April 26: A garden in the desert

Finally, after weeks of trying to get into meditation again, a breakthrough!

I’ve been sitting only randomly, not being very consistent in anything, trying to focus on one of the lojong slogans each day to keep my daily life stuff from slipping too far, but all the demons that plague the meditator have been active! A few weeks ago, I did begin doing weekly yoga class again, since my wife resumed teaching the class, and that seems to have helped some, but the host of problems has continued.

I suppose that sleepiness has been my hardest problem to deal with. I think it’s part of the way depression works – at the risk of making it seem I actually think demons exist, it feels like something is trying to prevent me from accessing this thing which could really help with the depression! So I fall asleep while trying to meditate.

Of course, there are other difficulties that are fairly common to meditation, such as mental chatter and finding excuses not to sit. All of them have been taking their turn at thwarting my efforts.

But Wednesday I had a very powerful and liberating meditation.

As I mentioned, I have been practicing Vipassana for the last few years, and I also volunteer to help with registering students for the 10-day meditation courses and other work at the Vipassana Center nearby. Until recently, I was there several times a month helping with various tasks.

Part of the difficulty I have had with my practice recently stems from developing a lot of doubt – not the Great Doubt of Zen, which is a positive thing, but sort of a petty, peevish little doubt about the legitimacy of my practice and whether I would ever be able to make the progress I’d like to in a practice that comes from a fairly strict ascetic tradition. This created an undercurrent of negativity that interfered with not only my meditation practice but my willingness to continue with the service I’ve been giving for the past few years.

Then just last week, I noticed myself feeling a tiny bit more positive – maybe the things I’ve been doing, the commitment to blog about it, whatever, has helped some. The tiny opening made me decide I could go out to the Center for my usual registration role on Wednesday afternoon, so I set it up.

As normal, when coming to the Center for service, I made plans to do an hour meditation after arriving. The teachers for the course were doing a meditation that involves a recorded sutra recitation, so they said I could join them for that. The recitation is a very intense and moving one which I had only heard parts of before, and I went into it happy to have the experience.

I was sleepy off and on in the middle of the meditation, but then somewhere near the end I think I went into a very deep meditation. Of course, I wasn’t aware of being in that state as it was happening, but because of what happened next, I realized I was.

There were no precursor thoughts, no context of thinking in which to put what happened, but suddenly my eyes popped open and I was very intensely aware of a single sentence: My life is a garden in the desert.

Okay, so it doesn’t sound earth-shaking or maybe not even particularly insightful. But it came to me with a power and intensity that I can’t begin to describe. As I sat there, a bit stunned, wondering where this came from – this kind of thing doesn’t happen to me generally, in fact, it’s never happened before – tears began to stream down my face as the deeper significance of the sentence began to grow in my mind.

Again, I can’t begin to explain all the fullness of the meaning as it came to me, as most of it was non-verbal, but the short version is that I realized that my negativity was really stupid. I realized that I was really stupid to not appreciate how wonderful my life is, how wonderful and precious every moment is. At some point I just asked myself, what am I doing?!?

Since then, I have felt a tremendous release and clarity about things, and I realize – not just intellectually, but in my body – that the depression was creating all those negative thoughts and ideas.

And I think I’m back.

Lojong #14 Seeing confusion as the four kayas…

…is unsurpassable shunyata protection.

This is one of my favorites. Though it is a very complex slogan that seems obscure at first, a little experience with it begins to make it clear.

The four kayas are:



–Relating the two,

–and Seeing the Whole.

These describe the four stages the mind passes through in any situation. Observing this process eventually allows one to see that shunyata is the true nature of mind, and that everything is simply this nowness.

Trungpa says there are no origins, everything is suspended in shunyata.

The brain in our belly

One of the biggest obstacles to developing an effective meditation practice is the cultural bias towards living in our heads. Most modern cultures, and especially Western culture, inculcate the value of reason and rationality above all else, creating the dominance of the cranial brain.

While this may have given us certain distinct advantages in the evolutionary spiral, it has also created a number of problems, one of which is that we are unable to feel in a meaningful way our connections with others and with the rest of the material world. It’s mainly why we have such a hard time stopping our onrushing thoughts when trying to meditate.

I have been reading and digesting an interview with Philip Shepherd that is particularly enlightening on this subject, and is in fact helping me to re-establish my vipassana practice by giving me a new insight into its true helpfulness for me.

Shepherd, who published the book New Self, New World in 2010, discusses in the interview – which I read in The Sun magazine April issue – the implications of the fact that we actually have two brains. The second brain is in the belly, a web of neurons lining the gastrointestinal tract and viscera and functioning as an independent brain. There is even a new field of medicine studying it: neurogastroenterology.

He’s a very interesting guy. At 18, he rode a bicycle from England to Japan to study Noh theatre. Along the way he experienced a lot of different cultures and ways of understanding the world.

He says the effect of ignoring our gut’s brain is a wrong understanding of what it means to be human. This misguided cultural story dates back to the Paleolithic, was enshrined in our philosophical orientation by the Greeks, according to Shepherd, and leads us into no end of difficulties. Although he doesn’t mention meditation, it’s clear that what he’s saying has great implications for a meditation practice.

He says the cultural story keeps us stuck in our heads, not recognizing or trusting the belly’s intelligence and not willing to come to rest there, unable to join the body’s thinking. “But the body is not outside. The body is you. We are missing the experience of our own being.”

“The precondition for sensitivity is stillness…. our ability to feel the whole is directly proportional to our ability to become still within ourselves. … you cannot reason your way into stillness. You cannot just decide to be still. Our bodies typically carry so much habitual and residual tension within them that our intelligence is confused by all that white noise. The tension is a result of emotions and ideas that haven’t been integrated. You get a certain abstract idea that seems right to you, but if you hold on to it too tightly, it will stand between you and your responsiveness to the world, disrupting information coming to you through the body. It’s the same with emotions. To survive, we sometimes put our emotions on hold for decades before we’re strong enough to integrate them. But they remain in the body, preventing stillness.”

Wow. I have experienced this through much of my life and meditation practice.

Much of Shepherd’s concern is for the social and cultural maladies that this disconnect between the two brains has created, the lack of harmony in our world. He conducts workshops designed to help people find a way to integrate the two poles. It seems clear to me that meditation is the best way to go about re-integrating ourselves.

Much of what he says suggests that he would agree. He says his work is about “listening to the world through the body. Once you come to rest in the body, you come to rest in the wholeness that is the trembling world itself.” He also suggests staying in touch with your breath. “Allow it to drop to the pelvic floor. Remain in touch with that still point at the core of your being.”

The Vipassana practice, which I haven’t gotten to yet in my narrative, is very much centered in the body and its sensations, so seems to be the ideal corrective for our heady-ness. Perhaps this is one reason I and many others have found it such a helpful practice.

As I have mentioned earlier, things in my life have somewhat bumped me off the path, at least in terms of a good strong consistent daily practice. This very odd and very unexpected source of inspiration has gotten me back on my cushion with a much better attitude.

Maybe it will be the breakthrough I needed.

Lojong 13: Be grateful to everyone


Without this world, without others, there is no path, thus no enlightenment.

All the irritations and problems are necessary – Chogyam says, “The details that are seemingly obstacles to us become an essential part of the path. Without them we cannot attain anything at all.” There is no chance to develop beyond self. Feel grateful that others are presenting us with tremendous obstacles, threats, challenges. Without the obstacles and irritations that reveal to us – via our reactions – the truth about our self, we would just remain mired in our delusions.

The other level of this is the realization that our own suffering is always teaching us how to be compassionate. Once we realize that what we suffer, all others are suffering too – that it’s actually all just one suffering – we are truly compassionate, not just compassionate because someone said we should be, or because we’ll get something out of it in the long run, like heaven or good karma or future blessing.

So – we can be truly grateful to all those we encounter. This is a slogan that can be practiced every day of our lives. Something to hang around your neck and try to remember in every situation that arises. Such a practice can be transforming. Instead of becoming irritated, we go to gratitude. Crazy wisdom. Poison as Medicine. Liberation.

For example, when someone makes you angry, thank them for revealing to you that you have this reactive spot that can be pricked into such response. Then focus on the sensations accompanying the ‘anger’ and suddenly you are no longer focusing on the object, and then the anger itself begins to subside.

In fact, if there were only one slogan, this would probably be it. If you can remember this one, it will be enough. If you can only practice one thing, practice this. Notice that like Indra’s Net, this point refracts and reflects all the other points…

Analogs to this include: “Praise God in all things!” (St. Paul) “Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.”

Lojong #12: Drive all blames into one

All the blame starts with ourselves… our uptightness, our ego-fixation… our tendency to protect this fragile ‘self’ that has arisen in our minds. Accepting the blame for what goes wrong in your life is the only way to enter the bodhisattva path. Then it may be possible to realize the truth of our own self- reification.

This can also defuse a tense situation, can open it up so that others are not defensive, thus communication is possible… then others may be able to accept and acknowledge their own errors.

This is Poison as Medicine again – by absorbing the poison in a situation, we make the rest of the situation medicine. This works at the personal level, and is also key to solving the great social ills, moving toward realizing an enlightened society.

J. Kongtrul says, no one else is to blame; this self-cherishing attitude is to blame. I shall do whatever I can to subdue it.

Lojong #11: When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi


Whatever occurs in your life can be transformed into a part of your wakefulness. The way to do this is to incorporate the obstacles, the distractions, the difficulties… make them the substance of your practice. Whatever is hardest for you is the thing from which you can benefit most…

This little slogan has gotten me through some difficult times… like the latter part of my teaching career and a lot of other challenging situations, as well as helping me deal with the whole course of the world descending into chaos in the past 25 years. The world is truly filled with evil, but we can transform it.

This is part of the whole “Poison as Medicine” teaching that Pema Chodron does. It’s based on the idea that the challenges are what allow one to practice. More about that later.

Lojong #10: Begin the sequence of sending & taking with yourself

“Whenever anything happens, the first thing to do is take the pain on yourself.” (Trungpa) — Give up the good feelings so someone else can benefit. This is connected with developing the Paramita of Discipline. Open your territory completely, let go of everything.

Kongtrul says: Take on all the suffering that will come to you in the future, then you’ll be able to take on others’ suffering.

Radical stuff. Like the Tibetan mountain paths, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

But it’s probably the best program ever devised for helping yourself learn to be more compassionate to others…

Lojong # 9: In all activities, train with slogans

In daily life, use the lojong slogans to help you put words to “the first thought” (as in arising anger, etc.). When the feeling of I-ness hits, Trungpa suggests we think: “May I receive all evils and my virtues go to others; profit and victory to others, loss and defeat to myself.”

Sort of a corrective for the usual tendencies, such as putting self first. A little additional help may come from using something like this with your morning vows: “I vow to pursue Bodhichitta and develop a sense of gentleness toward self and others; I promise not to blame others but to take their pain on myself; I vow to put others before self.”

It may seem impossible, but the nature of the Bodhisattva vow is – simply interpreted – that you vow to do what you know can’t be done. Such as save all the innumerable sentient beings on the planet, extinguish your inexhaustible delusions, master the immeasurable Dhamma teachings, and follow completely the Buddha’s endless way.

In the Japanese, it’s:

Shu jo mu hen sai gan do,

Bon no mu hen sai gan dan,

Ho mon muryo sai gan gaku,

Butsu do mu jo sai gan jo.

(Three bows.)

It’s a tall order.

Lojang #8 Three objects, three poisons, three seeds of virtue

This one seems obscure at first, but is really very accessible… and very powerful. It can change your life, all by itself.

The three objects are friends, enemies and neutrals…

The three poisons are craving, aggression, ignorance (which are  sometimes rendered as: passion/anger/delusion or attachment/aversion/indifference).

The three virtues are the wisdom sides of the three poisons – i.e., ‘the flip side’! What this means is, the wisdom you gain from observing carefully when you experience the three poisons. On one level, this is the post-meditation/everyday life version of tonglen, and can be practiced fully only when tonglen is understood. Basically this amounts to uncoupling from the objects of your emotions and attachments and realizing that without the objects, the passions have no power…

But the simple, straightforward level, the accessible version of this is to realize that whatever bad experiences you are in at this moment can teach you what suffering is for others and thus help you develop understanding, insight or wisdom (panna) — and thus compassion for others.

A simple personal example: I was driving to work a few days ago in a very stressed state due to a combination of circumstances too complicated and mundane to go into, but suffice it to say I was so stressed that I began to wonder if I was safe to drive. As I was driving along, I realized that many of the people around me on the road must be experiencing the same kinds of stress, and that indeed that stress could be the source of many of the frightening and annoying things that other drivers often do  – things that typically get an angry or at least contemptuous response from me. Seeing how this stress could be affecting others, I realized I was able to tap into a source of compassion for them which is helping me be less annoyed and much more equanimous in my daily drive.

Lojong #7 Sending and taking should be practiced alternately…

… These two should ride the breath.


This is a simple description of the very advanced practice of tonglen, which is the main practice in developing relative Bodhichitta, awakened heart. Extensive practice in basic meditation, beginning with awareness of breath (anapana in Pali, shamatha in Tibetan), is essential before attempting this practice. A solid background in Metta practice, the practice of sending loving-kindness and compassion out to all the world, is also very helpful, as tonglen can be very dark and overwhelming otherwise.

The practice involves taking into oneself with each inhalation all the bad in one’s surroundings (eventually the world) and sending out with each exhalation all the good one has, actually transforming the bad in the environment into good and giving it away.

This turns the natural tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain on its head, and generally seems absurd to the conventional consciousness. After some years of meditation and observation of the practice, one will usually come to an understanding of its wisdom and transformational power.

Pema Chodron writes about tonglen in her wonderful book The Wisdom of No Escape.

I’m not suggesting that anyone try this, but if you do please read what Trungpa and Pema have to say about it. I’m introducing it here because this is a foundational notion in much of the lojong practice: the idea that one can take negative energies or situations and transform them, simply by one’s willingness to do so – not thru any kind of occult powers or anything. It’s a powerful idea.