The Truth according to Bruce

Bruce Springsteen has long been one of my heroes and favorite musicians.

I love his stories, his heart, his social conscience, his identification with real life ordinary people. I love his horn sections, his no-flash style, and his growl. But I never really thought of him as a Zen type or even as weighing in on that side of things. But now I have to go back and re-listen.

His Rolling Stone Magazine interview with John Stewart (the comedian, not the folk singer) is so wonderful and filled with such insight and wisdom that I’m giving a second look to his catalog.

Maybe it’s because of the death of Clarence Clemmons, his long-time friend and sax player extraordinaire. The death of someone close creates introspection and leads to deeper wisdom – if we don’t close off to it.

There’s much of worth in the interview, but this comment seems appropriate to a meditation guide. Bruce is talking about his development as a musician and what things have impacted him, and then this sentence drops in: “Listening, paying attention, being open – that’s supposed to be the natural development of adulthood.” Stewart makes a brief joke, and then Bruce continues: “It’s supposed to be how we broaden and move into adulthood. We’re supposed to be picking up as we go – a larger experience of our world. It’s something I’ve tried to facilitate through what I’ve done – broaden people’s perspective, broaden people’s vision and assist people in seeing through to, for lack of a better word, the inner reality of things.”

This is about as good a definition of what a meditation practice is all about as I can think of.

Several of the American Buddhist teachers I’ve read – Pema Chodron in the Tibetan tradition and Joko Beck in the Zen tradition, for example – talk some about how what meditation practice does for you is helps you to become an adult. Helps you live your life in a mature, accepting, compassionate way.

And of course, it’s all about paying attention, all about experiencing that inner reality, as Bruce says.

An interesting thing about us humans, with our human processing system we call brain or mind, is that the specific conceptual context we are immersed in – surrounded by, believe in – conditions our experience of this inner reality in some way. Or so it seems. It may be that it only conditions what it is that we say about our experience.

It’s not possible in any absolute way to know what another’s experience actually is, so we must rely on what others say about their experiences, inner or otherwise, to know them. But based on what we observe others say, write, and do out of their inner experiences, it seems that those are colored by the context they bring to it. As I’ve suggested before, I tend to think that the actual experience is the same for everyone, or at least that it is possible that the experience is the same.

But it certainly seems to be true that being open to seeing the inner reality as revealed in meditation and other forms of experience affects us humans in very similar ways. And the better, deeper and less contaminated with the things we bring to it that experience is, the more profound its effect on us. Opens us up, broadens our perspective, as Bruce says.

Which is to say, the more it helps us to behave in our difficult life situations in adult ways, unselfish ways, aware ways, ways that are cognizant of our affect on others around us – ways that are the lived out version of love.

Thanks Bruce!

“Call me by my true names”

A poem by Thich Nhat Hahn, Vietnamese Zen teacher.

This poem is my response to the sad news of Trayvon Martin’s death, apparently at the hands of a self-appointed vigilante, and to the angry, violent response this horrible event has elicited from some.

Please Call Me by My True Names

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

 

1989Thich Nhat Hahn

Yes, I am Trayvon Martin and Troy Davis. But I am also Zimmerman, I am also the policeman who was killed, and his family. I bear full responsibility for all these acts and all these deaths. I must expand to find compassion not only for the victims and their families but also for the perpetrators and theirs.

The Tibetans have so much to teach us in their compassion for the Chinese who overran their country. In the great view of things, they express sorrow that the Chinese have generated such bad karmic fruits for themselves through their violent, hurtful acts.

Only in this great view that comes from the fuller understanding that meditation grows in us can we find the way to have compassion for all these people.

Back to the cushion.

Again and again, back to the cushion.

The Vedic pitfall

Although my first efforts at actual meditation came in the context of yoga, I found that yoga – as much as it helped me – was not my path.

There’s not a lot of talk about meditation in popular yoga today, but there is some, and it sounds quite nice and very appealing. But there are problems there, and you might like to look into it a little deeper before jumping in. To get into a yoga meditation practice and then discover what it’s all based on could be an unhappy experience.

Hope I didn’t sound too critical of yoga in those last few posts… I really love yoga, and I do think it’s a very helpful thing to do. Good for your health, – mental and physical –  and good for your meditation practice. In fact there are people teaching yoga specifically to go along with other forms of meditation practice now. Which is interesting, as that was how it originated – we’ve come full circle.

I do feel that much of what is being done in yoga studios these days is pretty silly stuff. Find a good basic hatha yoga class and it will support your meditation practice. But beware.

One of my stated purposes for this blog is to help people avoid the pitfalls that might sabotage efforts at developing a good solid meditation practice. There are many, and once you fall into one, it can be difficult to get out. Hence the term ‘pitfall.’

I have some differences with Vedic philosophy, which is what yoga came from (mostly), so a meditation practiced based on yoga is not for me. Perhaps it is okay for you, but you should know what the philosophical implications of a yoga-based meditation practice are before falling into its pit.

Maybe you’re wondering why we need to discuss philosophy at all.

Many people don’t think philosophy is important or worth the effort – the “who needs it?” attitude. However, everyone actually has a philosophy. The assumptions that all of your decisions and actions are based on is in fact your philosophy of life. It’s just a matter of whether that philosophy is examined, understood, consistent, and rational – or just a hodge-podge of the various ideas you’ve been exposed to through your life, with the various inconsistencies all nicely compartmentalized.

As Socrates or some wise-guy said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Mostly because if your actions are based on inconsistent assumptions from one day to the next, you will live in a zig-zag line that makes finding happiness difficult.

In the same way, if the underlying philosophical assumptions your meditation practice is based on are not in synch with your own basic beliefs and assumptions, it won’t really work for you. So it’s important to know what Vedic (or Vedanta) philosophy says, at least in brief, before following it as a meditative practice.

Simply stated, (perhaps oversimplified, but I’m trying not to get myself in too deep here!) Vedic philosophy is based on the assumptions of atman and Brahman – the self and the overself. It presupposes that the self, or the individual soul, is a permanent entity that moves from existence to existence on various levels through the course of many many lifetimes. This is the samsaric round. The purpose of meditation, in this system, is to break out of this cycle and merge with Brahman, or God, oceanic existence. Obviously there’s a lot more to it than this, as it’s an extremely complex, ancient system of intertwined beliefs and practices.

The simple version is, yogic philosophy sees meditation as a way to end one’s karmic accumulation so that on dying one is not reincarnated into another life, but enters the state of nirvana, merging with the all-encompassing Brahman. Which means you need to believe in, first of all the permanent soul and the existence of an absolutist version of the karmic round, and some kind of deity.

Personally, I have great problems with most of these underlying assumptions. It’s another version of the theistic approach that I left behind long ago. As I said earlier, it’s not necessary to believe any of this in order to have a profound meditation practice. On of the reasons I embraced the Buddha’s teachings is that they don’t ask you to accept anything on faith – except maybe that this practice is worth investigating and finding out for yourself whether it works or not.

Buddha came from the Hindu world, and his teachings were in the context of this Vedantic philosophy. His major contribution, which came from his own meditation experience, was anyatta, or no-self, which explicitly says the self is simply a put-together thing, not some permanent entity. His enlightenment was realizing, by direct experience, that this impermanence is the nature of all reality, and that seeing it brings a great freedom and release from the burdens and boundaries of life.

If you find that Hindu philosophy is appealing to you, investigate it more deeply and find out if it works for you, if you can accept its beliefs and ideas. Then it may be that yoga meditation is your path.

Just breathe!

The call to meditation can be thought of as: “Let’s sit and breathe!”

At least that’s a very good place to begin. But the breathing practices in a yoga class are not what I mean by breathe. Much simpler.

Just breathe.

Don’t think about it, don’t work at it, don’t conceptualize it. Just breathe. It’s the most natural thing we do. The most important thing we do. The one thing we must do to make it through the next few minutes alive.

But sometimes, breathing is very hard. That’s how yoga can help. Again, you don’t really need it, but it may be helpful if you have some of the modern problems with natural breathing.

We civilized, over-wrought, over-thought, under-worked modern humans have often got ourselves into such a state that we have forgotten how to breathe naturally. We have learned some bad habits, or our tensions have created some problematic patterns in us that make us breathe in unnatural ways.

When you meditate, you want to breathe in a completely unforced, relaxed and natural way without trying to control the breath at all. If you have a lot of tensions and anxieties, you may be in the habit of shallow, high breathing that almost seems natural to you, so to overcome that bad habit you may need to work with your breath some before you even try to meditate.

That’s how a yoga class could help. Not the fancy, controlled pranayama exercises, or any of that. Just the relaxing part. The part at the end of class when you lie flat of your back and relax everything for ten minutes.

Corpse pose, they call it.

That’s the kind of breathing you want to be able to do in meditation. Not too tough… so simple a dead man could do it. Well, maybe not, but….

The great thing is, you can do that at home. You don’t need a mat, you don’t need a bolster, you don’t need incense, you don’t need weird music, you don’t need an expensive yoga teacher. You just need to lie down flat of your back and relax everything. Preferably on the floor or some relatively firm surface, not the bed or the couch. Those tend to put us into sleep mode, and sleep is not meditation.

But, for a very good example of natural breathing, just watch a sleeping baby. What moves? The child’s belly. And how does it move? When the child breathes in, her belly rises slightly; as she breathes out, the belly collapses. Notice the shoulders, the chest. They don’t move. Perhaps every now and then, a little shudder and a big breath and the chest lifts a bit on the inhale. Then it’s back to the belly breathing.

That’s how you want to be breathing as you lie on your back relaxing. But don’t force it, just watch it. If you persist, if you stay relaxed and just watch – it helps to lightly place your hand on your belly so you can feel it – your breathing will return to this relaxed natural state. At various times during the day, try to notice what’s happening with your breathing. Again, don’t try to change it or control it, just notice it. Watch it and as you watch it, it will begin to fall into this pattern of its own accord.

After enough attention in this way, your breathing will begin to just stay in this natural mode most of the time. You’ll also begin to notice that one of the first indicators of stress of any kind is that the breathing changes. A single thought can change your breathing. That change can alert you to the power of the thought, and noticing it can defuse that power.

This is one of the ways meditation can help you. When you meditate, it’s very easy to notice your breathing. Noticing it during meditation helps you to notice it in the rest of your daily activities.

Paying attention to the breath is one of the best, simplest, and most practiced ways to begin to meditate. One great thing about observing the breath is that you always have it with you! So you can meditate anywhere, anytime. No special equipment required… no candles, CDs, incense, temples… you get the idea!

Once you’ve gotten comfortable with sitting upright and found your natural, unforced breath, you are ready to begin meditation.

All that is required is to put the two together: sit and breathe!

(Well, technically, sit upright and observe your breath breathing.)

Sit up straight

Yoga is a pretty good place to start learning meditation, actually.

Real yoga, I mean. Not the pretty models in expensive tights (or not) in ad-filled magazines that are the image of modern yoga. Not the uber-gymnastic physicality that goes along with that. Not even the ‘let’s all get healthy and feel better’ kind of yoga that permeates all the yoga classes I’ve seen. Real yoga is very different, and is all about meditation, spiritual attainment, enlightenment.

The original forms of yoga are pretty much lost, (there’s even one school of thought that attributes modern yoga postures to some Swedish exercise system) but it’s clear that whatever postures and exercises those ancient Indians were doing, the purpose was to strengthen the body externally and internally so that one could pursue a rigorous meditation practice. Even Wikipedia, our authority of last resort here on the Internet, says this: The goal of yoga, or of the person practicing yoga, is the attainment of a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility while meditating on the Hindu concept of divinity or Brahman. The word is associated with meditative practices in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

But don’t go running down to your local yoga studio looking for someone to teach you how to find the state of perfect spiritual insight. They’ll just roll their eyes and smile, and usher you into the shop to pick out just the perfect outfit, mat and accoutrement. Funny to me how marketers have even figured out ways to sell us things to do yoga. All you really need is little clear space and a blanket, maybe a cushion…

(To be fair, I think there are some people who still teach real yoga in the US. They just aren’t all that high profile and might prove to be very hard to find.)

But that’s a bit off the subject. If you are in reasonably good health, reasonably flexible and strong, you have all the physicality you need to learn to meditate anyway. Yoga’s primary contribution to my meditation practice is that it re-taught me how to sit cross-legged on the floor in good posture. Which is nice to be able to do, but not essential. You can meditate sitting in a chair, or even on a couch or bed or other furniture.

The critical element of posture in meditation is really your back.

It doesn’t really matter what position your legs are in, but it does matter how your back is aligned. To meditate effectively, even for a few minutes, your back should be as straight and as perpendicular as you can get it. This seems to facilitate the energy flow in the body as well as make it possible to sit in relative comfort for longer periods of time without moving.

One way to think of this is to imagine that you are lifting everything upward, reaching for the ceiling with the top of your head. A little gentle rocking side to side and front to back will help your body find the vertical – and come back to vertical when you drift off during the process of meditation.

So the first step in the process is simply to find a good, fairly firm seat. Then sit with straight back, your neck and head straight above the shoulders, head reaching upward. The preferred way is on the floor, on a mat, with a cushion under your butt and your knees on the mat, or on some other firm supportive surface. Or prop up your knees with small pillows, blankets or whatever it takes to get yourself into a solid seated position. If this doesn’t work for you, sit on the front half of a chair with feet flat on the floor, keeping your back straight, not leaning back on the chair.

Then, just relax.

Yes, that may seem impossible, but with practice the body learns to do this. Reductionists would say, what I really mean is, relax all the muscles that are not essential to maintaining this position. Yes. But let’s not get technical. It’s simple. Just sit up straight but don’t tense up.

It’s a process. The wonderful thing – one of the many wonderful things, I should say – about meditation is that meditating teaches you how to meditate. That’s why Zen teachers always say, “YOU are the teacher!” And, too, that’s just how Zen teachers like to talk. More of that later.

For now. let’s just say, if you want to take a yoga class, great. It will help. It won’t likely teach you much about meditation, but it may help you learn to sit up straight and relax.

And, it will teach you how to breathe. Just don’t take all that yoga breathing too seriously. It can mess you up.

 

Friday, March 16

Again, I feel the need to clarify.

In the last post in the Guide to Meditation series, – Just enough – I described my entry into the world of Buddhism and the teachings of Buddha.

That doesn’t mean you should be a Buddhist to meditate.

In the Practice Note last Sunday, I emphasized that one’s theism or non-theism is not important to meditation. The same is true of one’s Buddhism or non-Buddhism. In fact, there are many Christians, Jews, and other religious folk who practice Buddhism specifically in the way Buddha described it, yet these people maintain their own religious beliefs and practices. There’s no conflict there. Buddha’s teachings are universal and can be followed by anyone. Anywhere. Any time. Any religion. No religion.

I will continue the story of my own Buddhist path in the series, and I hope the nature of that will all become clear, but at this point I feel it is important to be clear that meditation in general and meditation as I explicate it here, are not the exclusive province of Buddhist practitioners. I am not telling this story to get you to become a Buddhist. I don’t even think I’m “a Buddhist” – I’m not even sure what a Buddhist is – except in the simple fact that I follow the teachings of Buddha, who taught me to meditate.

And it seems to me that though there are clearly differences in the forms of meditation taught by different people of different religions and traditions, there are enough commonalities that we can discuss them as a body of practice. Just as there are different ways to teach the violin, the idea is to learn to play the instrument, and once one learns, many ways to actually play it. So with meditation, there are different ways  to teach it, different ways to play it.

Clearly too, there are ways that are better, ways more suited to individual idiosyncrasies and needs for teaching anything. There are forms of meditation that are more helpful and forms that lead you down a primrose path to perdition. As I said in the beginning of this blog, my intent is to help folks find a way into meditation that suits them, as well as give assistance in avoiding some of the hazards along the way.

If you have questions, comments, or scathing indictments, please leave a note! I’d love to hear from you!

Just enough

Luckily, or karmic-ly, I got an assignment with a recon squadron as my SEA deployment inevitably came up, and after a few more months of training, an emergency leave due to my father’s first heart attack, and a trip to survival school, I was on my way to Danang.

Surrounded by Vietnamese refugees who didn’t like Americans very much, Danang was an armed camp (popularly known as Rocket Alley) and there were no trips into the surrounding countryside, save a very scary bus ride to China Beach, no stops along the way. Under these conditions, I didn’t meet many locals. There were many indigenous workers on the base, and I got to know a few of them, but not well. But after a few months, I got transferred to our detachment in Thailand.

In Thailand, we could go into town whenever our schedule allowed, and there was much greater contact with the local, Buddhist, population. I was in love with the Thai people immediately. One of the workers in our ‘hooch bar’ – a small recreational facility our group shared with the hooch, or barracks, next to us – whose name (I think) was Ba, became my friend, and it is to him that I attribute my conversion to Buddhism. He was a very calm and kind man, and he patiently explained the ways of Thai culture to any of us who would listen.

I was particularly interested, and he liked me because of that, I suppose, so he talked to me a lot. In one conversation, he was relating to me the story of the Buddha watching a musician tune a stringed instrument. I don’t remember the details of the story, but I remember very clearly the beatific look on his face, the great compassion of his smile, and the softness of his tone of voice as he said to me, “Buddha say, not too much…” holding one hand up above his head “…not too little,” hand down at waist level, “…juuust enough!” …hand floating through at chest level, big smile and kind eyes looking into mine.

In that moment, it was all clear to me. I knew that this was my own miracle, my own glimpse into the mystery, my own religious truth. These words set me on the path of the Buddha’s teachings that I still follow today. And of course, if you study Buddha’s teachings, you learn that meditation is very important. To say the least.

Although, in the same way that many “Christians” don’t follow the teachings of Christ very closely, most Buddhists don’t practice meditation, – they expect the priests and the monks to do that, and they give alms so they share in the merits of the ones who do meditate – it is clearly what the Buddha himself and all of his primary followers over the 25 centuries hence teach as the thing you must do if you want to come to know Truth. Meditation is “the way” to be able to live in that realm of “just enough” all the time.

I began then, using the very limited resources of the base library at Nakon Phanom, to study Buddha’s teachings. I took every opportunity to hang out on the street near the house in town where novice monks could often be seen on the porch, or outside the gate of the local Wat Shri Thep monastery to watch the monks sitting around the huge well in the courtyard.

Without going into the whole story, I will say that being in the Air Force, especially in the American war on southeast Asia, was very hard for me. Seeing the monks gave me a sense of peace and happiness that was otherwise very hard to find in that setting.

Little by little, I began to think of myself as Buddhist, or at least wishing I could be Buddhist. It seemed unattainable. I didn’t realize then that many authors I had read in college, people like Kerouac and Ginsburg, were actually Buddhist. It seemed to me that only Asians could be Buddhist. Standing outside that monastery gate looking in, I felt relegated to the position of permanent outsider.