poison naming

The (inner) voice … poised to prey upon your insecurity and guilt…does not require answering.  Naming is enough.  The moment you hear this voice, you must identify precisely who it is – a voice that is dedicated to undermining your newly-achieved (and bravely fought for) commitment to write.

Gail Sher (pg 89), One Continuous Mistake

The external obstacles of practice may be numberless but the internal voices of the critic, the trickster, the false friend, the colluder, the enabler, the fearful are legion.  Some derive their power from their historical presence, some from an insidious compassion, and some from a voracious feeding off our fear, desire, and confusion.  We aren’t used to naming these because for the most part they are deep physiological sensations and also because the experience is a lightning flash with little time to fit words to it.

Sher uses the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood to illustrate her point of naming the disingenuous presence.  The wolf would not have got too far if Red Riding Hood had named it for who it was.  She doesn’t develop the metaphor much but it opened an area of inquiry for me in terms of my tendency to want things to be what I think they should be.  That particular delusional tendency slices both ways: I’d prefer wolfie was granny and I fear that granny is actually wolfie.  Sometimes I’m right – when my practice of discernment is strongly informed by my intuition that something is not quite right about the picture.  Sometimes I’m wrong because I can only see part of the picture and I’m fixated on protecting myself.

I like this quote from Parabola (Facebook):

“There is a part of everything which is unexplored, because we are accustomed to using our eyes only in association with the memory of what people before us have thought of the thing we are looking at. Even the smallest thing has something in it which is unknown.”- Gustave Flaubert

This is a challenge – to name the poison and the panacea outside of memory.  In practice, it shows up in those moments when I can speak to what is holding me back or propelling me forward.  Yet in order to see the unknown in something as familiar yet ineffable as the un-named, I need a new lens.  In a different context, Sher uses the mantra “without memory, without desire, without understanding.”  This helps.

To approach practice without memory is to be released from the old stories of failure or success.  To be without desire is to let go of the need to influence the process.  Sher suggests that to go without understanding means there is the possibility of something new to arise.

For me, however, to go without understanding is to watch the arrogance and greed unable to take hold while service and gratitude arise.

Thank you for practising,


fair to middling

What precisely is the middle way?… (To find it) you have to stay conscious.

One Continuous Mistake, Gail Sher

This postcard has hung for years, pinned to the frame of the window in my study.  Each time I look at it, I feel a mix of fear and calm tumbling through my abdomen.  I wonder sometimes what she’s doing walking down the center line of highway.  At other times, I envy her courage and trust in herself – whatever rounds that bend, she will meet it with equanimity.

There’s a lot of weight place on equanimity in practice.  It is often seen as the lodestone in treading the Middle Path.  Conventionally, equanimity is explained as an even-handed presence to all things arising.  It is the practice of non-discrimination, non-preference, the absence of desire for things to be one way or the other.  I’ve never been much of a fan for equanimity although I do try to cultivate it, a bit like knowing a bowl of hot oatmeal will do good on a cold day but chocolate would be so much better.

Lately however, threaded through my readings for chaplaincy and just plain interest, is a nuanced understanding of the Middle Way.  I think I have taken (and perhaps it is unavoidable given the way it’s verbalized in teachings) the Middle Way as the Mean or Average of the extremes.  Living the Grand Mean, as some statisticians might put it!  Little wonder it has felt like pabulum and has contorted my sense of right and wrong, beneficial and harmful actions.

In Bhikkhu Bodhi’s mind-boggling anthology of the Buddha’s discourses (In the Buddha’s Words), the Potaliya Sutta addresses the pitfalls in sensual pleasures.  (No real meaning in picking that one; the book falls open at random.)  Potaliya asks the Blessed One how to “cut off (the business transactions, designation, speech, and intentions)” of a householder.  The sutta runs along several allegories of letting go, cutting off the attachments through right understanding of their nasty consequences.  Then the Buddha says,

Having seen this thus as it really is with proper wisdom, he avoids the equanimity that is diversified, based on diversity, and develops equanimity that is unified, based on unity.

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s notes explain that “diversity” means the five cords of sensual pleasure and “unity” means the fourth jhana or level of consciousness.  But that isn’t what struck me.  “Equanimity that is diversified” versus “equanimity that is unified” suggested that equanimity itself is not a singular concept.  Balanced practice or the Middle Path is not about “absence of equanimity” versus “presence of equanimity.”  It is the quality of the state of equanimity.  I’m struggling with this concept and attending to the way equanimity is diversified – scattered across all the pleasures, distractions, wanton ways (oh Yes!), equally loving all the things I hate.

Further along in my reading on pastoral ethics (and I so wish that had something to do with meadows and bodice-ripping), this point arose: the challenge of doing good and not doing harm does not lie in the absolute statements of “help… but at least do no harm.”  It is in the middle space between right and wrong.  In Gentle Shepherding: Pastoral Ethics and Leadership, Joseph Bush, Jr. writes:

(E)thics is not solely a matter of philosophical abstraction from life.  Rather, ethics makes contact with life itself, but it does so utilizing the philosophical and theological resources that are accessible to us “in the middle.”

In other words, we are challenged at points that are pivotal in our lives.  Joseph Bush suggests that the middle is where  we are trying to determine what to do, how to act, how to respond beyond the context of what is absolute good or bad, right or wrong.  To push the point a bit further, while we acknowledge the right thing to do, we struggle with what we should do.  Among the many models he discussed, one impacted my thinking most because it broadens the need for practice and deepens the intention.  It categorized actions that we are, as spiritual practitioners, obligated to cultivate:

Do no harm
Prevent harm
Remove (the potential for) harm
Do good

The two middle dimensions of practice he presents are the messy middle ground of being for me.  They call for a willingness to step forward and act with discernment and an inability to know the real outcome.

Sher talks about becoming Olympians of middle-way points.  And it’s not easy because equanimity is more quickly diversified than my mutual funds.

Before figuring it out you must want to figure it out.  After figuring it out you must demonstrate the courage to say “no” to the forces all around you that will tempt you away.  Universities, corporations, the media, spiritual authorities, even friends and family will push you to squelch the part of you that knows.  A tremendous amount of consciousness is required to stay with your hard-earned understanding. (Sher, pp.28)

Thank you for practising,