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.



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 (incompetech.com) Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 creativecommons.org/licenses/by/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.



Saturday, August 9, 2014

On Meditation and the Future of Humanity

Do you find it unpleasant to be alone in a room with your thoughts for just 10 minutes, with no smartphone or other distractions to keep your mind occupied?

Apparently, most people do.

A recent article by Kate Murphy in The New York Times examined how excruciating it is for the average person to simply be alone with their own thoughts. Citing a study published in the journal Science, involving 11 experiments and more than 700 people, Murphy writes that "the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes."

Even more alarmingly, in one of the experiments, "64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think."

I ask you to pause for a moment and consider the implications of that: A vast swath of human beings find it so incredibly unpleasant to be alone with their own thoughts that they will resort instead to shocking themselves with painful electric currents simply to have something — anything, even something unpleasant — to redirect their attention.

Most of the time, we don't have to go to such extreme lengths to avoid introspection. That's because we never bother to go there in the first place.

As a society, we've become masters of staying busy all the time, always distracted and plugged in and entertained. We never have a moment to think, and when we do, we are programmed to reach for a familiar device or an activity or an experience to fill up the empty space.

"Our habitual tendency is to always be busy, doing something, changing something, or cultivating something," says the 17th Karmapa. "Therefore when somebody asks us to just relax, to just be natural, it is very difficult for us to actually understand how to do that."

Watch your mind closely the next time you step into an elevator and the door closes. During those 20 seconds of in-between space, in which nothing much happens, how strong is the impulse to reach into your pocket and check your mobile phone? Or is it already in your hand?

Murphy speculates that the reason we find it so unpleasant to be alone with our thoughts is because, given the opportunity, our minds tend to veer towards darkness: we begin to ruminate on our worries, our frustrations, our fears, our doubts and existential questions. Left to our own devices, we begin to make contact with our shadow, and our shadow is naturally something we experience as unpleasant because it is (by definition) composed of all the things we don't want to think about.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Boyhood

There is a moment in Richard Linklater's new film Boyhood when the film's main character, Mason — caught deep in the throes of the most awkward transitional years of high school — realizes that growing up is not necessarily the guaranteed outcome of getting older. In a pensive, philosophical conversation between Mason and his girlfriend — the kind of intelligent, emotionally engaged dialogue that has become like Linklater's filmic signature — Mason reflects on the fact that his mother, who has worked hard to be as grown up and responsible as she can be, still seems as lost and confused about the direction of her life as he is about his own.

Boyhood is unlike anything else I've ever seen in cinema, just as Linklater is unlike any other director working today. Over the course of the film we watch Mason grow from a shy, introverted six-year-old into a shy, introverted young man going off to college. But rather than using multiple actors or special effects to depict Mason and his family aging across the years, Linklater filmed the same group of actors repeatedly over the course of 12 years. As Mason's character ages, so does the actor playing him, along with his family members. The effect is that, although Boyhood is a fictional story, it illustrates the joys and pain of childhood and growing up in a way that is profoundly authentic and true-to-life.



But what does it even mean to grow up? Who the hell really knows? It seems to have a lot to do with taking responsibility for ourselves, getting with the program, and becoming successful in life — at least that's the message that the adults in Mason's world keep preaching at him. Do your homework, complete your chores, get ahead in school, find something you're good at and excel in life. But for all their good intentions and rhetoric, those very same adults keep struggling to find their own way in the world, and repeating mistake after embarrassing mistake. Mason's mother keeps marrying the wrong guys, and his father seems stuck in a perpetually rebellious childhood phase of his own.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Two events in July: Workshop and Book Launch Party

Two upcoming events at Nalandabodhi New York!
64 Fulton Street, Suite 400
New York, New York 10038
(Use buzzer 4 for entry)
Close to the 2, 3, A, C, 4 and 5 Trains

SAVE THE DATES AND PRE-REGISTER NOW


BOOK LAUNCH PARTY AND READING

Friday, July 11th  •  7pm to 9pm
FREE!

Join the Nalandabodhi community for its monthly Friday Soirée celebrating the launch of Dennis Hunter’s new book, You Are Buddha: A Guide to Becoming What You Are. The evening will include a reading from the book, discussion, and a chance to socialize and enjoy drinks and food with NBNY members and friends.

There is no charge for the Friday Soirée and you are encouraged to bring friends and family.

Books will be available for purchase at the event. Click here if you would like to order the book ahead of time.


BUDDHA BODY, BUDDHA MIND
A Daytime Workshop with Dennis Hunter Based on You Are Buddha

Saturday, July 12th  •  10:30am to 4:30pm (lunch break from 12:30 to 2:30)
$40 Preregistration  •  $50 at Door  •  Includes both morning and afternoon sessions
(No one is turned away for lack of funds – Work Study opportunities are available. Contact Nalandabodhi for more information.)

We are all looking for greater meaning and wisdom in our lives. The problem is that we search for these things outside ourselves. The most profound teachings of the Buddha say that the wisdom we search for doesn’t come from outside. It is already within us — it is our very nature. You Are Buddha is a practical guide to discovering this innate wisdom and living a happier, more meaningful life.

This two-part workshop will draw upon teachings from You Are Buddha that focus on becoming more deeply embodied and mindful, working with thoughts and emotions, understanding the nature of mind, and being more authentically yourself. The workshop will include talks, guided meditations, and discussion. Space is limited, so preregister now.

Preregister here for the Saturday workshop.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

YOU ARE BUDDHA

We are all looking for greater meaning and wisdom in our lives. The problem is that we search for these things outside ourselves. The most profound teachings of the Buddha say that the wisdom we search for doesn’t come from outside. It is already within us — it is our very nature. You Are Buddha is a practical guide to discovering this innate wisdom and living a happier, more meaningful life.


"Combining insight into the spiritual path with engaging personal anecdotes, You Are Buddha introduces Buddhist practices and philosophy to support whatever path you're on."
— Susan Piver, Founder, The Open Heart Project, New York Times best-selling author of The Wisdom of a Broken Heart

"You Are Buddha speaks about the nature of our mind and the spiritual path in a very fresh and personal way, making profound insights and practices readily accessible. By looking at ancient wisdom teachings through a contemporary lens and sharing his own rich experiences on the path, Dennis Hunter offers an approach to the Buddhist teachings that can be employed by readers of all kinds of backgrounds. There is no need to label oneself a Buddhist to benefit from this book and discover the basic nature that we all share."
— Khenpo Karl Brunnhölzl, author of The Heart Attack Sutra and The Center of the Sunlit Sky

"Starting from the most profound understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, You Are Buddha offers an elegant and practical guide to bringing these insights into your daily life. The presentations of meditation practice, and working with negative thoughts and emotions, are especially valuable. Because this book is grounded in Dennis Hunter’s own deep personal experience and his extensive practice of meditation, it brings a very contemporary perspective to these classical teachings." 
 — Andy Karr, author of Contemplating Reality: A Pracititioner’s Guide to the View in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and co-author of The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes


DISTRIBUTION DETAILS

INDIVIDUALS:
U.S. paperback available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble
European paperback available from Amazon Europe (U.K., France, Germany, Spain, Italy)
Also available in paperback at the CreateSpace store

Available at Amazon for Kindle readers and apps
Available for iBooks at the iTunes store
Available at Barnes and Noble for Nook e-readers
Available for all e-book readers at SmashWords


BOOKSTORES, LIBRARIES AND INSTITUTIONS:
The book is available through Ingram and other industry-standard ordering systems. Bookstores or libraries can also order the book with reseller/institutional discounts with a free Createspace Direct account.

EVERYONE:
Come join the open Facebook group YOU ARE BUDDHA for news, reviews, information about readings, workshops and book-related events, discussions, and more! 

WORLDWIDE:
You Are Buddha is available in various editions (paperback and/or e-book) not only in the U.S. but also in Canada, the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, India, and Australia! Check your specific country's Amazon page to see which editions are available where you live.

STAY IN TOUCH:
Email me at onehumanjourney@gmail.com if you have any questions about the book, would like to request a review copy, or would like to schedule a reading, workshop or book-related event. 

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All the best to you.
Dennis

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Why the Buddha Laughs


Buddhism often gets a bad rap for being pessimistic or taking life too seriously, especially with its famous teachings on suffering, impermanence and emptiness.

But the reality is quite the opposite. Those who have developed any genuine realization of the teachings of Buddhism are often among the most joyful and happy people you could ever meet. Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who is famous for, among other things, undergoing extensive brain scans and laboratory testing while in meditative states, has been branded by neuroscientists as "the happiest person alive."

There is a particularly baffling slogan in the Lojong teachings in Tibetan Buddhism, which says: "Always maintain only a joyful mind." That sounds like a tall order! Always?!! Only?!! I often feel lucky if I can experience a truly joyful mind for just a few intervals throughout the day.

But that constant, all-pervasive joyful mind is exactly what many realized Buddhist teachers manifest. When I picture the Dalai Lama, the image that comes to mind is one of him smiling and laughing and literally beaming positive energy to everyone around him, which he seems to do 365 days a year.
The 16th Karmapa

My own teacher, the very learned scholar Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, frequently laughs and plays with childlike joy, and constantly seeks ways to make his students drop all of their serious trips and do the same. When you spend time with a realized teacher like Dzogchen Ponlop, you never know how or when he's going to sneak up and pull the rug out from under you—maybe figuratively, or maybe literally. That's part of his job as a teacher. Many of the most direct and personal teachings I've received from him were designed to puncture whatever bubble of excessive seriousness in which I happened to be floating and to make me stop, see the absurdity of my own habitual patterns, drop it all, and just smile, relax, and laugh at myself.

"Since everything is but an illusion, perfect in being what it is, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one might as well burst out laughing!"
—Longchenpa, 14th-century Tibetan meditation master

Laughter is medicine for the heart, mind and body. It lowers blood pressure, dispels self-pity and depression, triggers neurochemical reactions that increase feelings of well-being, and strengthens our positive feelings of connection with other beings. It creates a sense of openness and space that wasn't there before, and an open mind leads to new possibilities.

Taking ourselves very seriously, on the other hand, is most often a recipe for unhappiness. The more we invest our attention in all of our personal dramas and our inflated sense of self-importance—the storm that rotates around the illusory center of I, I, I, me, me, me, mine, mine, mine—the more miserable and isolated we become. It's an ancient habit, a dysfunctional skill we've been developing since before we were born. But each time we drop the overly serious trance of selfing and open to a mind of spontaneous joyfulness, we reconnect with our deeper nature and shed a piece of the baggage of the small, tragic self.

"Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing."
—Frida Kahlo

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Meaning of Yoga

I spend a lot of time these days around yogis and yoginis. My partner is a yoga teacher. Most of my friends do yoga. I have a yoga practice myself. I even co-teach workshops on yoga and meditation with Adrian Molina.

What Adrian and I aspire to do with our yoga and meditation workshops is to rejoin two things that (at least from my point of view) were never really meant to be separated in the first place.

The way yoga is often taught these days is primarily as a physical practice, a fitness routine, a series of postures designed to strengthen and lengthen and relax the body. And then once the body is nice and relaxed, and you lie there in savasana for a minute or two, the class is over.

Because of my years of training in Buddhist meditation, I tend to approach things from the other side of the fence. I love a good, challenging, physical yoga practice. But I regard the physical part of yogic training as merely a prelude, a method of preparing the body for meditation practice. I'm always somewhat amazed to see people go through all the trouble of learning to twist themselves like pretzels and balance on their elbows, and then roll up their mats and leave before the main course is served.

From the Buddhist point of view, all the elaborate asanas and pranayamic breathing techniques and bandhas of yoga are really just appetizers. The main course is sitting down and relating with your own mind. The asanas and the bandhas and the pranayama are all ways of helping you put your body into the proper state for optimal meditation to happen.

If you can stand on one leg and grasp your other leg behind your head with both hands, or balance on your hands in crow pose, well, that's awesome. Congratulations. You're a good primate. Any monkey can do those things. If you can do them and then sit down and be still and listen to the sound of silence within your own vivid awareness — well, now you've leveled up. You're a real human being, relating openly to the divine mystery of your embodied existence.

When you get deeper into the study of esoteric yoga and Buddhist tantra, you learn that there's actually a science behind all of this. Yoga as we know it is a very sophisticated system of methods for opening and aligning the channels of the "subtle" or "energetic" body so that energy can flow efficiently and be directed where the mind wants it to go.

Beginners to meditation often wonder why teachers place so much emphasis on sitting in a proper meditation posture. Same principle. It's about straightening the channels and optimizing the way subtle energies flow within the body, which has a correlative effect on the way the mind rests (or doesn't rest) in meditation.

People often say that yoga is working with the body and meditation is working with the mind. That's a useful way of thinking about it at first, but ultimately I don't think it's true. All genuine yoga involves working with the mind, and all genuine meditation involves working with the body. In fact, some of the most profound meditation techniques lead us to question our assumption that the body and the mind are really two separate things to begin with.

And that's the real meaning of yoga. "Union" is how the Sanskrit word "yoga" is often translated into English. Union. Oneness. The union or synchronization of body and mind. The rejoining or realignment of two things that were never really separate in the first place. It's the practice of awakening, here and now, to what it really means to be human.

Namaste.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Towards Open-Source Buddhism

An edited version of this article was originally published in 2011 as a guest post on the Tricycle blog. Many thanks to the editors of Tricycle for featuring it there.


These days, a lot of people are asking the question: What is Western Buddhism? Often, the inquiry seems to focus on the “Western” part. What is uniquely Western about the Buddhism we are practicing? How does it differ from traditional Asian Buddhism? How is Western culture changing Buddhism, and vice versa?

But what do we mean by “Buddhism,” anyway? We often use that word as if Buddhism were one unitary thing, when really (like everything else, and as the Buddha taught) the juggernaut of Buddhism is made up of component parts, and each of those parts is made of component parts, and so on. When we talk about Buddhism in the West, what do we mean? Zen? Theravada? Tibetan Buddhism? Nichiren? Pure Land? Shingon? Some conglomeration of all of these? Something else?

If we could put “Buddhism” under a microscope and look with great magnification at its many traditions and schools and lineages and teachers and practitioners, we might find it is webbed with arteries and capillaries, riddled with neurons and mitochondria—much the same as we are. Mysteriously, the ongoing process of becoming and unbecoming that we label as “Buddhism” happens in the general vicinity of these component parts, and seems to adhere to them—but nowhere can we pinpoint its exact location. There is no one thing that can be called “Buddhism,” just as there is no single place or culture that encompasses the entire “West.”

Buddhism as a Web
What we call Buddhism is a widely distributed network phenomenon designed to optimize the human experience. Like the Internet, it started out as someone's idea, but then spun out of control: no one person or group now owns it, and it is being modified and updated from day to day in millions of little increments, from every corner of the known world.

Where is “the Internet?” It seems to adhere somehow to the computers and networks that are part of it, but the Internet itself can't be found. Where is “Buddhism?” It seems to adhere to the people and networks that are practicing it, but the Buddhism itself can't be found. Yet both the Internet and Buddhism can be demonstrated, utilized, applied in countless ways.

If there is anything unique about “Western” Buddhism at this moment, perhaps it is that all of the world's Buddhist traditions—as culturally and doctrinally distinct from one another as a Southern Baptist is from a Russian Orthodox—have descended upon us at once. We are living now in a flux of pan-Buddhist dialogue taking place in a Western crucible, blending traditions that for two-and-a-half millennia have evolved in separate geographic and cultural regions. Buddhism's embrace of Internet technologies in the last two decades has speeded up this process enormously.

Earlier this year, I heard from a hardcore Vipassana practitioner living in Scotland, who had just finished sitting a Zen sesshin and was preparing to attend a Mahamudra retreat the following weekend. Bam! Just like that, intensive practice in three completely distinct Buddhist traditions—Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana—each with wildly different approaches, in the space of one week. Was there a previous time and place in history when such a broad range of Buddhist traditions was so freely available to one person, and so ripe for the picking?

Buddhism as a Melting Pot
This smorgasbord of Buddhist traditions also creates confusion—especially for the beginning student who is not firmly grounded in one tradition from the start. Beyond the obvious danger of bringing a consumer’s “shopping mentality” to spiritual practice—going from one tradition and teacher to another and always leaving them behind when they begin to provoke discomfort by challenging your ego—there is also the risk of mixing views from different traditions in an unskillful way.

Still, despite the potential confusion, to be a carrot bobbing in this Western melting pot of Buddhist traditions is to be part of a new fusion cuisine that is being consumed even as it is being cooked. If you listen to a few Buddhist Geeks podcasts, or read an entire issue of Tricycle or Buddhadharma from cover to cover, the flavor of your understanding will be at least subtly colored by teachings from other Buddhist traditions. It is unavoidable.

In my own practice, I have benefited from this kind of fusion. Although I study with a Tibetan teacher and look towards the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism as the primary lighthouse by which I navigate the waters, I have at times experienced bubbles of conceptual confusion and intellectualization that were helpfully popped by the sharp concision and no-nonsense directness of Zen teachings. At other times, exposure to the Theravadan view of the stages on the path of awakening—different in many ways from the Mahayana and Vajrayana views—has helped me view the teachings and practices in a more expansive light. I have even deepened my Buddhist path, at times, by incorporating spiritual teachings and practices from outside of Buddhism altogether. As long as I feel firmly rooted in my “native” tradition, I find this sort of cross-fertilization to be fruitful.

I now have to admit, though, that I know less than I once imagined I did what “Western Buddhism” is, or what it may become. It feels sometimes that there are as many “Western Buddhisms” taking shape among us as there are Western Buddhists who practice them. As with the emergence of Linux in the world of computers, perhaps what we are witnessing in the West today, with so much polymorphous blending of traditions, is the emergence of Open-Source Buddhism. (This moniker is, in fact, already in use on numerous websites.) Like the populist software movement from which it borrows its name, Open-Source Buddhism proposes a grassroots, do-it-yourself alternative to the old closed, proprietary operating systems. And it may yet produce new applications that were not possible within the framework of those systems.

Caveat Emptor
However, buyer beware: I have dabbled in Linux, and frankly it gives me a headache. I am, in fact, writing this on a Linux-driven machine that someone bamboozled me into buying a couple of years ago, using a simplified, Linux-for-Mom-and-Pop user interface called Ubuntu that attempts to bring open-source computing to the masses. While I adore the cultural philosophy of openness and integrity and interdependence that stands behind my computer's operating system, on a pragmatic level it often leaves much to be desired. Performing even basic actions—installing a new software program, for example—seems to demand an almost hacker-like degree of technical proficiency. There is no central help desk to turn to when something goes wrong—and something is always going wrong. Time and again, I have searched for answers to things that ought to have been simple, and in response I have been thrown into jumbled web forums where self-appointed Linux gurus “explain” the solution to my problem in a language that might as well be Martian for as much good as it does me. For two years I have been stumbling, wide-eyed, through what I regard as the Wild West of operating systems.

Open-Source Buddhism, I suspect, is much the same. Already emerging in our midst, it is full of great promise and potential—but actually using it, at this point, is not for the faint-of-heart. Its day may be coming soon, but it has not arrived just yet.

Meanwhile, in aligning yourself with any established tradition, you will trade off some of your freedom and idealism, and you will make yourself vulnerable to certain flaws that are inherent to those systems—but in return you may have a better user experience. You will have access to hands-on training, the support of peers, and expert technical support that are difficult to find in the open-source world. In the realm of computer programming, I do know people who are highly proficient at using Linux, but it must be said that they are people who first knew their way around at least one of the old, proprietary systems very, very well. They didn't start out as open-source gurus.

The lesson? Pick the tradition that resonates most with your heart and mind, and immerse yourself in it as completely as you can. Rely on a qualified teacher to help you fine-tune your machine. Work out the bugs, and eliminate the malware. Know how to use your chosen operating system thoroughly and properly. Learn how to trouble-shoot when problems arise. Then, and only then, will migrating to Open-Source Buddhism become a truly viable option.

Image: "Buddha quilt," from the Flickr photostream of artethgray.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

New Workshop: Yoga + Meditation

I'm excited to announce the launch of a new monthly workshop on Yoga + Meditation that I'll be co-leading with Adrian Molina of Warrior Flow. The workshop will take place on the first Friday of the month starting April 4, at the Yoga Agora studio in Astoria. See flyer below for details, or check out the Event Page on Facebook. If you use the One Human Journey mobile app, check the Events section of the app, where you can automatically add the workshop to your calendar and set up a reminder. See you there!

CLICK IMAGE TO ZOOM

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The One Human Journey Mobile App Is Here

Dear Friends,

A lot of you have been following this Web site, One Human Journey, since as far back as 2008. Thank you for all the kind feedback you've shared with me over the years about the writings I've posted here.

I'm excited to let you know that One Human Journey is now available as a mobile app for iPhone/iPad, Android phones and tablets, and Kindle Fire. And it's more than just blog posts....

One Human Journey
Powered by Conduit Mobile


Get instant access in the palm of your hand to over 150 articles, guided meditations, instructional videos (it's a short list of videos for now, but more are in the works), daily inspirational quotes and photos, information on upcoming classes and workshops, and more! Plus, get occasional notifications to alert you when there's a new article or video to check out, so you don't miss out on the good stuff.

Search for "One Human Journey" in Apple's App Store or in the Apps section of Google Play. Or go to this landing page where you can find links to the different versions of the app depending on what type of device you have:

http://cbf338ab-c125-4d02-bb12-c7984d573a27.mobapp.at/

The One Human Journey mobile app is FREE, and offers resources to inspire you and help you deepen your practice of meditation, yoga and spirituality. New content will be coming each week (daily, in fact, if you check the Facebook and Twitter sections) so the experience will keep getting better. Download it today!

Want to help me spread the word about One Human Journey and reach a wider audience? Recommend the app to your friends. Also, if you feel so inclined, please submit a review and rate the app in the App Store to help it get positive sentiment and better rankings in the Wild West shoot-out that is the world of mobile apps. Thank you!

Also coming soon from One Human Journey: a new e-book! Stay tuned….

With gratitude,
Dennis


 
Check out all the One Human Journey resources:
Web Site

Friday, February 28, 2014

Tao Te Ching Weekend at One Human Journey

It's "Tao Te Ching Weekend" on the One Human Journey Facebook page. A series of nine short contemplations will be posted over the course of the weekend, starting tonight. These posts will inspire you and offer deep insight and spiritual advice. Come follow the page and get all nine contemplations this weekend.

The Tao Te Ching is a classic text written (according to scholars) around the 4th century B.C. or (according to tradition) around the 6th century B.C. by Chinese spiritual master Lao Tzu. As the fundamental text of the Taoist philosophical and religious schools, it is one of the most widely translated works in world literature and strongly influenced both Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism, among other traditions.


Come to the Facebook page and share your own thoughts on these nine short excerpts from the Tao Te Ching in the comments section.

Translation by Brian Walker. Images and layout of the text drawn from translator Brian Walker's Tao Te Ching app for iPhone and iPad. Download the app today!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

7 Tips to Establish Your Meditation Practice

Okay, so you've received some basic meditation instruction and you want to establish a regular practice. That's great! Here are seven tips to help you get your practice going — and keep it going.

1. Just Do It
Meditation can seem difficult or even impossible at times. When we sit down to be still and quiet and look at our minds, we are suddenly, shockingly aware of how busy and distracted our minds really are. For many beginners, this can be disheartening. A lot of people give up before they even begin, thinking, "Other people may be able to meditate, but not me. I just can't do this." This is sort of like someone who takes piano lessons and gives up after the first few lessons because they cannot play a Beethoven piano concerto. It's called practice for a reason. Be patient with yourself and relax. Meditation is a process of taming and training the wild mind to stay present, and that training takes time.

2. Be Consistent
Consistency and regularity of practice are the keys to unlocking the benefits of meditation in your life. This has proven true in the experience of millions of meditators in every spiritual tradition for the past several thousand years. Think of it like brushing your teeth: it's better to do it every day, for short periods of time, rather than once a week for two hours. Practice whether you feel like it or not.
 If you only meditate when you feel like it, then your ego is subtly controlling your meditation practice — and that’s missing the point. If possible, try to practice at a consistent time each day. Many people find that meditating in the morning before going to work helps them establish a better frame of mind for their day. Others prefer to practice in the evening. Some like to "bookend" their days by doing both. Experiment and find what works best for you, and then stick with it for a while.

3. Don't Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
Practice in manageable, bite-size chunks. A typical recommendation for beginners is to start with 10 minutes a day, and then over time you can gradually increase it if you feel so inclined. If you are training for a marathon, you don't suddenly run 26 miles; you do a lot of shorter runs, and you gradually build up stamina and endurance. But don't leave it all to chance. Decide in advance how long you’re going to practice, and then stick to that amount of time. Don’t change your mind and bail out in the middle of the session just because it doesn't feel good. By the same token, get up when the session is over, even if it's feeling great.

"Learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this life. For it is only through meditation that you can undertake the journey to discover your true nature, and so find the stability and confidence you will need to live, and die, well. Meditation is the road to enlightenment." — Sogyal Rinpoche

4. Use a Timer
However long you practice, use a timer (stop watch, alarm clock, or kitchen timer) to time your sessions. The last thing you want to be doing while you're meditating — although it's tempting! — is peeking at the clock, wondering how much time is left in your session. There are also a number of free mobile apps you can download to time your sessions, or you can use your phone's built-in timer. I recommend the free Insight Meditation Timer app, which also includes access to many guided meditations.

5. Be Brave
Don’t be discouraged when meditation seems difficult, and don't get carried away with elation when it seems pleasant or easy. Experiences come and go like the weather in meditation, and it is our conceptual minds that label them "good" and "bad." Don’t cling to pleasant experiences, and don’t reject unpleasant experiences. Just keep practicing.

6. Find Your Space
Find a conducive space in which to meditate. It should be safe, quiet, and free from phones ringing and other preventable disturbances. But total silence is not necessary. Don’t meditate in total darkness or with light that’s too bright. If possible, you may find it helpful to create a space in your home devoted exclusively to your meditation practice. It could be just a corner of your room with a chair or a meditation cushion, and maybe some items that remind you of your spiritual goals. If circumstances make your home completely and totally unworkable as a meditation space, then you could go to practice in a church or a meditation center. If you have access to a meditation center in your area, you may find it inspirational and supportive to practice together with other people in group settings.

7. Find Your Support
As you continue to work with a meditation practice, questions and obstacles are bound to arise. If you can, it's helpful to talk about these issues with a meditation instructor or someone more experienced in the practice. It helps to have the guidance of someone who has encountered the same questions and obstacles in meditation and has worked through them. If you don't have access to support in person or by phone, there are many books and online resources that can help you identify obstacles in meditation and apply antidotes and solutions. If you're struggling with something in your meditation practice, rest assured that you're not the only one, and someone out there can help you work with it.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Joining Heaven and Earth

Yesterday I went skiing for the first time in 30 years. That other time was so long ago, and so little memory remains of it, that it would probably be more telling to say that yesterday I went skiing for the first time in my life.

After taking about an hour of basic lessons with groups of children and feeling frustrated with the bunny slopes, we hit the lifts. One of the people in our group is an avid skier and a good coach, and he led us through progressively more challenging (and frankly, at times, downright terrifying) slopes.

By mid-afternoon, we found ourselves on a blue trail—an intermediate course peppered with steeper hills, narrow passages, and moguls (violent little bumps in the snow that some people use to become momentarily airborne).

A Trial by Fire (and Snow) 
The situation was choiceless; we were going down that mountain one way or another, and the best way down was to follow our friend's coaching and learn to carve sharp turns back and forth from one side of the slope to the other, slowing our descent as much as possible. Along the way, there were many falls, but we picked ourselves up, shook the powdered snow out of our pants, laughed off our embarrassment, and continued. All around us, other skiers and snowboarders zipped by, narrowly avoiding crashing into us. At one point, a snowboarder came flying out of the woods through the air and wiped out directly in front of me; I leaned into a sharp turn and navigated around him by an inch or two. Later, an inexperienced skier actually did crash directly into my partner; no one was hurt, thankfully. Gradually, we learned to hold our balance and position our bodies, keep our skis apart, navigate the turns—and the most important skill of all—how to stop (even if, now and then, our stopping sometimes looked more like wiping out).

For those of you who practice yoga but don't ski, imagine doing Utkatasana (chair pose) for six straight hours, in a walk-in freezer, during a violent earthquake, all the while having to jump from one spot in the room to another (without breaking the pose, and with long, slippery, greased sticks attached to your feet) to avoid crazy people who are wildly running through the room trying to knock you over and throwing handfuls of snow in your face.

"You're walking. And you don't always realize it,
but you're always falling.
With each step you fall forward slightly.
And then catch yourself from falling.
Over and over, you're falling.
And then catching yourself from falling.
And this is how you can be walking and falling
at the same time."

- Laurie Anderson

After the harrowing ordeal of the blue trail, we returned to one of the easier green trails that we had been on earlier. But something was different this time. The blue trail had almost made me soil my pants; but I had survived it. Now, suddenly, the green beginner's trail—which had previously seemed incredibly difficult, too—was, literally, a breeze. I went down it once, and gained the confidence to let myself pick up more speed and carve wide turns back and forth. This time, I didn't fall. We went up again and came down a second time, and I picked up even more speed. I had no speedometer to measure—but I think I must have hit 40 mph. I was zipping past slower people and carving half-moons around them. Although there were moments when the speed and the bumps made me fear that I might lose control, I didn't. I stayed relaxed and in the flow. And it was exhilarating. I couldn't wait to get back on the lift and do it a third time.

By now, my regular readers may be wondering what possible relevance all of this has to my usual subjects: meditation, Buddhism, yoga and spirituality. Well, let me tell you.

Joining Heaven and Earth
Skiing is a metaphor for life. Life is not always smooth going. It can be chaotic and messy and terrifying and dangerous. It can—it does—push us out of our comfort zones and takes us to places we think we shouldn't be. Sometimes we lose control; we wipe out and get snow in our pants, or we crash head-on into another person when conflict arises. The situations that challenge us push us to learn to adapt faster. The people who irritate or threaten us challenge us to develop skillful ways of responding: less reactivity and aggression, more patience, compassion, and forgiveness.

"The bad news is: you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is: there’s no ground." 
- Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Certain Buddhist traditions speak of the principle of "joining heaven and earth." This is a lyrical and symbolic way of talking about synchronizing mind (heaven) and body (earth) in flowing, present-moment awareness. Through meditation, yoga—and yes, skiing—we can experience the freedom, contentment and relaxation that comes when mind and body are synchronized and we are fully awake to our experience as it unfolds. We stay right here, on the dot of the present moment, even—or especially—as we speed down the mountain and navigate more or less skillfully through whatever bumpy and chaotic situations life throws at us.

May we all become more skillful navigators and experience fewer crashes. When other, perhaps less skilled people crash into us, may we learn to forgive rather than escalate conflict. When the slopes become terrifying and seem impossible for us to ride, may we develop the confidence to stay present—and keep going. And when we fall—for we will fall, and spectacularly—may we always maintain our sense of humor about it.

With Adrian Molina

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Stop Making a Big Deal

As humans we are hardwired to seek pleasure and comfort and to avoid discomfort and pain. Probably all living beings are wired this way, but we humans have developed a greater variety of ways to carry out this prime directive. We are exceptionally good at it, and extremely habituated.

As practitioners of mindfulness this is something we witness happening 'in real time' during our meditations. We experience pains arising in the body, and our immediate impulse is to fidget and shift in our seat to make the pain go away. We experience unpleasant emotional states or thoughts that we label as bad or unwanted, and we try to bludgeon them into submission with concentration. Or we are lucky enough to have a very pleasant, peaceful feeling, and we immediately glom onto it and try to sustain it.

If we practice enough, though, we begin to experience something else: we witness the constant, moment-to-moment, instant-to-instant arising and passing away of thoughts, feelings and sensations. After witnessing this enough, we simply stop investing them with so much importance. Like the weather, our experiences come and they go -- sometimes sweet, sometimes sour. We can gripe and complain about the weather of the moment, or sing its praises, but the weather doesn't change for us. It changes all by itself, in its own time.

Our normal pattern -- so deeply ingrained that 99% of the time we do it on autopilot, without even noticing we are doing it -- is to make a big deal out of whatever experience is happening to us at any given moment. Good or bad, happy or sad, pleasant or painful, we exaggerate both its significance and its duration in our imaginations. And we react -- or over-react -- accordingly. An itch arises, and we scratch it without thinking. But what happens when we simply notice what is happening in our experience, and don't react?

One of the great qualities that mindfulness training begins to awaken in us is the capacity to stop making a big deal out of every thought or feeling that arises. The itch still comes, but we pause long enough to simply pay attention to the sensation without reacting. Maybe we scratch it, maybe we don't. But we realize that we are not, in fact, going to die of discomfort if we don't scratch it. Our back hurts, and we either move or don't move to alleviate the pain -- but if we move, we do it consciously, with awareness. A feeling of sadness or joy comes over us, and we can simply be there with it -- nothing in particular has to be done with it. Like everything else, it is momentary, and it changes. We don't make it a bigger deal than it really is.

"I am like a tree in a forest. Birds come to the tree, they sit on its branches and eat its fruits. To the birds, the fruit may be sweet or sour or whatever. The birds say sweet or they say sour, but from the tree's point of view, this is just the chattering of birds." - Ajahn Chah
"I am like a tree in a forest. Birds come to the tree, they sit on its branches and eat its fruits. To the birds, the fruit may be sweet or sour or whatever. The birds say sweet or they say sour, but from the tree's point of view, this is just the chattering of birds."

Practicing this way during meditation is, of course, only a form of training. The real point is to apply the training in everyday life, when situations arise that either give us great pleasure or cause us pain or stress. With practice, we can catch ourselves in the very moment of glomming onto our experience and starting to make a big deal out of it. We can observe the patterns of attachment and aversion that arise within us, and we can decide how much energy we really want to invest in them. And, in that pause, we can choose to react in ways that serve the greater good, rather than flying on autopilot.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

August: Osage County

For years I've been hearing my friends sing the praises of a certain Tony award-winning play that I missed during its Broadway theatrical run. I was encouraged to go see it, not just because it was such a wonderful play, but because it takes place in my home state of Oklahoma. Now the play has been made into a film with a dreamlike cast of powerhouse actors, and I finally had the chance to see it last night.

August: Osage County was a masterfully written and beautifully acted story of despair, addiction, self-delusion, alienation, competitiveness, greed, cruelty, perversion, desperation, resentment, lies, secrets, shame, anger, manipulation, betrayal, vengeance, rage, hatred, disease, decrepitude, psychological breakdown, and suicide.

A perfect Saturday night date movie.

Meryl Streep was nominated for yet another Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in this film, and I can't argue with that. She is a force of nature who never fails to impress, and in this film she delivers the goods. The rest of the cast, too, was amazing. The story was well-told, and as someone who grew up in Oklahoma I felt they got the atmosphere right. And the story's inherent bitterness was leavened with just enough skillful black humor to make it possible to swallow the whole pill.

But afterwards I found myself asking: why is it that we are so drawn to such miserable, discouraging, demoralizing stories? Why do we bestow the highest accolades on tales of such utter hopelessness and emotional violence? What is it about them that attracts us so much?

When I was younger, I felt a stronger pull towards these kinds of stories. In high school and college I went through a phase of complete obsession with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a film of comparable emotional violence and hopelessness about the human condition. It was a story that, at that time in my life -- full of youthful anger and rebellion -- resonated for me on a very deep level. It was appropriate to my life stage.

But the older I get -- or maybe it has less to do with my age than with my spiritual practice -- I find myself yearning for stories that demonstrate humans being basically decent and kind to themselves and to each other. I don't long for sugar-coated, Hollywood narratives that look away from conflict or from the darkness within us — for we cannot pretend it isn't there — but I do long for more stories that at least point towards our capacity for stepping into the light and helping others to do so. I'm increasingly turned off by stories that show people dragging everyone around them down into their personal pits of darkness and stabbing them with verbal knives and kicking them when they're down and bleeding.

Rob Brezsny's essay, "Evil Is Boring," very accurately describes "the perspective of many modern storytellers, especially the journalists and novelists and filmmakers and producers of TV dramas…"

"They devoutly believe that tales of affliction and mayhem and corruption and tragedy are inherently more interesting than tales of triumph and liberation and pleasure and ingenuity.

"Using the juggernaut of the media and entertainment industries, they relentlessly propagate this covert dogma. It's not sufficiently profound or well thought out to be called nihilism. Pop nihilism is a more accurate term. The mass audience is the victim of this inane ugliness, brainwashed by a multibillion-dollar propaganda machine that in comparison makes Himmler's vaunted soul-stealing apparatus look like a child's backyard puppet show. This is the engine of the phenomena I call the global genocide of the imagination.

"At the Beauty and Truth Lab, we believe that stories about the rot are not inherently more captivating than stories about the splendor. On the contrary, given how predictable and ubiquitous they are, stories about the rot are actually quite dull. Obsessing on evil is boring. Rousing fear is a hackneyed shtick. Wallowing in despair is a bad habit. Indulging in cynicism is akin to committing a copycat crime.

"Most modern storytellers go even further in their devotion to the rot, implying that breakdown is not only more interesting but far more common than breakthrough, that painful twists outnumber vigorous transformations by a wide margin." — Rob Brezsny

The thing is, I've watched movies about vampires and demonic possession that demonstrated more interest in basic goodness and human decency than August: Osage County. And I'm not saying that makes it a bad film, because it isn't. It's extraordinarily well-crafted and emotionally compelling, and it will probably win at least one Academy Award.

But I guess, like Brezsny, I'm growing bored with narratives that express what he calls a "devotion to the rot" — stories that do nothing but revel in the darkest shadow material and emotional violence that they can possibly dig up (unless, like 12 Years a Slave, they are historical narratives, which have a pedagogic purpose).

I walked away from August: Osage County thinking how important the shadow is in the human psyche, and how we ignore it at our peril — but for God's sake, it's not the sum total of who we are.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Jukebox Karma

Music is profoundly human. Making music and listening to music are two of the most uniquely human activities. There are species of birds whose songs approach the level of what we would define as music, and there are even exotic birds who hold twigs in their feet and use them to tap out a drumbeat on a tree branch as part of an elaborate mating display. But no other species invests quite as much emotional content in music and takes it as far as humans do. Music is one of our most essential ways of articulating and expressing meaning in our lives. It can also be one of our most neurotic forms of self-indulgence. It has the power to stir up and perpetuate emotional states of mind, both positive and negative.

Music has a way of getting inside your mind and planting seeds there, leaving behind a kind of echo of itself, a psychic residue that can linger even for years, in some cases for a lifetime. Musical memories are stored in a different part of the brain than other memories. Studies of Alzheimer's patients show that even when most other memory and cognitive functions are compromised, songs and lyrics from decades ago can often be easily recalled.

A Buddhist teacher I once studied with, Bill McKeever, called this phenomenon "jukebox karma" — the accumulated karmic seeds planted in our minds by the thousands and thousands of songs we have listened to, over and over and over, throughout the course of our lives.

Many contemporary meditation practitioners, myself included, often find jukebox karma to be one of the most irritating obstacles we encounter within our own minds. There we are on the cushion, trying diligently to meditate and keep our minds centered on some object of meditation, and instead we find that our mind stubbornly wants to keep replaying the chorus from some godforsaken pop song we heard on the radio. Gack! We try to let it go and come back to our meditation, but a moment later we are back at it. Our jukebox karma is just too strong.

"Jukebox karma" — the accumulated karmic seeds planted in our minds by the thousands and thousands of songs we have listened to, over and over and over, throughout the course of our lives.

When I lived in a Buddhist monastery, I spent the first year largely free from any musical input — no radio, no CDs, no MP3 player. I was shocked to discover that it wasn't until about six months into that year that my jukebox karma really began to fizzle out and lose its grip on my mind. During those first six months, anything at all could trigger the memory of a lyric or a refrain, and send me spinning off into musical distraction.

So if you find yourself struggling with jukebox karma in your meditation practice, cut yourself some slack. You're seeing (or hearing) karmic grooves that are very deeply embedded in your psyche, and no doubt in your neural pathways. If you're like me, music is one of your favorite ways to keep your mind entertained, and now you're experiencing the inevitable repercussions (pun intended) of all that conditioning and grasping at entertainment. Like everything else that comes up in meditation, it's just a thought, a pattern, an echo. It doesn't have any real substance, and with time and patience it will dissipate and leave the mind to settle into its own natural clarity and stillness. As the Beatles sang, just "Let it be. Let it be. Let it be. Let it be."

Oops, I did it again.