Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ah, The Mundanity of it All

During the question and answer portion of the sitting group last night, one of the newer practitioners mentioned that she was aware that she only had "mundane thoughts." I suppose she was hoping for more interesting or earth-shaking insights than the thoughts about her job which she was actually experiencing. It gave me the opportunity to mention a cartoon that Jack Kornfield had once shared of a road sign next to a desert highway that read, "YOUR OWN TEDIOUS THOUGHTS NEXT 200 MILES."

The truth is, most of what we experience during our meditation practices are very ordinary things. My uncle was a jet pilot in the Air Force, and he used to say that flying high-performance aircraft consisted of "hours of extreme boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror." Vipassana is like that, as well. Much of the time there are just the same everyday thoughts and events that present themselves, and every once in a while we might have some kind of momentous insight.

Trying to produce these momentous insights, however, creates an obstacle in the way of our practice. Besides, it is really the ordinary, mundane thoughts that bring the greatest insight. By acknowledging them, and then allowing them to be, we can see more clearly the habitual tendencies of the mind to go in one direction or another. From these thoughts can arise emotional sensations that can be felt fully as they move and change and eventually subside within us. This process then helps us live with these thoughts and feelings more effectively in our daily life.

So welcome the mundane into your practice as a doorway into learning more about yourself, and in doing so, transform the ordinary into something extraordinary.

Oceans, by Juan Ramon Jimenez:
I have a feeling that my boat
has struck, down there in the depths,
against a great thing.
                               And nothing
happens! Nothing...Silence...Waves...
- Nothing happens? Or has everything happened, 
and are we standing now, quietly, in the new life?
(Translated by Robert Bly in News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness)

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Believing the Conditioned Mind

Through years of habit, we have been conditioned to believe our thoughts. This conditioning has also been taking place over the countless lifetimes of our ancestors, creating a “collective trance,” as though we all signed on to the agreement that our thoughts are real. 

Actually, our thoughts have no reality beyond the electro-chemical reactions in the brain. These thoughts lead to chemical/emotional reactions in the body, and these reactions lead us even deeper into believing what our mind is telling us. We insist on seeing our thoughts as the only moment-to-moment reality, but they are only part of the story, and should always be seen as merely one arising event in the midst of many interdependently co-arising events. The thought, however, is what we most often choose to believe.  

“Believe” is an interesting word, dating back to the Proto-Germanic language, and meaning “hold dear, love.” It also has origins in a Proto-Indo-European word meaning “to like or desire.” Now we have something we can work with in Vipassana practice: clinging and desire. “To believe” contains both of these components. The things we “believe in” we do not necessarily investigate – we merely take them on faith – and yet we cling to them dearly, just as we do any desired love-object. We cling to our beliefs the same way we cling to life: habitually, mindlessly, and fearful that it will be taken from us. We place great credence in our thoughts, meaning that we cling to them as being true and real.

In Vipassana practice, we become incrementally desensitized to our thoughts by opening the tight clinging fist, and allowing the thoughts to just be. It is the same process in which we sit with physical sensations, such as an itch: we simply allow it to arise, abide, and subside without doing anything about it. 

The first time we encounter an itch in our practice we might habitually reach up and scratch it before we are even aware that we moved our hand. The next time we feel an itch, however, it may go something like, “Oh, here’s an itch again. Hmmm…I’m not going to scratch this time.” We may find that it is very hard to resist because we are so conditioned to the habit of scratching. Gradually, however, the more we do not act out on the habitual, conditioned impulse to scratch, the easier it is to sit with the itching sensation, and we are becoming desensitized to the sensation. 

Becoming desensitized to our thoughts does not mean that we are become less sensitive to events and experiences in our daily life. We may actually live life more fully because we are more present with life as it's being lived. On the other hand, the experiences that used to really bug us before, don’t seem to matter as much. Like the itch, unpleasant events are allowed to arise, abide, and subside on their own.

Meanwhile, don't believe everything you think.


Friday, January 29, 2010

The Inner Light

One of my most influential yoga teachers is Dr. Richard C. Miller. He has a knack for taking the most difficult or esoteric subjects, such as pranayama or tantric meditation practices, and translating them in a way that is easy for the Western mind to understand. To this day, every class I teach has some element of him in it.

He once said that we are all blessed with an inner light - the capacity to become enlightened - but that it is hidden from us because of incorrect thinking. He used the analogy of a light bulb, covered over in many, many layers of very thin tissue paper. Individually, these tissues are sheer and translucent, but there are so many of these filmy layers covering the bulb that we are not even aware that there is a light underneath them. 

According to Richard, introspective practices, such as yoga or meditation, allow these gossamer tissues to be removed one by one. With sustained practice over time, more and more layers are peeled away, and gradually the light begins to emerge. Then, one day, we are suddenly enLIGHTened. It is, as Stephen Levine calls it, a "gradual awakening" which seems to take place suddenly, but only after countless incremental steps.

The Inner Light by George Harrison:  
Without going out of my door
I can know all things on earth
Without looking out of my window
I could know the ways of heaven

The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows

Without going out of your door
You can know all things of earth
Without looking out of your window
You could know the ways of heaven

The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows

Arrive without traveling
See all without looking
Do all without doing


Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Clear Forest Pool

The Venerable Ajahn Chah, who led a famous forest monastery in Thailand, once said:
Try to be mindful, and let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become still in any surrounding, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will see clearly the nature of all things. You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still. Problems will arise, but you will see through them immediately. This is the happiness of the Buddha.
When we sit with intention, on purpose, and allow the body to be still, we are like those incredibly dedicated nature photographers who wait for hours or days or even weeks in all kinds of weather to capture rarely seen, or perhaps never before seen, glimpses of wildlife in their natural habitat. One errant move or sound could mean that the creatures they are filming will be spooked and scamper or fly away. 

In the same way, being still in the body will allow sensations, habitual tendencies of mind, their resulting emotional reactions, and insights about all of the above, to be seen clearly. We can then take these insights off the cushion into daily life and apply them as needed to help us act more effectively in difficult situations.

When I am on long silent retreats, I often find myself waking up in the wee-morning hours between 2 and 5 am. When this happens, I like to get up, get dressed, and trundle down to the meditation hall to have a sit. The absolute stillness of that time of day is tremendous. I am often not the only meditator in the hall, either. Others may already be there, or may come and go while I continue sitting. Sometimes I just keep sitting for hours until the wake-up bell rings and the rest of the retreatants file in and take places on their cushions.

These early morning sits are some of the sweetest and most powerful meditation experiences I've ever had. In these hours, when the threshold intensity between the conscious and unconscious mind is weak, some very interesting and useful insights have presented themselves. It is exactly like Ajahn Chah describes it: the really weird, scary, and beautiful animals come out to get a drink at the waterhole. I sit as quietly and as still as I can so as not to scare them away. I watch how they move, how they change, how they relate to each other, and how, eventually, they recede back into the darkness.

If you ever find yourself lying awake in the early morning stillness, try sitting for a while, devoting attention to the body breathing, and allowing the mind to settle a bit into the present moment. Enjoy this rare and exciting time with mindful awareness, and let the inner creatures come. The more these creatures learn to trust you, the less they will threaten you when daylight comes.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Paradox of Dissatisfaction

As I discussed in the January 3rd blog, dissatisfaction is a part of being human. If you have taken human birth, you will eventually experience that nothing is capable of permanently satisfying us. Yet it is preceisely because of our almost constant state of dissatisfaction that we seek spiritual comfort.

One Monday morning several years ago, as I was getting ready to take my son, Zach, to school, I began to feel a familiar nagging sense of doom that used to often accompany Monday mornings. Perhaps it was the anxiety of my mind telling me that "I have to make something of this week," that somehow I had to pay the rent, my bills, put a deposit down on Zach's summer theatre camp, pay for his driver's education classes, and all the other stuff that life brings to us in a typical week. Being single and self-employed back then, this was sometimes no easy task.

I shared my anxiety with Zach, and without saying a word he reached into his back pocket, retreived his wallet, and pulled out a tightly folded piece of paper. Carefully, he unfolded it (the paper was so well-worn that it had the texture of cloth) and read to me the words of Martha Graham: 
There is no satisfaction at any time. there is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive.
It was, of course, the perfect thing for me to hear at that moment. He then shared with me how that quote had given him courage and hope when things were not going well for him in school, or in the pursuit of his craft as a young actor. We began to discuss the paradox of how dissatisfaction is necessary to allow us to open to the numinous - the ineffable, sacred quality of life.

Try to imagine a world without dissatisfaction, where every desire, every craving is completely and permanently satisfied. To me, it looks like a world without evolution and growth.

A fragment from The Indian Parrot by Rumi:
A drowning man reaches for anything!
The Friend loves this flailing about
better than any lying still.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Dharma, A Poem By Billy Collins

The way the dog trots out the front door
every morning
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.

Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance—
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Gandhi with his staff and his holy diapers?

Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.

If only she did not shove the cat aside
every morning
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.


Monday, January 25, 2010

Emotional Addiction

I have been reading a very interesting book entitled, The Answer Model Theory (2008), by John Montgomery and Todd Ritchey. The authors suggest "that all dysfunctional behaviors, including those associated with various neuroses and psychopathologies, are driven and sustained by biochemical addiction" (p. 5).

Here are some excerpts that I found particularly noteworthy (used with permission of the authors):
Anxiety has...been shown to release B-endorphin and dopamine into reward areas, in some cases activating the reward system as intensely as addictive drugs like cocaine (p. 20) .
We propose that all neuroses are driven by "emotional" addictions - that is, by addictions to negative or distressing emotional states such as anxiety, anger, regret, shame, or self-pity, in which people unconsciously engage in these states merely to derive the biochemical payoff that the states supply. If a person engages in any of these emotional states only occasionally, then that person is unlikely to have an addiction to those states. An emotional addiction is only indicated when specific negative emotional states are engaged in repeatedly and compulsively, particularly when there is often no plausible or functional reason for engaging in such a state.
With an emotional addiction, the emotion is simply used to derive a biochemical payoff, although the process by which the emotion is, in effect, created or manufactured by the individual, is partly or wholly unconscious. Although it may seem counterintuitive that an unpleasant emotional state is somehow rewarding, and that such a state would be purposefully sought, we must recall that the reward system, and the mechanisms that generate "wanting" and "liking" within the reward system, appear to operate largely unconsciously...
As with all other addictions, people become especially prone to emotional addictions when they are not deriving healthy biochemical payoffs from functional, homeostatic states, such as healthy play, fulfilling relationships, or meaningful work. It is almost as if an unconscious decision were made that if one cannot derive payoffs from being happy, or from engaging in pleasurable states or activities, one will have to derive those payoffs from negative emotional states. Thus people become unconsciously driven to engineer circumstances that perpetuate certain negative emotional states (p. 18).
Certainly something to reflect upon. You can purchase The Answer Model Theory from by clicking on the link below.


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Thought Clouds

Our thoughts are like clouds passing through the sky. Our awareness is us, standing on the earth, watching these thought clouds move through. Sometimes we can just watch them as they speed past. Sometimes we get involved with them, enjoying their shape or color, and our mind gets carried away with them.

It may be helpful to remember that our thoughts have no more reality than a cloud. From a distance, a cloud may look very solid. When we examine it up close, however, we realize that it is only vapor. Our thoughts can seem very solid, too. When we investigate them more fully, we find that there is no real substance to them at all; they exist only for a moment as neuronal firing patterns in the brain.

The next time a disturbing thought occurs that really has you hooked into thinking it is a fact, remember that it is less substantial than a wisp of steam rising from your tea kettle.

Then re-connect yourself with the reality of the present moment by having a cup of tea...

From The Tibetan Book of the Dead, translated by W.Y. Evans-Wentz:
The visions you experience exist within your consciousness; the forms they take are determined by your past attachments, your past desires, your past fears, your past karma [actions]. 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.
(Excerpted from Teachings of the Buddha, edited by Jack Kornfield.)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Befriending The Difficult

One of my main teachers in the Theravada vipassana tradition, Phillip Moffitt, likes to say that we have to "invite the difficult experiences in and serve them tea." It is somewhat like having annoying guests arrive at your home who have not phoned ahead. 

During our formal meditation practice, or at any time in our daily life, these guests may arrive. Of course, it is our preference that they not be here - is there ever a convenient time to have to entertain a difficult physical sensation, thought, or emotion? Yet, here they are. 

So instead of either pretending to not be home or slamming the door in their face, let them come in and invite them to sit with you. Get to know them a little bit, and you may discover that they are actually not as bad a guests as you had feared. They may even be able to offer you some valuable insights that you would have missed if you had shunned them. 

Besides, they won't stay all that long. Eventually, they will show themselves out, so you needn't be in a big hurry to hustle them out the back door.

The Guest House, by Rumi (Translation by Coleman Barks):
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
They may be clearing you out 
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent 
as a guide from beyond.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Clouds, Rainbows, and Brain Chemistry

Yesterday afternoon I found myself on the fourth floor of a building near the crest of a hill overlooking South Pasadena. The third day of our monsoon-like weather was providing a breathtaking panorama of storm clouds scuttling low above the town, patches of clear blue sky peeking through, and finally, a strong rain shower while the sun shone brightly, causing a full rainbow to frame Raymond Hill.

As I watched, I was also contemplating some reading I had been doing regarding brain chemistry, and how persistent states of anxiety or stress cause the release of chemicals normally associated with feeling good, such as B-endorphin and dopamine. Does the release of these "feel good" chemicals explain why we seem to be so addicted to our emotions, and therefore are so quick to believe the thoughts that produce them?

With my head literally in the clouds, I was able to transpose the space before me as being the space inside my head. Suddenly the tiny little spurts of these molecules seemed very insignificant, very easy to manage, and very easy to see and accept.

Our brains have lied to us time and time again about what is real, what is important, or what is to be feared. These mind moments are such small events, but to us they seem to be as big as the sky, complete with storms of unbelievable magnitude. Perhaps we need to keep these mind moments in their proper perspective, seeing them for what they really are - microscopic neuronal firings and tiny chemical releases. Maybe then we could develop a new relationship with these mental events, just as we see the how different the sky appears from the top of a building, than from out our living room window.

Here's an interesting poetic perspective on this subject called "A History of Weather" by Billy Collins. To hear a free MP3 recording of Billy Collins reading this poem, drag your cursor across the hidden link below and click. 


Thursday, January 21, 2010

When Faced With Two Options, Choose the Third

It seems I have been having a long-distance political disagreement with a very dear, old friend of mine. I remember well our growing up together in Kansas, and I find myself somewhat sad that we have diverged so much from each other. 

In the spirit of healing, I would like to present another teaching story from Mulla Nasrudin, a folk character from the Sufi tradition who was a combination wise man, holy man, philosopher, and fool (another of his stories appears in the 12/6/09 posting).

It seems that not long after Mulla Nasrudin had taken up residence in a village, the judge of the village court had to go away on business for a few days. Since the Venerable Mulla had presented himself as the wisest man around, he was a natural choice to sit in as the Judge Pro Tempore until the regular magistrate returned.

So the Mulla took his place solemnly in the judge's chair and ordered the first case to be brought before him. Nasrudin listened intently as the plaintiff presented his case. As soon as the petitioner was done, the Mulla smacked his gavel on the bench and declared, "You are right."

The court erupted in an uproar. "But you haven't even heard my side of the story," cried the defendant. "Ah, yes," said the Mulla sheepishly. "You may proceed." With that, the defendant presented his case. As soon as he heard the story, Mulla Nasrudin slammed down the gavel and said, "You are right!"

Again there was pandemonium in the courtroom. Finally, when order was restored, a court official spoke up. "Your Honor, both sides cannot be right."

To which Mulla Nasrudin replied, "You are right, too!"


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Feeling Small & Turning Toward

There are so many hard things in the world today: the complete devastation and vast level of human suffering in Haiti; the divisive political landscape in our own country that places the well-being of people behind the doing well of an ideology; the worldwide destruction of our environment through greed and fear; war and rumors of war, coupled with incomprehensibly inhuman acts of violence in so many places; and our own personal struggles with family, relationship, finances, and illness of all kinds.

It is easy to see ourselves as very small and insignificant in the face of these, and countless other things. The tendency to constrict and tighten is strong and compelling, and it is counterintuitive to move any other way. 

Yet, the paradox is that the more we turn toward that which is difficult or unpleasant, the more space we can create within ourselves. When the tight fist is opened, space is revealed. For a moment we can be with all of our sorrows or all of our joys with a kind of equanimity - the ability to move into the difficult or the pleasant in equal measure.

The Man Watching, by Rainer Maria Rilke:
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can't bear without a friend,
I can't love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler's sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

(From News of the Universe: Poems of the Twofold Consciounsess, translated by Robert Bly.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Marriage Dharma

Being married is somewhat like living in a monastery. Like a monk, you take vows to serve the institution for the rest of your life. And like the monastery, marriage is very hard to escape. Both monastic life and marriage can be extremely rewarding life paths, although not always an easy ones. 

Okay, now I don't want all my regular readers to assume that because I'm writing about marriage today that Kathy and I are having some kind of trouble. We're not. The love, respect, commitment, and adoration that was present at our wedding in June is still there, more so now than ever before.

Our marriage is founded on the premise that what we do with each other, and with marriage itself, is all about growth, both individually, and as a couple. We are committed to exploring the shadow realms of our unconscious when this material arises, and in doing so, integrate this material into conscious awareness. This re-integration of previously unconscious shadow material is what C.G. Jung called "individuation."

There is a classic book on the subject called Marriage: Dead or Alive by Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig that examines the path of individuation as the ultimate goal of marriage. Guggenbuhl-Craig shuns the notion that marriage exists as an means of achieving well-being, but more as a way of getting to the soul of the matter through individuation.

The path toward individuation is rough and full of potholes.The path of marriage, or any intimate relationship, can be the same difficult journey. Both, however, are rewarding. 

According to Guggenbuhl-Craig, "A marriage only works if one opens to exactly that which one would never ask for otherwise." In the same way, the path toward liberation in vipassana practice is an opening toward that which we may not normally ask for. We turn toward that which is, lean into it a bit, and then let it do its thing. This promotes an open-handed holding of a situation or event, rather than a closed-fisted clinging or pushing away of it. Holding all things in an open hand - including our relationships - will lead us eventually toward reducing of suffering.
Just as the saintly hermits cannot evade themselves, so the married persons cannot avoid their partners. In this partially uplifting, partially tormenting evasionlessness lies the specific character of this path. ~ Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Trap of Self-Soothing

Over the weekend, I attended a teacher training at Insight L.A. Our guest speaker was Dr. Ronald Sharrin, a long-time zen and vipassana practitioner, practicing clinical psychologist, and teacher. During his talk about the Abhidhamma (the Buddha's detailed exploration of the moment-to-moment mental and physical phenomena that comprise the process of human experience), he said that we should be careful not to let our meditation practice become an exercise in self-soothing. 

As a psychotherapist who uses many of the tools of vipassana to help my patients, both individually and in groups, this required some clarification for me. If self-soothing is a bad thing, I asked, how does that coexist with the mandate to end suffering?

His answer was, basically, that self-soothing is not, in itself, a bad thing. It is when we use our meditation practice as a means of self-soothing that problems can arise. Most notably, a practice that is only about self-soothing will never lead to liberation. The searching after the self-soothing quality will always lead to attachment to it, and thus we are trapped by our desires that have produced a "sense of self." 

So how do we reconcile deploying strategies when we are suffering, such as returning to a present moment sensory reality, with this notion that self-soothing is a trap? We can do this by intentionalizing our meditation practice as a continued vehicle for deep introspection, and of facing and moving into those places where we feel afraid, angry, sad, and vulnerable. 

We accept whatever arises during our formal sitting practice just as it is, not looking for only those parts of the practice that feel good or bring happiness. If these qualities arise, we investigate them just as any other experience, but we do not cling to them or try to re-create them later. This will teach us how to be with anything that arises, and will lead to our being liberated from habitual tendencies, when they arise. It will not, however, end the habitual tendencies. They will continue to present themselves throughout out lifetime, thus the need for continued practice.

In our daily life, however, we often do not have the luxury of being able to stop and meditate when difficulties arise and need our attention in an instant. I believe that, to say to someone who is in the middle of an episode of panic, anger, or severe depression, that they should "turn toward it and go into it," is like telling a drowning person to just "be with the experience of drowning." As householders, not monastics, we need to have a flotation device at our disposal that can help save us from drowning in our habitual tendencies and suffering. And we need it fast.

We learn this strategy, of course, during our meditation practice through, 1) the repeated return to the object of the breath when the mind wanders, and 2) the rigorous practice of turning toward the difficult rather than trying to get rid of it. This gives us the chance in daily life to know when we are suffering, and then disengage for a moment from the thinking mind that creates the suffering by returning to a present moment sensory reality. 

Of course, the option is always available in our daily life for us to turn toward any experience and know it intimately, just as we do in our formal sitting practice. If this opportunity is there for you in a daily life crisis, go for it. I believe, as well, that we can utilize what we learn in our formal practice to help us extricate ourselves from difficult or overwhelming situations in our daily life. Then we always come back to our formal practice as the vehicle for liberation by being with and totally experiencing anything that arises - pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.


Sunday, January 17, 2010


Interrelationship, by Thich Nhat Hanh:
You are me, and I am you.
Isn't it obvious that we "inter-are"?
You cultivate the flower in yourself,
so that I will be beautiful.
I transform the garbage in myself,
so that you will not have to suffer.

I support you;
you support me.
I am in this world to offer you peace;
you are in this world to bring me joy.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Avoiding The Arrows

Back on October 31, I published a blog entitled "Dodging the Second Arrow." It was based on the Parable of the Second Arrow as taught by the Buddha, which describes the way we often make situations much worse by adding anger or other destructive emotions to the event. In essence, it's like being shot with an arrow, and then shooting ourselves with a second arrow. 

The truth is that in most cases, we don't even need to experience the first arrow. If I come home in the evening and I am greeted by sink full of unwashed dishes, that is the situation. A lot of thoughts could arise from that, like, "Why does everyone think that I'm some sort of servant around here?" That might be the first arrow that gives rise to more negative thoughts, resentments, and anger. In other words, more arrows.

But is there a first arrow in any of these dishes? Not really. These dishes are not hurting me in any way. Do I have to get upset and angry with my kids for leaving them there? Not at all. I actually have a choice in how I respond. I could not do anything and leave them, I could go ahead and do them myself, or I could talk rationally to the kids about the responsibilities of living in a shared space.

We think we have no choice when it comes to our habitual reactions. The truth is that we always have choices, but when anger and ill-will get started, and the second and third and fourth arrows start flying, we can't think clearly enough to make those more effective choices. 

The next time you feel any kind of upset coming on because of a situation, stop for a moment. Ask yourself, "Is there a first arrow here?" The answer will probably be, "No." You will find immediately that the habitual tendency to act out unskillfully will simultaneously be seen clearly, and then drop away due to this awareness. The result will be less suffering, less wounding, and fewer scars.

From Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche:
Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions, and the discomfort of being ruled by them.

(Adapted from Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hansen, Ph.D, with Richard Mendius, MD.)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Meditation and Brain Chemistry

I've just finished a book called Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., with Richard Mendius, MD. It presents, in a very straighforward, easy-to-understand way, how the brain works, especially when we are agitated or anxious, and makes a strong case for how Sensory Reality Meditation, and Sensory Reality Therapy, can work.

Very simply, when the fight-or-flight response is activated, for example when someone cuts us off in traffic, an ancient part of the brain called the amygdala lights up. The amygdala is the "alarm bell" that tells us when there is a threat present. This then sets in motion a cascade of other brain chemical reactions, that, in turn start, the fight-or-flight chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol coursing through the bloodstream.

The reasoning part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is now either completely incapacitated, or the thinking that does happen is so distorted that it can completely mis-appraise the situation. This then gives rise to actions meant to repel the threat. When we look back on it later, these actions are sometimes laughable. After all, there is no real threat. However, we cannot think clearly at all in these moments. We might think that we are the only ones who could possibly be right and everyone else is wrong. We become like the man who was driving down the highway when a bulletin came over the radio warning that a car was heading the wrong way on the same road. "A car going the wrong direction?!" the man said angrily, "There are hundreds of them!" 

To help this situation, we can turn to a present moment sensory experience, such as the feeling of the body breathing. Attention to the breath simultaneously, 1) engages the parasympathetic relaxation response, thus soothing the amygdala, and 2) lets us disengage from the distorted thinking. The prefrontal cortex reboots, and then comes back online being able to see things more clearly and calmly. The body begins to relax, and our suffering is decreased immensely.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Courage To Blossom

And then the day came when the risk to stay tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. - Anais Nin

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Thought About Enlightenment

I once heard Wes Nisker say this:
Looking for enlightenment is like looking for your flashlight, when the only reason you need a flashlight, is to find your flashlight.
He then followed it with this poem by Hafiz:
Pulling out the chair
Beneath your mind
And watching you fall upon the Divine - 

What else is there
For Hafiz to do
That is any fun in this world!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Present Moment Sensory Reality

Yesterday's blog discussed the simple and elegant way vipassana works, both during the practice itself, and after we get up and return to daily life. The latter function of vipassana is, of course, the main reason the practice exists. Obviously we can't live our lives stuck to a meditation cushion. Nor can we stop what we are doing at any moment during the day when we encounter suffering, drop down into a sitting posture, close our eyes, and meditate. 

For me, this has always been the fundamental problem with other meditation techniques I have practiced over the years. Whether it was Sufi breathing, Transcendental Meditation, guided imagery, or chanting, none of these could really help me when I needed help the most. They may have been great experiences while I was practicing, but they had little or no merit afterward.

What I have found over the past 13 years of practicing vipassana, and especially over the past two years of deep introspection into the problem of suffering in daily life, is that we have a tool at our disposal to help us stop suffering at any moment. As Jon Kabat-Zinn has said, it has been right under our nose the whole time. 

I am referring to the process of literally coming to our senses by making contact with the reality of the present moment through the senses. I have been calling this process Present Moment Sensory Reality (PMSR) for a while now. If you put quotation marks around it and do a Google search, you will come up with about ten of my blogs. PMSR has become the focus of my work in teaching meditation and yoga, and in my work with psychotherapy patients.

If you have been reading these postings, you probably know the basics of PMSR. When you notice an upsetting feeling, you can be sure that there is a thought somewhere that caused it. Usually this thought is a distortion of the truth, always the thought is just a thought, and not a fact. Even if the thought is about a fact, it's still just a thought. It has no basis in reality outside of being a thought.

There is a reality, however. We experience it through the body in the form of our senses. The world is knowable through the physical senses, and these sense objects are always present moment experiences. When we are trapped by a ruminating, spiraling thought, we can disengage from it, and turn our awareness toward any sense object that is present. It can be a touch, taste, smell, visual experience, or sound. The thought will fade away on its own, and any suffering that the thought produced will decrease dramatically.

From the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, a Burmese master who brought meditation out of the monasteries: 
Those who practice mindfulness of this body and mind will understand the nature of the senses and gain progressive insight into the process of arising and passing of all phenomena. They will finally come to see the Dharma, attain the Dharma, penetrate the Dharma, pass beyond doubt, free themselves from uncertainty, obtain liberation, and achieve independence in the way taught by the Buddha.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Simple Elegance of Vipassana

One of the aspects of vipassana (mindfulness) meditation that I find most useful and interesting is how, in this style of meditation, everything is included and nothing is wasted. In addition, everything that we need to make it work is included in the practice itself, making it simple, elegant, and effective. This is the genius of vipassana.

Here's what I mean... First of all, we establish the breath as the primary object of attention. The breath is a present-moment sensory experience - we can feel the breath coming in and going out through the nose through the sense of touch. By paying attention to this experience, the mind begins to gather around this experience, much like a magnet attracts iron filings.

For a while, we are able to stay with this present moment sensory experience, but pretty soon the mind begins to wander off into one thought or another. At first we may not notice this has happened, but then we awaken, and make the choice to return the attention back to the feeling of the breath. 

Many practitioners mistakenly think that the wandering mind is the enemy and must be avoided at all costs. First of all, avoiding the wandering mind would be impossible because minds tend to wander. Secondly, the wandering mind is an important component of vipassana meditation because it provides the process of awakening, and the process of returning back to the present moment sensory reality of the breath. Because of this, the wandering mind is just as much a part of vipassana as is the breath. Furthermore, without the wandering mind experience, there would be no awakening and returning.

Additionally, this loop - from breath, to wandering mind, to awakening, and then return to the breath - offers the reference template for dealing with suffering in our daily life. When we catch ourselves caught up in a pattern of ruminating over some upsetting thing, or the mind will not let go of some unpleasant thought, we can disengage from these thoughts and return to a present moment sensory reality such as the breath. This will help us see the reality of our situation more clearly than when we are trapped in the thoughts and stories that the mind tells us.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Grist For Our Mill

Last night after the sangha (our Saturday evening meditation group), I went to a friend's house a played music with six other musicians. Our hostess, an excellent singer/songwriter who has toured the world as a professional musician, had double mastectomy surgery only ten days before, and this gathering was part of her healing and recovery. 

Playing music with a group of good players is an extraordinary experience. I've played guitar since I was 8 years old, but only in the past two years have I known what it is like to jam with other musicians of this high caliber. It is meditative, transportive, and fun all at the same time.  

Staying with our hostess during her recovery is an old friend, another singer/songwriter from Woodstock, NY, named Penny Nichols. I usually do not mention names in this forum, but I want to draw attention to a song that she wrote when she was in the midst of her own healing journey through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and beyond. The song is called Grist for the Mill (at the end of this blog is a link to an MP3 download).

We had to do it twice. It's that good a song, to be sure, and worthy of a reprise, but we needed a second pass because Penny could not finish it the first time through when the tears began to flow. So with the initial attempt serving as a rehearsal, we hunkered down to doing the song justice. Each one of us tried to be as accurate as we could, treating our vocal and instrumental components with care and love. It felt like we were studio musicians on a session, working together as one unit to lay down a very special track - we wanted it to be really good.

And it was. After the last notes faded into the ether, we sat in silence; teary eyes closed, souls refreshed. Music has the power to heal, and in looking around that little room it became obvious that healing that occurred. The word "heal" has in it the root of "whole." We were a whole; we were one.

Healing does not always mean the absence of disease or illness, but the awareness that, no matter how bad things get, we are always essentially whole, and that wholeness can never be threatened.

Grist for the Mill, by Penny Nichols:
Bring it in, bring it in,
It's all grist for the mill.
What comes out is the sweetest flour,
Fills me up in my darkest hour.

Bring it in, bring it in,
It's all grist for the mill.
Cast my tears in a river of sorrow,
Turns the wheel and feeds the sparrow.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Firm Ground of Nothingness

Jack Kornfield once told a story about a friend of his who accompanied her husband to Southeast Asia while he was researching a book. While she was there, she began to meditate with the monks at a local temple, and as Jack put it, "While he wrote the book, she got enlightened."

Jack was visiting the couple one evening, and after dinner they were doing the dishes. While cleaning a plate, she idly mused, "You know, it's funny how most people settle for the quicksand of 'somethingness,' when they could stand on the firm ground of 'nothingness'."

In his inimitable style of giving Dharma talks, Jack then paused, and let this statement sink in. It took a while for me. The whole next day at the retreat I chewed on these words. What was this "quicksand of somethingness," and how could nothingness provide a firm ground on which to stand?  How can a person consider themselves as nothing? What kind of uplifting message is that?!

I began breaking the phrase down, looking at the key words, "somethingness" and "nothingness." Hmm... Some-thing and no-thing. I think I am some thing, but actually I am no thing. That worked for me. It's not that I am "nothing," but that I am "no thing."

If I take this teaching from the perspective of Dependent Origination (see blogs from 12/2, 12/3, & 12/4/09), the notion of being no thing becomes quite doable. I am not just one thing, but a collection of interdependent causes and conditions that gave rise to what I am today. Since my entire existence, way of life, and sense of who I am does not rely on being some thing - since it is actually countless interdependent things - I can live more comfortably with my personal paradoxes, inconsistencies, and imperfections. If I see myself, not as some thing that is finished and therefore must be a certain way all the time, and experience myself as a work in progress, I can feel more secure about the way my life unfolds. By embracing being no thing, I have found the firm ground on which to stand.

From the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, Tibetan Lama and Buddhist leader:
We live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a reality. We are that reality. When you understand this, you see that you are nothing, and being nothing, you are everything. That is all.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Hollow Reed

B'hai Master, Abdu'l-Baha, is thought to have said this prayer: "Make me like a hollow reed from which the pith of self hath been blown, so that I may become a clear channel through which love may flow to others."

The "pith" Baha refers to is the spongy tissue found in the stem of some plants, such as water reeds. The obvious implication is that a sense of self is an obstacle to the ability to let things flow through us. We can know this experience as feeling blocked or constricted, unable to get out of our own way. These feelings are usually the result of clinging to something we want more of, or aversion toward something we want less of. 

It would be too difficult to get rid of our sense of self completely, and not even desirable. Many have tried, and all have failed. What we can do, however, is to relieve ourselves from the blockage by opening the tight first of clinging, or by abandoning the aversion toward the undesirable. This allows for a more effective flow of energy through us, and a decreasing of our level of suffering.

Every obstacle brings with it the seed of opportunity. The awareness of being blocked, or of our flow being interrupted, is an important insight that we can use for our growth. When we become aware that there is blockage, we can then ask ourselves, "To what am I clinging? What am I trying to avoid?" Armed with this awareness, we can then turn toward any situation, no matter how difficult, acknowledge its presence in our lives, and then allow it to be. This, in turn, promotes a flowing of insight and energy into the situation that brings with it wise action. 


Thursday, January 7, 2010

"I'd Rather Be Right Than Happy"

One way that clinging brings about suffering is in relationship to ideas of being right or wrong. Usually, the mind creates a thought about some situation, sometimes based on few (if any) real facts, and then we cling to this scenario as though our life depended upon it. Even after these ideas have been shown to be incorrect, we might continue to hold tightly to them as a way of proving ourselves right in support of a sense of I, me, or mine. My wife, Kathy, calls this syndrome, "I'd rather be right than happy." 

Even when it is obvious that letting go of our now outmoded way of thinking about the situation would be better for us, we continue to cling. Once again, we are reminded of the Sri Lankan monkey traps (see 11/16/09 and 11/17/09 blogs). It's easy to get our hand into the hole of the trap to get hold of the desired object (ego satisfaction/sense of self), but once the fist is closed around the object, our hand is too big to remove. Then we stay stuck until, hopefully, we can come to our senses and let go.

Giving up on being right all the time is a classic example of releasing the clinging that gives rise to suffering. Right away we can feel our tension decrease. New ideas begin to arise, whereas before there was only a tunnel vision mentality that excluded all but our dearly held beliefs about the situation (based on incorrect thoughts). We can feel the body actually relax and soften, and we might even be able to feel some compassion and loving kindness toward ourselves or others who are involved.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other"
doesn't make any sense. -- Rumi

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Inner and Outer Space

When I was growing up in the late '50's and early '60's, my biggest heroes were the astronauts of the Mercury manned space program. They were called the Original Seven, and their names I know from memory: Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra, Cooper, and Slayton. It's hard for anyone who was not alive at the time to appreciate the status that these men attained in our culture. Each mission was televised from countdown to splashdown as I, and countless other boys my age, rode the Redstone and Atlas rockets as vicarious co-pilots.

The early days of the space program still fascinate me. For Christmas, Kathy gave me Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, and even though it is flawed in many ways, it did not leave my side until I had finished it. Toward the end, I came across a lovely quote from Apollo 14 crew member Dr. Ed Mitchell, who described an experience he had on the way back to earth after walking on the moon in January, 1971. In order to keep from overheating the spacecraft due to exposure to the sun, or freezing it when in shadow, the Apollo command module would slowly rotate like a barbecue rotisserie in space:
The biggest joy was on the way home. In my cockpit window every two minutes: the earth, the moon, the sun, and a whole 360-degree panorama of the heavens. And that was a powerful, overwhelming experience. And suddenly I realized that the molecules in my body, and the molecules of the spacecraft, and the the molecules in the bodies of my partners, were prototyped and manufactured in some ancient generation of stars. And that was an overwhelming sense of oneness, of connectedness. It wasn't them and us, it was 'that's me, that's all of us, it's one thing.' And it was accompanied by an ecstasy: 'Oh my God, wow! Yes!' An insight. An epiphany.
The ancient seers would say it this way: "I am that, you are that, all this is that, and that's all there is." This insight is available to any of us at any time. We don't have to travel hundreds of thousands of miles into space to know it.

For all of my interest and fascination with the early days of space exploration, I see it now as a somewhat misguided adventure, spurred on mainly by Cold War paranoia as a way of getting ahead of the Soviet Union. I worshiped the astronauts of that era as gods, and yet I never heard a compelling reason why we spent all that treasure and risked all those lives to send them on their voyages. 

What resonates with me now, however, is that we were answering some primitive inner calling that would, eventually, bring us back to our intrinsic nature: that we are are, and always have been, one with everything. 

T.S. Eliot said it like this:
We shall not cease from exploration 
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Wholehearted Effort

Introspective practices, such as meditation or yoga, demand an expenditure of effort. Most of the time when we think of effort, the image that comes to mind is one of heavy breathing, wiping sweat from the forehead, or collapsing into a heap from exhaustion. There is another way of looking at effort, however, that does not automatically mean that we must push ourselves past our limits in order to be effective.

In dharma talks about the Eightfold Path, the last of the Four Noble Truths, some teachers have described this kind of Wise Effort as "wholeheartedness." This step on the path carries with it a wholesome desire to end our suffering, and it is a step that is taken with an open heart. The result of this kind of wholehearted effort is the liberation of the heart ("the sure heart's release" in the words of the Buddha) from getting trapped in habitual actions and ways of thinking.

Diligence is another requisite for Wise Effort. Without diligence and perseverance, there can be no practice, and diligence combined with wholehearted effort, will lead to an ability to use what we learn in our meditation practice in daily life. Diligently returning to the breath when the mind wanders, for example, gently trains the mind how to disengage from upsetting thoughts, and return to the present moment sensory reality. In Dancing With Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering, Phillip Moffitt wrote:
You cultivate and train your mind in order to shift your attention from one object or thought pattern to another. You learn how to apply effort in this manner so that when you find yourself obsessing on a thought that is not wholesome, you have the ability to shift away from it.
When you find yourself bearing down during your practice, see if you can soften a bit and let the practice come to you. By being diligent and wholehearted in your practice, rather than striving and effort-full, you will discover that you can, indeed, do more by doing less.


Monday, January 4, 2010

The Future Is Now

In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert writes about how the human mind tends to believe it can predict the future, and specifically, what will make us happy in the future. It turns out, however, we have a really terrible track record when it comes to future predictions of happiness.

Dr. Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, says that what is happening in the present moment will always color how we think the future will be. If we are sad right now, it is very hard to imagine that we will be happy later on. What this indicates is that present moment sensory reality trumps the mind's tendency to create an imagined future.

This tendency is good news, and can be used to our advantage to help us reduce suffering and increase our ability to act effectively. When we catch the mind creating a doom and gloom scenario about the future, we can disengage from this thought by turning our attention toward a sensory experience that is happening in the present moment. The mind will automatically default to the sensory input, and disregard the thought. As Dr. Gilbert wrote, "We can't see or feel two things at once, and the brain has strict priorities about what it will see, hear, and feel and what it will ignore. Imagination's requests are often denied. Both the sensory and emotional systems enforce this policy."

So modern neuroscience again confirms what the Buddha and others have been teaching for thousands of years: keep coming back to the present moment, and you will have a better chance at living a happier life.


Sunday, January 3, 2010


The word "dukkha," in the Pali language (as spoken by the Buddha), has many meanings. Often it is merely considered to mean "suffering." There are subtleties to this word, however, that merit deeper investigation.

Dukkha also means "unsatisfactoriness." It implies that nothing that we can experience is capable of bringing us permanent satisfaction and happiness. Jack Kornfield tells of the time he asked a group of people if anyone there had ever experienced anything that was truly lasting. Even though it was a rhetorical question, a student raised his hand. "I've had one," he said. "Ignorance. It's lasted all my life."

Another subtle meaning of dukkha is "off-centered," like the hub of a wheel that off its center. Imagine that you are riding in an oxcart, a common conveyance at the time of the Buddha. It would not have been a pleasant ride to begin with. Instead of a set of new Michelins, the wheels were made of rough hewn wood. Since the wheelwright's state-of-the art did not include independent suspension, the ride would have been pretty rough, even on the best of roads.

Now imagine how the ride would be if the axle hub of one of the wheels was off-centered. You would be humping and jerking along mercilessly. This is the effect of dukkha: it produces a very jarring experience. Writer Beverly Nelson Elder suggests that the sound that an off-centered wooden wheel makes as it bounces along would indeed be "dukkha, dukkha, dukkha, dukkha..."

When we experience this kind of difficult passage in our lives, we can always stop our cart and center our hub. Stopping means being still for a while and allowing the suffering to be known as much as possible. Re-centering means noticing how the mind is creating thoughts that are adding to the bumpiness of our journey, and then disengaging from those thoughts by coming back to the reality of the present moment. The road of life is often uneven and unpaved, and adding to this arduous trip with thoughts that have nothing to do with the facts of a situation only creates a more jolting ride.
At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want. ~ Lao Tzu

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Life Well-Lived, Part 2

Kathy and I spent New Year's Day with a small and wonderful group of people, just eating, drinking, and sharing our lives with one another. Our hostess, easily the most worldly person I've ever met, shared with me some of her childhood memories of living in Los Angeles in the late 1930's when she met, and began weekly personal conversations with, Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of the Self Realization Fellowship.

She would attend his kirtan (ecstatic chanting) on Sunday afternoons, and then he would answer her questions about life. If Yogananda were teaching today, his kirtans would probably fill the Staples Center or Dodger Stadium. In those days, he was practically unknown outside of a few local devotees, and his kirtans would attract maybe a dozen people. Private lessons with him were easy to get.

Our friend was eight years old when she began these weekly sessions with the guru, and they continued until she was well into college. It's no wonder that she has attracted the kind of life that has been hers for some 77 years. Her compassion, openness of spirit, and generosity have brought her into proximity with Presidents, astronauts, statesmen of all stripes, and entertainment luminaries, most of whom have departed.

One of her oldest friends was there, yesterday. She was a favorite
comedienne and actress of mine when I was growing up; a legend in my family's home. Now 93 years old, she shared with me her philosophy of life: "What you are doing when you are eight is what you will be doing when you are eighty." Her childhood was spent alternatively dressing up in outrageous costumes, and doing art. Now that she is no longer performing, she has returned to painting, and several of her works were on display in our host's home.

Like the gathering's hostess, who, as a child asked probing questions of Paramahansa Yogananda, our new nonagenarian friend
was sewing seeds that would sprout over her entire lifetime. And she is still growing.

Success is not rightly measured by the worldly standards of wealth, prestige, and power. None of these bestow happiness unless they are rightly used. To use them rightly one must possess wisdom and love. ~ Paramahansa Yogananda

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Brief Perspective on Time

In the fall of 1993, I had the pleasure of hearing Ram Dass speak at a conference in Long Beach. During his talk, he presented some interesting perspectives on the nature of time, and I thought that passing along his perspective on New Year's Day might be apropos.

The concept of time, in terms of the movement of years, brings us face to face with impermanence. The concept of time in terms of the awareness of the present moment, however, shows us that we also exist in an ever-present Now in which there is no time as we perceive it because it's always Now.

How time seems to move, depends a great deal upon where we are standing in relation to time. When I was five years old, being 55, as I am now, seemed like an eternity away. From where I stand now, the past fifty years seem to have gone by very quickly.

So Ram Dass came up with a model for presenting a perspective on the 4.5 billion year history of the world by equating it to a 108-story building (108 being a sacred number in several religious traditions). Here are his words:
For the first 20 floors, there was no life at all. At the 20th floor, simple single-celled organisms made their appearance.

Single-celled organisms proliferated until about the 50th floor, where they became complex cells.

Photosynthesis began around the 60th floor.

Sexual reproduction of simple cells began at about the 70th floor.

Milti-cell reproduction began around the 80th floor.

Fish began to appear around the 94th floor.

They came to land at around the 95th floor.

The dinosaurs roamed the earth between about the 105th and 107th floors.

At the beginning of the 108th floor, mammals appeared.

Humans appeared a few inches from the top.

Language appeared a tenth of an inch from the top.

Civilization, a 100th of an inch from the top.

The Industrial Revolution, a 1000th of an inch from the top.

-- Our history is thinner than a layer of paint at the top of a 108-story building.
Ah, Yes. Seems like only yesterday...

(It may have already occurred to you that the model Ram Dass used for this illustration was the World Trade Center. At the time, the notion that they could be destroyed by an act of hatred and confusion was unimaginable. Such is the nature of impermanence.)