Friday, April 30, 2010

The Difficult Person

A couple of blogs back, I revealed that there is a difficult person in my life. Although this person may not even know that I exist, and although we've never actually met, I have been causing myself (and my family) some unnecessary suffering because of my clinging and aversion associated with this person.

Most of this suffering takes the form of anger and ill-will (with its subtle colorings of jealousy, insecurity, and fear). Now that this experience has been identified as one of the Five Hindrances, it can be dealt with skillfully. 

The antidote to the Hindrance of anger and ill-will is loving kindness. Now, whenever this person comes to mind, I say a couple of quick phrases from the loving kindness (metta) meditation practice. 
May your life be filled with loving kindness.
May your life be peaceful and easy.
May you be happy.
May you be safe; protected from inner and outer harm.
May you be healthy in body, heart, and mind.
Saying metta for a difficult person can work wonders. We can begin to understand why that person may be difficult toward us, both from their perpsecttive, and from ours. Compassion begins to take the place of ill-will, and our need to hold onto the anger decreases. This allows the tight fist to open, and the clinging to be released.

The person is still here. They will do what they will do, but what they do doesn't bother me as much. And I am suffering less.

Factored in, as well, is a component of loving kindness, forgiveness, and compassion for myself. By sending the metta toward myself that I send to my difficult person, I am turning a powerful force inward. This helps me to accept, appreciate, and love myself more fully, making the need to feel jealous or insecure meaningless.
Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient and eternal law. ~ The Buddha

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dharma In Daily Life

We shouldn't feel that Dharma occurs only when we sit down and meditate. Dharma should be present with us all the time. Dharma should be practiced in everything we do and at all times and used in all our actions. Of course, at the moment we can't act like Milarepa and the Buddha, but at least we can try to be responsible for our own mind. We must try our best not to let the negative mental states develop. We must try to feel more compassion and to develop more bodhichitta [the enlightened mind]. Although we can't do this immediately, at least we can do whatever we can by doing it every day, again and again. ~ Trangu Rinpoche, from The Middle Way Meditation.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What We Fear, We Draw Near

It appears to be a law of the universe that whatever we direct our attention toward will flourish and grow. Moreover, this "law of attraction" can be applied to both the wanted, as well as the unwanted experiences in our lives.

For example, many years ago, I believe I attracted a negative financial event into my life. I can remember clearly when I first began to dwell upon this subject, even though there was no real evidence at that moment that it would ever come to pass. Over time, I became more and more fixated and fearful. Gradually, over many months of rumination, the financial calamity actually happened, by which point it had become something of a fait accompli.

Recently, I have been struggling with another situation that I believe I may have somehow attracted. For some time now, there has been someone who resides in the shadows of my life who has been what you might call a "difficult person" for me. The reasons are complicated and involve a personal relationship with this person that did not go well. The result is that I have dreaded having any contact with them. Even the mention of their name brings up strong feelings of aversion in me.

Now, because of some drastic upheavals in the business we are connected to, this person shows up in my life on a fairly regular basis. One of my strongest aversions has become a reality.

Even if there isn't some law of attraction at work in the universe that sends us the things we place our attention upon, this person is here, and they must be dealt with. It is a choice point in my life that can mean the difference between living in freedom, or living in the prison of my own design. 

I have to confess that, for the most part, I have not been handling this situation very well. Borne of my fear, I have been living with a lot of anger, resentment, jealousy, and suspicion. Each day is a struggle within me to remember that my thoughts are not facts, and that whatever this person has done in the past, or will do in the present or future, has nothing to do with me personally. Yet I still find myself clinging to my fear, and so what I fear draws ever near. In other words, I am suffering.

I hope that in future postings I can report that my suffering has come to an end, or at least diminished. In the mean time, however, let my example help you to release your own clinging to outworn ways of looking at people. We do not need to condone harmful behavior, but we do need to let the past rest in peace - we cannot change it. We need to always remember to return to the reality of the present moment instead of staying stuck in our stories about ourselves and others. We need to be constantly vigilant about where we are placing our attention so as not to attract these kinds of unwanted experiences into our lives. 

Let me know how it goes for you, and I will do the same.
In spiritual life there is no room for compromise. Awakening is not negotiable; we cannot bargain to hold on to things that please us while relinquishing things that do not matter to us. A lukewarm yearning for awakening is not enough to sustain us through the difficulties involved in letting go. It is important to understand that anything that can be lost was never truly ours, anything that we deeply cling to only imprisons us. ~ Jack Kornfield
First we conceive the "I" and grasp onto it.
Then we conceive the "mine" and cling to the material world.
Like water trapped on the water wheel, we spin in circles, powerless.
I praise the compassion that embraces all beings. ~ Chandrakirti 

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Nothing Special

A pitfall in meditation practice, as it is often perceived in our culture, is that something special is going to happen during the practice that will lead to some fantastic out-of-the-body experience. Because of this preconception, I often remind everyone at the beginning of a meditation practice that "we are not trying to achieve any special states or feelings." The truth is that nothing special ever happens during this practice, just the every day occurrences of life.

We feel the body sitting. Then we feel the body breathing in and out. When the mind wanders, which it does constantly, we awaken and return the attention back to the breath. Nothing special in any of it. After a while, we might be able to expand our attention to include other experiences as they arise, such as sounds, thoughts, emotions, and so forth, but these are still nothing special.

What is special, however, is the way we pay attention to these experiences during vipassana practice. We are doing so with conscious awareness, not on our usual "automatic pilot" setting. Once again, we have changed our relationship to an experience, and this, in turn, changes the experience itself into something special. We can see clearly how the mind habitually reacts in certain situations and how it moves toward things we want, and away from things we don't want.

Paradoxically then, we are achieving something special after all, and this awareness of the reactive habits of mind is a powerful tool that can help us to reduce suffering in every moment of our daily life.
If you continue this simple practice every day, you will obtain some wonderful power. Before you attain it, it is something wonderful, but after you attain it, it is nothing special. ~ Shunryu Suzuki

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Student Awakens

It is a rare privilege to help another being to awaken, and as a teacher, I have had this privilege many times over the years. Recently, a student in our Silver Lake class told about an experience at our last retreat that gave rise to one such moment of tremendous insight.

During the retreat, we explored the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These Foundations are mindfulness of the body and breath, mindfulness of the arising of experiences as they become known by the senses, mindfulness of the way the mind colors these experiences, and mindfulness of the Dharma in relation to our meditation practice. 

Mindfulness of the breath is a great place to introduce the doctrine of "no self," or anatta. The body breathes, but is not a self who is the breather. Breath and body are brought about by a continuous flow of interdependent causes and conditions. This concept caught the imagination of the student, and she began reflecting upon it during the rest of the day. Afterward, she had many questions about anatta and interdependent co-arising, so I referred her to a series of blogs I posted (12/2/09 to 12/5/09 ).

Here is an e-mail I subsequently received from her:
Good Morning Roger,
Just wanted to thank you again for sharing the information from your blogs yesterday, and for the weekend retreat. Learning about the co-rising causes/conditions theory seems to have been a major breakthrough for me. I was peeling garlic yesterday and couldn't help to "see the whole universe" in that garlic. Reflecting on the concept of "no self" created a mixture of feelings, from awe to melancholy, to happiness and sadness and finally to acceptance and a sense of peacefulness from knowing that we don't have to "know it all". Have a great day!

We discussed her insights a bit more on Saturday at the Silver Lake meditation class, and this experience of acceptance was particularly salient.We often have a notion that enlightenment means that we wander around in some kind of "blissed out" world experiencing some permanently altered state of consciousness. The true experience of enlightenment, however, is closer to the student's "garlic epiphany." We are at peace even in the midst of having to accept many different, and often opposite feelings. To be enlightened means that we can accept anything that arises with equanimity (the ability to "be with" the pleasant and the unpleasant equally).

Enlightenment does not mean the end of sadness, anger, fear, physical discomfort, and the like. It does mean that we can accept that these feelings, and any other human experience, with a spacious awareness that acknowledges the presence of these things, and allows them to be there without trying to change, fix, or get rid of them.

And meanwhile, there is still garlic to be peeled.
Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. ~ Zen Proverb

Sunday, April 25, 2010

More Thoughts On Abiding In the Ordinary

Last week, I published a blog about giving our full care and attention to ordinary experiences in our lives, such as the breath. After reading it, one of the regular members of our sangha (meditation group) had to travel to Washington state to bid farewell to her sister-in-law who was in her final days of life after a long illness. Upon her return, she told me that she had been able to have the insight that each breath her sister-in-law took was extraordinarily precious. Within hours, she had passed away.

Her experience demonstrates how dwelling in the ordinariness of the present moment can be extremely powerful. Her ability to "show up" for this event with conscious awareness of all the sadness and wonder, preciousness and ordinariness, loss and gain, is the one reason why introspective practices, such as vipassana meditation, are so valuable to us in our daily life.

Her ability to be present in this special way also honored her sister-in-law's life and death. She did not die in vain, and her last struggle was not meaningless. It was there to offer a priceless teaching that can give insight, hope, and solace to those left behind. The only requirement is to be present as fully as possible in that moment.

Death has been one of my greatest teachers. In the summer of 1988, my mother was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. Within a week, my wife was pregnant with our son, Zach. Mom died in December just before her 68th birthday. Zach was born the following April, and a few months later, my father learned that he had colo-rectal cancer. He died in February, 1990. The birth-death cycle was presenting itself to me very clearly. In Freudian terms, Eros and Thanatos were playing out their eternal struggle for me to witness.

I remember preparing to go visit my dad for Father's Day not long after his diagnosis. It was the first Father's Day for me after Zach had been born, and as I was gathering things together, I suddenly broke down sobbing. When my wife asked what was wrong I blurted out, "I'm just so sad that this might be dad's last Father's Day." There was a pause while we both sat with this, and then my wife said, in a loving way, "We never know. It might be yours, too." 

Sadly, I was right about my dad, and thankfully, I have been around to celebrate twenty-one Father's Days, but still...we never know. That's why we have to be present for as much of life as humanly possible. Not just for the happy times, but also, and perhaps more importantly, for the difficult ones. 

The Acorn: A Treasure Simply Found (in memory of my neighbor, Sam Adamo), by Zachary Tatum-Nolan, age 9:
The acorn, from above
like a snowcapped mountain, 
or a teepee, glistening in the sun.
From beneath, like a green bud,
ready to sprout up under the morning clouds.
A small gift from a tree
left on the ground with many of its brothers.
It may grow into a tree,
or become a decoration on an old man's shelf.

Whatever it may become,
it keeps growing,
and sprouting new life
from within itself.
Its earthen qualities, 
unlike any other found nearby,
are entirely unique from any other acorn.
In its youth, it was hanging from a lone branch
ready to fall and become
a beautiful tree in all its glory,
slowly changing 
from an acorn in the ground,
to a pod with sprouted roots
to a strand of green earth.
A strand peeking its head out from the grass,
and finally,
to an ever-growing tree,
bearing its own acorns,
who in time will repeat the process
and again.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Only Day In Existence

By Billy Collins

The morning sun is so pale
I could be looking at a ghost
in the shape of a window,
a tall, rectangular spirit
peering down at me now in my bed,
about to demand that I avenge
the murder of my father.

But this light is only the first line
in the five-act play of this day-
the only day in existence-
or the opening chord of its long song,
or think of what is permeating
these thin bedroom curtains

as the beginning of a lecture
I must listen to until dark,
a curious student in a V-neck sweater,
angled into the wooden chair of his life,
ready with notebook and a chewed-up pencil,
quiet as a goldfish in winter,
serious as a compass at sea,
eager to absorb whatever lesson

this damp, overcast Tuesday
has to teach me,
here in the spacious classroom of the world
with its long walls of glass,
its heavy, low-hung ceiling.


Friday, April 23, 2010

Judging Ourselves

Jack Kornfield once said that we have a judge in our heads that would not be allowed to sit on any court in the world. Indeed, our judgments about ourselves are almost always much more harsh than the judgments others might make about us. We allow our minds to say things to us that we would never let any other human say without a fight. So why do we just lay there and let the mind run roughshod over us day after day?

I have an acquaintance who is intolerant of making mistakes. Her entire day can be ruined if she feels like she did just one thing wrong, and she completely forgets all of the countless other things she did that were not mistakes. I once asked her, if someone you know, a friend or co-worker perhaps, made that mistake and then treated themselves very harshly because of it, what would you say to them? Without hesitation she replied that she would probably tell them that it didn't matter and that they should not be so hard on themselves. Then she paused and said, "I guess I should say that to myself, huh?"

Apparently, humans have what is now called a "negative cognitive bias." This bias means that we forget all of the times when things have gone the way we wanted them to go, and tend to remember only the times when things didn't go so well. "This always happens to me" is a thought that might occur when the negative bias is activated. 

As we saw when examining choice points in yesterday's blog, many of these negative thoughts occur automatically and often unconsciously. The judging thoughts can come the same way. Before we are aware of it, we are beating ourselves up over nothing. Obviously, bringing more mindfulness to bear on our daily lives would allow us to see these automatic thoughts more clearly, and once they are seen and acknowledged, we can make a choice as to how we proceed. 

One way to deal with these thoughts when we become aware of them is to remember that these are just thoughts, they are not facts. We can disengage from these thoughts quite effectively, however, if we return to a fact. When you experience these shrill, judgmental thoughts, turn your attention to a present moment sensory reality, such as the feeling of the breath. The judging thought will lose its power and you have created a space in which you can make other choices. You can get a more accurate perspective on the situation as well, and realize that whatever it is that the mind is judging you for is probably not that big a deal.


Thursday, April 22, 2010

Choice Points

Elisha Goldstein, my colleague and co-teacher of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for depression, uses a phrase that has really caught my attention and imagination. He refers to the pivotal moment when the habitual mind presents itself as a "choice point."

As human beings, we are constantly making choices. Often, however, these choices are made unconsciously or automatically. In cases like this, it can seem to us as though we actually have no choice. Usually, we choose the same outworn ways of reacting to a situation by going down the familiar and well-grooved neuro-pathways of the brain that have become habit. This is not only a very self-limiting choice to make, it can potentially lead us into some pretty self-destructive places.

For example, if a friend does not return my phone call or e-mail promptly, I may begin to wonder if I have done something to upset them. This could lead to the mind producing any number of automatic negative thoughts, such as, "I'm not worthy," or "I'm a loser," or "Nobody likes me." These automatic negative thoughts might increase in frequency, and I may start to believe them as being facts. Pretty soon, taking this habitual pathway has led me to a downward spiral of insecurity and low self-worth, which can lead to depression.

So the "choice point" would be the moment I realize that the friend has not reciprocated my communication. I might even begin to go down the insecurity pathway, but I catch myself, and here is where consciousness and mindful awareness present themselves in the situation. I can remind myself that my thoughts about this person are not facts, but merely my interpretation of why they haven't contacted me. These thoughts are stories that my mind is making up, pure and simple. Awareness like this can short-circuit the negative thinking that would come next, and by interrupting this cycle, space opens up out of which I can make more skillful and effective choices.

We can practice working with choice points very effectively during our meditation practice. Choosing to come back to the breath when we notice the wandering mind is an obvious example. Noticing our aversion to events, such as discomfort in the body, sounds that we allow to annoy us, or thoughts that we don't like to have, offer us more choice points. I don't have to try to fix or get rid of any of these experiences, I merely have to acknowledge they are here and then allow them to be. Again, this opens up space so I can see the experience differently, which again gives me more options.

During your day, notice the habitual reactions of the mind toward or away from certain experiences. This would mean that you have reached a choice point in your life. Notice the feelings in the body, acknowledging the event, and then put everything on pause as you feel yourself breathing for a few moments. This will bring you to the present moment reality and get you out of your head which may be spinning with stories about the situation. Then come back to the situation at hand, and with the spaciousness you have cultivated from taking the short breathing break, take a new pathway that is more responsive and less reactive.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Abiding in the Ordinary

When many people come to introspective practices, such as meditation, they come looking for special experiences, or they want to achieve extraordinary states of consciousness. To paraphrase Zen Master Suzuki Roshi, what is ordinary is to strive after something you think is special. What is truly special is to abide in the ordinary.

One powerful example is the feeling of the breath as the primary object of attention in vipassana practice. We may think that there is nothing more ordinary than this movement of air coming and going out twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for an entire lifetime. Yet what could be more important to us than this little stream of oxygen? If necessary, the human body can survive without food for about three weeks, and without water for about three days. If we stop breathing, however, brain cells begin to die after about 3 minutes, and brain death will follow in as little as 5 to 6 minutes.

There is a Zen teaching story about a student who came to the Master and said, "Roshi, don't you have any meditation practices more advanced than just feeling the breath over and over again? It's just so boring!" The Master thought for a moment, then replied, "Yes. You are ready for an advanced practice. Come with me." The Master led the student to a courtyard behind the Zendo, and stopped in front of a barrel of rain water. "Gaze into the the water," the Master ordered. As the student bent over the barrel, and the Master grabbed his head and plunged it into the water. The student flailed around, but the Master was strong and held his head under for about half a minute. Then he released the student, who jerked his head out of the water and gasped for air. "There," said the Master. "Was that breath boring?"

So rather than striving for the extraordinary, revel in the ordinary. Enlightenment is not about walking around in a permanently altered state of consciousness. It is seeing and accepting life as it is; finding beauty in the mundane, and insight in the commonplace.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Strengths, Weaknesses, and Superheroes

Some time back, I was watching the movie Iron Man with my then-fiance, Kathy, and her youngest son, Taylor. It is the story of a industrial tycoon/genius (it's based on a Marvel comic, after all) who suffers a severe heart injury at the hands of bad-guy kidnappers who want him to make a super weapon for them. During his captivity, however, he is actually designing a special superhero suit and a crude power supply from a car battery for his heart. Later, that power supply would become a reactor that will unleash incredible power.

When we discussed the movie later, Taylor made an interesting, and I think, very astute observation. "Iron Man's greatest weakness was his heart, but it was also his greatest strength." I began to play with this notion for a while afterward. Sure enough, if you look at heroes in stories throughout history - from Beowulf to Star Wars - you will find that for many of them, their greatest weakness is the source of their power.

Perhaps we can learn something from this model regarding our own wounds. When we approach our ancient wounds with openness, love, and compassion, we can gain a great deal of inner strength and wisdom. The wound always contains within it the power to heal itself. All we need to do is turn toward the wound, sit with it for a while, and it will tell us all we need to know about how to heal it. This can be an empowering experience.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Meeting the World Differently

One recurring theme of this blog, as it is for my teaching, is that in order to reduce suffering we must release the tight fist of grasping. Letting the hand open is the fastest and surest way to make our life happier. It is not my idea, of course. The Buddha said the same thing, and I learned it from Phillip Moffitt who learned it from his teacher, Ajahn Sumedho, and so on and on.

This process has remained alive in the teaching of the Dharma because it works. It is repeated often because we humans need to constantly be reminded of it. Remember that we are born with a "grasp reflex" (see 12/7/09 blog) that makes clinging second nature to us as a means of survival.  Unfortunately, like many primitive instincts, this is yet another reflex that has become dysfunctional and causes us problems.

When the mind meets the world with a posture of clinging or aversion, we suffer. Plain and simple. When the mind meets the world with an open hand and an open heart, our suffering is reduced. Counterintuitive though it may seem, this way of greeting our experiences - flinging open the door to our home and welcoming whoever knocks - will prove in the long run to be most effective course of action.

When we meet the world in this way, our relationship to the experience changes. When our relationship to the experience changes, the experience itself changes. Therefore, we don't need to do so much to try to change things; simply greet situations, people, and things as they arise more openly in a posture of acceptance. Where there was once constriction, pain, and tension is now openness, spaciousness, and letting go. We then discover our true nature of peacefulness, happiness, compassion, and loving kindness.

As best as you can today, greet whatever presents itself in your life with an open hand and heart. This does not mean that we need to condone harmful behavior, but that we relax, soften, and allow what is in this moment to be known. Then notice how the situation changes simply because you have changed your relationship to the situation.

From Chuang Tzu, a Taoist sage from the 3rd Century, B.C.E.:
A drunken man who falls out of a cart, though he may suffer, does not die. His bones are the same as other people's; but he meets his accident in a different way. His spirit is in a condition of rest. He is not conscious of riding in the cart; neither is he conscious of falling out of it. Ideas of life, death, fear and the like cannot penetrate his breast; and so he does not suffer from contact with objective existence. If such security is to be got from wine, how much more is to be got from the Tao?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Morning Walk

By Mary Oliver

Little by little
the ocean

empties its pockets - 
foam and fluff;

and the long, tangled ornateness
of seaweed;

or the whelks,
ribbed or with ivory knobs;

but so knocked about
in the sea's blue hands

and their story is at length only
about the wholeness of destruction - 

they come one by one
to the shore

to the shallows
to the mussel-dappled rocks

to the rise to dryness
to the edge of the town

to offer, to the measure that we will accept it,
this wisdom:

though the hour be whole
though the minute be deep and rich

though the heart be a singer of hot red songs
and the mind be as lightning,

what all the music will come to is nothing,
only the sheets of fog and the fog's blue bell -

you do not believe it now, your are not supposed to,
you do not believe it yet - but you will -

morning by singular morning,
and shell by broken shell.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Terrible Twins

The Buddha taught that there are eight basic experiences in the world: gain and loss, pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and disgrace. He termed these existential opposite states the "terrible twins," and he identified these states as the natural condition of life.

If this is true, then it could be that the twins themselves are not the real problem with being alive, in the same way that old age, sickness, and death, while natural and unavoidable states of being, are not the problem.

The problem, as the Buddha saw it, is in how we relate to these states of being. For example, if we cling to the pleasant experiences and try to avoid the painful ones, eventually we will suffer when the pleasant experience ends. This is true for all the twins and it is true for all life experiences. Eventually, everything will change, and if we cling to that which changes, we will suffer. Clinging to changing things results in what Joseph Goldstein calls "rope burn."

The way out of this state of suffering is, of course, to abandon the origins of it. In other words, to stop clinging. This means adopting a posture of radical acceptance toward "what is" in this moment. You can start cultivating this posture in your own life with something small that you have difficulty tolerating. When you rub up against the unpleasantness of this experience, know that you are suffering in that moment, and imagine the tight fist of grasping opening and softening.

Remember, too, that acceptance does not mean that we are condoning any harmful behavior on anyone's part. It simply means that we are going to stop fighting against this moment by fighting against what is.

It takes practice to begin to make this posture of radical acceptance a more automatic response to the world. But even if we are only able to successfully deploy this strategy toward a few percent of the many experiences of loss, pain, blame, and disgrace, then we will have reduced our suffering immensely.



Friday, April 16, 2010

The Big Question

Question: Who am I?

Answer: Who wants to know?

(Attributed to Alan Watts)



Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Three Poisons (And The Antidotes)

In the teachings of the Buddha, there are recognized three "poisons" that contribute to human suffering: greed, anger, and delusion. Just as physical poison is harmful to the body, so too are these three traits toxic to us in the way they cause suffering in our daily lives.

Greed is all about clinging to someone, some thing, or some thought. When we want things to be other than the way they are, we have been poisoned by greed. Things get worse when we become rigidly attached to things, people, expectations, and ideas. 

Anger is an expression of aversion. We want to push away that which we do not want, which usually causes the thing we don't want to push back even harder. 

Both of these poisons have their roots in delusion. When we take things personally, and a sense of self arises, we tend to cling to wanting things to become entrenched in the way we want things to be. Aversion in the form of anger arises because we take things personally that have nothing to do with us. For example, I have an issue with drivers who do not signal their intention to turn left at traffic lights until the light turns green. When anger arises in these cases, it is because I am seeing the situation as having something to do with me, when it has nothing to do with me. As a result, I am the one who is suffering.

The antidote for greed is to release the tight fist of clinging, and to acknowledge how things are in this moment. The antidote for anger is to act with compassion toward ourselves and others, and to treat ourselves and others with loving kindness. The antidote to delusion is to always remember that there is no "self" in anything. The things that we identify with as being I, me, or mine are merely arising events that are brought about by causes and conditions. 

In other words, we need to stop taking everything so personally.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Last night, a group I was leading was settling into a sitting meditation. One of the members was experimenting with using a rectangular yoga bolster on top of a round meditation cushion (zafu). What she ended up with, however, was something akin to a teeter-totter, off of which she gently toppled in a fit of laughter. The joy was contagious, and soon the rest of us were laughing as well.

This childlike quality can serve us very well in our meditation practice, and in our daily life. In spiritual pursuits, however, there is often a dour, humorless attitude. While I believe that introspective practices should be taken seriously, there is also plenty of room for laughter. On long, silent retreats, we look forward to dharma talks by certain teachers because we know they will be funny. Wes Nisker comes to mind in this regard. I still chuckle when I remember his talk on the Hindrances where he said that the terms sloth and torpor "always sound like a low-priced law firm."

Treating the experience of meditation with a playful, childlike attitude evokes a sense of wonder and awe, which are attitudes that are very important in this practice. Beginner's mind, the ability to see everything that arises as if for the first time, is the hallmark of this kind of playful attitude.

So when you come to the cushion, add a little smile to your practice. We're not trying to deny the possible presence of sadness or other difficult emotions, we are merely softening ourselves up a bit, and cultivating the kind of attitude that helps us see more clearly - and lightheartedly - all of the heavy, adult situations that arise during our practice, and in daily life as well.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Zen Poem

In studying ourselves,
we find the harmony
that is our total existence.
We do not make harmony.
We do not achieve it or gain it.
It is there all the time.
Here we are, in the midst of this perfect way,
and our practice is simply to realize it and then
to actualize it
in our everyday life.
-  Maezumi Roshi


Monday, April 12, 2010

The Three Characteristics, Part 2

Today, I will be continuing a short discussion of the Three Characteristics of existence that a things share. These are impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and the absence of self (anatta).

The concept of impermanence is pretty easy to grasp. We all understand from direct experience that change is the only constant, and so forth. Likewise, the fact that nothing is capable of providing lasting satisfaction is obvious with a little honest reflection. For example, we've all had the experience of getting something we really wanted, felt satisfied with it for a time, and then either lost this thing or grew tired of it.

The fact that no self can be found in any of this, however, is much more difficult for us to accept and understand. It may be easier if we look at all things as coming into existence because of interdependently co-arising causes and conditions, without any self involved. So while we can say that all things are empty of self, they are, at the same time, full of the dharma of causes and conditions.

In the same way, it may help to see all things as verbs, rather than as nouns. When you look at a tree, add an "ing" to the end of it and you have a verb. The object is "treeing." In this way, we can see more clearly that all things, including what we perceive to be ourselves, are a collection of processes, but without any real content.

This is not to deny the miraculous nature of life and existence in any way. To me, it actually makes things even more precious because of the infinity of causes and conditions that have to come together to create even a single-celled organism. 

The Three Characteristics help us to see the nature of things more clearly. When we see things as they are, we can then make more useful and effective choices about how to live our lives. To put this into practice, take a short walk, and with each step repeat inwardly: "impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, no self." Soon you will be able to feel a sense of ease and calm as all the reasons for suffering begin to drop away.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Three Characteristics, Part 1

According the the Dharma - the teachings of the Buddha - all things that exist share three common characteristics: impermanence (in Pali, the language of the Buddha, "anicca"), unsatisfactoriness ("dukkha"), and the absence of self ("anatta").

As we must surely be aware by now, nothing that takes form is permanent. If something has a beginning, it must also have and ending. Therefore, all things share the characteristic of impermanence.

Since nothing is lasting, then nothing is capable of permanently satisfying us. We may be satisfied for a period of time with what we have, but eventually this will not be the case. Therefore, everything that exists has the characteristic of being unsatisfactory.

Finally, all things that come into being have no permanent or separate self. The phenomenal world comes into being based on interdependently co-arising causes and conditions. Conversely, all things cease to be because of causes and conditions. There is no self in any of this.

As you go through your day, contemplate these three characteristics in all things you see. I will continue this discussion in tomorrow's posting.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Alchemist

From The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho:

The camel driver, though, seemed not to be very concerned with the threat of war.

"I'm alive," he said to the boy, as they ate a bunch of dates one night, with no fires and no moon. "When I'm eating, that's all I think about. If I'm on the march, I just concentrate on marching. If I have to fight, it will be just as good a day to die as any other.

"Because I don't live in either my past or my future, I'm interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you'll be a happy man. You'll see that there is life in the desert, that there are stars in the heavens, and that tribesmen fight because they are part of the human race. Life will be a party for you, a grande festival, because life is the moment we're living right now."


Friday, April 9, 2010


In yesterday's blog I said that the Buddha "returned to himself" during his meditation toward enlightenment. However, it was pointed out to me by an astute fellow Dharma traveler that one thing the Buddha discovered during his meditation under the Bodhi Tree was that there is no self. If so, then how could he return to himself?

We use terms like "himself" as short hand. It would take a long time to write out "the being who sat beneath the pippala tree." Of course, in all of the things the Buddha found on this journey, the one thing he did not encounter was a permanent self. He would have had the insight that, since there is no self, and all things are made up of interdependently co-arising causes and conditions, then there was no self to abandon, and no one to do the abandoning. No doubt this would have eased his suffering immensely.

So when it is said that he returned to himself, it was a return this original and essential place of being.
Beneath the pippala tree, the hermit Guatama focused all his formidable powers of concentration to look deeply at this body. He saw that each cell of his body was like a drop of water in an endlessly flowing river of birth, existence, and death, and he could not find anything in the body that remained unchanged or that could be said to contain a separate self. Intermingled with the river of his body was the river of feelings in which every feeling was a drop fo water...Some feelings were pleasant, some unpleasant, and some neutral, but all of his feelings were impermanent: they appeared and disappeared just like the cells of his body. (From Old Path, White Clouds:Walking In the Footsteps of the Buddha, by Thich Nhat Hanh, p. 114.)


Thursday, April 8, 2010

Even the Buddha Had Abandonment Issues

It is said that when Guatama Siddhartha was only an infant, his mother died. Today, we would probably say that this event led to a potentially chaotic and insecure attachment style and would create an "abandonment wound" for Siddhartha that he would carry with him for the rest of his life.

Looking at his life before he became the Buddha (or "Awakened One"), we can see some evidence of this. For most of his young life he was a chronic abandoner. He left his father's palace, and his young bride, to lead a life of a holy man. He tried teacher after teacher for seven years thoughout India looking for a way to remove suffering from his life, including the suffering of loss due to death. Try as he might, however, he could never abandon this wound. Finally, as a wandering aesetic, he tried to abandon his body by starving it nearly to death.

It was then that Siddhartha was saved by a young woman who gave him some rice milk, and eventually nursed him back to health. Siddhartha realized that he had been reinjuring his old abandonment wound by trying to abandon himself. So he decided to sit under a pippala tree, not to get rid of anything,  but to get to know everything about himself. 

He found that if he felt his breath coming in and out of his body, his mind would collect and gather more in the present moment, and from this perspective, he could see how his mind worked. Over and over again he returned to himself through the experience of the breath. He saw clearly (the meaning of "vipassana") all the ways he had abandoned himself, and others, in his vain attempts to escape his initial wound. I'm sure he must have wept sometimes as he looked into the deep well of sadness that this insight brought to him.

When he arose from that first meditation, the Buddha taught others, showing them that they could reduce their suffering if they, too, could stop abandoning themselves.

If you are suffering from anger, jealousy, insecurity, and the like, it may be that you have abandoned yourself. The Buddha's mother died, and indeed, he was abandoned. What caused his suffering, however, was that he kept the sense of abandonment alive throughout his early life. When he stopped abandoning himself, he was free.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Buddha

Tonight, PBS will air a documentary on the life of the Buddha. From what I have seen of this film, I highly recommend it. Here is a little bit about the life of this amazing man, taken from my master's thesis, Vipassana Meditation and Counseling Psychology: A Pathway to the Unconscious.

The man who would eventually be known as the Buddha was born Siddhartha Guatama, and lived some time in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries, B.C.E. The son of a royal family, Prince Siddhartha was raised in a small kingdom in what is now northern India near the border with Nepal.

Safe in his father’s palace, he led a life of ease and abundance, completely protected and totally segregated from the realities of human existence. In fact, his father did everything he could to conceal life’s unpleasant experiences from his son. When he reached his teens, however, Siddhartha began to find the cloistered palace life too stifling, and so he set out on his own to explore the surrounding city. Even then, his father the king “ordered all unpleasant sights to be covered up, the city to be painted, flowers and incense to be place all about, and all people who were suffering to be hidden away” (Goldstein & Kornfield, 1987, p. 80). Despite these efforts, however, Siddhartha eventually discovered the undeniable truth that there is sickness, old age, and death, and that everyone is eventually subject to these fates, including himself.

After that experience, Siddhartha relinquished his title and left the palace in order to find for himself a way out of the suffering he had encountered. First, he studied various kinds of yoga and meditation with India’s greatest living masters. Eventually he became a forest ascetic practicing torturous and body-denying austerities, such as eating only one grain of rice per day. As a result of his extreme self-mortification, it is said that “when he tried to touch his belly, his hand would grasp his backbone. After six years of this kind of practice, Siddhartha realized that this was not the path to freedom, to the end of suffering” (Goldstein & Kornfield, 1987, p. 81).
Siddhartha subsequently renounced his life of renunciation, began to take nourishment again, and soon regained his strength. He then vowed to sit in meditation beneath a pippala tree, and not get up again until he understood the nature of suffering and had reached a state of enlightenment. The celebrated Vietnamese teacher and Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh (1991), described what happened next:
Beneath the pippala tree, the hermit Guatama focused all his formidable powers of concentration to look deeply at his body. He saw that each cell of his body was like a drop of water in an endlessly flowing river of birth, existence, and death, and he could not find anything in the body that remained unchanged or that could   be said to contain a separate self. Intermingled with the river of his body was the river of feelings in which every feeling was a drop of water. . . . Some feelings were pleasant, some unpleasant, and some neutral, but all of his feelings were impermanent: they appeared and disappeared just like the cells of his body. (p.114)
During his meditation, Siddhartha Guatama had become “the Buddha,” meaning “Awakened One,” and he spent the next weeks in continued contemplation of these, and many other truths that had been revealed to him. For forty-five years, he would teach about the truths he had learned beneath the pippala tree, and his experience there would become the model for vipassana practice.


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Moment to Moment, Breath to Breath

Often when I am giving meditation instructions, I invoke the phrase, "moment to moment, and breath to breath." Vipassana meditation practice is like that: just this moment; just this breath.

Our life is like that, as well. We may perceive it all as a span of time - minutes, hours, days, years - but our life is actually comprised of this moment, and then this moment, and this one, and on and on. Understanding this through the direct, physical experience of feeling the breath in our meditation practice can help us see it more clearly.

When we are attuned to the moment-by-moment quality of life, we might be less inclined to become overwhelmed by tasks or projects, especially the big ones. They will only be accomplished one moment at a time, not as a whole piece. It stands to reason, therefore, that if we begin a large, and seemingly insurmountable task by stopping for a moment to just feel ourselves breathe, we might be able to move into that task with a bit more ease.

The Moment, by Margaret Atwood:
The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,

is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can't breathe.

No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Two Perspectives on Mindfulness Practice

 From Sogyal Rinpoche:
The practice of mindfulness defuses our negativity, aggression, and turbulent emotions...Rather than suppressing emotions or indulging in them, here it is important to view them, and your thoughts, and whatever arises with an acceptance and generosity that are as open and spacious as possible. (From The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, p. 61.)
From Jack Kornfield:
Meditation and spiritual practice can easily be used to suppress and avoid feeling or to escape from difficult areas of our lives. Our sorrows are hard to touch. Mindfulness works only when we are willing to direct attention to every area of our suffering. This doesn't mean getting caught in our personal histories, as many people fear, but learning how to address them so that we can actually free ourselves from the big and painful "blocks" of our past. (From the article, Even the Best Meditators Have Old Wounds to Heal, appearing in  Psychotherapy in Australia in 1998.)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Capacity to Awaken

Easter Sunday. A time of renewal and ressurection. 

More than 500 years before the birth of Jesus, the Buddha recognized that each one of us has within us the capacity to awaken at any time. In this spirit, I would like to offer these words from Thich Nhat Hanh:
Anything that can help you wake up has Buddha nature. When I am alone and a bird calls me, I return to myself, I breathe, and I smile, and sometimes it calls me once more. I smile and I say to the bird, "I hear already." Not only sounds, but sights can remind you to return to your true self. In the morning when you open your window and see the light streaming in, you can recognize it as the voice of the Dharma, and it becomes part of the Dharmakaya [the teachings of the Buddha; the way to realize understanding and love]. That is why people who are awake see the manifestation of the Dharma in everything. A pebble, a bamboo tree, the cry of a baby, anything can be the voice of the Dharma calling. We should be able to practice like that. . . .

Dharmakaya is not just expressed in words, in sounds. It can express itself in just being. Sometimes if we don't do anything, we help more than if we do a lot. We call that non-action. It is like the calm person on a small boat in a storm. That person does not have to do much, just be himself, and the situation can change. That is also an aspect of Dharmakaya: not talking, not teaching, just being. . . .

Saturday, April 3, 2010

You've Gotta Have Heart

Tomorrow is the Opening Day of the 2010 baseball season. For the past eight summers, I have had the privilege of teaching yoga for conditioning as part of a baseball camp for young men ages 12 to 17. 

One of the main philosophies that I try to impart to them is the concept of doing things because they are hard in order to grow and learn. In one session, we explored feelings of being discouraged, an experience that is almost inevitable when we embark on doing something that is important in our lives. The tendency for some (most) people might be to give up at the first sign of discouragement. In baseball however, like the song from Damn Yankees says, “you’ve gotta have heart.” Your heart – the ability to keep going in the face of adversity, difficulty, and discouragement – must be strong and resilient.

One yoga posture - Warrior I (virabhadrasana) - is particularly useful in physically embodying this concept of having heart, versus giving in to discouragement. In Warrior I, we are standing facing forward with the front leg bent at about 90 degrees, and the back leg straight and strong, like a pillar of granite. The chest is lifting forward slightly, and the arms are outstretched overhead, as if reaching toward the sky. In this posture, we are allowing the heart to open even in the face of this difficult-to-maintain position.

This posture has always brought to my mind the picture of a warrior before the battle: strong, balanced, and solid, lifting arms heavenward as if in a gesture of offering. He or she seems to be saying to the Divine, “I don’t know what will happen in this battle, but I will remain openhearted and strong.” As we continue to hold this posture for a minute or so, many emotions begin to arise and pass through our awareness: there may be fear of not being able to stay in the position much longer; anger for having to do this in the first place; elation as the body opens and stretches, becoming more and more energized in the process

A warrior on the field of battle goes through many emotions as well. I have heard war correspondents, when asked why they would volunteer to cover a war zone, say that they never felt more alive than in the midst of battle. They speak of it as a defining moment in their lives, against which all other experiences pale by comparison. In other words, they feel alive and vital in a way that they have never known before or since. Warrior posture has this effect, as well, but of course on a vastly smaller scale and with much less risk.

Another effect of Warrior I is that it opens the space between the solar plexus a heart chakras. Our achievement-oriented, doing-centered society operates mainly out of the solar plexus chakra, which is said to be the seat of will and action in yoga science. The extending upward of the torso allows energy from the solar plexus (which is fully engaged during the Warrior posture) to rise upward and join with the softer energy of love and compassion located in the heart. We are still able to do and achieve and attain all that we can, but now there is a softness with the inclusion of the heart energy. If discouragement arises as we hold this posture, it is allowed to be known and gets “treated” by the heart energy so that it does not take the form of hard-edged judgment.

While they are holding this posture, I am reminding these literal "Boys of Summer" that their hearts will be called upon countless times in baseball. When a game goes into extra innings, for example, and the lead is swapped several times, the terrible twins of gain and loss are felt acutely.

Some time around the 2nd Century, B.C.E., a teacher named Patanjali was speaking to his students, who were probably very close in age to the young men in the baseball camp. One of the students took notes, and these notes have come down to us through the ages as the Yoga Sutras. Sri Patanjali said that intropsective practices, such as yoga asanas, "make one immune to the onslaught of opposites." 

So when things get tough out there, and you're down 4 to 3 with two outs and one man on in the bottom of the 9th inning, and you're at the plate with a full count, remember the Warrior. Open your arms to the sky, and your heart to the universe, and swing away. The field is all yours.

You've gotta have heart
All you really need is heart
When the odds are sayin' you'll never win
That's when the grin should start.
You've gotta have hope
Mustn't sit around and mope
Nothin's half as bad as it may appear
Wait'll next year and hope.
When your luck is battin' zero
Get your chin up off the floor
Mister you can be a hero
You can open any door, there's nothin' to it but to do it.
You've gotta have heart
Miles 'n miles n' miles of heart
Oh, it's fine to be a genius of course
But keep that old horse
Before the cart
First you've gotta have heart


Friday, April 2, 2010

Defeating The Self-Defeating Mind

I have a friend whose main desire in life is to become a successful screenwriter and director. One day, while the subject was in play, she casually remarked that she would like to be nominated for an Academy Award, and then not accept it. I mentioned to her that she hadn't even written the screenplay yet, and she was already turning down the Oscar!

This is a repeating pattern in many of our lives. Our deepest desires never see the light of day because of a mind that creates fantastic scenarios of how the future destination will look before we even begin to embark upon the journey. What's worse, we often believe these flights of fancy as being true. That's when we get stuck between having dreams and desires, and seeing them manifest.

When you notice the mind telling these kinds of tales about a future that hasn't happened yet, see if you can acknowledge that this is simply a thought, and neither a fact, nor the truth. Then turn you attention to what needs to be done in that moment to begin moving toward your goal. Keep you attention in the present moment, and when the mind skips ahead to not accepting your own statuette, remember that this is a thought, not a fact, and turn your attention back to what needs doing in that moment.

Little by little, your dreams and desires will take form and, when the season is right, they will bear fruit.


Thursday, April 1, 2010

Shadow Boxing

We are sometimes extremely resistant to things that need to be done. For me, it's doing my taxes. Kathy and I have an appointment with the accountant tonight, and I've just finished crunching all my numbers, adding up deductions, putting all the figures in the correct places, and so forth.
I often dread this whole experience, and I'm not sure exactly why. Once I get into the flow of it, it is actually kind of fun. I'm systematic with how to get it organized and moved through, and once it starts, it goes fairly quickly. So why the resistance?

It is probably because I am not battling against the work itself, but against my fear about the work. In short, I am fighting my Shadow. 

C. G. Jung identified the Shadow as the stuff about ourselves that we do not want to acknowledge. The Shadow is the repository of the unwanted, and unloved parts of us that we hide out of shame or fear. The Shadow is slightly different from the Unconscious. The Unconscious is what we do not know about ourselves, while the Shadow is what we do not want to know.

Whenever we find ourselves strongly resisting something, we can be pretty sure that we are moving into the domain of the Shadow. This is the time to stop and become very alert, noting the feelings in the body, and the thoughts in the mind. Ask yourself if there is something here that you are not taking responsibility for, and if the answer is yes, then you have encountered you Shadow.

Moving into the Shadow to find and re-integrate this unwanted material into consciousness is a bit scary, but it is also tremendously rewarding. It can help rewire our brains to take new pathways, rather than the old habitual ones that no longer serve us. It will probably take repeated journeys into the shadow to really change things, since these old habits die hard. But like the Hero's Journey into the Underworld, when we return after doing battle with the Shadow, we bring back with us the precious and useful gift of Awareness.
Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the Shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular. ~ C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 13: Alchemical Studies, par 335, pg 265