Friday, November 11, 2016

Light and Shadow

"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular."  ~ C. G. Jung

The 2016 election cycle has brought to light many disturbing aspects of the 21st century human psyche. Racism, mindless nationalism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, and I'm sure the list can go on... What troubles me deeply is that these issues are not in the least unique to this election, to this century, or even this nation. These have been struggles that have been with humankind since hunter-gatherer days when differing clans, tribes, and villages saw each other as... well, the "other."

These traits lurk in the collective and individual unconscious in the realm of what C. G. Jung called the Shadow. It is that shadowy part of the unconscious that seems to hide from our conscious awareness, whether out of fear or shame or simply an inability to admit that we might not be the people we like to imagine we are. The unconscious is what we don't know about ourselves, and the Shadow is what we don't want to know about ourselves. Unfortunately, all that stuff we don't want to know is what may be giving power to our fears and subsequent reactions to those fears, often in the form of anger.

What good ol' C. G. used to advocate was that this Shadow material be brought into the light and then reintegrated into conscious awareness. It's what he called "individuation." Obviously this process is easier said than done. However, we can take micro steps toward this kind of individuation every day, because the unconscious and the Shadow are almost always at play (and I use that word on purpose; the Shadow is also the realm of the Trickster). This means we have ample opportunities in any moment to become conscious of what might be driving us unconsciously.

So let's stay with the driving analogy and apply this micro process of individuation to our daily experiences on the road. Have you ever noticed that you are suddenly, and perhaps senselessly angry at another driver for some small reason? This could be a little piece of the Shadow peeking its way out of the darkness and making itself known. Now is the time to get conscious! First of all, notice that the anger is probably the result of fear. After all, we are actually in a somewhat dangerous and potentially life-threatening situation on the freeway, so the limbic system (that part of the brain that senses threat) may already be on the alert. Let's say the person in the car in front of you suddenly comes into the lane in which you are driving without signalling their intention. There will be a rapid spike in limbic system activity, and this could lead to a fight or flight reaction that might manifest in anger.

The next thing to notice is how we might "add extra" to this situation. Is the person driving a car with which we have prejudicial associations? Maybe it's a gas guzzler (climate change denier), or perhaps an electric vehicle (tree-hugging hippie), or worse yet, a motorcycle (outlaw hoodlum). Maybe we flash on the gender of the driver. Or they have certain bumper stickers or window decorations that make a statement with which we don't agree. These, and so many more micro-Shadow moments are happening constantly. And they stop having any power as soon as we bring awareness to them.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that by bringing awareness to these micro-Shadow moments we can understand their origins (e.g., why do pickup trucks bother me so much?). Nor am I promising that it will stop us individually or collectively from being so reactive and lead to everyone "just get along." It's a step. A seed. You take one step, and then another, and pretty soon you've come a long way from where you started. You plant one seed, then another, and another, and someday you have an orchard that bears sweet, nourishing fruit. And who knows? Maybe by poking around in the darkness a little bit we can eventually find the light.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Three Refuges

"True love and prayer are learned in the hour when prayer is impossible, and the heart has turned to stone."
~ Thomas Merton

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I had to teach a yoga class. I'm sure we remember that extraordinary moment in all of our lives when the unimaginable had actually happened. Like all of us, I was in shock; numb and not knowing where to turn. Not sure if I could give what my students required of me without breaking down.

The class was sparsely attended, which was not surprising. All of us looked like we had been experiencing basically the same emotions of grief, anger, and denial. We all sat in silence for a while. "There are three refuges we can seek in times of difficulty," I found myself saying. "These refuges are The Buddha, The Dharma, and The Sangha..." And so began my first Dharma talk.

This past Tuesday, November 8, 2016, another unimaginable event occurred. The election of Donald Trump has been greeted by myself, as well as my loved ones, friends, colleagues, clients, and students, with disbelief, deep sadness, fear, and anger. It has opened old wounds and resurrected past traumas (one of my students said it was as if the man who molested her as a child had just been elected President). It threatens to divide us even further as a nation.

Yesterday, on the morning after the election, Kathy and I engaged in our usual morning sitting practice. As I have done countless times over the years, I reached for the Dharma as a lifeline, and my groping hand found The Three Refuges.

"I take refuge in The Buddha; the capacity for all living beings to awaken."
"I take refuge in The Dharma; the teachings of The Buddha."
"I take refuge in The Sangha; the community of those on the path to liberation."

Perhaps right now, as was true at the time of the Buddha, the most important of these is sangha. There is, even in the midst of this very difficult time, the opportunity for coming together in ways that are as unimaginable now as the election outcome was to us when we awoke on Tuesday morning. Tragedy brings with it the opportunity, if not the necessity, to share our grief, and to find our way forward, both individually, and collectively

The capacity to awaken (to become living Buddhas) resides in all of us. Even in those people who now seem to preach hatred, bigotry, and fear. Perhaps now we need to tend to our own inner Buddha a little bit more diligently. This might best be done through practices of loving kindness and compassion, both for ourselves, and for all beings whom we encounter.

Of course, the Dharma offers many doorways leading to liberation. For me yesterday morning, it was the Four Noble Truths. Yes, indeed -- I was suffering! The origin of my suffering was my clinging to wanting things to be different than they were in that moment, and abandoning this origin required the opening of my tightly closed fist. This action led instantly to a moment of cessation from the suffering, and the ability to see things more clearly. Once through the doorway of these three Truths, the Eightfold Path opened before me: wise effort, wise mindfulness, wise concentration, wise understanding, wise thought, wise speech, wise action, and wise livelihood.

My day progressed rather peacefully, all things considered. Most importantly, I was able to give what was required for my family, my therapy clients, and my students. By turning toward the difficulty, and by being willing to move into it just a little bit, liberation is always available (at least in drips and drabs).

Best wishes,

Sunday, November 16, 2014

For Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the greatest living teachers of the Dharma for more than 50 years, suffered a severe brain hemorrhage on November 11, while being hospitalized near his Plum Village monastery in France. The latest word is that, at this time, there are signs he may recover.

In this moment, countless individuals in the world are sending thoughts of loving kindness and compassion to Thay, as he affectionately known. These individuals comprise the "sangha," or as Thay has called it, "the community of persons practicing the Way of Awakening, those who travel this path together." He is referring to one of the Three Refuges of the Dharma, the other two being the Buddha (the ability each person has within them to awaken), and the Dharma (the teachings that lead to that awakening).

Thay wrote a beautifully poetic biography of the Buddha, Old Path White Clouds (1991), in which he describes a time when the Buddha himself became gravely ill near the end of his life, but later recovered. After the Buddha was well again, his beloved follower, Ananda, told him of his despair that their teacher might be leaving them to fend for themselves. The Buddha replied:

"Ananda, the teaching is the true refuge. Every person must make the teaching his own refuge. Live according to the teaching. Every person should be a lamp unto himself. Ananda, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are present in everyone. The capacity for enlightenment is the Buddha, the teaching is the Dharma, the community of support is the Sangha. No one can take a way the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha within you." (p. 548)
Another world-renowned Dharma teacher, Sharon Salzberg, wrote in an email to The Huffington Post, "when I heard he was gravely ill, along with concern and sorrow, I had the reaction I have had on the passing of my teachers. [It is] time for me to try to be better than I was yesterday, to practice and try to serve, to up my game so to speak. I think that's something for all of us to reflect on."

It has been my privilege to have walked and practiced with Thay. His very presence has touched and changed thousands of people, and when you hear him speak, you know you are experiencing the Dharma as authentically as it can be taught in our time. He is a man of peace; a gentle soul, who walks lightly on the earth. He also teaches that his time here is impermanent, as all things are. Thay quotes the last words of the dying Buddha as being:

"Dharmas are impermanent. If there is birth, there is death. Be diligent in your efforts to attain liberation!"


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Taking Refuge

Refuge: Shelter or protection from danger or distress; a place that provides shelter or protection; something to which one has recourse in difficulty.

     The theme of this past Sunday's Dharma talk at the inaugural "First Sunday Sangha" was the Three Refuges, also known as the Three Jewels or the Triple Gem of the Dharma.

The Three Refuges are:
The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

"I take refuge in the Buddha -- the capacity within each of us to awaken."

     Taking refuge in the Buddha does not mean that we try to be like the person named Siddhartha Gautama, who would later become "the Buddha." It means that we recognize that right now, within each of us, there is the capacity to see the world clearly for what it is, and to accept this experience of the world being the way it is. In our moments of being awake, we are liberated from ignorance and suffering. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, "If we practice the way of awareness, our Buddha-nature will shine more brightly every day" (Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha, 1991, p. 185).
     Buddha simply means "awakened one," and the capability of awakening fully to the present moment exists in each of us at all times. As Jack Kornfield is fond of saying, "It is a half-a-breath a way."

"I take refuge in the Dharma -- the teachings and the truth of the way things are."

     The Dharma, or the truths about the world that the Buddha discovered during his own practice, and then taught throughout his lifetime, comprise the path that leads to awakening. Each teaching, or Dharma, is a refuge from difficulties. 
     For example, in the Dharma of the Four Noble Truths, the first Truth helps us to see clearly the nature of dissatisfaction and suffering in our own lives. In the Pali language of the Buddha's time, the word for suffering was "dukkha," which means "wanting things to be different from the way they are." When our Buddha-nature awakens to the present moment, and perceives that we are suffering, we are said to have "penetrated" the Dharma of the First Noble Truth. 
     The second Noble Truth describes the origins of this dissatisfaction, or dukkha: clinging to what we want, and aversion toward what we don't want. 
     The third Noble Truth tells us that when we abandon the origins of our suffering (mainly by releasing the clinging fist of attachment to wanting things to be different), there is a cessation of our suffering in that moment, and we are free.
     The Eightfold Path of the fourth Noble Truth offers us specific ways of living our life in order to know this experience of liberation more consistently. The steps on the Eightfold Path are Wise Understanding, Wise Thought or Intention, Wise Speech, Wise Action, Wise Livelihood, Wise Effort, Wise Mindfulness, and Wise Concentration. (For more on the Four Noble Truths -- or as I refer to them, the Four Knowable Truths, see my blogs on 7/18/10 - 7/21/10 and 7/23/10.)
     When we take refuge in this particular Dharma, we learn how to deal more skillfully and mindfully with the difficulties in our lives so that our reactions to these difficulties don't cause us even more suffering. (See the blogs about the Parable of the Second Arrow on 10/31/09, 1/16/10, and 1/22/11.)

"I take refuge in the Sangha -- the community practicing the way of awakening."

     In Pali, "Sangha" means "community." It describes we who are, in this moment, traveling this path together. The Sangha is is not just within a room. Like the Buddha and the Dharma, it exists within each person, so we carry the Sangha with us wherever we go.
     We can experience the refuge of the Sangha anywhere. Our families can be a Sangha. Our relationships. Our work. Our schools. Your local Starbucks is a Sangha. If we allow the Sangha to be within us through our own diligent practice, the Sangha is wherever we are in every part of our lives.
     Many students have remarked to me over the years about how different it feels to practice in a group rather than alone. It's true: there is an energy that is very discernible within the group experience. There is a smart phone app called "Insight Timer" which allows you to set the length of  your meditation practice, and begin and end it with pleasant sounding bells. Afterward, you can pull up a screen where you can see who else in the world was meditation with you during your practice. The Sangha in a smart phone!
     On my way to teach one morning last week, I found myself in a brief bit of gridlock at an intersection. As I looked around at the drivers causing the gridlock, and at those of us who were stuck because of it, I thought, "We're all in this together." In that moment, in that gridlocked intersection, I had evoked and invoked the Sangha, and my refuge from annoyance and anxiety was my ability to see all humankind around me as suffering in a small way. When we realize that we all share the same human condition -- that condition of suffering; of wanting things to be different -- then we truly realize that we are all in this together. As a result, the weight of our suffering diminishes, and we also open ourselves up to the possibility of some compassion for ourselves, and for others.
     In that moment, as well, we are invoking and evoking the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha within us. We invoke and evoke the Buddha by awakening to the situation as it is, and seeing it clearly. We invoke and evoke the Dharma by understanding the truth of the human condition, and by using skillful means of releasing attachment to having that moment be some other way, thereby experiencing liberation in that moment. We invoke and evoke the Sangha by affirming our essential place in the community of personhood and humankind. Like the Sangha, we are sharing this moment on the path with each other. We are all in this together.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Of the Breath

Spirit can be found everywhere. As William Blake wrote in "Auguries of Innocence":

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Or this from Rilke (translated by James Hollis):

I find you in all these things,
to which I am a brother in all,
in which minuscule seed you minutely hide yourself
and in the Great, you greatly reveal yourself.

Spirit even resides in the breath you are taking right now.

Many thousands of years ago, wise women and men - the sages, priestesses, gurus, and imams of their day - observed that living things tended to breathe, and non-living things did not. They surmised, quite correctly, that breath was very important to life. In addition, they saw beyond the physical and connected breath with Spirit (the word "spirit" comes from the Latin root, spiritus, which literally means "of the breath").

The Upanishads, the oldest Hindu scriptures, some of which were composed perhaps as far back as the 5th century BCE, contain a vision of the Divine as an all-pervading breath known as Brahma: "All this is Brahma. Meditate on the visible world as beginning, ending, and breathing in Brahma" (Khândogya-Upanishad, 8.7.1).

The book of Genesis in the Old Testament directly connects the breath with the Divine: "Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (New American Standard Bible, 2:7).

Each day, according to Dr. Richard C. Miller in The Breath of Life, we breathe approximately 24,000 times and exchange over 10,000 gallons of oxygen. Thankfully, we have an autonomic nervous system that regulates this breath for us unconsciously or we would never get anything done! Many of these breaths go by unnoticed by the conscious mind. Unless, of course, something happens that causes us not to be able to breathe.

There is a Zen teaching story about a student who comes to the Master and tells him, "I'm getting really bored with just feeling my breath coming in and going out all the time. Don't you have a meditation that is more exciting?" The Zen Master replied, "Yes. You are now ready for a greater teaching. Follow me." With that, the Master led the student into a courtyard where there was a large barrel of water. "Gaze into the barrel," said the Master. As the student leaned over and looked in, the Zen Master suddenly pushed the student's head into the water. The Master was quite strong, and he was able to hold the student under the water for quite a while, even though the student struggled desperately. Finally, the Master let the student come up for air, and as the student gasped the Master asked, "So... is that breath boring?"

The breath is one of those things in life that we can call "nothing special." However, when we pay attention to the breath on purpose, it becomes something very special. When we devote attention to the breath, we are engaged in a "devotional" practice. Devoting attention to even just a few breaths can help us connect consciously to this moment as it is, and to the Divine within.

It is almost as if Spirit has hidden Itself in the most obvious place.

As the poet Kabir wrote:

Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
Our shoulders are touching.
You will not find me in the stupas,
not in Indian shrine rooms,
nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor kirtans,
not in legs winding around your own neck,
nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly --
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.


Monday, December 10, 2012

The Action of Non-Action, Part 2

In the last blog posting, I posed a question that is often asked by mindfulness practitioners:

If we are "supposed" to simply acknowledge a situation, register our habitual reaction toward that situation, and then simply allow it all and let it be, doesn't that mean we will never take action when action is called for?

I then presented a Tantric meditation that helps us perceive that non-action, in the form of stillness, is an ever-present phenomenon. This leads me today to a brief investigation of how non-action can actually be a very powerful form of action in daily life situations.

First of all, I need to emphasize that when I refer to "non-action," I do not mean a passive reaction toward a situation or event (in other words, simply "doing nothing"). Nor am I suggesting that by practicing non-action we are somehow "detaching" ourselves from an unpleasant situation or event so it won't bother us anymore. What I am attempting to describe is the active choice of deploying awareness and attention toward a situation or event, and the awareness of the subsequent reactions of the mind and body in response to the situation or event. 

Once an event is registered in our consciousness, we have choices as to how we will respond to that event. One choice would be to allow the reactive mind to take over, resulting in whatever action the reactive mind deems appropriate under those circumstances. Usually, this reaction would be automatic or habitual - one that we have repeated over and over during our lifetime. Through this mindless repetition, it becomes more or less the default reaction for that particular experience. (This choice is actually quite passive because we are running on autopilot rather than making a conscious choice as to what to do with the situation.)

The more skillful choice that I am suggesting would be to actively witness and participate in the experience as it is happening by bringing mindful awareness to bear upon the situation before we take any outward action. By making this choice, we are actually taking action simply by becoming mindful instead of reacting automatically.  Remember, too, that we always have a choice as to how respond to things, unless, of course, the situation calls for a reflex reaction, such as being in an car accident.

An essential component of this process of "active non-action" is to bring awareness to feelings in the body during the situation or event. For example, there may be a sense of tightness or tensing up in the shoulders or throat, we might notice the heart is racing or the body is pulsating, the face may get hot and flushed, or there may be tingling sensations. Becoming mindful of our physical experiences gets us firmly rooted in the reality of the present moment, and also disengages us from the reactive thoughts the mind might be creating. 

In addition, noting the sensations in the body creates a "reflective space" between the stimulus and the response. In this space, we might be able to formulate a more skillful response to the situation (if a response is actually needed). This process serves the same function as counting to ten when we are angry. In this case, however, the entire process takes only a few seconds. It takes approximately 200 milliseconds for the brain to register the initial experience (roughly the amount of time it takes to recognize emotion in facial expressions), then a second or two to note the arising sensations.

Once we have established ourselves back in the sensory reality of the present moment, we can then turn our attention toward how the mind is reacting. These reactions might include cognitive distortions like jumping to conclusions (making interpretations before you know all the facts), catastrophizing (exaggerating gloom-and-doom), generalizing ("This always happens to me!"), or taking things personally that have nothing to do with us. In the few seconds of space that non-action provides, we can then note that the thoughts we are having are only thoughts, not facts.

So the simple process of directing mindful awareness toward a situation or event is the action, and what we often find is that no more action needs to be taken. 

We can learn this process very easily during our meditation practice. Perhaps, during a sitting, our neighbors make noise that the mind labels as "annoying." After the sense of hearing initially registers the sound, we can then notice the reaction of the mind and body. Maybe the mind personalizes and generalizes the experience. We "hear" the mind saying, "Why do those people always make noise when I'm meditating?" Then we can feel the tension in the body, or notice the hot movement of anger in the chest. Yet, as we continue to allow these mental and physical experiences to simply be, we notice that they change very quickly. We realize the noise has nothing to do with us. We acknowledge that we would rather it were quiet, but we also note that this is merely a preference created by the mind. When we return our attention back to the breath, we experience how quickly the anger subsides and fades away because we have disengaged from the the thoughts that gave the anger its energy.

By repeating this process, both during our mindfulness practice, and in our daily life, we develop a way of being that allows us to respond to things more skillfully and in a way that does less harm, while decreasing our stress and suffering.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Action of Non-Action, Part 1


After much too long an absence, I have decided to begin posting again. Many thanks to those of you who followed my Dharma 365 project in which I published a blog a day for a year, and to those of you who are new to this blog, welcome. 

I'd like to inaugurate this new phase with a teaching that I have found extremely useful, both for myself, as well as for my Dharma students and therapy patients. It stems from one of the most paradoxical aspects of the practice, and one that can potentially cause a lot of confusion and raise a lot of questions among mindfulness practitioners:

If we are "supposed" to simply acknowledge a situation, register our habitual reaction toward that situation, and then simply allow it all and let it be, doesn't that mean we will never take action when action is called for?

This is an excellent and important question that has been debated for many centuries. One important perspective on this problem can be found in the Bhagavad Gita, composed perhaps as long ago as the 5th century BCE (from my own translation, 2012):

In action, there is non-action;
In non-action, there is action.
Those who perceive this are wise;
Joining the two, one can perform all actions.  
 (IV, 18)

These slokas would indicate that both action and inaction (and in Sanskrit the word for "action" is karma) are contained within one another. When we sit in our meditation practice, we can perceive that the body is still, but that there is movement within that stillness: constant pulsations of energy (prana) can be felt moving through us; the breath flows in and out; the mind continues to be active, churning out thoughts seemingly without end. 

Likewise, when we place our attention on the movement taking place within the stillness (the place of non-action), we can witness that all of these things arise out of stillness, and then return back to stillness. The stillness, however, continues as "an ever-present background," as my teacher Richard C. Miller has said. All of these other movements - the pulsating prana, the breath, the activities of the mind, and everything else in our phenomenological experience - can be seen as a simply a movement in the foreground of our awareness, against a constant background of stillness.

This phenomenon can be directly experienced through a simple, yet powerful practice taken from the Vijnanabhairava, a Tantric text from the 7th century CE, that offers 112 meditations on "divine consciousness." The following passage is from a translation and commentary called The Book of Secrets by Osho, formerly known as Bhagwan Shree Rashneesh (1974):

This experience [of perceiving the background stillness] may dawn between two breaths. After the breath comes in (down), and just before turning up (out). (p. 30)

To experience this, just follow the feeling of the inhalation as it arises out of stillness. Feel it as it turns into exhalation at the "top" of the inhale, then follow the exhalation "downward" and notice how it "ends" in a pool of stillness. Then the inhale will arise again out of the stillness, turn to exhale at the top, draw us inward and downward to the pool of stillness, and repeats over and over again. Pretty soon, you can begin to tune in exclusively to the stillness, sensing its presence even as the breath is moving "in front" of it (adapted from an unpublished lecture by Richard C. Miller at the Mt. Madonna Retreat Center, Watsonville, CA, August, 1997).

Stillness in movement; movement in stillness. Action in non-action; non-action in action.

Of course, not just the breath is moving in the foreground of our awareness. Anything that we can perceive with the senses comprises this experience of foreground movement against an ever-present background of stillness. After practicing this meditation for a while with eyes closed, the world can look very different when we open them again. We can really sense that everything we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch is constantly arising out of the stillness, and returning back to stillness. The world begins to lose its "solidity," and we can perceive everything, from the atomic to the cosmic; from the ant to the elephant; from the single-cell organism to us, as arising phenomena in a constant state of process - a process that includes action and non-action as essential elements of existence.

In the next posting, I will examine a little more closely how action and non-action play out in mindfulness practice, and how to then apply the insights gained from this awareness in daily life.