Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Gateless Gate

Actually there is no real teaching at all for you to chew on or squat over. But not believing in yourself, you pick up you baggage and go around to other people's houses looking for Zen, looking for Tao, looking for mysteries, looking for awakenings, looking for Buddhas, looking for masters, looking for teachers. You think this is searching for the ultimate and you make this into your religion. But this is like running blindly. The more you run, the farther away you are. You just tire yourself, to what benefit in the end?
~ Zen Master Foyan

Saturday, February 27, 2010

After Ecstasy, The Laundry

In his book, After Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path, Jack Kornfield discusses how our expectations of enlightenment and insight can become obstacles that prevent us from actually knowing these experiences. As he explains, "It is easy to get caught up in the notion that there is a goal, a state, a special place to reach in spiritual life. Accounts of extraordinary experiences can create ideas of how our own lives should be, and lead us to compare ourselves with others."

He offers a testimonial from a Buddhist meditation master that might be helpful in our own times of impatience, frustration, or doubt about such practices:
Here I am, a teacher for hundreds and hundreds of students, some who have experienced powerful meditative openings. But that has not been my way. For a long time this was the hardest thing for me to accept, that "nothing happened." I'm not a person with big dramatic experiences. For thirty years now it's simply been a process of practicing without being caught by my own ideas of discouragement or success. I would go for months of intensive training and no spectacular experience would happen. This was especially hard for the first ten years, but at least I never got trapped into believing I was a special spiritual person.

Yet somehow something did change. What most transformed me were the endless hours of mindfulness, giving a caring attention to what I was doing. I learned that the inner dropping of burdens was not going to happen for me all in one piece, but again and again. I simply dropped the burden of my judgments, of my fear, of distrust of myself, of tightness of body and mind...Oddly enough, some of my friends tell me I have become more and more like myself. They say there has been a very big change in me, but it wasn't produced by any special event. I guess it is just the fruit of being present over and over. It's that simple.
...And that difficult...


Friday, February 26, 2010

Technical Problems vs. Emotional Problems

This morning, my ancient laptop was attacked, overrun, and completely disabled by a malevolent force in the form of a virus known as "Total PC Defender 2010." Masquerading as an altruistic anti-virus software that is trying to be helpful by warning you that your computer has been infected by a virus, it turns out that this malicious software is the virus.

I don't work on computers, and beyond turning them off and on, accessing the internet, and running some simple software, I'm totally lost in the cyberworld and actually get frightened when something like this happens. Fortunately, I did not make things worse by whipping out my credit card and purchasing their anti-viral software. The software, incidentally, does not actually exist. This virus is merely a trap to get my important numbers. I'm not a big believer in evil forces at work in the world, but seriously, how evil can you get?

Immediately, my body went into survival mode. All the familiar chemicals began coursing through my bloodstream. The rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, and dysfunctional thinking patterns that could only see doom and gloom in my future kicked in, and I was caught up in an emotional maelstrom, spiraling deeper and deeper into blackness and despair.

A long time ago, Kathy had shared with me her secret of moving through all the crises she encounters as the technical director of a touring opera company: ask yourself, is this a technical problem, or an emotional problem? If the answer is technical (and it almost always is), solve it step by step through technical means.

I won't go into all the steps in detail, which included calling Kathy first, having her look up this virus online, getting in touch with the Geek Squad to arrange an appointment for a technician to come get rid of the virus (for $299), and other things. Once I realized that it could, indeed, be removed without permanent damage to my files and laptop, my emotional symptoms eased quite a bit. 

Then my son, Zach, came home and told me that he has removed lots of viruses and spyware from computers. Hesitantly at first, I turned it over to him, and within ten minutes, it was gone. Not the computer, the virus. Obliterated, hopefully never to return. All done with the methodical skill and technical precision of a surgeon as I watched in amazment. 

The next time a challenge - large or small - presents itself, ask yourself if it is a technical problem or an emotional problem. When you see that it is technical, make a list of how to solve it step by step. Stay rooted in the present moment as you fulfill these steps, disengaging from catastrophizing thoughts about the future, or regrets about the past, by paying close attention to what needs go be done in this moment. And, of course, always factor in the unexpected, such as the sudden appearance of a savior in the form of your only begotten son.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Remembering George Harrison

Today is the birthday of George Harrison, born February 25, 1943 in Wavertree, Liverpool (England), died November 29, 2001 in Los Angeles, California. Besides being an innovative guitarist and songwriter with the Beatles, he was a huge influence on my life as a young teenager. 

In the mid-1960's, he grew disillusioned with fame and wealth, and began looking for deeper meaning in life. This search led him, first to Indian music through his teacher and mentor, Ravi Shankar, then to yoga through the writings of Swami Vishnu-Devananda, and eventually to Transcendental Meditation through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

It was at about this time that I became a very intense Beatles fan. When I read about TM and their experiences with Maharishi, I was not just interested, but felt compelled to learn meditation. I tried on my own for a while, then I bought Maharishi's book, The Science of Being and the Art of Living hoping he would explain how to do it. He didn't. You had to find a teacher for that. 

A few years later, I was a Freshman at the University of Kansas, and in February of 1973, almost 37 years ago to the day, I was given my mantra and initiated into the practice of TM. That opened the way to yoga, other meditation practices, and eventually led me on an introspective path to where I am today.

So thank you, George (and John, Paul, and Ringo) for being there to lead the way.
We were talking -
about the space between us all.
And the people -
who hide themselves behind a wall
of illusion.
Never glimpse the truth.
Then it's far too late,
when they pass away.
We were talking -
about the love we all could share.
When we find it - 
to try our best to hold it there.
With our love
we could save the world.
If they only knew. 
Try to realize it's all within yourself
no one else can make you change.
And to see you're really only very small,
and life flows on within you and without you.
We were talking - 
about the love that's gone so cold.
And the people -
who gain the world and lose their soul.
They don't know, 
they can't see.
Are you one of them?
When you've seen beyond yourself
then you may find peace of mind
is waiting there.
And the time will come
when you see we're all one
and life flows on within you and without you. ~ George Harrison, Within You Without You, 1967.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Skating Through Grief

I have not been following the Winter Olympics very much, but I just watched an online video of Canadian skater Joannie Rochette. Her mother died with shocking suddenness of a heart attack on Sunday morning, and less than 72 hours later, Ms. Rochette was back on the ice. 

Even watching her warming up before the program brought me to tears. I cannot imagine what it must be like just to skate like that, much less to do so while experiencing the weight of unthinkable sadness. How can she bear her heart in front of countless millions of people only moments after it has been broken into bits?

Then came the program itself. Her grace and courage, the emotional reactions of the sympathetic audience in the arena, and the sensitive silence of the commentators, combined to produce more tears as my heart quivered for this young woman. When it was over, and she had held her final pose for the requisite amount of time, she went limp, and let her own tears flow.

Joannie Rochette was able to do this because she lived in the moment during her program. She was not thinking ahead to the outcome (which had been rendered irrelevant by her mother's death), nor was she caught in memories of the past. She was truly present, here and now, moment-to-moment, paying attention to what needed to be done in each successive moment. And when her task was completed, she returned to the attending to her grief and loss in the moment.

Paying attention to what needs to be done moment-to-moment, and turning toward the unpleasant. These are the traits that we can cultivate through mindfulness practice. We hope that we never have to prove our mettle on ice, as Joannie had to last night, but our own experiences of sadness are no less intense. 
I go among the trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
Where I left them, asleep like cattle...

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
And the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song. ~ Wendell Berry

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Olympic Dharma

As the Winter Olympics continue in Vancouver, I am reminded of some parallels (and differences) between athletes and meditators. Most obviously, like Olympic competitors, those of us who meditate must practice.

Like athletes, we practice meditation in a controlled environment, sitting still, with eyes closed, and being quiet. A top Olympic skier, working out in a specially equipped gym, is doing the same thing. They may be working on specific exercises to strengthen parts of the body, or to improve their reaction time. They are not doing these things to become world class at weight lifting or jumping on a trampoline, but to become more skillful on the race course where they must be prepared for any real-time experiences that may come their way.

A meditator is not practicing to become good at meditating. When a meditator is sitting on the cushion or chair, they are practicing getting to know events and experiences that arise moment-to-moment. Then, when difficult things happen in daily life, they can avoid getting caught up in habitual reactions and old ways of being. In the meditator's case, however, there is a sense of trying to slow down the reaction time, to take a reflective moment, and then to respond out of that moment more mindfully and less automatically. Like the skier, the more a meditator practices this kind of non-doing, the more the reflective moment becomes, somewhat paradoxically, the automatic reaction.

There are no medals given out for meditation, however. The reward is decreasing the level of suffering by avoiding habitual and automatic reactions. When we transform these old habits into reflective and mindful responses, that's when we win the gold.


Monday, February 22, 2010

A Radical Practice

It may not be apparent to you, but the practice of mindfulness meditation is pretty radical. In many ways, it means that we are often swimming against the stream of most civilization.

In mindfulness practice, we are not trying to attain anything or reach any particular goal. This kind of attitude is not honored or encountered very often in our culture, and yet, it can be one of the most rewarding paths one can take. Remember the words of Alan Watts, "The goal of life is reached in every moment." This means that we have already achieved our objective before we even begin our practice.

So we just go from moment to moment and breath to breath, being as present and available as we can be for anything that arises along the way. What we find in doing this is that each moment is a gold mine, with the riches lying at our feet for the taking. In every moment we have the opportunity presented to us to experience joy, peace, love, wisdom, and enlightenment. These are not some imagined goals to be achieved later, they are present right here and right now.

A pretty radical idea alright.
My inside, listen to me, the greatest spirit,
the Teacher, is near,
wake up, wake up!

Run to his feet -
he is standing close to your head right now.
You have slept for millions and millions of years.
Why not wake up this morning? ~ Kabir

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Friendly Curiosity

In the practice of vipassana meditation, we cultivate what is often referred to as "friendly curiosity." This means that our practice takes on the quality of an exploration, but one without any particular goal in mind. The journey becomes the destination.

Curiosity begins as soon as we begin our practice when we sit on our cushion or chair. We can deploy this friendly curiosity toward the feelings in the body as they arise, or to the never-ending torrent of thoughts as they flow through our mind. We can turn toward these experiences and quietly ask within, "What is this?" as each new experience becomes known.

When the our awareness comes to rest in the feeling of the breath, as it naturally will when we are still and quiet, we can treat this new phenomenon with the same friendly curiosity. If we really investigate the breath we find that no two breaths are alike. This kind of insight and awareness can lead to an ever-growing sense of wonder and awe, excellent qualities for an explorer to possess. 

Everything that happens during our practice can be met with this friendly curiosity. In turn, we can apply this same quality of curiosity to the events and experiences of our daily life. Living mindfully in this way results in continuous insights about all of life as it is being lived which may help us to become more effective in meeting life's challenges.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes. ~ Marcel Proust

Saturday, February 20, 2010

In This Moment...

Thoughts of the imagined future or remembered past cause us to suffer. Feelings of anxiety, regret, resentment, anger, jealousy, self-judgment, or the myriad of other events that often come with these kinds of thoughts. 

When you are beset by these upsetting mental contents, say to yourself, "In this moment I'm..." and then fill in the blank. Whatever you are experiencing in any of the senses, name it. "In this moment, I'm scratching my face." "In this moment, I'm seeing a tree." "In this moment, I'm petting the dog," and so forth. 

The final part of this exercise is to then experience this present-moment sensory reality as fully as possible, even if only for a few seconds. This simple, yet extremely powerful strategy, will disengage you from the thoughts of past or future, and in the present-moment reality, there can be a cessation of suffering.
Breathing in, I dwell deeply in the present moment. Breathing out, I know this is a wonderful moment. Present moment/wonderful moment. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Mindfulness Laboratory

When we come to our meditation practice, it is like we are creating a laboratory. In a lab, the experiments are strictly controlled - all of the dials and switches are properly set, the recording instruments perfectly calibrated, and the temperature and humidity correctly adjusted. We sit on the cushion or chair in the self-contained laboratory of the body, and we let the experiment begin.

First, we notice how the body feels just sitting here. We can get in touch with being alive in that moment as we experience the pulsations, vibrations, or waves of energy as they move through us. Then we make the choice to rest the attention on a single object: the feeling of the breath coming in and going out. We don't try to change or manipulate the breath because that would alter the experiment. We just feel the body breathing itself. It's like we're investigating the feeling of the breath; exploring it to see where it will lead us.

After a period of diligent, wholehearted attention on the feeling of the breath, the mind has collected and gathered more fully in the present moment. Now we have the ability to sustain our attention on other things. We can begin to expand our awareness to notice what is happening in that moment in other parts of the body through our senses. When strong physical experiences arise, for instance, we can turn our mindful attention toward them, feeling how they move through the body. We can become aware of their pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral qualities, we note their impermanence, and we can investigate these physical sensations in the same way that we investigated the feeling of the breath.

Then we can see how the mind steps in rather quickly to color the experience - first by naming it, and then categorizing it, creating preferences, expressing like or dislike, making judgments, and so on. We can see how the mind creates a "self," as thoughts of I, me, and mine arise, causing us to I-dentify with events that have nothing to do with us. Eventually we move back to the feeling of the breath when we notice we are getting lost in thought or when we just need to recharge our sense of mindfulness.

And so the experiment continues. As best as we can, we release our attachment to the outcome, just letting the journey take its own course. We acknowledge the events as they arise, and then just allow them to be.

When we're done, we go back into our daily life where we experience things in real time, and without the benefit of our "clean room" environment with everything perfectly dialed in. Thanks to our time in the mindfulness lab, however, we can live these events as they arise more skillfully, be they pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ten Tips for a Mindful Home, by Karen Maezen Miller

The current edition of Shambhala Sun is devoted to mindful living, and highlights interviews and articles by Thich Naht Hanh, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Edward Espe Brown, Daniel Siegel, and others. The topics include Mindful Cooking, Relationships, Shopping, and Mindfulness at Work.

Karen Maezen Miller, a priest at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles, offers these ten tips for a mindful home from her article, "Do Dishes, Rake Leaves (And Don't Forget the Endless Loads of Laundry):

Wake with the sun
There is no purer light than what we see when we open our eyes first thing in the morning.

Mindfulness without meditation is just a word.

Make your bed
The state of your bed is the state of your head. Enfold your day in dignity.

Empty the hampers
Do the laundry without resentment or commentary and have an intimate encounter with the very fabric of life.

Wash your bowl
Rinse away self-importance and clean up your own mess. If you leave it undone, it will get sticky.

Set a timer
If you're distracted by the weight of what's undone, set a kitchen timer and, like a monk in a monastery, devote yourself wholeheartedly to the task at hand until the bell rings.

Rake the leaves
Rake, weed, or sweep. You'll never finish for good, but you'll learn the point of pointlessness.

Eat when hungry
Align your inexhaustible desires with the one true appetite.

Let the darkness come
Set a curfew on the internet and TV and discover the natural balance between daylight and darkness, work and rest.

Sleep when tired
Nothing more to it.

(Copyright 2010 by Karen Maezen Miller. Used by permission.)

To see more of the current issue of Shambhala Sun, visit: 


P.S. Here's a link to Karen's book, Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood:
Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood   [MOMMA ZEN] [Paperback] 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Befriending Fear

I was meditating before dawn many years ago, when I was suddenly overcome with a wave of fear. It may have been related to something specific that was happening in my life at that moment, or it may have been just a general sense of anxiety, but whatever it was, it was powerful. I felt my body begin to shake, and it took all of my will to remain sitting on the cushion with my eyes closed.

I remember thinking that this feeling felt very familiar. Fear had been a part of my life since my earliest childhood memories. Recently discovered evidence indicates that we may even receive fight-or-flight chemicals, such as cortisol and adrenalin, while still in utero. Indeed, my mother used to tell me about how anxious she was while she was pregnant with me. My father was briefly unemployed at that time, and they had just moved to a new house in the suburbs of Kansas City.

So here was that familiar feeling of fear again. I decided to face this demon once and for all, and see just what it was made of. I allowed the feelings to move through me, and I felt them as fully as I could. The sensations presented themselves as waves of heat, momentary bouts of nausea, ringing ears, pounding chest, and sweaty hands and feet. Fear had a hold of me, all right.

I remember a sense of turning inward, toward the direction that the feeling was coming from. I called out inwardly, "Okay, fear! Let's see you! Give me your best shot and show me what you've got!" Out of the darkness, a face began to appear. It was a cartoonishly grotesque-looking thing, whose lips were turned back in a snarl exposing crooked, pointy teeth. Its eyes were bulging, its cheeks were red and puffed up, and it hissed at me very loudly. 

My reaction to this display of mind was surprising. I actually laughed. "That's the best you can do?" I asked sarcastically. The fear face changed expression abruptly, and then just kind of slunk away into the darkness. I remember that it even let out a small whimper as it went away. Instantly, I felt the unpleasant sensations diminish and eventually disappear completely. I was left with a very pleasant feeling of space and peace.

Fear continues to be a traveling companion throughout much of my daily life, but now we have a better understanding of each other. It now knows that I'm the stronger one, and it rarely pushes things to the point where it has me completely overpowered. When it appears during my meditation practice, I now greet it jovially and with genuine affection, inviting it to sit with me for awhile. I will always honor fear as a great teacher for coming to me on that morning long ago, and I will always consider it one of my lifelong companions on this path of life.

Your Mother and My Mother, by Hafiz (translation by Daniel Ladinsky):
Fear is the cheapest room in the house.
I would like to see you living
In better conditions,
For your mother and my mother
Were friends.
I know the Innkeeper
In this part of the universe.
Get some rest tonight,
Come to my verse again tomorrow.
We'll go speak to the Friend together.
I should not make any promises right now,
But I know if you
Somewhere in this world -
Something good will happen.
The Divine Mother wants to see
More love and playfulness in your eyes
For that is your greatest witness to Her.
Your soul and my soul
Once sat together in the Beloved's womb
Playing footsie.
Your heart and my heart
Are very, very old

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Atomic Cloud Chambers and Meditation

When I was a kid, probably about 5th or 6th grade, a science teacher brought an atomic cloud chamber to class. It was basically a round tray with a cork glued in the middle of it, with a clear plastic dome that fit snuggly onto the base. Along with the chamber, came a needle, the tip of which was made slightly radioactive. The needle was stuck into the cork, and then a piece of dry ice was placed in the bottom of the tray, and finally a small amount of water was poured into the tray. as well. When the dry ice and water met, clouds of steam were produced. The clear dome was placed on the tray, and then the fun began.

In a few moments, we could see a little vapor trail shooting through the clouds beneath the dome. It was a piece of an atom being discharged from the end the needle! It looked like the contrail coming from a jet high in the sky, and the sight was met with lots of "oohs" and "ahhs" from the class.

Vipassana meditation can be a lot like this cloud chamber. While we are sitting, we may experience very strong emotional sensations moving through the body. These emotions are most likely the result of a thought about something. We may not be aware of what the thought was, but we can see the effects of it in the cloud chamber that is our body.

We find that emotions arise, abide, and subside with a fair amount of regularity, and that even the strongest emotions don't last very long. We also discover that these are physical sensations resulting from the appearance of chemicals in the bloodstream, such as adrenalin. As in the atomic cloud chamber experiment, we may not be able to see the atom of thought that produced the feeling, but we know it is there. We may be able to turn toward the mind and see clearly the thought that brought about the feeling, and then practice disengaging from this thought by turning toward a present moment sensory reality, such as the feeling of the breath, or even the emotional sensation itself.

The body is how we know the universe. We often feel an emotion before we are aware of the thought that brought it about. By sensitizing the body to these feelings, it can lead us to alter habitual tendencies of the mind by seeing and then disengaging from these thoughts, which are as insubstantial as the steam from the dry ice of the cloud chamber. The reality component of the thought is the physical sensation that arises because of the thought, just like the vapor trail is the telltale sign that an atomic particle has been spun off from the needle of the cloud chamber.



Monday, February 15, 2010

Presidential Dharma

Today, President's Day, we take a day off work (or at least many of us do), to honor all presidents, but mainly Washington and Lincoln. As a point of information, Washington's birthday is actually February 22, while Lincoln's is February 12. 

For today's blog, I had the notion of discussing the way Lincoln had overcome so many hardships in his life before he eventually made it to the White House. After all, overcoming obstacles by seeing them as opportunities is an effective and empowering way to live one's life. Like me, perhaps you have seen the long list of tragedies and setbacks that beset Lincoln through out his lifetime In fact, I used to have this list framed on my office wall to remind me to persevere in the face of hardships. 

However, after doing some fact-checking about this list, I have found that some of the setbacks he endured are either completely false, or misleading. This is not to diminish the greatness of Lincoln in any way. Actually, the real story lets us see even more clearly what a brilliant man he was, and how he was destined for great things.

So here is the "revised" list of accomplishments and crises of Abraham Lincoln:
1818 - Abe's mother died when he was only nine years old.
1831 - A business venture with which he was involved as an employee failed and he lost his job.
1832 - He lost a bid for a minor post in the Illinois state legislature. After this, he became interested in becoming a lawyer and began a process of self-education by reading law texts and observing court sessions.
1834 - Won a seat in the Illinois state legislature.
1835 - A woman with whom he has a romantic relationship died, an event which profoundly affected the young Lincoln.
1836 & 1838 - He was re-elected to the state legislature, and received more votes than any other candidate of either party.
1837 - The Illinois Supreme Court licensed him to practice law. He then partnered with one of the most prominent and successful lawyers in Springfield, Illinois.
1843 - Lincoln failed to achieve his party's nomination for the United States Congress (so the claim that he "ran" for Congress and lost are erroneous).
1846 - He won a seat to the U. S. Congress as a representative for Illinois.
1854 - His first try of a U.S. Senate seat fails.
1858 - He again failed to make it to the U.S. Senate. [It is often falsely reported that he "ran and lost" in these two tries for the Senate. In Lincoln's time, however, U.S. Senators were appointed by state legislatures, not by a direct vote of the people. Although Lincoln was considered the favorite candidate to take over Stephen Douglas' Senate seat, Lincoln's party failed to gain control of the state legislature. Therefore, Douglas kept his seat.]
1860 - Lincoln is elected 16th President of the United States.
So while he was not the life long failure that popular legend makes him out to be, Lincoln still had plenty of obstacles to overcome, and he prepared himself well to meet those challenges and turn them into opportunities.

Source: The Glurge of Springfield at


Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Subject Tonight Is Love, by Hafiz

The subject tonight is love

And for tomorrow night as well,

As a matter of fact

I know of no better topic

For us to discuss

Until we all


Happy Valentine's Day.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Everything Breathes

Here is a wonderful meditation that Kathy gave me once when I was troubled. When you feel stuck in your daily life, whether in your finances, your relationships, your job, or in any aspect of your being, feel yourself breathing. As you experience the expansion of the belly and chest with the inhale, and the releasing with exhale, visualize everything in your life breathing with you. 

With this simple exercise, you can "breathe new life" into anything that feels frozen or dead. This can also work in the case of a project or situation about which you feel anxious or frightened.

When we imagine all aspects of our life as breathing, then the hard parts soften and become more manageable. Instead of obstacles or enemies, these parts of our lives become living and breathing allies, partners, and conspirators (which literally means "to breathe with").

The Greek philosopher Thales said, "All things are full of gods." When we see that all things, animate or inanimate, are alive and possess "soul," we can understand that it is all divine.

Are You Looking For Me? by Kabir:
Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in the stupas, not in Indian shrine rooms, nor synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables,
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly
- you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath

Friday, February 12, 2010

Judging Mind

At a retreat some years ago at Spirit Rock, I heard a dharma talk given by Rodney Smith. He had been a monk in his younger days, and is now a dynamic and popular teacher based in Seattle.

His talk that night was about the judging mind. He said that in his twenty-plus years of teaching, one of the most common problems reported by students is the experience of judging that compulsively arises during meditation. You don't have to go on a retreat to know this is true, however. The judging mind usually comes up almost every time you sit still and get quiet.

As in yesterday's blog about how the survival mechanisms that once serve to protect us have become dysfunctional in modern society, the ability to make discerning choices is an important and useful evolutionary trait that has gotten out of hand. Obviously, those of our ancestors who were able to discern the presence of a dangerous situation passed that trait to the next generation. If you could not discern which cave might have a bear in it, your chances of survival might be seriously diminished.

"Discernment" implies conscious awareness, receptivity, and humility. After all, maybe that cave doesn't have the bear in it right now, but the chances are good. The discerning mind is still an open mind that can admit that it doesn't know the whole story, yet. The judging mind, on the other hand, is not very conscious, has a compulsive quality to it, and is not interested in anyone else's opinions. It knows.

Most often, the judgments we experience in our meditation practice are about ourselves. Jack Kornfield once said that we have a judge in our minds "that wouldn't be allowed to sit on any court in the world." How often have we said things to ourselves and about ourselves that we would never allow anyone else to say? It seems impossible to stop this compulsive train of thinking, even when we know how much suffering it causes us.

In today's world, we are continually bombarded by advertising that preys upon this tendency toward self-judgment. In a television commercial, there is always a problem in search of a solution. The problem is that you don't have what they are selling, and therefore you are less of a person. You don't enjoy the same status or peace of mind that others who own this product have. The solution, of course, is to buy the product in order to fill the void resulting from your not having it.

After seeing millions of these images throughout our lifetime, is it any wonder that when we are quiet for a while we are beset with thoughts of self-judgment? And then, on top of all this, we may find ourselves judging the fact that we are experiencing judgment.

When you are experiencing the judging mind in your practice, or in daily life, the first thing to do is to acknowledge that you are judging something. Open your mind to this experience instead of closing down around it. We do this by applying "friendly curiosity" to it. By being curious about what is happening, rather than trying to shut it off or making things worse by doing more judging, we can begin to cultivate a more discerning attitude. This posture of discernment lets us see clearly the experience of judging as simply another event that is occurring right now. In this way, we will not add to the situation by creating suffering through continued judgment and the negative self-talk that often results.
When the thought is in bondage the truth is hidden  
for everything is murky and unclear. 
And the burdensome practice of judging  
brings annoyance and weariness. 
What benefit can be derived  
from distinctions and separations? ~ Third Zen Patriarch

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Survival Mode Gone Wrong

Here's an interesting theory that I came upon at a seminar this past weekend. The reason for the widespread incidence of stress and anxiety in our culture may be rooted in the change our ancestors made from being hunter-gatherers to becoming farmers. 

Apparently, in hunter-gatherer societies, there are very few of the kinds of problems that we usually associate with stress, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. One possible reason is that when a hunter-gatherer experiences fear, there is a legitimate reason for it: their life is probably in danger. This makes the survival mechanism a functional and useful component in their life.

In our culture, we go into survival mode if someone forgets to signal a left turn in front of us at the traffic light. This would indicate that our fight or flight stress response is set at a very high and sensitive level. Therefore, what used to be a functional system is now dysfunctional, and there is often no legitimate reason for much of our stress and anxiety activation.

The switch from hunter-gatherer to a predominantly agrarian culture some 12,000 years ago, meant that we now lived in one place much of the time instead of living a nomadic lifestyle. This led to the development of permanent housing and settlements, the concepts of property possession and money, and the social positions that came along with these items. Thus status-through-accumulation became synonymous with survival.

In the hunter-gatherer societies, one of the greatest fears is being abandoned by the group, which would lead to real issues of survival. In the agrarian society, losing one's status or property would bring up similar survival issues. It does not always follow that losing the farm means that we will be abandoned and die in the forest. It feels that way, however, because that's the way the human brain evolved over the 2.5 to 3 million years before agriculture was introduced.

So when the economy goes bad or our bank account dwindles, we revert to survival mode, even though there is no direct, life-threatening danger. Therefore, the fight or flight response in these cases serves no functional role. The old part of our brains that evolved during hunter-gathering is still in there telling us that a bear is chasing us through the forest. Maybe this is why, in the language of Wall Street, a prolonged period of investment loss is called a "bear market" and is accompanied by widespread pessimism and perhaps even panic.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Don't Just Do Something, Sit There!

The title of this posting comes from dharma teacher Sylvia Boorstein. It means that we often complicate matters in our lives by leaping into a direct intervention to solve some problem, when the truth is that there may not be a problem at all. 

In the 12-step tradition, you are instructed to exercise "restraint of tongue and pen." In the tradition of the Buddha, it is called Wise Forbearance. How many times have we pressed the "Send" button on an e-mail, and later regretted it? Too often to bring to mind. Or perhaps, rather than taking a moment to calm down, we have said things to friends, loved ones, or colleagues that we wish we could take back.

Sometimes the best course of action is not to act at all. First of all, getting all the information we can about a situation is important. We cannot act wisely or effectively if we don't know the whole story. I've personally destroyed several electronic gadgets, transformed simple household plumbing fixes into costly and complicated repairs by trained professionals, and deleted hundreds of files with the hasty touch of a button.  

Remember, too,  that the things the mind is telling you about any situation are merely thoughts, and not facts. The mind will habitually leap to worst-case scenarios without much provocation. Unfortunately, we often believe what the mind is telling us about ourself, another person, or the situation. When the mind gets flooded with stories, stop for a moment and remember that these are thoughts and not facts.

So give yourself a little space between the situation and the action. Stop for a moment and just be still. Feel what is going on in the body right now, pleasant or unpleasant. Then bring your attention to rest in the feeling of the body breathing in and out for a minute or so. Now return back to the feelings in the body and see how things are going. This "breathing space" is particularly useful in times of anger or upset, before we say or do something that will be impossible to call back.

I will leave you with this thought from astronaut John Young, the command pilot of the first space shuttle mission, when asked about the wisdom of performing repairs to the vehicle while on orbit: "There's not anything that happens to the shuttle that you can't make worse by trying."


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Paying With Our Attention

Many times in meditation practice, there is an instruction to "pay attention to the feeling of the breath." Richard C. Miller, one of my early and most influential teachers used to say, "devote attention to the breath." I personally have always liked this instruction. It raises attention to the breath to the level of a devotional practice, and one way of showing devotion is through the process of making an offering or sacrifice. Thus, we "pay" with our attention as the breath offers itself up as the sacrificial object.

No use of energy goes unrewarded. Through our diligent payment of attention to the breath, we receive mindfulness of the present moment in return. 

Paying attention is a very powerful tool to help us manifest our desires. Whatever we pay attention to will grow and thrive. When we pay attention to what needs to be done moment-to-moment, we can create anything we want in our lives. This manifestation may not come right away, or it may come in an instant, but if we pay attention to our paying attention, this act of devotion and sacrifice will bear fruit when the season is right.
Some offer their wealth as a sacrifice, or their suffering, or the fruits of their yoga practices. Others who tend toward austerity and extreme vows, offer the fruits and the knowledge of sacred study as their sacrifice.
Among those primarily interested in control of the life force...(pranayama), some offer the out breath as a sacrifice to the in breath, and the in breath to the out breath. ~ From The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda (IV: 28-29)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Who Steals My Purse

About a dozen years ago I was teaching a rather late night yoga class, and when I returned to my car afterward, I found that it had been broken into and that my briefcase had been stolen. Panic was the first emotion I remember experiencing. "My life was in that bag," I thought. All of my identification, credit cards, addresses, datebook, and a few irreplaceable personal items were now no longer mine. Without all those numbers, I felt alone and afraid.

I reverted to "survival mode." As soon as I arrived home I got on the phone and canceled the credit cards, contacted the bank to get my account numbers changed, and then after the adrenalin wore off and I could actually feel again, I cried. I actually lamented for my lost wallet, my checkbook, my expensive Tumi briefcase, and all the bits of paper held therein. I berated myself for leaving something so valuable in the passenger compartment of my car. I made a plan to awaken early and go to the Pasadena police station to file a report, and tossed and turned myself to sleep.

I awoke with the dawn. At that time, I lived in a little upstairs apartment with an east-facing window directly over my bed. The sun was not quite over the San Gabriel foothills, but the clouds were already glowing with that special red-orange hue that is reserved for the moments before dawn. Reality set in: I was still without my possessions, but there was a glimmer of hope appearing on the horizon with the sunrise. 

My first stop was the police station. As I drove the fifteen minutes east from Burbank to Pasadena, the dawn was in full bloom. It was one of those January mornings in southern California that just makes my breath come a little bit faster. Now, tears were coming to my eyes, not from grief, but from the pure joy and gratitude of being able to witness this glorious sight. Out of nowhere, I found myself smiling like a maniac and then laughing. Guffawing is more like it.

Grinning until my cheeks ached, I gave my report to the notably unsympathetic desk officer, and then decided to search the area around where my car was parked, in hopes that the thief had taken the wallet and thrown the briefcase away. At least I could get my datebook and addresses back again, and the briefcase was a very nice item costing in the hundreds of dollars to replace.

Returning to the scene of the crime, I embarked on a systematic search of the area around where the car was parked (where I discovered shards of broken automobile glass indicating that I wasn't the only crime victim that evening), and then into a culvert along a disused railroad track culminating in a secluded encampment beneath an overpass. The dank, shadowy nether-city was littered with the detritus of homeless life: bits of clothing, newspapers, cans, bottles, blankets, and boxes. I quickly and cautiously inspected the area, afraid that I might provoke the ire of the residents, and then I moved on. 

As I followed the train tracks, a feeling of lightness began to arise in me. What was I looking for down here? Just a few hours ago, all my things had been so important to me, and now they were garbage. A quote from Othello came to mind:
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands. ~ III, iii, 157
I remember thinking, "What if I were searching through this junk looking for something really valuable?" A loved one, perhaps. This kind of scenario is playing out right now in many parts of this suffering world. I stopped my quest then and there, climbed out of the gully and walked back to my car with a lighter step. In that moment I felt liberated from the weight of my possessions, which were now, and always had been, simply trash.

In the same way, we can open the tight fist of grasping to things that we hold as precious, such as outmoded, dysfunctional ideas, or habitual ways of reacting to the world, and release ourselves from the bondage of these possessions. Lightness, liberation, and relief from suffering will follow.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

"Morning" - A Poem by Billy Collins

Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,

then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?

This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—

maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,

dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,

and if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Super Bowl Dharma

Tomorrow being Super Bowl Sunday, I have been reflecting on the relationship of sports to the Dharma. So if you are planning on watching the big game, here are some handy-dandy ways to sneak in a little bit of daily life practice at the same time.

First of all, be on the alert for clinging and aversion. There is often an almost desperate attachment to a desired outcome, and painful aversion about toward anything negative that happens to our team. What arises, of course, is suffering, as the game unfolds, offering us the opportunity to experience the opposites of gain and loss, praise and blame, pleasure and pain, or fame and disrepute.

This clinging and aversion also gives rise to a sense of self. We have come to identify with one team as being I, me, or mine, and because of this I-dentification with one team or the other, we take everything that happens personally. It may be helpful to remember that the presence of a "self" in football is an illusion; all things arise, abide, and subside based on interdependently arising causes and conditions and there is no self in any of it. Finally, we can be aware of the experience of nirvana, or the cessation of suffering, if our team wins.

Here is another take on the Dharma of sports presented by that master of comedy Zen, George Carlin, in his very funny and insightful comparison of baseball and football:


Friday, February 5, 2010


At Christmastime a few years ago, a colleague sent me a card which was inscribed, "If you are not in awe, then you're just not paying attention." This sentiment succinctly describes introspective practices, such as meditation.

At its most fundamental, when we meditate we are practicing paying attention to one object in order to allow the mind to collect in the present moment. Being more present, in turn, helps make us more available to the awe-inspiring experience of being alive.

In the practice of vipassana meditation, this cultivation of awe starts with the body, a most worthy and interesting object of attention. The Buddha considered mindfulness of the body to be the path "to the supreme peace" (quoted in The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, by Nyanaponika Thera, p. 158). Therefore, the body is a great place to begin any practice. It is the platform from which we experience everything in this lifetime.

Awe literally means, "wondering reverence, tinged with fear, inspired by the sublime" (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 1973 ed., p. 79). If we are paying attention, then the simple fact that we are alive and in a body can inspire awe. Thich Naht Hanh put it this way, "To take human birth is miraculous, but to know that you are alive is even more of a miracle."
Awe is the salve
that will heal our eyes. ~ Rumi


Thursday, February 4, 2010

"When Death Comes" by Mary Oliver

When Death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like and iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending as all music does toward silence,

and each body as a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Making Conscious Choices

When we practice meditation, we usually have an object that we pay attention to in order to stabilize the mind and become more present. In vipassana or Zen practice, the primary object is usually the feeling of the body breathing itself. In other forms of meditation, the primary object might be a mantra (a sound repeated silently or aloud), a candle flame, or the picture of a deity.

No matter what the object is, the practice always involves making a choice to return back to it whenever the mind wanders. At any moment there are countless things we could pay attention to, but in this case we are making the choice to pay attention to only one at thing a time. 

This kind of conscious choice-making is an important component of meditation practice which can also carry over into our daily life off the cushion. We may not be aware of it, but we are constantly making choices in our life. Some choices are made consciously, and some unconsciously. Each choice we make, however, brings with it a result, what is sometimes called "karma." Therefore, we need to bring as much consciousness as possible to the choices we make.

We may think we have no choices in some situations, but this is probably because we have become conditioned to reacting in a certain way toward the things that happen to us. The truth is that we always have choices in how we relate to the stimuli in our world. When we stop for a moment, and reflect on how to respond to a situation, rather than reacting automatically, we can begin to free ourselves from feeling trapped and choiceless.

From The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra:
Whether you like it or not, everything that is happening to you at this moment is a result of the choices you've made in the past. Unfortunately, a lot of us make choices unconsciously, and therefore we don't think they are choices - and yet, they are...
If you step back for a moment and witness the choices you are making as you make those choices, then in just this act of witnessing, you take the whole process from the unconscious realm into the conscious realm. This procedure of conscious choice-making and witnessing is very empowering.
When you make any choice - any choice at all - you can ask yourself two things: First of all, "What are the consequences of this choice that I'm making?" In your heart you will immediately know what these are. Secondly, "Will this choice that I'm making now bring happiness to me and to those around me?" If the answer is yes, then go ahead with that choice. If the answer is no, if that choice brings distress either to you or to those around you, then don't make that choice. It's as simple as that. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Groundhog Days

Every February 2nd, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a ritual is held in which a groundhog named "Punxsutawney Phil" emerges from his lair and predicts the weather for the coming weeks. According to legend, if Phil sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If he does not, there will be an early spring. Apparently, this ritual dates back to the 1800's. Today, of course, it is a media extravaganza.

The 1993 movie, "Groundhog Day," starred Bill Murray as one of those media folk - a disgruntled Pittsburgh weatherman who is assigned to cover the festivities. When he and his crew get snowed in and have to stay overnight (a snowstorm that he failed to predict, by the way), Murray awakens the next day to find that it is still February 2nd, and he has to live the day over again. This continues throughout the entire movie, and no matter what he does to break the time loop, he continues to awaken on Groundhog Day.

All of us have wished that we could make time stand still, or wished that things would stop changing. Change, however, is inevitable. If something has a beginning, it will have an end. Imagine for a moment how things would be if everything remained just as it is from now on. You would never get up from your computer, the world would be frozen in whatever state it is in right now, and it would mean an end to your growth and evolution. Sounds a lot like death, to me.

Eventually, in the movie, Murray's character learns how to utilize the countless repetition of the same day to grow, evolve, and eventually help others. And he even gets the girl. He learned to accept the situation, rather than continuing to fight against it. He allowed it to continue for as long as necessary, until finally, when he had learned what he needed to learn, the time loop was broken and it was February 3rd, at last.

Turn toward the change in your own life. It may be pleasant or unpleasant, it may be what we want or what we don't want, but it is a fact, and putting resistance against change will only bring more resistance back to you.

Oh, and in case you're interested, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow today, and says there will be six more weeks of winter, ending just in time for the Spring Equinox.


Monday, February 1, 2010

Beginner's Mind

Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki, once said, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." Employing beginner's mind is one of the most powerful tools we have to keep our practice, and our daily life, fresh and interesting.

We are often trapped by delusions of expectations - thinking that we know what is going to happen before it happens based on past experiences. It is important to remember that no moment is like any other moment, and each moment brings with it new possibilities. When we cultivate beginner's mind, we can live more fully in the excitement of these possibilities, and free ourselves from the tyranny of our old opinions and incorrect expectations.

If you practice vipassana or Zen meditation, you have the opportunity to use beginner's mind with every breath. Start by imagining that, in your entire life, you have never noticed that you are breathing. Be curious about this experience; stay present through the duration of each inhale and each exhale. Feel the subtleties of the sensation of air moving in and out, rubbing up against the inside of the nose, or feel the gentle rise and fall of the belly or chest. By investigating the process of each breath as deeply as you can, you will soon see that no two breaths are alike.

When you are willing to see everything that happens as if it were happening for the first time, the richness of the present moment can be fully known. In his book, Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn offers some ways to cultivate this practice during your daily life as well:
The next time you see somebody who is familiar to you, ask yourself if you are seeing this person with fresh eyes, as he or she really is, or if you are only seeing the reflection of your own thoughts about this person. Try it with your children, your spouse, your friends and co-workers, with your dog or cat if you have one. Try it with problems when they arise. Try it when you are outdoors in nature. Are you able to see the sky, the stars, the trees and the water and the stones, and really see them as they are right now, with a clear and uncluttered mind? Or are you actually only seeing them through the veil of your own thoughts and opinions?