Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day Message

From Thich Nhat Hanh
We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds - our own prejudices, fears and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women. To prepare for war, to give millions of men and women the opportunity to practice killing day and night in their hearts, is to plant millions of seeds of violence, anger, frustration, and fear that will be passed on for generations to come. (Living Buddha, Living Christ)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Uncertainty of Paradise

Yesterday afternoon, Kathy and I arrived in Paradise (California). We are here visiting Nancy and Brian, two of Kathy's dearest friends from college days, who have basically left their day jobs behind and are now practicing urban farming on several acres of land adjacent to their home in this wooded part of the world.

After we arrived, we went on a tour of their gardens. The late afternoon sun shining through the translucent red, yellow, and green kale stalks reminded me of stained glass in a church window. The ingenuity of how they have set up their garden was staggering. I picked, ripped, and cleaned four or five varieties of lettuce for our dinner salad while we drank a glass of wine and caught up with each other.

Nancy and Brian are living in the uncertainty of life every day. The vaguaries of the weather, the threat from insects or animals, the countless other ways that their precious produce could be damaged or wiped out completely are part of their daily lives. Yet, the paradox is that dwelling in this uncertainty can lead to a diminished sense of stress and anxiety. Living in this way can decrease the reflexive and habitually reactive tendencies of the mind, and opens up the possibility that our inherent wisdom can be accessed. This Wisdom Mind - the part of us that really knows - helps us to find novel and effective ways to solve problems. Reactive mind is always trying to fix, change, or get rid of things. Wisdom Mind is there to help us live more skillfully in the midst of things.

The truth is, of course, that we are all living in uncertainty, waiting for our lives and actions to bear fruit. When you feel anxiety about your future, sit for a moment in the surety that things are always changing, and that the outcome of any  event is essentially uncertain. If a specific problem or situation is present, just acknowledge it for a moment, and then let it be without being so hell-bent to find a solution. When we release our attachment to the outcome, the solution often sprouts and ripens on its own as effortlessly as a plant rises toward the sky. Experiment with accessing Wisdom Mind, and then trust the fruits of insight from this fertile part of you.

From Song of the Open Road by Walt Whitman:

From this hour I ordain myself loosed of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, the north and the south are mine.
I am larger, better than I thought, I did not know I held so much goodness.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Road Trip

For the Memorial Day weekend, Kathy and I are taking a drive up to Northern California to visit some of her friends from college days (U.C. Santa Cruz). The town they live in is named Paradise. So here we are, on a road trip to Paradise. 

But first, a stop in Madera, a nondescript farming community north of Fresno, snuggled deep in the center of the Central Valley, with a landscape as flat as they come ending in a sudden uplift of mountains to the east and west. The Valley always reminds me of a giant serving platter...

Many of my students report that they are not able to maintain their meditation and yoga practices while traveling. For me, it is the time when my practices thrive. There is something alluringly delicious about throwing out my yoga mat at sunrise in a hotel room (especially one as big as the suite we upgraded to for $10 extra), and then letting my body move through a strange space. It enlivens my practice, and lets me access a kind of Beginner's Mind (see 2/1/10 & 4/14/10 blogs).

Then I plop my zafu down on the floor and sit for thirty minutes or so, again noting the newness of the environment - its sounds, its smells, and the feel of the space itself. Insights come by the trainload (apropos of the mile-long freights that pass within a few hundred yards of the hotel).

One insight this morning was that doing this kind of practice on a road trip allows us to be more present with the trip itself while it is happening. We actually see the countryside as it passes by. We notice the unusual signage along the frontage roads of the towns we are going through. We appreciate the company of our loved ones, if we are traveling with them, or we allow our own thoughts to move through in an interestingly unimpeded fashion if we are traveling alone.

Above all, we realize that the journey is the destination. Soon we will be in Paradise, if all goes as planned. Now, however, we are here, and wherever we are is paradise.


Friday, May 28, 2010

Turning Dragons Into Princesses

From Letters to a Young Poet, by Rilke:
We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors. If it has abysses, these abysses belong to us. If there are dangers, we must try to love them, and only if we could arrange our lives in accordance with the principle that tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us to be alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.

How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races - the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are only princesses waiting for us to act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises before you larger than any you've ever seen, if an anxiety like light and cloud shadows moves over your hands and everything that you do. You must realize that something has happened to you. Life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hands and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ten Thousand Idiots

By Hafiz
It is always a danger
 To aspirants
 On the

When they begin 
 To believe and

As if the ten thousand idiots
 Who so long ruled
 And lived

Have all packed their bags
 And skipped town

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Dharma of Microbes

At a Spirit Rock retreat a few years ago, Wes Nisker was giving his talk, "Be In Awe," when he said something that sounded quite amazing. He mentioned that we all have within our bodies, and specifically in our abdominal area, millions of bacterial microbes that live off of the food we eat. He went on to say that without these little fellows down there, we would not be able to digest our food properly. In a classic symbiotic relationship, these microbes also depend upon us to feed them. 

Some scientists have theorized that since these microbes existed for millions of years before the advent of humans, they may have actually evolved us as a kind of "ambulatory feed lot." Then, like artificial intelligence in a science fiction story, the experiment ran amok, and we have come to this. 

So, Wes suggested, the next time you eat, ask yourself, "Just who is feeding whom?" 

Wow! 6:30 already. Time to feed the microbes!


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Are We There Yet?

There is a cartoon that Jack Kornfield once shared during a retreat of an Arab family riding on camels through the desert. The father, on the lead camel, is turning back impatiently to the second camel, which is carrying his wife and two small children. "Stop asking me if we're almost there!" the father is saying. "We're nomads for crying out loud!"

In many ways, we all live a nomadic existence. We live inside these portable life-support units that we call "bodies," and we carry them (or they carry us) wherever we go. Wherever the body goes is "here," so to ask "are we there yet?" is a bit absurd. We're never there, we are only here.

When we want to arrive in the present moment and really be here, all we have to do is turn toward the senses of the body. This will automatically bring us into contact with the here and now. The breath is an excellent object of attention, because the breath is part of the body and therefore is always a present moment experience.

Take time every day to arrive where you are in the body. Whenever you are experiencing distressing experiences, turn toward the body and really know what it is doing, no matter how unpleasant it may be. The natural tendency will be to try to get away from the unpleasant, just as we might want to cling to the pleasant. Rather than doing either, try just "being with" the experience as it is, acknowledging its presence, and allowing it to be there. Often times, just by paying attention in this way to our experience, the situation changes without our having to do anything, as we come into a new relationship with what is.


Monday, May 24, 2010

No Hope of Retirement

At a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, one of our teachers said, "I've never known anyone to fail at vipassana meditation, but I've also never known anyone who succeeded...So give up all hope of retirement."

Many aspirants on the path might imagine that if they practice long and hard enough, someday they will reach "the end" of the path. Then they can quit.  Then they will be done. This was the "retirement" that my teacher was referring to. 

I hope it's not discouraging news to learn that we never reach some magical end point in this practice where everything is done and we can stop. There are, of course, many insightful moments along the way, even experiences of enlightenment that come to us. However, there is no ultimate destination that we are aiming for.

So always remember: The journey is the destination.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Eating Mindfully

Eating is one activity that we often do without paying much attention to it. The process of mindful eating can be a very rewarding one, not only because it helps us cultivate mindfulness in our every day life, but also because it offers us the opportunity to really enjoy our food. 

The first exercise that we do in our mindfulness-based groups is to eat one raisin. We begin by simply holding the raisin in our hand, gathering as much information about it as we can through the senses of sight, touch, smell, and hearing. We investigate the raisin as though we had never seen one of these things before, pretending that we are scientists from another planet gathering facts about the flora and fauna of Earth. Eventually, we place the raisin in our mouths, then we begin to chew it slowly and completely before finally swallowing.

This exercise can take as much as twenty minutes. For many, it is an insightful and enjoyable experience, the first step toward understanding what it means to truly pay attention in the present moment on purpose. Some participants are amazed that they can sit still and concentrate for that long, which allows them to begin the sitting meditation practices with more confidence. Eating a raisin in this way also lays the foundation for understanding the difference between thoughts about the raisin, and the fact of the raisin itself. This, in turn, offers them the real-time experience of dis-engaging from thoughts, and returning to a present-moment sensory reality, which is the core skill of formal mindfulness meditation practice.

We end the exercise by giving out one more raisin, and then having everyone contemplate all of the interdependent elements that brought the raisin to their hand. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches five eating contemplations that echo and amplify the raisin experience:
1. This food is a gift of the whole universe, the earth, the sky, and much mindful work. In this food, I see clearly the presence of the entire universe supporting my existence.
2. May we eat in mindfulness so as to be worthy of this food.
3. May we transform our unskillful states of mind and learn to eat in moderation.
4. May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent illness.
5. May we accept this food to realize the path of understanding and love.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Welcoming the Guests

I have heard it said that during vipassana practice, the mind is like the host of a gathering. Indeed, the bell that I ring at the beginning of a practice can serve as a kind of doorbell, signaling the arrival of the "party" guests. 

One reason why we meditate in this way is to be available for everything that arises (or arrives) during our practice. Most of the guests arrive uninvited and unbidden. All, however, must be welcomed and allowed to sit with us. These guests would include sensations in the body, sounds, emotional sensations, and so forth. I would say that the most difficult guests would have to be thoughts. They arrive whether we want them to be there or not. Sometimes our thoughts are pleasant or insightful, and these can be very exciting guests to have at our gathering, providing plenty of stimulating conversation. Often times they are not so pleasant, and act boorish and ill-tempered as they repeat the same dysfunctional refrains over and over again. Yet, we must do the best we can to include these guests as well, no matter how rude they are.

And so we sit with these guests - the good, the bad, and the boring - and listen to their conversations with each other like the babble at a cocktail party. As we listen, we can begin to see that thoughts are just events that arise, abide for a time, then subside. All the mental guests will leave, eventually, although some may not get the hint and will hang on until well after the dishes are done, the leftovers are put away, and you've changed into your pajamas. These are the guests that we can learn so much from in terms of the habitual workings of our mind. By getting to know them a little better, we can begin to see how they are merely thoughts, and not facts, and that they are not even us. We can learn that we don't need to identify with them so much, and that we don't have to listen to them or follow their advice, just be aware of them and let them be.


Friday, May 21, 2010

One Thing At A Time

I have a dharma buddy that I have been meditating with at least twice a week for almost two years. He likes to describe himself as a "Triple-A Type" personality, and I have to admit, he is one of the busiest, hardest working people I have ever met. 

Right now, however, he is in the middle of an extremely busy time in his life with work coming out of his ears that he feels he cannot turn away. Today, he practically begged me for help. My advice: Do one thing at a time.

There is a story about a Zen retreat where the Roshi told his students during a dharma talk, "Only do one thing at a time. If you eat, just eat. If you read, just read..." and so on. The next morning, when the retreatants went to breakfast, there was the Roshi eating a bowl of cereal and reading the New York Times. "Roshi!" the students exclaimed, "What are you doing? Last night you told us that when you eat just eat, and when you read just read!" The Roshi replied, "Yes, and when you eat and read, just eat and read."

The truth is that we do things much better when we do one thing at a time. We may think we are getting a lot done by multi-tasking, but study after study has shown this is not the case. For the next day or so, experiment with doing one thing at a time as much as possible. Start with easy things, like not eating breakfast while checking e-mail. And when you are doing something, really be present for it while you are doing it. Feel yourself taking a shower. Taste the food you are eating. Really be with the person you are talking to.

Gradually, by moving more mindfully through your daily tasks, you will get more done, and what you do will be done better.



Thursday, May 20, 2010

Defining Ourselves From the Outside In

There is a maxim in the 12-step tradition: "Don't judge your insides based on somebody else's outsides." This means that we cannot accurately form opinions of ourselves based on the appearance and/or outward behavior of others. We may look at someone and think, "Man, she's really got it made," or "I wish I were as confident as he is." We might have these thoughts about a colleague, a celebrity, or even a close friend without being aware that beneath their exterior features there is a life being lived that may not be the bed of roses that it seems.

The Buddha knew that anyone who takes human birth is subject to suffering at some point in their lives. Being human myself, I am no exception. In the name of full transparency, in my role as a teacher and therapist I have been the subject of peoples' imagined ideal. They usually see me when I am on my best behavior, and in the role of someone who has answers to their questions. There have been times, however, when I have had to lead a meditation practice with my heart broken into bits.

There is also a tendency for people to define themselves based on their own outside appearance or possessions. You might hear something like, "That kind of car is not 'me'," or "What color sweater do you think I am?" Obviously, this way of looking at the "sense" of who we are indicates that we are deep into the territory of "I, me, and mine," which also means that we will soon be suffering because of it. If I define myself by what kind of car I drive, eventually that car will be gone and who will I be then?

It is fine to have possessions and people in our lives that bring us enjoyment. There is nothing essentially wrong with desiring to have things, either. What brings about suffering is desire that gives rise to a "sense of self." We really need to remember that we are not our possessions. Once again, the mantra, "I am not this, it is not me, and it is not mine," can help us to open the tight, grasping fist a little bit, and can offer us a moment of respite from the suffering that comes along with I-dentifying ourselves by what we own, what we wear, where we live, or who we know. When we can walk in the world as authentic beings, allowing the things in our life to come and go without as much clinging and aversion toward them, then we really possess something worth emulating.



Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wise Mind

A tendency that many people have is to try to solve every problem that arises through rumination and endless cycles of "thinking things through." Individuals who are prone to depression are especially susceptible to the notion that, if they just think about their problems long enough, they will figure them out and feel better. Actually, studies have shown that the opposite appears to be the case. Ruminating and over-analyzing actually leads to a deeper sense of hopelessness and helplessness when things don't seem to improve.

One reason for this outcome is that the more we try to think our way through something, the more "real" the problem tends to become and the more we may believe the thoughts that arise about it. It reminds me of growing a crystal. The problem thought begins as just a small object that is somewhat annoying, but not overwhelming. Then I add more thoughts to it trying to figure out a solution to this upsetting thought. Each time I engage in useless rumination about the thought, it grows more crystal points, until it becomes very large and, seemingly at least, very solid. Now I have something that becomes a real problem that will find its way into my daily life through my moods and eventually my relationships.

Instead, I recommend switching from the "doing" mode of constantly trying to analyze and figure out the thought, and deploying "being" mode, in which we just acknowledge the situation and then let it be. As counter-intuitive as this seems, the paradox is that when we hold these troublesome thoughts or issues with a more open hand, they have more space around them. They can breathe a bit, and so can we because the problem is now not as big as it once was because we have increased the space around it. 

At the same time, the part of our awareness known as "Wise Mind" is allowed to work on the problem behind the scenes. Wise Mind is that part of us that knows the real answer and can come up with novel and more effective solutions to problems. It is basically the same process employed by composers or mathematicians when they are stuck on a problem. They might get up from their piano or desk, and go make a cup of tea or take a walk or do something totally unrelated to the problem task. When the do this, the answer presents itself as if by magic.

I've experienced Wise Mind countless times when I can't remember the title of a movie or someones name. If I sit there and ruminate about it, approaching the problem head-on, I often don't get very far. So I just let it go and talk about something else, and in a few moments, the name presents itself to me.

Naturally, we learn how to cultivate and deploy Wise Mind in our meditation practice. When unpleasant experiences arise, whether in the form of physical sensations or thoughts, we can just acknowledge them, allow them to be, and then make the choice to return to the feeling of the breath. Left alone, the feelings or thoughts tend to just move into the background and eventually go away completely. We might even get an insight about how to deal with these problems from Wise Mind that would not have come to us otherwise. When we acknowledge the presence of difficult thoughts or feelings in our daily life, we can do the same thing, always returning to the present moment through the senses.

It takes practice, and the rewards of this kind of diligence are increased happiness and ease, and decreased amounts of suffering. 



Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Perspectives On No-Self (Anatta)

From What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula (1978, Gordon Fraser Gallery, Surrey, UK):
As the Buddha told Ratthapala: "The world is in continuous flux and is impermanent."
     One thing disappears, conditioning the appearance of the next in a series of cause and effect. There is no unchanging substance in them. There is nothing behind them that can be called a permanent Self (Atman), individuality, or anything that can in reality be called "I". Every one will agree that neither matter, nor sensation, nor any one of those mental activities, nor consciousness can really be called "I". But when these five physical and mental aggregates which are interdependent are working together in combination as a physio-psychological machine, we get the idea of "I". But this is only a false idea, a mental formation, which is nothing but...the idea of self...
     There is no unmoving mover behind the movement. It is only movement. It is not correct to say that life is moving, but life is movement itself. Life and movement are not two different things. In other words, there is not thinker behind the thoughts. Thought itself is the thinker. If you remove the thought, there is no thinker to be found. Here we cannot fail to notice how this Buddhist view is diametrically opposed to the Cartesian cognito ergo sum: "I think, therefore I am" (p. 26).

According to the Buddha's teaching, it is as wrong to hold the opinion "I have no self" (which is the annihilationist theory) as to hold the opinion "I have self" (which is the eternalist theory), because both are fetters, both arising out of the false idea "I AM". The correct position with regard to the question of Anatta [the doctrine of "No-Self"] is not to take hold of any opinions or views, but to see things objectively as they are without mental projections, to see that what we call "I", or "being", is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect, and that there is nothing permanent, everlasting, or unchanging and eternal in the whole of existence (p. 66).

Monday, May 17, 2010

Mind: The Forerunner of All Things

In the Dhammapada, an ancient text, the Buddha is quoted as saying, "Mind is the forerunner of all...conditions. Mind is chief; and they are mind-made." Where your mind goes, all else will follow, including your body. It stands to reason, therefore, that the more mindful we can be of our thoughts and intentions, the easier we will be able to make conscious decisions and reduce our suffering. Believe it or not, being mindful of thoughts and intentions may also help us look better as we get older.

My friend and colleague, Elisha Goldstein, has a new book out, co-written with Bob Stahl, called The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook. In it they list a progression of mind that may be very useful to read over a couple of times, and then reflect upon, both during meditation practice, and in daily life:
1. Intention shapes our thoughts and words.

2. Thoughts and words mold our actions.

3. Thoughts, words, and actions shape our behaviors.

4. Behaviors sculpt our bodily expressions.

5. Bodily expressions fashion our character.

6. Our character hardens into what we look like.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

In Praise of Walking Meditation

For many meditation practitioners, walking meditation can be a real challenge. I don't know many, if any, meditators who include walking as part of their daily practice with any regularity. I must admit that I have to include myself in this category as well.

Yet, whenever I practice it, whether with our Saturday afternoon sangha, or on retreats, it is always an extraordinarily rewarding practice. I am not alone in my praise for walking meditation. Many students have had their most profound insights during walking practice while on retreat. 

For example, just yesterday I was leading a silent retreat as part of a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy class (MBCT) at Temescal Canyon in Pacific Palisades. During the inquiry period after we broke silence, one of the class members told about an insight she had during walking meditation regarding her lifelong experience with depression (MBCT is designed to help prevent depressive relapse). "I've known for a long time that I've been stuck in my depression, and I've always seen it as this 'other being' inside me who is very powerful. While I was walking, I realized that it all comes from within me - that these feelings are me - and so that means I'm the one who is powerful."

All of us at the retreat recognized this as a significant shift in how she relates to her depression. Armed with this insight, she can now view her situation from a new perspective and can make choices that will help her reduce her suffering in the future. All this is hers, simply from walking very slowly and feeling each step as it happened.

The paradox is that in walking practice (as in vipassana meditation) we are not trying to get anywhere. We usually pick out a lane about 10 or 12 paces long. Then we feel ourselves standing. Just standing and knowing that we are standing. When the intention arises, we feel the weight shift to one foot, then we feel the other foot lifting, and then we feel it placing itself on the ground. Then the weight shifts again, and the other foot lifts and is placed. And on and on it goes: shifting, lifting, and placing, usually moving very slowly so we can feel every movement as it is happening. When we get to the end of our lane we feel ourselves stop, then we feel ourselves turning mindfully, and then we repeat the process again.

The wonderful thing about walking practice is that you have the embodied experience of being "here" all the time. Each step is an expression of "here." You understand rather quickly that what you thought was "there" is really only another expression of "here" once you get there. This experience of being so totally present in the body allows the mind to move into a non-fixing mode of being, rather than continuing its analytical mode of doing, which is its normal day-to-day setting. 

The MBCT participant at yesterday's retreat had tried for decades to figure out her depression and to think it through, but this has only resulted in her staying stuck in it. When she devoted her attention to a present moment task, such as feeling each step, her "doing" mind disengaged and she was able to access a kind of "wise mind" that could actually tell her what she needed to know. 

Dwelling in this kind of "being" mode, where we are not concerned with reaching a specific destination or outcome, is one of the most powerful - and empowering - components of vipassana meditation. When we allow ourselves to just breathe and feel the breath, or just walk and feel the walking, we arrive at a destination that we would never have found through our old ways of doing things. If we are awake and present upon arrival, through the cultivation of mindful awareness, we can then receive the gifts of insight that this destination offers us.



Saturday, May 15, 2010

My Uncle David

For whatever reasons, I have always been fascinated with turning points in my life and the recognition of them when they actually happen, if at all possible. I would define these moments as being events that changed my life forever afterward in some way.

I can remember one turning point from my youth that involved my uncle David. He is my father's younger brother, and for much of his life, a minister in the Methodist church. As a young pastor in the late 1950's, he championed the integration of his church in Chicago. This act led to death threats, an attempted fire-bombing of the church, and a profile in Ebony magazine. It also resulted in his being reassigned to a post in Alaska, first to Ketchikan, then Fairbanks, and finally Anchorage. Today, in his late 80's, he still lives there with my aunt Aileen, his wife of 60-plus years. He's a cool guy. He even built and lives in a geodesic dome that he fashioned mostly from scrap wood salvaged from construction sites in the Anchorage area. 

Because of his geographic remoteness, we didn't see much of uncle Dave during my growing up years, and his exploits had taken on mythic proportions in my family. This could explain why I was so available to hear what he had to say when he and I were exploring the shore of a lake one summer in Kansas around 1966. I was fascinated with geology, and particularly fossils, and I was prone to picking up rocks wherever I went. I remember there was one large, flat rock that I was trying to turn over, just to see what was on the under side of it. This was nothing special to me - I'd done it countless times. After I finally got this one freed from the brown mud of the lake bank, uncle Dave noted, "You know, Rog, you're the first human being who's ever turned that rock over." This literally rocked my world, and I looked at the bottom of that piece of limestone with a new sense of wonder and awe. 

I have gone on to turn over a lot of rocks since then (literally and metaphorically), and almost every time I do, I remember uncle Dave smiling at me under that blue Kansas summer sky, opening my mind to a bigger world.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Wise Speech

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Story Telling

The human mind is an amazing thing. It can weave the most beautiful stories out of nothing, and when that mind belongs to a William Shakespeare or a Katherine Doughtie, it can produce tales that can make us weep with simultaneous feelings of sadness and joy.

Most of us, however, are blessed with only average story telling ability. These stories usually take the form of runaway thoughts that may or (in many cases) may not be related to actual facts. We think we are able to peer into another person's mind, as though we were the omniscient narrator of a novel. Or we dream up fantastic scenarios about the future that would give H. G. Wells a run for his money.

Almost all the time, our stories are complete nonsense. We cannot read minds with any accuracy, just as we cannot predict how something will transpire in the future. Yet we continue to try. Even though we have experienced the incorrect outcomes of our predictions and prognostications thousands of times, we still insist on saying "I know what you're thinking" (an invitation to disaster in any conflict), and "I know what's going to happen" (a sure-fire way to make yourself look ridiculous when the actual events take place).

We really need to stop telling these kinds of stories. Inevitably, they all lead to further suffering because they all contain the dreaded "I, me, and mine" component. So how can we stop a mind that is used to thinking it is all-seeing? First, remember that thoughts are just thoughts, they are never facts. You may have a thought about a fact, but that's still just a thought. Secondly, whenever we think we can accurately predict the outcome of anything, we need to be able to step back and see that this, too, is simply a thought and not a fact. Third, we have to come back to a present-moment sensory reality, which can be any sensory experience that's is happening right now. This will let us disengage from the story telling mind, and bring us back to the fact of this moment, just as it is.

Or, you can try this... At one point in my relationship with Kathy, we were telling a lot of stories in our heads that had no basis in fact, and it was causing us a lot of trouble. We found an empty candy jar, and every time we found ourselves telling a story about each other, or anything else for that matter, the story teller had to put a dime in the jar. You would be amazed at how fast that kind of penalty can make you aware of how often you tell stories in your daily life.



Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Summer Day

By Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Stop Taking Things Personally

As part of an Newsweek article from February 23, 2009 called "Who Says Stress Is Bad For You?," there is a sidebar quiz to test your knowledge about, and resilience to, stress. The most interesting question posed is "Who tends to be the least resilient?" I'll go ahead and give you the answer: People who are self-focused. Here's what WebMD, who produced the quiz, says about it:
Egocentric or self-focused people are more likely to take things personally. And the extent to which people take things personally affects their ability to be resilient. This, explains [Bernhard] Kempler, is why people who survive natural disasters tend to recover more quickly than those who survive attacks directed against them personally or as members of a group.
"The person who has the capacity to say this is not directed personally at me has a much better chance of remaining resilient," Kempler says. "They are saying, 'This is not directed at me, this is not my fault. There is nothing about me that deserves this trauma.' It is the kind of meaning we put on events that protects our resilience, that makes us capable of being resilient, that lets us cope and adapt."
This is what the Buddha was teaching some 2,500 years ago. He said that when a sense of "self" arises, we suffer. We see things as being I, me, or mine that have nothing whatsoever to do with us. This teaching should not be misunderstood to mean that we become "detached" from our circumstances or from other people. We are actually more present and involved in these situations because we are making active choices to deal with them in a way that is more effective and skillful. When we stop taking everything personally, we can actually tolerate difficult experiences and interactions more easily than when we have aversion toward them because we think they are about us.

As I've mentioned many times in this blog, one of the most powerful mantras we can adopt in our daily life is: "This is not me. I am not this. It is not mine." And we can say this about anything, especially those thoughts that scream at us that the situation is about us. In fact, the more we are stuck in the cycle of clinging or aversion brought about by the arising of the false sense of self, the more we will believe the mind when it tells us to take the situation personally.

To see the Newsweek article:
To take the WebMD stress resilience quiz:


Monday, May 10, 2010


If you can start the day without caffeine
or Xanax,

If you can be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,

If you can resist complaining and
boring people with your troubles,

If you can understand when loved ones
are too busy to give you time,

If you can overlook when people take things
out on you when, through no fault of yours,
something goes wrong,

If you can take criticism and blame
without resentment,

If you can face the world without lies and deceit,

If you can conquer tension without medical help,

If you can relax without liquor,

If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,

If you can do all these things,

Then you are probably a dog.


Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Mother's Day Poem

The Lanyard, By Billy Collins
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Pause Button

One of the most useful things that mindfulness practice can give us in daily life is access to a moment that one of my teachers called "the reflective pause." When we get caught up in our stories and emotions about people or situations (or both), we can always push this Pause button, feel the body breathing a few breaths, and then respond reflectively, rather than react reflexively. In many cases, we might realize that the best response is to do nothing at all - the situation will change all by itself without our having to step in and try to control it or fix it.

The reflective pause lets us step back a bit from the scene and give the situation some air. It allows us to respond with a lighter touch, in most cases, accessing wells of loving kindness and compassion for others or for ourselves. Many times we have thrown permanent solutions at temporary problems. Grand gestures are made, or harmful words spoken that can never be revoked, leaving wounds that can take years, or even lifetimes, to heal.

In my work as a psychotherapist, I have been trained to help people who have reached that darkest of pivotal moments in their life when ending it all together becomes more preferable than going forward. Whenever a client expresses genuine suicidal wishes, I never deny their experience. Instead, I suggest to them that right now they are angry or sad or distraught, and they are not in the right frame of mind to make such an important decision. Each time I have intervened in this way, the client has calmed down considerably, seen the wisdom of this suggestion, and agreed not to take any action toward killing themselves. When we check in the next day, they are in a completely different mood and usually the suicidal ideation has passed.

In a New Yorker article from October 13, 2003 called "Jumpers: The Fatal Grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge," author Tad Friend interviews several people who made failed attempts at suicide by jumping off the historic span. One man's story is particularly insightful: “I still see my hands coming off the railing,” he said...“I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”

When wild torrents of raging thoughts begin to get the best of you, disengage from them and bring your attention to the present-moment sensory reality of the body breathing. Or you can place your care and attention on the emotional experiences that are arising because of the thoughts. In either case, you will create a little space in which to stop, reflect, and then respond more effectively, if necessary.


Friday, May 7, 2010

From My Cold, Dead Hand

A few weeks ago, I was sitting with a client with whom I use vipassana meditation in support of more "traditional" psychotherapy treatment. We were discussing the idea that we can be liberated from suffering by releasing the tight fist of grasping, and she said, "Well, sometimes I feel like I have to use both hands just to let go." She demonstrated this by closing her right hand into a fist, and then reaching across with her left, pantomiming prying her fingers open one by one with great difficulty. 

Indeed, sometimes it seems to take all of our strength to peel the fingers apart and open the hand. Sometimes, it takes more strength than we actually possess, and in those cases, the hand may stay firmly closed. Other times, the hand may open for a moment, and then slam shut again right away.

My client's example reminded me of the iconic statement that the late Charlton Heston made when he was president of the National Rifle Association. When addressing his feelings about the possibility of his right to bear arms being taken away, he raised a rifle above his head and declared, "They'll have to take it from my cold, dead hand." A few years later, in the midst of his struggle with Alzheimer's disease, all he had to do when speaking to the NRA for the last time was to hold the rifle up and say, "From my cold dead hand," and the audience went crazy with applause.

Many of the things we are struggling with in our lives are not new issues; they have been with us in varying forms perhaps since childhood. It may feel as though we will always be stuck with our hands firmly clinging to these problems because, for whatever reason, we feel like we need to keep holding onto them. We may even feel like it is a hopeless situation, and that we will be stuck with this closed fist until the day we die.  

However, we can make the choice at any time to release the grasp, to open the fingers, to let whatever is in there have some space. And, yes, the hand may slam shut again, so we will need to repeat the process over and over again. It doesn't mean we are trying to get rid of whatever it is, but it means that we are abandoning the origins of suffering, meaning that we are stopping the clinging.


Thursday, May 6, 2010

My Life Would Be Perfect If Only...

When I was a kid growing up in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, we lived in a solidly middle-class neighborhood. Our home was a single story, three-bedroom tract house built in 1953, and for its day, was considered quite a step up from the inner-city neighborhood where my parents and older sisters had lived. 

I can remember, however, as we would drive through the newer, more affluent subdivisions, feeling a mixture of envy and low self-esteem as I gazed at the stylish, modern homes with their landscaped and manicured lawns. As I began to expand my circle of social acquaintances beyond my neighborhood friends, I was sometimes allowed to go inside some of these seemingly ideal domiciles. Unlike where I lived, they were always neat and well-organized, and reminded me of the kinds of homes I would see on TV shows like "Leave It To Beaver," or "My Three Sons." I used to think to myself, "My life would be perfect if only I lived in one of these houses."

Little did I know that each and every one of these families had their problems. I would later hear of alcoholism, abuse, absentee parents, divorce, juvenile delinquency, and other horrors that took place behind these beautiful walls. I now understand that we can move anywhere we would like to live, but that we should not be surprised when we find that our problems have moved along with us. It is what is known in 12-Step parlance as "pulling a geographic" - relocating in an effort to try to fix our lives or to start over again.

Apparently, we cannot accurately predict what will make us happy. By the same token, if we are always existing in a "my life would be perfect if only..." mentality, we are missing the beauty of this moment just as it is. We are also missing what is causing this "if/only" mind in the first place, which, if were known, could allow us to understand the true meaning and experience of happiness. Nisargadatta Maharaj once offered a perfect solution for this kind of "if/only" syndrome: "Want what you have, and don't want what you don't have."


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Wandering Mind

It is not unusual for students of mine, both new and long-term, to imagine that a "good" meditation would be one during which the mind never wanders. They may mistakenly believe that the object of vipassana meditation is to always be mindful of the breath without any extraneous interfering thoughts. Once, during a question period during the meditation group, a student mentioned that he had been told that if you could count 84 consecutive breaths (or some number like that), it meant you had attained mastery of the practice. This kind of thinking is not only meaningless, it only serves to erect an obstacle of achievement orientation in our path.

First of all, let me assure you that the mind will always wander. It is not possible to keep the mind focused exclusively on just one thing for very long, so we must release our attachment to this being the hallmark of a good practice. Secondly, the practice itself is not the slavish attention to the feeling of the breath. Vipassana offers a gentle way of training the mind to become more aware and conscious during daily life. Holding the attention on the breath is useless in relation to this kind of training. What needs to happen is for the mind to temporarily go into a mindless, automatic state, such as it does when the mind wanders, and then for conscious awareness to engage so that the choice can be made to return the attention back to the breath.

This form of practice training serves as a model for how to deal in daily life when we are face-to-face with difficult or upsetting habits of mind: we return the attention to a place of mindful awareness through a present-moment sensory reality. If the object of vipassana were to hold the attention only on the breath, then this kind of process would never happen during meditation, and therefore no practice would take place.

So while we don't want to encourage the mind to wander aimlessly during meditation, awakening can only take place when it does. Once we awaken, we return our attention back to the breath, and each time we do that, we gently encourage the mind to take other neuro-pathways. When we get up off the cushion, this becomes the model that we take into our daily life to learn to groove new neuro-pathways there as well.

Here are four simple (but not easy!) steps for meditation practice as outlined by teacher Larry Rosenberg:
1. Just do one thing at a time.
2. Pay full attention to what it is you are doing.
3. When the mind wanders from the present moment, bring it back.
4. Repeat step 3 several billion times!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Alchemy of Meditation

During the Middle Ages, and perhaps long before, there was a secret tradition of alchemic studies. Ostensibly, the purpose of alchemy is to transform ordinary matter into something precious (such as base metals into gold). I don't believe this was actually the case, however. I believe that alchemy is the process of changing the alchemist, in part by allowing them to see the ordinary that is already present in their daily life as being something precious.

In the alchemic process, or "the Work" as it was code-named back then, the material that is to be transformed is placed in a container, known as a retort, which is then hermetically sealed (an act named for Hermes Trismigestus, the patron spirit of alchemy). The retort is then placed over a low flame for an extended period of time while the prima materia, or base matter, undergoes its many transformations.

In the same way, when we sit in meditation, we are creating our own retort. We seal the container by closing the eyes, and then feel the breath coming and going through the nose. There we "cook" for an extended period of time, allowing the transformations of arising, abiding, and subsiding events to take place. What we eventually find is that nothing very special tends to happen in this experiment. Yet, because of our ability to pay attention to these happenings from a present-moment point of view, the common matter becomes something very precious.

When we finally get up from our cushion or chair, and move back into daily life, we bring with us some of this precious material in the form of conscious mindful awareness. Stuff that used to just whizz past us, or which took place just below the level of consciousness, is now known and seen more clearly. Because of this ability to be more aware, we can make better choices when situations arise in our daily life that used to cause us trouble. 

It is always important to remember that these troublesome things will continue to arise in our life no matter how much meditation we practice, but now we can relate to them a bit differently. Like the medieval alchemists, it is not our world that changes because of the Work, but it is we who have changed within the world.


Monday, May 3, 2010


A Poem by Julie Cadwallader-Staub
I am 52 years old, and have spent
truly the better part
of my life out-of-doors
but yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air

and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn't know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings
just feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.

How do they do that?

Oh if we lived only in human society
with its cruelty and fear
its apathy and exhaustion
what a puny existence that would be

but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
so that when, every now and then, mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we manage to unite and move together
toward a common good,

and can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it's meant to be.
"Blackbirds" by Julie Cadwallader-Staub. © Julie Cadwallader-Staub. Reprinted with permission of the author. 


Sunday, May 2, 2010

You Are Not What You Think

During vipassana meditation practice, we cultivate the ability to see everything that happens as merely events that arise out of stillness, last for a while, and then return back to stillness. Throughout this process, we can see, through our investigation and contemplation of these events, that none of them contain any separate or permanent "self." They are all the results of interdependently co-arising causes and conditions.

What is often forgotten, however, is that the thoughts the mind creates are also empty of self. Out of years of habit, we have come to experience thoughts as having some origin within a self, when actually the mind creates thoughts by its own mechanisms and processes. The realization that we do not think our own thoughts can be a stunning insight for new meditators, or even for seasoned practitioners.

If we could actually control what thoughts we have, wouldn't we only think pleasant, self-loving, peaceful, happy thoughts? I imagine we would. Yet, thoughts come unbidden in the form of past regrets about some event that may have happened years before, or anxieties about some future catastrophe that will never take place. True, there may be intentions to think about certain subjects, such as when we need to devote attention toward a specific problem. However, just as in meditations where sound is the primary object of attention, there is the intention to listen for sounds, but there is no "I, me, or mine" in the sound itself. In the same way, there is the intention to think in a certain direction, but the thoughts that arise come unbidden and empty of self.

It may be helpful to rephrase the way we relate to our thoughts, as well. Instead of saying, "I thought such and such," it may be better to word it as, "The mind thought such and such." As in the example of sound meditation, this way of relating to thoughts can help us to dis-identify with them as containing I, me, or mine. When we are not clinging to thoughts as being "mine," then it is easier to see them simply as events; as un-asked for creations of mind based on many previous experiences, but not as actual facts (outside of being thoughts). In this way, we are not held prisoner by these thoughts, which can reduce our suffering. 

From The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Translation by W.Y. Evans-Wentz):
The visions you experience exist within your consciousness. . . These visions have no reality outside your consciousness. No matter how frightening some of them may seem they cannot hurt you. . . Just let them pass through your consciousness like clouds passing through an empty sky. Fundamentally they have no more reality than this.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Relationship Dharma

A form of psychology that I frequently utilize in my psychotherapy practice is the theory of psychodynamics. In this style of therapy, we look for repeating patterns of thought or behavior that get activated when certain interpersonal (or intrapsychic) dynamics are present. 

The word "dynamics," refers to energetic exchanges and conflicts both in relationship with others, as well as within ourselves. Most, if not all, of the repeating behavioral patterns are developed early in life, and are the result of some kind of wounding, either real or imagined, that took place at that time. The patterns of behavior are, for the most part, dysfunctional or maladaptive coping strategies designed unconsciously as defensive mechanisms to prevent being wounded again.

An example of psychodynamics at play would be an exchange between spouses in which a dynamic that resembles some unconsciously remembered childhood conflict with a parent. For a moment, at least, the couple forgets who they are actually talking to, and a defensive mechanism is activated that leads to further conflict. In couples therapy, one of the first questions that I ask if a conflict arises during a session is, "Does this feel familiar to you?" Often the response will be that it was an experience they had as a child in their family of origin (the word "familiar" has same etymological roots as "family").

So at some time in our life, something happened that caused a psychic wound. In the example of the couple in conflict, even though the time, circumstances, location, and people are now completely different, the mind perceives that the original dynamic exchange is taking place right now. In fact, it's not unusual during these conflicts for someone to ask, "Who do you think you're talking to?" It's a question that should be taken literally rather than rhetorically, and it can lead to some enlightening answers.

Mindfulness can be brought to bear on these situations resulting in the unconscious becoming known. With a partner who is also able to utilize some amount of mindful awareness, this can lead to the ability for a couple to heal their psychic wounds together. Rather than operating on reflex reactions to the inevitable conflicts that arise in a relationship, they can take a moment, return to the present moment though the senses, such as the feeling of the breath, and then examine the exchange as a dynamic process rather than as a life or death struggle.

This way of working as a couple not only reduces the anger quotient in a conflict situation, which in turn reduces suffering, but can also lead to a repair of hurt feelings through a sense of light-heartedness that can spontaneously arise. The situation can be seen as more of a humorous disagreement, rather than as a serious fight. Early in my relationship with Kathy, for example, we discovered many familiar familial dynamics during our own moments of conflict. One day, Kathy bought us both custom-made t-shirts that read, "I AM NOT YOUR MOTHER." When we wore these together, it became obvious just who were were talking to.