The power of meditation

A friend, Shabnam Gideon, whom I met at the Vipassana Center when she sat a course a few years back, recently provided this explanation of what meditation is:

Meditation forces you to remember the state of YOU that is at rest, that is real, that is healthy, and reminds you of what that feels like physically and mentally. It’s a forced inward glance, honoring what is within you and ignoring what is without, if just for a little while. The plan is that you learn to remember that state in you, and eventually carry it with you, even while you’re answering emails or prepping for a meeting or trying to communicate with tact when you’re actually pretty peeved. That state affords an equanimity that tempers our reactions to events by allowing them to happen instead of stuffing them down, preventing “bad” happenings from stressing us out by giving them their due and then letting them go.

This is very true to my experience, and a very accurate, on-point description of the lived experience of meditation as it relates to everyday life.

Writing in a workplace blog, (Focus Lab) Shabnam provides some background on her experience that took me to new levels of understanding. Her experience is pretty amazing in itself, and her words give me new insight on how meditation can be very dramatically helpful:

Let me be clear: I’m a relatively new meditator, my practice is as regular as my Crohn’s-prone bowels, and the closest thing I have to a guru is the one-eyed cat next door with a steadfast gaze. But, I have learned a few things about meditating over the past few years that have seriously helped me shape and maintain my mental and physical health.

Back in the day … working for the company that gave me my software- and web- development legs, I was struggling to juggle a demanding and unrewarding job, a town that was too new and too big for me and my country britches, and a serious case of anorexia. After months of breathtaking abdominal pain, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Fast forward three years, and I was … taking 20 pills a day, had cataracts from the oral steroids, and was weak, sick and just generally pissed off at the world.

What’s a gal to do? Admit defeat, honestly. Try something else. I’d been following a detox plan that included breathing exercises and improved communication with, yeesh, loved ones. After dragging myself through the first week, I realized I was actually in less pain and had more energy and even optimism. For real. So I forced myself to do the breathing exercises for five minutes a day.

That’s like 300 seconds. I thought my brain and body would explode from the inactivity.

But no, after just a few weeks of losing a whole 300 seconds a day, I realized not only how much better I felt physically, but also how much I learned about myself and my stress levels while sitting and breathing. I was hanging onto so many thoughts and feelings that I didn’t need to be carrying around. I kept that up for months, and haven’t taken Crohn’s medication nor starved myself skeletal in the ten years since.

Shabnam’s wonderful candor and willingness to share her experience opens the door for many who may have been dubious about meditation. And it has helped me to realize that people may enter into meditation in little ways and for limited reasons and then find that it is a very powerful, life-changing thing.

Though I usually advocate for the ‘total spiritual commitment’ approach to meditation, I’m beginning to see that other approaches are a valid part of the meditation spectrum, and have real consequences for human lives.

Meditation is truly a very powerful tool that can be helpful to people in many varied ways and in a wide range of circumstances.

Just start where you are, doing what you can do. Where it takes you depends on your karmic path and the energy and dedication you bring to it.

Collective delusion can unite us

Legacies of Collective Delusion

Delusion is one of the three poisons and according to Buddha’s teaching, is the root of  our suffering.

But as Funie Hsu elucidates in her amazing article on Turning Wheel, delusion can also bring us together. It is a wonderful article that deserves to be read in full. I will try to present highlights here in the interest of motivating you to read it.

Delusion in the Buddhist teachings is understood as the fundamental error of our mind, the dualism in our thinking, the idea that we are separate from others, from nature, from everything – as I have discussed here previously.

Hsu, a former teacher and now doctoral student at UC-Davis, relates our personal delusion to that embodied in the systemic oppression of people of color and other ghettoized segments of the population.

Drawing on the ideas of Wayne Yang about colonialism and post+colonialism, Hsu expands the notion of delusion to include our social order.

…K. Wayne Yang (La Paperson) cautions that viewing segregation as a cause of inequality situates the problem in the ghetto and further stigmatizes it. “More fundamentally,” he notes, “this view assumes the zone ‘outside of the ghetto’ to be the place of universal rights.” The solution, then, cannot be to simply get rid of the ghetto (whether by redevelopment, gentrification or other means) because racial/economic segregation is not the core cause. Rather, Yang argues, it’s colonialism.

Yang says colonialism is ongoing, and that ghettos are actually colonies, or dislocated territories whose existence in critical to the continued existence of the so-called ‘normal’ parts of our society.

They are [colonies] because of their alienation from the other parts of the city, which cannot distinguish themselves without their ghetto counterparts. These colonies are “dislocated” territories with residents who have been involuntarily dislocated from mainstream society. The violence that youth of color, especially black and Latino youth, endure in these colonial neighborhoods are a product of both racial and economic displacement stemming from the ongoing process of American imperial domination.

Then Hsu makes the leap: “We can also begin to see the inherent reality of our systemic and human interconnectedness. Even our systems of oppression are reliant upon interdependent relations to create privilege.

In other words, in spite of our delusion of separateness, our society relies on the essential interconnectedness among humans to create the class divisions that oppress us.

Indeed, our delusion [blinding us] to systems of oppression is a learned way of thinking, taught to us through many ‘benign’ lessons that illustrate seemingly benevolent relations. They distract us from understanding that individual lives are interconnected to broader (violent) systems and that individuals are connected to each other within these systems. In doing so, violence can be rendered an anomalous act, committed by one person against another, instead of being the effect of systemic oppression. When looking at our own communities, “the focus on ‘crime’ naturalizes violence to pathologized places, as something that ‘happens’ in the ghetto, rather then something that is ‘done’ to the people there…black on black violence is highlighted and institutional violence fades into the background.”

She ends with an amazing paragraph that presents this beautiful thought: “despite the widespread feelings of aloneness we all feel at different points in our lives, alienation—from the modes of production, from each other, from our hearts, from our environment—is a commonality that connects us to each other in our suffering and struggle. Though we try to delude ourselves by assuming an inherent duality from self and other, our interconnectedness remains a constant.”


Four practices are the best of methods:
Accumulating merit: … non-clinging.
Laying down evil deeds: Surrender to truth of your life.
Offering to the dons: Welcome attacks, difficulties that remind us our mindfulness has slipped.
Offering to the dharmapalas: Ask for things that will keep you on the path.

Know that our very lives are sacred in all their aspects.

This is a very deep practice, and will take you very deep into your own mind and heart. One must be clear, dedicated, and strong to undertake it. The benefits are beyond measure. True liberation, nothing less.

The hybrid way

I have been wandering in the wilderness for the past year or so.

The antecedents of that journey probably don’t merit a lot of discussion, but suffice it to say, there was a “fatuous concatenation” – a mostly illusory series of circumstances – that led me into abandoning much of my daily meditation practice in the mistaken belief that I had to clarify perfectly what the nature of my practice is before I could really pursue it.

This past weekend, in a meditation retreat with the Red Clay Sangha and teacher Terese Fitzgerald I found new inspiration and assurance that my rather unconventional practice is okay.

Terese, who was ordained by Richard Baker Roshi in Soto Zen and after eight years at Tassajara, went to study with Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village and helped found the Community of Mindful Living with him, calls herself “a hybrid.” In the retreat, we did silent sitting meditation and walking meditation indoors and outdoors, lying down meditation with a guided body scan, chanting and singing, talking, hugging, cleaning, cooking and eating meditation, and probably some other forms that I’ve forgotten.

In her dharma talks, Terese drew from a wide variety of primary and secondary source materials, laughed and joked, and told stories from her own life in expounding the truths of the Buddha’s teachings for our lives. It was all so incredibly wonderful that I’m emotional and tearing up just sitting here remembering and writing about it!

There were a number of deeper insights and stimulating realizations, but the thing I took away from the experience that has put a smile on my face and new life in my time on the cushion these few days since returning is the realization that it is okay for me to be a hybrid too! I have for some time now been in a state of near paralysis practice-wise because I felt I had been such a flit-about, such a butterfly (as they say in Thailand about unfaithfulness) in my practice, going from yoga to Zen to Vipassana, all with many side trips out into Tibetan practices, Engaged Buddhism, Centering Prayer… such a real dharma bum that I had to just cool out for a while and decide what I was.

I truly backed away from everything – though I did try to get on my cushion occasionally and at least do some mindful breathing, and I continued to practice the Lojong – with the thought that I needed to clear my mind and make a choice.

But listening to Terese, sitting with these ideas in the retreat, I realized that I am okay following my own path, in tune with the Buddha’s admonition to be a lamp for your own path. I know that all these different parts of the Buddhist world are helpful and meaningful to me, so I can draw from them all as lights along the path. Since the Zen path is my strongest, deepest groove, the tradition I have taken vows in, it seems I can just rest in that as my primary identification, perhaps for convenience sake, and consider all the other practices and teachings as expanding and confirming my way.

But in my heart, I’m just a hybrid. And I’m very happy with that.

As if in confirmation of this realization, I was reading earlier today an article a friend sent me several days ago, and here, in the Q&A at the end of the article is this:

Q: We have such a richness in the West, but for us as individual practitioners it’s also so tempting to try to do everything, to do a little bit of Vipassana and Dzogchen and everything so it almost becomes a distraction. It’s not so easy. It’s really something that attracts me, but how to deal with it.

A: Every silver cloud has a dark lining! I agree that the downside—the negative side of richness—is a difficulty in choice, and it can lead to a distraction of flitting from one thing to another and that’s one extreme. Another extreme is to say: »I’ll only take this insight and shut everything else out.« But another is to choose a practice—choose an approach that makes sense—but to draw insight and illumination from other places, and that can be a very, very useful thing. I don’t think that that needs to be a cause for too much anxiety.

What is Buddhism anyway?

This may be the best academic characterization of Buddhism I’ve yet come across:

Now when we look at this kind of panoply of changes wrought in the Buddhist tradition in the West and in Asia as a result of Buddhism’s interaction with the West, we might panic. We might say: »My God, It’s no longer authentic. It’s changed.« When we do that, we must remember to go back to ask the question: »What is Buddhism anyway? What makes a doctrine Buddhism?« Buddhism is fundamentally about solving a problem, and the problem is suffering. It’s fundamentally about a diagnosis of the cause of that problem, and the cause of that problem is attraction and aversion grounded in confusion. It’s grounded in the conviction that once we recognize that, the elimination of that confusion can solve the problem, and in a path to that solution. None of that has been abandoned; none of that has been fundamentally transformed, even though its articulation is transformed in countless ways.

This is also from the article referenced in the last post –