Rabbit Hole or Rat Hole?

Faces etch with fear when I invite students to let their mind be free in meditation.  Someone exclaims “I can’t go down that rabbit hole”.  She lets me know that I don’t understand just how dangerous her mind traps are. Is she afraid she’ll go down a rat hole full of inescapable vermin?

I try and assure them that the conditions within the meditation are safe and encourage them; if it gets too hard they can always end the meditation early. People rarely take me up on this option because they tend to enjoy the freedom of this more unstructured meditation approach.

The conditions I suggest in meditation are inherently safe. Be gentle with yourself on the journey and be curious about what you meet up with. You have permission to travel as you like and the power to step off the journey as needed. Yes, you’re on an adventure and you don’t know where it will lead. But aren’t you often not in charge the way you would like?

The fear can feel primal, beyond words.  Getting caught in the same old grooves, digging in deeper and deeper. There’s a word for this kind of repetition in Buddhism, “samsara” and it’s said to be the nature of the world we live in.  Yes, we want to be free of it; it is grueling.

In our attempt to release ourselves, we look anywhere else. Find strategies to avoid the patterns of thought and emotion that repeat and entrap us. Meditation instructions can function this way, give us a different attentional focus that brings relief. But our habitual patterns are right around the corner waiting to pounce when our guard is down. What we don’t know can be the most dangerous. When we invite difficult thoughts and feelings in with gentleness and curiosity they become easier to tolerate. It defangs them.

There’s safeguards in meditation, we don’t get consumed by our fears forever. We get whisked away by the swirl of colors behind our eyes or the subtle touch of the breath. Maybe our attention naturally settles on the whoosh of the wind or the song playing inside our minds. Before we know it the bell rings, we end the meditation and curiously feel better.

After meditation, we contemplate the painful experiences along with the uplifting ones, learning how they operate and what they want. Our experience is complex; full of rabbits and rats, friends and enemies, delight and dread and so much more. Smooth and tight, somber and exhilarating. The rabbit led Alice on a journey to Wonderland.

Though you’re not in charge of the itinerary, maybe you can trust your developing discernment. Sometimes you’ll feel lost, then find new, unexpected directions. Let’s take a meditative adventure “down the rabbit hole”, who knows, you might end up in Wonderland for a while.


My left bottom tooth is upright and cavity-free, a smooth incisor that chews without complaint. I floss and brush and pick at it each morning and night. Then I protect it with fluoride to waylay an infection that could lead to a dreaded root canal.

Honesty is a great concept but the truth can hurt, sometimes as much as a periodontal scraping upon exposed nerves. If we show up and speak our truth, others might not listen or might not like it. Worse, they could use it against us, tarnishing our reputation so we look like a bum with brown rotting teeth (and those are the teeth that haven’t yet fallen out). Getting others to tell us directly what they did and their honest motivations can be worse than pulling teeth.

Honestly, I’ve never pulled a tooth, though I’ve had many of my teeth pulled. Evasive comments and little white lies live just below gum surface, slowly rotting the root.

What is honesty anyway?  Seen from one direction a situation looks one way, though it might seem quite different the next day when something else is uncovered.  Did I lie yesterday or today, or a bit each day?  Maybe white lies are like that bit of decay just below the gum line that be seen only with an x-ray.

Honesty was a great value in my family, passed on from grandparents to mother to me.  Did I need to hear my childhood dentist be honest with me, “You won’t ever get boyfriends unless you brush your teeth better?” I skirted that problem by being attracted to girls, though the sting of it lives in memory. They didn’t have good anesthetic back in the 1950’s. Last time when I went to the dentist I got an extra half a dose of anesthetic, put in my earbuds and distracted myself with a podcast. We must shield ourselves from some of the pain of life.

Honesty is one of the Buddhist precepts, the training to live an ethical and happy life.  Being honest and forthright in our lives is quite complicated. I used to have a well-developed ability to speak of my partner avoiding all pronouns, and a kind of radar that knew when I’d best use this skill. Since the Supreme Court decided I could marry, it’s fun to talk about my wife just like heterosexuals do.

Oh, I am sorry, I miscalculated. That left bottom incisor is an implant. I love that it looks like a real tooth and I honestly forgot that it’s an implant.

The Morning After (The Election)

Maybe I shouldn’t be writing this blog, the day after Trump was elected President of the United States.  Up until now I’ve restrained myself from combining dharma teaching and politics. I don’t want to use my position to lay my views upon you. I hope you’ll be tolerant and not acquiesce when my expression and perspectives differ from yours.

I teach a meditative process of exploring our views while respecting differing views. But today it seems like if I didn’t share the same country with folks who hold Trump’s values, respect would be easier. I wonder if Portland could join California and “Calexit”?  I tried separatism in the 1970’s; it strengthened me, but was sometimes arrogant. Still today secession seems like good idea, but this is an example of how staying in the present moment can get us in trouble. I wish I could find the morning after pill that would abort all of this.

I need to hold the long-view now, but how does that work when everything is so uncertain and foreboding? I teach about how to “hold our seat” in meditation in the face of uncertainty and with what is “hard to bear”. Seems like great advice right now. Taking reactive action leads to unimagined problems. We never can be certain where our actions will lead, though a deeply examined path is more reliable.

Woke up this morning feeling yucky, was it something I ate?  No, it’s the outcome of the election. Reminds me of the three poisons in Buddhism: greed, hatred and delusion. It’s easy to imagine a toxic Trump presidency, harder to perceive how these poisons operate inside of me. Relief comes from considering how we are driven by these harmful tendencies.

Easy to see the delusion, I was deluded to believe that Trump was surely going to lose, and he seemed like a loser to me so I was prone to believe this. I believed the pundits and the pollsters; I wanted to believe them. Trump postured like he would be the winner, turns out I was the deluded one.  What’s more true is that future predictions help us plot a path forward, but we must remember that there are myriad causes and conditions that we don’t know.

Trump Towers and Trump University seem embedded in greed. It took a while to perceive my own greed in this situation. I feel entitled to live in a country with decent and caring leadership. Probably most people throughout history haven’t had this: I take refuge in knowing they’ve endured.  As I see this greed, my outrage stops gnawing me so painfully.

The election cycle was steeped in hatred, entangled by fear. Buddhism speaks of moving beyond seeing others as the “enemy”, though this seemed impossible during an election cycle brimming with meanness.  Blond dyed hair atop Trump’s head shivers echoes of the Aryan Nation. I feel better when I remember that values and actions are dangerous; people are more multi-faceted.

Afternoon, crafting a ceramic vase, these words reverberate repeatedly in my mind. “Create like your life depends upon– and it just might.” People are looking for hope today. Our best hope might be in what we create that is motivated by kindness and dignity, not by hatred, greed or delusion. I urge you to “take your seat” and deeply consider how to best respond, how and when you want to fight, rather than who you want to fight. And what impulses are best restrained.

My aspiration for the day and the years to come is that inner stillness awakens creative and skillful words and deeds– in each of us.

How speak of enemies?  Strong emotional response.  Not equanimity.

Under My Bed

What an ideal time to be given this writing assignment. Had I been asked to write about what was under my bed six months ago I would have cringed. Not just about mustering up the courage to write but also the embarrassment of what I would have found there. As luck would have it we re-carpeted in the interim. No, we didn’t rush into anything. It took us 25 years to replace the carpet that was old when we moved in. It wasn’t the money, but the seemingly insurmountable task of moving lots of furniture around in small upstairs attic rooms. Not that we planned to move the furniture ourselves; even finding someone to pay for this seemed out of the realm of possibility. Or maybe it was easier to brush under the rug.

A brave, large, congenial man, probably hungry for income, happily accepted the job. He thought he could find help, but his assistants never showed. The sweat poured out his pores and the antique furniture got nicked.  Overwhelmed, he never reinstalled the closet doors.

Now for a peek under my bed. Only one plastic box with the controls from my electric blanket which likely does not work anymore. The beautiful new grey speckled rug camouflages the few dust bunnies.

You might wonder what Buddhist teaching are revealed by this mundane experience? Had you looked under my bed six months ago you might have thought of me as a slovenly woman or more kindly as someone unconcerned about housekeeping. Had you looked under my bed today you might consider me a tidy person.  I am neither: I am both. Or from a Buddha/dharma point of view, as conditions change our sense of self and others changes. Often this concerns matters of much greater consequence than what is under my bed, more likely what is in my heart and mind.

Meditating On Your Own

In this blog I reflect upon initiating a daily discipline of free-form writing because I think it parallels challenges you might experience starting an on-going, independent practice of Recollective Awareness Meditation. Excerpts from my free-form writing journal are in italics.

I want to write, this blog and other articles about meditation. Writing is hard for me. If I was to start and stick with a daily writing practice it’ll take a significant amount of time and focus, my life would start to revolve around it. My sense of self would start to change and also maybe the relationships that mattered. I would spend my time differently and would have to drop some of the things that fill my time. Though maybe it’s not so much the time, though that is an issue… but the sense of self, the sense of what matters, my identity that would change. I think I face some of the same challenges my students face initiating an independent meditation practice.

I looked for resources to support my intention and to jump start my writing. I tried an on-line writing course, it didn’t fit my needs and disposition so I dropped it. I started reading books on writing and writing instructors seemed to agree that regular/ongoing free-form writing was the way to go. I committed to writing 10 minutes a day; that seemed doable. But I was full of doubt, what if I can’t pull this off? Wow that seems so dramatic, I guess I can’t know unless I give it a substantial try. I remind myself that I’m not trying to become a famous writer, just write some blogs.

Let’s look at the parallels. It is hard to change habits and integrate a new practice, one that is creative and potentially challenging. It entails change while the law of inertia is at play “a body at rest will tend to stay at rest.” Consider your motivations for meditating; keep them in mind. Likely you will try out different supports and structures till you find a fit, then adapt as conditions in your life change. It is helpful to consider the suggestions of others who have established a regular practice; they’ll offer structures that you can try out.

Regularity and commitment might help, short-circuiting debilitating doubt and the incessant questioning of “should I or shouldn’t I?” though, at times, commitment is accompanied by depleting guilt. Jason Siff begins his book Unlearning Meditation with “meditators guilt”. How then to find ways to gently yet firmly self- motivate?

I looked into my high ideals about writing and settled into realistic expectations, writing a regular blog is enough for now. Meditation is fraught with the highest of expectations, “enlightenment”. Consider your expectations. At the start, might it be enough to learn a bit more about your inner world and becoming a little gentler with yourself?

Can I become a good writer? It’s a real leap of faith. Can I do this? Is this reserved for others, but not for me? If I step off into new territory I don’t know where it will lead. What if my mind is a “minefield”, full of danger. Thank you, I will stick with the life that I know. If I seriously commit to this and don’t do it… I risk feeling bad about it and bad about myself. Though actually I am becoming attached to this writing time, in a good way. I like the grounding of the structure and the inspiration when new ideas pop out.

The practice will change you, if you take on a practice that goes deep it will change your identity and sense of self. We want this and recoil from it. Until you experience the benefits of regular meditation; committing time and resolve is a leap of faith. Others might tell you how great is but you don’t know for yourself. And sometimes meditation won’t be great; it will be boring, confusing, grueling and many other things you don’t want. But I believe that the overall direction will be onward leading though I don’t know how long it will that take before you know this for yourself.

In the book I am reading the writing instructor speaks of “blank page phobia”. Recollective Awareness has few instructions, so it can intimidate like a blank page does to the writer. But after a while the wild terrain of your meditation becomes more known to you and the journey has a life of its own. You start following what interests you. You become familiar with how you meditate and find value in it. The terrain of your meditation is no longer “blank”.

I am available to be a companion and support on your meditative journey, during group events and individual sessions. Let me know how I can be of help.

Trust Your Mind: A Reflective Approach to Meditation


Relax. Don’t struggle to direct your attention in meditation. You might fear this kind of freedom, worrying that your thoughts will do exactly what they usually do: daydream and ruminate, and question how will this be different or helpful. The answer is somewhat simple, conceptually. You will do what you usually do, but you will also trip into more satisfying states of mind without trying so much. You will likely develop more awareness of habitual patterns and this awareness itself is transformative. 

You can trust your mind in meditation. This is a radical statement. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Meditation instructions are, in part, about how to restrain, train and correct the mind. Meditators are told, directly and indirectly, that the mind left to its own inclinations is naughty, even dangerous. And mental patterns are tenacious. Some of them deeply hurt us. 

What reflective meditators can trust is the development of awareness and a gentle reflective inner dialogue. A trusting curiosity, rather than specific instruction helps you become more aware of what is going on in your inner world and what you are thinking, feeling, and sensing. Think about it: when you are with a trusted person, you can reveal more of yourself. Over time, you develop this trusting stance toward your own experience. You gain greater awareness of your “usual” states of mind as you reveal more of yourself to yourself in meditation. This awareness will transform usual ways of relating to these states of mind. This trusting curiosity slowly enters your life. You gain more awareness of what you are doing and saying throughout your days and the inner world you inhabit. 

Over the years, while working with hundreds of meditators, I have witnessed the transformation of very painful and destructive habits. This comes from the development of gentle and curious reflection. I have also seen the development of more natural calmness and settledness in meditation, and in life. Experience has proven that this process is trustworthy, though you can’t know this until you take that leap of faith. 

– Nelly Kaufer, Founder and lead teacher of Pine Street Sangha