Without the story, where is the problem?

I once flew down to Peter Island, and as I arrived at the hotel, the manager received me with a tall, iced rum cocktail and a heavy dose of frustration and annoyance. She shook her head and said, “Didn’t you check the weather? There’s a hurricane coming, and we’re sending all the guests home tomorrow.” She was really embarrassed for me, but I chuckled a bit at her discomfort—I was the one who had to schlep back to New York without having a lovely Caribbean dive trip, not her!

The next day on the ferry ride to the airport, the other hotel guests assumed I’d been down there for several days like they had, and not wanting to deal with their pity or even self-congratulations that at least they’d have 4 or 5 good days, I didn’t mention that’d I’d just arrived the day before.

Several hours later, back at JFK, I made a call while waiting at the baggage claim. I had just started dating a guy and thought we could go to dinner. I’d met him at work, installing a piece of software on his computer. We’d been flirting for a few weeks, and gone on a first date just a few days earlier. It had ended with a kiss that, well, had a lot of fireworks, so I thought seeing him would be a fun consolation prize. This was pre-cellphone days, so I called Information for his number, and then upon calling him, an answering machine picked up. A young woman cheerfully let the caller know that the two of them weren’t home. I don’t recall her words, but it was obvious she was not a flatmate or a relative, they were a couple. I was shocked that he not only had a girlfriend, but that they lived together! Now the evasive way he responded to my assumption that he lived alone made much more sense. I know I’m a glass half-full person, but I thought this revelation alone was worth the trip!

When I returned to work, I didn’t explain to my co-workers why I was back from vacation early. I was new and didn’t know anyone really well yet, but even so, I could see there was still an opportunity to make a big story about my disastrous trip—all the time and money wasted traveling there and back, the disappointment of not getting to scuba dive, and most of all, the idiocy of not knowing to check the weather before flying to the Caribbean during hurricane season. There was even more opportunity to tell the story about that guy over in Accounting I’d gone on a date with who, turns out, has a girlfriend! But instead, I simply didn’t tell any of these stories. I’d been meditating for several years, and the mind simply didn’t have the drive to tell these stories. I just did my job as per normal, and everything was calm. I didn’t tell these stories to my co-workers, and more importantly, I didn’t tell them to myself, and I literally, and happily, forgot about all of it. What I noticed is that without the story of disappointment, there was no disappointment. Without the story of embarrassment, there was no embarrassment. Without the story of frustration, there was no frustration.

It was after this incident that I became acutely aware that we have the option to tell stories or not. And if we don’t tell them, they don’t exist. It was a moment of recognition of how we make our world with our thoughts. The experience existed, the credit card bill existed, but all the drama around it simply wasn’t there, because I didn’t tell the story. It was a really powerful moment of watching no story arise, and observing how silent and blissful that no-story was.

“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” Dhammapada, The Sayings of the Buddha, Thomas Byrom translation

Who Has Ever Gone Beyond

The student asked the Buddha: “Why is it that wise women and men in the world—priestesses, rulers, and others—always offer sacrifices to the gods?”

The Buddha answered: “They offer things to the gods because as they get older they want to keep their lives as they are and have no misfortunes.”

“But, Buddha, does it ever make any difference to their old age by making these careful offerings?”

“Their prayers and praises and offerings and hopes are all made on the basis of possessions, rewards, and longings for pleasure. These experts in prayer are longing to continue becoming. But it will make no difference to their old age.”

“Please tell me, Buddha, if all the offerings from these experts don’t get them beyond old age, then who has ever gone beyond?”

The Buddha said: “When a person has thoroughly understood the world, from top to bottom, when there is nothing in the world that agitates them anymore, then they have become somebody who is free from confusion and fears and tremblings and the longings of desire. They have gone beyond getting old and beyond birth and death.”

—Sutta Nipata, from The Pocket Buddha Reader

Choices

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.
Dhammapada, The Sayings of the Buddha, Thomas Byrom translation

Serious Meditator’s Gift Guide for Yourself

Please note I’m not receiving payment for any of these recommendations; these are simply things I like and use.

A Great Cushion Set. I like the ones from DharmaCrafts, and particularly like the zafus filled with buckwheat hulls. If you sit in half-lotus or cross-legged, the cushions with buckwheat hulls are great because they conform to your shape and prevent your legs from falling asleep. They also have a quiz to help you find which kind of cushion or bench is right for you. I love how many fabrics and patterns are available these days.

An iPod or other music player. You may say what the heck, why not just use my phone?! The deal is our phones have so much crap energy with apps, news, emails, texts…yuck! I don’t want any of that noise near my meditation, so I have a specific music player I use just for meditating. A fun extra with the iPod is you can have the back engraved with your favorite mantra, like om mani padme hum, which means the jewel in the lotus, and is a poetic way of saying that enlightenment is inside you, and indeed, inside everyone and everything!

A Great Pair of Headphones (or Earbuds) that you use just for meditation. I personally prefer headphones over earbuds. The sound quality of headphones is superior to earbuds, plus I don’t like having anything in my ears while I meditate. It’s similar to how jewelry you wear throughout the day becomes almost unbearable to have on while you’re meditating. That said, this is definitely an instance of personal preference (see the A-frame story)! Indeed, one of my best friends can’t believe I want those heavy old things on my head while I meditate. You can find extensive recommendations on Wirecutter for all kinds of great headphones and earbuds.

A Bell. My dear friend Ben says that if he walks into another room and forgets what he was about to do, he just walks back to the place where he was thinking the thought and picks it back up. Our thoughts leave impressions, so walking back into his old thought bubble, he picks the thread back up. But what if you don’t want all your old thoughts and dreams around? A bell is a great (and fascinating) way to clear them out of your space and mind. When you first ring a bell in a space, it will warble, but as you continue to clear the space, the ring becomes clearer and clearer until it rings precisely with no warble. At that point, you’ll find your room sparkles, and your mind is emptier and brighter. A good bell won’t make you enlightened, but it will make your life much easier! Check out Karen Kingston to learn more on this topic.

The A-frame Story (or Ditch Self-Righteousness)

Several years ago I was driving in northern New Mexico with a friend and as we passed an A-frame house she exclaimed, “There’s just something *so wrong* with A-frames! The energy of them is all wrong.” And while I didn’t feel as strongly as she did, I did agree. As a kid, I’d spent the night in an A-frame and felt weird the entire time. Something about the roof line felt oppressive and I couldn’t wait for our family to leave. 

Not long thereafter, another friend of mine mentioned how A-frames have such great energy, and that they are *perfect* for people who meditate. I chuckled that people could have such strong feelings about A-frames (who knew?), but what really struck me was that these meditators, both of whom had been on the spiritual path for many years, had such contrasting perceptions. It highlighted that neither was right, rather the feeling created by the architecture worked for one of them, but not the other.  

The value of this story is to not extrapolate that what works for you, works for everyone. There’s not one way to approach the spiritual path, and the truth is you don’t know what is best for others on their journey! So don’t waste your energy inflicting your opinions on others, instead, enjoy the emptiness of not knowing. Right now, as an experiment, say, “I don’t know.” Can you feel the bliss of letting go of ideas and agendas, and not knowing?

We are more alike than unalike

“I’m often asked [a] question, and it always irks me. It starts like this, ‘Coming from two such different cultures–Scotland and Sierra Leone…’ I will often say to the interviewer, ‘Have you ever been to Sierra Leone?’ They’ll say, ‘No.’ So I say, ‘How do you know they’re so different?’ The two countries are actually strikingly similar. Let’s take my grandfathers in my Scottish and Sierra Leonean families: they were both not happy with my parents’ marriage; both are tall, thin, very athletic men; one is Scottish Presbyterian and the other one is Muslim, but both are very religious; both are highly patriarchal; and both had a tendency to indulge me as a child. These two men, from different places in the world, were – to me – almost exactly the same. If you can see that, then you can see that people are the same; but the presumption of difference that arises simply because we are talking about different colors and different continents, is where we start to go wrong.” — the author Aminatta Forna

Then, of course, beneath all bodies, all continents, beneath this physical reality, there’s just light. We are all made of the same light.

Reading, Rereading, Loving

Reading

Highly recommend the Three Jewels of Awakening to anyone who is a spiritual student or teacher! It’s the best, most concise book I’ve seen on how to engage correctly with the spiritual path, so that you keep your journey sacred and precious. And though it’s a small part of the book, what may be most valuable is the discussion on the traps both students and teachers can fall into. If you really hear these words, they can save you a lot of time and pain on the path!

As someone who has taught for many years, I personally chuckled in recognition at this advice to teachers: Many people will put you on a pedestal when you teach, and later, they will attempt to tear you down….Be unmoved by people’s opinion of you. You will be praised and you will be blamed, loved and hated, clung to and shoved away. Don’t fall for it! These are normal reactions of a student’s ego, especially when it’s under duress as the spiritual aspirant seeks to subdue its authority in favor of freedom. Be still either way. Let them do what they will while you remain centered.

*

When I was a young student, I read over and over again the teaching stories in The Snow Lion’s Turquoise Mane, and in particular fell in love with the stories about Patrul Rinpoche. The bright and funny way he called bullshit on sectarianism and hypocrisy reminded me so much of my own teacher. I recently found the 2017 book Enlightened Vagabond: The Life and Teachings of Patrul Rinpoche and really loved reading even more about this great enlightened teacher.

Some of my other favorite collections of teaching stories are Wisdom’s Blossoms: Tales of the Saints of India and Zen Antics.

Rereading

Every year or so I reread my favs. There are many great books about the life of the historical Buddha, but A Life of the Buddha (previously entitled The Awakened One) is my favorite. It’s very clean and bright.

I’ve read Autobiography of a Yogi an absurd number of times. If you haven’t read it, run, don’t walk to get a copy!

 

I have a great heart connection to Sri Ramakrishna, and read about him year round. I’ll open The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna most weekends and read a few pages. If you ever feel bad, you can read a few pages of this book and be lifted above the world. The energy in it is very powerful.

Live in an area with good energy

Pink FlwrsWhere you choose to live is extremely important. There are some places on the planet that have better energy than others. Places with good energy make you feel better, more awake and more inspired. Everything seems brighter, edges seem more defined. Places with less energy make you feel dull, sleepy, even hopeless. This may sound strange at first but when you think back on specific places you have visited and how you have felt uplifted or dulled by them, you can see how where you live affects your day-to-day energy level and happiness. With this in mind, it makes sense to spend more money for a place with good energy than to spend less for a physically similar place that doesn’t have much energy. The savings from living in an energetically low neighborhood cost you in many other ways, but primarily in that you don’t have the energy or inspiration to do whatever it is you want to do! That being said, be sure not to spend more than you can afford on your living space, since living above your means is one of the shortest paths to stress, worry and unhappiness.

To find a house or apartment that works for you, pay attention to how you feel when you are in the place. If a place has a lot of positives and fits your needs from a practical perspective, but something just doesn’t click despite it seeming right in every way, it’s not the right place. On the other hand, if you walk in and feel a smile on your face and think “Yes!,” this is a good place for you. This methodology may sound childish, but it is your non-physical body that is assessing the energy of the place. This part of you is more intelligent than your mind and is better at assessing energy. After you try this method and see how well it works, you will lose your skepticism.

© 2013-20 Sara Weston. Excerpted from the book How to Be Happy NOW…Even if Things Aren’t Going Your Way, available on Amazon.com or Amazon UKCA, FR , IT, ES and DE. A FREE excerpt of the book is available here.

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