweetheart, you’re in pain. Take a breath.”

    This is really excellent advice on three fronts. First, by addressing herself as “sweetheart,” she holds herself with love and compassion which, right away, relaxes the mind and reduces the sting of the current pain. Secondly, by naming what’s happening, “you’re in pain,” she identifies what’s happening. When we understand what’s happening, we can choose how to respond, hopefully with wisdom and skill. And thirdly, the instruction “take a breath,” gives her something to do in the immediate, to offer herself some relief. Stopping to breathe is like pressing the pause button. It calms the mind and for the moment, turns down the volume on whatever story is playing. It’s brilliant, it’s compassionate, and it works.

    I realize that saying “Sweetheart, you’re in pain, take a breath,” is not going to end climate disruption or feed hungry people, but it will give me the space and courage I need to pause and think about what I can do. It also teaches me to respond to my own pain with kindness and compassion. 

    When grief comes knocking, let compassion answer.

  • I’m a little late with this post because I had some minor hand surgery last week and typing is really a challenge. Next week will hopefully be easier. Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about compassion, the next of the Brahma-Viharas, the Immeasurable or Divine mind states. I like to think of them as the most beautiful and comfortable states the mind can experience: loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity.

    Compassion is literally the ability to turn towards, acknowledge and embrace the suffering of another, a mingling of sympathy and empathy that is entirely focused on the other without the need or attempt to fix or change anything. Just the capacity to be with whatever suffering is present.

    I’ll write more about this just as soon as I can type with more than one hand. But in the meantime,

    A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.      -Albert Einstein

  • When my kids were teenagers, they went to the high school about a half mile from my work. Whenever I’d hear a siren during school hours, I would first check the time. Are they in class or at lunch in another teenager’s car going who knows where? My mind would tense and my heart would tighten as I worried that something horrible had happened to them. It became my habit, and has remained so, that whenever I hear a siren, I say a metta phrase to myself. Something like “may they be ok, may they not be too hurt, may they be safe.” I know that my wishes are not magic, and won’t change whatever has happened. And I also know that my wishes make me feel better and restore my mind and heart to a more comfortable less frightened place.

    “The Buddha first taught the metta meditation as an antidote to fear, as a way of surmounting terrible fear when it arises. The legend is that he sent a group of monks off to meditate in a forest that was inhabited by tree spirits. These spirits resented the presence of the monks and tried to drive them away by appearing as ghoulish visions, with awful smells and terrible, shrieking noises. The tradition says that the monks became terrified and ran back to the Buddha, begging him to send them to a different forest for their practice. Instead, the Buddha replied, "I am going to send you back to the same forest, but I will provide you with the only protection you will need." This was the first teaching of metta meditation. The Buddha encouraged the monks not only to recite the metta phrases but to actually practice them. As these stories all seem to end so happily, so did this one—it is said that the monks went back and practiced metta, so that the tree spirits became quite moved by the beauty of the loving energy filling the forest, and resolved to care for and serve the monks in all ways.

    The inner meaning of the story is that a mind filled with fear can still be penetrated by the quality of lovingkindness. Moreover, a mind that is saturated by lovingkindness cannot be overcome by fear; even if fear should arise, it will not overpower such a mind.”

    Sharon Salzberg, Loving-Kindness; The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.

    Here is the Buddha’s original teaching on metta, The Metta Sutta. I hope you enjoy it. As you read it, you might find that a certain line feels particularly meaningful, and then another and then another. Spend some time with it and see what seems most important. Then come back a read it another day and see what’s important then. Or you might choose to keep a particular line in mind as you go through your day as a reminder or an intention.

    Metta Sutta; The Buddha's Words on Loving-Kindness

    This is what should be done
    By those who are skilled in goodness,
    And who know the path of peace:
    Let them be able and upright,
    Straightforward and gentle in speech,
    Humble and not conceited,
    Contented and easily satisfied,
    Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways,
    Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
    Not proud and demanding in nature.
    Let them not do the slightest thing
    That the wise would later reprove.
    Wishing: in gladness and in safety,
    May all beings be at ease.
    Whatever living beings there may be;
    Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
    The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
    The seen and the unseen,
    Those living near and far away,
    Those born and to-be-born—
    May all beings be at ease!
    Let none deceive another,
    Or despise any being in any state.
    Let none through anger or ill-will
    Wish harm upon another.
    Even as a mother protects with her life
    Her child, her only child,
    So with a boundless heart
    Should one cherish all living beings;
    Radiating kindness over the entire world,
    Spreading upward to the skies,
    And downward to the depths;
    Outward and unbounded,
    Freed from hatred and ill-will.
    Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down,
    Free from drowsiness,
    One should sustain this recollection.
    This is said to be the sublime abiding.
    By not holding to fixed views,
    The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
    Being freed from all sense desires,
    Is not born again into this world.

  • No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.  
    Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

    Now that we’ve completed the exploration of the Eightfold Path, we’ll move on and look at what the Buddha taught as the Brahma-Viharas, translated from Pali as the Heavenly or Divine Abodes or Dwelling Place, also known as the Four Immeasurables. They include loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), appreciative joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha). Through meditation practice, each is cultivated not only as a beautiful state of mind and heart, but also and I think more significantly, as a way of being, and ultimately as a way of life.

    Individually, the brahma-viharas are powerful guideposts, and reflections of our most natural and essential goodness. As a whole, they are a precious gem and a trusted ally. Accessing my capacity to act out of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy or equanimity for myself and/or others, brings me right back to balance, to what is most important, and keeps me fully in the present.

    Just as mindfulness is like shining a flashlight on the mind, bringing into view just what is present in this moment, practicing with the brahma-viharas is like shining the light on the heart; accessing, illuminating, and bringing out its most basic nature.

    Metta – part 1

    Metta is often translated as Loving-Kindness, Loving Awareness, or simply Love. I recently heard John Peacock, the British Pali scholar translate metta as “to grow fat with friendliness.” I think that’s great. I love the idea that at any time, I can expand my capacity to be friendly.

    Metta practice is the continual undoing and uprooting of any existing ill will, no matter how subtle. And it can be hard to see; all the various forms of internal judgment of ourselves and others, the continual cultural conditioning that tells us we’re flawed, unworthy or not enough. Metta is the beautiful and transformative practice of developing non-ill will. It resets our default setting to a state of friendliness and kindness. It is said that this kind of goodwill is like a gentle rain falling indiscriminately over everything.

    Cultivating metta is traditionally done through a very specific and systematic practice of inclining the heart towards goodwill and kindness for ourselves and others; those we know and love, those we know but might not love, those we don’t know at all, and ultimately for those we find difficult. 

    When we deliberately tap into our own capacity to wish any amount of goodwill towards anyone, even a little bit, our own pain, discomfort, or struggle is lessened. Even if this happens once or hopefully as it becomes habit, we feel better, our minds are clearer, and we become kinder. We’re more easily able to look into the eyes of the person living on the street, maybe even say hello, and see that were it not for a million different causes and conditions, we, too, could be this person. This is the expansive quality of metta. It levels the playing field.

    Metta Meditation Practice

    In formal practice, one recites metta phrases silently as blessings, intentions or resolves. It can be helpful to visualize yourself (or the person or people to whom you're offering metta) feeling contented, peaceful, and happy while saying the phrases. Sometimes I enjoy putting my hand over the heart center while keeping the image in mind and saying the phrases. This connects the mind and heart directly to the intention of the practice. Try gently smiling, too. It relaxes the body. 

    Outside of meditation, these phrases can be used anytime and anywhere you might feel fear, anger, anxiety or any uncomfortable emotional state. Just saying to yourself “safe and protected,” as you pass by a traffic accident, can bring some ease to the moment.

    Metta practice is not magic. This is important. But offering goodwill calms and stabilizes both the mind and heart, and that is good for everyone.

    Common Metta Phrases

    May I/you be peaceful and happy
    May I/you be safe and protected
    May I/you be healthy and strong
    May my/your life unfold with ease


    May I/you be contented and pleased
    May I/you be protected and safe
    May I/you be gentle and kind
    May I/you meet this moment with ease


Sign up to be notified about new classes & articles

On Purpose:

Stories & Insights from Mindfulness, Dharma,
and Waking Up Each Day

Read Blog