Monday, February 16, 2015

Truthfulness in Yoga and Buddhism

This is part one in a series of articles examining key principles of Yoga and Buddhism.

Today many people in the West approach Yoga primarily as a physical practice for training the body, and meditation as a tool for subduing the mind's noise and cultivating peace. These are fine goals in themselves, but they really only begin to scratch the surface.

Looking at Yoga and meditation in this way is sort of like looking at the small tip of an iceberg that sits above the surface of the water and believing you’ve seen the whole iceberg. There is so much more hidden down below — in fact, you may be missing about 95% of the iceberg.

In a gym Yoga class or in a contemporary mindfulness seminar, you’re not likely to hear the teacher speak much about morality and ethics. But that’s actually where both of these paths begin.

In Buddhism (which is the source of most contemporary meditation and mindfulness techniques), meditation is actually the second of three areas of training: Shila (Ethical Conduct), Samadhi (Meditation), and Prajña (Insight or Wisdom). Without the foundation of following certain ethical principles, it’s difficult or impossible to cultivate the higher states of meditation and insight that lead to spiritual freedom and awakening.

In the classical Yoga tradition, the same is true. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras lay out an eightfold path called ashtanga, more commonly known as the eight limbs of Yoga (ashta = eight and anga = limb). The first limb of Patanjali’s Yoga is Yama, the ethical standards that a Yogi should follow. The physical asana practice is the third limb, and its intention is not only to care for the body but to cultivate the discipline and focus necessary to approach the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th limbs of Yoga, all of which are concerned with meditation and insight.

To put it simply, without ethics your life is a mess — and you are haunted by the mess. You harm yourself and others with your thoughts, words and actions, and the consequences of this behavior torment your mind and body. The apple is rotten from the inside, and no amount of polishing its surface with asana practice or meditation is going to make it edible. The ethical precepts in Buddhism and Yoga restore the apple to a wholesome state, from the inside out.

The ethical principles from each tradition are largely the same. I’ll focus here on just one of them: Truthfulness.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Paper Bags

A birthday poem written by the old bag labeled Dennis Hunter.

This being human is a paper shopping bag.
Inside the bag is a parcel we carry from womb to tomb.
Most of our lives are spent staring at the bag,
identifying with the label it represents: “me.”
We build our lives around a brand, a fiction,
proudly sporting it through the world
and comparing it to other people’s brands.
We all want to have the best brand, to be seen
carrying the shopping bag with the finest label.
We have forgotten the purpose of a shopping bag,
and confused the bag and the brand with what's inside.
Stop for a moment, dissociate yourself from this bag of bones
and all the labels and brands it represents, and look inside.
Try to remember why you picked up a shopping bag
in the first place, and what it contains.
It’s raining now, and your paper bag is wet.
Already its fibers are weakening; soon it will break
and spill its contents into the street.
Don’t wait until then to open the parcel and see what's inside.
Open it now!
You’ve forgotten you ever went shopping in the first place,
and here you are, crying out against the rain,
holding a disintegrating bag from the great Store.

But this is where the metaphor breaks down…

The parcel in your bag is not something you bought,
for you cannot acquire or own what you are.
The parcel is you, and you never left the Store with it.
You only carried it around for a little while
in a shopping bag made of space, time and flesh,
from one part of the Store to another:
this laughable parade of paper bags and colorful logos.
You can neither purchase nor shoplift yourself.
Nothing ever leaves the Store, but everything returns to it.
Remember this, and be free from the illusion
of imprisonment inside a crumbling bag of bones, skin and personality.
Forget your brand, remember this, and embrace the deathless state.
The great Store, and everything in it, is you.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Finding Your True Spiritual Path

There is no one-size-fits-all spiritual path; for each of us, it is an individual and personal journey. Join Dennis Hunter for an intimate exploration of what it means to be on the spiritual path today, the thorny relationship between spirituality and religion, and how to navigate towards the teachings that are most meaningful and transformative for you. Streaming audio: 33 minutes.

To download an MP3 file of this talk and other recordings by Dennis Hunter, search iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, CDBaby, and other major audio retailers. See the Audio page for links.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Forgiveness: The F Word (Streaming Audio)

Forgiveness is fundamental to our well-being and our spiritual growth, and is central to the teachings of Jesus, Buddha, and other spiritual figures. So why do we so often forget (or refuse) to put it into practice?

At this time of year we hear a lot of Hallmark card rhetoric about peace on Earth and goodwill towards men. But that very peace and goodwill begins in your own heart, and it expands outward from there. Forgive those who have trespassed against you, just as you would wish to be forgiven for your trespasses. Forgiveness and compassion are the prerequisites to peace on earth. Start where you are. Who can you forgive right now, in this very moment? And how would that change your experience of the world? Holy child, what in the hell are you waiting for? Be the change you want to see in the world.

Join Dennis Hunter for a free 37-minute satsang (dharma talk) exploring the stickiness of resentments, the freedom of letting go, and the vital role of forgiveness in spiritual awakening. Adapted from material presented in Chapter 13 of You Are Buddha: A Guide to Becoming What You Are.

Recorded on Christmas Eve, 2014.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Skiing, Meditation, Yoga, and Sex

Skiing, Meditation, Yoga and Sex. What do these four things have in common? They each get better in direct proportion to the degree to which you relax. Sure, you need to learn certain skills, and you have to practice. You need a good instructor when you're learning, and whatever equipment is involved needs to fit comfortably and make you feel supported and safe. But at some point, after you've gained a certain level of proficiency and ease with the practice, it's no longer about the equipment or the techniques or the instructions. It's about you, your body and mind, and your world. Your willingness and dedication to show up and keep facing your fears and obstacles, your failures as well as your bliss and triumphs. Whether it's skiing or yoga or meditation or sex, you will experience all of these highs and lows, sometimes all within the space of a few minutes. 

But what's the difference between a miserable run of terror down the mountainside, and one that brings bliss, joy and a heightened sense of aliveness and embodiment and connection to your world and your life? It's your state of mind while you are on the mountain. Your presence, your mindfulness and awareness, your open eyes and open heart, and the magic ingredient: relaxation. If you don't relax, you will be terrorized by the experience. And at some point the practice will ask you (no, it will demand of you) that you step outside your comfort zone, into your fears. That's as true of yoga or meditation or sex as it is of skiing. Is there anything in life of which it isn't true? 

A Tibetan meditation master once said, "Little relaxation, little meditation. Middling relaxation, middling meditation. Great relaxation, great meditation." All the techniques and props and rituals and instructions are really there as guides to help us get to the point where we can finally just let go, drop our resistance and relax into the present moment. And when we relax, we might be surprised to find how much bliss there is to be experienced right here in the present moment, even on the mountainside that formerly provoked our fears and resistance. We may learn that we are capable of things we never imagined. 

Right there, through relaxation, we discover our human capacity to transform neurosis and resistance into clarity and joy. Mind and body are synchronized, we become intimately attuned to the elements of the phenomenal world and our relationship to it and to the other beings moving through it alongside us. We can experience this on the mountainside, on the yoga mat, on the meditation cushion, or...well, other places. 

We show up, we train, we learn, we practice, we succeed and fail, we keep practicing, and then at some point the magic happens: we relax. And when we relax, we open to a deeper dimension of our human experience. 

Photo by Susie Schein

Monday, December 8, 2014

Outside Looking In

There's no barrier or wall to be breached
before you can be set free.
Only a shift of awareness takes place,
and suddenly you are no longer inside looking out,
but outside looking in, and what you see
is that there was really nothing there to see.
Nothing to look at, but the looking itself, looking at looking.
Seeing, seeing seeing. Being, being being.
Knowing, knowing knowing.
Experience is not two things. Not one thing. It's no thing at all.
And then, you're not even on the outside looking in,
because "inside" and "outside" are still duality.
Instead, you see there never was any wall or line
separating the inside from the outside.
That was the grand illusion, the primordial magic trick.
Great magician, you can't make the elephant disappear
if it never was in the room to begin with.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Stop Making Sense

Stop talking to yourself about silence
and talking to yourself about stillness.
You need not talk yourself into these states.
You need only stop talking altogether
and allow the silence and stillness
that are already always present to be undisturbed.
Begin to talk about them, woo them, try to create them,
and watch them move away.
You need not do anything to create silence; rather,
only stop with all the doing, the talking, the wooing
and silence is what's left.
You need not try so very hard to remain still; rather,
only cease with all the movement, the effort, the chatter
and stillness is already present.
Rest within that stillness, that silence,
already here, uncreated, unadulterated,
and you may glimpse Natural Awareness:
not mere consciousness, which is always consciousness of something,
walled in by the reference points of self and other,
but Awareness—vast, undifferentiated, without reference points.
Not self, but Self, beyond all notions of self and other.
Not this, but That, beyond all ideas of this and that.
Yet, again, talk about Awareness, try to describe it
or grab hold of it, and you move away from it.
You crawl back into the safety of the cage
of the little self, with its bowls of food and water,
each bowl labeled neatly with your name and your reference points.
Only ask yourself: is it your destiny to live in this cage forever?
Do you really need these little bowls of kibble
when the vast open field of Awareness is waiting for you
just outside the door of your cage?

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.