Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Learning to Meditate is Like Learning a New Language

The actual practice of vipassana (insight/mindfulness) meditation is a lot like practicing fluency exercises when we are trying to learn a new language, or like practicing scales when learning a musical instrument. The idea is not to become proficient at the exercises, but to be able to play the instrument or speak the language out in the world of day-to-day living.

So we get the body into a position that is 1) comfortable, and 2) alert and awake. Once we find this sitting posture, we often close the eyes gently (although you can also do this with eyes open and unfocused), and then bring the attention to the feeling of the body breathing itself. Of course, the mind will wander constantly, so we just constantly bring the attention back to the feeling of the breath.

A word about the wandering mind: it is as much a component of vipassana practice as is the feeling of the breath. Without the wandering mind experience, we would not be able to make the choice to return the attention back to the breath. Making this kind of choice indicates that we have awakened and are exercising our volition to stay present. One of my teachers, Christopher Titmus, once said that "it is easier to walk on the Sea of Galilee than to feel three complete breaths!" So don't let the wandering mind become an obstacle to your practice. Rather, it is a doorway toward awakening.

Once the mind is gathered and collected a bit more fully in the present moment due to the attention on the present-moment experience of the breath, we can perhaps sustain attention on sense objects that arise during the practice. An itch arises on the nose and we notice 1) an arising sense experience in the body, 2) that it is unpleasant, 3) the perception that the feeling is, indeed, an itch, 4) that we can stay present with this sensation without needing to get rid of it, and 5) conscious awareness of how the itch gets stronger, how it eventually goes away on its own, and how the mind reacts to the entire experience.

And so it goes. Every experience that arises and makes sense contact can be investigated in this way. When we feel ourselves getting lost or wandering again, we simply return the attention back to the feeling of the breath. This will help recharge our sense of mindful awareness.

Once we have practiced these "fluency exercises" enough, we begin to notice the same experiences occurring in our daily life. A feeling arises in the body, perhaps a strong emotion, and we can be present with it without needing to get rid of it because we know it will pass in time, just like the itch. If the feelings are particularly strong and unpleasant, we can use the sensation of the emotion as an object of attention. When the mind comes to rest in this kind of present-moment sensory reality, the thought that precipitated the emotion tends to drop away and lose its power.

This is radical way to greet our emotions, which we have become conditioned into believing are powerful things that can actually hurt us. When we see them as merely arising, abiding, and subsiding events in the body, they lose a lot of their power, and we can begin to relate differently to them, rather than reacting from them.To gain this kind of fluency in daily-life, however, we must practice on the cushion.


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Dharma of Physics

In teaching, the Buddha never spoke of humans as persons existing in some fixed or static way. Instead, he described us as a collection of five changing processes: the processes of the physical body, of feelings, of perceptions, of responses, and of the flow of consciousness that experiences them all. Our sense of self arises whenever we grasp at or identify with these patterns. The process of identification, of selecting patterns to call "I," "me," "myself," is subtle and usually hidden from our awareness.
~ Jack Kornfield
Subatomic particles are not made of any material stuff; they are patterns of energy. Energy, however, is associated with activity, with processes, and this implies that the nature of the subatomic particles is intrinsicly dynamic. When we observe them, we never see any substance, nor any fundamental structure. What we observe are dynamic patterns continually changing into one another.

~ Dr. Fritjof Capra, The Tao Of Physics, Third Edition, 1991, Pp 362 

Monday, June 28, 2010

Friends and Family

A few months ago, I met a woman named Marci, who was in Los Angeles to help support her sister who was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. Her sister is a close friend of mine, and I was giving Marci a ride to LAX while she told me a little bit about her life. "I'm 67 years old," she said, although she didn't look or act nearly that age, "And I've decided to set a new goal for my life. I'm going to reconnect with as many of my family and friends as I can, as often as I can."

That really affected me. I had been on the fence about going to the wedding of the daughter of some old friends of mine in Kansas City, and that settled the matter: I came home that afternoon and made my reservations. Later this summer, Kathy and I are traveling to Seattle, Washington and Anchorage, Alaska for two more weddings - one for a colleague, the other for a cousin. 

Having gone through my own wedding a year ago, and seeing so many wonderful old friends and reuniting with my family after years of separation, I can tell you how much it means to show up at these things. Beyond that, however, there is the ever-present fact that, in the not-to-distant future, the events that will bring us together will not be happy and joyous. These gatherings will be full of sorrow and loss, or the reunions may take place at hospitals and bedsides for final goodbyes through tears of sadness and pain.

And so, like Marci, I have decided that the next chapter of my life will be about reconnecting with the people who have made my life what it is today. To see and touch those dear friends and relations who have been an integral part of the dharma of interdpendent causes and conditions that brought me to this point. Going back to Kansas this past weekend for Emily Tamblyn's wedding was a good beginning.

From the Prajnaparamita (The Heart Sutra):
Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn,
A bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A rainbow, an echo, a phantom,
A dream.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Abhidhamma, Part 1

I am currently living with an amazing book called Abhidhamma Studies: Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time by the Venerable Nyanaponika Thera. Here is an excerpt:
Study of the Abhidhamma will more broadly assist in the slow, difficult change of outlook from the viewpoint of "self" to that of "non-self." Once one has grasped intellectually the doctrine of non-self, one can certainly succeed in applying it to theoretical and practical issues if only one remembers it in time and deliberately directs one's thoughts and volitions accordingly. But except for such deliberate directing of thought, which in most cases will be relatively rare, the mind will continue to move in the old-accustomed ruts of "I" and "mine," "self" and "substance," which are deeply ingrained in our daily language and our modes of thinking; and our actions too will still continue to be frequently governed by our ancient egocentric impulses. An occasional intellectual assent to the true outlook of anatta will not effect great changes in that situation. The only remedy is for bad or wrong habits of action, speech, and thought to be gradually replaced by good and correct habits until the latter become as spontaneous as the former are now. It is therefore necessary that right thinking, that is, thinking in terms of anatta, be made the subject of regular and systematic mental training until the power of wrong habits of thought is reduced and finally broken (pp. 9-10).
After reading this passage while on a plane flight back to L.A. from Kansas City, I sat in meditation (on the plane) for ninety minutes, penetrating the first teachings of the Abhidhamma. It was a profoundly insightful experience that I am not quite able to talk about right now due to exhaustion, but I will follow up in the next few days with more.



Saturday, June 26, 2010

Home Again

By Billy Collins
The black porcelain lamp
painted with boughs of cherry blossoms
still stands on its end table,
unlit, the little chain untouched,
just the way I left it,

just the way it remained while I was off
leaning into the prow of a boat,
doused with spray, heading for a limestone island,
or sitting at the base of a high Celtic cross
eating a green apple.

While I balanced a pan of hot water on a stone wall
and shaved outside a cottage
overlooking the Irish Sea,
this stack of books, this chair, and paperweight
were utterly still, as they are now.

And you, red box of matches on the floor,
you waited here too, faithful as Penelope,
while I saw the tiny fields
disappear under the wing of my plane,
or swam up and down the flowing Corrib River.

As I lay in a meadow near Ballyvaughan,
ankles crossed, arms behind my head,
watching clouds as they rolled in-
billowing, massive, Atlantic-fresh-

you all held your places in these rooms,
stuck to your knitting,
waited for me to stand here again,
bags at my feet, house key still in hand,
admiring your constancy,
your silent fealty, your steadfast repose.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Dharma of Emily

Today I am in the land of my birth, Kansas City. I am here to celebrate the wedding of Emily Claire Tamblyn to Garrett Alan Gottschalk. Emily is the daughter of my former college roommate, Jeff Tamblyn, and his wife of 30 years, Linda.

What I want to relate in this posting, however, is an event that took place about twenty-five years ago, when Emily was two years old. Around Christmas of 1984/85, I was visiting my parents at their home in Lenexa, Kansas, a suburb of K.C., and Jeff, Linda, Emily, and their newborn daughter, Sophie, dropped by to see us. Emily became bored with the adult conversation, and her folks were distracted by her little sister, so Emily decided to explore around my parent's house. Her exploration included going out the sliding back door to a pool in our backyard.

Being the dead of winter, there was a cover over the pool, and Emily remembers that she thought it was a layer of ice, and she took a step onto it, fully expecting that it would support her weight with no problem. In reality, she slid right into the frigid water, and completely submerged, looked up to see the pool cover replace itself over her head as she sank deeper.

I cannot imagine the terror she must have felt in that moment. A moment later, however, a strong pair of hands reached into the water and pulled her out. It was my father. He was a veteran of having children and grandchildren and knew all too well that a curious two year-old and a pool can lead to disaster, so he had quietly followed Emily out of the house and when he saw the pool cover moving, knew what had happened and acted quickly.

He actually had to remove water from her next to the pool, and when she was breathing normally, he brought her inside. The sight of my father holding this shivering child in obvious shock was electrifying. We rushed to get warm towels and to get her out of her freezing clothes. But she was all right.

Had my father not followed his instincts and gone outside at that moment, or if he had not noticed that the pool had been disturbed, she would most likely have drowned. And so, tomorrow, Emily will be married. I wish my dad were still alive to share this moment with her. 

Such is the dharma of interdependent co-arising: this happens because that happened, and this ceases because that ceases. So many miracles take place in a lifetime, and if one element is missing, the lifetime can cease in a moment. Take a moment, if you will, and contemplate all of the miraculous events that led you to this moment, the culmination of your life.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Least Effort

In The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, Deepak Chopra says that one of the laws of nature is the Law of Least Effort. In his words, "This law is based on the fact that nature's intelligence functions with effortless ease and abandoned carefreeness." He goes on to observe that "Grass doesn't try to grow, it just grows. Fish don't try to swim, they just swim. Flowers don't try to bloom, they bloom," and so forth.

There are three components for putting the Law of Least Effort into action. The first component is acceptance. This means accepting that "this moment is as it should be, because the whole world is as it should be." It may not be the way we want it to be, but since this moment is the culmination of every moment before it, when we struggle against this moment, we are actually struggling against the entire universe.

The second component is responsibility. Chopra defines this as "not blaming anyone or anything for your situation, including yourself." By taking responsibility, we can turn obstacles and upsetting situations into opportunities for growth and beauty, and tormentors and tyrants become our teachers.

The third component of the Law of Least Effort is defenselessness. This means that "you have relinquished the need to convince or persuade others of your point of view," something that we spend a great deal of time and energy doing all the time. Being defensive means that you are resisting something, and when you put resistance against an object, you get more resistance back. Chopra suggests that, rather than being like the mighty oak that breaks in the storm, that you take on the characteristics of a reed that is flexible and bends easily with the wind.

It is helpful, of course, if you are rooted in the present moment, rather than predicting the future or ruminating about the past. That's one more reason why a practice of mindfulness meditation can be helpful in reducing our suffering. Or as Dr. Chopra says, "The past is history, the future is a mystery, and this moment is a gift. That is why this moment is called 'the present'."


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Make Haste Slowly

I first heard this expression from a Spirit Rock teacher named Mary Orr. She was describing how to move during a retreat, and that even though we might need to get from one place to another quickly, we can still maintain a mindful awareness of our actions.

At home, no matter how hard I try to manage my day, I sometimes back myself up into a corner time-wise. Pretty soon, I find that I am sprinting from one room to another, hurtling over Sam the dog or one of the children along the way. And almost inevitably, I drop things, forget things, or make mistakes that I would normally not make if I were moving more slowly. When I rush around like this, it even seems like inanimate objects are conspiring against me. My computer takes forever to shut down, or my keys mysteriously misplace themselves. In some cases, my speed costs me more time when I realize after leaving the door that, in my haste, I've forgotten something and have to double back.

So when the urge to rush takes over, I try to remember to slow things down, moving as efficiently as I can, but not with a lot of speed. This sets up a natural flow of things and I can move more easily through the transition times of leaving the house, arriving at the office, or getting to class (often with an armload of meditation cushions).

Naturally, applying haste without speed also leads to a bit of a reduction in tension, which makes me, and everyone around me, much happier.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Brahma Viharas: A Metaphor

The Brahma Viharas, or "divine abodes" that are the natural outgrowths of vipassana practice are Loving Kindness, Compassion, Appreciative Joy, and Equanimity. These qualities were discussed a bit in my 6/12/10 blog.

A teacher named DeaJa Napier has a beautiful way of describing these qualities by using the metaphor of a mother and her child. I am indebted to Eileen McClintock for passing this useful teaching along to me.

Loving Kindness (metta) relates to the mother and the newborn child. It is a sweetness of connection that is without conditions - a nurturing, attentive love.

Compassion (karuna) shows the mother and child when the child is ill or not being cute and sweet. When Loving Kindness meets suffering, there is compassion, and the child is suffering for some reason. Still, the mother is staying present with the same kind of affection as with metta when things are not pleasant.

Appreciative Joy (mudita) occurs for the mother when the child experiences joy in life that is separate from her. The mother can appreciate the joy of the child without envy.

Equanimity (upekka) relates to the child growing up and leaving home to be on his or her own.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith

By Mary Oliver
Every summer
I listen and look
under the sun's brass and even
into the moonlight, but I can't hear

anything, I can't see anything --
not the pale roots digging down, nor the green
stalks muscling up,
nor the leaves
deepening their damp pleats,

nor the tassels making,
nor the shucks, nor the cobs.
And still,
every day,

the leafy fields
grow taller and thicker --
green gowns lofting up in the night,
showered with silk.

And so, every summer,
I fail as a witness, seeing nothing --
I am deaf too
to the tick of the leaves,

the tapping of downwardness from the banyan feet --
all of it
beyond any seeable proof, or hearable hum.

And, therefore, let the immeasurable come.
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.
Let the wind turn in the trees,
and the mystery hidden in the dirt

swing through the air.
How could I look at anything in this world
and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?
What should I fear?

One morning
in the leafy green ocean
the honeycomb of the corn's beautiful body
is sure to be there.
Blessings on the Summer Solstice!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Daddy Dharma

Today is Father's Day, and it's a good time to reflect on the choice I, and my son's mother, made to have a child nearly twenty-two years ago. We had been discussing it for some time before hand, and it seemed that we always deferred it ahead "a couple more years." Finally, with the two of us in our mid-thirties, a couple more years was no longer as viable an option. 

Also, at the time we had decided to attempt a pregnancy, my mother was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, adding, for me at least, new urgency to the issue. My thinking was something along the lines of, "Maybe it will give her something to live for." Unfortunately, this was magical thinking on my part, since she died about halfway through the pregnancy.

I don't know if every parent questions at some point exactly why they decided to have children, but I certainly have. In his early years I was too busy and involved with Zach to ponder the reasoning behind it. When he got to his mid-teen years, however, it became an ongoing point of reflection and contemplation. The stresses of finances, school, college admission, dating relationship turmoil, and other day-to-day life challenges were taking their toll. Then came the Big Schism where he decided to break away from me and live exclusively with his mother. There were even a couple of months when we did not speak to each other. I never regretted becoming a dad, but I began to ask myself, "Now, why exactly did I think it would be a good idea to have kids?"

Then, one day, while doing the dishes and mulling this question over yet another time, it came to me: I had a child so that I could evolve. I looked back at my life as I remembered it B.C. (Before Child), and I shuttered to think that I might still be that kind of person if I had not had the growth-inducing experiences that parenthood provides. I considered my childless friends, all of them in their early fifties and beyond, and saw that they did not have the same quality of growth with which I had been blessed. So the answer was, I did it for me.

In short, becoming a father helped me to become a man. The responsibilities of parenthood, while sometimes daunting, are the catalysts for growth. Nobody can push my hot buttons the way my son can, and this has offered me the opportunity to seek ways of making more effective and skillful choices in my words and actions, rather than always following the habitual tendencies of my reactive mind. Being a dad has given me something that I have been forced to rub up against so that my sharp edges have grown softer.

I think it was Jon Kabat-Zinn who said that children are like little Zen masters who are dropped into our lives as our toughest teachers. I would have to agree. So to all of you fathers out there, take heart, we all have the capacity to awaken at any moment and become enlightened. And when these moments of enlightenment come, thank your children.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Teen Dharma

After the sangha tonight, one of the longtime participants approached me with an idea to write a book about the dharma of being a teenager. Much of her insight was based on the graduation ceremony we both attended at the middle school where her daughter and my stepson were students. 

There were several kids who gave speeches, and they were as self-possessed as you can possibly imagine a person being, no matter what their age. Then there was the vast majority of the other students who deal with mortifying shyness, low self-esteem, crises of confidence, and just plain suffering as they continually want things to be other than the way they are.

I can remember being fourteen, and it was torture. I can vividly recall the feeling that everyone was watching me, and that my every move and every word were being harshly judged by my peers. My parents had by now been relegated to deep background. They could drive me to a dance or party, but that was it - no coming into the house to meet the other parents, and no loitering to make sure I made it into the school gymnasium safely.

I suppose not all kids that age feel the way I did, but I know a lot of them do. They are poster children, if you will, for how the mind creates its own suffering through the stories it weaves about the world. They are perfect examples of how taking things personally, even things that have nothing to do with them, leads to clinging and aversion and thus even more suffering. 

It is a syndrome many of us never really outgrow. These outworn and useless habits of mind continue to cause us to suffer even into old age. I don't know how qualified I would be to write a book on the subject of adapting the Dharma to help kids deal with their world more effectively. However, it is really the same thing that I am helping adults deal with in every teaching setting I have. 

Perhaps because these habits of mind have been with us for so long, we have difficulty letting them go. They are like old friends. So the next time you encounter one of these old feelings that have led you to a place of suffering, see if you can gently, lovingly, and compassionately, tell the mind that it's time to stop thinking this way. Come back to a present-moment sensory reality, such as the feeling of the breath, and let the old, old thought go. I guess we all have to graduate sometime.


Friday, June 18, 2010

The Heart's Release

The Buddha promised that all of the Dharma leads to one destination: "The sure heart's release." This afternoon I experienced such a release.

For the past few weeks, I have been enjoying an intense practice of metta, or loving kindness. Along with the traditional phrases of loving kindness practice, I have been utilizing my own. "May my heart be free of hatred, anger, and ill will." "May my heart be free of unwholesome desires." "May my heart be free of fear." Today, while negotiating very slow traffic on the West Side, I was saying my metta phrases, when I simply left off the specifics. "May my heart be free..." "May my heart be free..." "May my heart be free..." And in that moment, my heart was free.

Time was inconsequential. The snail's pace of the traffic was meaningless to me. I was on a love cloud. I spoke randomly to people in elevators. I went into a large camera store to buy some binoculars and it seemed that everyone with whom I made eye contact was affected by my open heart. I was met with toothy grins at every turn.

I'm still feeling the high, and it is wonderful. I know, however, that the heart must open and close in order to do its job. It may not always be this way for me. Buttons will be pushed that will trigger reactive states of mind. I will become vulnerable to anger, frustration, desire, and so forth based on physical factors, such as fatigue or hunger. Yet, the experience of the heart's release is always possible; always available.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Universe in a Tea Cup

From Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha, by Thich Nhat Hanh.
The Buddha lifted the bowl and then looked at Ananda. "Ananda, among the interwoven elements that have given rise to the bowl, do you see water?"
     "Yes, Lord. Without water, the potter would not have been able to mix the clay he used to fashion the bowl."
     "Just so, Ananda. Looking deeply, we can see the presence of water in the bowl, even though we earlier stated that it is empty of water. The presence of the bowl depends on the presence of water. Ananda, can you see the fire element in this bowl?"
     "Yes, Lord. Fire was necessary to complete the bowl. Looking deeply, I can see the presence of heat and fire in the bowl."
     "What else can you see?"
     "I see the air. Without air, the fire could not have burned and the potter could not have lived. I see the potter and his skillful hands. I see his consciousness. I see the kiln and the wood stacked in the kiln. I see the trees the wood came from. I see the rain, sun, and earth which enabled the trees to grow. Lord, I can see thousands of interpenetrating elements which gave rise to this bowl."
     "Excellent, Ananda! Contemplating the bowl, it is possible to see the interdependent elements which gave rise to the bowl. Ananda, these elements are present within and without the bowl. Your own awareness is one of the elements. If you took away heat and returned it to the sun, if you returned the clay to the earth and the water to the river, if you returned the potter to his parents and the wood to the forest trees, could the bowl still exist?"
     "Lord, the bowl could no longer exist. If you returned the interdependent elements which gave rise to the bowl to their sources, the bowl would not longer be present..."
     "Bikkhus, look deeply at this bowl, and you can see the entire universe. This bowl contains the entire universe" (pp. 439 - 441).


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bowing to the Flowers

On my walk with Sam, our goofball Golden Doodle, I felt weightless. Earlier, I had practiced a particularly open-hearted metta (loving kindness) practice, and armed with new insights about the abode of sympathetic joy, the world seemed new, fresh, clean, and sweet.

It is not always like this with metta practice, however. Sometimes, the heart is frozen, or encased behind brick masonry, or a band of pain grips my chest. Guy Armstrong once said that this is because, in the work the heart does, it very naturally opens and closes; opens and closes. It is this way with metta practice, as well. But on this particular morning, my heart felt free and limitless as I stepped out with Sam to reconnoiter the neighborhood.

It's late spring, and of course that means that everything that has strength to blossom is bursting forth with color and fragrance. I found myself stopping almost as much as Sam does to admire a hedge of jasmine, or to gaze upward at the clouds through the lavender dapples of a jacaranda tree. Then there are the roses. Each one a new sensory experience of seeing and smelling. 

As I went from flower to flower, I found that many times I was forced to bow down to get close to the buds. It reminded me of a story Jack Kornfield has told about his early days in the monasteries of Southeast Asia. When he first arrived at the monastery led by his main teacher, Ajahn Chah, he was told that he had to bow to any monk who was senior to him, meaning anyone who had been ordained before he was. That meant he had to bow to the teenager whose family had sent him to live there because they couldn't feed all their kids. Or he had to bow to the old retired farmer who didn't give a hoot about the Dharma, but just sat around all day eating beetle nut. 

Jack said he was really frustrated about this for a while. Then he decided to give the practice a chance and see what would happen if he followed these instructions to the letter. Soon, he really got into the whole bowing thing. He found himself, not just bowing to his elders, but to any monk or person he saw. He bowed to the trees, to his sleeping mat, to his begging bowl, to the water bucket. Soon, he says, "If it moved, I bowed to it."

What he found by practicing in this way, he was welcoming each person or thing he bowed to, inviting them into his life. In his book, After the Ecstasy the Laundry, he said it this way:
We can bow to both beauty and suffering, to our entanglements and confusion, to our fears and to the injustices of the world. Honoring the truth in this way is the path to freedom. To bow to what is rather than to some ideal is not necessarily easy, but however difficult, it is one of the most useful and honorable practices. 

To bow to the fact of our life's sorrows and betrayals is to accept them; and from this deep gesture we discover that all life is workable. A s we learn to bow, we discover that the heart holds more freedom and compassion than we could imagine.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Tao Of No Self

Translation by Taoist Master Ni, Hua Ching
Favor and disgrace are both the cause of shock.
Truly, the greatest trouble is that people value 
     their own individual self.

What is meant by saying that favor and disgrace 
     are both the cause of shock?
Favor is not higher (than disgrace).
When one is favored, one is shocked.
When one is disgraced, one is also shocked.

What is meant by saying that tghe greatest 
     trouble is that people value their own 
     individual self?
People are beset with the great trouble because
     they assert that there is an individual self.
If they take nothing personally, then what
     can they call trouble?
Therefore, only one who dedicates himself
     to serve the world is fit to tend the world.
Only one who relinquishes the self can be
     entrusted with the responsibility for the world.


Monday, June 14, 2010

The Jacaranda Trees

Every June, the jacaranda trees spring to life in Southern California. The vision of their lavender petals against the background of deep green fern-like leaves is so dramatic that it compels me to stop and pay attention.

This morning, while driving my youngest stepson to first day of his last week of middle school, the streets were so subsumed by blooming jacaranda that it looked as though there had been a lavender snowfall during the night. The trees themselves had been coated with the colorful snow, while the ground and the cars beneath the trees also had a light covering of the achingly beautiful flowers.

I love these experiences of the seasons, when the world has opened into a newness of extraordinary sensual beauty. These kinds of visions allow me to see my everyday surroundings with fresh eyes, as though for the first time. As I seek out new and even more dramatic vistas while I walk or drive through the jacaranda, I find that I am making myself available for the unexpected. For instance, around the corner from our house, there is a jacaranda tree with a vine of blood-red bougainvillea blossoms twining around it. The color combination is almost jaw-dropping.

All this comes back to the magic that is ours when we are present with life as it is being lived. When we stop for a moment, and become aware of the beauty around us in this moment, we are stepping into mindfulness, which has been called the "Abode of the Buddhas." We are awakening from our autopilot drowsiness, and opening to all that this moment has to offer us.

The bloom of a jacaranda tree is truly precious, as well, because it is so impermanent. This wild extravaganza of color will only be with us for another week or so, and then all the flowers will have dropped, and the lush green of the tree will unfold completely. Yet it is the transient nature of this experience that makes it so special and wonderful. The seasons of our own lives have this same quality. We can taste the bloom of the present moment any time we decide to pay attention, and the richness that we experience from this simple act of paying attention will last long after the bloom has faded.



Sunday, June 13, 2010

Another Perspective on the Near Enemies

From Hafiz:
Learn to recognize the counterfeit coins
That may buy you just a moment of pleasure,
But then drag you for days
Like a broken man
Behind a farting camel.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Near Enemies

This past week, I started a new mindfulness study and discussion group, and our theme is how to cultivate loving kindness and compassion in daily life in order to reduce our suffering. One aspect of these attributes that I am interested in exploring is their "shadow" side.

It is said that meditation practice deepens us naturally into the experience of the the four Brahma-Viharas or "sublime abodes." These are Loving Kindness (metta), Sympathetic Joy (mudita), Compassion (karuna), and Equanimity (upekkha). Each of these qualities has a shadow side, which are known as the "near enemies." Near enemies resemble the actual Brahma-Viharas, but they are not them exactly. There are also "far enemies" of each abode, which are the opposite of the original quality.

The near enemy of Loving Kindness is attached love. This can take the form of a romantic relationship that is based on dysfunctional co-dependence, or upon lust and desire. As long as we are getting what we want from the relationship, we feel the love. This can also be called "conditional love" - it is affection with strings attached. The far enemy of Loving Kindness is hatred or ill-will.

Compassion's near enemy is pity. When we feel compassion for someone, we hold them close to us, much as we would comfort a small child who is hurt or frightened and has come to us for soothing. Pity, on the other hand, suggests a distancing of ourselves from another; of not seeing them as connected to us in any way but as an object that we need to keep separate from. The far enemy of Compassion is cruelty.

The near enemy of Sympathetic Joy (or happiness derived from seeing the joy of others) is selfish exuberance. This near enemy has a kind of manic quality of clinging to something that is making us happy in the moment. The far enemy would be envy or jealousy, but also schadenfreude, or taking joy in the misfortune of others (see 3/13/10 blog).

Equanimity is the ability to dwell equally with pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame, or fame and disrepute. It means that we are able to move equally in both directions as the need arises, without clinging and aversion toward one or the other polarity. Equanimity's near enemy is indifference. Instead of releasing attachment to a preference of how we want things to be (Equanimity), when we are indifferent we are detached from the way things are. It is the quality of apathy that pretends not to care. The far enemy of Equanimity is restlessness or agitation, as we cling desperately to the way we want things to be, or try to push away the things we don't want.

In all cases of the near and far enemies, we are coming up against clinging and aversion, which are the roots of suffering. In order to eradicate suffering, you must destroy it at the roots, and the cultivation of the Brahma-Viharas is a wonderful way to do this. Loving Kindness, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity cannot exist in an atmosphere of clinging and aversion. Conversely, releasing grasping and abandoning aversion are sure-fire antidotes to the near and far enemies.

In your practice, and your daily life, be on the look out for the enemies, both near and far. They can take subtle forms, but if there is a hint of clinging and aversion, you can be sure they are present. 



Friday, June 11, 2010

Poem for a Garden

by Thomas Merton
A yellow flower
(Light and spirit)
Sings by itself
For nobody.

A golden spirit
(Light and emptiness)
Sings without a word
By itself.
From Thomas Merton's Poetry: Emblems of a Sacred Season


Thursday, June 10, 2010

On Becoming a Buddha, Part 2

In yesterday's blog, I illustrated how we all have the capacity to awaken, or become a "buddha," at any time that we become present. This can be as simple as returning to the feeling of the breath whenever the mind wanders in our formal practice, or by returning to a present-moment sensory reality in our day-to-day life. In today's blog, I will continue this exploration by suggesting what to do after you return to the present moment in your daily life.

If you are going to become a buddha, you should utilize the teachings of the Buddha when you return to the present moment. For example, if you are caught up in a state of anger, this is a moment of suffering. When you become aware of that experience, it is like waking up to the wandering mind in meditation. "Wow! I'm really angry at this person!" might be what you say to yourself. 

Now that you've awakened, you can move into how anger feels inside your body. Where is it located? What is its shape? Its temperature? Investigating the qualities of anger as a physical sensation gets you out of the story of the anger, and transforms it into simply another present moment experience that has arisen.

The antidote to anger is loving kindness. You can repeat phrases from the loving kindness meditation, such as "May I be peaceful." Or perhaps, "May I be free from anger and filled with feelings of loving kindness." These phrases may sound silly to us now, and may sound ridiculous in the heat of the moment, however they can be powerful allies in reducing the sense of constriction that anger often brings with it, and changing the feeling to one of spaciousness and calm. Now we can make other choices. Rather than continue with the course of anger and hatred, we can perhaps move into a space of compassion for the other person, and for ourselves.

Loving kindness means that we have to open our tight, grasping fist, because loving kindness cannot exist in an atmosphere of clinging and aversion. Indeed, if you think you love someone, but then you become angry with them for not satisfying your needs in some way, this is not loving kindness, but its "near enemy," attached affection. I will explain more about the near enemies in a later blog, but suffice it to say that whenever you open the fist, you relieve your suffering and the suffering of those around you.

I suppose the big message here is that, if you are going to engage in Dharma practice, you need to become familiar with the Dharma. Listening to recordings of Dharma talks is a great way to learn. I would highly recommend downloading Dharma talks from Dharma Seed, a wonderful organization that has made instructive talks on the teachings of the Buddha available to download for a donation. Their web address is




Wednesday, June 9, 2010

On Becoming a Buddha

One of the most beautiful teachings of the Dharma has to be the Three Refuges (also known as The Three Jewels). The first of the Refuges is the Buddha, not the man, but rather the capacity within all of us to awaken.

It is very simple to awaken, but as it is often said about these practices, it is not easy. Actually, you become a Buddha every time you become aware that the mind has wandered during your meditation practice. This is a moment of awakening, a moment when we have switched off the "autopilot," and become aware of what is happening while it happens.

For a while, at least, you dwell in mindfulness, which is considered "the abode of the Buddhas." Then of course, the mind wanders again, and we have yet another opportunity to awaken to the experience. 

During your day, you have twenty-four hours in which to become a Buddha whenever you become mindful. Every time you notice that you are in the grips of some habitual reaction to a person or situation and return to a present-moment sensory reality, such as the breath, you are a Buddha. It doesn't mean that you have to plop down into full lotus posture and meditate, it simply means that you are now a bit more aware than you were a few moments ago. Freedom beckons you, if you choose to accept the invitation. You now have choices of more skillful and effective responses to things, so you are no longer held prisoner by old habits of mind.

Tomorrow I will discuss a little bit more about what you can do when you when you have these moments of awakening.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Diaphragmatic Breathing

I used to see a therapist who would stop me in the middle of a sentence when I started to get agitated, and remind me to breathe into my abdomen. Sometimes, this was a welcome intrusion, sometimes it could be annoying (after all, I was paying good money for this session and the idea of stopping for a minute until my breathing was regulated bothered me a bit). She was right, of course. My mind got a lot clearer and my ability to deal with my emotions improved whenever I remembered to breathe into my belly.

Abdominal, or diaphragmatic breathing is an easy and effective way to reduce our stress almost instantly. When faced with an external stressor, we tend to breathe in shallow breaths in our chest (thoracic breathing). This is a signal to the nervous system that there is danger afoot, and breathing in this way can engage the flight, fight, or freeze response in the brain. Diaphragmatic breathing, on the other hand, engages the relaxation response, sending a signal to the nervous system that in this moment everything is just fine.

Try to be mindful of how you are breathing today. Pay particular attention to those times when you find yourself breathing in the chest, and consciously allow the breath to drop down into your belly. Let the abdomen expand gently with the inhale, and recede gently with the exhale. Be on the lookout for thoracic breathing when you are in stressful or anxiety-provoking situations. You may be surprised how often you are breathing into the chest. After you become aware of this and move the breath into the abdomen, notice the response of the body and mind. 


Monday, June 7, 2010

Ovid's Metamorphoses (1st Century C.E.)

Nothing in the entire universe ever perishes, believe me, but things vary, and adopt a new form. The phrase "being born" is used for beginning to be something different from what one was before, while "dying" means ceasing to be the same. Though this thing may pass into that, and that into this, yet the sum of things remains unchanged.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Yogi Mind

During silent meditation retreats, especially longer ones of ten days or more, it is not uncommon to encounter an experience that is sometimes referred to as "yogi mind." Among other things, it describes how we jump to conclusions based on little or no information about other people on the retreat with us.

In daily life, our mind goes into habitual reactions to whatever stimulus is currently present. We may unconsciously imagine things about people we are in relationship with that have nothing to do with reality. When we are on long silent retreats, this experience is heightened because in our hyper-mindful state of mind, we become more acutely aware of it.

Jack Kornfield spoke about yogi mind once, and said that there are two main expressions of it. One he called the "Vipassana Romance." This is when you become interested in or attracted to someone at the retreat, and even though you've never spoken to them, or even looked them in eye, you begin to create possible futures with them. Not only that, but you become convinced that they are thinking the same thing about you. Your mind begins to think things like, "Maybe after the retreat is over we could do some meditating together. Or maybe we could do more than just meditate..."

Yogi mind like this can lead to unforeseen, and potentially embarrassing complications. I heard a story once about a certain Vipassana Romance in which a man had to leave the retreat early, but was positive that a woman he had become attracted to was interested in him as well. Before he left, he slipped a note into her shoe with his address in the San Francisco Bay area, inviting her to stop by after she had finished the retreat. The next day, when the man answered a knock at his door, there stood a woman he'd never seen before. Apparently he'd placed the note in the wrong shoe.

The flip side to the Vipassana Romance is the "Vipassana Vendetta." In this case, we can become overly annoyed by someone at a retreat, and again, even though we've never met this person, everything they do is wrong. They eat wrong. They breathe wrong. They sit wrong. They walk wrong. They're just WRONG.

As in our daily life stories, we cannot trust the yogi mind experience to be accurate. On a retreat in 2003, my roommate arrived after we had entered into silence, and in keeping with protocol, we did not talk or make eye contact, even though we were sleeping less than five feet from each other. The morning after he arrived, however, I couldn't help but take a peek at him. He was a diminutive Asian man who moved very mindfully in my peripheral vision. He even seemed to sleep mindfully. I began to think he was a Zen master, and so I was sure to do everything very mindfully whenever I was in his presence. 

When the retreat was over and we broke silence, my roommate and I finally spoke. He was not a Zen roshi after all, but a sculptor. Then he told me that he thought that I must have been an "important teacher" because on this particular retreat, I was a practice leader for several sittings. "When I saw you up there," he said, "I got very nervous. So from then on I was sure to be on my best behavior!"


Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Goal of Meditation

There is a famous story about something that happened to the Buddha just after his enlightenment. He was wandering around India, when he encountered several travelers on the road. They were amazed by his sense of peace and ease, and they asked him, "Are you a god?" "No," replied the Buddha. "Are you a sorcerer?" "No," he answered. "Are you a demon?" "No," said the Buddha. "Well, then, are you a man?" "No," came the answer again. "So what are you?" they demanded. The Buddha replied, "I am awake."

At another time in his life, the Buddha was asked to explain himself and his teachings. He said, "I teach about suffering and the end of suffering." Obviously there must be some relationship to being awake and the diminishing of suffering in our lives. Both of these things are the goals of vipassana, or mindfulness meditation.

In our daily lives we are often not awake. We operate on automatic pilot mode most of the time, not really aware of what our mind is doing. This allows the mind to engage in habitual tendencies, or outmoded and ineffective way of dealing with situations as they arise. We are unconscious, almost as though we were sleepwalking through life. Because of this unconsciousness, we are like prisoners of our mind's habits of thought. These habit patterns can lead to suffering when the mind fixates or ruminates about the past or the future, or makes up stories about people and things that have no basis in reality.

In vipassana practice,we never try to control the mind or our thoughts. Instead, we make a choice to pay attention to the feeling of the breath as a present-moment sensory reality. Inevitably, the mind will wander - usually to a fantasy about the future or a memory of the past. This wandering mind is very much like the automatic pilot mind in daily life: we have essentially gone unconscious. When we become aware that the mind has wandered, that means that we have awakened. "Buddha" means "awakened one," so this shift of awareness means that we have become a Buddha ourselves.

After we have awakened to the wandering mind, we then make the choice bring the attention back to the feeling of the breath, and back to the present moment reality. We make this choice over and over and over again. Soon, we can become more attuned to those times when we go unconscious in our daily life (which signals a moment of awakening), and then we don't have to follow the habitual tendency of the mind because we are free to make other choices.

When we know we have choice, and when we exercise the right to choose, we are free from the old habitual patterns. Our choices become more effective, and we suffer less.


Friday, June 4, 2010

Satisfaction (Not) Guaranteed

The First Noble Truth - the Truth of Suffering - explains that nothing that we can ever attain in this world will bring us lasting satisfaction. It identifies this unsatisfactoriness as "dukkha." If nothing that we can find will satisfy us, can this also be a truth about our meditation practice? In some ways, I believe this is the case.

When we practice vipassana, or mindfulness meditation, we identify a primary object of attention that we will place in the foreground of our awareness, and it is to this object that we return when the mind wanders. Usually, this primary object is the feeling of the breath, but it can be any other sense object, as well. The experience of the wandering mind, and the awakening to that experience, is the key element of the practice. It is also the key element in our sense of dissatisfaction with the practice itself.

Sometimes, the mind is very turbulent and restless. The thoughts this kind of mind can churn up are often of the ruminating variety, and are often about subjects we would just as soon not dwell upon. Yet, there goes the mind toward that unpleasant or uncomfortable train of thought no matter how many times we catch it happening and return to the breath. This can be a very unsatisfying experience.

Like the wandering mind, the unsatisfying experience can be a doorway to our awakening and insight. We can note that "dissatisfaction is like this" because we are having the direct experience of it. Later, after our practice in our daily life, we can also be aware of moments of dissatisfaction and can perhaps remember what that was like during our practice. We can then bring to mind that this experience of dukkha is the existential quality of being alive, and that it is not the dissatisfaction itself that causes us problems, but our reactions to the dissatisfaction. The tight fist of grasping is released, and we can experience a moment of the cessation of suffering, or nirvana. For that moment, at least, we are satisfied.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

From Thich Nhat Hanh

The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Thomas Merton's "Louisville Epiphany"

From Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudo-angels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you...

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” To think that for sixteen or seventeen years I have been taking seriously this pure illusion that is implicit in so much of our monastic thinking...

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Everything In Its Season

I have spoken a lot about how we must release our attachment to the outcome of a situation, knowing that clinging to a specific outcome, or trying to control things to attain a specific outcome, will lead to more suffering. Yesterday, while Kathy and I were traveling through the Central Valley past endless acres of farms growing everything from rice to pomegranates, and avocados to kiwis, we talked about this concept. We agreed that, like the crops whizzing past our windows, when the season is right, our own work will bear fruit. 

As I am fond of telling my yoga classes, we must treat ourselves in the same way that we would treat the flowers in our garden. If we go out try to open the flowers when they are just beginning to bud, we will kill them. In the same way, our bodies will open and bloom into our yoga practice when they, too, are ready, and not a moment before.

Our desires and goals can be treated in this same way. We have desires for what we want, and we then pay attention to what needs to be done moment-to-moment to reach these desires. However, we must also release attachment to the ultimate outcome of these actions. We can still have the goals and desires, but we are not locked into how the outcome should look, and we are able to take new courses of action if it is necessary. This releasing of attachment also allows us to be available for the limitless potential of the universe to handle the details and lead us toward a destination that will be much richer than any we could possibly imagine with our minds.

It is our task to plant the seeds of our desires into fertile soil, and then to tend that soil and the growing desire moment-to-moment. The desire will ripen, but in its own time. This can mean that it may not happen when we want it to happen. However, we can rest assured that, when the season is right, our desires will bear fruit.