Commusings: Expansion by Sharon SalzbergApr 22, 2023
Dear Commune Community,
Notice the nature of your mind when you perceive threat. It’s narrow and laser-focused – as it should be. Your respiratory and heart rate elevate. Blood rushes from your stomach to your extremities as muscles demand oxygen for energy production. Your pupils dilate.
Once reserved for the rare and sketchier moments of the Serengeti, the agitation of the small, almond-shaped cluster of neurons in your brain that invokes this physiological and psychological state is all too common in modern life. We’re mad and stressed, fighting and fleeing. Excitatory neurotransmitters – epinephrine and adrenaline – increase your neural firing power, enhancing the effects of an action potential. Of course, brain activity has utility. This type of alertness can be useful beyond the savannah, such as when learning or playing sports.
That said, wisdom often comes in the spaces, in the daydreams and woolgatherings of life. Creativity also lurks here, in the unfocused realm. If the stress response leads to a narrow brain, then a relaxed state incites expansiveness. Thoughts and feelings float in and out of consciousness, like asteroids in space until one looks habitable.
The awareness of these two states – sympathetic and parasympathetic – opens the door to agency. There’s a wonderful Zen meditation in which you observe your surroundings with your eyes half-open. This demi-lidded practice reveals a world of shadow and light instead of a reality characterized by labeled “things.” Eventually, you begin to turn the quality of this perception back onto yourself. You, too, become shadow and light – expansive, without boundary. You can leverage the breath to invoke a similar state of spaciousness as well.
Your energy is transformed in expansiveness. You are all here but less focused on result. You become process and not product. And there’s plenty of you to go around for everyone.
How lucky we are to have Sharon Salzberg to shepherd us into this state of being in today’s essay.
In love, include me,
• • •
Expansion by Sharon Salzberg
Excerpted from Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World
One time when my colleague Joseph Goldstein and I were visiting a friend in Houston, we all went out to a restaurant to order takeout. As we were waiting for the food to be prepared, Joseph struck up a conversation with the young man working behind the counter. After a few minutes, he told Joseph that he’d never left Houston and went on to describe, somewhat passionately, how his dream was to one day go to Wyoming.
When Joseph asked him what he thought he would find there, he responded, “Open, ex- pansive space, a feeling of being unconfined, with peacefulness and freedom and room to move.”
Joseph responded, “There’s an inner Wyoming, too, you know.” At that point, the young man fixed a stare at Joseph and said, “That’s freaky,” as he sidled away.
But there is an inner Wyoming, a potential for openness, spaciousness, clarity, and freedom that exists within each of us. We just need confidence in it, to make the journey to that place, to discover it, nurture it, and hold the memory that it’s there, waiting for us to visit anytime.
In moving from contraction to spaciousness, it’s as if we’re sitting in a narrow, low-ceilinged, dark room—so accustomed to it that we don’t even realize we’re confined—and then the door swings open, revealing light, room to move, and possibilities that suddenly await. We don’t know just what is out there, but it’s certainly more vast and spacious than that tiny room.
My favorite way of imagining that expansive state—as someone with asthma—is “being able to breathe again.” More than just pleasure, different from indulgence, it is mostly a sensation of huge relief. It is peace.
Theologian Howard Thurman recommended that we “look at the world with quiet eyes.” It’s an intriguing phrase. It seems like with the way we so often look at the world, we resemble cartoon characters whose eyes are popping out on springs: “I see something I want! Give it to me!” Our heads rapidly turn to the object of our desire in a fixed gaze, so as not to lose sight of it. Our bodies lean forward in anticipation. Our arms extend, reaching out to acquire it. Our fingers flex, ready to grab on to what we want, to try to keep it from changing, from eluding our grasp. Our shoulders strain to hold on even tighter.
That’s grasping, contraction.
It happens in a moment, or an hour, or a day, a month, a lifetime—and it brings a lot of pain.
So, look at the world with quiet eyes whenever you can, and let go of grasping. The world will come to fill you without your straining for it. In that relaxation, you will find peace. Peace isn’t a fabricated state, repressing all woes and challenges. It is tuning into our fundamental nature.
Willa Maile Qimeng Cuthrell-Tuttleman, when she was seven years old and a student at Friends Academy in Manhattan, wrote a poem that beautifully expresses what I understand as peace.
Peace Is Friendship
Peace looks like nature
Peace smells like fresh air
Peace sounds like wind blowing through the trees
Peace tastes like bubble gum
Peace feels like a soft pillow
I have a friend who describes himself as pretty obsessive when nursing a grudge, another contracted state. He can go over and over and over the words of the misunderstanding, or his resentment at not being included, or someone’s reckless behavior. Over and over and over.
After one such interlude, he reflected on the obsessive quality, declaring: “I let him live rent-free in my brain for too long.”
Now imagine yourself going home to that blessedly quiet apartment of your mind. What a relief. You can play music. You can cuddle with your dog. You can reach out to a struggling friend. You can cook a meal, or write a poem, or maybe finally get some sleep.
Expansiveness doesn’t lead us to a vacuous place—cavernous, muted, disconnected.
Expansiveness isn’t being spaced out, floating above it all. In the sense that I’m using the word, expansiveness is energized, confident, creative, brimming with love. The subtle balances in life—of rest and action, of passion and letting go, of the power of intention and of patience—all can take place in this expansive space.
Expansiveness helps broaden our perspective, so we can think more flexibly and with a more open mind. We become better able to focus on the big picture and not feel so discouraged by the constant array of ups and downs we experience every day. When faced with adversity, we can generate more solutions. Expansiveness invites experimentation and imagination. We’re more willing to pour ourselves fully into life’s pursuits. It is the freedom of letting down the burden we have been carrying. It leaves room for our fundamentally loving hearts to uncoil, and lead us onward.
• • •
Many years ago, I attended a stress-reduction program led by Jon Kabat-Zinn, longtime meditation teacher and founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. In one exercise, he stepped up to the blackboard, and in the center, he drew a square made up of nine dots, arranged in three parallel lines with three dots in each line.
He then challenged everyone in the class to take the piece of chalk and see if we could connect all the dots using only four straight lines, without removing the chalk from the blackboard, and without retracing a line. One by one, all thirty of us went up to the blackboard. We tried beginning from the left, from the right, from the top, from the bottom, and returned to our seats frustrated, unable to do what he’d asked. The room was vibrating with stress.
Then Jon picked up the chalk and, with great sweeping strokes that extended well beyond the perimeter of the small square, did exactly what he had challenged us to do. Every one of us had presumed that to succeed we had to stay within the circumscribed area formed by the nine dots. Jon had never said that we were limited to that little space, but all of us had concluded that was the only area we could move within, the only place to find options. Not one of us could see beyond our limited sense of how much room we had to work in.
• • •
How much room do we have?
When the Buddha taught 2,600 years ago, the social structure in India was built on a rigid philosophical system. According to their prevailing view of the world, everything and every being belonged to a predetermined category or class, and each of these had its own essential nature and its corresponding duty in life or role to play. For example, it is the nature of fire to be hot and to warm and burn things, of rocks to be hard and to support, of grass to grow and provide sustenance to animals, of cows to eat grass and produce milk.
The responsibility of every being was to grow into its own nature and to conform to an ideal disposition specific to them. These natures and duties were considered immutable truths. That’s one meaning of the word dharma: that predetermined, pre-ordained nature.
Socially, this concept was translated into the rigidities of the caste system. People were born destined to fulfill a certain nature. It was the duty of certain classes or castes of people to rule, for Brahmans to mediate with divine forces, and for certain other people to be engaged in producing food and material goods. Within this worldview, actions conceived of as moral and appropriate for one caste or gender were considered completely immoral for another. It was proper and beneficial for the Brahman male to read and study the scriptures, while this was absolutely forbidden and considered abhorrent for someone in the “untouchable” caste, an outcast.
Into this constricting social context, the Buddha introduced his revolutionary teachings. What he taught in terms of ethics was radical then, and it is radical now.
He asserted that what determines whether an action is moral or immoral is the volition of the person performing it. The moral quality of an action is held within the intention that gives rise to the action. “Not by birth is one a Brahman, or an outcast,” the Buddha said, “but by deeds.” This teaching, in effect, declared the entire social structure of India, considered sacrosanct by many, to be of no spiritual significance at all.
The Buddha was declaring that the only status that truly matters is the status of personal goodness, and personal goodness is attained through personal effort, not by birth. It did not matter if you were a man or a woman, wealthy or poor, a Brahman or an outcast—an action based on greed would have a certain kind of result, and an action based on love would have a certain kind of result.
“A true Brahman is one who is gentle, who is wise and caring,” he said, thus completely negating the importance of caste, skin color, class, and gender in any consideration of morality.
It is fascinating and poignant to see how much each of these elements can be a factor in assessing our own or someone else’s worth today, all these years later and throughout the world. In this one teaching, the Buddha burst the bubble of social class, of deflecting responsibility, of mindless deference to religious authority, and of defining potential according to external criteria.
In this one teaching, he returned the potential for freedom back to each one of us.
Sharon Salzberg was one of the first to bring mindfulness and lovingkindness meditation to mainstream American culture over 45 years ago, inspiring generations of meditation teachers and wellness influencers. Sharon is co-founder of The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, and the author of twelve books, including the New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness, now in its second edition, and her seminal work, Lovingkindness. Her newest book is Real Life: The Journey from Isolation to Openness and Freedom.
Excerpted from REAL LIFE by Sharon Salzberg. Copyright © 2023 by Sharon Salzberg. Used by permission of Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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