Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Most Helpful Meditation Instruction Ever?

One of the most helpful meditation instructions I've ever encountered was from Ken McLeod, in his book Wake Up to Your Life.

The essence of meditation, he wrote, is to "Return to what's already there, and rest." When I'm able to remember and apply this instruction, it clarifies a lot of potential confusion.

First, learning to distinguish between what's already there and my ten thousand ways of commenting on it, adding something to it, subtracting something from it, or just drifting away to somewhere else.

And then the constant practice of returning to that — surrendering freshly each time to what's already there without subjecting it to any of my agendas.

And finally resting in that simplicity — letting go of efforts to achieve something, settling into layers of stillness and silence that lie somewhere beneath conceptual mind's humming machinery.

Like a lot of great meditation advice, this line might sound simplistic when you first hear it, but when you begin to unpack it and apply it in your own experience, it's surprisingly profound.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Get Out of Your Head (and Into Your Heart)

There is power in getting in touch with our hearts through meditation; but we can never think our way into this connection. We have to humble and quiet the arrogant brain and speak the heart’s language.

A lot of people come to meditation with the notion that it’s a brain activity, something that we do with our thinking, logical minds. We sit down to be still, and instead we encounter the thinking mind’s untamed wildness. We spend a lot of our time in meditation dealing with that part of our being that exists from the neck up. And that alone seems like it could be a full-time job!

https://www.yogajournal.com/meditation/meditation-get-out-of-disembodied-head-mode-surrender-to-heart


But humans are not just disembodied heads, despite how much it might feel that way sometimes. Below the neck is a whole other realm of embodied experience unfolding in every moment, a vast world of sensations and pulses and somatic messages coursing through our veins and our nervous systems. Our gut often knows things instinctively, and instantly, in ways the brain can’t quite comprehend. The enteric nervous system, which rules the gut, has 100 million neurons, more than can be found in the 45 miles of nerve fibers running through the spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system. The body has its own forms of knowledge and even wisdom, whose workings often remain hidden from the conscious mind. The body’s mysterious wisdom is experienced as sensation, feeling, intuition, and emotion.

This is an excerpt from an article I published last month in Yoga Journal. Read the full article here.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Helping Adrian's Mom with Heart Surgery

https://www.gofundme.com/help-adrians-mother
You were probably expecting another post from me about my new book, right? Not this time.

I'm writing on behalf of my husband Adrian and his mother, to ask for your help. I've set up a fundraising page for Adrian's mom's triple bypass open heart surgery and healthcare: https://www.gofundme.com/help-adrians-mother

Adrian’s mother, who lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was hospitalized last week from an acute heart attack that was misdiagnosed as a bronchial spasm. She was sent home that day. The next morning, after the symptoms persisted, she was taken to a different clinic and, after further tests, her heart attack was correctly diagnosed. The initial hope was for a simple stent surgery, but the damage in the arteries is too severe, and the team of doctors have suggested a heart bypass.

In pre-surgical exams doctors discovered more blockages than expected, as well as some obstructions in her carotid arteries. The plan is now for a triple bypass procedure on Monday morning.

Our family is suffering a very difficult journey because the insurance company covering Adrian's mother dropped her coverage on Saturday Sept 23 when — without any consent from doctors or family — they sent an ambulance to attempt to transport her to another clinic of lesser quality. In addition to being unauthorized, the ambulance they sent wasn't properly equipped to handle an ICU patient. On top of taking care of the fragile situation of his mother, Adrian (as her legal custodian) has had to hire a lawyer and open a public complaint against the health insurance company. Every day brings a new twist in the legal battle.

Adrian and his father have already paid out-of-pocket approximately $25,000 for his mom’s care in the ICU. To recoup those costs and be able to have the triple bypass surgery at this clinic they are hoping to raise among family members and friends another $25,000 on top of that. This will defray costs of the basic surgery which, God willing, will go without any complications, and some follow-up care.

One week ago yesterday, Adrian got on the first flight available to Buenos Aires after he found out about his mother’s heart attack. When he landed she was already in the operating room for the failed attempt at stent surgery. Since then Adrian has become her primary caretaker, guardian, and main point of contact for everything medical and legal. For the past several days, he has pretty much moved into the hospital and spends the nights with his mother looking after her every need. He spends days meeting with lawyers, administrators, and anyone who can have influence on the legal case.

Adrian won’t be able to return to Miami for perhaps another month. He has already been forced to pass extremely large costs onto our credit cards to guarantee his mom’s healthcare and surgery. We are facing unknown costs for her post-surgery care and rehab. As an hourly employee, Adrian is also facing a huge loss of income with all the time away from his job.

Adrian will be an essential part of his mother’s recovery once she returns home. She will need 24/7 assistance and Adrian will be with her no matter what. The only thing that Adrian is thinking of right now is Monday morning, and a successful surgery.

A lot of our friends have reached out to ask what they can do, how they can help. I have created this fund to help Adrian's mother and our family during this time of great need. I ask anyone who has been touched by Adrian’s presence to help.

Even if you can't contribute, please share this campaign to help us spread the word. And if you pray, please include my mother-in-law in your prayers. Many friends have asked for Adrian's mom’s name, to include her in your prayers: Alicia Raquel Nemerovsky.

With love and gratitude,
Dennis, Adrian, and Alicia

CLICK HERE TO HELP ADRIAN'S MOM

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Four Reminders: My New Book Is Available Now

MAJOR NEWS! My new book The Four Reminders: A Simple Buddhist Guide to Living and Dying Without Regret is now available in paperback and Kindle formats. Order the book today at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. With this modern interpretation of classic wisdom teachings, I've brought an ancient and very traditional set of contemplations on awakening into a fresh new light, making them relatable for anyone -- regardless of your path or background. 

This book has been over a decade in the making, and I'm delighted that all those years of hard work have earned The Four Reminders strong pre-publication endorsements from Ethan Nichtern, Yogarupa Rod Stryker, Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison, Kino MacGregor, Kirkus Reviews, and more. I sincerely hope the book enlivens your own path of awakening. 

After you get the book, be sure to visit the web site www.thefourreminders.com and download the free Study & Discussion Guide, which will help you take your contemplation of the Four Reminders even deeper. Stay tuned for more news related to the book and upcoming events.

A smart, eminently readable Buddhist guide to achieving an inner awakening.” — Kirkus Reviews

“With a great gift for updating the language and context of these invaluable lessons from the ancient world, Hunter reminds us that Buddhist wisdom was never meant to be mystical or exotic. Instead, these pages give you something much more important: practical advice for being human.” — Ethan Nichtern

Hunter has woven a profound journey, rendering key and authentic Buddhist wisdom in a way that anyone can understand and apply. It is an invitation to all and any one of us, not just those already walking the spiritual path, to courageously embrace the eternal truths that lead to lasting happiness and peace.” — Yogarupa Rod Stryker

A welcome addition to practicing what matters most. This book personally guides us through the practice so that we can reflect on our thoughts, words, and actions.” — Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison

This book presents the transformational teachings of Buddhist mindfulness in a powerful and provocative way. Hunter doesn't shy away from challenging the reader to address deep-seated personal and cultural assumptions on the road to happiness and freedom. I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking a key to unlock the path to peace in their lives.” — Kino MacGregor

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Experiencing Divinity and the Failure of Language





I want to say something about this photo. But I hardly know where to begin, or where to end. It was our first day in Rome, and both Adrian and I were overwhelmed by the city’s chaos, noise, dust, and busyness. I’m not sure what we expected from Rome, but what it revealed to us on that first day had put us both on edge. We snapped at each other whenever our patience wore thin, which was happening a lot that day. In the afternoon, I had arranged for a guided tour of the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica. I think we were both relieved to get off the frenetic streets of Rome and into the storied walls of the Vatican.

We began to relax a bit once we were inside. We enjoyed the many beautiful and ancient paintings, murals, frescos, and statuary on display inside the museum. We began to get a sense of the way Rome’s history had, for almost two millennia, been interwoven with the history of the Church. Italy didn’t exist until more recently, and back then the Church itself was a military power to be reckoned with. When Michelangelo at first refused the Pope’s request to return from his home city of Florence to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, the Pope threatened to lay military siege to Florence and compel him to return by force.

I liked imagining the stormy relationship between those two mighty men, the world's most powerful religious leader and the world's most powerful artist. Michelangelo yielded to the Pope’s request to paint the Sistine Chapel, but it was a mark of his own status as the world’s most famous and powerful artist that he could get away with painting many nude scenes on the ceiling of the holiest chapel in Christianity, including one panel that shows God’s back side and His uncovered butt cheeks. What other artist would have dared to paint God’s back side, let alone His glutes, and survived with his head still attached to his body?

Perhaps he survived because the Pope still needed more from him: designing and building St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest cathedral in all of Christianity, with its massive dome that dominates the Roman skyline. Because of its placement within the Vatican state and the square projection of the front portion of the cathedral which blocks the view of the dome from the square, Michelangelo’s work is best appreciated either from elsewhere in Rome, at a distance, or from inside the Basilica itself, where one stands directly beneath Michelangelo’s architectural work in all its majesty. (Is there anything this man could not do perfectly? Sculptor, painter, architect, and unrivaled master of every form? How is that humanly possible?)

That brings me to this photo, and to the moment it depicts. The rest of our Vatican tour, including the Sistine Chapel, had been impressive and memorable, but relatively devoid of emotion. Which makes what I am feeling in this photo all the more difficult to explain. The moment our tour group rounded the corner and walked through the doorway into the interior space of St. Peter’s Basilica, a deep emotional current seized control of me, and held me in its grip for the next 20 minutes. My jaw gaped, and I was surprised to find a steady stream of tears rolling down my face. The words of our tour guide coming over the earphones faded into the background, along with the presence of hundreds of other tourists and pilgrims around me. I simply stared up at the dome and the ceiling of the cathedral with dumbstruck awe, overwhelmed by a flood of emotion I could not name or explain. A gravitational force pulled me towards the center of the cathedral, and I wandered away from our tour group, making my way towards the space beneath the dome. I must have looked a sight, this lone man slowly ambling forward, staring up with tears streaming down his face, seemingly lost in a trance. Adrian took this photo of me from behind, as he was watching me and sensed I was “having a moment.”

I am at a loss to explain what it was that I felt in that moment, what prompted my tears to flow for 20 minutes and my mind to go as blank and silent as if I had been struck by a hammer. I am not a Catholic or a Christian, but if I were, perhaps I might call it something like being touched by the Holy Spirit or sensing the presence of God. As someone who looks at things from more of a Buddhist point of view, my thinking mind — when it eventually kicked in again — began to chatter about past lives: I’ve stood here before, I was a priest, yada yada yada. But that’s all just chatter, the mind’s feeble attempts to manufacture explanations for a powerful experience that is perhaps best left unexplained. And that’s just what the thinking mind does: it sullies the purity of experience with all its conceptual elaborations. Any attempt at explanation pales next to the experience, just as any logical explanation of musical technique fails to convey even one iota of the actual experience of listening to music.

Among the hundreds of other tourists and pilgrims inside St. Peter’s Basilica that day, I didn’t see anyone else stumbling forward with tears streaming down their faces. I was the only one. Whatever it was that I experienced, it was uniquely directed to me in those moments. I didn’t expect this experience, or ask for it: dumbstruck, overwhelmed with shock and awe, and crying tears of gratitude. For 20 minutes, I glimpsed a form of sheer majesty that shattered the walls of my ego and left me utterly exposed and raw; and in that empty space, with my heart torn open and my chattering mind silenced, I had a wordless intuition of the presence on earth, expressed within the form of what man hath wrought, of something that I can only characterize, with respect to what I felt, as divine.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Power of Community in Times of Tragedy

I was recently affected by a tragic act of violence that took the lives of two people I knew. We seem to hear about these kinds of incidents so often these days in America. But it’s different when the tragedy strikes close to home, and deeply impacts your own community.

The aftermath of this event, and the many moments of individual and collective grieving I’ve experienced and shared with others, have made me think a lot about the meaning of community, and the role of community in providing safety and comfort and space for healing from grief and trauma.

As a writer, I always like to look at the etymology of words, their linguistic roots. Knowing the origins of a word sometimes helps me tease out hidden layers of meaning. The word “community” comes from the Latin communitas, and it’s related to our English word “common”—as in “the things we have in common,” the things we share, the things that collectively give us a sense of meaning. Things like family, and friendship.

Many people in my community are experiencing grief and trauma. Some feel intense sadness and grief over losing people who were dear to them. Others are not only grieving, but are also traumatized by the violence they witnessed.

There are no magic words that anyone can say to make this kind of pain go away. What I can say for sure, from my own experience, is that recovery from grief and trauma can’t be done alone; it takes community. And it can’t be rushed; it takes time, and patience with ourselves and with each other.

Life doesn’t come with any instruction manual for what to do when situations of intense grief or trauma arise. But I think this theme of community shows us the way to at least begin moving forward. None of us can go through these things alone. We need each other. These are the times when the power of family, friends, and community are perhaps felt most powerfully, as we provide space to hold each other’s grief, to honor each other’s pain.

The other element that’s essential for healing from grief and trauma is time. Grief hurts, so it’s natural to want quick resolution. But grief moves at its own glacial pace, and it ebbs and flows like the tides. There are days when it feels manageable, and then days when it feels overwhelming. One of the most difficult things about grief is that we have to let it unfold in its own time. Life will begin to return to some semblance of normal in its own time, as we do the work of healing. The pain of grief and trauma, which is so sharp at first, lessens with time. It may never completely go away; nobody can promise you that it will. But it gets better, with time. Only with time.

And during the long process of healing, we can support one another just through our presence and our friendship, through recognizing and honoring each other’s vulnerability.

The famous Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh was forced to flee from his home country of Vietnam during the conflicts there. He was nominated in 1967 for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his noble efforts at peacemaking. On the experience of fleeing his country, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:

“When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”

I was reminded of that message again when I walked into Whole Foods recently and stumbled upon a greeting card with the following message:

“Peace: It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”

No one who experiences grief and trauma has asked for its noise and trouble. It came uninvited. And make no mistake, recovering from it is hard work. But it is possible, I believe, to be in the midst of grief and trauma and still be calm in your heart. And if you can share that calm heart with even one other person, then you strengthen the bonds of community and you help the community to heal.

If I could pull one lesson from the fire of tragedy and grief, it would be this: Be here now, fully. Live your life. Love everyone as much as you can, and set aside petty differences. Make your life meaningful, and don’t take even one moment of it for granted. In the next moment, you might be gone. Celebrate life while it is here, take good care of yourself, and honor each other.

The prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy said it best:

“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”


_____________

If you are in NYC in July, I'll be teaching two workshops at The Interdependence Project on Saturday July 15th and Sunday July 16th: "Breathing 2.0" and "Buddhism and Yoga: Exploring the Mystery of Being." Click on the links for workshop descriptions and registration.

My yoga + meditation retreat with Adrian Molina to Cartagena, Colombia on Labor Day Weekend is nearly sold out. Only two rooms remain open. Get more info and register here.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Audio: Standing Meditation

We typically think of meditation as sitting. But we can also meditate lying down, walking, or standing. In this 27-minute guided meditation, practice mindfulness of body and awareness of the present moment in a standing posture.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Tilopa's "Six Words of Advice"


LISTEN TO AN AUDIO VERSION

Tilopa’s “Six Words of Advice” is a timeless, evergreen meditation instruction that you can apply whether you’re a beginning meditator or you’ve been at your practice for decades. Deceptively simple on its surface, you could explore the profound depths of this instruction for the rest of your life and never really be done with it.

Tilopa lived in India in the 11th century CE, and is regarded as one of the forefathers of the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, which survives today mainly in the form of Tibetan Buddhism. Tilopa’s best-known student was Naropa; Naropa’s best-known student was Marpa the Translator, who brought the Vajrayana Buddhist teachings from India to Tibet; and Marpa’s best-known student was Milarepa, one of Tibet’s most legendary yogi-saints.

Tilopa’s “Six Words of Advice” were presumably written down in Sanskrit and translated to Tibetan at some point; but the Sanskrit source in India has been lost, and only the Tibetan text remains.

The title for this instruction in Tibetan is “Six Nails of Key Points,” which hearkens to the English expression about “hitting the nail on the head” with a statement that goes right to the point. Literally only six words long in Tibetan, an English translation of the text requires a few more words to bring it to life.

Ken McLeod has translated the text in two ways: a version that’s as concise and literal as possible, and a version that’s slightly more elaborate but does a better job of unpacking the meaning embedded in those six Tibetan words.

First, the concise and literal version:

Don’t recall.
Don’t imagine.
Don’t think.
Don’t examine.
Don’t control.
Rest.

There's something wonderful about the no-nonsense quality of that translation, and yet, as a meditation instruction, it's something of a blunt instrument. So here is McLeod’s more elaborate translation:

Let go of what has passed.
Let go of what may come.
Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t try to make anything happen.
Relax, right now, and rest.

The original “six words” have now swollen into a whole verse, but in doing so they become more relatable. The six lines of this verse deconstruct the fundamental patterns in the mind that block clear and open meditation. Let’s unpack the meaning of each line, one at a time.

“Let go of what has passed.”
When you arrive on your meditation seat, you come dragging behind you all sorts of stuff from your past, a trail of mental debris and dirt that hovers around you like the cloud of stink that follows Pig Pen everywhere he goes. In meditation, you can observe in real time how this cloud of stuff from the past kicks up and obscures your view of the present moment. You sit down to meditate and before long you find yourself remembering your bedroom in your childhood home, or thinking about your ex-lover and what an angel or jerk he or she was or is, or replaying the entire videotape in your mind of that annoying meeting that happened at the office yesterday and thinking what you *should* have said to your coworker instead of what you actually did say. The past haunts your mind in a million different ways—and it haunts your body, too, in the form of restlessness, fidgeting, and various kinds of tension (chronic or acute) that you carry with you wherever you go, including your meditation. Being truly present requires you to acknowledge your particular ways and patterns of holding on to the past, and to practice letting them go—over and over and over.

“Let go of what may come.”
This is the flip side of the previous line. When you’re not rehashing or trying to hold on to something from the past, you find your mind drifting into the future—anticipating things that haven’t happened yet, cooking up hopeful and fearful scenarios about what may or may not come to pass, worrying and daydreaming and planning and scheming about what you could get or say or do in order to secure a certain desired outcome at some future moment. Or maybe it’s something as dull and monotonous as wondering how much time is left in your meditation session, anticipating the ring of the bell that will signal when it’s time to get up, and thinking about what’s for lunch. Again, when you notice your mind drifting into thoughts of the future, and when you notice your body tensing up in anticipation of things that haven’t happened yet, gently let it go and come back to being present.

“Let go of what is happening now.”
When you let go of the past and the future, you find yourself very simply abiding in the present. Perhaps the feeling of being present only lasts for a moment before your habits regain control and you drift away again. Or, perhaps without noticing it, you start to drift into some kind of mental commentary on the present moment, telling yourself, “Wait, my arm itches. Okay, that’s better. Now I’ve got it. Now I’m really present. I’m calm and relaxed. My mind is quiet.” Well, obviously, no it isn’t. You’re sitting there lost in judgments and talking to yourself about the present moment instead of just experiencing it. The short translation of this line is simply, “Don’t think.” But telling someone not to think is a tall order, and sometimes you end up thinking about how bad you are at not thinking. You can’t really will the mind to stop thinking, or silence it through brute force. Milarepa said, “The mind’s impulse to sudden thought cannot be stopped by hundreds with spears,” meaning that even if you were menaced by hundreds of warriors standing around you and threatening to jab you with their spears if you allowed your mind to think, you still couldn’t stop it. Thinking happens.

As McLeod’s longer translation of this line suggests, it’s less about stopping thoughts and more about letting go of what’s happening now, including thoughts. The mind’s tendency is to try to take hold of what is happening now, grasp it tightly, to own it and say “This is what I’m experiencing” and make a big deal out of it. But clutching at the present moment is like clutching at water in your fist: the more tightly you grasp, the more the water escapes your grasp. The present moment is always unfolding, always flowing, always changing, and it can’t be pinned down because it’s not an object; it’s an infinitely unfolding process. Whatever arises within the space of the present moment, notice it, and let it come and go. The wave of the present moment is always cresting, rising up from the past and dissolving into the future, and you are balanced right there at the edge, surfing the wave. But you can’t hold on to a wave, or change it in any way. Ride it while you can, let it dissolve, and then ride the next one, and the next one. No big deal.

“Don’t try to figure anything out.”
As you sit there in meditation, notice the little voice in the back of your mind quietly analyzing and murmuring about your experience. “Am I doing this right? What is my breath supposed to feel like? Is my posture okay? When I’m in the present moment, how is it supposed to feel? Is this it? Aha, I think I had it there for a moment.” The short translation of this line is telling: “Don’t examine.” Look at your mind’s tendency to always be examining your experience, analyzing it, questioning it, doubting it. Now drop that, and see what your experience actually feels like without the additional responsibility of trying to figure anything out. Can you just be with it, and at the same time leave it alone?

“Don’t try to make anything happen.”
You might sit down to meditate with big ideas and plans about how it's supposed to go, what sort of blissful and enlightened state you’re supposed to attain. But your beautiful plans always seem to be falling apart, and you’re always scrambling to pick up the pieces and recreate the idea you have in your mind of what’s “supposed” to be happening. It’s a project-management mentality. The thing is, you can’t project-manage your way through meditation. You can’t force your mind into stillness and silence and presence, because those aren’t states that can be created through effort. Those are the natural qualities of awareness, which you settle into when you stop being a control freak and stop agitating yourself with your mind’s habitual patterns. Imagine a glass of water with some dirt in it; if you keep stirring the water, the dirt always obscures the water’s natural clarity. But if you just leave it alone for a while, the dirt settles to the bottom of the glass and the water’s natural clarity is revealed. The more you “try” to make the water clear, the muddier it will become. You can’t create clarity; but you can stop obscuring it, stop interfering with it. It’s a matter of getting out of your own way. Stop trying to make something happen. Let everything be.

“Relax, right now, and rest.”
This final line is Tilopa’s instruction in a nutshell, and sums up the other five lines. You’re letting go of the past and the future and fully arriving in the present moment; letting go of the mind’s tendency to think about the present moment, comment upon it, analyze it, project-manage it; letting go of any effort to control your experience or make it conform to some ideal you have in your mind of what should be happening. Okay, now what are you supposed to do? *Nothing.* Let go and relax in a state of non-doing, a state of just being: being aware, hovering right now and right now and right now on the edge of that ever-cresting wave of the present moment, and allowing your body and mind to rest.

Rest is the simplest thing in the world, really. Yet human beings are so absurdly complicated that we have to re-learn to find a natural state of rest and settle into it because we have such strong habitual patterns of restlessness. Our minds and our nervous systems are chronically overstimulated, riddled with tension and hangups and things we’ve convinced ourselves we’re supposed to be doing. So most of us actually find it quite challenging to just come into a state of rest and stay there.

Tilopa’s “Six Words of Advice” help us dismantle, one by one, the mind’s major patterns of restlessness, and arrive back at the original state of simple, clear awareness that became clouded over somewhere along the way.

Enjoy your practice.

AUDIO VERSION

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Second Time We Discovered Fire

In this darkest season we hang lights to carry on an ancient tradition, to remind ourselves of something our ancestors felt was important. But we have forgotten what their symbols were pointing to.

The light in me recognizes the light in you. That is the meaning of "Namaste." The light that looks out through my eyes and illumines the world in front of me is the same that looks out through your eyes and illumines the world in front of you.

There are not two different kinds of light. There is just light, refracted through different prisms shaped like people and animals and plants and rocks and oceans and planets and stars. It is the light of the divine itself, which takes countless names and forms but cannot be grasped through any of them.

Your human eyes were made to see but a fraction of the spectrum of light, most of which is masked from you, hidden in plain sight. The invisible infrared lies before you at this very moment, seen perhaps by other creatures gifted with different eyes but never by yours. "You may not look directly at my face," Moses was told by the pillar of cloud. "For no man may see me and live."

Light can shine or it can blind. It is a candle flame and it is a laser beam that cuts through rocks and diamonds. Light is a warm glow and it is a cosmic explosion and it is the unholy force unleashed when atoms are broken by human hands. Light is the sun, friendly to you only because you are shielded from its full power; the same sun would burn the flesh from your bones and turn your bones to dust, returning you to the state from whence you came. We are all stardust, after all. The very earth on which we walk is only borrowed temporarily from that nuclear ball of fire and light, and will one day be returned.

As theologian Teilhard de Chardin said, we live "steeped in divinity's burning layers." The holy fire in the burning bush is what we are made of.

And we are darkness too, of course. All that we cannot see or do not want to see. All that is hidden from us because the light does not reach into its depths. All that we do not know about ourselves; all that we do not want to know. The universe is made mostly of dark matter, and scientists do not yet even know what dark matter is; its existence is only hypothesized because it cannot be seen with our eyes or instruments. The darkness holds us in its infinite embrace.

And yet there is light. The whole universe is decked with points of light ornamenting the vast reaches of darkness, like a great tree. Each ornament a cluster of galaxies made of trillions of stars, each star creating worlds around it. And each illuminated world potentially crawling with beings like you and me: beings crafted from light and darkness. Beings lost in their minds and unaware that they are but the light looking out through their own eyes, which is the same light looking out through yours and mine.

The light in me cannot recognize the light in you until I recognize it first in myself. When I know the light and the darkness of which I am made, I will know that it is the same light and darkness of which you and all things are made, and that we live together in a fragile and temporary world of stardust where every invisible atom was bonded together with so much power that it could level an entire city if its nuclear bonds were broken. Look at how intelligent we are! We have mastered atomic energy, and unlocked the awesome destructive power hidden within matter. Look at how stupid and lost we are! We have forgotten how to love one another, and what all of this creation is for.

“Someday,” said de Chardin, “after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

Come, friend. There is something important for us here. Let us hang lights together and try to think of what our ancestors wanted us to remember.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Meditation in Times of Chaos

When he was fleeing his home country of Vietnam, the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh had a direct revelation of the real power of meditation practice.

“When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost,” he said. “But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”

Showing the way for everyone to survive. It’s a rather dire way of painting the picture, but it feels timely. Because the times feel rather dire and chaotic. Do they not?

A lot of people approach meditation as a self-improvement project. Meditation’s going to make me feel better, make me more focused, make me more productive, make me more happy, make me less crazy, make me more chill. Me, me, me.

But look around you. The world is on fire. People are hurting. They are freaking out. Have you noticed? Maybe you see it from a distance: things that are happening in the news, rifts that are opening up in the fabric of society. Maybe you feel it closer to home, in your circle of friends and loved ones: the ways they are being challenged, and the ways they are falling down and getting back up again. Maybe you feel it in yourself: the growing sense of malaise that gnaws from the inside, and occasionally erupts into full-blown panic.

“As individuals, we feel helpless, despairing,” Thich Nhat Hanh wrote. “The situation is so dangerous, injustice is so widespread, the danger is close. In this kind of a situation, if we panic, things will only become worse. We need to remain calm, to see clearly. Meditation is to be aware, and to try to help.”

That puts your personal meditation practice in a rather different light, doesn’t it? It’s not really about you. It’s about your whole world, and all the people in it, and the way your presence helps them. Sure, maybe it helps you become more chill, more focused, more productive, more blissful, more calm and centered. But what do you do with all that calmness and centeredness? What is it for?

It’s to be aware, and to try to help. The real benefits of your meditation practice will only become apparent to you when you find yourself in the role of offering them to others.

A few weeks ago one of my friends went through brain surgery to remove a large tumor. Before his diagnosis, he was never really into things like meditation, but being diagnosed with a brain tumor and undergoing radical surgery has a way of shifting your perspective on a lot of things in life. My friend began to ask for guided meditations and breathing techniques to help calm his fear. I don’t mean garden-variety anxiety, I mean real existential fear: the bone-chilling, “Will I survive?” kind of fear. But he knew that if he panicked, it would only make the situation worse.

And so he began to meditate, and at the hospital he restricted his visitors to friends who could bring that kind of calm and centered energy into the room—people who could help him find his way calmly through the most difficult situation he had ever faced, one challenging moment at a time. We were there when he woke up from the surgery, doing what we could to hold the space around him.

My friend is now back on his feet, and I’m happy to report that he’s still meditating regularly. And we are closer now than before, as people tend to be after they’ve gone through something very difficult together.

And that feels like where we all are right now. I don’t mean my friend, but you, me, all of us. We are all going through something very difficult together. And let’s acknowledge, to be fair, that it’s more difficult for some than for others; some need help more urgently than others. And there are no credible reasons to believe that it’s all magically going to get easier any time soon. It might get even more difficult before it gets easier. Those of us who are in a position to help, whatever that means in our particular case, should do what we can.

What I’m describing is in no way theoretical. I’m talking about matters of life and death, and how the effects of meditation play a very concrete role in helping us navigate through the most challenging situations.

“Humankind has become a very dangerous species,” says Thich Nhat Hanh. “We need people who can sit still and be able to smile, who can walk peacefully. We need people like that in order to save us. Mahayana Buddhism says that you are that person, that each of you is that person.”

It would be easy for someone to come along and say, “All this Buddhist crap about sitting still and smiling and being peaceful! It’s like fiddling while Rome burns. We need everyone to panic, and scream, and freak out! We need action!” But that would be a misreading of Thich Nhat Hanh’s words. If you know anything about his history of peace activism, you know that Thich Nhat Hanh has been no stranger to action throughout his life. His practice was never disengaged from the world. Quite the opposite.

Action is necessary. Storms need to be navigated safely. Pirates need to be dealt with. Injustices need to be addressed. Brain tumors need to be removed through surgery. Meditation by itself will never fix any of these problems. But all these things become so much more challenging when we freak out. Action can be taken more skillfully when it comes from a place of clear seeing. And I know from personal experience that it’s much harder for me to see clearly when I’m in panic mode.

As I look towards 2017, I’m recommitting to my own daily meditation practice—not because of what I think I’m going to get from it, or how it’s going to help me feel better, or even how I think it’s going to help me become spiritually liberated (whatever that really means). No, I’m recommitting to it because I know there are more storms brewing, and more pirates gathering, and more difficult situations ahead for all of us, and it will be more necessary than ever for me to keep showing up and helping people see the way to survive.

I hope you will join me in recommitting to your own practice, and know that its benefits will extend far beyond your little yoga mat or meditation cushion. The world is on fire. We need people like you to save us.