Sunday, December 28, 2008

Buddha Mind in Oklahoma

When the iron bird flies, and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the world, and the Dharma will come to the land of the red men.

-- Padmasambhava, 8th Century

For the past few days I've been visiting family in Oklahoma, where I grew up. I was astonished to learn that in the last few years, a Zen (Cha'n) Buddhist monastery has been established in a small town called Choctaw, on the outskirts of sprawling Oklahoma City. I visited and meditated at the monastery several times, and found the Taiwanese nuns there to be extremely warm-hearted and open and full of wisdom and gentleness.

The monastery currently occupies what used to be a small church along with a couple of adjoining houses -- but the property includes 37 acres and plans are to expand and build a much larger monastery in the next couple of years, a place where 7-day retreats can be held.

So, if you should ever find yourself in Oklahoma....

Monday, December 22, 2008

TATA (Things As They Are)

The Buddhist community in New York lost a good friend and teacher this year, when Dolores Katz passed away after a long illness. In memory of Dolores, I share these thoughts here, culled from notes I took during a weekend Shambhala Training course (“Drala”) she taught in February 2004.

As human beings, we have seemingly endless ways of denying and avoiding reality, of not facing up to the truth about our own minds and the world in which we live. The path of meditation, and the spiritual path as a whole, is largely about waking up from these habits and clearly seeing Things As They Are (a.k.a. TATA).

When we see the world through our habitual filters and preconceptions, we are not really seeing the truth, and because we do not see things accurately we are limited in our ability to bring about a positive outcome. To see things as they are, or TATA, we need to drop the filter of hope and fear that usually clouds our vision, and relate with openness to our experience.

In meditation, we learn to rest in wakefulness, to be authentically present for our experience without adding anything to it or subtracting anything from it. We learn to recognize and let go of our habitual storylines about Things As They Used to Be, or Things As They Ought to Be, or Things As They Will Be Someday, and relate simply with Things As They Are. Instead of spacing out, we begin to ask: What is happening in my experience right now, in this very moment, and how can I relate to it without artifice or delusion?

As we drop the storylines and the pretense that things are (or ought to be) something other than they are, we begin to touch into the principle of drala, which is the energetic, living quality of everything. To experience the energy of drala, we need to give ourselves tremendous space, space free from our habitual, cramped preconceptions, in which our mind can be open to simply noticing what is.

Our ego-based fear is that, if we were to drop all our habitual patterns, we would no longer be ourselves. But from the perspective of awakened mind, quite the opposite is true. It is when our habitual patterns fall away that we are most genuinely ourselves.

Relating to the principle of drala means seeing things as they are and leaving things as they are. It requires great bravery to do this, the bravery of non-deception. The energy of drala is attracted to what is true, what is non-deceptive. In relating authentically to things as they are, we enter a virtuous cycle that is based on tenderness and presence rather than expectation and aggression. Telling the truth (to ourselves, for starters, and then perhaps to others) is a compassionate way to live. It’s much more convenient, and habitual, to look away and not tell the truth.

There is often a sense of sadness in letting go of our habitual patterns. We have been attached to them for a very long time, and they have been our dysfunctional but loyal companions. But as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche says, “Sadness is the only thing that keeps us incorruptible.”

Friday, December 19, 2008

Advice from Me to Myself

Modeled after the poem of the same title by Patrul Rinpoche

Listen up! Absent-minded Dennis,
Your time is running out!
How much longer will you continue
To be half-assed in your spiritual practice?
When death comes for you, will you be prepared?

You regard study, meditation, and action
As if they were hassles, just more things on your To Do list.
Yet how will they benefit you or anyone else
If you fail to rejoice in them?

You sit in shamatha like a sumo wrestler
Sits on his opponent – your mind squashed
Beneath the weight of your own effort.
But how often do you remember to relax?
You relax well enough, though, in front of the TV screen,
But are you really present?

When you’re on the cushion, you can’t wait to be walking;
When walking, you think only of sitting again. Ridiculous!
Stop leaning forward into the future.
Pay attention and be content where you are.

Or, you sit reviewing the past, reliving old conversations,
Imagining new outcomes – pointless!
The past is gone – give it up!

You try to investigate the nature of things
But your mind lacks stability and focus
So you jump from thought to thought
Like a puppy in a room full of strangers.
You study texts and reasonings on emptiness
But are your opinions and theories any less solid than before?
If you’re not becoming less arrogant
What is the point of more emptiness studies? None.

When you have a glimpse of something,
You instantly think of how you could share it with others.
But is your motive really to help them,
Or to prove your own cleverness?
Your bread is really only half-baked, so
What is the point of taking it out of the oven now?
Just relax! Leave it there for a while.

You talk about compassion and lovingkindness,
And your Refuge name is Patience.
But on your way to the Dharma center today,
How many people did you silently curse
For getting in your way on the sidewalk?
What is the point of speculating on compassion
When hostility still wells up so automatically,
Poisoning your view of other beings?

You talk about equanimity, but you still care deeply
What other people think about you.
You talk about non-attachment and freedom
But you live in a self-made prison of desire and daydreams.
Your quest for sexual and romantic fulfillment
Is neverending, like drinking saltwater
That only increases your thirst.
Constant craving for pleasure only saps your energy
And keeps you distracted from your real purpose.
Give up the chase! If pleasure comes, enjoy it –
But drop the compulsion to create or maintain it.

When you receive a practice from your Guru
You begin it with enthusiasm.
But soon you lose steam, and doubt creeps in.
The honeymoon is barely over, and already
You’re thinking of leaving your new spouse.

I must be a special case,” you say,
That’s why I’m having trouble with this practice.
Surely another practice would be better suited
To my unique personality and disposition.”
So you go back to your Guru and ask for guidance,
Secretly hoping he will give you something else to do.
But he tells you to keep doing the practice,
And try to stop intellectualizing so much.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it!
Stop looking for a way to make yourself comfortable,
Just follow your Guru’s instruction.
Give up your terminal uniqueness, and sacrifice
Your laziness at the altar of diligence.

Even if you aren’t able to put all this advice into practice,
Be patient with yourself. Remember that everything
Is far more open and spacious and workable than you think it is.

In a word: relax!

This advice was written by Zopa Tharchin (Dennis Hunter) for his good friend Sonam Rapga (Dennis Hunter). The inspiration for this poem and its structure were drawn liberally, with great respect, from the poem “Advice from Me to Myself” (tr. C. Wilkinson) written by the great Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887). May it be virtuous.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Placing the Mind of Fear in the Cradle of Lovingkindness

The practice of meditation allows us to see that our feelings and thoughts — even (or especially) the powerful, negative ones like attachment, anxiety, and fear, from which we may have spent much of our lives running — are not really the big, solid bogeymen that we habitually believe them to be. In the process of observing our minds we watch thoughts and emotions arising and vanishing again and again, and so we learn to stop taking them quite as seriously as we used to. We begin to realize that they are fleeting, insubstantial, and empty; we become increasingly able to recognize the projections of our minds for what they are and to let them go rather than being swept up and carried away by them. Thus, we can return to the authentic experience of being present for whatever is actually happening in our lives — as opposed to whatever may be happening in our hope- and fear-driven fantasies about our lives.

Of course, what's actually happening in our lives is not always pleasant, and it may provoke emotional reactions in us that are difficult to sit with. But again, by calling upon our own innate resources of mindfulness and patience, we can learn to see through our demanding and unrealistic projections onto our experience, and simply be present with life, on its own terms.

Fear happens, whether we want it to or not — and we might say that our fear is “not good,” but saying that doesn't make it go away. The fear is there, for whatever reason, and telling ourselves we shouldn’t be afraid doesn’t make us feel unafraid — in fact, if we were to keep going in that direction, we might begin to feel ashamed or inadequate because we can’t just wish our fear away. Yet, even within our experience of fear, there is still the possibility of being present with it, without being paralyzed or blinded by it, or trying to run away from it. That possibility arises through the application of mindfulness and patience. We might even find that, in being honestly present with it, our fear begins to dissolve, like a fungus that only grows in the dark and dies when exposed to light.

Allowing ourselves the space to be present with our fear, rather than spinning out in our habitual patterns, is an act of tremendous honesty, and a great kindness to ourselves.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Keeping Your Seat

The idea of "keeping your seat" -- an image from the Shambhala teachings on enlightened warriorship -- is about meeting whatever situations arise in our lives with total confidence and equanimity. Even in the face of danger or unpleasantness, we have a choice about whether to spin out into reactivity (which often only makes the situation worse), or to hold our seat and stay present with an open mind and see what happens.

A few years ago, I had a chance to put this teaching to the test in a very literal way. I was attending a meditation retreat in upstate New York. Walking in the woods nearby, I had been delighted to discover an idyllic, private meditation spot. Nestled in the forest was a creek fed by natural springs, and on a little island where the creek split into two streams was a wedge of rock that made a perfect seat for meditation. I loved to visit that spot whenever I could sneak away by myself for an hour or two.

So there I was, meditating alone in the woods, listening to the peaceful trickle of the water flowing past on either side of me, basking in the glory of nature, resting my attention peacefully on my breath. And that's when I saw, out of the corner of my eyes, a shadowy figure move in the woods.

Looking up the trail, I saw two large, vicious-looking wild pack dogs -- like wolves, only bigger. Although they were still some distance away -- maybe 200 yards -- they had spotted me immediately, and began to bark aggressively and run towards me at full speed.

My heart jumped into my throat. In an instant, my peaceful, idyllic meditation in the woods had been shattered, transformed into a fearful situation in which I might be maimed or killed by wild dogs.

Because of the distance, I had about ten seconds to think before reacting. My mind raced through the options. Option A: I could try to run, but that would only fuel the dogs' aggression, and I was sure I couldn't outrun them anyway. Option B: I could climb a nearby tree, but then I'd be stuck up there and the dogs could hold me captive. Option C: I could stand and fight, using the walking stick I'd picked up in the woods.

Or, it occurred to me, I could simply choose not to react from fear in any of these rather predictable ways, but go for Option D: remain seated and let the dogs come to me and see what happens. I could have the courage to hold my seat, literally, on this rock in the middle of the woods, and let the dogs of aggression come charging at me and simply not buy into their storyline.

So I did.

And sure enough, when the dogs got close to me and saw that I was not going to jump up and react to them, they got spooked and froze in their tracks, about ten feet away. By holding my seat, radiating confidence and equanimity rather than mirroring the dogs' fear-based aggression through my own display of fear-based aggression, I had gained the upper hand. Since the dogs didn't know what to make of my non-reactivity, the whole momentum of their forward charge was short-circuited.

This experience demonstrated for me the truth of the Buddhist teachings about non-aggression. In a world where aggression is often the norm, non-aggression is outrageous. Whatever life throws at us, whatever wild dogs come charging at us, we always have a choice about how to respond. Sometimes, in an effort to protect ourselves, we react in predictable ways that add fuel to the fire and only intensify the negativity of others. But sometimes, if the circumstances allow, we could experiment with simply holding our seat and not reacting to protect ourselves, and see what happens. We might find that doing this opens up a whole new way of relating to the situation.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Facing Your Demons

As human beings, we concoct endless strategies for evading and escaping and anaesthetizing pain and discomfort of any kind, whether it's emotional, physical, or spiritual. When we experience difficult feelings such as anger, sadness, loneliness, shame, jealousy, or craving, our habitual response is either to stuff these feelings down (repressing), or to reach for something to make them "go away" (acting out). Eckhart Tolle writes in The Power of Now:

Every addiction arises from an unconscious refusal to face and move through your own pain. Every addiction starts with pain and ends with pain. Whatever the substance you are addicted to — alcohol, food, legal or illegal drugs, or a person — you are using something or somebody to cover up your pain.

The ability to be compassionate and loving — towards ourselves and others — grows out of our willingness to relate honestly and openly with our own pain and discomfort, rather than shutting down to it. As James Baldwin said, "One can only face in others what one can face in oneself."

Through meditation, we can learn to sit with difficult feelings, instead of repressing or acting out. The technique of Compassionate Abiding described here is adapted from a practice taught by Pema Chodron. It trains us in the ability to stay present and calm even in the midst of painful, uncomfortable, emotionally triggering situations. It increases our capacity to remain honest, open-minded, and willing even when our buttons are being pushed. It can also help us revisit painful situations from the past and work through lingering feelings of resentment, fear, shame, and so on.

Compassionate Abiding can be practiced on-the-spot, in "real life," when difficult situations arise. But we're more likely to be able to respond to situations spontaneously with an attitude of compassion and equanimity if we've first familiarized ourselves with what it feels like by working with the practice formally.

NOTE: If you have serious trauma in your past, such as physical or sexual abuse, it may be ill-advised to work with those situations in your formal practice of compassionate abiding, at least at the beginning. Confronting those kinds of memories may trigger 'emotional flooding,' which is not the point of the practice. It may be more skillful to address childhood trauma and other deep emotional scars in counseling with a professional.

As a meditation practice, compassionate abiding should always be "sandwiched" in-between short periods of basic mindfulness practice.

  1. Start with a few minutes of mindfulness practice, resting your awareness gently on the breath and letting go of thoughts.
  2. When your mind feels stabilized, call to mind a real-life situation from your past that was uncomfortable and emotionally triggering for you. If there was another person involved (there usually is!), it may be helpful to visualize their face(s) and imagine them doing whatever they did or saying whatever they said to make you feel upset and uncomfortable.
  3. As you inhale, breathe in the feeling of anger, resentment, jealousy, sadness, shame, fear, or whatever it is that's evoked in you by the situation you're working with. As you breathe in the feeling, allow yourself to really connect with it and experience the uncomfortable energy of it.
  4. Try to notice where the feeling lives in your body. Is it a tightening in your throat? A clenching of your jaw? A fluttering in your stomach? A frantic, jumping, screaming energy in your torso that wants to get up and run away? Don't try to make the sensation go away. Just notice it, and pay attention to it.
  5. As you exhale, breathe out a sense of tremendous space, openness, relaxation, and total acceptance. Allow your discomfort and painful feelings to dissolve into this open, loving, compassionate space. You can imagine your own heart opening up a little wider each time you exhale, so that there's always more and more space inside you to accommodate whatever you may be feeling.
  6. If you find yourself thinking about the situation or the feeling — spinning out storylines about it, blaming or criticizing the other person, judging yourself for feeling the way you feel, and so on — simply note this as "thinking," let it go, and come back to the sensations in your own body.
  7. Continue with this practice — breathing in the painful emotion, feeling where it lives in your body, and then breathing out a sense of spaciousness, love, and acceptance towards yourself and towards the feeling — for a few minutes, or until you feel that something in your experience of the emotion has shifted.
  8. End your session by returning to the basic mindfulness practice for a few minutes, until you feel that your mind is again clear, calm, and stabilized.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Why Don't I Feel Enlightened?

In Buddhism it is taught that we are already, in essence, enlightened. The true nature of mind is radiant and clear and primordially pure. This optimistic view of our fundamental nature may come as a shock to those of us who grew up in the West, where our culture is steeped in the doctrine of Original Sin -- the idea that we are basically corrupt and damned unless we are saved by an external god.

So if we're already enlightened and the nature of our mind is primordially pure, why doesn't it feel that way? Why do our lives, and our minds, get so mucked-up?

Although our essence and nature is pure, it has become obscured somewhere along the way, covered over by two veils that blind us to our true nature and distort our perception of reality, leading us into all kinds of suffering.

One of these veils consists of our emotional obscurations -- what are known as the kleshas, or afflictive emotions. These include all our habitual emotional patterns: anger, craving, jealousy, aggression, and so on. Through acting out our habitual patterns and destructive emotions, we create negative karma and further ensnare ourselves in the web of suffering.

The other veil consists of our cognitive obscurations -- our misperception and misunderstanding of the way things really are. Foremost among our mistaken beliefs, and the root of all other mistakes, is the idea that we truly exist as some kind of permanent, independent, and unitary entity. In reality, the way we exist is impermanent, dependent on causes and conditions, and not unitary but composed of smaller and smaller parts, the more closely you examine it. From the mistaken belief in a truly existent self comes the perception of "other" and all the grasping and aversion that follow.

The path of meditation and the study of Dharma (the way things are) enables us to see our own confusion and begin to awaken from this long sleep. When we truly do wake up, it is said, we recognize and rest in the true nature of our own mind, which has never been separate from the mind of Enlightenment itself.

As T.S. Eliot put it in his epic poem "Four Quartets":
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Hearing the Lion's Roar of the Dharma

Notes from the Karmapa’s Teachings in New York and Seattle

N.B.: This article also appears in the current issue of Bodhi magazine, Vol 10, No 1. Additional information about the U.S. visit of His Holiness Karmapa can be found at the visit blog.

Saturday, May 17th, 2008 was a monumental day for Buddhism in America: His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, gave his first public teaching in the West, at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. Before an audience of nearly 3,000 people, a giant three-story-tall thangka image of Shakyamuni Buddha hanging behind him, Jumbotron screens on either side of the stage, His Holiness taught about the inseparability of self and other. He cited Shakyamuni Buddha as an example of someone who completely transcended any notion of difference between self and other and was the complete embodiment of altruistic compassion. Although the historical Buddha walked the earth 2500 years ago and is no longer living, His Holiness said, the Buddha’s love and compassion are very much alive and we can still feel their repercussions today.

His Holiness Karmapa at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom, May 17th, 2008.
Photo by Gregg Rock. Copyright 2008 by Karmapa Foundation.

Remarking on the strong connection that the Sixteenth Karmapa established with America during his visits here in the 1970s and 80s, His Holiness said that this connection lives on in the deep love and affection he feels for the American people.

“The American people have never been outside the mind of the Gyalwang Karmapa,” His Holiness stated. “The Gyalwang Karmapa has never forgotten the people of America for an instant.”

His Holiness also taught about patience, and how to work with challenging situations and afflictive emotions such as anger and desire. The problem, he said, is not that we feel attraction or revulsion towards something — it’s that we go too far, and one-sidedly adopt or reject an entire thing on the basis of one (or a few) attributes — we confuse the attributes with the thing that appears to possess them.

Two weeks later, in Seattle — after visits and public teachings in upstate New York, New Jersey, and Boulder, Colorado — His Holiness gave his first West coast public teachings at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre, concentrating on the themes of compassion and interdependence. Because the world we live in is getting smaller due to technology and globalization, His Holiness said, people's individual actions therefore have a much greater effect on the global village and the whole of humanity. In this era, people can no longer afford to cling to their particular views or self-centric identities — not even the limited notion of "being a Buddhist." We need to think in larger terms.

Due to technology and external advancements, we have obtained the power to cause a lot of changes in the world, but for a long time we were not mindful about how we used this power. Now people are becoming more mindful, but so much damage has already been done, and we are on the verge of destroying our planet and our own ability to live here. In this day and age, His Holiness said, the practitioner's motivation to attain his or her own personal liberation is "no longer sufficient whatsoever" — instead, we need practitioners who can benefit the whole world while also engaging in their own personal practice. The old tradition of a yogi going off into isolation for many years and then working in a limited way with only a handful of students is no longer particularly practical or helpful. Rather, we need practitioners who are out in the world, working for the benefit of all beings.

His Holiness also spoke about the need for continuity of practice, which requires firm resolve. We need to remind ourselves again and again of what it is that we wish to accomplish through our practice and refresh that resolve every day to keep the momentum of our practice going. This resolve, the Karmapa said, cannot be a mere thought in our heads, but must be a strong building up of energy and intention within ourselves. His Holiness suggested that we could set one clear goal and work with that goal for an entire month, reminding ourselves of it each day.

Most of us, His Holiness said, are not lacking in pith instructions from our gurus and teachers; what we are lacking, rather, is pith instructions from ourselves. We need to learn to look within, listen to ourselves, and seek out instructions from our own minds.

Because we need to depend on things and people other than ourselves for every benefit that we experience in life, the Karmapa taught, our happiness is intimately connected to other beings and their well-being. However, our habitual "me and mine" mentality of self-centricity does not bring us happiness. Rather, the source of happiness lies in working for the benefit of others, since our own happiness cannot come from anywhere else.

His Holiness Karmapa shared many personal stories from his own life to illustrate his teachings. Although the Gyalwang Karmapa is regarded by some students as a fully enlightened and faultless Buddha, nevertheless this has not prevented the Karmapa from experiencing hardship in life. The key, His Holiness said, is how we meet the hardships we encounter: we can embrace hardships as opportunities to grow and think in different ways and create more benefit for ourselves and others. But often, we simply create a lot of negative "self-talk" about our situation that compounds more suffering onto the original hardship. We can learn to allow hardships to happen (since we cannot, in many cases, prevent them) but limit the self-talk about them.

Although in the West we have seen many external advancements and technological benefits, we have also seen a corresponding increase of fear and suffering in people's minds, His Holiness said. This is related to our inability to cherish others -- our pattern of clinging solely to our own concerns, the habitual "me and mine" mentality. If we are not aware of how our happiness depends upon others and we do not work to benefit others, we end up with a society full of people who think only about themselves and act in ways that cause harm to themselves and those around them.

His Holiness expressed his profound gratitude to everyone who helped make his first visit to America possible, and confided that he was very happy during his stay here. He said that he didn't quite realize this until someone showed him some of the photographs from his travels here, and he saw that he was smiling in many of the pictures. This surprised him somewhat, as he does not generally smile a great deal. His Holiness said that his happiness during his travels in America came from the fact that everyone around him was also happy and smiling — a further illustration of his teaching that our happiness depends upon others.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Building Your Meditation Practice: A Few Tips

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, "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying"

To experience the benefits of meditation, we don't have to go live in a cave and practice 24/7. But it does help to have a regular practice, with some consistency, even if it's in very small amounts. Consistency and frequency are more important than doing long sessions.

If you're just beginning, don't bite off more than you can chew. Practice in manageable, bite-size chunks. A common recommendation for beginners is 10 minutes a day, which you can gradually increase to 15, 20, or 30 minutes if it works for you. Don't start out trying to do 30 minutes a day at the very beginning, though, because it might feel like too much and you may get discouraged. Build up your tolerance for sitting meditation gradually.

If you have trouble finding even 10 minutes a day to sit down and practice, maybe it's time to reexamine your priorities. How much is your spiritual life worth to you? When you think about it, 10 minutes a day, for something so essential to your own well-being, is not really asking all that much. If you can't find 10 minutes a day to stop running around and sit down and look at your own mind, then maybe you're just too busy.

However long you choose to meditate, use a timer (a stop watch, an alarm clock, or a kitchen timer) to time your sessions. This minimizes the distraction of wondering how much time is left, and you don't have to keep peeking at the clock.

Decide in advance how long you're going to sit, and stick to it. Don't change your mind and abandon ship in the middle of a session. By the same token, get up when your session is over, even if it's feeling good. Try to carry your mindfulness into post-meditation activities and mix it with your everyday life.

Try to sit at a consistent time each day. Some people find it helpful to sit in the mornings before going to work, as this helps them create a more positive frame of mind for going about their day. Others prefer to sit in the evenings. Some like to do both. Experiment and find what works for you, then stick with it for a while and see what happens.

Once you get a daily rhythm going in your practice, continue to sit and practice even when you don't feel like it. If you only sit when it feels convenient or comfortable, then your ego may be in charge of your meditation practice, and that's missing the point.

Don't be discouraged when meditation seems difficult, and don't be elated when it seems easy or pleasurable. Experiences in meditation come and go like the weather, and it's our conceptual minds that label these experiences "good" and "bad." Don't cling to good meditation experiences, and don't reject bad ones -- just keep sitting.

Find a conducive space in which to practice. It should generally be safe, quiet, and free from unnecessary disturbances. But total silence is not necessary.

Some people find it helpful to devote a small space in their home exclusively to meditation. It could be a corner of your room, where you set up a meditation cushion or a chair. If you want to go all out, you could set up a small shrine and include some objects that have spiritual significance to you. This is about creating a space that your mind associates with meditation, so the mind knows when it enters that space what's going to happen.

If your home is totally unworkable as a meditation space, you could go to practice in a church or meditation center. If there's a meditation center near you, take advantage of this -- practicing in a group with other meditators provides a powerful support.

In his book "Wake Up to Your Life," Ken McLeod talks about several basic conditions that need to be present in order for our meditation practice to really flourish:

  • We need to have our basic needs met. Shelter. Food. If we don't have these things, it's hard to focus on anything else.
  • We need to have some sense of contentment with our lives. If we are caught up in desire, pining for more of this or less of that, it's a huge drain on our mental and emotional energy.
  • We need to have a manageable life. As McLeod says, "a manageable life is one in which you can breathe.... You need to be able to sit and rest, at least for the period of formal practice."
  • We need to have ethical behavior. When we do something that doesn't sit well with our own conscience, we spend a lot of time thinking about it afterwards, and burn up a lot of emotional energy on feelings of remorse.
  • We need to let go of drama. As McLeod puts it, "Is everything a big deal, or can you let go of emotional reactivity? ... If you can't step out of reactivity for even a moment, you won't meditate. You will be too busy reacting to the current crisis."

Finally, if you plan to take your meditation practice seriously, don't try to go it entirely on your own. Seek out companions and guides on the path of practice, and talk to them to work through your questions and doubts as they come up. It will also be tremendously helpful to see that other people have many of the same experiences as you do, and face many of the same obstacles.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Meditation 101

The first time I heard meditation instructions, it was presented in terms of three simple building blocks — a mnemonic device that I’ve always found it helpful to recall. The three basic building blocks of sitting meditation are: Body, Breath, and Mind.

Even within Buddhism, there are many types of meditation that utilize different techniques designed to accomplish different things (not to speak of all the meditations found in other spiritual traditions). The type of meditation described here is called shamatha, translated as Tranquility or Calm Abiding or Peaceful Abiding. As those labels suggest, its main objective (if meditation can be said to have an objective, which gets into tricky territory) is to calm the mind, and to help us train in the ability to “abide” or stay present with what is happening right here, right now.

Training in this kind of Tranquility meditation is the first step in really getting to know our own minds, and creates a foundation for everything we do on the spiritual path.

"The method that the Buddha discovered is meditation. He discovered that struggling to find answers did not work. It was only when there were gaps in his struggle that insights came to him. He began to realize that there was a sane, awake quality within him that manifested itself only in the absence of struggle. So the practice of meditation involves letting be."

-- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

A: Body

The first part of the practice involves how we work with our body during meditation. Taking the right posture is essential, because the state of the body reflects and affects the state of the mind: the mind-body continuum. A slouching posture leads to a slouching, dull state of mind — and vice versa. A proper, upright posture embodies the qualities of strength, dignity, and bravery, and sets the stage for engaging with your mind in the practice of meditation.

  • Sit up straight, allowing the spine to lengthen naturally — as if an invisible string attached to the crown of your head were lightly pulling you upward. If you're in a chair, you might try sitting forward rather than leaning against the back of the chair; your feet should be flat on the floor. If you're on a cushion, cross your legs comfortably in front of you.
  • Let your arms drop to your sides, then gently lift only your forearms — keeping your upper arms parallel to the torso — and bring your palms to rest lightly on your knees or your thighs. The placement of the hands should not be so far forward that it causes your shoulders to slouch, and not so far back that it pinches the shoulder blades. Find the right spot to allow your back and shoulders and neck to rest upright, without straining.
  • Keeping the eyes open, direct your gaze down at a point three to six feet in front of you, not looking at anything in particular but allowing the gaze to rest in one spot rather than roaming or following distractions. Allow your eyelids to relax, and soften the gaze so that you're "looking without staring." If you've practiced other meditation techniques that involved closing the eyes, it may seem awkward at first to practice with eyes open, but give it a try and see what happens. Keeping the eyes open is a step towards integrating the practice of mindfulness into everyday life, rather than making mindfulness something separate from your life that can only be practiced under restricted conditions.
  • Relax the stomach muscles, the torso, the throat, the jaw. Bring the tip of the tongue to rest lightly on the spot where your upper teeth meet the roof of your mouth, allowing the lips to part slightly if it feels comfortable.

B: Breath

The second part of the practice involves where we place our minds during meditation. We could choose almost any object — an image, a sound, a particular word or series of words — but most people find that the simplest and most convenient object to use in shamatha meditation is the breath. It's free, you carry it with you everywhere you go, and it's already happening — it requires no particular effort. In one sense, sitting and resting our attention on the breath is the simplest thing we could possibly do; yet the cumulative effects and implications of this practice are profound. Breathing is an expression of the present moment; each breath is slightly different from every other breath, and it is only happening right now. Tuning in to the breath is tuning in to the present moment.

  • Breathe naturally, however you find yourself breathing in this moment: fast, slow, shallow, deep, whatever. Don't make any particular effort to breathe in a certain way, or to control the process. Just be with whatever kind of breath you have right now. If you can, breathe through the nose.
  • Bring your attention to rest lightly on the full cycle of breathing, both in and out. Allow yourself to identify with the soothing quality of the breath.
  • Notice where you feel the physical sensations of breathing most acutely. Maybe it's in the rising and falling of the abdomen, or in the slight warm and cool tickling sensation at the ends of your nostrils as the breath goes out and comes in. Wherever it is for you, rest your attention on that physical sensation.
  • If you can, place a slight emphasis of attention on the out-breath. Feel yourself going out with your breath and dissolving into space, letting go of conceptual mind. Allow the in-breath to happen naturally, and again go out with the out-breath and dissolve.
  • Notice the quality of the moment after one breath has gone out, before the next breath has started to come in. What is your mind like in that moment?

C: Mind

The third part of the practice involves how we work with our minds. Having attempted to sit and rest our attention on the breath for a few moments, we have probably discovered — perhaps to our dismay — that our mind is restless and prone to wander away. We find ourselves thinking about lunch, reliving an argument with our ex-boyfriend, reveling in a sexual fantasy, fretting over our job, stewing in old feelings of shame or resentment, worrying about our loved ones, or desperately seeking entertainment by looking for shapes and patterns in the carpet in front of us: the possibilities are literally endless. Our minds seem to hop from one distraction to another with total disregard for our noble intention to stay with the breath. Welcome to your "monkey-mind." Through regular shamatha practice, we can begin to train the monkey to stay in one place for longer periods of time, and we can even learn to regard its antics with humor and compassion.

Usually, when we have a thought or a feeling, we run with it: our minds seem to control us, rather than us controlling our minds. By practicing shamatha, we train in the ability to recognize our thoughts without being driven by them. But the goal of shamatha is not to "get rid of" thoughts — this is a common misconception. The goal is to see ourselves clearly, and with compassion, by touching in with whatever we're experiencing, and then coming back to the present moment and the object of meditation. Precision and gentleness are the keys.

  • When you become aware that your mind has wandered off into a thought, feeling, or fantasy, gently touch on it and return your attention to the breath. Whatever kind of thought or feeling it was, try to see it without judgment or criticism: in the practice of shamatha, there are no good thoughts or bad thoughts. No thought is to be condemned or praised — that's just more thinking.
  • You may find it helpful to mark the moment of transition between thinking and returning to the breath by "labeling" your thoughts. When you recognize you've been thinking, say to yourself mentally: "Thinking." Apply this labeling technique with a light touch -- like touching your thoughts with a feather. Don't try to shoot down your thoughts or squash them, but simply recognize them, let them go, and come back to the breath.
  • Above all, be gentle with yourself, and relax.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

How to Listen to the Dharma

The Buddha said that we should not accept his teachings – or anyone else’s – simply because it comes from a certain source, or carries a certain authority, or was written in a certain book. Rather, we should listen to the teachings with an open mind and then test them in our own experience and see if they really make sense. Only if we find that they make sense in our own experience should we then accept the teachings as true.

The first step in that process is listening to the teachings with an open mind, and really hearing what’s being said, without bias or misinterpretation. To do that, we first need to get out of our own way and put the kibosh on our bad listening habits. When we listen to the Dharma (which also includes reading written teachings), we should try to be free of what are traditionally called the “three faults of the vessel.”

The first fault is being like a pot that’s turned upside-down. You can’t put anything in it. This metaphor describes what we’re like when we’re distracted, caught up in our own internal monologue or paying attention to something other than the teachings. When we do that, we’re not really listening.

The second fault is being like a pot that’s contaminated or poisoned. Anything you put into a vessel that’s poisoned is going to get poisoned too. This describes what we’re like when we listen to the teachings with a mind that is angry or lustful or caught up in some other emotional drama. It also refers to listening with the wrong motivation, such as the desire to build ourselves up with wisdom in order to be superior to others. In that frame of mind, we're likely to distort and misinterpret what we hear.

The third fault is being like a pot that has a hole in it. The pot might be turned right side-up, and it might be clean, but still nothing will stay in it. This describes what we’re like when we don’t remember the teachings or keep them in mind. Acharya Bill McKeever once described a funny moment when he was moving house, and realized he was carrying a box of Dharma books and yelling at his family. Where were the teachings in that moment when he needed them?

When we sit down to listen to teachings or study the Dharma, it’s good to look at our frame of mind and check ourselves. Are we like a solid, clean vessel that’s turned right side-up, ready to receive? Or are we like a leaky vessel that’s dirty and upside-down?

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Word on the Four Reminders

In Tibetan Buddhism, the Four Reminders are a series of contemplations designed to shake us out of our complacency and spur us to practice the Dharma more diligently. Also known as the "four thoughts that turn the mind towards the Dharma," the Four Reminders challenge us to wake up and smell the coffee that is our human lives – before it’s too late.

The first reminder, Precious Human Birth, confronts our basic poverty mentality about our lives, our habit of feeling like things aren’t good enough yet. It challenges us to see how fortunate we really are, and what a precious opportunity we have to wake up in this lifetime.

The second reminder, Impermanence, confronts our tendency to think that there’s no big rush, we have lots of time left, we can always wake up later if we don’t get to it now. It reminds us that our lives are short, and that death is unpredictable and comes without warning.

The third reminder, Karma, confronts our basic ignorance about the consequences of our actions. Understanding karma means seeing that everything we do produces a result that either leads to happiness and waking up, or to suffering and further ignorance.

The fourth reminder, Suffering (or the Shortcomings of Samsara) confronts our perpetual, deluded hope that some kind of lasting happiness can be found in the pleasures and comforts of this world. It spurs us to recognize that material pleasures are temporary and riddled with suffering, and they don’t lead to awakening unless we see their true nature.

Altogether, the Four Reminders give us a much-needed kick in the ass. Contemplating the Four Reminders shakes us out of our self-induced stupor and turns our mind away from sleep and towards awakening.