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.

Lojong #14 – Seeing confusion…

Lojong #14

Seeing confusion as the four kayas

Is unsurpassable shunyata protection.

This is among the Lojong slogans that I love most. It carries deep and profound meaning and can be a powerful key to awakening, but it is also one of the most obscure of the slogans.

The clarifying insight – the message – of this Lojong is at the heart of why we are practicing. Its essential teaching is that observing the process of the mind in response to life’s challenges is one of the best ways to experience the liberating insight into the wisdom that everything is empty of separate, abiding existence.

To explain how that comes out of these few words requires some translation and background.

The four kayas are the four ‘bodies of emptiness’: dharmakaya, sambogakaya, nirmankaya, and svabhavikakaya. Without going into the theory of these too much, suffice it to say that they describe four states of mind that one goes through in the process of perception. They are simply translated as confusion, clarity, relating the two, and seeing the whole.

Careful observation of the mental processes reveals this process. When one is confronted with something new, confusion and bewilderment reign. After some experience, clarity about what is being perceived begins to dawn. Then one relates the new understanding to the original confusion, and finally one’s comprehension begins to see the totality of the whole, ‘total panoramic experience’, as Chogyam Trungpa says.

Watching this happen often enough finally leads to the perfect understanding that whatever happens, this is the process. We are not stuck at any stage, not stuck with our thoughts, not stuck with our selves. Trungpa explains that in svabhavikakaya, one has transcended the notions of the birth, subsiding and dwelling of thoughts. The idea of protection is that this understanding can free one from clinging to the self and its thoughts; indeed, when one realizes the truth of no self, it becomes clear that there’s nothing to protect!

We all are suspended in shunyata, suspended in the emptiness of the phenomenal play. When the deep implications of this are internalized, it is very freeing.

Trungpa says that this liberation comes from

understanding your mind by studying and watching yourself and by practicing shamatha and vipashyana. By practicing those disciplines, you being to realize that the essence of your mind is empty… That realization can only come about when you are sitting on the cushion. Only on the cushion can you see that your mind has no origin.

(Shamatha is basic mindfulness/concentration meditation, the first stage in the meditation process. Vipashyana (or vipassana in Pali) is meditation aimed at insight into the true nature of reality. By ‘on the cushion’ he means during meditation practice.)

Mind and thoughts and all of the phenomena we experience have no origin; they are unborn, as we saw in Lojong #3. This means we can be free of much of the worry and stress and driven behavior that plague our lives. It can all be seen in a very playful, relaxed way because we understand that we are always engaged in continual awakening.



Lojong # 13 Be Grateful to Everyone!

Wonderful wonderful Lojong here!

“Be Grateful to Everyone” is such a positive admonition. Kongtrul, in his older version of these slogans, renders it as “Contemplate the great kindness of all.”

This is part of the ‘poison as medicine’ theme, or Transformation of Bad Circumstances as it’s called in Trungpa’s rendering. In this theme, the idea is that all the people and events of our lives are things to be thankful for because they are what provide us with the opportunity to practice, to follow the path, which means the opportunity to get beyond self.

Without all these apparent ‘obstacles’ in our lives, there is no path, no way to proceed on the project of developing patience and compassion, ways to transcend our normal ego-centered, reactive approach to everything. The contemplation of just how indebted we are to the others around us becomes a major part of each meditation, as well as an important piece of the mindfulness that helps us to get through the day without stressing ourselves and the others around us.

Becoming able to actually feel gratitude to someone who has hurt you or caused difficulty for you, intentionally or not, is a great transition in life. It’s not easy and it doesn’t happen in a short time, but with patience, it will come. It just takes ‘practice!’

This Lojong slogan is very close to the Christian idea of “Praise God in all things” as well as the Chinese notion of ‘disaster as opportunity’.

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 #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.

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.

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.