Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Deep Listening

It has been my pleasure to sit with Thich Nhat Hanh on several occasions. Often when he rings the bell at the beginning of a practice, he will say something like, "Let the sound of the bell invite you into stillness and deep listening."

For a long time, I did not know what he meant by "deep listening." I thought perhaps I was supposed to be on the alert for subtle sounds within my body. Or perhaps he was referring to the "still small voice" within. Over years of practice, however, I have decided that what Thay is talking about is synonymous with "mindfulness." It means having a thought, and actually knowing that we are having that particular thought. Then it means knowing how that particular thought leads to, perhaps, an emotional sensation in the body.

During our daily life, we have a lot of external distractions. When we sit in mindfulness practice, we are shutting down these externals and turning within. We may still be aware of the external things, such as sounds or temperature, yet we now experience them in a new way, knowing that we are experiencing these events as they occur. Furthermore, this experience takes place from a place very deep within us. These experiences are always available to us, if we listen deeply enough.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Kitchen Wisdom

From a wall-hanging in our kitchen (a gift from Xia):
"If there is light in the soul, there will be beauty in the person. If there is beauty in the person, there will be harmony in the house. If there is harmony in the house, there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world." ~ Chinese Proverb


Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Sun Never Says

by Hafiz

All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

"You owe 

What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the 


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lessons From A Snail

I heard a lovely story on NPR's Morning Edition today. It was an interview with essayist and short-story writer Elizabeth Tova Bailey, who has just released a new book from Algonquin Publishing entitled, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. It recounts her experience with a mysterious illness that struck her in her mid-thirties and made her so weak that she could not even sit up. 

While confined to her bed, a friend brought her some violets in a glass bowl to brighten up her bedside. At the base of the flowers, Ms. Bailey discovered a snail. Since she was unable read or watch television, the snail became her constant bedside companion and entertainment. She began to figure out its patterns of movement, and the more she became involved in this tiny creature's life, the more connected they became. 

Because she could not move at all, watching the snail go about its laborious and painstakingly slow travels around the plant took on special significance. "It moved at a speed that was actually faster than my own speed," she told NPR's Scott Simon, "And so it really was peaceful to watch it. It moved so smoothly and gently and gracefully, it was like a tai chi master."

Ms. Bailey remarked that her experience with the snail reminded her of this poem:

I Heard A Fly Buzz (465)
by Emily Dickinson

I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -
The Stillness in the Room 
Was like the Stillness in the Air -
Between the Heaves of Storm -

The Eyes around - had wrung them dry -
And Breaths were gathering firm
For the last Onset - when the King
Be witnessed - in the Room -

I willed my Keepsakes - Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable - and then it was
There interposed a Fly -

With Blue - uncertain stumbling Buzz -
Between the light - and me -
And then the Windows failed - and then
I could not see to see -

To read and hear more about this interview, go to: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129475625



Friday, August 27, 2010

E-Mail Apnea

My e-mail is running slow, today. It's annoying, inconvenient, and makes me realize just how addicted I am to this means of communication. Ironically, one of the e-mails I've been able to open is from my niece, Karen, who sent me a link to a Huffington Post blog by Linda Stone. She raises the possibility that we may be unconsciously holding our breath when we read e-mail or texting on our i-Phones and Blackberries.

Check in right now and see how (or even if) you are breathing. Take a moment and allow the abdomen to soften, letting it gently expand with inhale and contract with exhale. This kind of breathing automatically engages the Relaxation Response, sending important signals to the nervous system that everything is okay right now. Holding the breath, or breathing shallowly into the chest, helps engage the Fight, Flight, or Freeze response. This is the kind of breathing we do when we are under stress or in emergency situations.

Abdominal, or diaphragmatic breathing, can not only reduce blood pressure and heart rate, it can also keep you healthy. Chronic states of Fight, Flight, or Freeze can lead to, among other things, a decrease in immune system activity. If you counteract this situation by conscious abdominal breathing, the long-term systems of the body, such as the immune system, can function more efficiently. When the body constantly perceives threat through holding the breath or breathing into the chest, it is only concerned with the immediate needs for survival, and the immune system is not one of these needs.

For more information about the psycho-physiology of diaphragmatic breathing, see my post on June 8, 2010: http://rogernolan.blogspot.com/2010/06/diaphragmatic-breathinig.html

Here's a link to the Linda Stone's blog: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/linda-stone/just-breathe-building-the_b_85651.html 


Thursday, August 26, 2010


From Codependent No More:How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring For Yourself, by Melody Beattie.
A codependent person is one who has let another person's behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person's behavior.

The other person might be a child, an adult, a lover, a spouse, a brother, a sister, a grandparent, a parent, a client, or a best friend...

But, the heart of the definition and recovery lies not in the other person - no matter how much we believe it does. It lies in ourselves, in the ways we have let other people's behavior affect us and in the ways we try to affect them: the obsessing, the controlling, the obsessive "helping," caretaking, low self-worth bordering on self-hatred, self-repression, abundance of anger and guilt, peculiar dependency on peculiar people, attraction to and tolerance for the bizarre, other-centeredness that results in abandonment of self, communication problems, intimacy problems, and an ongoing whirlwind trip through the five-stage grief process.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

More About Digital Distraction

Following on from yesterday's blog about how digital input keeps us unfocused and might actually fatigue the brain, even while the body is resting, here is another New York Times article. It discusses a study that shows a direct relationship between auditory input and exercise. Volunteers on stationary bikes listened to music of their own choosing with headphones. During some rides, researchers played the songs at normal tempo. On other rides, they increased or decreased the tempos by 10 percent. Here's what they found:
When the tempo slowed, so did their pedaling and their entire affect. Their heart rates fell. Their mileage dropped. They reported that they didn’t like the music much. On the other hand, when the tempo of the songs was upped 10 percent, the men covered more miles in the same period of time, produced more power with each pedal stroke and increased their pedal cadences. Their heart rates rose. They reported enjoying the music — the same music — about 36 percent more than when it was slowed. But, paradoxically, they did not find the workout easier. Their sense of how hard they were working rose 2.4 percent. The up-tempo music didn’t mask the discomfort of the exercise. But it seemed to motivate them to push themselves. As the researchers wrote, when “the music was played faster, the participants chose to accept, and even prefer, a greater degree of effort.”
Again the take-home message from this little experiment? Do one thing at a time. That's all your brain can reasonably handle with any consistency.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Upside of Downtime

I read an interesting article in the New York Times today that reports the findings of some studies suggesting that our brains need to have a certain amount of downtime away from digital stimulation, such as computers, television, and i-Pods. Apparently, a constant diet of these devices prevents us from successfully processing the information we are receiving. The result is that this information never solidifies into a learned memory. In addition, what we think may be relaxing us (e.g., surfing the net or watching television), may actually be tiring us out.

Quoting here from the article, "Even though people feel entertained, even relaxed, when they multitask while exercising, or pass a moment at the bus stop by catching a quick video clip, they might be taxing their brains, scientists say. 'People think they’re refreshing themselves, but they’re fatiguing themselves,' said Marc Berman, a University of Michigan neuroscientist."

More and more I see people walking, jogging, and riding bikes with earbuds in place. I have not yet succumbed to becoming surgically attached to my i-Pod, but on a trip back east a couple of years ago, Kathy let me use hers during a train trip from New York City to Connecticut. I was amazed at the effect it had on my brain. It was like watching a movie of my life playing out in front of me, while the soundtrack played inside my head. Indeed, I had a hard time concentrating on what I was seeing as my brain tried to multitask between the aural and visual stimulation.

One solution, of course, is to have time during the day when we turn off the stimulation. All of us have at least brief moments during our day when we can just be. The tendency is now turning toward filling these "micro-moments" with texting, mobile gaming, and checking e-mail. I would suggest that these ways of "killing time" are incrementally killing our ability to process our lives as they are being lived.

So maybe the answer is as simple as leaving the i-Pod at home and taking a walk while listening to the sounds of the real world.

Here's a link to the New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/25/technology/25brain.html?src=tp


Monday, August 23, 2010

Golden Hours

You must have been warned against letting the golden hours slip by; but some of them are golden only because we let them slip by.
~ James M. Barrie

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Zen Story

After winning several archery contests, a young and rather boastful champion challenged a Zen master who was also renowned for his skill as an archer. The young man demonstrated remarkable proficiency when he hit a distant bull's eye on his first try, and then split that arrow with his second shot. "There," he said to the old man. "See if you can match that!"

Undisturbed, the master did not draw his bow, but rather motioned for the young archer to follow him up the mountain. Curious about the old fellow's intentions, the champion followed him high into the mountain until they reached a deep chasm spanned by a rather flimsy and shaky log. Calmly stepping out onto the middle of the unsteady and certainly perilous bridge, the old master picked a far away tree as a target, drew his bow, and fired a clean, direct hit.

"Now it is your turn," he said as he gracefully stepped back onto the safe ground. Staring with terror into the seemingly bottomless and beckoning abyss, the young man could not force himself to step out onto the log, no less shoot at a target. "You have much skill with your bow," the master said, sensing his challenger's predicament, "but you have little skill with the mind that lets loose the shot."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Experiential Platform, Part 2

Following on from yesterday's posting, what we discover when we entice the mind into reacting to arising experiences is the sense of self. We are, in essence, watching the mind create "I," "me," and "mine" in front of our eyes. Well, not really in front of our eyes, but this phenomenon is definitely perceivable by our sensory awareness.

For example, a sound arises, which is essentially a neutral experience and contains no self at all. Yet as soon as the mind perceives the sound, it jumps in with a name for the sound, and then a preference of like or dislike, and so forth. In other words, it creates a self where there is no self.

Through the practice of observing and participating with the mind as it creates self, we can then be more attuned to this experience in daily life. When we are more aware of how the mind habitually reacts to things as I, me, and mine, then we have a chance to be able to make a more skillful and effective choice as to how to deal with situations as they happen.


Friday, August 20, 2010

The Experiential Platform

A large part of vipassana practice is enticing the mind into creating habitual thoughts based on some present-moment experience. Here's what that means...

We purposefully sit still and be quiet, then direct our attention to a present- moment object, usually the feeling of the breath, and returning the attention to that object whenever the mind is caught wandering. After a while, the mind is sufficiently concentrated to then move the spotlight of attention to other objects as they arise (e.g., sounds, body sensations, or thoughts). We can then perceive these objects in the same way the breath is perceived: as events that we can participate in and observe.

In this way, we are building what I call an "experiential platform" from which we can observed and participate in these events. From the perspective of this platform, we can see more clearly how the mind reacts to the events as they arise and continue. Segal, Teasdale, and Williams, in the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy manual, compare this process to a cat who is sitting, watching a mouse hole waiting for the mouse to appear. The cat is our present-moment awareness, and the mouse is the mind going through its habitual reactions to things.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

On Playfulness

The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both. ~ Zen Proverb

The moment you start seeing life as non-serious, a playfulness, all the burden on your heart disappears. All the fear of death, of life, of love - everything disappears. One starts living with a very light weight or almost no weight. So weightless one becomes, one can fly in the open sky. Zen's greatest contribution is to give you an alternative to the serious man. The serious man has made the world, the serious man has made all the religions. He has created all the philosophies, all the cultures, all the moralities; everything that exists around you is a creation of the serious man. Zen has dropped out of the serious world. It has created a world of its own which is very playful, full of laughter, where even great masters behave like children. ~ Osho

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Complexity of Simplicity

For the past three weeks, our mindfulness study and discussion group has been exploring the concept of "voluntary simplicity." In our last meeting on this subject, we agreed that simplifying your life can be very complicated.

What kept coming up, over and over again, was that we are tremendously attached to our things. Somehow they define us. Many of us answered "yes" when asked if the idea of paring down our possessions to, say, a hundred or so items, brought up feelings of fear. The idea of getting rid of all the stuff in our lives that we do not use is, indeed, kind of scary. One participant put it this way: "Why would I let go of attachment? It's the only thing that makes life worth living!"

Abundance of things led us into a discussion of how rich we are in terms of the people in our lives. It was generally agreed that family and friends are more important and ultimately bring us more joy than possessions. Richness of experience was also discussed. As someone said, "A trip to Hawaii will bring me more happiness than a new sofa."

This, very naturally, led to a discussion of the ultimate attachment object: our body. Is it possible to release attachment even of this object? After all, this body that we are inhabiting is not "ours," it is really more like a rental which we have to return at the end of the contract. Again, a complex issue. On his deathbed, the Venerable Ajahn Chah was visited by his student, Jack Kornfield. As Jack recounts the story, he was holding Ajahn Chah's hand and discussing death and attachment. "Well, you always taught that we must relinquish attachment to this body," said Jack. The venerable teacher squeezed Jack's hand tightly and said, "Don't speak so lightly about it! This is hard!"

So I guess the best advice I can offer is to take it easy. Find balance between possessing things and purging them. Realize that no possession will give us lasting and permanent happiness or satisfaction, and that someday, everything must be released.

And, yes, it is not easy.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Depth of Practice

As you may be aware, I have been teaching hatha yoga for more than 15 years. When I first started my own practice, I was very intent upon attainment and achievement. As I have aged, and through my experience as a teacher, I have profoundly changed this attitude. Now I am constantly reminding my students not to push themselves to try to break through to some new level. My suggestion, instead, is to go as far as they can comfortably, then hang out there for a while. Paradoxically, they will be able to move through to attain their goals more efficiently and easily in this way, rather than from pushing or straining. And with fewer injuries.

The primary focus of this kind of practice is awareness of each posture or movement as fully as possible, thereby deepening into the posture or movement more completely. Even the simplest posture, such as Child's Pose (Balasana), when practiced with mindfulness, can become a place of deep insight as well as great physical benefit. My point is this: if you can't experience Child's Pose fully while you are doing it, how will you expect to experience the deep insights of a difficult posture, such as Triang Mukha Eka Pada Paschimottanasana (which is not that difficult, by the way, but it has one of the longest names of any posture so I like to use it as an example)?

Simply put, the depth of your yoga practice has no relationship whatsoever with the difficulty of the postures you do. So when you see workshops or retreats that promise to help you "deepen your practice," find out if they refer to the physical dimension of yoga, or the depth of inner awareness. In my opinion, the latter exploration is a much more rewarding, and potentially less injurious.


Monday, August 16, 2010

Working With Fear, Panic, and Anxiety

From Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Working mindfully with highly charged thoughts and feelings does not mean that we do not value the expression of strong feelings or that strong feelings are bad, problematic, or dangerous and that every effort should be made to "control" them or get rid of them or suppress them. Observing your feelings mindfully and accepting them and then letting go of them does not mean that you are trying to invalidate or get rid of them. It means that you know what you are experiencing. It also does not mean that you won't act on your thoughts and feelings or express them in their full power! It simply means that when you do act, you are more likely to do so with clarity and inner balance because you have some perspective on your own experience and are not just being driven by mindless reactivity. Then the force or your feelings can be applied creatively to solve or dissolve problems rather than compounding difficulties and causing harm to yourself or others, as so often happens when you lose your center. This is another example of the way in which the emotion-focused perspective and the problem-focused perspective can complement each other in mindfulness.

As we change our relationship to our thoughts by paying attention to the process of thinking, we will also come to see that perhaps we should change the way we think and speak about our thoughts and feelings altogether. Rather than saying, "I am afraid" or "I am anxious," both of which make "you" into the anxiety or fear, it would actually be more accurate to say "I am having a lot of fear-filled (or fearful) thoughts." In this way you are emphasizing that you are not the content of your thoughts and that you do not have to identify with their content. Instead, you can just be aware of it, accept it, and listen to it caringly. Then your thoughts will not drive you toward even more fear, panic, and anxiety but can be used instead to help you see more clearly what is actually on your mind.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Miracle of Sympathetic Joy

Sympathetic Joy, mudita in Pali, the language of the Buddha, is one of the natural abodes that are cultivated through the practice of meditation. It refers to the joy we feel at the good fortune and joy of others.

Some years back, I came into possession of a sitar. I had never considered learning to play one of these instruments, even though I had been playing guitar since I was nine. The sitar, however, is much more complicated. Besides the seven playable strings, it also has sixteen "sympathetic" strings. These strings are not plucked, but merely vibrate sympathetically when the main strings are played. This is one of the familiar sounds of the sitar: the resonating tonal buzz after striking one of the main strings.

Sympathetic Joy has the same quality. It is not we who are directly experiencing the joy. We are merely vibrating in resonant sympathy with the person who is having the joyful experience. 

Sympathetic Joy can be a useful antidote to negative emotional states, such as jealousy, envy, or ill-will toward someone who is experiencing good fortune. When we are attacked by jealousy about someone else's experience, we can bring to mind how much pleasure that experience must have given the other person. I have used this panacea many times, and I can actually feel myself tingle with a sympathetic vibration. For a moment, at least, I can allow myself to feel the joy the other person must have felt, and for that moment, the joy is mine as well.


Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Path of Desire

From Open To Desire: The Truth About What the Buddha Taught by Mark Epstein, M.D.
The Buddha's path did not focus on desire as an enemy to be conquered but rather as an energy to be perceived correctly. The Buddha was interested in teaching us not only how to find our own freedom, but in how to stay in affectionate relationship to other people. While he counseled his followers to be lights unto themselves, he also recognized how much we need each other to make freedom possible. There is as much emphasis on compassion in the Buddha's teachings as there is on wisdom, and it is clear that one route to the development of such compassion is through the investigation, not elimination, of one's own desire. (p. 14)

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Thought From Alan Watts

"No work or love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Retreat To Remember

In April, 2002, I was on a ten-day retreat in Yucca Valley, when Jack Kornfield delivered some startling news before the mid-morning sitting practice. "It is my very sad duty to inform you," he said, his naturally soft voice nearly at a whisper, "that one of our retreatants has died." There was a collective gasp form the 125 attendees. Then Jack gave some sketchy details of how the man, Phillip Behrens, had apparently died during the night before. All of us were stunned, whether we knew Phillip personally or not.

The remainder of the retreat was devoted to his memory. Over the next days, teachers read passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, such as:

Remember the clear light, the pure clear white light from which everything in the universe comes, to which everything in the universe returns, the original nature of your own mind. The natural state of the universe unmanifest.
Let go into the clear light, trust it, merge with it. It is your own true nature, it is home.
The visions you experience exist within your consciousness, the forms they take are determined by your past attachments, your past desires, your past fears, your past karma.
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. They will all pass in time. No need to become involved with them, no need to become attracted to the beautiful visions, no need to be repulsed by the frightening ones. No need to be seduced or excited by this sexual ones. No need to be attached to them at all.
Just let them pass. If you become involved with these visions, you may wonder for long time confused. Just let them past to your consciousness like clouds passing through an empty sky.
Fundamentally they have no more reality than this.
Remember these teachings, remember the clear light, the pure bright shining white light of your own nature, it is deathless.
If you can look into the visions, you can experience and recognize that they are composed of the same pure clear white light as everything else in the universe.
No matter where or how far you wonder, the light is only a split second, a half-breath breath away. It is never too late to recognize the clear light. ~ Translation by W.Y. Evans-Wentz
These words were originally intended to be whispered into the ear of a person who has just died and as they pass through the "bardo" - the space between worlds. When I heard this invocation in the space between worlds during my own vipassana practice, I began to have some of the most intense and profound altered-state experiences I have ever known.

I, too, began to "go toward the light," which had seemed to appear behind my closed eyelids. As I drew closer to the light, I could feel a sensation similar to the peeling away of layers of my body. It was as though I was shedding a lifetimes worth of psychic junk that I had come to regard as "I," "me," and "mine."

Soon, there appeared before me a translucent, golden curtain, and behind it was the clear light. In the glow of the light I could see what looked like a shadow play created by beings moving in a gracefully choreographed danse macabre. Fortunately, the weight of ego and self prevented me from reaching the curtain, and soon I was pulled back down to earth and my cushion.

Toward the end of the retreat, we were asked to give a written offering to be placed on an altar dedicated to Phillip. These offerings were later delivered to Phillip's widow. In the spirit of the Tibetan rinpoches, I composed a "spontaneous Vajra song:"

"For Phillip"

Your Spirit merged with mine and
we journeyed together toward the Clear Light.
But this Spirit of mine,
heavy-laden with leaden ego,
and small sense of self,
had to stay behind,
content to stand at the curtain's edge.

And yet, even from here could be seen
wonders of the Unmanifest and the Light,
veiled though they were,
as if too powerful for mere mortal eyes.

Thank you for taking me this far.
I know you are dancing in the light, now.
I look forward to
following you in freedom.


(A meditation bench honoring Phillip's memory can be found at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in front of my favorite statue of the Buddha, just north of the dining hall.)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Poison of Multitasking

First of all, credit for the title of this posting goes to my wife, Kathy. She said it while we were exploring various aspects of bringing simplicity to daily life with my Tuesday night Mindfulness Study and Discussion Group. To be precise, it should be noted that we are concerned here with human multitasking, since the term originated as a reference to multiple simultaneous computer functions.

When we multitask, we appear to be doing more than one thing at the same time. Studies have shown, however, that during multitasking, we are actually getting less done and tend to make more mistakes. In his book, Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life, psychiatrist Richard Hallowell goes so far as to describe multitasking as a "mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.”

From the neurobiological perspective, the brain requires time to take a moment to refocus its attention when performing multiple sequential functions. Therefore, when we are trying to do lots of things at once, at best we are only able to devote enough attention to each one to skim over them and pick out bits of information here and there. In reality, as Kathy noted last night, "We are not really present for any of it. Instead of a task having a beginning, a middle, and an end, when we multitask there are only middles." Nothing really gets accomplished and we can rarely feel a sense of accomplishment for bringing a task to completion.

Thinking that we are getting a lot done when we are actually aren't is a hallmark of methamphetamine and cocaine addiction, as well. As I have mentioned in this blog, the same chemicals that are released in the brain when we take these drugs are also produced when we are under high stress (see 1/25/10 blog). Multitasking is often the result of (and results in) stressful feelings. The resulting chemical release may lead to the same overblown sense of our ability to get things done as reported by meth and coke addicts.

As I have mentioned before, one answer to this problem is to just do one thing. When you are talking on the phone, resist the urge to surf the internet. When you are talking to your spouse, or your child, or your co-worker really listen and be present for them. Turn off the television, talk radio, and computers when you are having dinner. When you drive, just drive. Acknowledge the accomplishment of completing one thing before moving on to the next.

For me, creating a blog every single day for a year has been a daily exercise in focusing my attention. There is a marvelous sense of success and accomplishment that I feel every time I click the PUBLISH POST button. Don't get me wrong - I, too, find myself giving in to the compulsion to multitask all the time. Yet having to pay attention so completely to this one thing has been a great practice. Of course, the sense of satisfaction is impermanent because I will have to come up with something else to post tomorrow. 

Kathy suggested that maybe that's the deeper reason underlying why we are so attracted to multitasking: it keeps us so busy that we never get done with anything. That way we don't have to acknowledge the impermanence of our accomplishments. 

But I think I'll save that tangent for another day...

"The best-adjusted person in our society is the person who is not dead and not alive, just numb. A zombie. When you are dead, you're not able to do the work of society. When you are fully alive, you're constantly saying "No" to many of the processes of society: the racism, the polluted environment, the nuclear threat, the arms race, drinking unsafe water, and eating carcinogenic foods. Thus it is in the interests of our society to promote those things that take the edge off, keep us busy with our fixes, and keep us slightly numbed out and zombie-like. In this way our modern consumer society itself functions like as an addict." ~ Anne Wilson Schaef

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What's The Point?

From Alan Watts:
"We could say that meditation doesn't have a reason or doesn't have a purpose. In this respect, it's unlike almost all other things we do, except perhaps making music and dancing. When we make music, we don't do it in order to reach a certain point, such as the end of the composition. If that were the purpose of music, then obviously the fastest players would be the best. Also, when we are dancing we are not aiming to arrive at a particular place on the floor as in a journey. When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music the playing itself is the point. And exactly the same thing is true in meditation. Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment."

Monday, August 9, 2010

LIghten Up a Bit

Vipassana meditation can get pretty heavy, sometimes. Or maybe it's just me. Perhaps I tend to emphasize sitting with the difficult, the uncomfortable, the unpleasant, and the suffering, and I fail to notice the awe-inspiring, the uplifting, the joyful, the peaceful, and the just plain fun that this kind of practice can open up to me.

So yesterday, during a daylong retreat I was leading, I changed things up a bit. After lunch I suggested that we turn some attention to the miraculous nature of existence, both our own, and that of the entire cosmos. Contemplating the interdependent relationship of all things is, for me, a sure-fire way to open up a bit of joy and wonder in my practice. As the saying goes, "If you're not in awe, then you're just not paying attention." When we actually do pay attention to this process of "interbeing," as Thich Nhat Hanh calls dependent co-arising, we can see clearly just how wonderful being alive really is.

As you practice, or go through your day, reflect for a moment on how an infinite number of causes and conditions came together to make you. The countless number of chance meetings, unexpected encounters, and serendipitous happenings that brought your parents together, and their parents, and their parents, and so on and on, over countless generations. Contemplate the geologic, cultural, historic, and cosmic events that had to align, as well. You can take this all the way back to the Big Bang, if you like.

Enjoy the trip...

"Strange Miracle" by Hafiz:
Oh wondrous creatures,

by what strange miracle

do you so often

not smile?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Doing the Best We Can

When you are involved in a conflict with others, always try to remember that everyone involved is doing the best they can with where they are and with what they know in that moment. We are all works in progress.

(Many thanks to Jane Murphy, MFT, for these insights.)


Saturday, August 7, 2010

Ravings of a Thought-Crazed Lunatic

Last night I sat on my patio as the sun was setting, and watched myself being tortured by my mind. I was sitting with a particularly upsetting issue that had arisen (an old, hot-button issue), and I closed my eyes and simply allowed the feelings of anger, hurt, resentment, and old abandonment stuff to burn within me. I watched the workings of the mind as it pored over the upsetting events of the day, and I knew even as it was happening that I was being hit with what the Buddha called the "Second Arrow."

I've discussed the Second Arrow many times in this blog. It is when the mind creates more problems than the actual event or situation warrants, often creating problems where there are no problems to begin with. Last night, however, as I sat in awe and observed the workings of this crazy mind, it felt like I was being hit, not with a single arrow, but with thousands of them every second. The rapidity of the arising of negative thoughts and their subsequent emotional reactions was astonishing.

After being with this experience for a while, I turned my attention as fully as I could to the feeling of the body breathing. This was difficult at first because the volume and intensity of the thought contents practically blocked out all ability to focus attention. Finally I felt a few breaths, disengaging momentarily from the onslaught of the thought tsunami.

Then the thoughts took over again, and I was back on the wave, only this time, they seemed a little more distant and not so immediate, as though a little space had been placed between my awareness of the thoughts, and the thoughts themselves. Because of this space, it was much easier to come back to the breath, which I did over and over again. Each time I disengaged from the thoughts and went to the breath, the thoughts got weaker. The area around them more spacious, and soon the upsetting thoughts were gone and normal, present-moment thoughts had taken their place.

This is sometimes the process of Present-Moment Sensory Reality: we have very loud, troubling thoughts that have us trapped in suffering, and our ability to disengaged is limited, at best. We get a moment of respite from the thoughts by coming to our senses, and then the thoughts are back again, and so we disengage again, and on and on it goes.

At first, this kind of process may make you think you really are going crazy. It can feel as though there is a ping-pong match going on in your head, moving rapidly from thoughts to breath and back again. By staying with the process, however, the thoughts will eventually quiet down a bit, and a sense of spaciousness opens up. In this space, we can then access Wisdom Mind, that part of our consciousness that can help us find more effective and intelligent alternatives to our habitual reactions to situations.


Friday, August 6, 2010

Mindfulness Is...

By Donald Fleck

Mindfulness is

Noticing the sound of a bird's song,
Feeling my feet upon the earth
And a breeze upon my face.

Mindfulness is smelling a dandelion
While noticing the mud ooze between my toes.

Mindfulness is waking in the dark, not knowing where I am... and smiling.

Mindfulness is thinking of the past, and noticing.
Thinking of the future, and knowing I am doing it,
Being in the present, inhabiting it... right now.

Mindfulness is everything that I'm aware of, with intention to notice.

Mindfulness is taking a step back and noticing life with awareness.
Mindfulness is jumping into the fullness of life.
Mindfulness is knowing that my joy and pain are interrelated with that of all other beings.
That my progress is good for all beings.
That my compassion can extend to all beings, even to myself.
Mindfulness is knowing life... and illness... old age... death... and suffering... and still intending to take the next right action.

(For more information about therapist and meditation teacher Donald Fleck, DCSW, please visit http://www.donaldfleck.com/)


Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Things That Bug Us

Last night, we threw a very modest party to celebrate our youngest's 15th birthday. Historically, any kind of gathering, whether it be for one person or one hundred, causes me to get nervous about everything coming out well. I am embarrassed to say that this nervous state has caused me to become reactive and somewhat short-tempered (can you tell that I'm sugar-coating things here?).

With the advent of my mindfulness practices, however, these reactive states have become fewer, and when I do succumb to them, they are less intense and more short-lived. Now, when I find myself edging toward anger because of stress, I am much more aware of the situation than I have been in the past. I can disengage from the catastrophic thinking that my mind is churning out and in many cases clinging to, and I can just feel myself breathe. This movement from a thought about the situation to the fact of the present moment creates some space around whatever it is that I am getting nervous about. In this way, the stressor becomes "softer," and I can allow my body to relax a bit, even if I am in rapid preparation mode.

This reflective moment also gives me access to Wisdom Mind, that part of me that knows that everything is just fine in this moment. Wisdom Mind also helps me to find novel solutions to problems, if they should arise, thus deceasing my stress level even more. Finally, and most importantly, Wisdom Mind lets me see clearly that there is really no need to act out reactively; that this is supposed to be about having fun, and not about getting upset. From here, it is a very short journey to releasing attachment to an imagined outcome, or to being attached to the idea that there is only one way to solve a problem.

My suffering decreases, and so does the suffering of those around me.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Trap of Mind-Reading

A Zen Teaching Story

One day Chuang-tzu and a friend
were walking along a riverbank.

"How delightfully the fishes are
enjoying themselves in the water!"
Chuang-tzu exclaimed.

"You are not a fish," his friend said.
"How do you know whether or not
the fishes are enjoying themselves?"

"You are not me," Chuang-tzu said.
"How do you know that I do not know
that the fishes are enjoying themselves?"


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Seven Tips for Giving Up Gossip

By Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron

(This sidebar appeared in the article "The Truth About Gossip" in the current issue of Tricycle, The Buddhist Review. It is reprinted here with permission.)

1. Recognize that gossip doesn’t undo the situation you’re talking about. It only puts in motion another situation based on negative feelings. 

2. Know that comparing yourself to others is useless. Everyone has his or her own talents. In this way, give up jealousy and the wish to put others down.

3. Be aware of and transform your own thoughts, words, and deeds rather than commenting on those of others.

4. Train your mind to see others’ positive qualities and discuss them. This will make you much happier than gossiping ever could.

5. Forgive, knowing that people do harmful things because they are unhappy. If you don’t make someone into an enemy, you won’t want to gossip about him.

6. Have a sense of humor about what you think, say, and do, and be able to laugh at all of the silly things we sentient beings carry out in our attempt to be happy. If you see the humor in our human predicament, you’ll be more patient.

7. Practice saying something kind to someone every day. Do this especially with people you don’t like. It gets easier with practice and bears surprisingly good results.

To see the entire article, click on http://www.tricycle.com/-practice/the-truth-about-gossip


Monday, August 2, 2010

Letting Go

Two monks were traveling together down a muddy road.
A heavy rain was falling.  Coming around the bend,
they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash,
unable to cross the intersection.
"Come on, girl," said the first monk.  Lifting her
in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

The second monk did not speak again until that night
when they reached a lodging temple.  Then he no longer
could restrain himself.  "We monks don't go near females,"
he said.  "It is dangerous.  Why did you do that?"
"I left the girl there," the first monk said.
"Are you still carrying her?"


Sunday, August 1, 2010

Clinging to Aversion

During yesterday afternoon's sangha one of the participants came out with a phrase that I had never heard before. After a long sitting practice, during which we investigated the Three Characteristics of impermanence, dissatisfaction (or suffering), and the doctrine of "no self" (see 4/11/10 & 4/12/10 blogs), we were discussing how easy it is to become attached to wanting this moment to be different from the way it actually is. The sangha member mentioned that in those cases we were "clinging to our aversion."

Clinging and aversion are often considered to be the root actions that cause us to suffer. We want more of a pleasant experience, so we cling to it, experiencing dukkha, or dissatisfaction, when the pleasant thing ends. On the other side of the coin, when we are having an unpleasant experience, we want less of it and so we try to get rid of it. This results in more dukkha because we might not be able to change the situation, or it will change by itself into something we find even more aversive.

So we often find that, when we are in aversion to the way things, are we will cling very tightly to this position. The mind might scream at us, "No, dammit! I DO NOT want things to be like this!" Of course, all we need to do to reduce our dissatisfaction, and our suffering, would be to accept that this is the way things are and release our attachment to wanting things to be different.

Remember that this does not mean that we have to like the way things are, it just means that we have to recognize, as best we can, that this moment is like this. Right now, this moment must be this way and we have no choice in the matter. We may have a choice about the future, but for now, this moment is the way it is. Clinging to the notion that we want it to be otherwise will only perpetuate and increase a level of suffering that is already in motion.

Many people misunderstand the idea that we must accept this moment as it is. They may think I am suggesting that we simply give up trying, or that we cannot or should not do anything to change the situation. Legitimate human suffering, such as natural or man-made disasters, war, famine, poverty, oppression, abuse, and so forth, are some examples of situations that people should rightfully want to change. I am not suggesting that we stand by and allow a situation such as starvation to continue if there is something we can do to alleviate it. However, effective action can only occur when we first understand that this is the way it is right now. 

In our daily life, when we notice that we are clinging to our aversion toward the way things are, we only need to release our attachment to the aversion itself. We can still have our desire to change the situation, and we can still take action to remedy it. If, in that moment, there is nothing we can do to change things, then through our releasing of our attachment to a specific outcome, we can endure the situation with a lesser degree of dissatisfaction. Only through recognizing that things are the way they are, and then releasing attachment to our desire for things to be different, can we break the cycle of suffering in which we find ourselves stuck 

Once again I must repeat: We are not releasing the desire itself, we are only releasing the attachment to our desire that things be different. We can still have that desire, but now we hold it with an open hand and have come into a new relationship with it so that we might be able to see it in a new way. Then, and only then, do we have the ability to respond from the unpleasant situation rather than reacting to it.