Friday, July 17, 2020

Good Advice

Recently (SHOCK!) I've learned why advice needs to be open-ended and neutral. 

Or what do butterflies and baby birds have to do with advice?



I used to get irritated if I told someone they needed to eat more kale, broccoli and swiss chard and they ate donuts (or pretend health food like granola and yogurt) instead. My emotional reaction is common amongst parents of adult children, adult children regarding their parents, friends and siblings. 

Someone you care about or are invested in does something that seems obviously unwise (or self-destructive) to you. So, even if they haven't asked you or paid you to tell them, you point it out. 

Then the person to whom you have given this brilliant advice or insight just does their own thing. 

That used to get to me.


There's that thing about helping a baby bird break out of its shell. When the bird emerges on its own, it gains the strength it needs to thrive in its life. When someone helps it, it becomes weak or handicapped. It's the same thing with butterflies. Those "helped" ones die.

When someone takes a decision on their own, they gain a greater sense of control and satisfaction. If I impose my views, I take ownership of their path. That means they trust themselves and their own judgment less. They don't learn what they are meant to learn. They get weaker.

It's like taking your kid's swim test for him/her. Obviously dangerous.

Giving advice or help with neutrality also helps me step away from my ego. I can only draw from my own body of knowledge and perception. I'm a medical intuitive, a health coach, a psychic and a medium but also a human - I am not omniscient. I don't know every possible solution or every possible way to get somewhere. I don't often know all the pieces of the puzzle.

My advice to myself?

If I deliver (asked-for) counsel with neutrality, I allow the person to have agency over their lives and their choices. My advice is not the only information they are using to move forwards. 

If I deliver advice in an open-ended, nonjudgmental way, it is more likely the person will receive it in a way that helps and benefits them. It's not that I don't care what the person does, it's that I do care. 

I have to believe that a person I care about is wise and intelligent.

I want a person I counsel to be happier, healthier, stronger and closer to their joy.

Advice is a gift and a resource. 

Of course, the next steps in releasing my ego (or nafs, if you are a Muslim):

1. Not assuming my advice is the only way
2. Not getting angry if they don't follow my advice in any way
3. Not needing validation or appreciation for my advice
4. Not saying, "I told you so," if their experiences lead to some sort of disappointment (which can be a powerful lesson on its own)
5. Not taking or asking for ownership or credit if their experiences lead to some sort of positive end

If I do any of those five, it's about me. If I need to be right, valued, validated or credited, that's my insecurity. However, I do slip into all of these sometimes.

Notice how other people's problems are transparent and our own are opaque and complex?

So my advice on coaching, advising or counsel?

If you care how it lands - rather than wanting to bully or threaten someone into your point of view - you give it in a way that they can hear it, that they can use it without feeling diminished or controlled, and you give it like any true gift, 

no strings attached.

Please feel free to ignore. 
















Saturday, June 27, 2020

How a Sufi and Healer survives the shutdown and thoughts on Juneteenth

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Ameena Meer,  brand guru, copywriter, holistic practitioner,  and much revered emotional anchor, shares some of her thoughts in our latest Report from the Edge.

T: Being of Indian Muslim descent and grounded deeply in the world of branding and communications you have been incredibly vocal using your voice in numerous groundbreaking campaigns. This is a seminal moment for our society. What are your thoughts?

AM: As the writer, Rachel Cargle says, Black lives matter is not a self-improvement exercise for white people. This moment is a charged and crucial fulcrum. It’s more than a mea culpa on Instagram. Whether racism or tribalism is innate or inherent is not the point. Our personal bias is less important than structural or institutionalized racism. A system that is designed to keep any group of people down hurts everyone. This is about saving people’s lives. And saving humanity. Whether we do it through our governmental or corporate structures, it is essential work. Changing our consciousness is important too, but in a different way.

Our world shifted (and continues to shift) since March. The months in limbo allowed us as a society, to see the racism and injustice that is so deeply rooted in our institutions that it is painful and difficult.

No matter where we land on that experience, influence level and spectrum, we must stand for justice and consciousness in every action. Fortifying ourselves through that process will keep us from fatigue because it is not over.


T: You have always been well-grounded—even during the most complex circumstances. You single-handedly raised three daughters while running a branding agency, you battled and won over an aggressive uterine cancer. What are your emotional strategy and coping mechanism?

AM:  In March, I strengthened my immune system and learned to live with less. My physical response to emotional pressure is juicing and eating lots of raw fruits and vegetables, swimming laps and getting out in nature (which can even be a walk around the block).
In the early part of the shutdown, access to food, juice and supplements was difficult.
Two of my daughters (women in their 20s) panicked, moved in with me and would only leave our two small rooms if it was unavoidable. Even then, they emerged fully covered in masks, goggles and gloves and would not touch anything. My older daughter wasn’t sure if she still had a job, my youngest wasn’t sure if she could go back up to her college. My client-base were all battening down the hatches. We were all concerned with paying bills and staying afloat. Obviously, pools and parks were closed.

The news said that if a family member showed symptoms of the virus, they be isolated in their own bedrooms and bathrooms. As one slept on the sofa and the other with me, our circumstances did not allow any private space.

It was a visceral lesson. We lived a small part of what many working-class or POC communities experienced not just in the pandemic but every day. The combined stress of tight living quarters, fear, lack of access to healthy food, and fresh air create the perfect circumstances for people to become ill. It’s not surprising that a large percentage of people being admitted to hospitals now have been sheltering at home. No surprise that Black, Native American, and Latinx communities are being decimated because they suffer from the illnesses often ignited by overworked nervous systems.

I terrified my kids by taking long walks every day. Eventually, they started coming with me.

Bodies respond to the sun, the water, the air, plants and animals. Studies show that being in the elements – even if the weather is miserable and the experience unpleasant – quiets your nervous system, increases your ability to focus, strengthens your memory and brightens your mood. Like others with more melanin in their skin (and I only have slightly more), I need even more sunshine to create vitamin d3 to strengthen my immune system.
 
Diesel Reboot Campaign 
T: What is most important?

 AM: To combine what brings you mind-body-soul into a state of health and vitality with being conscious of the lives of others. We all benefit from unplugging and retreating into ourselves sometimes but if we have the resources, if we have the privilege, if we have the platform, we need to come back out and use them to help others.

If you’re an activist, protect yourself and allow yourself to recharge so that you don’t burn out or become discouraged. If you’re black person or a person of color who lives with racism, allow yourself to retreat from the news and social media, especially if the amplification of violence on top of financial concerns is triggering. If you’re an ally or an accomplice, reach out to others who can help you on your path and be sure to give yourself compassion too as you re-examine and dismantle. Ask yourself why you, perhaps unconsciously, chose to be blind to these realities. As a Muslim accomplice and a person of color myself, I work on listening and reflecting back what my black brothers and sisters are experiencing, being a bridge between communities but also connecting with my own heart.

Also, food DOES matter. Make good choices. It affects our immediate moods and our long-term vitality.
T: What is overrated?

AM: Worrying about the ways we can get sick or hurt. Instead, spend more time learning how to get well. In our state of fear, we have shut down Naturopaths, Herbalists, Homeopaths, natural and traditional healers who have much to teach us. The earth is showing us that we are not invincible and we cannot control it. We are rushing around looking for a short term solution, a way to bubble wrap ourselves temporarily rather than planning how to survive the natural disasters to come. We need to come together as human beings and think about the long term health of our entire species. That means creating healthful living conditions for all of us, across culture, country, race, gender, and economic levels. Those healthful conditions include mental and emotional health. Keeping entire groups of people in a state of fear and tension will make us all more vulnerable. Latex gloves, masks, hand sanitizers can never protect as well as consciously strengthening our immune systems. Vaccines might protect us against this virus but what will happen when the next one comes? If people have resilience, let’s learn how to bring that to all of us.

For my body, TV in general, especially the news, is the wrong medicine. I try not to read constant information about the virus or the violence as that can be addicting. For me, that sucks me into anxiety and I lose my own inner compass. And an extrovert, Zoom meetings make me feel even more isolated. (Plus looking at my own face so much is disturbing).
 
T: Do you have a mantra?

AM:
 I’m a Sufi Muslim so chanting  - even internally – is really a part of me. I have a Sufi chant, “La illaha il Allah.” The literal translation is “there is no God but God.” It’s about remembering that we are all one. My breath represents the breath of the planet. I inhale the trees and plants and they inhale me. All beings are part of me. I am responsible for them as they are responsible for me. When one being suffers, we all suffer. It sounds a little Dr. Bronner, but that’s what works.

T: What do you do when you are feeling adrift?

AM: I always have prayer beads. When I get lost or sad or angry, I have trouble staying in my breath and my body. I keep leaping into thought loops. So I repeat the phrase on each bead while I walk or sit, making the experience of being connected to all life palpable.
T: Tell us about your mediation practice.

AM:
 As a meditation teacher, I know meditation is crucial to creating space in your psyche. In the midst of chaos, I prefer a walking meditation. My mind gets too busy to sit on a cushion. After 30 years in NYC, I easily walk several miles a day. A walking meditation means constantly getting your attention out of your mind and back into your body. It’s like training a puppy. You walk, you breath, you feel each footstep. You allow all sensory input to enter but you don’t judge or run with it. Of course, because we are human, our thoughts start popping back in again. Every time we notice that we’ve drifted off, we bring our attention back to our breath, our footsteps or chant. Or the sound of the birds or cars or wind. The scents. The sensations. If I could swim, I would because repetitive action is great for meditation. The secret is giving that busy mind something to play with while you focus on feeling the connection with all life. It’s not about cutting yourself off. That connection will help keep you active and engaged.

T: Have you been able to work during the COVID-19 period?

AM: I’m lucky I have so many aspects to my work. I can work on brand strategy and copywriting from anywhere. I’ve always championed anti-racism, integrity and authenticity so it’s a joy for me to see brands, businesses and corporate structures starting to wake up. (Though it’s just a start, we owe a lot to our consumers, we need to give back too).  I also work as an intuitive, an energy healer, and a health coach. I do readings or distance energy work over the phone. A lot of people need guidance, insight, and reassurance right now. That said, I love my bodywork practice  – I am really sad not to be able to connect with people physically. I miss all my amazing, inspiring clients and friends.
T: What is your advice for people working from home and isolated from others?

AM: 
Whether you are working from home, back at work or working on social activism, COVID-19 helped us learn to go inside. Not just inside our homes, but inside our souls. We learned that our strength is inside ourselves. A practice of connecting with that Source that is both inside us and in the world, is our best resource. If you have a houseful of kids and pets and adults, how do you find that space despite the distraction? That is mindfulness. In parts of the world where people live close to each other, they are forced to cultivate their inner space. For me in Venice, it’s a walk outside, appreciating whatever nature I experience, sending love and compassion to all beings. It can also be clearing that space inside yourself – while you are cooking, cleaning, homeschooling or entertaining. Clearing is completely is hard but, what you will gain will be a powerful tool for what you do next. It allows you to retreat.

One way to meditate in the midst of busyness is to bring all of your attention to what you are doing. If you are cooking or washing dishes, do it with all of your senses. Clock everything that is happening in your body. Clock your thoughts, without following them. Clock your emotions. I tell people to pay attention to emotions and sensations that come up “without making a story about them.” That means don’t try to figure out why these things arise. Just notice that they are.

T: What can you share with other creatives who are trying to find their equilibrium?

AM: Be tender with yourself. If disappointment or sadness surges in or anger takes hold, there may be time where you get nothing done. That’s ok. Just because you fall off the wagon doesn’t mean you can’t get back on. Be conscious of what you are consuming. Current affairs may not be too hard for your body to process. Or take in a little at a time and sit with it. Sit with your discomfort. Be conscious of what you are eating. Eat more vegetables and drink more water. Many of us can’t afford to overhaul our diets or throw away everything in our cupboards right now, but bring awareness to your choices.

Be gentle with yourself but also be careful not to wallow. You may feel like you are in a hole, but don’t live there. Write, read, exercise, make art and do whatever it takes to get back in the world. We are being given so many opportunities for activism these days. If you’re having a bad day, reach out to your compassion team – have a group of friends you count on - they can help you get back up.
Illustration by Izak Zenou © 2020
One of the main things we are learning in this time is why we are here and what we can do to help others. Working on compassion for the suffering of others is crucial to every one of us – but we need to learn how to do it without selflessness, without losing our love for ourselves. Uncovering our own shadows with love and gentleness will help us bring in more light.

I find myself working with so many people who are using this time to understand their life’s purpose. Your life purpose may not be your job. It may not even be about doing something. It may be simply about being something. You incarnated into this body, into this time, on to this planet for a reason. Once you connect with why you are here, it becomes easier to have patience and see the big picture.

No matter what, wash your hands. Be awake. Be kind. Be well and be safe.

Ameena 




Click here to see more of Ameena's work.
If you would love to work with her please contact
  michelleve@traffic-nyc.com.
And don't forget to follow her on Instagram at @brandwallah & @fearlesshealing


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Thursday, April 2, 2020

The C-Word: Recalibration, Reconnection and Revitalization

My oldest daughter, Sasha, said to us this morning, "Hey, corona virus is over."

Both my youngest daughter, Rara, and myself stared at her. We were in the vast emptiness and quintessential Western landscape of Joshua Tree. Staying in an airbnb that is a run down old house with a coat of paint and made habitable with stuff from Walmart. 

Rara by the pool





The roads are dusty and designed for the occasional pick-up trucks that speed down them. The sun is hot and harsh and the open spaces are dotted with Dr. Seuss-type "trees," cactus and shrubs. Rabbits hop in and out of view. In the rare but wide-spreading trees, birds cluster and chirp at the top of their voices. 

Standing in the reflected glare of the concrete pool, I felt a sudden ease. A weight lifted off me. 

I said, "Wait, what?" 

I don't even remember if Rara said anything.  Sasha turned around and wrinkled her nose. squinting in the sunlight at us. She said, "April fools."

We were all silent. 

In the desert, the massive sky weighs more. In the cold night, it is heavy with sparkling stars. It is easy to feel connected to the breath and rhythm of nature here. 

Nature is recalibrating us. It is reminding us that we are all connected to each other. That borders, races, faiths, beliefs are human-created separations. We are just one of the species or families of living beings who rely on this planet to feed and shelter us. In order to survive, we must rely on each other. We must learn to respect not only every human life but every other kind of life. 

What's interesting to me about the new social or physical distancing rules is that it forces us to see other people as few humans. To step off or on the sidewalk or out of a supermarket aisle to allow someone else their 6 feet of safety means that you must acknowledge another person's presence. One can't just pretend that the other person is an object. 

On our video conferences, we see into other people's living rooms. We hear their families or pets. In some ways, we become even closer even as we crave the touch and scent of other humans. We are social animals and this is a deeply difficult exercise for us. 

I have moments where I find having to stare at a screen, whether to shop, connect or learn, irritating and unsatisfying. The wrong medicine for me. I don't answer texts or emails sometimes because I can't bear to look at my phone or my laptop. I don't want to talk on the phone, I want to have a cup of tea or a drink with a real person in a different setting. 

On April fools' day, I considered the idea that this state is the new normal. That life for the next month or several months involves little to no social interaction, except for trips to the supermarket or for me, the cold-pressed juice place I love. (Fortunately, food shopping no longer turns into panic buying of things one doesn't need. While most stores are sold out of many things - toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning products - there is lots of fresh produce. Most places have re-stocked their soups, beans, rice and pasta.) 

As incomes dip, we are all learning what we don't need. Learning to make do with what we already have. And as the Native Americans or many indigenous peoples teach, we are learning to leave something for others. 

For me, the exercise of Metta meditation is a powerful way to remind myself of my connection with others and myself. As an intuitive, I already know that we are all connected - that physical distance and time are also constructs. 

Metta, if you don't already practice, is translated from Pali (the original language of the Buddha) as "loving kindness." In today's world, that translation feels saccharine. A more palatable translation might be compassion. A compassion that is neither pity nor selflessness because it includes yourself in the process. 

It is also a great meditation for busy-mind non-meditating people. People who say, "I'm a do-er. I can't meditate." Or "As soon as I start trying to meditate, my mind just goes crazy." Metta works for us because it involves bringing images to mind and repeating phrases. It basically gives your overactive mind something to play with so the rest of you can spread out into the spaciousness of meditation. 

Different teachers and practitioners have different variations on the four phrases but here are the ones I like the best:

May I/you be happy
May I/you be healthy
May I/you be safe
May I/you live with ease (or be peaceful)

Finally, a Metta meditation is a revitalizing experience. It makes our connection with the life force in all beings into visceral reality.

Here it is. Feel free to listen as often as you like and/or share it with others. 


Again, I thank Jackson Nazario for his help with the recordings.









Saturday, March 28, 2020

C-Word: You'll see it when you believe it

Guided visualizations have been shown to be surprisingly effective with a number of illnesses, cancer amongst them. I know a number of people who have shrunk tumors to zero. They have also been successful with multiple sclerosis, infections and recovering from brain and physical damage.

Famous amongst people who have healed their bodies with their minds are Joe Dispenza who almost miraculously recovered from an accident to regain full use of his body. He leads workshops that teach people how to meditate (using his guided visualizations) to heal themselves.

Along with working people on diet, supplements, lifestyle changes and unlocking trauma in their bodies, I give them a guided visualization meditation session. It is a mindfulness-based meditation inspired by the teachings of Jonathan Kabat-Zinn whose MBSR meditations have shown great success with people in chemotherapy and other treatments.

The guided visualization I do has multiple uses in my practice.

1. As medical intuitive, it allows me to travel inside their bodies, little by little, and bring awareness and light to what is happening and to see what imagery the body shows me.

2. It allows the client to reconnect with their bodies and their life force so they can notice places where their muscles, organs or tissues are out of resonance.

3. It gives the clients an opportunity to experience a guided meditation practice that he/she could use again and again when on his/her own.

It can also be a useful tool in strengthening the immune system against pathogens and harmful external forces whether those are the effects of radiation or chemotherapy or bacteria and viruses, from Lyme disease to Corona Virus.

I've discovered almost miraculous healing in my clients that surprises their doctors and also makes them happier. It can give you a sense of control over an illness as well as your body.

Given the current financial struggle many of us are facing, I wanted to offer a healing meditation to anyone who wants to work on healing an illness, strengthening their immune systems or simply finding a greater sense of connection with the body.

Right now, when resources are scarce, it's nice to find something you can do that costs nothing, doesn't require any extra tools or training and is also highly effective.

Healing and health challenge meditation

It is free. Please share it with anyone who might find it useful.




Sunday, March 22, 2020

Love in the time of Cholera

If you are walking around with your chest tight or your stomach in knots, that isn't surprising. Thursday was the first day of Spring and it feels like the world's gone crazy.


Thank you for sharing this gorgeous collage, Rachel Urquhart www.ponygoldstudio.com


In NYC, Karachi and LA, the city is on lockdown. Every business - apart from grocery stores, pharmacies and hospitals - is closed. People are working from home and have been told to "shelter in place" - not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary. People with kids feel like they are bouncing off the walls. I've spoken to teachers and they hate the idea that their students are now going to have even MORE screen time.

No one knows how long it will last. Two weeks? 6 months? Will you get sick? Will someone you love get sick? What IS this virus? How can washing my hands possibly be enough?

The first day of spring is New Year's day in Iran (the second worst hit country after China), it's called Norouz or Nowruz.


It's a celebration of the earth's return to life. Of the light returning, of the flow of energy increasing. It might feel hard to celebrate when you are not allowed to meet friends or go to group events or - in some cases, if you are quarantined in a place without a private outdoor space - even go outside.

Instead, we are only wondering how long we are going to live like this.

On instagram, I keep posting anti-viral home remedies, but many people get angry saying these "magic potions" will not help us and will make us sick. There was one theory that our exposure to 5G has so taxed our bodies that people without resilience to electromagnetic shifts were either catching or creating the virus in their bodies. That also made a lot of people angry.

There are a lot of factors impacting our health. We need to examine all of them. There are a lot of things that can make us healthier. We need to think about them too.

Let me clarify - yes, wash your hands, isolate for enough time for them to see if it impacts infections, don't think that ginger and turmeric will allow you to go to parties (and even if it protects you from showing symptoms, it might cause others to become ill). Wash your clothes and sheets. Do NOT take massive doses of turmeric, ginger, oil of oregano OR acetaminophen or off-label pharmaceuticals. Too much of anything can be hard on your organs.

But also - take time to breathe. Walk in nature. Be kind to others - animals, people, plants - no matter who they are and where they come from. Nature is recalibrating us. Let's figure out how to work with where we are now. Practice being patient in uncomfortable situations. Practice disagreeing with someone without taking it personally. Remember that there is enough. There is always enough. Ask for help when you need it. You are supported. You are loved.

Please don't smoke.

All of those things are actually proven to strengthen your immune system

If you are having trouble managing the collective panic. Try short meditations. If you have difficulty sitting still for 15 or 20 minutes, try a guided one.

I've recorded one here with help from Jackson Nazario, a young musician and sound engineer:

Feel free to download it and share it.

The silver lining? The air is cleaner, the water is clearer. Kids are drawing on the sidewalk with chalk and hanging pictures of rainbows all over the neighborhood.

Jackson's got a song to make you feel better too.

Be well, my friends.




Monday, August 13, 2018

The Four Noble Truths and My Stomach

Buddhism dovetails with Sufism


On Monday morning, after several cups of tea, some MCT oil and macadamia nuts, I felt a tightening in my stomach. I drank some water but it didn't make much difference. I tried to ignore it and work. Not possible. I bent over to get the laundry from the washer and got so dizzy I had to grip the wall to keep from falling down. As the pain intensified, a cold sweat drenched my clothes. I collapsed on the floor on my meditation cushion moaning.

30 minutes later - and a lot of stomach massage and elimination - it was gone. I drank a lot of water and then went to swim laps. Probably food poisoning or an allergic reaction. However, quite possibly the worst pain I've experienced since I was in labor 20 years' ago. And I have a high pain tolerance.

For my meditation teacher training at the Interdependence Project, I have to give a talk on the Four Noble Truths. These are the basis for all Buddhist practice as well as the first teachings given by the Buddha about 2600 years' ago. Like the majority of the most powerful learnings in the world, these are deceptively simple. Read the 3 (or four) laws of thermodynamics - energy is neither created nor destroyed. Or Einstein's e=mc squared. Descartes, I think therefore I am (though I might argue with that one).

I am finding, in my studies, that so much of the teachings of Buddhism dovetail neatly into Sufism (and Muslim) thought in that the main message is compassion for oneself and others.

The Dalai Lama practices with the Sufis


Also that the deepest truths are often the most obvious.

Noble Truth #1

Life involves suffering. 

So simple. Some people interpret that as "life is suffering," others say, "there is suffering" or "suffering exists," or "I am suffering." Like all simple phrases, the interpretations are endless. My experience is that life in this human form involves suffering, across the board. The extent and kind of the suffering is different for different people, but our personal suffering is connected with all suffering.

To put it into context, Buddha (the historical person called Siddhartha Gautama) was an Indian prince who had been shielded from all suffering by his family. His mother died from the complications of childbirth, so his father decided to keep him in an opulent palace to protect him. You know those kids, you see them in the Hamptons or Lake Cuomo or Gstaad.

Siddhartha was a bright and curious guy so one day, he snuck out of the palace grounds and took a trip to the South Bronx in the 80s (metaphor is mine). He saw suffering - a dying person, a sick person and a very old person. Siddhartha was shocked to discover that aging, illness and death were  inevitable.

In response, he decided to become a monk and meditate until he found a way out.

Easy-peasy truth. Life is suffering.

But maybe you read or hear that and think, "Sure, but I'm not really suffering. I have a pretty good life and I'm generally a happy person." (Which is what I thought).

I live in a pleasant part of the first world. I have access to clean water, clean air, medical care, organic food, transportation. I have a roof over my head, running drinkable water, heat and air conditioning, electricity, internet. Big windows. My family is safe. My children had access to education. They have friends. They are healthy. My parents and my brother and his wife and their kids have access to the same. We can practice our faith with relative freedom. We have shoes and clothes and books for days. Even years.

So think about it this way - replace "suffering" with "stress."

Who do you know who is NOT stressed these days? Maybe not all the time, but definitely a lot of the time.

I have this imaginary ideal person - a herb farmer living the ideal life in the countryside, growing biodynamic flowers and surfing on the weekends (the life I secretly want to have, maybe in Australia, where I have never been). But even for her, there is probably stress of some kind. Herb-eating bugs, perhaps? Sick sheep or a water leak in her drying room?

Here's how the Dhammakapavattana Sutta (the first teaching, or the "setting in motion of the spiritual wheel") expresses that thought (translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu):

"Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress:[1] Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

IRL, there's an incredible herbalist I know. She has a beautiful little farm and creates wonderful tinctures and salves. But her mother is ill and faraway and she has to travel long distances to see her. She has to find people to work on her farm while she is traveling. She worries about her mother a lot of the time. She thinks about how she is going to say goodbye.

I am sure she suffers in other ways, too. Tragically, her ideal life is not immune to stress or suffering.

That brings me back to my stomach ache. Here I am, saying I am suffering-free, but I still collapse on the floor in pain. Plus I definitely deal with my own pain and disappointments and stress (construction, contractors, landlords, friends, clients, not to mention my parents and kids).

Even if I managed to stave off aging and illness or even my own death, others I love are likely to die. I gave birth a few times and it did involve suffering.

But even if I skip those big sufferings. There are tiny points of pain all the time.

Amy Miller, a Buddhist nun of Philadelphia provence, explained it this way, "There are so many kinds of suffering - loneliness, rising high and then falling low, meeting something or someone you don't want to, parting from someone you don't want to leave. There is suffering when you face uncertainty, the suffering you feel in the face of impermanence or change." (This was at the Shantideva Center in Prospect Park).

Let's expand our perspective to include people all around us - obviously, in other parts of the city or other parts of the world, there are people who have fewer resources, who face harder living conditions or those amongst us who have terrible illness and obstacles whether physical, mental or emotional.

Yes. There is suffering - from the top of society to the bottom.

Noble Truth #2

There is a cause to the suffering.

Yep. No sh__, Sherlock. LOTS OF CAUSES!

It's my job, it's my husband (or wife), my kids, my boss or my bad-vibe colleagues. It's because my parents messed me up. It's the economy. It's the traffic, the terrible president, it's the fact that I am addicted to donuts/coffee/heroin. It's the expired MCT oil that gave me a stomach ache!

But of course, there are other translations of that truth. In the translation of the Dhammakapavattana Sutta, that truth is called the "Origin of Stress."  It's also called "The Root of Suffering."

According Gil Fronsdal, who does a good job putting the four noble truths into context, it's called "The Arising of Suffering."

In the frame of Buddhist thought - as Gil Fronsdal explains - all suffering comes from (gasp) OURSELVES. All those supposed "causes," for instance, why we eat the donuts every day, are actually "conditions" of our suffering.

He says it like this: If you are trying to lose weight or eat less sugar and every day you can not find a way to resist the donuts in the coffee shop, the DONUTS are not really the cause of your weight gain or addiction.

You can change the conditions by going to a different coffee shop that does not sell donuts. You can bring coffee from home. You can skip drinking coffee all together. You can buy something else from the coffee shop or only bring enough money with you for coffee. Or you can not open your mouth and put the donuts in.

The actions that lead you to the donuts are the conditions. But the reality is that the obsession with donuts is your own craving.

According to Amy Miller, there are two causes of suffering - one is your own mind and the other is negative action in your past life.

You've probably heard this in a lot of New Age teachings (or my other blog posts) but one of the things that you might notice is that your suffering or discomfort is relative.

For instance, if you have just won the lottery or just fallen in love and your parking lot attendant stops you on the street to tell you that he's very sorry but he crashed your car into a post - you might be ok with it.

On the other hand, if you've just been laid off from your job or your dog died and the same thing happens, you'd be irate. Or feel like the whole world hates you.

The level of your suffering will be different.

In some circles, they might interpret this as - YOU are responsible for your own suffering so you just need to buck up and get over it. Don't worry. Be happy.

And if it's from a past life, well, that's just it. Too late now.

IMHO, that's not exactly what Buddha was saying here.

For instance, did my stomach ache come from my mind? Could I have just been a little more cheerful and not have a stomach ache? Was I cruel to an insect or small animal in my past life and now my abdomen was making amends?

Another interpretation is that suffering comes from cravings and desires. For instance, the desire for physical pleasure, the desire for delicious food, the desire to feel superior to others (like when you are seated in first class and watching all the other passengers file back into economy), the desire to have more.

Still a third way to look at suffering is dissatisfaction. Alan Watts describes it that way. The traffic light is red and you want it to be green. You're late and you keep hitting all the red lights on the way. Or all the DON'T WALK signs when the subway was delayed.

Dissatisfaction is a reaction to what is. Your metabolism. Your height. Your partner. Your bad knees. The weather. The way you were brought up. Maybe someone you love died and you didn't want him to. That's understandable, but it can be qualified as dissatisfaction or discontent.

If you've taken the Landmark Forum courses, you know that dissatisfaction with "what is" is considered the main cause of suffering.

Which also brings up two Buddhist ideas - emptiness or interconnectedness. Weird that those two things would go together. Amy Miller described emptiness as the understanding that nothing has an inherent nature. Nothing is good or bad in itself. A donut alone in a forest does no harm.

Or as Gil Fronsdal would say, every desire has a root.

So Gil described his desire for a beautiful sportscar. Exploring that, he realized that he wanted the car because it would make him look more successful, feed his ego. The car was neither good or bad, right or wrong.

The root might be (as both Amy and Gil say), getting attached to our "story," the meaning that we attach to it. It doesn't mean there is nothing there - it means that what's there is there and nothing more. Seeing the causes of your suffering as something other than your own self is your story.

"I can't make plans because my husband and kids are always doing last-minute things so I just give up." Or "I can't get a job because everyone thinks I'm too fat and I can't lose weight because there are always cookies and junk food around my house."

When we do that we make the "conditions" of our suffering the reasons or the root.

The other idea is Impermanence.

The first, as anyone who has lived in NYC can attest, is the nature of life. Seems like every time you turn the corner, your favorite restaurant is gone and there's a totally new condo building in the place of your parking lot. Your best neighbors move to New Jersey. Despite your best efforts, your kids grow up. Your parents get older. It's sad.

The material world is all about change.

Noble Truth #3

There is a way to end suffering.

The truth is, you can't change the universe, but you can change yourself.

And if you can change yourself, maybe you can change your suffering. Thinking back to my stomach ache, this is an appealing idea. I was in such intense pain that I couldn't imagine anything else.

The translation from Thanissaro Bhikku is as follows:

"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of stress: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving.

This probably the simplest of the Four Truths, but also the most pleasant one. You are in pain and the doctor says, "I can tell you exactly what to do."

All these stupid things that make us suffer have a "cure."

This is what one is taught in the Landmark Forum. One can't avoid "what is," but one might be able to avoid some of the suffering that it causes.

A little aside. Pain - the discharging of nerve endings - cannot be avoided. However, how you feel and react to that pain (suffering or not), is mutable.

Noble Truth #4

The Path to Ending Suffering


The Eightfold Path fits well with a Sufi perspective, too


The way one frees oneself from suffering and reaches "liberation" or nirvana is called the Eight-Fold Path. Basically, the Buddha taught there were 8 steps to avoiding suffering. They all involve the word "right" which means "accurate" rather than the opposite of wrong. It is also translated as "wholesome" in Thich Nhat Hanh's explanation. "Right" also means in accordance with the Buddhist ideas of impermanence, emptiness and interdependence (creating positive impact on yourself and the world with as little harm as possible to other beings).

The list, briefly:

1. Right Understanding
2. Right Thought
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness/Recollection
8. Right Concentration/Meditation

The things you do to avoid suffering are really about not causing suffering to others and coming to terms with your own suffering in every single aspect of your life.

How you understand, how you think, what you say, what you do, your job, what you try to accomplish, what you hold on to and how you meditate - all of those will affect your ability to manage stress, pain, sadness and discomfort.

Many people think, "Why would the essential teaching of a faith or a school of thought focus on the bleakest parts of life?"

The goal of the first Buddhist teaching is to give you tools to manage those bleak parts so that you can fully enjoy or be present to the good parts.

Acknowledge your own suffering. Explore it. Feel it. Give yourself love and compassion for it.

Forget measuring it against anyone else's suffering or situation. Just be with what arises for yourself.

Because you can only release your own pain when you have admitted that it's there.

Don't even try and change anything until you've done that. When you have taken the time to embrace your suffering like a baby, as Thich Nhat Hanh, describes it, you can let it go. When you take the time to see what is making your baby cry, you can address it. While your baby is crying, it's hard to see anyone else clearly.

Once your suffering is realized, take a minute to realize that if you are suffering, so is everyone else.

And you are connected to everyone else. Your next job is to alleviate or at least not inflame the suffering of those around you.

Gradually, my stomach ache subsided. I threw the whole bottle of MCT oil in the garbage and got back to work.


Useful for Meditation Teacher Training Class!