Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Chance For Peace

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone.
It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.
It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.
It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement.
We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.
We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. ~ Dwight Eisenhower, April 16, 1953

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Meditation on Sound

The experience of sound during meditation practice can be both interesting and insightful. I used to think that if there was any unwanted noise during my practice that it was a "bad" experience. Now I welcome sound of all kinds into my practice. 

Sounds are events that arise, abide for a time, and then subside into stillness. They are always neutral events as well, carrying with them no agenda, malice, or forces of good. It is the mind that creates all of these attributes that we often apply to sounds. Even the act of identifying the sound is a coloration of mind.

In this way, we can see how the mind colors all the experiences we have, taking that which is essentially neutral, and making it into something good or bad; wanted or unwanted.

"The Saddest Noise, The Sweetest Noise" by Emily Dickinson:
The saddest noise, the sweetest noise,
The maddest noise that grows, --
The birds, they make it in the spring,
At night's delicious close.

Between the March and April line --
That magical frontier
Beyond which summer hesitates,
Almost too heavenly near.

It makes us think of all the dead
That sauntered with us here,
By separation's sorcery
Made cruelly more dear.

It makes us think of what we had,
And what we now deplore.
We almost wish those siren throats
Would go and sing no more.

An ear can break a human heart
As quickly as a spear,
We wish the ear had not a heart
So dangerously near.

Monday, March 29, 2010

In Praise of Silence

This past weekend, I attended a memorial service for a friend in an Episcopal church. I have not been a regular attendee to these kinds of institutions for a long time, only setting foot in them now for weddings, funerals, or, as in the case of Chartres Cathedral, to sight see.

Perhaps my being such an infrequent visitor is what brought my attention to something that seemed very obvious to me, but may not have been to those more accustomed to these places: the inability for many people to tolerate silence. 

Now, I do not intend any disrespect to the Episcopal Church, nor to any other. However, it seemed to me that, in the context of a time of remembering a person who has passed away, silence is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. The minister, no doubt a well-meaning, experienced, and learned man, asked if anyone had anything they would like to share about the deceased. After only a few seconds, when nobody volunteered to come forward, he moved right on to the next order of business on the program. Then after the longtime companion of the deceased had spoken tearfully and from the heart, the minister was back at the podium announcing the next order of business before the speaker could return to his pew.

I believe that memorials are a perfect time to sit and reflect in silence, both about the life that has ended, and our own lives as they are being lived. Sitting in silence nearly every day, as I have done for many years, has inoculated me to any discomfort that may arise, and I welcome these times. They feel like home. Maybe in our world today, where so many people are plugged in to i-Pods nearly every waking hour, silence is so strange as to be radical, even in church.
I enjoy the silence in a church before the service more than any sermon. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)


Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Simulator

Vipassana meditation shares something in common with the manned space program. In meditation practice, we learn how to recognize and then deal with events and experiences as they arise. It is a safe and systematic process, and anything that arises, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant, can be known.

This process has often reminded me of the way astronauts train for space flights by spending countless hours practicing in a simulator - an exact replica of the actual craft they will take into space. Most of their simulator training involves learning how to handle malfunctions of one kind or another. The only difference between these exercises and the actual mission that the simulator is safe on Earth. Through repeated exposure to situations that might arise during their flight, they gradually become desensitized to the ordeal. By the time their launch date rolls around, the flight crews have been through every step of their mission repeatedly.

In the same way, we become gradually desensitized to the arising of difficult experiences in our own lives by allowing sometimes difficult experiences to arise in our meditation practice. It could be as benign as one of our legs falling asleep that offers us this opportunity to acknowledge and allow. And so we sit with these experiences, and allow them to move through us, seeing as well the way the mind can make things worse by creating stories and thoughts that have no bearing on the fact of the actual experience.

When unpleasant events arise, we can see how the mind reacts with aversion toward them. When pleasant experiences occur, we can see the tendency of the mind to want to cling to these and to want them to continue. Through this kind of practice of acknowledging the pleasant and unpleasant, and then allowing these experiences to continue without trying to change, fix, or get rid of them, we can become more attuned to their arising in daily life. Through our work in the meditation practice, we can make more skillful and effective choices when it matters the most.

Then, when we launch ourselves off the cushion and out into daily life, we are a bit more in charge of the choices we make, and our suffering is reduced.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

When More Becomes Less

It is possible to have everything that you desire in this world, and to still suffer. In one incarnation of this phenomenon is the "when/then" syndrome. When I have X-amount of money, then I will be happy. When I have a bigger house, or a better job, or more time to myself, or more time with my loved ones... It can go on and on.

Perhaps if we can fully acknowledge what we actually have when we have it, we might be able to ease our sense of there never being enough.

We are constantly bombarded with messages that more is better. For example, our economy is measured in terms of growth, implying that we should be able to expect more year after year. How we are expected to maintain unlimited growth with limited resources and limited intelligence is a perplexing and troubling problem. 

It may be the same with our our own lives: we are never satisfied with what we have because we are always striving for more. The result is a cycle in which must work harder and be busier, which results in losing track of the precious moments we actually do have. According to Ann Wilson Scaef, "Modern consumer society functions as an addict, keeping us busy."

We have limited time and resources. Rather than striving to make more, can we simply be more present with what we have now?

"Enough," by David Whyte:
Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to the life
we have refused
again and again
until now.
Until now

Friday, March 26, 2010

Giving Advantage, Revisited

In the blog posting of March 18, I described how we can get something very substantial in return for giving nothing. The example I used was from the mindfulness study group that I have been leading. I mentioned that one of the participants said, "Whenever I see someone signaling to come into the lane I'm in, I always give them space."

The following week, this person gently corrected me. "I didn't say 'whenever I see someone signal'," he told me. "I do it whenever I see anyone who wants to come into the lane I'm in, whether they signal or not!" This is a subtle but important distinction. If we only let people have the space when they politely request it, that is all well and good. It is when they insist on taking the space, sometimes aggressively, that we must be especially willing to give this little bit of nothing away.

It is very easy, and in some ways culturally encouraged, to see all of our problems as being the fault of someone else. "That other driver just came into my lane and that really made me angry!" Notice in just this short declaration the attachment to I, me, and mine. The lane is not mine, and the anger came from within me.

According to the teachings of the Buddha, the antidote to ill will and anger is loving kindness. When someone does something that affects us, whether knowingly or unknowingly, we can always send a little loving kindness their way. Loving kindness practice is not about trying to change the other person, nor is it condoning harmful or unskillful behavior. It is merely an act of "inclining the heart" toward a fellow being with whom we are sharing a brief moment in our lives. It is a "wishing well" to that being, and an allowing of the heart to soften, and for the grip of self to loosen.

Loving kindness practice (or "metta" in Pali, the language of the Buddha) is very simple. Just let these phrases inwardly resonate through you whenever you feel the heat of anger or ill will toward another:
May your life be filled with loving kindness.
May you be peaceful.
May you be happy.
May you be safe.
May you be well.
You can repeat one or all of these phrases several times to yourself, or even aloud if you wish. Almost instantly, the fires of anger will subside. Always remember that it is we who suffer when we project ill will toward another. Loving kindness practice is a great way to reduce this suffering, and to make the world a better place in the bargain.

In the words of the Buddha from the Dhammapada:
In this world
Hate never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Life As Art

Recently, a member of the Saturday meditation group gave me a couple of articles on mindfulness from the Utne Reader. One of them is called "The Focused Life" and is from a book called Rapt by Winifred Gallagher. She says, at one point, "If you could just stay focused on the right things, your life would stop feeling like a reaction to stuff that happens to you and become something you create - not a series of accidents, but a work of art."

Kathy and I have a friend who is a sculptor. Her works are life size or larger, and are all human figures. Some of them are extraordinarily complicated and on a scale that is hard to imagine. Like any artist, her process is one of constantly changing interrelationship with the art she is creating. There are creative highs complete with manic omnipotence, and shattering lows when it seems that nothing can go right. But still, she keeps her attention on what needs to be done in that moment to complete the piece.

The art of creating our lives has these elements as well, and many more. Even if we are focused and mindful as we move through our day, there are the times when we feel positive, and times when we don't. There are moments of exalted joy, and moments of crushing sadness. We may wake up feeling frightened and alone, and feel grounded and safe by the time we finish breakfast.

Through it all, we can pay attention to what would serve us best to reduce our suffering, and we must also remember that no amount of mindful attention will make us immune from suffering. When we are experiencing upsetting or unpleasant thoughts occurring, however, we do have a choice as to where we place our attention. We always have the ability to return to the reality of the present moment and to pay attention to whatever we are doing in that moment. This will automatically cause the suffering-causing thought to move into the background and not be as important.

Creating art implies that conscious choices must be made. Today, choose wisely where you direct your attention.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Deepening the Wonder

A dear friend of Kathy's died yesterday after a long illness. With Kathy away at a conference in Seattle, this news has brought up some difficult feelings for both of us. Someday, we too may be separated from each other, not just for a few days or a few hundred miles, but forever. 

The sweet ache that this realization produces is the stuff of poetry, so I will offer one of my favorites, "Deepening The Wonder," by Hafiz.

Death is a favor to us,
But our scales have lost their balance.
The impermanence of the body
Should give us great clarity,
Deepening the wonder in our senses and eyes
Of the mysterious existence we share
And are surely just traveling through.
If I were in the Tavern tonight,
Hafiz would call for drinks
And as the Master poured, I would be reminded
That all I know of life and myself is that
We are just a midair flight of golden wine
Between His pitcher and His cup.
If I were in the Tavern tonight,
I would buy freely for everyone in this world
Because our marriage with the Cruel Beauty
Of time and space cannot endure very long.
Death is a favor to us,
But our minds have lost their balance.
The miraculous existence and impermanence of Form
Always makes the illumined ones
Laugh and Sing.

For Kathy's perspective on the passing of her friend, visit her blog at


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cro-Magnons With Cell Phones

Paleontologists tell us that homo-sapiens first appeared around 35,000 years ago. These early people have been named Cro-Magnons, in honor of the cave in Southern France in which their remains were first discovered. Since these early humans were a lot like us, it would mean that we have remained basically the same in terms of physical, mental, and emotional components for a very long time.

But obviously a lot of other things have changed dramatically in our world. For instance, we are now expected to be able to multi-task: we drive cars hurtling down the freeways at speeds that could pulverize us in an instant; we do this while talking on cell phones (and evidence is showing that hands-free devices may be just as distracting as holding a receiver to the ear); or we might be eating, or drinking, or talking to a friend, or switching radio stations, or...and on and on it goes.

Our modern world is a constant source of stress and anxiety, yet we are living through this experience in a body and brain that haven't evolved significantly for 35 millennia. I would imagine that if a Cro-Magnon person were suddenly dropped into the middle of a major city, they would suffer catastrophic stress, and their fight or flight response would engage at levels that might prove fatal. Are we living at the same level of stress in our daily lives as well? Are the survival mechanisms that were once necessary and functional in the early human world, now permanently switched on and operating dysfunctionally?

If this is true, I do not know what the solution would be. We can't return to the hunter-gatherer society structure that seems to pre-date modern stress. I for one am not willing at this time to stop my life as it is, forage for berries along the 110 Freeway, and turn in all my electronics and internal combustionables. Meditation, yoga, a stable, loving relationship, and some conscious awareness of the situation have helped me to deal with the world as it is, but no matter how much I try to simplify, more gets added to the pile.

So keep breathing, my Cro-Magnon sisters and brothers. Stop occasionally and just feel yourself breathe. Look at the sky, today. Smell a flower. Actually hunker down and touch the ground with your bare hands. Perhaps this is all we need to re-connect us with our essential nature; to re-connect us with who we were before wanted so much.



Monday, March 22, 2010

The Law of Demand and Supply

In economics, there is the Law of Supply and Demand. What if we invert this principle for our own personal purposes, and call it the Law of Demand and Supply. 

Write down what you want (Demand). Be specific. Then feel emotionally how it would be for you to have what you want. Now release attachment to how you are going to get it. This is extremely important: You must release your attachment to the outcome and live in the uncertainty of how your demand will manifest itself.

The Universe will respond to your demand by setting into motion an infinite sequence of events, apparent happenstances, random meetings, chance encounters, and so forth. It will literally throw these things into your path (Supply). Some may appear as challenges or obstacles, but remember that every obstacle is an opportunity in disguise.

Meanwhile, you continue paying attention to what needs to be done moment-to-moment to allow your demands to manifest themselves, while letting the Universe handle all the little details.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Poem by Barbara Crooker

Poem on a Line by Anne Sexton, 'We are All Writing God's Poem'
Today, the sky's the soft blue of a work shirt washed
a thousand times. The journey of a thousand miles
begins with a single step. On the interstate listening
to NPR, I heard a Hubble scientist
say, "The universe is not only stranger than we
think, it's stranger than we can think." I think
I've driven into spring, as the woods revive
with a loud shout, redbud trees, their gaudy
scarves flung over bark's bare limbs. Barely doing
sixty, I pass a tractor trailer called Glory Bound,
and aren't we just? Just yesterday,
I read Li Po: "There is no end of things
in the heart," but it seems like things
are always ending—vacation or childhood,
relationships, stores going out of business,
like the one that sold jeans that really fit—
And where do we fit in? How can we get up
in the morning, knowing what we do? But we do,
put one foot after the other, open the window,
make coffee, watch the steam curl up
and disappear. At night, the scent of phlox curls
in the open window, while the sky turns red violet,
lavender, thistle, a box of spilled crayons.
The moon spills its milk on the black tabletop
for the thousandth time.
"Poem on a Line by Anne Sexton, 'We are All Writing God's Poem'" by Barbara Crooker, from Line Dance. © Word Press, 2008.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Simple Gifts

Yesterday evening, taking advantage of the lengthened sunlight thanks to Daylight Savings Time, I took our dog, Sam, for a walk in the neighborhood. I can remember quite well my first walk with him about two years ago, while I was in my early days of courting Kathy (she got him when he was a puppy). I had not experienced a dog very much since I was a boy in Kansas, and since all our pets lived outdoors most of the time, I never took them for walks. Walking a dog is an interesting practice in allowing and letting be.

Sam is a Golden Doodle, a mix of golden retriever and poodle, and while he has the nobility, intelligence, memory, and loyalty of the former, he also has the goofiness of the latter. Sometimes he acts more like a man in a dog suit than simply a dog, and as a result, he is a never-ending source of amusement in our house. (Don't worry Sam, we're laughing with you not at you.)

On our first walk, I was unprepared for the stops every few feet to check out the latest "news" left by other dogs at the base of the trees, telephone poles, bushes, etc. "Not exactly what I call a 'walk'," I commented. Over time, however, I have come to enjoy all the pauses. They force me to actually stop and take the time, if I'm really present, to look around and take in the world through my senses.

Yesterday in particular, the world of our "shire," as we like to call the neighborhood, was a melange of wonderful smells. On the Eve of Spring, things are just starting to bloom. The effect of all the dormant flora coming back to life was the arising, subsiding, and arising again of many delicious delights for the nose as we went on our rounds. At the bottom of our street is a clump of Cleveland Sage, one of Kathy's favorites. I plucked a sprig for her, and placed it on the usual pile of mail that would greet her when she got home last night, well after dark. 

These simple gifts are here for us any time we stop and taste the bloom of the present moment. 

Gift, by Czeslaw Milosz:
A day so happy.
Fog lifted early. I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over the honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw blue sea and sails.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Turning the Titanic

It would appear that many of the strategies we have developed for how we move through the world have been with us since childhood. This includes how our minds process the world around us. Unfortunately, as time has gone by, some if not all of these strategies and cognitive habits have become dysfunctional.

The brain of a small child has very little ability to accurately process information, particularly when dealing with emotions. There are constant misconceptions about why the adults in the world are behaving the way they are, and often this leads to a child internalizing totally false ideas. When a mother becomes frustrated with some aspect of her life that is totally separate from the child, the child may think something like, "Mommy is angry with me because I am bad."

So we go through life with incorrect data (the old "garbage in/garbage out" model) and we continue to process our thoughts through the filter of this bad information. Trying to modify these cognitions is like trying to turn an ocean liner; it's going to take a lot of time, a hard and steady pull on the wheel, and a lot of space to get it done. But it can be done.

The good news is that the brain is capable of changing for almost as long as we are alive (barring any neurological damage). It takes diligence, practice, and commitment to effect change in this way, however. Moreover, it takes a belief on our part that we can change things. 

I wish I could point you to some magic bullet theory or practice that would take care of these longstanding issues easily and quickly, once and for all. The truth is that this kind of change is usually accomplished through moment-to-moment awareness of our lives as they are being lived, and then disengaging from destructive or ineffective thoughts by returning to the present-moment reality. 

After repeating this practice about 3 billion times, though, you should have the boat safely turned around.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Giving Advantage

I have started leading a mindfulness study and discussion group with about twelve participants. The group is focused on how to reduce our suffering and increase our sense of happiness in daily life by dwelling more in the present moment.

In the first session, some very interesting points of discussion were brought forth. One member shared a daily practice that he has developed that involves mindful freeway driving. "Whenever I see someone signaling to come into the lane I'm in, I always give them space." This seems so simple, how could it possibly lead to a reduction of suffering?

Driving of any kind, but especially freeway driving, can be a tremendous source of anxiety, anger, and frustration. This is mostly because of the arising of self, of "I, me, and mine" during our travels. The lane we are using becomes "my" lane. Or, "I don't like the way that guy's driving." Or "that person is upsetting me by not signaling." The truth is, of course, that we are not in any of these situations. The lane is not mine and the other drivers are doing what they are doing, but they are not doing anything to me.

The more we give away of that which we incorrectly perceive to be ours, the more we actually have. We have an open hand, rather than a closed fist (which is not only a threatening and potentially violent gesture, but which also prevents anything from being received). We have a bit of peace where there was once distress. We have made a conscious choice, rather than becoming a victim of our habitual reactions. We have increased the amount of loving kindness in the world by just that much.

Another participant mentioned Father Gregory Boyle, a Catholic priest in Los Angeles, who founded an organization called "Homeboy Industries," which offers employment opportunities to gang members. When asked by a reporter if he ever worried that he might be taken advantage of by some of his employees, Father Boyle replied, "I give my advantage every day, so nobody's ever taken it from me."

For centuries, philosophers have stated, "Nothing comes from nothing." However, when we release attachment to that which is not ours to begin with (such as the space in a freeway driving lane), what we receive from giving away nothing is actually something quite substantial. 


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Dentist

This afternoon, I had to make a somewhat urgent visit to my dentist. Apparently, I had chipped off a bit of a molar. Nothing serious, really, and all taken care of pretty easily, but still... It's the dentist.

I sat in the dental chair waiting for the assistant to take my x-rays, and I noticed a variety of dental tools arrayed on the dentist's tray. That's when it always hits me: a kind of sickening fear as I anticipate the pain that must be coming soon. Of course, in that moment, I am merely falling victim to my thinking mind which is imagining the future, based on a remembered past of other dental visits.

So I close my eyes, and I start to meditate. I feel the breath coming in, and going out through my nose. Much better. Now I'm getting in touch with a present-moment sensory reality and I'm not at the mercy of my thoughts. I feel fully the weight of the lead-lined blanket that she velcros around my neck to protect me from the radiation, and I am comforted.

Waiting for the x-rays to finish processing, I continue a more formal meditation practice, and I can see clearly how my mind wants to tell stories about the catastrophe to come, how I must surely need a root canal this time, and so forth. After the assistant gently polishes my teeth, Dr. Seikimoto comes in, and we exchange pleasantries. He takes a quick look at the damage, and tells me that I have indeed chipped my molar and he also tells me that he'd like to clean out an old filling in the tooth behind it. 

And so he does. Quickly, gently, and professionally. The whole time, I am just being with the the different sensations as they present themselves. Even the dreaded needle for injecting the anesthetic is doable. No root canal. No catastrophe.

It may not seem like much, but these little ways of reducing suffering can add up to a much happier life.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What's Not Wrong?

More from Thich Nhat Hanh...

He once said that we are very caught up in what is wrong all the time. He suggested that we ask ourselves, "What's not wrong?" 

In other words, we can choose happiness in our lives rather than suffering simply by looking around us and seeing how beautiful this day is right now. Just feeling this breath coming in and going out can bring us a lot of happiness.
The secret to happiness is happiness itself. Wherever we are, any time, we have the capacity to enjoy the sunshine, the presence of each other, the wonder of our breathing. We don't have to travel anywhere else to do so. We can be in touch with these things right now. (From Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Universe in a Sheet of Paper

From Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh:
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-“ with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be.
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. Without sunshine, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see wheat. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. The logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.
Looking even more deeply, we can see ourselves in this sheet of paper too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, it is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. We cannot point out one thing that is not here – time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. “To be” is to inter-be. We cannot just be by ourselves alone. We have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.
Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up lonely of “non-paper” elements. And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without non-paper elements, like mind, logger, sunshine and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Time Change

Today is the start of Daylight Savings Time. It brings into high relief that such concepts of time are wholly human in origin.

In the present moment - what we call "now" - there is no time. It is always simply now. There is no past and no future, just a still point like that found at the center of a wheel. We perceive time through the impermanence of things as they move on the outer perimeters of the wheel: the changing of the seasons, our own aging, days and nights, cycles of the moon, and so forth. So it may be more accurate to say that we live both in time and in the "non-time" of now. 

The experience of "now" is always present and available to us. In the words of the poet Kabir, it is "a half breath away." In fact, there is a Tantric meditation from the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra that clearly illustrates this. In this meditation, the still point of now can be felt clearly at the end of the exhale.

Sit comfortably or lie down, and feel the inhale and exhale coming and going through the nose. Feel that the inhale arises out of a place of stillness, and that the exhale returns back to that place of stillness. Now focus your attention mainly on the exhale, and allow each out-breath to draw you inward and downward, ever deeper into a pool of stillness that is waiting at the end of the breath. Let yourself dwell in that stillness for a moment or two after the breath is gone, not holding the breath intentionally, but just letting it stop for a couple of seconds. Then the inhale will arise out of that stillness, turn to exhale, and return you again to that stillness, and so on.

After a while, you can begin to perceive the breath as merely a foreground movement taking place in front of an ever-present background of stillness. Soon, you can begin to place your primary focus, not on the physical breath, but on the stillness that exists behind the breath.

From this practice, we can begin to see that all phenomena in the physical world arise out of stillness, return again to stillness, and exist as a foreground event over an ever-present background of stillness. In this way, we can touch the "home ground" of our being, the ever-present now.

Radiant one, this experience may dawn between two breaths...
When breath is all out and stopped by itself...
In such universal pause, one's small self vanishes. 
~ Vijnana Bhairava Tantra



Saturday, March 13, 2010

Schadenfreude vs. Mudita

Schadenfreude (SHAWD-n-froid-deh): Glee at another's misfortune.

Mudita (moo-DEE-tuh): Finding joy and happiness in the success of others.

Regarding mudita, the Dalai Lama said, 
I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we desire contentment. In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being.
In fact, I once heard him say that, since there are about 6.5 billion people on the earth, if we can share in the happiness of others, we can potentially multiply our own chance for happiness 6.5 billion times.

Conversely, if we dwell in schadenfreude, our chances for suffering increase exponentially as well.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Just Trust

The word "trust" comes from the Old Norse word traust, which literally means "firmness." Webster's definition for trust includes "firm belief or confidence in the honesty, integrity, reliability, justice, etc. of another person or thing."

Trusting something or someone implies that there is a reliable structure in place that brings order to things, and that within this framework of trust, there is reasonable expectation and confidence that the world will unfold in a dependable way. Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote that through the experience of trust, "we can find a powerful stabilizing element embracing security, balance, and openness within the trusting which, in some way, if not based on naivete, intuitively guides us and protects us from harm or self-destruction" (Wherever You Go, There You Are, p. 58).

In our spiritual journey, we come to trust our experiences and the processes that unfold through practice. For example, when we learn that we can reduce suffering by disengaging from habitual and self-destructive thoughts by returning to a present-moment sensory reality, such as the feeling of the breath, trust begins to build. As this trust grows, not through faith but through direct experience, this new way of being gradually becomes the norm. 
Perhaps we could experiment with trusting the present moment, accepting whatever we feel of think or see in this moment because it is what is present now. If we can take a stand here, and let go into the full texture of now, we may find that this very moment is worthy of our trust. From such experiments, conducted over and over again, may come a new sense that somewhere deep within us resides a profoundly healthy and trustworthy core, and that our intuitions, as deep resonances of the actuality of the present moment, are worthy of our trust. ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn (Wherever You Go, There You Are, p. 59)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Mind Has a Mind of Its Own

Very rarely are we able to think the thoughts we actually want to think. As Jack Kornfield has said, "The mind secretes thoughts the way the mouth secretes saliva." I like to say that the mind has a mind of its own.

Even though we don't have much choice about what we think, we do have a choice about where we place our attention. Turning from an unreal thought to a present-moment sensory reality causes the thought to end very quickly. The mind cannot think two things at once, and when given the choice between a present-moment experience or a thought, the mind will always choose the former over the latter. To test this theory, the next time you are eating ice cream, try to imagine what a dill pickle tastes like.

So if troubling or ruminating thoughts secrete themselves, make the choice to turn your full care and attention toward a present-moment sensory experience. In this way you can liberate yourself from the bondage of these thoughts and become empowered. After all, the mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Sixth Sense

The Buddha considered the mind to be the sixth sense. This is sometimes a difficult concept for people who have been raised on the Western model that tends to separate body from mind, but can make perfect sense to those familiar non-dual philosophies, such as yoga. The truth is, of course, that the body and the mind are never separate.

If we treat the mind as we would any sense receptor - the eyes, ears, nose, body, or tongue - then the idea that the mind constitutes a sixth sense becomes a bit clearer. In this way, we can come to consider the mind as just another "sense gate." 

When we hear a sound, the vibrations produced in the atmosphere strike the "ear gate," and those physical vibrations are converted to electrical impulses that feed to the auditory area of the brain, and we "hear" the sound. When we have a thought, the impulses created by the neuronal firings are perceived by the "mind gate" of awareness, and the thought is known. 

We can actually sit in meditation practice and experience the arising of thoughts and the first perception of them as they strike the mind gate. Because of the compelling nature of thoughts, however, we tend to get lost in them rather quickly, and we get swept away in a fantasy or reverie about one thing or another. This renders us somewhat unconscious until we can become aware of this wandering, and return to the present moment through the re-connection to a sense object.

There are many metaphors and images that can help you learn how to perceive thoughts as they arise. One is to imagine that you are sitting at a railroad crossing in your car while a long, slow-moving freight train is passing through. Every freight car represents a thought arising in consciousness. If you keep looking straight ahead with your gaze soft, you can watch the thought cars pass by. Sometimes, however, a pretty freight car catches your eye, and you continue to follow it with your gaze, thus succumbing to the "train of thought." When that happens, you can return your gaze to center, and just watch the parade of thought cars without getting carried away by any one of them.

You can also imagine that you are sitting beside a stream, gazing softly into the water as it flows by. Floating on top of the water are leaves of different kinds. Each leaf is a thought, and your task is to just watch them float by without following them. Of course, sometimes a really stunning or interesting leaf comes into view and the eyes follow it for a while. That is when you bring the attention back to watching the leaves moving past your field of vision.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Way To Liberation

In a nutshell, here's how vipassana meditation leads to liberation:

1) We sit still and get quiet. This allows us to pay attention more fully to what is happening inside us, rather than having to deal with all of the stuff outside.

2) We turn our attention to the feeling of the body breathing itself. This is a present-moment sensory reality. The mind will very naturally, spontaneously, and effortlessly begin to stabilize and gather itself in the present moment, also. It has no choice. When we pay attention to something in the present moment, the mind moves in that direction as well and doesn't do so much fantasizing about the future or remembering the past.

3) The mind will continue to be active, and from time to time it will wander. The wandering mind is an important component of meditation practice. When we notice the mind has wandered, we retrieve our attention and bring it back to the feeling of the breath.

4) This diligent attention to the object of the breath, and the subsequent concentration that results, allows us to sustain our attention on other objects as they arise. Sensory objects, such as sounds, will present themselves, and we can turn our attention to these experiences in the same way we pay attention to the breath. Very soon, we see that the mind steps in and begins to catagorize, create preferences, express likes and dislikes, and so forth. These are thoughts. The sensory reality is a fact, and is essentially neutral (see yesterday's blog for more about this). We can now begin to see clearly how the mind has habitual ways of reacting to sensory facts. This is insight.

5) Our training of the mind in the early part of the practice now allows us to disengage from the thinking mind and return back to the sensory reality of the breath. Even though the thought may be very seductive, we must leave it, and choose the breath eventually.

6) In our daily life, when we are presented with thoughts that cause us suffering, we can use this same schematic of recognizing the thought as it happens, and make the choice to move the attention to a sensory reality, such as the feeling of the breath. This will help liberate us from suffering.


Monday, March 8, 2010

Don't Take It Personally

Every day, events occur that have nothing to do with us, and yet we take them very personally. We are constantly creating a self where there is no self to be found, and this is a primary cause of suffering in our daily life.

A good example of this is the experience of sound. All sounds are essentially neutral events that arise because of causes and conditions, abide for a period of time, and then subside back into stillness. Once the sound is heard, however, the mind steps in to  catalogue it, and then color the experience by creating preferences, giving rise to desires for more or less of it, telling us it's a good sound or a bad sound, and so forth.

One summer, when I was leading a meditation in an urban yoga studio, we had doors on both ends of the studio open. On my left was the street, complete with the sound of every conceivable kind of motor vehicle: mopeds, Harleys, diesel trucks, fire engines, police cars, helicopters, and more. On my right, the door opened into a quiet parking lot where birds sang in the trees.

As I sat, I was able to see clearly how my mind created a preference for the birdsong, and had quite a bit of aversion toward the street sounds. So I just sat in the middle of this stereophonic dharma lesson, watching how my mind greeted all of it.

The reason for my preferences for one sound and my dislike for another (in other words, for my clinging and aversion) are quite simple: the mind had created a self where none actually existed. There was no I, me, or mine in any of these sounds, but my mind telling me how much I liked the birds and I hated the traffic, or telling me how much the traffic was upsetting my students, and so forth. When I was able to open the tight fist and abandon the aversion, I was able to be with both experiences equally well. I could see that there was no self in any of these sounds, and where this no self, there is no suffering.

The next time something arises in your daily life that gives rise to suffering, notice that you are I-dentifying with it as having something to do with you. The truth is that it doesn't have a thing to do with you. Then repeat the following phrases: 
I am not this. It is not me. It is not mine.
You may have to repeat these words a lot and come back to them over and over again. The mind may also resist this notion of the absence of self very strongly, at least around some things. Be persistent, and see what happens.


Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Tao of Emptiness

Thirty spokes together make a
wheel for a cart.
It is the empty space in the center of the
wheel which enables it to be used.
Mold clay into a vessel.
It is the emptiness within that creates
the usefulness of the vessel.
Cut out doors and windows in a house.
It it the empty space inside which creates
the usefulness of the house.
Thus, what we have may be something 
But its usefulness lies in its emptiness.

From the Tao Teh Ching, verse 11, by Lao Tzu
(Translation by Master Ni Hua-Ching, The Complete Works of Lao Tzu)


Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Container of Mindfulness

When we pay attention to a present-moment sensory experience, such as the feeling of the breath, the mind naturally and spontaneously begins to settle more fully in present-moment awareness as well. When this happens, I like to say that we have created a "container of mindfulness." 

Actually, there is a discernible sensation of being contained and present. The Buddha called this the state of "access concentration," meaning that we are able to sustain our awareness on one object long enough to gain insight from the experience. We are said to be mindful and concentrated at the same time. Within this container, we can then turn our attention toward any arising experience or event; a sound, a sensation, a feeling, a thought, or anything that can be known through the senses.

As long as the container of mindfulness remains intact, we can also turn our attention toward the thoughts we are having about the experience or event and, in a moment of contemplation, see clearly the habits of the mind in that situation. This is how we get insight from the practice of vipassana meditation. Without the container, however, these insights would not be as available to us.

When I am teaching this concept, I often evoke the image of a potter creating a clay pot as a metaphor to illustrate this container of mindfulness. Our container, however, is much more fragile than the potter's. It is more like a soap bubble that can be popped and vanish in an instant due to the workings of the contantly wandering mind. When this happens, and we become aware of it, we can always return the attention back to the feeling of the breath to cultivate a new container.


Friday, March 5, 2010

On Being Still

From Everyday Zen: Love and Work by Charlotte Joko Beck:
Sitting is essentially a simplified space. Our daily life is in constant movement: lots of things going on, lots of people talking, lots of events taking place. In the middle of that, it's very difficult to sense what we are in our life. When we simplify the situation, when we take away the externals and remove ourselves from the ringing phone, the television, the people who visit us, the dog who needs a walk, we get a chance - which is absolutely the most valuable thing there is - to face ourselves. Meditation is not about some state, but about the meditator. It's not about some activity, or about fixing something, or accomplishing something. It's about ourselves. If we don't simplify the situation the chance of taking a good look at ourselves is very small - because what we tend to look at isn't ourselves, but everything else. If something goes wrong, what do we look at? We look at what's going wrong, and usually at others we think have made it go wrong. We're looking out there all the time, and not at ourselves.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Perspective on Enlightenment

People commonly feel that because I am considered a living Buddha I must experience only serenity, perpetual happiness, and have no worries. Unfortunately, this is not so. As a high lama and incarnation of enlightenment I know better. ~ Kanju Khutush Tulku Rinpoche

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Obstacles to Opportunities

A few nights ago, Kathy and I took a little time out from all the busyness of our daily lives to watch the film, Shakespeare In Love. We both have fondness for things theatrical, and you don't get more "inside" the theatrical world than this. 

At the beginnng of the film, a theatre owner and director, played by Geoffrey Rush, is literally having his feet held to the fire by the producer/money man to whom Rush is in debt. "Let me explain about the theatre business," an exasperated Rush finally sputters. "The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster." "So what do we do?" asks the money man. "Nothing," Rush replies simply. "Strangely enough, it all works out well in the end." "How?" the money man presses. Smiling, Rush replies, "I don't know. It's a mystery."

If the Bard was correct, and all the world is a stage, this interchange reflects the reality of so many experiences in daily life: Seemingly insurmountable obstacles present themselves, and the mind creates stories of catastrophic outcomes. If we can begin to look at problems in our lives, not as obstacles, but as "opportunities in disguise," as Deepak Chopra calls them, then we can leverage these apparent obstacle out of the way and find the treasure hidden within them.

Remember that most of the obstacles in our life are created by the mind as thoughts, with no reality whatsoever (except as thoughts). As you travel through your day, greet any problem or obstacle as an opportunity. This is done by disengaging from the thoughts about the situation, and getting back in touch with the present-moment reality of the facts of the situation. To do this, simply place your attention on a present-moment sensation, such as the feeling of the breath. Or you can place your full care and attention on what needs to be done in this moment to overcome this imagined obstacle.

From The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, by Deepak Chopra:
If you have life-centered, present-moment awareness, then the imaginary obstacles - which are more than ninety percent of perceived obstacles - disintegrate and disappear. The remaining five to ten percent of perceived obstacles can be transmuted into opportunities through one-pointed intention.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Harnessing the Wandering Mind

We are never going to be able to completely stop our minds from wandering during meditation practice. So while we cannot tame the wandering mind, we can learn to harness it to offer us insight.

As we sit and devote our attention to the feeling of the breath, we will inevitably be aware that the mind drifts to other thoughts from time to time, or perhaps all the time. This is not something we need to worry about. It does not mean we are doing it "wrong," it's simply what minds do. As I've mentioned before, the wandering mind actually presents an opportunity to awaken and then consciously bring the attention back to the feeling of the breath. More and more, we begin to see that this is the practice, even more than maintaining fixed and concentrated attention on the feeling of the breath.

As the meditation continues, through the diligent attention to the breath, and the choice to return back to the breath when the mind wanders, we develop a concentrated mind that can pay attention to things for sustained periods of time. Then the magic happens. As we continue to sit, and sensory experiences and events arise, we can see more clearly how the mind colors each and every one of those experiences with thoughts. The thoughts could take the form of merely identifying the experience and naming it. Or there may be preferences that arise about liking or not liking this or that experience. We might even go into storytelling mode and watch the mind make up fantastic tales about the most mundane sensory event.

So we just sit and watch all this happening with a sense of awe; investigating it with friendly curiosity, and seeing our habitual tendencies of mind that might get missed during our busy daily life on automatic pilot mode. We purposely allow the mind to have its thoughts about the event, and then we follow it for a while to see which neuronal pathway it likes to take. 

After a short while of accompanying the mind down this habitual pathway, we disengage from it, let it be, and then return again to the feeling of the breath to reconnect with the present moment through a sensory reality.

In this way, the power of the wandering mind can be harnessed and utilized for our enlightenment. It's basically the same way that a river can be harnessed to turn the wheel of the mill to grind the wheat into flour, or to turn a turbine that creates electricity. The wandering mind, like all things that happen to us in our life, provides grist for our own psychic mill.


Monday, March 1, 2010

The Process of Inquiry

An important teaching tool in the vipassana meditation tradition is the inquiry process. The Latin origin of "inquire" (in + quaerere) means "to ask or seek into," and also "that which persists." Inquiry in the context of teaching meditation is a systematic means of deepening into our practice, both during and after the experience.

After the practice has ended, the teacher often takes questions from the student(s). These are often simple questions such as, "Is it normal for my leg to fall asleep during meditation?" Instead of answering the question outright, a teacher who utilizes the inquiry method asks more questions to take the student into a deeper experience of their leg having fallen asleep.

Here's how a typical pattern of inquiry might proceed.
Teacher: What was that experience like for you?

Student: It was a throbbing, tingling sort of sensation that I especially noticed in my left hip.

Teacher: What happened when you paid attention to the physical experience in this way?

Student: I was worried that I might be causing permanent damage to my leg.

Teacher: What were some of your thoughts about that?

Student: I had a fantasy that I wouldn't be able to get up off the floor and that someone would have to call an ambulance.

Teacher: Did those thoughts produce any emotional reactions?

Student: Yes, I was getting pretty anxious about it.

Teacher: Then what did you do about this, if anything?

Student: I realized that my mind was telling a fantastic story about something that hadn't happened yet, and I returned to the feeling of the breath.

In this brief inquiry, the student deepened into their experience of the practice by several layers. First, at the top layer, they are concerned with just the leg falling asleep, which is a common occurrence in meditation. Then they recounted the noting of specific physical sensations. From there, they were able to then follow this to see how the mind greeted the experience, by expressing worry about injury, and then the fantasy about needing emergency medical assistance. These mental contents then led to an emotional experience, and finally to an insight that the thoughts were not facts. The process culminated in the ability to disengage from the thoughts, and return to the present-moment sensory reality of the breath.

So we can see from this short example that inquiry mirrors the vipassana meditation experience. In vipassana, we can see clearly how an event makes contact with one of the senses (in this case the sense of touch), and then the mind colors that experience. Insight is then gained from this experience. Once we have noted the insight, we can then utilize the ability to de-couple from the thoughts and return back to the physical reality of the breath. After a student learns this inquiry process, they can deploy it in their own meditation practice, and it becomes a much richer and more rewarding experience.

Of course, the insights gained during this practice can then be used to help make effective choices in daily life and help reduce suffering.