Expansion and Contraction


This talk is based on an article in the most recent Tricycle magazine by Sharon Salzberg which is an excerpt from her most recent book Real Life that the book club will be reading in August. It seemed to strike at a theme that has been resonating for me recently, when we can be expansive and when we get contracted. I personally have been having an inner struggle between these two feelings over the past month or two in a different way than previously. To get started on this topic, I will share the opening story from this article that I thinks sums it up well.

“One time when Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg were visiting a friend in Houston, we all went 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, expansive 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 with 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 at any time.

What is contraction?

The contraction we are speaking of here is our little view of life. There is a dharma story about us as people running from the things that scare us and falling into our own little well. This well is the story we have constructed around ourselves and our lives. It is what Buddhism terms the five aggregates, our body, feelings, thoughts, perceptions, consciousness and all of the stories we have built up around them. This contraction is our own personal well. It is so normal to us that we don’t realize we are trapped in it. We can feel it though when we are able to focus our attention on the breath or another object and let the stories fall away. Or we are able to open our heart and expand beyond this little life.

Grasping is contraction. When we think about what it means to grasp, it is the tightly closed hand. The not letting go of what we want. Our world can shrink to only be aware of the thing that we lack that we are grasping at, the object of our desire. It can be easy to ignore everything else, the other blessings of life, as the cost of our intense focus on the goal of our grasping. The other hindrances are modes of contraction as well. When we are angry, it can feel like the world consists of nothing but our anger and the story behind the wrong. When we are in sloth, the walls really close it and out we go. In times of restlessness and worry, the present falls away in favor of an imagined future that we are intensely concerned with. And lastly, doubt that swallows up our action and leaves us paralyzed. All of these push us to a state of contraction, they limit us, they limit our connection to others and the present moment.

Grudges are contraction. This is one that I especially have been having trouble with lately. The worldly winds seem to have been dishing up a lot of loss and blame lately around my workplace and this has caused grudges to pop-up. In the article, Sharon discusses this common occurrence I have been going through of replaying the scenes of conflict over and over again in my head. I wake up playing these scenes. They pop in while I’m brushing my teeth or eating a meal. I’m letting them live rent free in my mind. When this happens, I can feel the contraction. The shrinking of my awareness and my sense of the spaciousness of life. To help with this, I have been working with the Buddha’s discourse on grudges. This sutta offers us options for dealing with grudges with progressive stages of expansiveness. Can we accept that their karma is their karma, that actions have consequences and leave it up to that? Can we just not think about them? Can we be equanimous through the ups and the downs? Can we open our heart to compassion both for us that those with whom we have a grudge? Can we wish them good-will? This is a progressive set of options, each allows us a little more expansion and a little less contraction than the last. 

What is expansion?

Peace is Friendship (by Willa Maile Qimeng Cuthrell-Tuttleman)

Peace looks like nature.

Peace smells like fresh air.

Peace sounds like the wind blowing through the trees.

Peace tastes like bubblegum.

Peace feels like a soft pillow.

Expansion is peace. It is a return to our natural presence. It is the freedom of allowing our stories to fall away and rest in the openness that is naturally there. Expansion can come through realizing this isn’t I, me, and mine. I can allow myself to be more expansive than this little body, these little thoughts and feelings. I do not have to identify with them or allow them to continue. I am dealing with a particularly challenging work situation where I have a third party lying to my client and attempting to push the blame on to me. We had a heated confrontation about this at a recent meeting and while the client acknowledges the correctness of my position, it doesn’t stop it from replaying in my head. However, the more I am able to allow them to be the owner of their karma and realize that now this is just anger at a thought not what is happening right now, the more I am able to release the contraction and expand into the present. The more I am able to let the story drop and be able to open to those around me. 

Expansiveness helps broaden our perspective, so we can think more flexibly and with a more open mind. We can train ourselves to see the world with quiet eyes. To tone down our perceptions and biases, to not jump to conclusions, to not finish people’s sentences, and let things unfold. To approach the world with open curiosity. Sharon talks about this being another meaning of the word dharma, actualizing that potential for freedom we all have, shedding the stories others have told about us to discover who we genuinely are, understanding what we care about most deeply, what makes for a better life. To breathe life into the dharma in this sense is the journey of liberation we make. Step by step, we move toward freedom and we manifest 


I will close with a few questions. Do we know our inner Wyoming and what it feels like? Do we know what it takes to get to that space? And do we know what pulls us away from it and into contraction? These are the critical questions and one that require our mindfulness practice to be present in our lives and interactions so that we can embody this dharma and actualize our freedom.