Examining the Obstacles

In class last week, we started digging into a sutta (an old Buddhist text) which mentioned “final attainment of truth.” The sutta was primarily about how to choose a teacher wisely, but this whole “attainment of truth” issue became a distracting and compelling sidebar.

Maybe you call it enlightenment, awakening, happiness independent of conditions…Regardless, the practice is the same: We’re not seeking something, so much as looking closely at the obstacles that seem to get in the way of our freedom in each moment. So we examine physical pain and ask, is it the pain that holds the suffering, or the resistance to it? And we build up tolerance for uncomfortable emotions, so we can experience them without fighting–just a flow changing energies like the weather.

By doing this, we become free to take wise action–to respond in ways that are authentic, empowered, and compassionate. And the world starts to feel very safe.

None of this requires us to “know what enlightenment is,” or seek out a concept. We just keep looking for the suffering and turning toward it. Like fog burns off in sunlight, suffering burns off just from exposure to our attention, and each next step is revealed.

Give Only What You Have

Many people carry around a preconceived notion of what is appropriately generous, in terms of time, emotional support, money, etc. We have expectations of ourselves and others that are based on our cultural and familial conditioning. These expectations can be useful, in that they provide us with some standard of social behavior around generosity. The problems start when a person gives what they believe they “should” give, even when those resources (emotional, physical, financial) are not available.

It’s simple to see in the case of money. If you were planning to donate to a charity, you’d likely calculate a reasonable amount to give so that you would still have the financial resources to cover your expenses.

In the relational world, the picture can be a bit more subtle. That small, quiet urge that says “don’t go out tonight,” even though your friends would love to see you, is an easy thing to ignore. You might want to make your friends happy. You might not want to feel the discomfort of their disappointment.

Perhaps, while listening to a companion sharing some grief, you notice a subtle accumulation of irritation. In an effort to support this person, a part of you is beginning to feel overwhelmed, neglected or maxed out.

The same sort of scenario can play out at work: it’s 5pm, you have a dinner planned, and a last-minute assignment falls on your desk leaving you feeling guilty and conflicted. You decide to stay and work late. How much of your guilt is beneficial, in the sense that it has supported you in completing a task which is genuinely your duty? How much of your guilt is afflictive, in the sense that it is built on an overblown sense of responsibility or driven by a misplaced fear of abandonment? Do you walk away from the evening resentful or burnt out? If, in an ongoing way, you can’t maintain a sustainable workload, is that a result of the objective circumstances of your work, or the the way you are holding it?

Everyone has limits. Burnout, stress and resentment are reflections of emotional tolerances that were firmed up long ago. They are partially a product of our genetic disposition, but largely a result of early-childhood conditioning. The limbic brain, the seat of emotion, doesn’t change much after age 3, so although the adult in us may feel we owe it to our friends to make an appearance or to our work to stay late, we are carrying a child with an additional, potent agenda.

Since we are adults, and social creatures, we need to find skillful ways to balance our internal needs with the needs of others. In truth, the two are not mutually exclusive. With practice, we can move away from seeing care-taking and reliability as a zero-sum game (i.e. either me or them) and toward caring for ourselves in ways that care for others.

OK, so where do we start? By trusting the body. Cultivating awareness of the emotional body makes these cues easier to detect, and easier to tend to. Through body-based emotional awareness practices like Noting Feeling States, we can clearly gather and interpret the valuable information that emotion provides, without being distorted and compelled by it.

Not only do we become more keenly aware of when we are “giving more than we have,” we also have more and more to give. With practice, we gradually raise those long-ago established emotional tolerances, deepening our ability to be in the moment, and to be with others, both in joy and in pain.

But all along, in any given moment, we can only give what we have. So the next time the notion arises that you really “should” be there for so-and-so in such-and-such a way, pay attention to how it goes. What is your body trying to tell you? Do you build up resentment? Do you feel maxed out? Or do you feel calm, steady and connected? Is it really “giving” if part of you is abandoned in the process? What might it feel like to tend to the parts of you that need attention even while giving part of your attention to another?

Enlightenment Is Only Half The Picture

I was communicating about an upset today with someone close to me, and noticing before and afterward the way very old parts of me–long-standing emotional blocks that I feel in my body–were “resonating” with the disagreement. There was the emotional experience related to the issue itself, and then, separately, this mass of unprocessed “stuff”.

We all have these emotional blocks. They are what Eckhart Tolle refers to as “the pain body.” Buddhists call them “samskaras.” Western psychology calls them our “conditioning” or “triggers.” They are the body equivalent of a memory, and they are very often suppressed from conscious awareness. When something happens in the present moment that is similar to a string of experiences (consciously remembered or not) from the past, one of these emotional blocks gets fired up in reaction. As a result, the intensity of the emotional sensation will be as strong as the sum total of the entire string of experiences (including the present one). Then we respond to the present, not realizing that the magnitude of our reaction is disproportionate. The very way we SEE the present is as if all those memories are lumped into it. And this happens to us many times a day, every day, if often subtly.

So what can we do? Start with the assumption that we aren’t seeing fully clearly. Hold the question, “what’s the lens?” Get to know the areas of life where we get reactive. Default to kindness, generosity, forgiveness. Assume the best. And own it, in dialog with others–“this is MY experience.” “This is how this is landing for ME.” …As opposed to assuming objectivity.

Over the long run, with the right practice techniques, these blocks can be permanently released. It often takes years (as it has for me so far), but we gradually see more clearly, and feel more and more freedom in our lives. The tragedy is that this path of “emotional/psychological development” is actually independent (though related) to the path of “spiritual development” which most contemplative traditions focus on. The two paths must be pursued together in order to find deep, lasting freedom. To put it simply, for the spiritually-inclined: enlightenment is only half the picture.



When someone hits a roadblock in practice, it often takes the form of, “things aren’t supposed to be this way!” Maybe it’s a lack of concentration. Perhaps sleepiness. Maybe constant incessant thinking. There are two options in cases like this–one is to make modifications to practice (like standing up or opening the eyes, in the case of sleepiness, or focusing on a very specific object like the breath, in order to reestablish concentration). The other option, which I’d like to address here, is to consider–what if this “roadblock” isn’t actually a problem, but rather, just another sort of experience to investigate?

In a moment when clarity is low, why not get curious about the experience of being “unclear”? What does unclear feel like in the body? Is it heavy? Is there sleepiness in it? Irritation? Are there other physical body sensations? All of a sudden, you might find that you have become quite clear about the experience of being “unclear,” simply by virtue of examining it rather than resisting it.

…Similarly with tiredness, irritation, other afflictive emotions.

And with thoughts–it can be useful to examine them in this same way. Not looking at the content (i.e. what the thoughts are about), but rather–are these thoughts auditory or visual, or both? Where in my head do they seem to be occurring? Are they loud or soft? Bright or dim? What emotions are being generated (or covered up!) by these thoughts? Where do I feel those emotions in my body?

The bottom line is, when we are looking at the present moment, we are looking at the senses. One of my teachers, Shinzen Young, likes to divide them up into hearing, seeing, and feeling (just for the sake of simplicity). A thought is just made up of hearing (internal dialog) and/or seeing (internal images). An emotion is usually made up of feeling (in the body), though there is often a thought (hearing + seeing) running alongside. So as long as we are looking at the component senses which make up an experience (e.g. examining their texture, shape, size, intensity, motion or stability, etc.), then it doesn’t matter what experience we are looking at! We are “in the moment.” We are “being mindful.” And “roadblocks” are simply grist for the mill.