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.”


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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