Ah, just breathe…

One of my old-time meditation buddies – who practiced Tibetan Buddhism and eventually ordained and moved to India – used to say, “Let’s sit and breathe!” when it was time to meditate. I try to always remember that basically, that’s all ya’ gotta know to do this.

The trick in meditation and in success at “taking it off the cushion” is to remember to breathe. Much of the teaching and training done in any style or fashion of meditation involves ways to help us just remember.

Remember to breathe!

Yes, that’s it. Remember to Breathe!  This is in fact the title of  a wonderful web site I have recently discovered. Remember to Breathe is web site dedicated to that proposition, a site that provides as clear and pure an explanation of the process of mindful breathing and its wonders as anything I’ve seen in my long journey. In plain English, without esoteric or technical terms, Don and Jan describe how to approach this process and some great resources to help one along the way.

They also put the whole thing in the context of brain science – in a very understandable way – which makes it clear why — however you come to this, whatever cultural expression you look at — the essential elements are solidly part of the human experience.

With a long background in teaching yoga, breathing, and meditation as well as psychology, art and music, they seem like an amazing resource. Don has been commenting on my blog posts for some time now, and we’ve become online friends, but I just discovered his website – seems he was too modest to mention it in our conversations.

If you’re interesting in learning to meditate or want to improve your practice, this is a site to visit. Remember to Breathe!

Thanks Don!

Loving the world

Well into my second week being mostly off the media grid, I’m feeling a recovery of the feelings of beauty and wonder that constitute love for the world… at least most of the time!

Finding that beauty, wonder and love in all the grit and grime is the real challenge. I am working on building my strength, working on being able to engage fully without losing that sense of the worth intrinsic in life.

The universe gave me a little nudge in that direction a few days ago when I came across this beautiful passage written by a friend, Sonya Huber:

A concrete loading dock doesn’t ask anything of you, doesn’t demand that you agree with its crazy stories or its lies–and that is love, after all. It will wrap you in the baked-cookie smell of rain on warm asphalt, the earth as industrial rows of monocrop corn stretching on either side of the highway. It will give you billboard-sized abstract paintings in layers of faded paint and chipped brick and colors that haven’t been named yet. You can read a philosophy on those surfaces, can vaguely make out the palimpsest of hope in the foreign language of a splash of yellow that somehow survived around those lovely pockmarked metal walls.

Ah yes, finding beauty, love, philosophy, hope even, in industrial concrete! What a gift!

This is practice in its highest form.

The paragraph is from Love and Industry, Sonya’s winning entry in the Terrain.org Non-fiction writing contest from back in 2013, which I had missed, probably because I was going to really need to hear it in August of 2016, and would not likely have gone back to read it had I already done so. The universe is clever like that. At least it comforts me to think so.

However, why ever, it happened, it happened. I read it. And it was very meaningful for me… helpful in those little ways friends and writers have of supporting us through the dark moments when all seems lost. Reminding us that love doesn’t always come with hearts and flowers and pink lace doilies.

It’s a great piece, still so perfect for these times three years later.

I must confess, I had to look up palimpsest – tho I had an inkling of its meaning, the full definition is instructive: “a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.”

It’s a wonderful image. An image true to so much of life, especially in these times. So much of what we have thought for some time to be true and unalterable has been scraped away by the edges of life’s movement, and perhaps it is yet just the flailing about of our crushed longings, but something new is being written on the old forms, something perhaps better and more true.

If we keep our eyes and our hearts open, maybe we’ll survive these latest insanities and move on to create that more beautiful world, one that is easier to love, but in the meantime, we have to keep loving the world as it is.

As Sonya says, “What else is there to love?”

Not a political essay

This is not a political essay. This is an effort to see beyond what’s happening on the surface and align my intentions with a clearer perspective. I begin with the political only because the moment is so full of the political.

The DNC is over and the expected outcome manifested. Some of it was good, some of it was really inspiring, but taking a moment to reflect on all the rhetoric, it is clear that though there’s a huge difference in the perspective of the two parties, there is not a lot of real understanding in either of them. While I clearly will do all I can to ensure the election of Clinton, given the alternative, I kinda admit to the clothespin analogy the Bernie supporter invoked last night. But let me be clear on that: I don’t really think even Bernie would be that much different.

I know, there are  “yuge”, even VAST, differences, and significant impacts on millions of people, but I’m taking a longer view here. What all of it, including the fascist impulses rampant in our society today, arises from is a profound disconnect that has buried itself in our consciousness so deeply that we are generally unaware of it.

As many of the speakers pounded home in the last few nights, ‘this is about more than party differences, it’s about people’! Yes, it’s about people, how people live and think, this dualistic mindset that insists on breaking everything down into a “battle” that must be “won”. Like Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever”, it’s a sickness born down deep within our souls.

Beneath all the philosophical and religious views and all our notions of right vs. wrong, there’s this one thing we agree on, and that is that there is such a thing as right and wrong, us and them, good and bad. It’s only in the definitions that we differ, only in the who is what, which usually means “they” are wrong and “we” are right.

And therein lies our essential problem.

Although in Buddhism as a religion there is as much dualism and right vs. wrong as most anywhere else, somehow there’s a core there, somehow the process of meditation itself – and this core is probably to be found in many other places as well, it’s just that Buddhism is where I found it – helps one break through the surface and experience things that make it clear – in a way that words can’t truly express and ideas can’t negate – that this ongoing process that I identify as “me” or “us” is just a point of light in great explosion that has likely been going on forever and will continue forever, because that’s really all there is –forever.

This deeper level of experience (wherever one finds it), replicated and deepened throughout life, tends to snap all this political/social bullshit into some kind of relief. Tends to reveal it all as a transparent, shimmering facade.

Because really, in some way that’s impossible for me to explain or show outside of the experiencing of it, everything is all connected to everything else. Truly. Deeply. All the things we do in denial, or ignorance, or in spite of, this connectedness — all the insanity, the delusion, is the real reason for human suffering and ecosystem destruction, the real reason for all the fucked-uped-ness of this world.

Thus the great, egregious monstrosity that is American Empire and all that entails is built on the foundation of the monstrous way that humans have constructed “civilization” on top of the ruins of billions of lives, and that edifice itself is built on the notion that each individual human is somehow discrete. Separate. Disconnected.

Until we find ways to help everyone heal from that profound disconnect, born in the illusion that “I” am a real, discrete separate individual and what I do only affects me, we will go on making war on ourselves, on the rest of life, and on the entire inanimate cosmos.

Charles Eisenstein lays out this case much better than I, and in a recent essay – Of Horseshoe Crabs and Empathy – makes a brilliant argument that the implications of all this are that our energies are better directed toward the development of love for the world and action at local levels than great political or even environmental battles.

It’s in those experiences of love for the particulars of the world that we know the truth about the whole of the cosmos, he argues, and only in those kinds of “seeing” do we come to understand the connection we have lost. Feeling those losses, rather than following some set of rules or beliefs, is what can motivate and guide us to authentic action.

He says:

If everyone focused their love, care, and commitment on protecting and regenerating their local places, while respecting the local places of others, then a side effect would be the resolution of the climate crisis. If we strove to restore every estuary, every forest, every wetlands, every piece of damaged and desertified land, every coral reef, every lake, and every mountain, not only would most drilling, fracking, and pipelining have to stop, but the biosphere would become far more resilient too.

—- Charles Eisenstein – Of Horseshoe Crabs and Empathy

After Buddhism…

Yes, I have been waiting on this book for all my life.

Although I’m not yet halfway thru it, I’m loving Stephen Batchelor’s new book. I’m reading it slowly, as it’s pretty heady stuff, but Therese talked about the central idea of it during our retreat at Southern Dharma in April, so I had the basic sense of it already.

I will wait until I’m done reading before I try to really address it here, but the thing about it that has so captivated me is that it allows me to understand first why I was so sure, all those years ago, that Buddhism was for me, and second, why it has been hard to relate to the institutional versions of it with which I have been involved.

Basically Stephen says is that in the first 300 years or so after the Buddha died, many modifications were made to the teachings, changing them from the very practical, relative message evident in the early texts to a more ontological, absolutist kind of religion. And… that what the Buddha was saying is that awakening is not some metaphysical event that ends all desire and thus frees one from suffering, but a process of coming to an understanding of how to end – at least moderate – one’s natural reactivity so that one lives one’s life with a perspective that makes the existential condition of life tolerable and allows one to cultivate an integrated, authentic life.

Yes, that’s the Buddha I have always been looking for!

That wrecking ball…

“And wouldn’t time seem so kindly,
if every bright-eyed girl could be
more like you, and
shelter me
from that
wreckin’ ball… that wreckin’ ball.”

–Andrew Marlin (Mandolin Orange)

Ah yes, we look for shelter in every corner, every thought as we feel the onrushing of impermanence, shunyata filling every experience. Such a human thing.

But though it seems helpful, shelter in the long run is itself part of the damage we do to ourselves, part of the grasping for the pleasant rather than the difficult, part of what Stephen Batchelor calls “the default habit of seeing the world as being hostile, desirable or boring.”

In his recent book After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, Batchelor translates tanha, understood in the Dharma as the cause of suffering and usually rendered as ‘craving’ or ‘desire’, as reactivity. Letting go of reactivity – or creating the conditions under which release may happen, which is really all we can do – comes from understanding, he says.

To release oneself from the hold of this behavior [reactivity] requires coming to a mature comprehension of one’s mortality, of how each fragile moment rests on the pumping of a muscle and the drawing of a breath. [p. 78]

Though I’ve only read a bit of this book, which my teacher introduced at a recent retreat, I’m finding it full of profound new insights and very helpful as I continue my lifetime effort to understand the Dharma and live my life in an authentic, integrated way.

Lean in…

“So, what if instead of continuing to avoid this hurt and grief and despair, or only blaming them—the corporations, politicians, agrobusinesses, loggers, or corrupt bureaucrats—for it, we could try to lean into, and accept such feelings. We could acknowledge them for what they are rather than dismissing them as wrong, as a personal weakness or somebody else’s fault.”

Per Espen Stoknes

in:  In Order to Respond Adequately, First We May Need to Mourn

from:  Over Grow the System

In continuing efforts to “respond adequately” to any of the insanity going on in our world today, it seems this advice is profound, and in keeping with the Buddhist approach which I try to maintain.

Rather than descend into denial and escapism or the trap of blaming “them”, we must do our best to lean in – as Leah Song of Rising Appalachia sings – facing the truth of what is happening, the truth of our own pain and grief over it, and then… and then… rise up in new clarity and resolve and begin to work through the changes that we can see are needed for things to be better.

Changes in our own lives, in our own approach to the world, in how we communicate about it all. In what we believe is possible for us to do. Respond adequately.

The blaming trap, casting all this horrifying, depressing tragedy as an “Us v. Them” thing is really just a way of avoiding the hard truths of it, and worse, makes the situation worse by hardening the positions of those we castigate, label, vilify and hate. Not that there’s not ample evidence that much of the problem stems from actions that are clearly deliberate efforts to accrue personal benefit to some in callous disregard of the likely – dare we say unavoidable? – consequences.

But there’s where the Buddhist perspective comes in. The dharma teachings are full of the notion that everyone – the most vile, depraved, evil among us – has Buddha-nature and that everyone’s actions in this world are the result of causes and conditions that we may not be able to discern, but nevertheless are deeply buried in the motivations and responses of everyone. Understanding that there are things in ‘those people’s’ lives – think of how they may have been abused and neglected in childhood as a simple example – that are responsible for the actions that we see as greedy selfishness or mean-ness or evil can help one to respond to those people with compassion rather than anger and hatred.

Not that these things in any way excuse or justify actions that are harmful to others, but simply that seeing that as an underlying truth can help one respond with love and compassion.

And that kind of response is the only thing that has even the remotest possibility of touching the hardened hearts of those who are destroying our world.

Hsin Hsin Ming

Long ago, early in my practice, I came across the line “Search not for the truth, only cease to cherish opinions.” It has always held much meaning for me, though I never really knew where it came from. This past weekend, my dharma mentor, Therese, sent me this old Chan poem:

Hsin Hsin Ming, or Trust in Mind

(attributed to the Third Chán Patriarch, Jianzhi Sengcan 鑑智僧璨, from the sixth century, but scholars think the poem may be from several centuries later in the Tang)

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent
Everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
And heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth,
Then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
Is the disease of the mind.

When the deep meaning of things is not understood,
The mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.
The Way is perfect like vast space where nothing is lacking
And nothing is in excess.

Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject
That we do not see the true nature of things.
Live neither in the entanglements of outer things,
Nor in inner feelings of emptiness.
Be serene in the oneness of things and such erroneous views
Will disappear by themselves.
When you try to stop activity to achieve passivity,
Your very effort fills you with activity.
As long as you remain in one extreme or the other,
You will never know Oneness.
Those who do not live in the single Way
Fail in both activity and passivity, assertion and denial.
To deny the reality of things is to miss their reality;
To assert the emptiness of things is to miss their reality.
The more you talk and think about it,
The further astray you wander from the truth.
Stop talking and thinking,
And there is nothing you will not be able to know.
To return to the root is to find the meaning,
But to pursue appearances is to miss the source.
At the moment of inner enlightenment,
There is a going beyond appearance and emptiness.
The changes that appear to occur in the empty world
We call real only because of our ignorance.
Do not search for the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.
Do not remain in the dualistic state; avoid such pursuits carefully. If there is even a trace of this and that, of right and wrong,
The Mind-essence will be lost in confusion.
Although all dualities come from the One,
Do not be attached even to this One.

When the mind exists undisturbed in the Way,
Nothing in the world can offend,
And when a thing can no longer offend,
It ceases to exist in the old way.

When no discriminating thought arises the old mind ceases to exist. When thought objects vanish, the thinking subject vanishes,
As when the mind vanishes, objects vanish.
Things are objects because of the subject (mind);
The mind (subject) is such because of things (objects).
Understand the relativity of these two and the basic reality:
The unity of emptiness.
In this Emptiness the two are indistinguishable,
And each contains in itself the whole world.
If you do not discriminate between coarse and fine,
You will not be tempted to prejudice and opinion.
To live in the Great Way is neither easy nor difficult,
But those with limited views are fearful and irresolute:
The faster they hurry, the slower they go,
And clinging cannot be limited;
And even to be attached to the idea of enlightenment is to go astray. Just let things be in their own way,
And there will be neither coming nor going.
Obey the nature of things (your own nature),
And you will walk freely and undisturbed.
When thought is in bondage the truth is hidden,
For everything is murky and unclear, and the burdensome
Practice of judging brings annoyance and weariness.
What benefit can be derived from distinctions and separations?
If you wish to move in the One Way do not dislike
Even the world of senses and ideas.
Indeed, to accept them fully is identical with true Enlightenment. The wise person strives to no goals
But the foolish person fetters himself.

This is one Dharma, not many;
Distinctions arise from the clinging needs of the ignorant.
To seek Mind with the (discriminating) mind
is the greatest of all mistakes.
Rest and unrest derive from illusion;
With enlightenment there is no liking or disliking.
All dualities come from ignorant inference;
They are like dreams of flowers in the air: foolish to try to grasp them. Gain and loss, right and wrong:
Such thoughts must finally be abolished at once.
If the eye never sleeps, all dreams will naturally cease.
If the mind makes no discriminations,
The ten thousand things are as they are, of single essence.

To understand the mystery of the One-essence
Is to be released from all entanglements.
When all things are seen equally the timeless Self-essence is reached. No comparisons or analogies are possible in this
Causeless, relationless state.
Consider movement stationary and the stationary in motion,
Both movement and rest disappear.
When such dualities cease to exist Oneness itself cannot exist.
To this ultimate finality no law or description applies.
For the unified mind in accord with the Way
All self-centered straining ceases.
Doubts and irresolutions vanish and life in true faith is possible.
With a single stroke we are freed from bondage;
Nothing clings to us and we hold to nothing.
All is empty, clear, self-illuminating,
With no exertion of the mind’s power.
Here thought, feeling, knowledge, and imagination are of no value.
In this world of suchness there is neither self nor other-than-self.
To come directly into harmony with this reality,
Just simply say when doubt arises, “Not two.”
In this “not two” nothing is separate, nothing excluded.
No matter when or where, enlightenment means entering this truth. And this truth is beyond extension or diminution in time or space;
In it a single thought is ten thousand years.
Emptiness here, emptiness there,
But the infinite universe stands always before your eyes.
Infinitely large and infinitely small; no difference,
For definitions have vanished and no boundaries are seen.
So too with Being and non-Being.
Don’t waste time in doubts and arguments
that have nothing to do with this.
One thing, all things: move among and intermingle, without distinction. To live in this realization is to be without anxiety about non-perfection. To live in this faith is the road to nonduality,
Because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.
Words! The Way is beyond language,
For in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.

 

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.