Get Smarter, too!

As much as some practitioners – and sometimes I feel the same – would like to say that meditation is only good for spiritual development – liberation -, evidence mounts that it does lots of good things for us.

It may even make you smarter. And help you avoid senile dementia.

Just this morning I’m reading about a  2011 study that shows meditators may increase the volume of the gray matter in the hippocamus. Published by Sara Lazar in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, the study recommends 30 to 40 minutes of meditation daily.

The study is mentioned in an article in a popular magazine (Real Simple) which claims that meditation, as well as several other activities like eating Omega-3, drinking lots of coffee, walking, and learning languages will increase your “brain power” as well as keep the brain healthy and functioning longer into old age. I don’t know what happens if you do all five.

I’m sure these studies on meditation are valid, as the traditional sources of meditation have always said that it’s “good for you” in various ways. But keep in mind that these traditional teachers and texts also warn against making that your reason for meditating.

Trungpa says, “We are not particularly seeking enlightenment or the simple experience of tranquillity — we are trying to get over our deception.” A major part of his teaching was on how to avoid the pitfalls of “spiritual materialism” – practicing for self-improvement, self-aggrandizement. The Zen tradition advises to sit ‘without gaining ideas.’

Zen master Yasutani warned against seeking ‘spiritual visions’. “Don’t squander your energy in the foolish pursuit of the inconsequential,” he said. Ignore them; keep sitting. Perhaps good advice for us who are sometime lost in this flurry of scientific evaluation of meditation.

I think what we in this modern, scientific environment need to realize is that all these various claims for the efficacy of meditation are perhaps true and perhaps desirable, but possibly only attainable if one is not entering into the practice with the goal of self-improvement.

Which certainly fits with the notion that the basic intention in our practice is to lose the illusion, the deception, of self.

A meditation practice fairly entered into – at least in the Buddhist tradition – is aimed at experiencing the truth of existence, the essence of things, because this experience of truth will make one able to function effectively, harmlessly, and compassionately in the world.

Any benefit that flows to one’s own life is considered a side effect.

 

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.

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’.

Buddhist Christians…

Interesting article on the Buddhist Broadcasting Network – I didn’t even know Buddhists broadcasted! – about Christians finding support for living authentic lives, and support for their Christianity, in Buddhist teachings and practice.

I found this sentence especially interesting:

Sandra turns to Buddhism because she believes that its teaching of no-ego or no-self, when understood experientially and not just intellectually, is itself an essential dimension of the journey to God.

Sandra is a Catholic nun who leads retreats. She says:

“Christianity and Buddhism agree that the spiritual pilgrimage involves an absolute letting go, or dropping away, of all that a person knows of self and God. Indeed, this is what happened in Jesus as he lay dying on the cross, and perhaps at many moments leading up to the cross. Only after the dying can new life emerge, in which there is in some sense ‘only God’ and no more ‘me.’ I see the cross as symbolizing this dying of self and resurrecting of new life that must occur within each of us. Buddhism helps me enter into that dying of self.”

I do think that there are some important theoretical and practical differences between Christianity and Buddhism, but it is interesting to read about these parallels and how non-dogmatic Christians are learning to access these helpful things from the old guy’s teachings!

Lojong 12 Drive all blames into one

Ahhh… we resisted moving on to this one. It’s a bit demanding…. but so rewarding when penetrated deeply.

In everything problematic in one’s life, realize that all the blame starts with you… your uptightness, your ego-fixation… your tendency to protect this fragile ‘self’ that has arisen in your mind. 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.

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

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

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

Lojong #11 When the world is filled with evil…

... transform all mishaps into the path of Bodhi.

[POINT 3, TRANSFORMATION OF BAD CIRCUMSTANCES INTO THE PATH – BUILDING THE PARAMITAS OF PATIENCE & GENEROSITY….]

(This is maybe my favorite – at least my favorite simple, straightforward one.)

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

This little slogan has gotten me through some difficult times… like the latter part of my teaching career and a lot of other challenging situations, as well as helping me deal with the whole course of the world descending into chaos in the past 25 years, which at times has seemed to me like evil.

Of course, we can’t get too hung up on the word ‘evil’ here, else we distort the teaching. Truly, there is no such thing as evil, and it isn’t meant in that dualistic, good/bad way at all. It’s referring to our human tendency to identify anything that’s a problem in our own lives as ‘evil’ – projecting the source of it out there somewhere, some malevolent force.

Trungpa says we should realize our own richness and not be mired in a ‘poverty mentality’, not be concerned with loss and gain or competitiveness. Then we can find generosity, which is the way to awakening, or Bodhi.

Pema Chodron, one of Trungpa’s students, has some wonderful teachings on “Poison as Medicine” that are related to this slogan. It’s based on the idea that the challenges are what allow one to practice, because without obstacles and difficulties, there’s nothing to practice with, so we just be grateful for these problems. It’s challenging, but an interesting way to approach life’s nastiness.

Lojong #10 Begin the practice of sending and taking with yourself

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

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

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

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

This one is a bit tricky. But on a clear, everyday practice level it can be understood simply. When you find something unpleasant – negative emotional states or other problematic things – going on in yourself, you breathe them in. Then on the out-breath, you send out to the world some positive quality in yourself, which requires that compassionate, unselfish motivation we’ve been talking about encouraging. It also helps you feel better about yourself, because you realize these good qualities are there for you to breath out.

The idea is that this is the beginning point for the tonglen practice. Things get a bit more complicated as it develops, so it’s best to be able to be very clear about ones’ motivation and willingness to do the practice. Beginning with yourself helps with that process.

Lojong # 9: In all activities, train with slogans

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

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

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

In the Japanese, it’s:

Shu jo mu hen sai gan do, (Beings are innumerable, I vow to save them)

Bon no mu gen sai gan dan, (Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to extinguish them)

Ho mon muryo sai gan gaku, (Dharma teachings are immeasureable, I vow to master them)

Butsu do mu jo sai gan jo. (Buddha’s way is endless, I vow to follow it completely)

(Three bows.)

It’s a tall order.