Thursday, September 30, 2010

Like This...

My teacher Phillip Moffitt is very fond of using the phrase "like this" to help describe and teach how to deal with events as they arise. If a leg falls asleep during meditation, he'll say, "my leg falling asleep is like this." If there is strong sense desire during practice, "desire is like this." If I am overcome with a strong feeling of joy, "joy is like this." To anything that happens in our life we can add the words, "like this."

These two words are extremely helpful and powerful in moving us toward an ability to accept "what is" in each moment. It is not a capitulation or surrender. It is not a denial that we might want things to be other than the way they are. "Like this" means that we are acknowledging the fact of the present moment, which is the first step toward effective action. 

In your practice, and in daily life, apply the words "like this" to any experience or situation that arises. Note what happens to the experience, and note as well the inner adjustment that takes place toward the experience. You may find that your relationship toward the event changes dramatically, and that your level of suffering decreases as a result.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

There Is A Pain So Utter...

By Emily Dickinson
There is a pain — so utter —
It swallows substance up —
Then covers the Abyss with Trance —
So Memory can step
Around — across — upon it —
As one within a Swoon —
Goes safely — where an open eye —
Would drop Him — Bone by Bone.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Discrepancy

A lot of the time in our lives, there is a discrepancy between the way things are and the way we wish they could be. In the Doing Mode state of mind (see yesterday's blog), we are usually concerned with trying to close the gap between these two polarities. By focusing on the discrepancy, however, we may be missing a bigger, and potentially more useful perspective.

When we are trying to change, manipulate, or get rid of something in order to close the gap, our focus is very narrow, and our happiness is dependent upon the achievement of a particular result. Sometimes we might be able to affect useful change, but a lot of the time, these things are out of our control. 

Rather than trying to close the gap right away, it might be better to just sit with the experience of things not being the way we want them to be in that moment. This is an example of bringing "Being Mode" to bear upon the situation. This approach can not only decrease our anxiety about the situation almost immediately, but it can also engage a wider and wiser way of seeing things. When we "decenter" from the obsession with fixing the gap, and when this kind of "wise mind" is deployed as a result of the decentering, solutions that we never considered before begin to present themselves. (For more information about wise mind, see 5/19/10 blog.)



Monday, September 27, 2010

Doing Mode vs. Being Mode

In Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, we recognize two basic modes of mind: "Doing Mode" and "Being Mode."

Doing Mode is where most of us spend a lot of our time. Doing Mode is focused on achievement and outcome. It is result oriented. An example of Doing Mode might be that if we are traveling on a road trip, we would be obsessed with getting to our destination and we would miss all of the scenery going by. It would be more important that we get from point A to point B in a certain amount of time, and we would only see the trip as successful if that time coordinate is met.

Being Mode is not concerned with the ultimate goal or outcome. Being Mode is all about the process, not the result. We notice the scenery as we move through it, and we enjoy the journey itself, moment-by-moment, rather than concerning ourselves with the future outcome. When we are in Being Mode, we are in the present moment, and we are available for everything that moment has to offer - pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral though it may be.

Being mode is probably best summed up in the old saying, "The journey is the destination."


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fear Leads To Anger

My 15 year-old stepson loves movies, and he can remember dialogue almost verbatim from one viewing. He's also decided that he wants to explore being an actor. He has many natural gifts for such a field, such as intelligence, a great sense of humor, and an uncanny talent for impersonation. 

The other morning, Kathy and I were in the kitchen talking about anger as being a secondary emotion that arises out of the primary emotion of fear. Out of the living room, and with impeccable timing, there came the voice of Yoda from Star Wars (being channeled by my stepson):

"Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."


Saturday, September 25, 2010

Building a Platform

When we practice vipassana, or mindfulness meditation, the primary object of attention is always the feeling of the breath. Since the breath and the senses are always present moment events, feeling the body breathing draws the mind into the present moment as well. When the mind is more present, it can see more clearly its own habitual tendencies toward the world it perceives.

I tend to describe this experience of paying attention to the breath as being like building a structure - a platform - from which we can see things more clearly. The more we practice, the quicker and easier it is to build the platform. Pretty soon, the structure of mindfulness is available any time we need it during our daily life. We can bring momentary awareness to a situation or event, or to a thought or feeling, and in that short time of paying attention, we become mindful. The platform is immediately built, and we can see more clearly from this new perspective.

All of this takes place in just a second, and yet that moment of reflection can make a huge difference. In that moment, we can see clearly the habitual tendency of the mind in that situation. If that tendency is potentially ineffective or even harmful, we can make another choice. The choice might be to simply continue observing the mind and any emotional reactions that may be resulting from our thoughts without taking any action. 

For me, this reflective moment has been one of the most important and useful benefits of vipassana practice. Having the ability to bring momentary awareness to a situation has prevented countless unskillful and unnecessary reactions. This has led to countless opportunities to limit or eliminate suffering, which is the ultimate aim of vipassana.


Friday, September 24, 2010


The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.  ~ Robert M. Pirsig

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thoughts About Change

Recently, a client asked me to define how I see the process of change in the context of psychotherapy. What changes, and how does this happen?

I told him that we all have our habitual ways of reacting to certain experiences, situations, and people in our lives. These habit "pathways" are pretty deeply grooved over a period of years, and they are very difficult to change. I believe, however, that these habits are exactly what we are attempting to change in therapy. 

I also believe that we may never be able to completely change or get rid of these habitual tendencies. We can learn to make more skillful and effective choices through awareness of these tendencies. We can sometimes cultivate new habits that will take their place. We might start to go down those old neuropathways and then catch ourselves and make a course correction. Or we might even get completely swept away by the habitual tendencies as though we were never aware of them at all. Get rid of them once and for all, though? I doubt it.

These habitual tendencies are a huge part of our personalities, and changing our personality is not the goal of psychotherapy, in my opinion. That would be like saying, "I'm going to change the person I think I am," and that seems way to difficult. The process, therefore, is not about changing who we are, but about changing our relationship to who we are. It's not about changing our thoughts, but about changing our relationship to our thoughts.

When we are offered another place to stand, from which vantage point we can see things more clearly, we have a chance to do all of the above. It begins, of course, with coming into full awareness of the present moment just as it is, and then seeing that moment for what it is. When clinging, aversion, or wanting things to be other than the way they are arises, we can see that, too, and notice the habitual habits of the mind toward the experience of that moment.Then we just sit with it, allow the experience to continue, and let it be

By not acting out habitually toward an aversive experience during our meditation practice (which is what I was describing above), we groove new neuropathways in the brain and the habits begin to change by themselves. In daily life, when we come up against the same basic experiences, we might have the chance to take a reflective pause before choosing our actions. If we do this enough times, we will have changed profoundly how we relate to the world around us, and our suffering will be reduced.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Parking Ticket Yoga

Are we still swimming against the stream? Maybe not.

The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts now gives parking violation citations that include diagrams of yoga postures and short breathing exercises to help recipients relieve their stress and anger from getting the ticket.



Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blues Dharma

I remember the first time I saw the word "dharma." It was not in a book about the teachings of the Buddha, nor was it in the writings of Jack Kerouac. It was on the back of an album jacket. I was probably 14 years old at the time, and the album was "An Anthology of British Blues, Vol. 2." One of the bands featured on this compilation was the Dharma Blues Band, and they performed on two tracks: "Dealing With The Devil" and "Roll 'Em Pete."

Music, like everything else, is subject to the laws of dependent origination (see blog from 12/2, 12/3, & 12/4/09 for more on this subject). This seems especially evident when looking at the history of the blues in the twentieth century. The acknowledged "Cradle of the Blues" is the area in and around the Mississippi Delta. Impoverished black sharecroppers would sing during their work in order to help pass the time while doing backbreaking labor. In the evening, improvised instruments might be played as accompaniment for the voices. Guitar, banjo, and harmonica were the instruments of choice. One performer would pass his knowledge onto another, and soon a tradition was firmly in place.

As an adolescent in Overland Park, Kansas in the late 1960's, I was unaware of the roots of the rock music I was listening to at the time. Soon, however, as I began to read about my favorite musicians and bands, a pattern emerged. My generation's musical idols, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf, The Rolling Stones, and on and on, were quick to acknowledge their antecedents and influences. Names like Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Junior Wells, Blind Willie McTell, Muddy Waters, and the most legendary of them all, Robert Johnson were cropping up over and over again. I began to steep myself in their music, which is how I came upon an obscure collection of British blues in the record store.

Oh, yes, the dharma of Dependent Origination... Well, I have two little stories that illustrate this in relation to the blues. The great slide guitarist, Muddy Waters, was playing at a blues festival in New York in 1965. He had just been "re-discovered" by white audiences, and was enjoying a good measure of attention. He was visited backstage by another blues musician named Son House. Mr. House not only taught Muddy Waters how to play guitar, and was also an influence on none other than Robert Johnson. When the younger members of Muddy's band saw the skinny House with his loping stride, a couple of them began to imitate him. According to Son House's manager, Dick Waterman, Muddy immediately pulled them aside and said angrily, "I seen you mockin' that man. Don't you be mockin' that man. When I was a boy comin' up, that man was king. King! If it wasn't for that man, you wouldn't have a job. If it wasn't for that man, I wouldn't be here now."

The second story is a personal one. When I was 16, I saw Chuck Berry at a sparsely attended concert in Kansas City, Missouri. I only had tickets to the first show, but when I ran backstage after the curtain came down and accosted Chuck who was putting away his guitar, he had the grace to invite this over-eager white kid to "stick around for the second show." In the audience that night was a friend of mine named Barry Shank. On Monday, we exchanged stories about the concert, and shortly thereafter, I loaned him a copy of "Chuck Berry's Golden Decade," a greatest hits album. 

Cut to my twenty-year high school reunion in 1992. Barry came up to me at one point and told me that, until he saw that album, he had no idea that music had any kind of history. But because I loaned him that record, he became interested in the subject, and is now a professor of music history in the Department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University. He has also authored several books and many articles on the subject.

Just as the practice of meditation is passed from warm hand to warm hand, so too is the dharma of the blues. And on it goes.

Let the Good Times Roll,

Monday, September 20, 2010

Enlightenment Is Like...

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.
  ~ Dogen

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Passing of a Teacher

Last week we learned of the death of perhaps the most beloved academic teacher at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA). Dallas Russell taught my son math during Zach's tenure at LACHSA. He also taught my oldest stepson who is a senior this year, and would eventually have taught my youngest stepson, now a freshman. 

He was a mountain of a man. His large, expressive face was almost always smiling. Not just smiling, but more like exploding with joy. He was a stutterer. Yet when he fought to bring forth the word he sought, his voice took on an almost syncopated rhythm. When Zach arrived at LACHSA, he, too had been in speech therapy for a slight stutter. Mr. Russell helped him realize that it could be overcome.

His classes seemed like they could actually be fun. On Back To School Night, his presentation was always the most interesting, and I always looked forward to math period. That could never be said of any other academic class, I'm afraid. He was always uplifting his students. Even when they were average, he called them "Champions," or "Math Jedi Masters." I doubt that any student ever left Mr. Russell's class feeling unsuccessful. He had the power to empower. 

Even though he was not a member of the arts faculty, he attended every performance any student ever gave. Zach formed a theater company his senior year, and the summer after graduation, Mr. Russell came to see their premier production. He came to the next one, as well. He knew his support was needed, not just in the classroom, but backstage after a kid had poured his heart out for his art.

He was funny, too. He never shied away from a good joke on himself, and was not afraid to look foolish in front of his students. At "Moondance," the annual LACHSA film festival that showcased the work of the students, he was always featured in the opening short, along with other teachers. His stuff was always the funniest. Because he wasn't part of the arts faculty, his work always seemed to have more honesty and sweet innocence than the acting teachers he shared the screen with.

The last time I saw him was just before school started. We were standing in separate checkout lines at Pavillions in South Pasadena. "Hey, Mr. Russell!" I called over to him. He didn't respond. He was staring into space, as though contemplating a very heavy subject. In retrospect, it looked like he was gazing into eternity. I finally got his attention, and we talked about Zach, and my stepsons. I told him to look out for the younger one, and he promised to take care of him. We continued talking into the parking lot, and he reflected on what a special time of year the beginning of school always is. He shared with me that he had just been thinking about that when I had called to him. We said our "See ya laters," got into our cars and drove off into the night.

The number of kids Mr. Russell touched in his teaching career is probably immeasurable. I'm sure they must all remember him vividly. I was only around him for a few minutes at a time and he left an indelible impression on me. Good teachers can do that. You may like them or loathe them; love them or hate them. You might even make fun of them behind their back. In the final analysis, though, they touch you. 


See ya later, Mr. Russell. Your like will not pass this way again.


Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Guru

An elderly Jewish lady in Brooklyn sees a story in the paper about a guru in India who is attracting followers by the thousands. She reads with interest that the wait is so long to have an audience with him, that the devotees are only allowed to speak three words before they are ushered out to make way for the next person.

Immediately she calls her travel agent. "I want to go to India," she tells him. The travel agent tries to dissuade the woman, telling her the country is dirty, the food is too spicy for her, and you can't drink the water. "Why torture yourself?" he asks her. "I don't care," says the woman. "I want to go to India."

And so she makes the arduous journey to the guru's ashram. She takes her place in the long line of people waiting to see him. After two days of standing on line, she finally reaches the door of his temple where she is firmly given instructions to say only three words to the guru.

At last she is ushered into the inner sanctum of the temple, and again she is reminded, "Remember! Only three words!"

Finally, she stands before the guru. Instead of bowing like everyone else does, she folds her arms across her chest. fixes her gaze upon him, and says, "Sheldon, come home!"


Friday, September 17, 2010

Nothing to Cling To

Dharma teacher Rodney Smith once told the story of meeting a Tibetan monk in at Ajahn Buddhadhasa's monastery in Southeast Asia. At the time, Rodney was himself a monk at the monastery, and he queried the Tibetan visitor about what kind of practice he employed. The Tibetan monk began to tell Rodney about all of his various practices and observances. The monk told about his devotional practices for a whole pantheon of different deities and imagery meditations using tankhas. There were complex mantra practices given to him by his guru, for whom he had extreme devotion. According to Rodney, "He probably talked an hour non-stop. I was just amazed. And I have to say, I was quite envious of him and all the things I could do. Then he asked me about my practices, and because I couldn't think fast enough and come up with anything more exciting I said, 'Well, I just try to see things as they are'. He was not impressed."

We cannot comment upon the Tibetan monks practice, because we do not know his experience of it. But Rodney now says that he is very proud of that phrase, "I just try to see things as they are." As he puts it, "There are not a lot of trappings [in the practice of vipassana]. There are not a lot of inducements or activity. And as I began to understand the mind more clearly, I began to understand how it is that need for activity is really a need for self-perpetuation. And this practice doesn't hold a lot of that."

When we practice vipassana meditation, we are left with nothing to cling to. We can't cling to the feeling of the breath. We can't cling to any experience that arises because it will change or go away. We cannot hold onto the pleasant; we cannot push away the unpleasant. All we are left with is to see things as they are.


Thursday, September 16, 2010


During a dharma talk at a retreat, Jack Kornfield once asked rhetorically if anyone in the group had ever experienced anything that was permanent and lasting. Surprisingly, a retreatant raised his hand and said, "Ignorance. It's been with me all my life!"

To paraphrase Frank Zappa, "Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more ignorance than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe."


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Two Boats and a Helicopter

During a torrential rainstorm, a man is sitting on his front porch as flood waters begin to rise. A woman floats by in a boat, asking if the man needs help. "No, thank you," says the man, "I'm trusting in the Lord." The water rises higher, sending the man upstairs. Pretty soon, a raft full of people floats by his second story window. "Get in," they say, "there's plenty of room." "No thanks," says the man, "I'm trusting in the Lord." The water keeps rising, pushing the man up onto the roof. A helicopter swoops in and hovers overhead, lowering its ladder for the man. "Thanks anyway," shouts the man, "I'm trusting in the Lord." Finally, the man is swept away in the torrent and drowns. At the gates of Heaven, the man says to God, "I put all my trust in you and you let me drown. Why didn't you save me?" "What are you talking about?'' replies God, "I sent you two boats and a helicopter!"


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Giving Up Hope

For A Better Past

There is an old saying that I first heard from Jack Kornfield: "Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past." Forgiveness and reconciliation can be extraordinarily powerful practices. 

Recently, a friend of mine forgave and was able to reconcile with an old friend of his who had acted very unskillfully many years ago. For all this time, my friend had been carrying the weight of his hurt, anger, and resentment in his heart. He began to feel blocked, and may have developed more than one psychosomatic illness as a result of this impeded flow of energy.

The more he became connected with his feelings as they are now, rather than dwelling in the his memories of the past, the more he felt he could get beyond his resentments. He contacted his friend, and they met for dinner at one of their favorite hangouts from happier times. They sat together for more than six hours, eventually moving to the parking lot when the place closed around them. My friend later described the experience as being liberating and joyful. He had a peace and ease that I had not seen in a couple of years, and he was now able to move on in his life.

He told me, "It was really about being conscious and present with my current thoughts about my friend that enabled me to start noticing that I was missing him and that my thoughts about him were more about the good things that we used to have, rather than about the bad things he had done.  The key thing is to be aware of the present moment -- which, for me, shifted from feelings I had had two years ago that never felt like they were going to go away."

When we are unable to forgive, that part of us that holds the pain is locked up and is rendered unusable. Nothing can flow into that part of us, and nothing is allowed to flow out. In essence, we lose a piece of who we are. In addition, being unable to release attachment to our pain in this way causes us more suffering. 

Forgiveness and reconciliation are not synonymous with condoning harmful behavior on the part of others. It does not mean we become a doormat that can be trampled upon and taken advantage of. Forgiveness and reconciliation merely mean that we will no longer close our hearts off to anyone.

I heard a story once about a group of Americans held prisoner by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. Many years after the conflict had ended, they been allowed to visit their old prison and to meet with their former captors. It was, by all accounts, an extremely emotional experience for both sides. Later, two of the former P.O.W.'s were discussing the reunion, and one said, "I'm so grateful that I've been able to forgive them. It really takes a load off my mind." The other one, however, said, "You know, I don't think I'll ever be able for forgive them for what they did." To which the first man replied, "Then it sounds like you're still in prison."


P.S. For more information on the power of forgiveness and reconciliation, see my blogs from 11/3 & 11/4/09 and 4/30/10.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Do I Hear Bells?

So I'm driving my car last week, when I noticed that every time I accelerated or turned a corner, I would hear the sound of a tiny bell ringing. I soon discovered that I had left two of my meditation bells on the back seat floorboard. By chance, they were just close enough to each other to make contact when the car moved forward or back, left or right. The bells became a little reminder to become mindful while driving. As Kathy said, it was like a little call from the universe saying, "Wake up!"

One of these days, I suppose, I'm going to have to remove them from the car. Or maybe I'll try to figure out a way to make them permanent.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Pebble in the Pond

Yesterday (9/11), I dedicated both meditation classes I taught to the subject of expanding the practice of vipassana from a purely personal, individual pursuit, to a practice with potentially global significance. This teaching was done within the framework of the 2001 terrorist attacks, as well as the recent news stories regarding the planned (and thankfully abandoned) burning of the Koran by a misguided religious leader in Florida.

When we allow ourselves to sit quietly and see things clearly, we are better able to witness and participate in our life as it is being lived. In particular, this includes the habitual and automatic tendencies of the mind to create a sense of self where none actually exists. This sense of self, of "I," "me," and "mine," is perhaps the single most destructive force on the planet. It has given rise to countless struggles between individuals, clans, religions, and nations, and these conflicts continue to this day, some spanning many generations.

If we can see the suffering of our own life as resulting from the arising of a sense of self, perhaps we can begin to act more skillfully and effectively in our world. If we can know more clearly the habitual and automatic reactivity of the mind, then perhaps we can take a moment to reflect upon a better response toward situations, people, and things. If so, our suffering will be decreased. And when our suffering decreases, the suffering of our loved ones and those around us decreases. We become like a tiny pebble tossed into a still pond, creating concentric circles of positive influence in our world.

From Arun Gandhi:
I was once told by my mother, who along with Father spent all her life working for nonviolent change, that there is a big difference between throwing a pebble in a pond and throwing a big rock. The pebble causes gentle ripples that go a long way. The rock makes a big splash that quickly disappears.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Poem for 9/11

At a Spirit Rock retreat, a few short weeks after the attacks on September 11, 2001, Phillip Moffitt read this poem by Wendell Berry: 
Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,
for I know that you will be afraid.
To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know
there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard.
But remember:
when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
he gives a light, divine
though it is also human.
When a man of peace is killed
by a man of war, he gives a light.
You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you will have the courage for love,
you may walk in light.  It will be
the light of those who have suffered
for peace.  It will be
your light.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Dividing Things Fairly

On this eve of 9/11, a little wisdom from Islam might be in order.

One day, the Sufi holy man, mystic, and fool, Mulla Nasrudin, was walking through the town when he came upon two children who were arguing with each other. They had found a bag containing twelve marbles, and they were disagreeing about how to divide the toys between them.

When the children asked the wise man to settle the disagreement, the Mulla asked them if he should divide the marbles the way a human would or the way Allah would. The children replied, "We want it to be fair, so divide them the way Allah would."

So the Mulla counted out the marbles and gave three marbles to one child and nine to the other.

(Adapted from The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin, edited by Idries Shah)


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Coming To Rest

Jack Kornfield sometimes starts his sitting instructions with the suggestion that we "come to rest." Resting is an important component of vipassana meditation. We come to rest in the body, feeling it sitting; feeling the quality of energy in this moment just as it is. We then let the attention come to rest in the feeling of the body breathing. We are not trying to manipulate the experience in any way, but we are just resting out attention in this experience.

When we come to rest in the present moment experiences of the body and breath, the restless mind begins to collect and gather (and rest) in the present moment as well. From this resting place in the present moment, we can begin to see things more clearly as they arise. For example, during this morning's meditation, a garbage truck could be heard collecting trash from the containers in the alley behind Mission Street Yoga. Very few people would call this sound pleasant or even perceive it as wanted, if it were even noticed at all. From our place of rest, however, we could hear the sound as an arising event that had a time of duration, and then ended in stillness. 

We could also see how the mind reacted habitually to the sound. First it created a name for it based on past experiences. Then an image arose of the garbage truck and trash bin was making the sound. Then the tendency to either like or dislike the sound could be perceived, and then the stories about the sound or the people making the sound arose, creating a sense of self - of "I," "me," and "mine" where none actually existed. This was merely a sound and had nothing to do with any of us in the room.

This is just a small example of the kinds of insights we can gain when we allow the mind to come to rest in the body and the senses. Where even a garbage truck becomes an object of enlightenment.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Suffering and the End of Suffering

As in yesterday's post about Rabbi Hillel, some time in the 5th century BCE, the Buddha was asked to explain himself. He replied, "I teach about suffering and the end of suffering."

In the 20th century, Suzuki Roshi said he could sum up all of the Buddha's teachings in three words: "Not always so."


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Do Unto Others

The great Rabbi Hillel, who lived in the 1st Century, BCE, and into the first few years of the 1st Century, CE, was once challenged by a would-be convert to recite the entirety of Jewish Law while standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel obliged the man. Taking his stance on one foot he said, "What is harmful to you, do not do to any person. This is whole Torah, and the rest is merely commentary."


Monday, September 6, 2010

The Uncertainty of Paradise, Revisited

On May 30, I posted a blog about our friends, Brian and Nancy, who basically left their day jobs behind to become organic farmers up in Paradise, California. This past weekend, Kathy and I went to visit them again. This has been a tough year for their little farm. Erratic weather, the vagaries of seed quality, the need to experiment and sometimes fail with new crops, and on top of all the rest, the death of Brian's father, have made things more uncertain than ever.

At one point, however, Brian waxed philosophically about everything. We had been awakened several times last night by the sound of strong winds. Sure enough, upon inspecting their property in the light of morning, Brian discovered that about sixty feet of fencing had been blown down. If it wasn't repaired quickly, it would serve as an open invitation for the families of deer in that area to avail themselves of the freshest salad bar in town.

A half-day's work repairing the fence loomed before them, along with the expense of replacing posts, connectors, and other hardware. And they still had to harvest the produce for tomorrow's farmer's market. Eventually, Brian said, "You know, when you look at all the things you have to do before you do them, they look so daunting. Then afterward, you hardly remember them as being a big deal."

"A Farm-Picture"
by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
Through the ample open door of the peaceful country barn,
A sunlit pasture field with cattle and horses feeding,
And haze and vista, and the far horizon fading away.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Mindless Television

On the road again to Paradise (California, that is) with Kathy. As on our last big road trip in May, we are staying at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Madera.

As is ubiquitous in these modern marvels of hyper-efficient modular bedrooms, each morning there is offered up a free breakfast. You can make your own waffles. You can eat egg, steak, and cheeze (sic) scramble with a side of seasoned breakfast potatoes. In a nod to a balanced diet there is fresh fruit and yogurt. 

And there is television.

The television is a flatscreen  jumbotron that sits at one end of the dining area so it is visible from every table in the room. There is no escape. As I trundle my breakfast goodies to a somewhat secluded corner (it takes two trips), the local NBC affiliate is blasting a story about the brutal beating death of a local woman and the trial of her alleged killer. And everyone just eats and gazes toward the flickering light of the screen and they nod their heads and go back to refill their coffee ("I think I'll try to the 'Robust' this time"). 

It all becomes suddenly surreal. How can you be eating breakfast here with your children and listen to this kind of story without a sudden and violent visceral reaction? Have we become so desensitized to violence that it becomes just be another choice on the breakfast buffet? ("Would you like some rape and sodomy with with your bagel?")

We are mindless, most of the time. We have become adroit androids, expert at compartmentalizing our lives. Of shutting out what we don't want to see and filling our minds with distractions until we have no more bandwidth for real loving kindness, compassion, and joy. I, too, shut out the horrible news story and tune in again when the weather report comes on. 

Maybe that story serves as a necessary reminder that my family is alive and safe. Maybe we need to know that there is justice in the world, and that the karmic debts of our past actions must be paid. But do we have to hear these lessons while we're eating breakfast?

And apparently nobody sees the irony that the next news story after the bludgeoning is a consumer reports piece about the effectiveness of air cleaners.



Friday, September 3, 2010

The Jobholder

by David Ingnatow
I stand in the rain waiting for my bus
and in the bus I wait for my stop.
I get let off and go to work
where I wait for the day to end
and then go home, waiting for the bus,
of course, and my stop.

And at home I read and wait
for my hour to go to bed
and I wait for the day I can retire
and wait for my turn to die. 
From At My Ease: Uncollected Poems of the Fifties and Sixties. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 1998.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


One of the pervasive misconceptions about mindfulness practices is that we have to release attachment to our goals or desires. Actually, having goals and desires is not something that we need to avoid. What we need to release is our attachment to the outcomes of these objects.

As I am fond of telling my yoga classes, there is no need to strive for a specific outcome, because the outcome is here now. This moment is the outcome, just as every moment is the outcome. So we set our intentions, and then release our attachment to how those intentions get delivered.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Answer is Always "No"

A handmade sign next to the cash register at the Great Harvest Bread Company in South Pasadena:

"The answer is always 'no' until you ask the question."