Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Stroke of Midnight

For all that is said in this blog about the way many of us operate on automatic pilot setting most of the time, there is one period of time in the year in which a lot of people become very mindful. I am speaking, of course, of the moments leading up to, and then culminating in, the stroke of midnight signaling the beginning of the new year.

For me, it is reminiscent of being a kid, and getting my picture taken with one foot on either side of a state line. In that moment, I knew where I was in relationship to everything else around me on the planet, and I could point to that exact spot on the map. To this day, when I travel by plane, I often eschew the in-flight entertainment so I can follow the moment-to-moment progress of the little airplane icon on the GPS screen.

The truth is, we can become aware of any moment we choose at any time of the year. However, there is something about the awareness of the exact moment that one year ends and another begins that holds special magic for us. For that moment, we seem to be in control of time, and we can make of that moment whatever we choose to make of it. For a few moments there is mindfulness of our surroundings, the people we are with, and the feelings that we have. Then the mindfulness, along with the moment, begins to fade and we are back to automatic pilot mode. January 1st is just another day.

Mindfulness is short-lived and requires regular attention to maintain for any length of time. It is not our default setting as humans. Christopher Titmus once said, "It is easier to walk on the Sea of Galilee than to feel three complete breaths." This is obvious to anyone who has practiced mindfulness of breathing.

The point is to be as aware as possible of the special (and not so special) moments in our life. They are fleeting and impermanent. We will only be in this place right now for this moment, and then this moment is gone. Don't wait for the countdown to midnight to practice some mindful awareness. It is available to you right now. It is a half a breath away.

From Deepak Chopra:
We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share. This is a precious moment, but it is transient. It is a little parenthesis in eternity. If we share with caring, lightheartedness, and love, we will create abundance and joy for each other. And then this moment will have been worthwhile.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Setting Intentions

The time of transition at the end of the year is a wonderful opportunity to take a moment and set intentions for how we would like the coming year to be for us. In truth, of course, we cannot accurately predict the future, so we must always release attachment to the actual outcome of our intentions. We must also factor in that the unexpected will happen at some point along the way, but this uncertainty about the outcome only adds to the excitement of life as it unfolds moment-to-moment.

Still, an amazing and almost miraculous thing occurs when we consciously set intentions: the entire universe joins with us and takes care of the details. All we have to do is pay attention to what needs to be done moment-by-moment in our daily lives (and anything we pay attention to will thrive, eventually), and give the intention over to the universe and its supply of infinite potential.

Begin by writing down your intentions and desires for the new year. Write them in first person and present tense (e.g., "I have" rather than "I will have"). Be specific about these intentions. As a Lakota sweatlodge leader once told me, "Be careful how you pray for things, because if you pray for a new car, you might get one in a crosswalk someday." The more specific you can make your intentions, the easier it is for you to do the next step.

Read over your list of intentions and desires as often as you can. When you do this, allow yourself to feel the emotional experience of having each one of them fulfilled. This is a present moment emotional experience, not a fantasy of how you think you will feel. Let yourself feel the desire and intention as being fulfilled in this moment.

Finally, let go of the outcome and the emotional feeling of it, and give it all over to the universe. This is the most important step, because you must release your attachment to the outcome of your intentions if they are to become reality. Clinging to your desires with a closed fist will prevent you from receiving the gift of the intention.

Your job now is to pay attention to what needs to be done moment-to-moment to manifest your intentions and desires. Again, be sure to include the unexpected in your plans, because we really don't know how these things will actually become reality. Remember, too, that all obstacles carry with them the seeds of opportunity, so don't get discouraged by seeming set backs along the way.

With the universe handling the infinity of details that it has at its disposal, and with you managing the moment-to-moment details of paying attention to your intentions, your desires will manifest themselves. It may not happen in the time you expect (or want) them to occur, and they will probably come to you in unexpected and surprising ways. However, all intentions and desires will manifest themselves in their season.

Until one is committed there is always hesitancy,
the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.
There is one elementary truth,
the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:
the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help that would never otherwise have occurred.
A whole stream of events issues from the decision,
raising to one’s favor all manner of unforeseen accidents and meetings
and material assistance which no man could have dreamed
would come his way.
Whatever you can do or dream you can begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. ~ Attributed to Goethe


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Just Because It's Hard Doesn't Mean It's Bad

Some years back, a new student attended one of the weekend sitting groups that I lead. Afterward, we talked briefly about her first experience with vipassana, and she mentioned that she has a hard time just sitting still. Hoping to help this student, I suggested that perhaps a moving meditation might be more effective, if sitting still for extended periods is too hard. "Oh, no," she replied, “hard does not necessarily mean that it’s ‘bad’.”

For the most part, however, most people do not like to do the things that are hard. I am reminded of President John Kennedy’s famous speech in 1961, when he was announcing his goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth by the end of that decade. “We do these things,” he said, “not because they are easy but because they are hard.”

Introspective practices, such as meditation or yoga, share this quality. We do them because they provide us with inner obstacles over which we can climb or move through, and in doing so, we come out stronger on the other side. We invite the difficulty in small, controlled ways, so that we can face the difficulties in our daily life that are big and not within our control.

During your sitting meditation, or in your yoga practice, when the hard stuff presents itself, see if you can first of all turn toward it and acknowledge its presence. After all, if it is here, it must be known. Allow the difficult experience to simply "be," while you note how it moves through the physical body as sensation or as feelings of emotion. Then notice how the mind tells its stories about the situation, how it creates preferences and judgments about it, and the way it wants things to be other than the way they are.

By taking this course of action (or non-action) toward difficult events in our practice life, we can be more skillful and graceful in taking action (or non-action) in our daily life.
Each difficult moment has the potential to open my eyes and open my heart. ~ Myla Kabat-Zinn

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Indian Parrot, by Rumi

There was a merchant setting out for India.

He asked each male and female servant
what they wanted to be brought as a gift.

Each told him a different exotic object:
A piece of silk, a brass figurine,
a pearl necklace.

Then he asked his beautiful caged parrot,
the one with such a lovely voice,
and she said,
"When you see the Indian parrots,
describe my cage. Say that I need guidance
here in my separation from them. Ask how
our friendship can continue with me so confined
and them flying about freely in the meadow mist.

Tell them that I remember well our mornings
moving together from tree to tree.

Tell them to drink one cup of ecstatic wine
in honor of me here in the dregs of my life.

Tell them that the sound of their quarrelling
high in the trees would be sweeter
to hear than any music."

This parrot is the spirit-bird in all of us,
that part that wants to return to freedom,
and is the freedom. What she wants
from India is herself!

So this parrot gave her message to the merchant,
and when he reached India, he saw a field
full of parrots. He stopped
and called out what she had told him.

One of the nearest parrots shivered
and stiffened and fell down dead.

The merchant said, "This one is surely kin
to my parrot. I shouldn't have spoken."

He finished his trading and returned home
with the presents for his workers.

When he got to the parrot, she demanded her gift.
"What happened when you told my story
to the Indian parrots?"

"I'm afraid to say."
"Master, you must!"

"When I spoke your complaint to the field
of chattering parrots, it broke
one of their hearts.

She must have been a close companion,
or a relative, for when she heard about you
she grew quiet and trembled, and died."

As the caged parrot heard this, she herself
quivered and sank to the cage floor.

This merchant was a good man.
He grieved deeply for his parrot, murmuring
distracted phrases, self-contradictory -
cold, then loving - clear, then
murky with symbolism.

A drowning man reaches for anything!
The Friend loves this flailing about
better than any lying still.

The One who lives inside existence
stays constantly in motion,
and whatever you do, that king
watches through the window.

When the merchant threw the "dead" parrot
out of the cage, it spread its wings
and glided to a nearby tree!

The merchant suddenly understood the mystery.
"Sweet singer, what was in the message
that taught you this trick?"

"She told me that it was the charm
of my voice that kept me caged.
Give it up, and be released!"

The parrot told the merchant one or two more
spiritual truths. Then a tender goodbye.

"God protect you," said the merchant
"as you go on your new way.
I hope to follow you!"

(Translation by Coleman Barks)


Sunday, December 27, 2009

In Memory of Dr. Sidney Morgenbesser

Sidney Morgenbesser was a philosophy professor at Columbia University, who was known for his razor-sharp wit that could penetrate almost any philosophical discussion, and cut right the to heart of the matter. Dr. Morgenbesser's offerings of logic, humor, and insight, would invite comparisons with Socrates - minus the Yiddish accent.

For example, he published very little, and when he was asked why, he replied, "Moses wrote one book. Then what did he do?"

And there was the time Dr. Morgenbesser was involved in a heated political dialectic with a student who had Maoist sentiments. The student asked the Good Professor if he agreed with Chairman Mao's saying that a statement can be both true and false at the same time. Dr. Morgenbesser came back with, "I do, and I don't."

The most famous Morgenbesserism, however, was reserved for the British linguist and philosopher, J.L. Austin, who was presenting a paper at Columbia about the close analysis of language. Austin had just declared that a double negative in English implies a positive meaning (e.g., "I do not want nothing"), while nowhere is the case supported where two negatives can equate to a positive meaning. From somewhere in the lecture hall Dr. Morgenbesser was heard to mutter dismissively, "Yeah, yeah!"


Saturday, December 26, 2009

We Don't Know the Story, Yet

The Taoist sage, Wei Po Yang, once said, "Worry is preposterous...we don't know enough to worry." Yet, for much of our life we are almost constantly worrying about the the future - a future that is itself based on a remembered past. This is probably because we use our past experiences as an internal GPS device to help us get our bearings as a present-moment situation arises.

What happens to me, when I trust my inner GPS, is that I get caught up in the story my mind creates regarding the situation. Of course, the story that my mind tells me, and the actual experience when it finally occurs (if it ever does), never completely match. How can I write a fictional story about a non-fiction life, especially when I have no clue how it will turn out? I obviously don't have enough information yet to know how the story ends.

Still, my mind insists that it knows exactly what will happen later today, tomorrow, next week, next year, and so on. And yet, even though I'm usually wrong about the outcomes, my mind insists not only on telling the story, but believing it as well. As Mark Twain said, "My life has been a terrible series of calamities, some of which actually happened."

When the situation ends, and I see with hindsight that everything is fine (or even turned out for the best), then I have gained a little wisdom. Hindsight is always 20/20, but can it be possible to have the wisdom of this hindsight during a present-moment situation? I have found that it is possible, and that it takes practice, because the human mind does not usually come wired that way from the factory.

A strategy that works for me is to remind myself of two things: 1) My anxiety is always future-based; it is my mind creating a story about something that has not happened yet, and probably never will happen, and 2) I don't know the whole story, yet, because I don't have enough information. I then connect to some sensory experience that is happening in the present moment, such as feeling my body breathing. Connecting to a present-moment sensory object will automatically disengage the ruminating mind that insists on spinning out stories.

When we are able to ground ourselves in the present moment, we become less tyrannized by the imagined future based on a remembered past. We can learn to become less anxious by dwelling more in the reality of this moment, rather than in the non-reality of our thoughts. We still don't know how the story ends, but we are more at ease as we watch it unfold.

From Fragment on Nature, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:
At each moment she starts upon a long journey, and at
each moment reaches her end... All is eternally present
in her, for she knows neither past nor future.
For her the present is eternity.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Gift, By Nancy L. Dahberg

[This is a story that Jack Kornfield traditionally reads when leading retreats at holiday times.]

It was Sunday. Christmas. Our family had spent the holidays in San Francisco with my husband's parents. But in order for us to be back at work on Monday, we found ourselves driving the 400 miles home to Los Angeles on Christmas Day.

It is normally an 8-hour drive, but with kids it can be a 14-hour endurance test. When we could stand it no longer, we stopped for lunch in King City. This little metropolis is made up of six gas stations and three sleazy diners, and it was into one of these diners that the four of us trooped--road weary and saddle sore.

As I sat Erik, our 1-year-old, in a high chair, I looked around the room and wondered, "What am I doing in this place?"

The restaurant was nearly empty. We were the only family and ours were the only children. Everyone else was busy eating, talking quietly, aware perhaps that we were all somehow out of place on this special day, when even the cynical pause to reflect on peace and brotherhood.

My reverie was interrupted when I heard Erik squeal with glee, "Hithere." (Two words he thought were one.) "Hithere" he pounded his fat baby hands--whack, whack--on the metal high chair tray. His face was alive with excitement, eyes wide, gums bared in a toothless grin. He wriggled, and chirped, and giggled, and then I saw the source of the merriment...and my eyes could not take it all in at once.

A tattered rag of a coat--obviously bought by someone else eons ago--dirty, greasy, and worn...baggy pants--both they and the zipper at half-mast over a spindly body--toes that poked out of would-be shoes...a shirt that had ring-around-the-collar all over and a face like none other...gums as bare as Erik' uncombed, unwashed, and unbearable...whiskers too short to be called a beard, but way, way beyond a shadow, and a nose so varicose that it looked like the map of New York.

I was too far away to smell him--but I knew he smelled--and his hands were waving in the air, flapping about on loose wrists.

"Hi there baby; hi there, big boy. I see ya, buster."

My husband and I exchanged a look that was a cross between "What do we do?" and "Poor devil."

Erik continued to laugh and answer, "Hi, Hithere." Every call was echoed.

I noticed waitresses eyebrows shoot to their foreheads, and several people sitting near us "ahemed" out loud.

This old geezer was creating a nuisance with my beautiful baby.

I shoved a cracker at Erik, and he pulverized it on the tray. I whispered "Why me?" under my breath.

Our meal came, and the cacophony continued. Now the old bum was shouting from across the room: "Do ya know patty cake?...Atta boy... Do ya know peek-a-boo?...Hey, look, he knows peek-a-boo!"

Nobody thought it was cute. The guy was a drunk and a disturbance, I was embarrassed. My husband, Dennis, was humiliated. Even our six-year-old said, "Why is that old man talking so loud?"

We ate in silence--all except Erik, who was running through his repertoire for the admiring applause of a skid-row bum.

Finally, I had enough. I turned the high chair. Erik screamed and clamored around to face his old buddy. Now I was mad.

Dennis went to pay the check, imploring me to "get Erik and meet me in the parking lot."

I trundled Erik out of the high chair and looked toward the exit. The old man sat poised and waiting, his chair directly between me and the door.

"Lord, just let me out of here before he speaks to me or Erik." I bolted for the door.

I soon became obvious that both the Lord and Erik had other plans.

As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back, walking to sidestep him--and any air he might be breathing. As I did so, Erik, all the while with his eyes riveted to his best friend, leaned far over my arm, reaching with both arms in a baby's "pick me up" position.

In a split second of balancing my baby and turning to counter his weight I came eye-to-eye with the old man. Erik was lunging for him, arms spread wide.

The bum's eyes both asked and implored, "Would you let me hold your baby?"

There was no need for me to answer since Erik propelled himself from my arms to the man's.

Suddenly a very old man and a very young baby consummated their love relationship. Erik laid his tiny head upon the man's ragged shoulder. The man's eyes closed, and I saw tears hover beneath his lashes. His aged hands full of grime, and pain, and hard labor--gently, so gently, cradled my baby's bottom and stroked his back.

I stood awestruck. The old man rocked and cradled Erik in his arms for a moment, and then his eyes opened and set squarely on mine. He said in a firm and commanding voice, "You take care of this baby."

Somehow I managed, "I will", from a throat that contained a stone.

He pried Erik from his chest--unwillingly, longingly--as though he was in pain.

"God bless you ma'm. You've given me my Christmas gift."

I said nothing more than a muttered thanks.

With Erik back in my arms, I ran for the car. Dennis wondered why I was crying and holding Erik so tightly and why I was saying, "My God, oh God, forgive me."



Thursday, December 24, 2009

Receiving The Present

Every moment brings with it the gift of insight and the potential for enlightenment. By learning to be more attuned to this moment as it is, we can then be more available for the gifts this moment has to offer us.

As we are well aware, the gift we receive in this moment may not be the be the one we want, and we might not want to accept the delivery. If so, however, we will miss out on the insight and wisdom that the moment can bring along with it. As Deepak Chopra wrote:
The past is history, the future is a mystery, and this moment is a gift. That is why this moment is called "the present"
As best as you can today, turn toward the Universe with open arms and receive the present which is given to you in each moment.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Still Point

Try this slight adjustment in perception as you move through your day: Notice that the breath always arises out of stillness, and returns back again to stillness. Feel how the inhale comes up from this stillness, and how the exhale draws you down into the stillness.

The stillness is always there, waiting to be experienced any time you need it - always just a half a breath away.

Enjoy these moments of stillness in the midst of all the rushing around.

From Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


In your meditation practice, and in daily life, notice how the mind creates preferences and judgments about things that are essentially neutral experiences. Then witness how the mind insists on clinging to the thing it prefers, and has aversion toward whatever it does not prefer.

One sense object that is particularly useful for this experiment is sound. All sounds are neutral events that arise out of stillness, and return back to stillness. Once the sound has been heard, however, the mind will immediately jump in and categorize the sound as good, bad, wanted, unwanted, and so forth.

Soon we can see that even the naming of a sound is merely a thought. During a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, Jon Kabat-Zinn asked after a walking practice how many us had heard birds. Many of us raised our hands. Then he said, "None of you heard birds. What you heard were sounds. It was your mind that labeled the sounds 'birds'."

There can also arise a strong tendency to take the sound personally. I was meditating one morning when I heard the sound of a leaf blower down the street. Leaf blowers happen to be a sound that my mind always labels "irritable." I heard myself think, "Why is that person doing that so early? It's really bothering me." The truth was, "that person" was not using the leaf blower to bother me, and had no idea that I existed. It was my mind that was causing me to be upset.

The mind can also create amazing stories about sounds, even if we have no idea what the sound actually is. I was leading a class in a yoga studio one morning when there was a very loud bang from the next room. After the sitting, I asked the group if anyone heard the sound, and everyone said they did. Then we shared the stories that our minds had come up with to explain the sound, and all of the stories and explanations were different from each other.

I now welcomed sound during my meditation practice as a great path to insight into how my mind automatically creates preferences regarding how I would like things to be. In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with preferences. It is when we cling to them that we cause ourselves suffering. It's not wrong to want to have silence, but we never have a choice about what sounds will arise from one moment to the next. If we are bothered because our children play their music louder than we would prefer, or because the trash collectors arrive earlier than we would like on a Wednesday morning, that is our mind causing the problem, not the sound.

When we begin to let go of the clinging and aversion caused by preferences, and recognize sounds as merely events that have nothing to do with us, we can relieve ourselves from unnecessary suffering. We can then apply this lesson to other experiences in our daily life when our mind creates preferences and stories about things which are essentially neutral and impersonal.

From Hsin-hsin Ming: Verses on the Faith-Mind by Seng-ts'an, Third Zen Patriarch (Translated by Richard B. Clarke):
The Great Way is not difficult
for those not attached to preferences.
When neither love nor hate arises,
all is clear and undisguised.
Separate by the smallest amount, however,
and you are as far from it as heaven is from earth...

Indeed, it is due to our grasping and rejecting
that we do not know the true nature of things...

When you try to stop activity to achieve quietude,
your very effort fills you with activity.
As long as you remain attached to one extreme or another,
you will never know Oneness.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Solstice

Today, December 21, 2009, marks the winter solstice, the day with the shortest amount of sunlight, and the longest length of darkness. The word "solstice" is from the Latin meaning, "sun standing still," and to people at least as far back as Neolithic times, this has been an important and sacred season.

The ancients were undoubtedly concerned that the sun was appearing less frequently as the season progressed, and the belief arose that human intervention was required or the sun might go away completely. Celebrations, rituals, and noisy revels were traditional components of this intervention. Before electricity and central heating, gatherings in homes around the hearth, or outdoors around a bonfire, were commonplace.

Today, the tradition continues with holiday parties, traveling to be with friends and loved ones, gathering around the television - which writer and mythologist, Xia, has called "the modern hearth of the home" - for the annual viewing of It's A Wonderful Life, and the frenzy of holiday shopping. All of these pursuits still help to accomplish the important role of driving away the darkness. (Regarding the shopping part, t
hree separate studies in 2008 indicate that compulsive buying can be linked to, among other things, depression, anxiety, and stress. Perhaps we are "buying off" our fear of darkness and death, and putting it on a credit card to that will have to be paid eventually.)

It's natural for people to want more light and less darkness, and there is a psychiatric diagnosis for individuals who suffer from depression during the winter: Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD). Yet, darkness is sometimes a necessary element in the life cycle of all things. It is a time of renewal and introspection; a time to lie fallow for a while so that, when the sun eventually returns, we can come into full bloom and fruition.

So, please, enjoy yourself fully this solstice season. Get together with as many people as you can, and revel in the giving and receiving that the holidays bring. When you can, however, take some time to be still and quiet, and to journey for a moment into the darkness. Remember that the sun will return.

Shadow and Light Source Both, by Rumi (Translation by Coleman Barks):
How does a part of the world leave the world?
How does wetness leave water?

Don't try to put out fire by throwing on
more fire! Don't wash a wound with blood.

No matter how fast you run, your shadow
keeps up. Sometimes it's in front!

Only full overhead sun diminishes your shadow.
But that shadow has been serving you.

What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is
your candle. Your boundaries are your quest.

I could explain this, but it will break the
glass cover on your heart, and there's no
fixing that.

You must have shadow and light source both.
Listen, and lay your head under the tree of awe.

When from that tree feathers and wings sprout on you,
be quieter than a dove. Don't even open your mouth for even a coo.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

It's Come To This

One of my favorite Dharma teachers, Wes Nisker, once read a quote that went something like this: "The next time you're doing something really mundane - like brushing your teeth or doing the dishes or going to the bathroom - say to yourself, 'So, it's come to this'."

This moment is the culmination of all the moments of your life. Enjoy it!


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Lost (And Found) Horizon

Warning: This is going to be a very personal posting. It will have a smidge of the Dharma in it, but that's about it. Mostly it is going to be about me. It's going to be a bit sappy, and perhaps too personally revealing at times, so proceed at your own risk.

Okay, you've been warned...

Last week, my wife Kathy and I tuned in to Turner Classic Movies, and watched the 1937 classic, Lost Horizon, directed by Frank Capra. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I forced Kathy to watch Lost Horizon with me. This film has reached something akin to mythical proportions in my mind ever since I first saw it on television with my father when I was about 11 or 12 years old. I have a feeling the film had similar meaningfulness for him as well, since he was a teenager when it was first released.

Here is the reason I wanted so badly to see the film again: If I had not watched it with my dad back in Overland Park, Kansas, in the mid-1960's, I can say with just about absolute certainty that I would not be writing this blog today. In terms of the Dharma, this film, for me, illustrates the concept of interdependent co-arising - how this is, because that was; how this happens, because that happened.

But back to the film. It tells the story of an adventurer and statesman based in China, played by Ronald Colman sporting his trademark pencil-thin mustache. He is marooned, along with several other westerners, when their plane crash lands in Tibet. They are then taken to Shangri-la, a mysterious valley with a temperate climate - a land where aging has been slowed down, and people live routinely into their hundreds.

Colman meets the founder and leader of Shangri-la, the High Lama, played by Sam Jaffe in primitive film make-up meant to make him look hundreds of years old. But it worked for me when I was a boy. The dream of a Shangri-la, combined with the peaceful nobility of the High Lama, really got to me then, just as it brought tears to my eyes last week. By and by, Colman ill-advisably leaves Shangri-la, but then eventually returns, experiencing great hardships and overcoming impossible obstacles along the way.

For an adolescent, this story of adventure, romance, and spiritualism, with a heavy dose of idealistic fantasy, was irresistable. For those reasons alone the film would have stuck with me. Then, a short time after watching it, I was passing the time looking through the stacks at my Junior High School library, when I came upon a book entitled My Land and My People written by someone called the "His Holiness the Dalai Lama." I was understandably confused. "You mean there really are High Lamas?" I wondered? "There really is a place called Tibet?" Excitedly, I snatched the book off the shelf and went right to the pictures.

As I pored over the grainy black and white photographs of the city of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and the Potala, the temple-palace where the Dalai Lama had lived, I was struck by how familiar it all seemed. It was as though I had lived here once, myself. When I began reading the story of the Tibetan child, Tenzin Gyatso, who would become the Dalai Lama, and his description of his early years as a monk, I felt my heart quiver with an inexplicable feeling of recognition and fullness.

Of course, I was a kid living in Kansas at the time, so I could never become a monk. I thought this kind of life was reserved only for Asians, anyway. Besides, these things might as well have been taking place on Mars, for my ability to access them was nil. Little did I know that Americans, not much older than me, would soon set out to study the Buddha's teachings the monasteries of Thailand, Burma, Shri Lanka, India, and Nepal. These young people would include Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, and many others, who would later become very important in my spiritual quest.

The fullness in my heart would always return when I would think about the Dalai Lama and his home in Tibet. It would be there when I decided to study the spirituality of the Christian mystics a few years later; when I joined a charismatic youth group in High School; when I was initiated into Transcendental Meditation in College; when I came under the influence of the Unity School of Christianity after moving to Los Angeles; when I began a deep practice of hatha yoga; and finally (and most importantly because it completed the circle), when I found vipassana meditation.

I was at the Bodhitree Bookstore rummaging through their shelves, when a book fell on my head. Literally. It was No Matter Where You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. A clerk walking past tossed out casually, "If a book falls on your head, you have to buy it!" So I did. Here was that feeling, again. It was like I had been on a faraway journey, with many wrong turns and dead ends, but somehow I had finally found my way back to where it all began.

When the movie was over, I turned to my beloved and told her through my tears, that if it were not for the film we had just watched, I would never have met her, since our paths crossed because of my meditation practice.

It's all so precious and delicate - our lives hanging by a thread. I saw an old movie on TV when I was a boy, and it led me to this. How miraculous it all seems to me, now. A world of wonder. My own Shangri-la.


Friday, December 18, 2009


When I ask new meditation and yoga students why they have decided to come to these practices, they often use the word "balance." They either want to improve their physical balance, or they are trying to find more balance in their lives in general. These are noble and wholesome desires, and at the same time, they bring with them some expectations that are difficult to meet.

Early in my current yoga practice, I heard teacher Gangha White say that "Balance is never static." This is obvious when we attempt some posture in which we are standing on one foot, such as the Tree Pose (vrksassana). We can see very quickly that the foot we are standing on is constantly making adjustments to keep us from falling over. It would be a mistake to try to control this movement, which almost always leads to over correcting and a complete loss of balance. We have to be present for these movements, keeping them in awareness moment-to-moment, and allow the body to find its way back to equilibrium.

It seems, therefore, that balance is a continuous play between steadiness and unsteadiness. To expect balance to be the absence of instability would mean denying that we are living organisms. The body has a built-in postural control system that is constantly displacing and correcting the position of our center of gravity over our feet to keep us upright. This interplay between destabilizing forces and this control system can be felt clearly by standing with both feet touching, and then closing your eyes.

In fact, the body is making countless micro-adjustments every second to keep itself stable through a phenomenon known as "postural sway." Try to stop this swaying, and you will see very quickly that the unconscious system is much more effective than our conscious mind. Imagine if we had to manage this system consciously all day long. It would take all of our attention. This postural control system is very much like the fly-by-wire control systems in modern aircraft. Some planes, like the F-117 Stealth Fighter, are inherently unstable aerodynamically. Therefore, a computer system is required to provide constant flight corrections which allows the plane the maintain control. Without this computer, the plane would plummet to the ground like a sack of potatoes.

So the nature of balance is that we can never be totally still. Even small events, such as breathing, can affect the postural control system. If we use the experience of balance in the body as a metaphor of our life, we can see that we can never expect perfect calm for extended periods of time. We are moving constantly from balance, to imbalance, and back again. Balance may be less like a feeling of steadiness, and more like the way choreographer Twyla Tharp once described walking: a controlled fall.

So as Gangha said, balance is never static - it is a process that is in constant motion. Balance is not the absence of movement, but the awareness of movement. So when we purposefully stand on one foot, it is not to achieve balance, but to merely be aware of the process of balance. Likewise, when we sit in meditation practice and experience pleasant and unpleasant events coming and going, we are taking part in this flow of balance.

We have to expect that there will be times of instability in our lives, and we have to know that these unstable experiences are inevitable. We also have to learn to trust our natural, inherent wisdom to help us manage these out-of-balance times, rather than reacting in a panic, and sending the whole thing crashing down. When we get in touch with the feelings of balance and imbalance - and with the pleasant and unpleasant - we can be more graceful during the wobbly, unsteady times, and more grateful during the moments of stability.
There is no secret to balance. You just have to feel the waves.~ Frank Herbert

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Making Time To Practice

Beginning and maintaining a personal practice of any kind, be it meditation, yoga, or any form of physical exercise, may seem difficult and daunting. Every year, Americans spend millions of dollars on equipment designed to flatten their tummies or increase the size of their biceps. Of course, a vast majority of these devices end up practically unused in the closet or garage.

Over the years that I have been teaching yoga, I have been astonished at how few of my students practice at home, despite my constant urgings to do so. Instead of going to all the trouble, time, and expense to get to a group class at a yoga studio, they could just throw out their mat, drop down on the floor, and get the same thing at home any time they wish.

In many ways, the home practice is a richer experience. Home practice cultivates discipline and self-empowerment. When you go to a group class, you might be comparing yourself to other students, or the teacher, in a subtle and insidious form of competition. All kinds of negative self-image judgments can arise from this. When you practice at home, you are the "best" yogi in the room! Most importantly, at home, by yourself, you are only hearing your own inner voice guiding your practice, not the drone of some teacher (like me).

I have often asked students why they find it so difficult to have a personal practice, and the two answers I receive most are, "I don't have time," and "I don't like to do it alone." I have extracted from these replies a common theme: "I don't like to spend time alone."

Cultivating a meditation practice may seem even more intimidating, since it is a practice that is completely about being with oneself and treating this experience with friendly curiosity. Here are some quick strategies that may help you to get your practice started, or to revive one that is on the rocks.

1. In cultivating any kind of practice, try to bring to your efforts wisdom, patience, and self-compassion. Don't push yourself beyond your abilities, whether you are doing yoga or meditation. Avoid the "boot camp" mentality of personal trainers (and many yoga teachers), and adopt instead an attitude of "wholehearted effort."

Consistency is the key. Try to do something every day. A ten-minute yoga practice of just a few simple stretches first thing in the morning can make a real difference in how the rest of your day goes. Likewise, just sitting and feeling the breath for ten or fifteen minutes can really ground you.

3. Use common sense regarding how long you practice. This is especially true if you, like most people, don't think you have time in your schedule to practice. When you are short on time, decrease the length of the practice, rather than skipping it altogether. As Jon Kabat-Zinn tells us, "[Our practice] needs to become part of your life, in the same way that eating or working is. We keep the practice alive by making time for being, for non-doing, no matter how much rearranging it takes."

4. Remember how good you'll feel afterwards. In all the years I have been practicing yoga and meditation, I have never regretted having taken the time to do my practice. When I am really resitant to going to the cushion or the mat, I remember that, when it's over, I will feel very good about myself in some way.

From Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn:
Just making the commitment to practice non-doing, to let go of striving, to be non-judgmental, slows down that time for you and nourishes the timeless in you. By devoting some time each day to slowing down time itself, for giving yourself time for just being, you are strengthening your ability to operate out of your being, in the present, during the rest of your day, when the pace of the outer and inner worlds may be much more relentless. This is why it is so important to organize your life around preserving some time each day for just being.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Empty Your Boat

In many of these Dharma blogs, we have touched upon some repeating themes, such as the concepts of being empty of self (12/3, 12/4, & 12/11), releasing grasping (11/16/ & 11/17), and making space for things to simply be as they are (12/7). These concepts come together beautifully in this parable from the Chinese mystic, Chuang Tzu, as interpreted by Osho:
If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout to him to steer clear.
And if the shout is not heard he will shout
Again, and yet again, and begin cursing -
And all because there is somebody in that boat.
Yet if the boat were empty,
He would not be shouting, and he would not be angry.
In your travels today, and particularly as you jostle with the other "boats" on the streets and freeways, try making this adjustment: see all the other cars as empty boats just going with the flow of the river. In doing so, you might be able to catch a moment of release from the grasping of a sense of I, me, and mine, and especially from the cognitive distortion that the road somehow belongs to us.

From here, it's not too difficult to make another shift: see your own boat as empty. When you release the sense of being someone, and just be, you can feel as though you, too, are going with the flow of the current, without as much urgency, anxiety, and stress. A peaceful sense of spaciousness opens up in your heart, and you can taste a moment of freedom from your habitual reactions to things. Your boat will still reach its destination, but once again, the journey will be more interesting, and much easier.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Controlled Limited Suffering

I'm not sure where I first heard the expression "controlled limited suffering." It might have been in a book on Zen, it might have been from a student, or I might have come up with it myself. If you know where it originated, please enlighten me.

Controlled limited suffering, as I have come to understand it, is what happens to us when we practice vipassana meditation. In vipassana, the aim is not to change anything or to achieve any special feelings, or to achieve anything, for that matter. What happens is that we sit still for an extended period of time (sometimes 45 minutes or more), and using the breath as an object of attention, allow the mind to become concentrated and collected in the present moment. And that's when the good stuff starts to happen.

Usually it starts with something pretty mundane, such as a leg falling asleep or an itch somewhere. And we do nothing about it. We just allow it to be there, throbbing or tingling or annoying the hell out of us. However, this is not the suffering part - the itch or the dead leg are merely unpleasant sensations. So we just sit there and soon the mind begins to react toward the unpleasant experience. It tells us that we have to scratch or something terrible with happen to us; that we have to move the leg or it will fall off; that the bell has to ring or we have to run screaming from the room. This is suffering.

The stories and preferences, the clinging and aversion that the mind throws up, are usually much worse than the physical experience itself. Just like in our daily life, the smallest little upset can be taken over by the mind which then creates dire predictions and catastrophic scenarios until the cows come home. So in vipassana, we just sit with all those thoughts, too.

If we just reached up and scratched the itch as soon as we felt it, or if we simply shifted our sitting position to relieve the nerve impingement in the leg, we would avoid the suffering. Unfortunately, this would not offer us the kind of insight that sitting with the discomfort can provide. It is like we are gently training the mind to think in a new way.

This helps us later in a couple of ways. For one thing, it shows us how our mind thinks, and the way it processes the information it receives. Chances are, the way the mind deals with an itch is basically the same way it deals with a frustrating situation at work or on the freeway. The more we can observe this process in the controlled experience of vipassana meditation, the better chance we might have of recognizing that process in daily life.

Another way the allowing of this suffering helps us is in the way it shows us, through direct experience, the difference between a fact and a thought. When we allow the unpleasant experience to continue, we can see clearly the absurd distances the mind will travel with it, far from the reality of the situation. The fact is that the leg has fallen asleep. This is a physical sensation and it is real. The thought is that my foot will fall off if I don't move.

The fear, doubt, confusion, anger, and a panoply of other emotions that these kinds of thoughts trigger can also be known and allowed to continue. We can then see a third way that the experiment of controlled limited suffering can help us: by letting us see that these feelings, generated from within us, have nothing to do with the fact, but have led us down a path toward more suffering.

Finally, and most importantly, experiencing an itsy-bitsy amount of suffering in our meditation practice gives us the opportunity to practice releasing the tight fist of grasping and aversion. We may really want the bell to ring so that we can move our leg, and we will continue to suffer as long as we cling to that desire. However, when we release the desire a bit, and just allow it to be there as just another present-moment experience, it becomes a little easier to bear. We can still want the bell to ring, but we also know that we can continue sitting without screaming.

So if you give controlled limited suffering a chance, it will lead you toward its own cessation. Eventually it will pass on its own, or you will remember to release the tight, grasping fist. By taking this new path, you can find your way out of destructive, reactive emotional states, you will be able to separate thoughts from facts, and paradoxically, your overall level of stress and suffering will decrease.

From Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot:
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Sometimes, when I write one of these postings, I am in a sort of trance state. I just sit still for a few moments with my hands poised lightly on the keyboard of my ancient laptop, and soon the words somehow pour out of my fingers. It is like magic. I proofread what comes out of me as best I can - I have a strong aversion to typos - and then I hesitantly click the button that says PUBLISH POST.

A few hours later, or maybe the next morning as I'm getting ready to write another one, I might re-read the previous entry, and nearly always I find a mistake. Often the gaffe is right up there in the first paragraph, shining like a beacon of ineptitude for all to see (when will I ever become ept?). I cringe that a misspelled word has slipped past my sensors (or should it be censors?), or I discover an awkward phrase caused by a hasty rewrite, or botched cut and paste job. Most insidious of all is when an incorrect word sneaks past the auto-correct software because it is spelled correctly, but it is not the write one to use in that context. Of course, I have also been known to either, a) not see, or, b) ignore the red underscore indicating that the word is just spelled wrong.

Ah, the imperfection of it all!

Which brings me (at last) to the subject of today's blog: a Japanese philosophy called "wabi-sabi." Basically, the concept of wabi-sabi is that all things are impermanent, imperfect, and unfinished. According to Andrew Juniper, in his book Wabi-Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence:

It is an expression of the beauty that lies in the brief transition between the coming and going of life, both the joy and melancholy, that make up our lot as humans...If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.
When we include this concept of wabi-sabi in our daily life, we can accomplish three things. First, we can cut ourselves some slack for being human. Embracing wabi-sabi means acknowledging that we are a work-in-progress that will never be finished, will always be imperfect, and will not last forever. It gives us a little breathing room, and allows a little space between "what is" and "how I'd like it to be."

Second, it provides another way to open the tight, clinging fist that constricts us, keeps us trapped in old, outmoded habits of mind, and leads to more suffering. Wabi-sabi can be a reminder that, as my wife and dharma companion Kathy has said, "It's hard give or receive with a closed hand."

And third, it can help us get on with our lives when we feel stuck. A friend of mine could not seem to start the process of writing his master's thesis because he was terrified that he would fail and that what he wrote would not meet up to his expectations. I reminded him several times that, yes, his first draft probably would be awful, but as the inimitable Anne Lamott wrote in Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, we are all prone to producing "shitty first drafts." She then continues:

All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts...I know some very great writers, writers you love and who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.
A bonus dividend that wabi-sabi offers us is the ability to catch, perhaps for just a moment, how precious, rare, and miraculous being alive really is. Far from offering a depressing or negative view of things, this kind of world view can help us become more at ease with the natural ebb and flow of life, just as it is.

Now I will go and try to make this piece as perfect as I can, knowing that it is a thing that is essentially imperfect, unfinished, and impermanent. While I do this, enjoy a nice little Zen story as rendered by Andrew Juniper:

Long ago a man out walking encountered a hungry tiger, which proceded to chase and corner him at the edge of a small precipice. The man jumped to avoid the impending danger and in doing so managed to catch the limb of a tree growing from the small enscarpment. While he hung there he became aware of a second tiger, this one at the foot of the precipice, waiting for him to fall. As his strength began to wane the man noticed a wild strawberry that was growing within his reach. He gently brought it to his lips in the full knowledge that it would be the last thing that he ever ate -- how sweet it was.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Sure Heart's Release

There is a very interesting documentary I saw a few years ago called Wheel of Time, directed by Werner Hertzog. It follows the events leading up to the Kalachakra festival in Bodhgaiya, India, the site of the bodhi tree under which the Buddha reached enlightenment. In the film, there is a sequence where a young Mongolian monk purchases several small birds from a street vendor, and after offering a short prayer, releases them into the sky. When Hertzog asked him why he let the birds go, the monk replied, "All the living beings are equal. All creatures have the right to become a Buddha, but to become a Buddha, you have to be free."

How, then, do we become free? How do we let ourselves out of the seductive cages created by our minds that have kept us prisoner for most of our lives? As the monk rightly suggested, all beings have the capacity to awaken, to find their "Buddha within."

A dharma friend of mine, who is a dedicated Zen student, once told me that her practice helps her have more confidence that she will be able to handle the inevitable difficulties in her life. The word confidence is defined as "a feeling or consciousness of one's powers or of reliance on one's or belief that one will act in a right, proper, or effective way...trustful, certain." This attainment of confidence may be as close as the Buddha ever got to the concept of "faith" as it is understood in other spiritual philosophies. As the Buddha himself said:
The reason for my teaching is not for merit or good deeds or good karma, or concentration, or rapture, or even insight. None of these is the reason that I teach, but the sure heart's release. This and this alone is the reason for the teaching of a Buddha.
Again and again, the Buddha returned to the concept of freedom and liberation as essential for our ability to find some kind of relief - or release - from the suffering of life. Like the Mongolian monk releasing the birds, we must, in some way, release our own captive hearts and minds.

Just before he let the birds go, the monk cradled each one gently in his hands for a moment, said a silent prayer of loving kindness, and then opened his hands to allow them to fly away. This is the answer. This is the way to relieve suffering: opening the grasping, clinging hand, and releasing whatever is holding us in its grip.

Even a cursory reading of the Buddha's teachings shows us that he did not stop experiencing unpleasant things in his life. He was, however, able to receive and accept these experiences, recognize them for what they were, note them with reflective awareness, and allow them to be there, or to pass through. And, like the monk releasing the birds, this process must be moved through with a deep sense of compassion and loving kindness.

In his last days on earth, the Buddha told his beloved disciple, Ananda, "Be a lamp unto yourself." The Buddha was telling Ananda that he, too, has the potential to awaken and be free in any moment of his life.

He was telling all of us.

From the Buddha's words in the Udana:
Just as all the great oceans of the world have but one taste - the taste of salt - so too do all the teachings of the Dharma have but one taste - the taste of freedom.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Voluntary Simplicity

Over the years that I have been practicing and teaching yoga, I have found a few slogans that have helped me to understand and integrate this practice more fully. One of my favorites I have adapted from Jon Kabat-Zinn: "Do less, so you can do more."

This means that we do not have to push ourselves past a level of comfort and ease in order to experience a deeper practice. I see many students, and teachers as well, who equate depth of practice with the difficulty of practice. I know it is possible to go deeply into the moment-to-moment experience of yoga while doing an extraordinarily vigorous practice, but I also know that this can be a distraction. I have found countless times that the greatest insights and growth can be found while doing the simplest postures.

When we do less, whether in yoga or daily life, we can experience what we do more fully. Here is an excerpt from Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994, published by Hyperion, New York, pp. 68 - 70):

The impulse frequently arises in me to squeeze another this or another that into this moment. Just this phone call, just stopping off here on my way home. Never mind that it might be in the opposite direction.

I like to practice voluntary simplicity to counter such impulses and make sure nourishment comes at a deep level. It involves intentionally doing only one thing at a time and making sure I am here for it...Voluntary simplicity means going fewer places in one day rather than more, seeing less so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so I can have more...Within the organized chaos and complexity of family life and work, with all their demands and responsibilities, frustrations and unsurpassed gifts, there is ample opportunity for choosing simplicity in small ways.

Slowing everything down is a big part of this. Telling my mind and body to stay put with my daughter rather than answering the phone, not reacting to inner impulses to call someone who "needs calling" right in that moment, choosing not to acquire new things on impulse, or even to automatically answer the siren call of magazines or television or movies on the first ring are all ways to simplify one's life a little...

A commitment to simplicity in the midst of the world is a delicate balancing act. It is always in need of retuning, further inquiry, attention. But I find the notion of voluntary simplicity keeps me mindful of what is important, of an ecology of mind and body and world in which everything is interconnected and every choice has far-reaching consequences. You don't get to control it all. But choosing simplicity whenever possible adds to life an element of deepest freedom which so easily eludes us, and many opportunities to discover that less may actually be more.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Nothing To Do, Nowhere To Go, No One To Be

Part 3: No One To Be

(This is the final installment of a series of commentaries on the statement, "We have nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no one to be," given by Mary Orr during a retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in 2001. In today's blog, I'll be discussing its final component.)

As with the other two parts of this teaching, the concept of "no one to be" centers primarily on the paradox of non-doing. For most of us, our life is spent being someone, rather than simply being. For me, this includes being a father, being a husband, being a teacher, and being a therapist, and I take a lot of pride in who I have "become." But these labels are merely the process of my becoming, and not who I actually am. If I am anything, it is the collection of interdependent causes and conditions that gave rise to the being that exists here today.

The Buddha said that when a concept of I, me, or mine presents itself (as in my exampes above), suffering will follow. This sense of self leads to clinging (such as the pride I feel about who I have become) and aversion, which can give rise to unpleasant experiences (such as fear of losing any of the things I have become). This small sense of self, what the Buddha called "the body of fear," exists only as thoughts that come and go and change constantly.

We can see this perpetual ebbing and flowing of the sense of I, me, and mine - of a "someone" - in our meditation practice. As we do this, we can just allow these experiences and events to be, without needing to change or fix them. Nor do we have to get rid of them. I don't see this process as one of trying to extinguish our sense of self, but rather of becoming more aware of when that someone we think we are arises. This kind of awareness may offer us the opportunity to make better, more effective choices in how we respond to people and situations.

During the retreat that Mary opened with her words, "You have nothing to do, nowhere to go, and nothing to be," I remember a specific walking meditation during which I contemplated these ideas. I suddenly saw myself standing behind a building facade, like the kind you might find on a movie backlot, and holding it up with both hands. It was a dirty, dilapidated storefront, nearly rotting from exposure to the elements. But there I was, using all my strength to keep this ratty old thing propped up. Then, I experimented with letting go of it, and just allowing the facade to drop away. In that moment, I felt a bit of nirvana - the cessation of suffering.

Stoking the fires of "being someone" is hard work. What Mary was offering us on that retreat was the chance to take ourselves off the hook. She was suggesting a possible new way of using our energy more skillfully, and not wasting it on maintaining the constant effort of having to do something, go somewhere, and be someone. Paradoxically, what we find when we experiment with these concepts is that life can flow a little bit easier, the weight can feel a little bit lighter, and we can be more authentically who we really are.

From Nisargadata Maharaj:
Wisdom tells me I am nothing.
Love tells me I am everything.
Between the two my life flows.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Nothing To Do, Nowhere To Go, No One To Be

Part 2: Nowhere To Go

Yesterday I mentioned that Dharma Teacher Mary Orr had once opened a retreat at Spirit Rock by telling us, "For the next ten days you have nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no one to be." Today, I will continue to exploration of this teaching from my perspective of its second component.

When I am leading a class or retreat, I often begin by reminding the participants that we are not trying to get anywhere in our practice. It is always good to remember that we are not trying to reach any special states or feelings, and we are not trying to attain any particular goals. Vipassana meditation is the art of consciously arriving in each moment, and knowing that experience as fully as possible.

The truth is that we are always arriving in the present moment, whether we are conscious of it or not. The Venerable Thich Nhat Hahn has often said, "There is no coming or going, but only arriving." So if there is a goal in this practice, it is to arrive as completely as possible in the here and now.

We can directly experience this arriving through the feeling of each breath as it comes and goes; feeling the air as it gently rubs up against the inside of the nose. This kind of physical contact with a present-moment experience entices the mind to collect and gather in the present moment. In doing so, we can disengage from the thinking mind that is always pulling us into a fantasy of the future or a memory of the past.

Why would this present-moment awareness be a useful thing to cultivate? First of all, because this is the only real moment we have in which to be alive, and to know that we are alive. Another reason is that, when we are connected with the present-moment reality, and disengaged from the thoughts created by the mind, we might be able to see that these thoughts have no reality whatsoever, except as thoughts. This way, we do not feel so trapped into believing our own thoughts, and in turn, this kind of awareness can lead to a reduction of suffering.

A very dynamic and visceral way of experiencing the feeling of arriving is through walking meditation. In this practice, we are intentionally not trying to get anywhere, and we are not trying to get from "here" to "there." We walk very slowly, feeling the shifting of weight from one leg to another, then feeling the lifting of one foot, and finally the placing of that foot in front of us. We are tuned in to the initricate sensations that accompany each step in full understanding that the point of all this is to arrive "here" over and over again. In fact, each step is an expression of "here."

In your daily life, you can become more attuned to this concept of arriving in each moment. Simply remember that everywhere you go is just "here," and when you get to your imagined goal of "there," you will still only be "here." Don't worry. You'll still get somewhere, but the journey may be a bit more interesting.

Lost, by David Wagoner:
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

Nothing To Do, Nowhere To Go, No One To Be

Part 1: Nothing To Do

At the opening of a retreat in 2001, Dharma Teacher Mary Orr told us, "For the next ten days you have nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no one to be." This instruction can be useful, not just during a long retreat, but in our daily meditation practice, as well.

In our daily life, we are rarely "human beings," but more often we are "humans doing." Getting things done is what gets rewarded and honored in our culture, and multitasking is the gold standard.

In vipassana meditation, on the other hand, the first instruction in to come to rest in the body. This can cause feelings of guilt to arise. "How can I justify sitting for half an hour or more doing nothing?" Perhaps it would be helpful to understand that, according Jon Kabat-Zinn, practicing meditation "is not synonymous with doing nothing." In truth, it can be very hard work. When we meditate, we are putting into action the conscious intention of stepping out of the "automatic pilot" existence of daily life. "It reeks of paradox," Kabat-Zinn continues. "The only way you can do anything of value is to have the effort come out of non-doing and to let go of caring whether it will be of use or not. Otherwise, self-involvement and greediness can sneak in and distort your relationship to the work or the work itself."

In your meditation practice, and as much as you can in daily life, start from a place of simply "being." Try to let the work of mindfulness unfold before you rather than trying to attain some special state or feeling. As best as you can, let go of attachment to the results of the practice, and just let it be. You may find that this kind of starting point will help you to see that, first of all, this moment is complete, just as it is. Secondly, you may find that when the doing starts to happen, it will unfold and flow with a bit more ease and relaxation, even if the ending point is not what you imagined.

From a letter to a friend, by Thomas Merton:
Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Life Well-Lived

At the beginning of his book, A Path With Heart, Jack Kornfield describes what it means to live a life that is connected to our deepest spiritual nature:
The things that matter most in our lives are not fantastic or grand. They are the moments when we touch one another, when we are there in the most attentive or caring way. This simple and profound intimacy is the love that we all long for...

When we bring full attention to our acts, when we express our love and see the preciousness of life, the quality of goodness in us grows. A simple caring presence can begin to permeate more moments of our life...

In the stress and complexity of our lives, we may forget our deepest intentions. But when people come to the end of their life and look back, the questions that they most often ask are not usually, "How much is in my bank account?" or "How many books did I write?" or "What did I build?" or the like. If you have the privilege of being with a person who is find the questions such a person asks are very simple: "Did I love well?" "Did I live fully?" "Did I learn to let go?"
Last Sunday afternoon, Kathy and I attended a birthday brunch for one of her oldest and dearest friends. The brunch was hosted by a woman who has been a fixture in the New York and Los Angeles entertainment scene since the early 1950's. After we had eaten, our friend asked the hostess to recount some of the highlights of the last fifty-odd years. "Can you tell us the story of how you met Howard Hughes?" he asked her. Her voice was just barely above a whisper as she told the story, and you could feel the dozen or so people in the room straining to hear every word.

And it started from there. Other names and stories came forth from this petite, vibrant woman, now in her late '70's. There was the story of how her friend, fellow race car driver, and legendary actor, James Dean, was planning to rendezvous with her later on the same day that he would die in an auto accident. How she had befriended Jim Morrison of the Doors, who would call her from all over the world to get her opinion on his latest poetry.

Other names from a golden age of entertainment came and went; Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, and Johnny Carson, among them. Most moving of all, however, were the memories of her dearest friend and lifelong companion, author Truman Capote, who lived with her when he was in Los Angeles, and who literally died in her arms.

Our hostess was crying, now, along with nearly everyone in the room. She has not told these stories to a lot of people, but felt safe with this group, even though she had never met some of us, including Kathy or me.

Her stories were not just a litany of famous people. Each one carried with it a sense of open-hearted love and devotion. It was not the name or position of the person that mattered, it was the quality of the relationship to that person that was most important.

When she was done, she announced between dabbing her eyes with a tissue, "And now, we'll have a little birthday cake and open presents!" After she'd left the room to attend to these matters, I turned to Kathy. We looked at each other with expressions of amazement, and through eyes brimming with tears, and realized that we had been holding our breath. "That," Kathy pronounced as she finally exhaled, "Is a life well-lived."

From the last fragment of the last poem by Raymond Carver:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Grasp Reflex

In the teachings of the Dharma, and in particular, the Four Noble Truths, there is a lot of airtime given to the releasing of attachment, and opening the tight fist of grasping. The Buddha knew, somehow, that this tendency to hold tight to things is an inherent part of being human. In fact, it is called the "grasp reflex," and we are born with it.

If you put an object across an infant's palm, they will often grab hold of it with their tiny fingers. A newborn's grip can be so strong, they can even support their own weight for brief periods. Studies have shown that, when infants hold onto their mothers, the infant's heartbeat tends to slow down. This implies that we must get a lot of soothing and a sense of security from holding in this way.

From the standpoint of evolution, the grasp reflex would be a necessary survival trait in primates, both for clinging to the mother, but also for moving through the trees from branch to branch at the earliest age possible. Obviously, then, clinging in itself is not necessarily a bad thing.

Where we get into trouble is when we cling to things that are impermanent. This kind of clinging results in what Joseph Goldstein calls "rope burn" as the thing we are clinging to slides through our hands. Clinging to a sense pleasure, to a world view or belief, or to a sense of self, can all result in this rope burn.

So how do we manage this existential human predicament? Letting go of clinging appears to be a very counter-intuitive move, which could result in a fatal plunge from a great height. (Carl Sagan wrote that fear of falling is one of the only fears that we are actually born with.)

If you remember the stories of the monkey traps from the November 16 and 17 blogs, you will know the answer. Releasing the grip on something does not mean that we have to let go of it completely and lose it. It means that we can still have whatever is in our hand, but we hold it with more space, making it easier to deal with its comings and goings.

This holds true for unpleasant experiences, as well. When we relax the tight fist, we give the unpleasant experience more space in which to move. By giving the thing more space, we actually decrease the size of the unpleasant experience by increasing the size of the space around it.

Here's a metaphor that may help with this concept. If you take a tablespoon of salt, and stir it into a small cup of water, the water will taste salty. If you take that same amount of salt and mix it in a bucket full of water, the water is much less salty tasting. Put that tablespoon of salt in a bathtub of water, and the taste would be hardly noticeable, if at all. Put it in a lake, and... well you can see where this is going. The size of the object that we are clinging to does not change, but the space around it expands, and therefore the unpleasant thing is much easier to manage.

I am told that one of my grandteachers, the Venerable Ajahn Chah Subhaddo, used to sidle up next to the monks at his monastary during walking meditation and ask them, "Are you suffering today?" If they said yes, he would reply, "Hmm... Must be very attached!" and then he would just kind of chuckle and walk away, leaving the monk to contemplate this teaching. Here is what Ajahn Chah said about letting go of the tight fist:
If you let go a little, you'll have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you'll have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you'll have complete peace.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The "If/Then" Mind

It seems that most of us are rarely satisfied with what we have. We live in a familiar state of "if/then" mind that goes something like, "If I could only have this thing or that thing, then I will be happy." We can literally waste a lifetime living in this kind of mind-trap.

There is a whimsical folk character in the Sufi tradition named Mullah Nasrudin, who is a combination wise man, holy man, philosopher, and fool. There are many humorous anecdotes that have been told about him over hundreds of years, and here is one that illustrates how the "if/then" mind works.

One day, Mullah Nasrudin was walking down a forest path, when he came upon a man sitting nearby who was sobbing. "What seems to be the problem?" asked the Mullah, who was always eager to help those in distress.

"My house in the village burned to the ground last night, and all I could salvage from it were these few possessions," wailed the man, pointing to a knapsack sitting next to him.

Mullah Nasrudin considered the man's predicament for a moment, and then seized upon an idea. He quickly snatched the man's satchel, and ran off down the road with it, ignoring the pleas and curses from the traveler, who now gave chase behind him.

The Mullah was fleet of foot, and soon the pursuer surrendered to the inevitable and quit running after him. When Nasrudin saw that the coast was clear, he carefully placed the man's possessions in the middle of the path, and then hid amongst the trees and bushes nearby.

In a short while, the refugee came trudging dejectedly down the path. "How could this have happened?" he lamented. "All I owned in the world has been taken from me!" Just then, he saw his knapsack sitting in the middle of the path where Mullah Nasrudin had placed it. His expression turned instantly from abject sorrow and grief, to joy and ecstasy. The man rushed to the pack, opened it, and found that all his possessions were still there. His eyes were now filled with tears of happiness and gratitude as he thanked the Divine for returning his things to him safely.

From his observation post, Mullah Nasrudin took all of this in, and then scratched his head and chuckled in amazement. "Hmmph" he grunted to himself. "It's funny what it takes to make some people happy!"

Saturday, December 5, 2009

There Are No Nouns...

My thesis adviser in graduate school, Alan Koehn, once said something very intriguing: "There are no nouns, only verbs." Looking at life this way, we can cultivate an interesting and insightful perspective on the subject of the previous three postings regarding interdependent co-arising and the doctrine of anatta (the absence of a "self" in everything). In addition, we can also see the world in a new way.

I was on a ten-day silent vipassana retreat at Spirit Rock a number of years ago, and in the middle of it I remembered Alan's words. I began to look at everything around me, not as a thing, but as a verb; an action; a process. The trees were "tree-ing," the birds were "bird-ing," the sky was "sky-ing," and so on. I turned that lens toward myself and discovered that I was no longer Roger but a thing that was "Roger-ing."

By making that adjustment in my conscious awareness, I was able to see clearly that everything in the perceivable world is a process, without any content whatsoever. The concept of interdependent co-arising shone crystal clear before me. The process of countless causes and conditions were giving rise to everything in my field of vision, and I could find no content in any of it.

From this perspective of process instead of content, the dharma of "no self" is more easily understood and penetrated. We can look and look, and never find a self in any of it. Our existence becomes like the metaphor of peeling an onion: eventually, we reach its center, but even that, too, disappears under scrutiny. As Gertrude Stein said when she returned to Oakland to visit her childhood home, and found that it had been replaced by a parking lot, "There was no 'there' there."

As you go through your day today, take some time to look at the objects around you and see them as process only; as verbs instead of nouns. Simply add "-ing" to what you see, turning the noun into a verb, and you will understand this concept immediately. Notice as well that, not only is this a fresh and interesting way of looking at the world, but it can add a lightheartedness to your day, kind of like becoming a child again and learning how to name the objects around you.

And lest you fear that, by making this adjustment in consciousness, life will lose its specialness, paradoxically you will find that observing the world in this way only serves to make it all more miraculous and sacred.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. ~ Marcel Proust

Friday, December 4, 2009

Empty of Self, But Full of Dharma, Part 2

Continuing to deepen into the Dharma of anatta (the absence of self), I would like to present what I have found to be the most easy to understand description of this doctrine. It comes from Old Path, White Clouds: Walking In the Footsteps of the Buddha, by the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh.

In this passage, the Buddha is discussing the doctrines of anatta and interdependent co-arising (see the previous two blogs for more information on this) with a Hindu brahman named Master Kassapa, one of the most revered teachers of his time.
"Master Kassapa, all things depend on all other things for their existence. Take, for example, this leaf in my hand. Earth, water, heat, tree, clouds, sun, time, space - all these elements have enabled this leaf to come into existence. If just one of these elements was missing, the leaf could not exist. All beings, organic and inorganic, rely on the law of [inter]dependent co-arising. The source of one thing is all things. Please consider this carefully. Don't you see that this leaf I am now holding in my hand is only hear thanks to the interpenetration of all the phenomena in the universe, including your own awareness?"
[This discussion continued into the next day, when Master Kassapa said,] "Yesterday you said that the presence of a leaf resulted from the coming together of many different conditions. You said that humans, too, exist only because of the coming to together of many other conditions. But when all these conditions cease to be, where does the self go?"

The Buddha answered, "For a long time humans have been trapped by the concept of atman, the concept of a separate and eternal self. We have believed that when our body dies, this self continues to exist and seeks union with its source, which is Brahma. But, friend Kassapa, that is a fundamental misunderstanding which has caused countless generations to go astray.

"You should know, friend Kassapa, that all things exist because of interdependence, and all things cease to be because of interdependence. This is because that is. This is not because that is not. This is born because that is born. This dies because that dies. This is the wonderful law of dependent co-arising which I have discovered in my meditation. In truth, there is nothing which is separate and eternal. There is no self, whether a higher or lower self. Kassapa, have you ever meditated on your body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness? A person is made up of these five aggregates. They are continuously changing rivers in which one cannot find even one permanent element."

Uruvela Kassapa remained silent for a long moment. [Then he] lifted his head and looked into the Buddha's eyes. "If there is no self, no atman, why should one practice a spiritual path in order to attain liberation? Who will be liberated?"

The Buddha looked deeply into the eyes of his brahmana friend. His gaze was as radiant as the sun and as gentle as the soft moonlight. He smiled and said, "Kassapa, look for the answer within yourself." (p. 169 - 173)
A few days after their discussions, Master Kassapa was ordained as a monk in the Buddha's sangha. After the Buddha's death, the Venerable Kassapa played a vital role in recording and categorizing the Buddha's teachings.