A heart of gratitude

My friend and Zen practitioner Maia Duerr provided me with the perfect context for Thanksgiving this morning.

Her email message for the week opened with this:

“It’s been a month of heartbreak, with terrible violence in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris. And we don’t have to look far to feel how heartbreak has pervaded throughout a great deal of this past year: too many guns, racial injustice, economic disparity, environmental collapse….
How do we find the strength to keep living and giving and loving, in the midst of such profound suffering? I am reminded of the first paragraph from Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful book, Being Peace:
Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us all around us, everywhere, any time.”

For me, Thanksgiving is always hard at best, being a celebration of the invasion of Turtle Island that led to the whole process of colonization and Empire-building that have created much of that violence and injustice proliferating in the world. Recent events – just think of all that’s happened since last Thanksgiving! – make that celebration even harder.

But if we remember that at the heart of it is gratitude, it transforms the event into an opportunity for interpersonal growth.

Maia’s message is drawn from an earlier dharma talk, How to Practice Gratitude When It Ain’t Easy, that she presented at Upaya Zen Center on a pre-Thanksgiving evening. In this talk, she presents a list from a Korean Buddhist text, Powang Sammaeron, that contains these guides from the teachings of the Buddha:

  1. “Treat illness as medicine, not disease”
  2. “Make worries and hardships a way of life”
  3. “Release is hiding right behind obstructions”
  4. “Treat temptations as friends who are helping you along the path”
  5. “Accomplish through difficulties”
  6. “Make long-term friends through compromise in your relationships”
  7. “Consider those who differ with you to be your character builders”
  8. “Throw out expectation of rewards like you’d thrown out old shoes”
  9.  “Become rich at heart with small amounts”
  10. “Consider vexations as the first door on the path”

Not a bad list of meditations for Thanksgiving.

Gate Gate…

Gate Gate, ParaGate, ParasamGate, Bodhi Svaha.

Doing the dharani this morning during my meditation. A nice round of 108 of those does wonders for one’s stress level. Which I was definitely needing this morning.

The chanting and a few capsules of “Calm the Bitch” and I’m feeling much better! Ah, yes, that’s an herbal blend with an inappropriate name, perhaps, but an effective blend and a perfectly descriptive name!

Not sure exactly what’s in it as it’s a personal blend from our friend Hsin-Hsin, a Chinese Medicine practitioner who manages the herbal pharmacy at East-West College of Natural Medicine. One of her students gave it the name after discovering its power to calm anger and relieve stress. Mostly citrus and a little He Huang Pi (Collective Happiness bark), I think.

But, back to the chanting. It’s the dharani from the Heart Sutra, one I’ve been chanting for nearly 30 years now. Its literal meaning, if such can be assigned to a dharani, is something like: “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond. Enlightenment be praised.” Some English versions include the phrases “gone to the other shore” and “having never left.”

Its real meaning is more in the sound of it than the words, and that sound can be transcendent. Especially if one is immersed in the Heart Sutra itself. But that’s way beyond the scope of this blog entry! Red Pine has a great book on the sutra if you’re interested.

Chanting dharanis or mantras is not something I do much of. It is more like medicine to me than a practice. I use it often when driving to help with the stress of that situation. I don’t think a practice built on daily chanting has the power to bring the kind of liberation, deep and wide liberation, that I see a true meditation practice as capable of bringing. I could be wrong about that, but it seems so to me.

I needed its medicine today, though.

Life has been rather loaded with stress, even anger, lately. I find that dealing with the stress via meditation and herbs is better than living in denial or escape. Much of the social malaise which plagues us nowadays could be laid at the feet of a public who would rather ignore, escape from, or deny social problems.

Much of my stress comes from the deeply sad, wounded nature of the world today. Though I live in this quiet, lovely community, word seeps in of the incomprehensible terror and pain that so many in our world, our sweet and beautiful world, live in. So many of my fellow beings, human and otherwise, find their daily lives surrounded by a hostile world of greed, anger and delusion, a world where these three poisons are taking human form in monstrous ways….

Monstrous ways that seem to threaten the very lives of all of us on so many levels. If it is true, as some propose, that we humans have developed to be the means by which this planet or even the entire cosmos is self-aware, then we are sensitive to all this pain and agony to good purpose. Which is why I think it’s better not to hide from or deny these realities. But it can be unpleasant and stressful, to say the least.

This stress can impact our lives and relationships in many ways. The most difficult thing for me, in trying to live a meditation-based life, is that I find myself in a near-constant state of frustration that cascades into irritation and anger, with an occasional outburst leading to more stress and unpleasant, hurtful feelings for ones I love.

A recent outburst and the fallout from that is a big part of my current need for stress medication! Things are improving greatly today, but the last few days were — well, not so good.

The positive side – the “wisdom side” as the Tibetans say – of this experience has been that it shows me once again how important it is to be consistent and deep and real in my meditation practice. My first Zen teacher always said that his teacher said, “One hour or meditation, one hour of enlightenment.”

Keep sitting.

Or, as that great philosopher Dave Mason said long ago, “Can’t stop worrying about the things we do. Can’t stop loving, without it nothing would seem true.”

 

 

Waking Up to Your Life

Maia Duerr​ and Katya Lesher​ are doing the online program “Waking Up to Your Life” again, starting Sept. 20. I highly recommend this program to anyone who would like to start, improve, or even just understand better a meditation-based life practice.

I’m going for a second round, in fact several of us from the beta version are planning to participate again, so that’s a pretty good indicator of how helpful it was… and how enjoyable really! They’re all really great folks and provide such a supportive atmosphere that most anyone could benefit from this… it’s a perfectly open, inclusive approach that doesn’t require buying in to a specifically Buddhist – or any other – practice.

I think a big part of it is that you begin to relate to the others in the group as friends, and it really becomes a virtual sangha. I’m hoping at some point that some of us get together for an in-person retreat.

It was very helpful to me in getting myself back on track after a year or so of neglecting, or straying from the path of, my practice. As I blogged about earlier (A New Direction), I felt able to commit to a dharma mentoring practice after doing the Waking Up program, and am now as solid in my practice as I have been at any time in the 30 years or so I’ve been trying to do this!

It’s easy to sign up and the fee is entirely reasonable – amazing really, for a three-month program with lots of support materials. Just go to http://maiaduerr.com/waking-up-to-your-life/ to get on the list.

Dieing well in America – Part I

I’m not a theist, as those of you who know me, or who’ve read a bit here, are aware, but things keep happening… things that make me wonder… well, that make me think that somehow ‘the universe’ … at least our little bit of the energy spectrum we like to think of as the universe … is involved. Is that a cautious enough description?

I know you skeptics dismiss all this as just pure coincidence, and there’s no arguing with that, it well could be, but sometimes it just seems… it just bloody seems that there’s some intention out there, some unexplained connections that wend things round to fall in our laps in ways that just don’t quite – compute.

But, here it is: Since I finished Die Wise earlier this week I’d been trying to sort out my reactions and understandings to the point I could blog a bit about it, as it has had a tremendous, powerful, upheaving kind of effect on me, and I did introduce it a bit in the last blog post on this thread, with my story of the death of Ma-mama, hoping to work into a little more discussion of the book itself in the next few days, but not knowing really how to take it on, as it’s so large in scope and really covers so many more things about our lives than just the idea of how we die, tho that is central to everything.

And then, in The Sun magazine which just came this week is an interview with the author, Stephen Jenkinson. An interview in which he succinctly explains many of the things that are woven into the complex narrative form of the book, and will make it much easier for me to get a handle on what he’s actually saying here. An interview which is profoundly powerful and moving itself.

So, of course, the interview and the writing of the article and it’s printing etc. were clearly all done long before I began to want to try to write about it… but, it is just so interesting that all this concatenation occurs … and it just makes me wonder. Because I don’t think that it was my wanting it or needing it that made it appear, that’s too facile. What I think is that all of this is of a piece and is all part of some fabric, some whole cloth in which I am a single thread.

I weave. I write, I love the coincidence that makes me part of this life.

I will be transcribing from the article here, as The Sun is not online. (In fact, its Reader’s Write feature just began this month accepting digital entries!) For those of you who bother to read this but take exception to Jenkinson’s perspective, please realize that this is all deeply complex and to understand it requires immersion in the depth of it, which any simple format makes difficult. The book is heavily dependent on story, and the full grasp of much of what he says builds through the experiential power of those stories. Don’t dismiss this. It is a message of profound meaning for our world today, and deserves full consideration.

So. What does he say? He says first of all that he is primarily a farmer. Though I’m not a farmer, this resonates with me deeply, as I come from farmer folk, and some of my dearest friends are farmers. I know this will be understood at least by them.

When the interviewer asks if he has a ‘daily practice’ this is his reply:

Daily practice isn’t a term I use, so my first answer would be no. What I do principally is farm. The farm is everything. We have quite a few animals, and they all have to be tended. When you enter into that contract of disarray called the ‘domestication of animals,’ you might not know what you’re signing up for, but you soon find out. Your job is to compensate the animals for what you’re asking of them: that they not run away; that they reproduce on your doorstep; and that they more or less submit to the knife or the bullet when the time comes. That’s the story of domestication. And your job as a farmer is to make it close to a fair deal.

If I have a practice, that would be it: to try to hold up my end of that bargain. And I do the same with the plants on my farm. Crops can be just as easily enslaved and abused as animals – and typically are.

We have our daily rounds on the farm. Whatever general mayhem arises, you’ve got to respond to it. Right now we’re in a season of heavy change. At night it can be very cold, and there’s no forage in the fields or in the pasture. If you’re asking animals to reproduce, you’ve got to make sure they’re well fed.

I think this is what you might mean by ‘spiritual”: the willingness to be cognizant of these situations and to carry the thread of grief that’s stitched into them. Domestication darkens the doorstep of all involved. Leaning to farm means never escaping from that grief. Just because you’ve figured out what these animals need in order to procreate doesn’t mean you’re the boss. It means you’re pleading with them to do so. And feeding them well is part of your end of it. It’s a subtle exchange. I believe the animals know at some level what’s going on, but they know it from an animal’s perspective, not from a human’s perspective. There’s a kind of uneasy statement of intent that flows back and forth. On a farm the connection between death and life is clear, but in most of the culture a deep understanding of death doesn’t enter into people’s choices of their manner of life or how they educate their kids or what they say yes or no to.

North Americans need a great awakening. What we thought was so isn’t so; what we once believed to be true isn’t true and never was. Here are some of the lies we’re told: ‘There’s enough for everybody; we’ve just got a distribution problem. As long as we pay the sticker price for something, we’re entitled to have it. We get a vote in anything of real significance or importance. Dying is a rupture in the natural order of things.’

With any luck at all, before you’re thirty-five or forty, you wake up and realize that none of this is so. It never was.

A fine way to die

When I was about six years old, my maternal grandmother died.

I remember the ride from Valdosta, Georgia to Dixie, Georgia for the funeral, with my mother crying and my father quiet and serious. I remember that we passed a cemetery as we were leaving town, and I realized that the two things were connected, though I wasn’t sure just how.

I’m pretty sure my parents explained to me that Ma-mama had died, though how they explained that I don’t remember. She was not very old, in her early 60’s I think, she was not sick, and her death was unexpected. She went out to get a bucket of coal for the coal grate one night and never came back into the house.

She was very dear to me, a kind, sweet woman with long silver braids that she usually wore coiled on her head. I only remember seeing her with her hair down once, standing in front of her mirror brushing it out before bed. I think I remember it so clearly because she turned and looked at me, smiling as I watched her brush her hair, a smile full of the warmth and love that defines her in my mind.

I don’t remember what she said to me, but I remember well the soft voice speaking my name, ‘Johnny!’

I also remember very clearly Ma-mama in her casket. It is one of the transcendent experiences of my life, perhaps a seminal experience in my emotional development.

In the way of things in those saner times, Ma-mama lay in state in the front room of the old farmhouse where she had lived most of her life, the house my mother and all her five siblings were born in, and all her family and friends were there together. When we arrived, my parents I suppose were swept into the crowd there, leaving me standing there alone looking up at the casket. The casket was surrounded by a brilliant white light from the white-curtained windows behind it, a light that in my young mind was the light of very God himself shining down on my grandmother.

I had always, as a child, thought that the striated rays of sunlight shining through broken clouds – the phenomena many of the old folks called Jacob’s Ladder – was God. I’m not sure what parts of my religious experience in the Sunday Schools of the Southern Baptist Church had created that notion in my young mind, nor am I sure when it was dispelled, but it was an a priori belief for me.

So clearly, the light around my grandmother was God. That seemed quite natural and proper to me, as she was probably the most Godly, saintly, Christian – in all the truest senses of those terms – that I knew. And somehow, because of that light I was able to accept my grandmother’s death, despite being surrounded by the sadness and sense of tragic loss that filled the room.

Though the memory is not so clear, I know that my parents lifted me up and let me gaze into the casket, into the gray and lifeless face that even in death was as sweet as any I’ve seen, and that also helped me understand what was going on there. Helped me understand that, as my young son said when his great-grandmother died, “She can’t talk anymore.”

I have just today finished reading a powerful and life-changing book, Die Wise by Steven Jenkinson, and all through the reading I have had this growing sense that somehow, my upbringing, my experiences, had given me a wider perspective on death than seems to be common, at least based on his characterizations of how our culture views death.

As I’ve mulled over that, the clear sweet memories of my grandmother and her dying came to me, and I realized that from that early age, I was allowed to be in the presence of death, allowed to look at it straight on, rather than shielded from it and protected from the knowledge of its universality. Though my parents surely ascribed to the “better place” mythology their religion taught them, they never let that become denial of the reality that the person who dies is gone, never resorted to the total euphemisms that seem to be prevalent in our society.

When someone died, they said so, and I understood what that meant from earliest consciousness. I think that has stood me in good stead through the many deaths that I have seen in my life, and I hope that it will continue to help me walk into the ever closer deaths that advancing age brings my way.

I hope that it helps me learn to live, for the remainder of my years, in a way that will allow me to die wise.

Finding the cushion

This has been a bad week for finding the cushion!

My wife left for her vacation to Scotland on Thursday, so Wednesday night and Thursday got fouled up for sitting, then Friday I got involved with my door project and did music night at the local coffee house with my musician friends, so the cushion got lost in the shuffle.

Though today was busy with the project again, I did make it to the cushion in the evening.

And of course, the dogs wouldn’t leave me alone to sit, plus a security company left a message on my machine that a burglar alarm in a house down the street went off and if I had concerns I could call them… well, I didn’t have any concerns until I heard their disturbing message! Then I had to get up and check, thinking maybe that’s why the dogs were so restless.

Of course, there was nothing.

I got back to the cushion and back into the meditation fairly easily despite all this disturbance.

But I am realizing that I just need to get up early, sit and then get on with the day and its disturbances. Waiting until 10:00 seemed a good idea, but there are too many things that just come up.

We’ll see how it goes tomorrow!

Real practice

I missed two days of sitting last week, and there were good, reasonable excuses for it each time, excuses not worth going into.

Because the real reason I don’t sit, when I don’t, goes deeper than these perfectly reasonable circumstantial issues. The real reason I don’t sit is because sitting can be hard. Not in the physical sense really, or even the boredom of which people sometimes complain.

Sitting can be hard because it reveals truth about me that I don’t always want to see.

——-

That’s why a real meditation practice requires more than a cushion, schedules and good intentions. Real practice requires moral courage and unflinching dedication to knowing those truths about oneself that are unflattering, difficult, even painful.

——-

Of course, that is the point. Unlike “McMindfulness” – as David Loy has called superficial practices – a real life practice is not undertaken to make one more productive at work or reduce anxiety in social situations (which it certainly will do), it is part of the heart’s commitment to living one’s life in an authentic way, aligned with the highest aspirations that we humans can generate: to be compassionate to everyone, to contribute to making life meaningful and happy for all, to being all those things we mean when we say “a good person.”

It’s not an easy commitment to make, and it’s not easy to remember that this is why one practices. That’s why daily vows are a good idea, because they keep that promise fresh in our minds.

And it’s not easy to stick with it day after day, because on the cushion we see clearly all those points of deviation from the path over the past day – and in our life in general. We see clearly all those things we’d rather ignore in our relationships, our work, our living.

So if there’s an excuse not to sit, we take it.

——-

Those days we don’t sit, though, do also show us the value of it, even in ways beyond the increased levels of stress and anxiety we may experience. Because if we get back to the cushion soon enough after the missed session, we may see what it was we were really avoiding.

And that’s real practice.

——

Related Links

My post on McMindfullness.

 

David Loy of BPF on McMindfullness.

 

My post on solutions that work for everyone.

A new direction…

My practice seems to be taking off in a new direction.

Actually it’s more of a rejuvenation of my familiar practice, though it feels like a new direction in many ways. I just began Dharma mentoring with a teacher, Therese, whose teachings I blogged about a bit in The Hybrid Way, and after the first call I’m feeling so strong and serious in my practice that I’m starting a whole new thread here on Shunyata’s Apprentice, which I’m calling Real Practice.

This path to a rejuvenation of my practice really began back in February with the “Waking Up to Your Life” online sangha experience with Maia Duerr and Katya Lesher.

WUYL was great, and got me back on track with a consistent practice, and it was through this experience that I built up the confidence to take on the dharma mentoring, which I had been considering since spring of 2014 when I first sat a sesshin with Therese. The people of that online experience, which included people from all around the US and Canada, I now consider my virtual sangha.

We were together for three months, with a website, a Facebook group (closed), and monthly one-on-one phone calls plus two group calls. Maia and Katya provided lots of programmatic material for us, and the exchanges were lively and warm. I think everyone deepened their practice or got established in a practice through the process.

I highly recommend it for people without access to teacher and sangha. Maia is online at Liberated Life Project and I understand that they will be doing another Waking Up to Your Life this fall.

After a few years of “wandering in the wilderness” [see The Hybrid Way] it feels real good to be in a stable, vital practice again. My original Zen teacher always told me, “If you don’t feel like sitting, don’t sit. When you don’t sit, you discover why you want to.” My period of disturbed, lost sitting – what the old masters called “Bompo Zen” – certainly has convinced me that I want to sit, and I need to sit consistently in order to live a productive, fulfilled life.

I am grateful to all of these people, and the people of Red Clay Sangha in Atlanta, for their support and for being there to guide me back to the cushion.

And I am profoundly grateful to Therese for giving me the opportunity to work with her in this Dharma mentoring project.

As part of this new level of practice, I am committing here to keeping a journal of my experience with practice and to post at least some of that here in the hope that it will be helpful to others who may be struggling to find a real, meaningful practice.

May all beings awaken from forgetfulness and realize their true home. Much Metta!