Monday, November 30, 2009

Sensory Reality

There is an iconic image of the Buddha sitting in meditation, with the fingers of his right hand touching the earth in front of him, in what is sometimes called the Earth Touching Mudra. It happened during the time when the Buddha-to-be was sitting in contemplation under the Bodhi Tree. During this long period of meditation, he was visited (or attacked) by "Mara," a demon who serves as a metaphor for delusions, doubts, or strong desires that can arise during meditation practice, and in daily life as well.

Mara tempted the Buddha many times with visions of wealth or sensual images that could be his if he would just get up and walk away. Every time she visited him, however, he would call out to himself, "Mara, I see you!" Then he would touch the earth so that he would know through his physical senses the reality of something tangible, instead of being swept away by the non-reality of his thoughts. Whenever he did this, Mara would disappear.

In our own meditation practice and daily life, we are constantly besieged by confusion, doubt, and desires for things to be other than the way they really are. When we notice this happening, we can also defy these expressions of Mara, just like the Buddha.

First, we recognize that these events are actually happening ("Mara, I see you!"). This alone may have the power to dissolve the suffering that these events can cause.

Then, we need to do our own Earth Touching Mudra by coming into contact with a physical sense object. Feeling the movement of the breath in and out is one of the most powerful sense objects, and it is available to us any time we need it. However, anything we can experience through the five physical senses will serve as fingers touching the earth to help ground us in the reality of the present moment.

The difficult or upsetting thoughts will then dissolve by themselves without our having to do anything about them. Like Mara, they will disappear into the darkness and stop bothering us for a while.

The Task, by Guillevic:
When each day
is sacred

when each hour
is sacred

when each instant
is sacred

earth and you
space and you
bearing the sacred through time

you'll reach
the fields of light.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Love After Love

Love After Love,by Derek Walcott:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

I Am Not You

Psychologists who work in the realm of object relations tell us that infants initially view their mothers as extensions of their own physical body. When an infant is hungry and cries, he or she has the impression that they create the breast or bottle that suddenly arrives to feed them. There must be an omnipotent sense that the self or ego includes all things in the visible universe; we are truly one with everything because we perceive that we are everything.

Then disaster strikes. As the child's brain continues to develop, this perception that "mother and I are one" begins to deteriorate until the truth - that there are two separate beings - is finally seen as the reality of things.
Perhaps this is where we get the myth of the Garden of Eden - from a time when we lived in a paradise of bliss and plenty before the knowledge of separateness destroyed it all.

I believe that, for most of us, this separation wound never fully heals. For the rest of our lives, we are searching for the perfection that we felt in that "pre-anxious state," as Mark Epstein has labeled it. (His books are must-reads for anyone interested in the interface of western psychology and the Buddha's teachings.) We never seem to get ourselves back to the Garden, no matter how hard we try.

And oh, how we try. Our adolescent and adult relationships are manifestations of this unconscious attempt to merge again with the mother. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein theorized that we are born with a fear of annihilation, and the separation wound only serves to validate that fear. Forming attachments with other people is one way that we have developed to ease this existential anxiety. We can't help it, really. It is a compelling, life-long drive to seek security. We feel that without these attachments, we will die.

What this brings about, of course, is a world in which everyone thinks they are everyone else. Look how accurately we think we can read another person's mind, or how we make so many incorrect assumptions about other people's behavior. We see everyone else as extensions of ourselves, and since this satisfies our deepest, oldest desire (to be one with the mother), we firmly believe that this is the way the world works.

To live in this kind of attachment with another person is like two sailboats trying to make way, each attached to the other by a very short line. The vagaries of the wind and sea, and the individuality of the sailors, will mean that one boat will set its sails differently from the other. Eventually, they will either pull each other apart, get swamped through an imbalance of forces, or collide with each other. In any case,
the chances of a smooth journey for these two craft is limited at best, and impossible over the long haul.

The answer is obvious: release the line. This way, the two boats can sail in formation with one another, sharing the journey together, but safe from devastating entanglement.

Simple as it may seem, this course of action is counter-intuitive to most people. Because of the primary wound, it would seem that decoupling will invite abandonment and death. The reality is exactly the opposite: releasing invites life and space and breath into the relationship, instead of being ensnared by old habit patterns and reactive behavior.

Releasing attachment in this way does not mean that anything goes in the relationship. Nor does it mean that our love or caring for another person diminishes. On the contrary, it allows us to let go of suffocating expectations of perfection that can never be met by another person. The mature sense of security that releasing the tight fist of attachment brings, is a moment of true bliss and freedom.

From Rumi:
This is love:
to fly toward a secret sky,
to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.
First to let go of life.
Finally, to take a step without feet.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Wisdom of Uncertainty

There is an old story about a Russian farmer in the late 1800's, who happened to own a horse. As you can imagine, back then if you had a horse you were considered a person of property. A horse could help you work the land, you could rent it out to your neighbors, it was reliable transportation, and so forth. This farmer, therefore, was considered very fortunate.

"How lucky you are to have a horse!" his neighbors would tell him.

"You never know," the farmer would always reply.

One night, a sudden and violent storm blew up, and the frightened horse broke down the fence of the corral and got away.

"How unlucky you are to have lost your horse!" they all said.

"You never know," replied the farmer.

Sure enough, a few days later his horse returned, accompanied by a beautiful wild stallion.

"Two horses! How lucky you are!" everyone told the farmer, who only said, "You never know."

The farmer had a son, which was another good thing to have in those days. Extra hands were always needed to do the chores around the place, and this particular young man was strong and hard-working, so he decided to tame the wild stallion. While doing so, however, he was thrown from the horse and broke his leg.

"Your son broke his leg!" the neighbors lamented. "How terrible!"

"You never know," said the farmer.

Less than a week later, Cossacks swept through the village and neighboring farms, and conscripted every able-bodied young man for service in the army. Since the farmer's son was unable to walk or ride with his broken leg, he was not taken.

And so it goes...

The fact is that we never know what is going to happen next, and we never know what fortune, good or ill, will arise out of any event. Alan Watts coined the phrase "the wisdom of uncertainty" to describe the existential fact that the seeds for our enlightenment rest in the unexpected events of our lives, not in our constant and fruitless search for security.

According to Deepak Chopra:
The search for security and certainty is actually an attachment to the known...The known is nothing other than the prison of past conditioning...Without uncertainty and the the unknown, life becomes the stale repetition of outworn memories. You become a victim of the past, and your tormentor today is your self left over from yesterday.
Today, factor the unexpected into your plans. Experiment with letting life take you where it wants to go, and begin to trust that this path will lead to something new and exciting. By releasing the tight fist of clinging to an imagined outcome, you will find freedom.

We Grow Accustomed to the Dark by Emily Dickinson:
We grow accustomed to the dark -
When light is put away -
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye -

A Moment - We uncertain step
For newness of the night -
Then - fit our Vision to the Dark -
And meet the Road - erect -

And so of larger - Darkness -
Those Evenings of the Brain -
When not a Moon disclose a sign -
Or Star - come out - within -

The Bravest - grope a little -
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead -
But as they learn to see -

Either the Darkness alters -
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight -
And Life steps almost straight.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Our Town

Playwright Thornton Wilder, in his masterpiece, Our Town, tells the story of a young woman named Emily Gibbs who grows up in the small New Hampshire town of Grover's Corners at the turn of the 20th Century.

In the final act, Emily dies, and then pleads to be able to live one more day of her life over again. Her request is granted, and she is allowed to return to to her 12th birthday.

She is appalled, however, to see how everyone around her is unaware of their lives as they are living them. Downhearted, she finally decides to return to the realm of the dead. As she begins to leave the living world, she speaks to the Stage Manager, who also serves as the play's narrator:
Emily: I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back - up the hill - to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.

Good-by. Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corners. Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking...and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths...and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

She looks toward the Stage Manager and asks abruptly, through her tears:
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? - every, every minute?

Stage Manager: No.
The saints and poets, maybe -they do some.

Holiday Expectations

We enter into almost every situation with some kind of expectation of how it will be. This is especially true during the Holiday Season.

We are told over and over again, in story and song, what a happy time of year this is supposed to be, or we see images of the perfect family gathering on commercials and magazine ads. I'm always reminded of the Norman Rockwell painting, "Saying Grace," with grandma and grandpa presiding over the Thanksgiving table. The reality of things is often very different.

Our desire for things to be pleasant is noble and wholesome - there is nothing wrong with the desire itself. As we learned from the Monkey Trap blogs (11/16 & 11/17/09), it is the clinging to these desires that cause suffering. (
A few years ago, Kathy told me that if you have an open hand, you can both give and receive; with a clenched fist you can do neither.) In addition, clinging to an expectation blinds us from seeing the wonder and happiness that is already present, even if things seem to be going terribly wrong.

In the next few days, as the holidays begin to move into high gear, notice your expectations of people and situations as they arise. Realize that they are expectations - thoughts - and not facts in that moment. Release the tight fist of grasping, and greet each moment with an open mind and a spacious heart. This does not mean that we expect the worst, but it does mean that we are present with this moment as it is, not as we wish it would be.

From Thich Nhat Hanh:
The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.

(From Touching Peace, 1992, Parallax Press
ISBN 0-938077-57-0)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


From Psychology Grounded In the Feminine Principle by Barbara Stevens Sullivan:
We are taught in every setting that we should be in control of our lives and that our lives will proceed in positive directions if we control them properly. We are urged to refuse to give in to depression or despair, to think positively. In the face of the clearest, most consistent evidence, our culture insists upon denying the ubiquitous, inescapable fact of darkness and death and upon maintaining a fiction of the possibility of living happily ever after if we only manage our lives properly. The consequence of this attitude is not an increasingly widespread incidence of happiness. It is rather a situation in which people feel guilty about their depression and despair, exacerbating their pain by struggling against the legitimate suffering that life involves and that, when submitted to, ultimately brings wisdom.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Traffic Light Meditation

We are offered many opportunities during our day to stop and be present with life as it is being lived. One of my favorite times has become waiting at stop lights. The signal is literally an order to stop. Yet, until fairly recently, I never took advantage of this chance to rest.

When you have to stop at a light, take your hands off the wheel and let them rest in your lap, and allow your shoulders to release their tension. This will seem strange at first, and you may become acutely aware of just how vigilant we remain at these times.

Keep the eyes open, and feel yourself sitting in the driver's seat of your car. Notice how your energy level is in that moment, and check in with the state of your emotions.

Now come to the feeling of the body breathing in and out a few times. This will complete the connection to the present moment.

If you still have a moment or two before the light turns green, look around you and see where you are with mindful awareness. See the foliage, the sky, the birds, the mountains, or whatever is around you in that moment.

When the light changes, mindfully replace your hands on the steering wheel and continue on your way.

You may find that this kind of brief connection to the present moment can really be a refreshing moment of rest in your busy day.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Walking Meditation

Author Robert Mason, in his memoir, Chickenhawk: Back In the World, wrote:
There's an ancient idea that when a man travels, he doesn't go anywhere. Instead, he performs a series of actions that, if done in the proper sequence, will bring his destination to him.
Yesterday I led a retreat, and we employed this idea during walking meditation. Afterward, one of the retreatants said that, by adopting this perspective, she could feel herself arriving in each moment more fully, and she could also feel that each moment was arriving in her.

Go for a walk today, and imagine that you are actually standing still; that it is the world that is moving beneath your feet. Watch as the trees and houses pass you by, and see how the things you once thought you were walking toward, magically come to you.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Accepting the Way Things Are

We human beings spend a lot of our time between two poles: on one end we have the way things are right now, and on the other, the way we would like things to be. As a result, much of our life is spent trying to bring these two opposites together.

We attempt this through a variety of strategies. For example, we may want to possess something, and we suffer because we don't have it right now. So we go out and obtain the possession, and for a moment, the way things are and the way we want them to be are closer together. With the passage of time, however, the novelty of the possession fades and we want something else, so we find ourselves back in the gap between the poles.

So what can we do when the way things are do not match up with the way we want them to be? If there is no immediate and effective solution to this dilemma, we may be better off just dwelling in the discrepancy. We begin by acknowledging when things are not the way we want them to be. Then we allow things to be the way they are and accept the situation as best we can.

The paradox is that the more we dwell in the uncertainty of the discrepancy without trying to change it, the less we suffer. This is because we are intentionally stepping out the automatic pilot way of reacting to situations, and moving instead into a conscious way of responding to them. There may be nothing that can be done in this moment to change the way things are. By acknowledging, allowing, and accepting this moment as it is, even for a short time, we can learn to tolerate uncomfortable situations more easily and not trigger the habitual (and often unskillful) ways of reacting to them.

Today, notice when you find things are not the way you want them to be. In the simple acknowledging of this fact, see what happens to your level of discomfort in that moment. These discrepancies can be subtle, but it is often the seemingly trivial ones that can cause us the most suffering if they are not known, allowed, and accepted.

From Franz Kafka:
You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait. You need not even wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

Friday, November 20, 2009


According to an article I saw recently in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, benzodiazapines, a class of medication that includes such well-known brand names as Valium and Xanax, are the most widely prescribed psychotropic drugs in the world. This leads me to the conclusion that there is currently a worldwide pandemic, not of some virulent strain of influenza, but of anxiety.

For me, anxiety has been a lifelong companion. He accompanied me to my first day of kindergarten, and took the form of intense fear of separation from my mother. He remains by my side right now, peering annoyingly over my shoulder at what I am writing, and doing his best to block my creative flow. I have tried many ways to get rid of him: through hypnosis, prayer, meditation, and medication, both prescribed and self-administered, including the dreaded benzos. Nothing has succeeded in banishing him for any length of time, so I have made my peace with him and stopped trying.

The one thing I know for sure about anxiety is that it is always future-based, meaning that it is the result of the mind predicting the outcome of a situation that is not happening now. An example of this would be standing in line to ride a roller coaster and feeling fear in anticipation of the ride. In this moment nothing is happening that is in the least bit dangerous, and yet, when we hear the sounds of the roller coaster on the track, and perhaps the screams of the riders, the old nervous system starts flooding the bloodstream with all those neat fight-or-flight chemicals. The hands sweat, the heart pounds, the ears ring, the respiration becomes more shallow, and the thoughts of doom present themselves in an instant.

I once heard an interview with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, in which he described sitting on top of the giant Saturn V rocket waiting for liftoff. This is a structure that was longer than a football field, and loaded with enough RP-1 fuel that it had the explosive power of a small atomic bomb. "People ask me," he said laughing, "weren't you afraid sitting up there? And I tell them, 'What was there to be afraid of? Nothing had happened, yet.' If something bad happened, then I'd have been afraid."

The antidote to fear and anxiety is to connect yourself fully to the reality of the present moment. Feel yourself sitting in your chair; feel your fingers touching the handle of your coffee cup (and while you're at it, actually taste the coffee); feel your body breathing in and out in this moment. Connecting to a present moment sensory reality has the almost magical effect of simultaneously allowing the anxiety to just be there without trying to get rid of it, and at the same time disengaging from it so that it will simply diminish or disappear on its own.

A poem fragment by Rumi (translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks):
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the brain to "re-map" patterns of thinking through the introduction of new experiences. I'm not brain surgeon, but here's how I understand this phenomenon...

Thinking happens because of the interconnection of countless, far-flung neurons in the brain. The activation pattern of these neurons creates certain thoughts. Over time, we develop habitual activation patterns, and these patterns become our habitual ways of thinking. You can imagine these habitual neuronal firing patterns as dirt roads that have been traveled many times creating deep ruts and grooves. Eventually, we become stuck in our deeply-rutted neuronal pathways.

Apparently, meditation helps to re-route the neuronal firing patterns and changes the structure of the brain. A study in 2004 compared monks who had been practicing meditation for many years with novice practitioners. The veteran meditators displayed significant increases in the activation of the left prefrontal cortex, which is the location of positive emotions, such as happiness and compassion. In addition, this activity in the left side completely dominated the right prefrontal cortex, the seat of negative emotions, such as fear. The novice meditators showed only slight increases in this kind of brain activity.

When we sit still in meditation, and an itch arises on the forehead, if we just let it be instead of scratching it, we are changing our own neuronal firing patterns, and thus changing our brains. The habitual itch-scratch reaction firing pattern gets re-routed. Over time, this kind of de-coupling from habitual reactions during meditation can have a profound effect in our daily life, as we learn new ways to deal with our experiences.

It takes time to groove these new activation patterns, however, just as it took years (or decades) to produce the old ones. With consistent meditation practice, combined with mindful living, our new pathways become more and more the automatic setting of our life.

The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

As It Should Be

From The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra:
This moment is as it should be, because the whole universe is as it should be. This moment - the one you're experiencing right now - is the culmination of all the moments you have experienced in the past. This moment is as it should be because the entire universe is as it should be.

When you struggle against this moment, you're actually struggling against the entire universe. Instead, you can make the decision today that you will not struggle against the whole universe by struggling against this moment. This means that your acceptance of this moment is total and complete. You accept things as they are, not as you wish they were in this moment. This is important to understand. You can wish for things in the future to be different, but in this moment you have to accept things as they are.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Monkey Trap, Part 2

Yesterday, I introduced a teaching of the Buddha that said that suffering is caused by "desire that gives rise to a sense of self." This is pretty heavy stuff for a lot of people (if not everyone) and needs to be explored a bit further.

It could be argued that the three most destructive words in the English language are "I," "me," and "mine." One reason is that they cause us to identify (or I-dentify) with things that have nothing to do with us, and this identification causes suffering. Here is one of my favorite examples... Early one morning during meditation, my reverie (note the arising of self) was disturbed by the sound of a leaf blower a couple of doors down. This sound is one that I (self again) have always had strong aversion toward. The thoughts that arose were something like, "How dare that person disturb my meditation? Why is he bothering me?" These thoughts caused a great deal of anger to arise, and by golly - you guessed it - I was suffering.

The fact is that the sound I heard had nothing to do with me. The object and the person making the sound were not doing it to disturb my practice. And if we want to push this a little further, the sound I heard was not even a leaf blower, but just a sound that the mind had labeled as such. The mind then ran toward habitual ways of thinking about the experience, including the story that it had something to do with me.

Today, notice how personally you take everything that happens, and then step back a bit and see that these events have nothing to do with you. This is especially useful in dealing with automobile traffic situations. Acknowledge the stories the mind begins to tell about the situation, and especially the way emotions rise so quickly. Take note of how the mind creates whole scenarios about the other drivers that might be doing something that displeases us.

Release the tight fist of grasping (see yesterday's blog) and see if you can just let the entire situation be seen a spacious, non-judgmental awareness (see 11/13/09 blog). There may be judgment aplenty going on, just become aware of it as non-judgmentally as you can.

In the words of the Buddha from the Anattalakkhana Sutta:
Any material form...feeling...perception...mental formations...consciousness whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; gross or subtle; inferior or superior; far or to be seen as it really is with wisdom as: "This is not mine. This is not my self. I am not this."

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Monkey Trap

In Southeast Asia, wild monkeys can be a problem, at least for humans. A friend of mine, who has traveled to Sri Lanka, told me that they have a tendency to throw coconuts and other objects at tourists from their perches in the tress. So trapping and relocating monkeys is a thriving business over there.

In order to catch them, a small wooden box is made, with a hole in it just big enough for a monkey to reach through with one hand, and then the box is secured to a tree. Inside the small box is placed some kind of food, such as a date. Soon enough, a monkey comes along, and sensing the food in the trap, will reach a hand in and grab hold of it.

What the monkey soon discovers, however, is that it cannot remove its hand while holding onto the food because its fist will not fit through the hole. Apparently, the monkey will stay that way, with its hand stuck in the trap clinging tightly to the date, until someone comes along and captures it.

The solution is obvious, of course: if the monkey would let go of the food, it could easily free itself.

We are a lot like the monkeys of Sri Lanka. We see something that we want, and then we grab hold of it and won't let go; clinging onto it for dear life with a tight, grasping fist, unable to free ourselves from the suffering that this kind of behavior causes.

The Buddha said that the origin of suffering is "desire that gives rise to a sense of self." We see something we want, and the mind creates a thought such as, "I need that," or, "that should be mine." The object doesn't have to be a thing. Very often it is a thought or a way of being that we are clinging to so desperately, saying, "this is me!" We can't get our hand out of the trap, and so we are stuck in our habitual patterns of thinking and behaving.

Perhaps if we were to ask the monkeys how we might free ourselves from this mind trap, they would tell us the obvious solution: release the tight fist of clinging. By abandoning the origins of suffering, we can stop the suffering. If the suffering is caused by clinging, stop clinging! It's that simple, and at the same time, extraordinarily difficult.

When you notice you are suffering, when you are feeling stuck in an upsetting or difficult emotion, such as fear or anger, acknowledge first of all that you are suffering. Then imagine a tightly closed fist, and acknowledge that you are clinging to something. Finally, imagine that the tight fist opens and allow whatever it is that you are holding so tightly to be released, or to just be held lightly in the palm of your hand.

From Lama Gendun Rinpoche:
Happiness cannot be found through
great effort and willpower;
but is already present, in open relaxation
and letting go...
Wanting to grasp the ungraspable,
you exhaust yourself in vain.
As soon as you relax this tight fist of grasping,
infinite space is there,
open and inviting.
Make use of this spaciousness,
this freedom and natural ease.
Don't search any further.
Don't go into the tangled jungle
looking for the great awakened elephant,
who is already resting at home,
in front of your own hearth.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

West Wind #2, by Mary Oliver

You are young. So you know everything. You leap

into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me.

Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without

any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me.

Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and

your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to

me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent

penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a

dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile

away and still out of sight, the churn of the water

as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the

sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable

pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth

and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls

plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life

toward it.



Saturday, November 14, 2009

This Fleeting World...

For a wedding present, my cousin Susan went through a box of old photographs of mine, and sent what she thought were the best ones to Scan Cafe, an outfit somewhere in India, where they transfer these old things onto DVD.

Yesterday, I received this gift, and it was an amazing thing to see. Fifty-five years of memories flashed by in the slide show on my laptop. It took so long to live those memories, and so little time to watch them go by. In some of them, I am a little boy, and from that perspective, being my age now might just have well have been an eternity away. From my perspective, now, all those years went by in a few seconds.

Most of the memories were happy ones. Some made me laugh. A couple made me cringe. Some of the people in these photographs are gone now. My eyes welled up more than once, accompanying a wistful smile. The inevitable thought arose that someday, in the not-too-distant future, I will cease to be as well.

Looking at old photographs, seeing myself and my family and friends as we were when young, is a bittersweet experience. It brings into sharp focus just how precious life is in this moment, the only moment we have in which to be alive. And it is the very fact that this existence is impermanent that makes it so precious.

So my Dharma suggestion for today is just to know, even for a few moments, that you are alive. Feel yourself breathe. Feel your heart beating. Look into the eyes of the people you encounter - friends, family, lovers, or strangers - and really be there with them.

There is no tomorrow, only today. There is no there, only here. There is no next, only now.

From the Diamond Sutra:
So I tell you,
Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn,
A bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, a dream...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Non Judgment

One of the classic definitions of "mindfulness" comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn: "Mindfulness means paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally."

It is the part about non-judgment that often trips people up. We are, after all, judgmental beings. It was undoubtedly desirable that our simian ancestors were able to discern a strong tree branch from a weak one while brachiating through the arboreal canopy. So let's just assume that we are in a constant state of judgment. (Notice that you are judging what I'm saying right now.)

What is being asked for in mindfulness practice is not that we stop judging. Like trying to stop thoughts, this one could be impossible. What is required is that we become aware of the judging mind when it occurs, and then to observe it non-judgmentally.

This kind of non-judgmental awareness allows us to create space around all of our experiences. One aspect of judgment is that it limits choice. When we are able to see things with an attitude of non-judgment, we automatically create a sense of spaciousness. Things now have the ability to move and change on their own, and we can just watch this process as it happens, allowing it and letting it be.

This also means that we can observe those times when we are being judgmental, either toward others or ourselves.

In your meditation practice, when you observing some event as it arises (a sound for instance), try using the word "Wow!" to start off the observation. Something like, "Wow! Look how much that noise is bothering me, right now! Feel how my head is pounding. Look at the story my mind is telling me about the noise and the person making it!" By taking this attitude of awe, you can bring a kind of innocence to the practice which helps enable a spacious, non-judging perspective.

Later, when you get up off the cushion, you can bring this same non-judgmental attitude into your daily life.

This We Have Now by Rumi:
This we have now
is not imagination.

This is not
grief or joy.

Not a judging state,
or an elation,
or sadness.

Those come and go.
This is the presence that doesn't.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

On Becoming a Diamond

A few years ago, while I was a student at Pacifica Graduate Institute, I had the privilege of meeting an Apache medicine man named Bear Watcher. He told us a story from his people that has always stayed with me.

He began by telling us that in the Apache language, there are no words for "shame" or "guilt." He said that when each of us is born, we are like raw, uncut diamonds. If you have ever seen a diamond in the rough, you know that they are often not very remarkable. In fact, they sometimes resemble small pieces of common quartz, dull and without much luster. When the diamond is cut by an expert gem cutter, however, its hidden sparkle and luster can be seen clearly.

In the same way, Bear Watcher said, each "cut" that we receive in our lifetime teaches us how to reflect light into the world. Everything that happens to us, every experience, offers us a new cut, revealing a new facet in our diamond. Naturally, the most brilliant and beautiful diamonds are the ones with the most cuts.

I use this image when we come to the end of the last session of our eight-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy groups. I pass out a basket of quartz crystals, and ask each participant to choose one. We hold our crystal in our hands, gazing mindfully at it, and seeing how the light is reflected and refracted within its natural prism.

I tell them Bear Watcher's story, and I conclude by saying that we all have received cuts from our own life experiences, but not to worry. We are merely diamonds-in-progress, gradually revealing our unique brilliance to the world.

So when you feel that life has lost its luster, or when you are unable to touch the preciousness of your existence, hold your own "diamond" in your hand. Instead of feeling shame and guilt toward yourself, express gratitude for the new cut on your diamond that will make you shine just that much brighter.

According to Cindy Carter, Ph.D., who introduced me to Bear Watcher at Pacifica, "acquiring new cuts on our spiritual diamonds is the purpose of life. Those who endorse this story never need to struggle with the question of life's meaning."

The Mountain Got Tired of Sitting by Hafiz (translation by Daniel Ladinsky from The Gift: Poems by Hafiz):

The sun
Won a beauty contest and became a jewel
Set upon God's right hand.

The earth agreed to be a toe ring on the
Beloved's foot
And has never regretted its decision.

The mountains got tired
Of sitting amongst a sleeping audience

And are now stretching their arms
Toward the Roof.

The clouds gave my soul an idea
So I pawned my gills
And rose like a winged diamond

Ever trying to be near
More love, more love
Like you.

The Mountain got tired of sitting
Amongst the snoring crowd inside of me
And rose like a ripe sun
Into my eye.

My soul gave my heart a brilliant idea
So Hafiz is rising like a
Winged diamond.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Journey Itself is the Point

We could say that meditation doesn't have a reason or doesn't have a purpose. In this respect it's unlike almost all other things we do except perhaps making music and dancing. When we make music we don't do it in order to reach a certain point, such as the end of the composition. If that were the purpose of music then obviously the fastest players would be the best. Also, when we are dancing we are not aiming to arrive at a particular place on the floor as in a journey. When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music the playing itself is the point. And exactly the same thing is true in meditation. Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment. - Alan Watts
Thank you, Alan...


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Swimming Against the Stream

My first extended silent retreat was a men's retreat at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in 2000. In his opening remarks, Jack Kornfield noted how unusual it is for men to come together in this way. Mostly, he said, men only come together in the context of business or sports.

During the retreat, I had a dream that I am at Dodger Stadium, sitting in a box seat on the third base side behind the Dodger dugout. Sitting with me are all the men from the retreat. Then the public address announcer's deep, stentorian voice echoes through the stadium. "Now meditating...for the Los Angeles Dodgers..." And all of us stand up with our meditation cushions, and march somberly down to the infield near the on-deck circle. Once there, we plop our cushions down on the grass and sit in perfect zazen posture, meditating the Boys in Blue on to victory.

Would that meditation, or any spiritual pursuit, were honored in this way in our society. Maybe in India, where I am told there are some 4 million saddhus (holy men) wandering around the country at any one time. These yogis are carrying on a 7,000 year-old tradition of renunciation and austerity practice, supported solely by the generosity of the people they meet. I have a feeling, however, that showing up at work wearing a lungi and carrying a trident would not be looked upon favorably.

Instead of taking refuge in silence, we seek after i-Pods. Instead of space, we accumulate clutter. Rather than learning to liberate ourselves by releasing the tight fist of grasping and attachment, we cling to our impermanent possessions. Instead of practicing generosity, we celebrate greed. And even though we must know in our hearts that hatred is only ended by love, we still love to hate.

What I am suggesting is that we don't give ourselves time to cultivate much introspective, individual spiritual practice. If we could all just find fifteen minutes a day to be quiet and still and just feel being alive, I really believe our world would be a better place in which to live.

And maybe the Dodgers could be World Champions again...

Keeping Quiet by Pablo Neruda (translated by Alastair Reid):
And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let's not speak in any language;
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I'll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Making Your Mind a Blank

A comment that I often hear from new meditation students is something like, "I can't stop my mind from thinking." There are many misconceptions about this thing we call "meditation." So much so that I have been avoiding the word lately because of the stories it conjures up about performing some kind of mental gymnastics in order to end up with an empty mind. In fact, I was in a yoga class not long ago, and during a brief meditation at the end of the session the teacher instructed us to "let your mind go blank."

As I say to students who express this kind of preference toward not thinking, "lots of luck." If you try to stop your thoughts, you will probably, a) create more thoughts, b) give yourself a headache from frustration, or c) both. The mind is constantly thinking, and it is out of our control most, if not all, of the time. Trying to stop the mind from thinking would be, as Alan Watts put it,"like trying to stop the waves on the ocean with a flatiron."

And besides, if you were actually able to stop thinking, how would you know? If you think, "Oh, look! I'm not thinking!" then you've blown it. You're thinking again.

Why would we want to stop thinking, anyway? Probably because our thoughts are so annoying and won't let us be. Instead of trying to stop or control the thinking mind, try disengaging from it for a few moments by turning the attention toward a present-moment sensory reality. Fully experience the feeling of a few breaths, or the taste in your mouth right now. For a few moments, the mind will bring its attention toward the sensory object and let go of the thought. The thought will not stop, however, but will simply continue in the background unnoticed.

In formal vipassana practice, we learn how to disengage from the thinking mind over and over by returning to the breath whenever the mind wanders. We just let the thoughts continue in the background, like a radio playing in another room. Sometimes, something interesting comes on the radio, and our attention is pulled toward some thought or other. Then we again disengage from the thought and come back to the breath.

All of this is in service of shutting off the automatic pilot setting that we operate on most of the time, and choosing instead to live with more mindful awareness. Then, instead of reacting automatically from our thoughts, we can respond consciously to them, even seeing them as simply events that happen, almost like a reflex reaction out of our control.

From Lama Gendun Rinpoche:
Whatever momentarily arises
in the body-mind
has no real importance at all,
has little reality whatsoever.
Why identify with
and become attached to it,
passing judgment upon it and ourselves?
Far better to simply let the entire game happen on its own
springing up and falling back like waves,
without changing or manipulating anything,
and notice how everything
vanishes and reappears, magically,
again and again, time without end.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Peace of Wild Things

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
From The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, copyright 1998, Counterpoint Press, a member of the Perseus Book Group.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Your Thoughts Are Not Facts

Not long ago, I was leading a meditation at a yoga studio, when there was a loud bang in the next room. All of us in the group heard the sound, and after the practice was over I asked everyone what they thought the sound was. Each person who answered had come up with a different interpretation of the event.

This is a good example of how our thoughts are not facts. The fact was that there was a sound. Then the mind took over and started categorizing the sound, trying to identify it. There were stories that arose from the mind's interpretation (my story being that there was a gas line explosion and we were going to have to evacuate the building). Memories were evoked, preferences, judgments about the sound being good or bad...All this based on a factual event that lasted less than a second.

In our meditation practice, we get a chance to see clearly (vipassana means "to see clearly" in the Pali language) how the mind does these sorts of things. A sensation in the body arises, such as a leg falling asleep, and the mind creates a whole scenario of disaster around it. A sound arises, and the mind creates stories about it, or says, "I like that sound" or "I don't like that one." And none of these thoughts are facts, aside from the fact that they are thoughts.

It is true that we can have thoughts about facts, but these are still just thoughts. Thoughts can become facts, but the thought is still a thought, not the fact itself. The problem is that our minds have been thinking thoughts for so long, that we have come to believe them as being facts, and when we have upsetting thoughts, they can really convince us that they are true facts.

So we have to cultivate a new relationship to our thoughts. When we are to see them as objects of awareness, not as concrete facts (my thanks to Segal, Williams, and Teasdale for this), then we can begin to look at our thoughts and ask, "Is there any fact here?" We can begin to see thoughts as merely another arising event, just like the bang in the other room.

Through our meditation practice of returning to the breath over and over when the mind wanders (usually to a random thought), we can learn how to disengage from the thinking mind by returning to a present moment sensory reality (such as the breath). When we get up off the cushion, we can put this process to work for us as well.

Doing this kind of disengagement in daily life takes a lot of practice. As they say, it is simple, but not easy. When we begin to make this disengagement more of a habit, however, we can begin to decrease our levels of anxiety, anger, and frustration.

The next time you are feeling an upsetting emotion, such as anxiety or anger, become aware of the thoughts that you are having. Then turn your attention toward a sensory experience: touch something, taste something, smell something, hear or see something real. These sensory experiences are facts. Your upsetting thought will just drop away and be forgotten (at least momentarily). This will take some repeating with difficult or old, habitual thoughts. Have patience and compassion, and be forgiving of yourself.

From The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Translation by W.Y. Evans-Wentz):
The visions you experience exist within your consciousness. . . These visions have no reality outside your consciousness. No matter how frightening some of them may seem they cannot hurt you. . . Just let them pass through your consciousness like clouds passing through an empty sky. Fundamentally they have no more reality than this. . . No matter how far you wander, the light is only a split second, a half-breath away. It is never too late to recognize the clear light.

Friday, November 6, 2009


For the past six weeks, I have been facilitating two groups in a process called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, or MBCT, which is the adaptation of vipassana meditation to help prevent depressive relapse. In the first weeks of introducing the MBCT process to these groups, there inevitably arise comments that indicate a certain level of boredom with the various practices, such as the body scan or the sitting meditations.

I always am a bit perplexed by these reports of boredom. I cannot think of having experienced it very much as an adult, although I'm sure I must have had periods of boredom as a child. For people with a history of depression, however, boredom can be an ugly demon that can suck them into a deep, downward spiral.
When the British actor, George Sanders, committed suicide in 1972, the note he left read, in part, "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored." This from a man who once had seven psychiatrists on his payroll at the same time!

I believe that boredom is the territory we inhabit when the way things are do not match up with the way we want them to be. We would rather be somewhere else, or doing some other thing, or we would rather be with some other person. When we dwell in that discrepency, between the way it is and the way we want it to be, boredom can be one of the feelings that arise.

Boredom can be a hindrance to a meditation practice, as well, whether or not we are susceptible to depression. When one of my teachers was asked what to do about boredom during meditation, he replied, "Be the first yogi to die of boredom. Get to know it intimately." When we look at boredom from this perspective, it can actually become quite interesting. We might even develop a kind of paradoxical perversity of actually looking forward to experiencing boredom in our meditation, so that we can investigate it fully and get to know it minutely.

Great things can come out of boredom, if we open to it, get to know it, and just be with it for a while. Billy Collins, the former Poet Laureate of the United States (2001 - 2003) has said, “What I need to write is boredom. I need stretches of inactivity, of doing nothing in order for the poem to get generated. I think boredom is like the mother of creativity.”

So try getting friendly with your boredom whenever, and wherever, it arises. As my teacher, Phillip Moffitt, likes to say, "Invite it in and serve it tea." Treating it with curiousity is a great way to transform boredom into creative energy.

The Lanyard
by Billy Collins
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Reflections On Dharma

The word "Dharma" has many meanings. For purposes of this blog, the Dharma I refer to usually indicates some relationship to the teachings of the Buddha.

I also believe there is another dimension of Dharma that is much more difficult to translate into words. Language is clumsy, sometimes. As Gustave Flaubert wrote, "Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that would melt the stars."

This does not mean, however, that we should abandon attempts to render the subtler aspects of the Dharma into modern english. Here is one of my attempts from a journal entry on January 1, 2003:
The Dharma is a unifying force, through which, and by which, everything is held together in perfect order and harmony. Dharma is always full and complete at all levels of existence, from atomic to cosmic. There is as much Dharma in an atom as in the entire universe. As such, Dharma cannot be divided, multiplied, added to, or subtracted from.

This means that all beings have the same full measure of Dharma as I do. Imagine the tiniest, most seemingly insignificant part of you -- a single cell on the tip of one of your hairs, perhaps. That tiny part of you has as much Dharma as your entire body.

Reflecting on this can lead to some profound insights. Very quickly we realize the essential sacredness of all objects and beings, and we also begin to sense the essential unity of all things.
If everything is equal, does it take away from the "specialness" of things? Does it mean that it is okay to harm other beings? The answer to both questions is obviously "no." Because each being is imbued with the same amount of Dharma as any other being, all beings are sacred. The ant crawling across my laptop right now has as much Dharma as me, and therefore this ant deserves the same loving kindness, protection, peace, and well-being as I do.

So I'll just let the little ant be. Besides, I need all the readers I can get.

I Find You In All These Things by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by James Hollis):
I find you in all these things,
to which I am brother in all,
in which minuscule seed you minutely hide yourself
and the Great, you greatly reveal yourself.

This wondrous game of power
which unfolds itself in submission:
stretching through the roots, thickening in the trunks,
and resurrecting through the treetops.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Forgiveness Meditation

In yesterday's posting, I discussed how powerful the practice of forgiveness has been in my life. Below is a Meditation on Forgiveness from A Path With Heart: The Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life by Jack Kornfield (1993, pp. 284 - 286, Bantam, NY). This formal practice can be included as part of your daily sitting meditation.

I think it's important to remember two things about forgiveness meditation: 1) Forgiveness does not mean we condone harmful behavior by others or ourselves. It does mean that we are taking a step toward letting go of long-held hurt, anger, and resentment. 2) Forgiveness can be a long process and it should not be forced. Remember that we are extending forgiveness only to the extent that we are able to in this moment.
Forgiveness From Others

There are many ways that I have hurt and harmed others, betrayed or abandoned them, caused them suffering, knowingly or unknowingly, out of my pain, fear, anger, and confusion.

Let yourself remember and visualize these many ways you have hurt others. See and feel the pain you have caused out of your own fear and confusion. Feel your own sorrow and regret, and sense that finally you can release this burden and ask for forgiveness. Picture each memory that still burdens your heart, and then, one by one, repeat:

I ask your forgiveness, I ask your forgiveness...

Forgiveness for Yourself

There are many ways that I have betrayed, harmed, or abandoned myself through thought, word, or deed, knowingly or unknowingly.

Let yourself see the ways you have hurt or harmed yourself. Picture them, remember them, visualize them. Feel the sorrow you have carried from all these actions, and sense that you can release these burdens, extending forgiveness for them one by one. Then say to yourself:

For each of the ways I have hurt myself through action or inaction, out of my fear, pain, and confusion, I now extend a full and heartfelt forgiveness. I forgive myself. I forgive myself...

Forgiveness for Those Who have Hurt or Harmed You

There are many ways I have been wounded or hurt, abused and abandoned by others in thought, word, or deed, knowingly or unknowingly.

Let yourself picture them, remember them, visualize these many ways. Feel the sorrow you have carried from this past and sense that you can release yourself from this burden by extending forgiveness if your heart is ready. Now say to yourself:

In the many ways others have hurt or harmed me, out of fear, pain, confusion, and anger, I see these now. To the extent that I am ready, I offer them forgiveness. I have carried this pain in my heart too long. For this reason, to those who have caused me harm, I offer you my forgiveness. I forgive you.

Let yourself gently repeat these three direction for forgiveness until you can feel a release in your heart. Perhaps for some great pains you may not feel a release, but only the burden and the anguish or anger that you have held. Touch this softly. Be forgiving of yourself as well. Forgiveness cannot be forced; it cannot be artificial. Simply continue to practice, and let the words and images work gradually in their own way.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


More often than I like to admit it, I sometimes find myself in the grip of powerful, negative emotions. In these times, Kathy, the being on this planet who IS my Dharma, always reminds me to begin the process of unwinding from these entanglements by forgiving myself.

In those highly charged moments, when the storm of habitual thoughts and resultant feelings is at its peak of intensity, forgiving myself is the last thing I ever think to do. I am not only in the grip of my thoughts, I am gripping them as well; clinging for dear life to whatever old and outworn ways of being I imagine will save me, as my little boat named "I, Me & Mine" threatens to capsize in the tempest.

Eventually, I am able to feel my breath again. Soon, I can disengage from the mind by connecting with the fact of this sensory reality (rather than believing stories that have no reality to them whatsoever). Then, I can leverage the tiny space created by the breath to open my heart just a crack to let in some healing light. By and by, I do forgive myself, and I invite myself to start over again. I can begin to feel compassion for myself for being the work-in-progress that I am.

The more I make my way through life and the Dharma, the more I have come to trust and rely upon the extraordinary power of forgiveness coupled with compassion. Even if I have to be reminded of it from time to time.

Here is a teaching story I first heard from Jack Kornfield during the autumn retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in 2001. It was only a few weeks after the tragic events of September 11, and we had just learned that the United States was unleashing a rain of terror on the people of Afghanistan. To me, it was, and is, a powerful lesson in forgiveness -- of others, and of ourselves:
In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he or she is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, about all the good things the person in the center has done in their lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy is recounted. All their positive attributes, good deeds, strengths and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. The tribal ceremony often lasts several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Doors of Perception

One of the first insights I have gotten from my Month of Living Mindfully is that it is so easy to slip into automatic pilot mode.

I have chosen for my first week to bring awareness to bear every time I open a door, and I am amazed at how much I take this activity for granted, and how easy it is to completely miss the moment. AND... When I am mindful of it, I become aware of how much of a transitional moment it actually is. I'm not just talking about putting a key in a lock or turning a doorknob, but the movement from one space into another and the subtle changes of context that we may pick up on some super-sensory level, but of which we may not be consciously aware.

For example, I'm really savoring the experience of feeling how the air changes from one room to another, or more dramatically, from outdoors to indoors and back again. I have begun to look forward with giddy excitement to these transitional moments. Which begs the question: If I can get this much out of opening a door or two, what else have I been missing in my daily life?

The Breeze at Dawn by Rumi:
The breeze at dawn
has secrets to tell you.

Don't go back to sleep.

You must ask
for what you really want.

Don't go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth
across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.

Don't go back to sleep.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Month of Living Mindfully

Today I led a silent meditation retreat in Temescal Canyon near Malibu. I was one of two teachers, so I had the opportunity to get in on a little of the stillness myself (why should the retreatants have all the fun?). I luxuriated in the exquisite, palpable silence of the sitting practices, and reveled in the joys of the walking meditation.

During one walking practice, it came to me that I should devote the month of November to living as mindful a life as I can. I have been feeling the need to devote more wholeheartedness to my practice, so each morning will begin with a minimum 30-minute sitting, followed by 10 to 15 minutes of mindful walking. For each week, I will choose one everyday activity that I will do with mindful awareness (this week: I will be present every time I open a door). During difficult times, whenever I can remember to do so, I will disengage from the thinking mind and bring awareness to a physical, sensory reality -- a sound, a taste, a sensation, an object of sight, or a smell.

The lesson here for me is that even though I teach this stuff just about every day in some form, there is no substitute for personal practice.

We are householders, not monastics, and most of us can't drop everything whenever we want to and attend retreats for extended periods of time. We have to find a way in our daily lives to connect with the present moment without renouncing our lives. A Month of Living Mindfully may be a way to start.

From The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light and the stillness the dancing.