Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Blue Balloon

Recently a dear friend, Valerie Gladstone, passed away due to cancer. My husband Adrian and I bonded with Valerie over many things: yoga and meditation, Buddhism, spirituality, writing, music and movies, and gossip-filled brunches. Valerie's physical form was compact, but her presence was large and radiant and loving and gentle -- but, if provoked, could also be sharp. I recall such a moment transpiring one afternoon when Valerie took us to see the amazing Spanish singer Buika at Central Park Summer Stage. Valerie was a respected writer and well-connected in the music, dance and arts communities, so she got us VIP seats in the press section. A young man nearby, probably inebriated or high, was shouting over the music and stomping his feet and clapping his hands in a sad and misguided pantomime of flamenco dance. Valerie, a professional critic and a personal acquaintance of Buika, was not willing to suffer this fool gladly, and she promptly marched up to him and informed him that he was distracting everyone around him from the performance and asked him to stop—which he did. Only Valerie had the courage to do what everyone else in the vicinity secretly wanted to do.

Adrian and I felt fortunate not only to share friendship and laughter with Valerie when she was in good health, but to also be there with her at numerous points during the last weeks of her life. As her cancer progressed rapidly, we visited her several times in the hospital and then the hospice. I went to see Valerie about 24 hours before she passed, and at that point I shared with her some guidance drawn from the Buddhist tradition on how to have a peaceful transition. Later, when we learned that she had passed the next day, the news came that her transition had, indeed, been remarkably peaceful.

Today Adrian and I went to assist in moving to their new home Valerie's two beautiful Abyssinian cats, who had been her cherished companions. Before we departed Valerie's old apartment with the cats, Adrian was very struck by a small metal statue of Nataraja, the dancing form of Shiva. The woman who was looking after the apartment encouraged him to take it as a memento, something to keep in our home to remind us of Valerie.

With cats safely transported and curiously exploring their new, happy home, we headed downtown to meet our friend Stuart for brunch. Afterwards, we strolled back to Stuart's apartment to pass a bit of time before going to see a movie. As we approached the corner of 28th Street and 3rd Avenue, I spotted a single, blue balloon that was drifting slowly up 3rd Avenue, about five or six stories above the street. I stopped Adrian and Stuart and drew their attention to it.

The last time that Adrian and I saw Valerie before she went into the hospital, we met for brunch on the Upper East Side, and then afterwards we strolled down 3rd Avenue. There was a street festival happening on 3rd Avenue that day, and the street was decked with colorful arrays of balloons stretching across the intersections. Adrian and I are both into contemplative photography, and we kept stopping to take photos of the balloons and the interesting way they were framed against the sky and the tall city buildings. We also stopped to take a sidewalk photo with Valerie—which would prove to be our last.

Cut back to today, on the corner of 28th Street. As we watched the blue balloon make its way up 3rd Avenue overhead, it stopped above the intersection where we were standing and began to descend. It came down to street level and went right into the rush of traffic going up 3rd Avenue. We kept expecting one of the numerous buses or automobiles speeding by to catch hold of the balloon and pop it, but we watched in amusement as it danced between, around, in front of, beside, and behind each of them as they passed. When the traffic light switched and it was our turn to cross the intersection, we watched the balloon ascend again and cross over 3rd Avenue to the sidewalk ahead of us. As we arrived on the other side of 3rd Avenue, the balloon again descended toward the ground, reversed direction to head south, and rolled gently to a stop on the sidewalk directly in front of my feet.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

On Being a "Temporary" Monk

Someone recently asked me to reflect upon and share some thoughts about my experience as a "temporary monk." The essay below was written in response to that request. I was further inspired this morning by seeing my teacher from the monastery, Pema Chödrön, in an intimate conversation with Oprah Winfrey on her Super Soul Sunday program. The interview concluded with an assembly of footage filmed at the monastery, Gampo Abbey, which brought back many pleasant memories of the time I spent there.

Photo by Sunny Shender. The tiny robed figure
standing in the middle ground was me.

When I tell people that I was a monk for two years and that I lived in a monastery in the remote coastal wilds of Nova Scotia, their reactions usually fall into one of two categories.

For the majority of people, who don't have experience with long retreat practice or monasticism, the standard reaction is: "Oh my God. You did that for TWO WHOLE YEARS?" Watching their faces, you can see their minds boggling as they try to imagine spending such a long and intensive period of time immersed in practice, in such an isolated place, and being silent so much of the time.

For a small minority of people who do have experience with these things, particularly with monasticism, the standard reaction is more like: "What? ONLY two years? What happened?" Watching their faces, you can see them wondering why I couldn't hack it for longer than that.

One of the things that's often hard to explain to both of these audiences is the fact that the monastery where I lived offers something fairly unique among monastic institutions in the West, which is temporary ordination. Rather than diving headfirst into a lifelong commitment to being a monk or a nun, Gampo Abbey offers people the opportunity to come live at the monastery and hold temporary monastic vows for a year or two.

Like quite a few others, I came to the monastery for a year, and ended up staying for two. I went there with an open mind, not really sure whether this whole monastic thing was really for me or not, but interested in exploring the question. Eventually the answer (which, in my case, was "no") emerged in my heart quite clearly, in its own time. For a few people I knew at the monastery, a "yes" answer came to them, and they ended up taking lifelong monastic vows. So, while temporary ordination is a doorway, the door doesn't lead everyone in the same direction. It depends on their calling. Holding temporary monastic vows gives people time to listen deeply to their inner voice and hopefully find the answer that is truly authentic to them as individuals.

This is a wise approach, because I think Westerners practicing Buddhism often have romantic ideas about what it's like to live as a monk or a nun. Holding temporary vows for a while gives people the chance to burn through some of the initial romantic glow and figure out whether their calling toward that life is deep and genuine and lasting.

And in many cases, people aren't even trying to explore that question; they just want to come live at the monastery for a year and immerse themselves in a retreat-like practice environment before returning to their lives in the "outside" world. That, too, is deeply transformative, and the effects are felt for the rest of their lives. In some southeast Asian Buddhist countries it's not uncommon for young people to go live in the monastery for a year or so before moving on into adulthood.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Give Up the Ghost

Don't think that there is some "I" that needs to be moved aside,
seen through, left behind, in order for natural Awareness to be present—
as if you had to get rid of something in order for It to be here.
All your efforts to project-manage the business of awakening—
stop negotiating with a ghost. He has no currency to pay with.
It's already here. This is It. Yes. This. Here. Now.
Nowhere else to look for it. Nowhere to go. Nothing to add.
When you taste the Awareness that is already present
and know that It is you, then a smile
dawns on your face, and you know, too,
why your teachers are smiling in their framed photos.
The joke is on you. There never was any ghost to contend with.
You've only been haunting yourself all this time.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Tea Ceremony

Remain inside the storm of your own mental chatter
and you can see nothing else.
But take the backwards step into natural Awareness
and you will know that your storm is a tempest in a teacup.
The teacup is what you call "me," your personal identity,
and the tea is all your experience.
Awareness holds the teacup. Awareness drinks the tea.
Awareness experiences the tempest, too,
but without getting lost in the drama.
Vast, open, empty, silent Awareness.
The teacup is but a small thing.
Don't throw out the tea or smash the teacup.
Awareness likes drinking tea.
Only stop believing so very much in your tempest.
Let the tea be still.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Logging In to the Present Moment

One Human Journey is pleased to offer "Logging In to the Present Moment," a 25-minute guided audio meditation with Dennis Hunter, founder of One Human Journey and author of You Are Buddha: A Guide to Becoming What You Are.

This meditation uses a very contemporary and familiar technology metaphor as a gateway into the practice of mindfulness.

To prepare for this practice, find a quiet, comfortable place to sit. Relax and enjoy!

This guided meditation can be streamed here at One Human Journey. You can also play it at Spotify and SoundCloud, or download it from Google Play, Amazon, iTunes, and other digital stores.

Intro music credit: "Dub Eastern" Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Hurricane Season

Big Mind and small mind are not two separate things.
"Big" and "small" are reference points at which to grasp
while free-falling through open space.
Just let yourself fall. Trust that you are the space.

The small mind is a hurricane,
blowing with sound and fury,
circling around a non-existent center.
Nothing is really there but the energy of Mind itself,
moving in habitual patterns through space and elements.
Vivid. Temporary.

The hurricane believes so strongly in its own importance.
It has to make an impact on the world. Space couldn't care less.
Let the hurricane blow or not, and go where it pleases.
Space accommodates everything and attaches to nothing.
Only the hurricane believes in its own sound and fury.

Small mind, bent on having its way, are you tired yet
of your own blowing, spinning, wailing, contracting?
Do you know that at your center there is only stillness?
(Sneak peak at tomorrow's lesson: you don't really have a center, either.)

Do you remember that you are, have always been, could only ever be, Me?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Girl with the Skull Earring

In a dream I had recently, I was sitting in a restaurant next to a girl who was wearing a beautiful outfit, with one dangling skull earring. Some of the dream details are fuzzy, but I think I was dressed in my old monk's robes, because I was somehow singled out as being very distinctly and visibly "Buddhist." At any rate, the whole atmosphere of the dream seemed charged with Buddhist spirituality, because His Holiness the 17th Karmapa was teaching nearby. When I have dreams with a teacher like the Karmapa in them, I tend to pay attention and look for messages. And boy, did I get one this time.

Two waitresses approached the girl and told her how nice her outfit was, but gently reprimanded her for wearing the skull earring. They said the skull was a morbid symbol of death and that one shouldn't wear such symbols because they attract evil spirits, or bad luck, or something equally superstitious. At that point in the dream, I chimed in, and delivered a speech that went like this (paraphrased from memory):

"Actually, the Buddhist view would be quite the opposite. In Buddhism we are encouraged to deeply contemplate death and impermanence, and Buddhist iconography often features skulls and corpses and other stark reminders that death is woven into the fabric of life itself. Most of the time we don't think about death, and so we go around acting like we have all the time in the world. But the reality is that our bodies are impermanent, and we are subject to old age, sickness and death. In fact, we might never even make it to old age. We might become gravely ill next year or get hit by a bus today after we leave this restaurant. Death is really the only thing in life that is absolutely inevitable, and it can strike at any time, without warning — so it's best if we keep that always in mind. It not only helps us be better prepared when it's our time to go, but also helps us put our life in better perspective. A lot of the things that we ordinarily think are very important in life, mundane things that we devote so much of our time to pursuing, appear insignificant when we remember that our time in this life is short and that death could come at any moment."

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Relaxation Is What You Are

One Human Journey is pleased to offer a 20-minute guided audio meditation with Dennis Hunter, founder of One Human Journey and author of You Are Buddha: A Guide to Becoming What You Are.

  • Practice deep relaxation and mindfulness of the present moment
  • Learn to notice subtle ways you resist your own experience and move away from the present moment
  • Feel more refreshed, awake, and synchronized between mind and body

To prepare for this meditation, find a quiet, comfortable place to lie on your back and close your eyes. Headphones or computer speakers are best for optimal sound quality.

Bonus for cat lovers: 
Agneshka the cat briefly interrupts the meditation to make a special, apparently urgent feline announcement around the 9:36 mark, then settles down again after a few seconds.

This guided meditation can be streamed here at One Human Journey. You can also play it at Spotify and SoundCloud, or download it from Google Play, Amazon, iTunes, and other digital stores.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

You Hold the Antidote

During a nap today, I dreamed that a certain breed of venomous snake was killing many people. I discovered that my blood contained a natural antidote to the snake's toxin, and this antidote could be extracted and shared.

In Tibetan Buddhist iconography, the snake is often a symbol of aggression and its destructive power.

The venomous snake is running wild through our world today, breeding out of control, biting people and injecting them with the toxin of aggression. The poisons of anger, hatred and violence are destroying human lives in untold numbers every day, in every part of the world, and in some places the violence seems to be reaching epidemic proportions. 

Every human being has within them the antidote to the poisons of aggression and violence. No matter who we are or where we come from, deep down in our blood there is the same wish for peace, for happiness, for well-being, for harmony. 

There is a great responsibility carried by those who have recognized that we hold within us the antidote to the poison of aggression and violence that is burning down our world. We must do whatever we can to share that antidote with others. We begin by cultivating and nourishing within ourselves the seeds of peace, and sharing that peace with others, one person at a time. It starts with each of us, and it ripples out through our interactions with everyone we know. 

It may not seem like we can do much when we look at the scale of violence that is happening in the world. But to the person next to you who is bitten by the snake and suffering, it doesn't matter how many other people have been bitten in places near or far. They just need one person to show them the antidote that already exists within them. 

They just need you. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Return to Silence

How can I speak to You, when You are not separate from me?
I want to pray to You, but prayer would be distance,
someone smaller praying to someone bigger,
requesting admission into the vast open arms of the Other.
My mistake was to believe I was somewhere else.
It has felt like that until now.
I know the pain of feeling small and separate from You.
The torment of little "me" and all my tiresome stories,
constricting like a boa around the neck of my own fictional self.
"Let this curse be lifted." That would be my prayer,
but I don't know how to pray to You, or if prayer is even possible.
For just now, when I grow very still, very silent, then prayer
seems beside the point. In this stillness, this silence,
You are already here, and the one who would pray to You
is nothing other than You. Prayers are only words, after all,
and in Your presence words fly away. They dissolve
and lose meaning. Where words were, there is only This.
But even "This" is a word, a mistake, a label
with which "I" try to contain "You," the Limitless.
And so the only form of prayer that seems authentic
is to remain silent, to rest in stillness, not asking for anything.
For only then can my prayer be answered.
Only through silence is the one true Word ever spoken.
Only then can I see that "You" and "I" were never two, never apart.
The small, tragic story of "me" is a dream, and I am a dream figure.
You are the One dreaming. Let me awaken within the dream.
The little, separate "me" is a figment, just the boa of mind's habits
constricting around a non-existent center within empty space.
May the snake let go and relax into freedom and peace at last.
Never let me forget that these dream eyes are Your eyes.
This dream body is Your body. These dream feet are Your feet.
But now I am praying to You again, recreating the illusion of distance,
where there is none. You are here, now. It is This. Only This.
Let me return to silence, and hear what You are already saying.