Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Pleasantness of Presentness

Meditation practice this morning was a struggle again. The weather today is magnificent, crisp and blue and too early in the spring for biting insects to be out, a perfect day for hiking, and all I could think about as we sat there in the shrine room was how much I wanted to be outside instead of sitting there on my cushion watching my mind run in circles.

There are some days when I wake up and I just know it's going to be this way. Moods and states of mind are like the ever-changing weather here in the wilds of Nova Scotia, on the rugged coast. Some mornings, as soon as I sit up in bed, the clouds in my mind are already there, and a hard, wild wind of discursiveness is blowing my awareness this way and that -- like the wind that blows down from the mountains and up from the sea here in Pleasant Bay, a wind that uproots and knocks down 40-foot trees.

My first three weeks here were difficult because I was fighting against the wind and noise in my mind, which -- I have begun to realize -- is as pointless as fighting against the wind outside. You can rage against it all you want and it doesn't make a damn bit of difference to the wind. The only difference is that it makes your experience of the wind that much more frustrating.

This week I've noticed a shift in perspective taking place. I have observed a new kind of serenity beginning to emerge in my mind, establishing itself alongside and around the monkey that dwells within. On days like this, when the monkey screeches, I am learning to step back and let him screech all he wants. As with The Borg on Star Trek, so with the monkey in my mind. "You will be assimilated," it seems to say, "resistance is futile." And so I am learning to stop resisting, which is an easier practice on some days than on others. But it seems that so much of our suffering comes from our resistance to the way things are, from our raging into the wind and telling it to stop, from screeching back against the monkey and telling it to be quiet.

In our evening chants we have a verse that says:

In order to remain in nonwandering, the ground of dharma,
Relying on the meditation practice of dathun,
Completely free from the movement of discursive thought,
May we give rise to the samadhi of one-pointed shamatha.

I used to think this verse meant only that we should, ultimately, be aiming for a state that is thought-free. "One-pointed shamatha" was, in my understanding, a kind of narrow focus on a single point of pristine awareness, like a laser beam shining on a diamond in a vacuum of mind where nothing moves. The regular screeching of the monkey in my own meditation practice was the abundant, incriminating evidence of how far I was (and am) from attaining that lofty goal.

Recently, though, as I've begun to acquire a more relaxed attitude towards the monkey, it has occurred to me that perhaps there is another definition of "one-pointed shamatha" or "nonwandering." If our awareness is expansive enough that we are able to be open, spacious and relaxed with whatever is arising in our experience at the present moment, even if what is arising is monkey mind jumping all over the place, then we are not really distracted, at least not completely. If awareness can encompass all that arises, then there is no such thing as distraction. Freedom from the movement of discursive thought means allowing enough space for discursive thoughts to arise and pass, not jumping on them like bicycles and pedaling to ride them further. One-pointed shamatha is no-pointed shamatha, because there is no "point" on which to "focus" when the point is everything that arises.

Someone was telling me yesterday about a teaching they'd received from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. He advised his students, when they go on retreat, to establish very strong boundaries between past, present and future, and to really do their best to stay in the present. Dwell in "the pleasantness of presentness," he instructed them. Before coming here to Gampo Abbey, I tried to arrange my life in such a way that I could do exactly that, a way that would allow me to dwell as little as possible on outside obligations or thoughts of past and future. But still, some days, the pattern of wanting to be somewhere else blows up and rattles my serenity, out of nowhere, like the fierce wind that blows up from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and shakes the Abbey buildings.

Today during the exercise period I went out and hiked up the nearby mountain, Gampo Lhatse, to clear my mind of the fog from this morning's frustrating three-hour meditation session. As I climbed the mountain, I was grumbling to myself about how much I wanted to be up there, among the open sky and the trees and the ocean, away from these people at the monastery and their damned schedules and rules and requirements upon my time. Halfway up the mountain I stopped and looked back at the calm blue sea, 600 feet below me, and at the Abbey nestled among the trees beneath the mountains in the distance, and at the clear blue sky embracing all of it, and my resistance melted away. Close to the top of the mountain, in a sort of clearing where a statue of Kuan Yin sits nestled among a cool, shaded garden of cedar trees, I froze in place as I heard the crunching of fallen tree branches beneath the feet of something very large moving among the rocks and brush below. A moose or a bear, I do not know which, and I dared not climb up further to find out. The bears here are timid black bears, but bears nonetheless, and at this time of the year, very possibly with cubs.

Halfway back down the mountain I stopped again to wait for my new friend to come by -- a tiny little chickadee that lives in the area. I waited in the same spot as we met the other day, and sure enough, he came along within a couple of minutes. I whistled to him, and he flew from tree to tree, getting closer and closer as he checked me out to see if I was one of the good ones. Apparently he decided that I was, because I held out my hand and he flew over and landed on my index finger, just as he had done two days ago. Seeing that I had no food to offer him at the moment, he flew away to a nearby tree branch, and we proceeded to have an extended conversation in chickadee language. "HEEE-hey-hey," he would call out, and I did my best to respond, and then he would call back again -- sometimes before I had even finished responding. Our conversation today lasted for a minute or two before he flew off to seek food in other places.

Moments such as these do not leave much room in your mind for resistance. They crack your heart open and make you realize how precious it all is, and how fleeting. How pointless it is to want to be anywhere other than where you are right now. To finally see this, I realize, I need to be here, in a place where the sea and the sky and the mountains reflect the brilliance and spaciousness of mind's true nature, a place where friendly birds land on my finger and foxes come round at dusk to eat the ritual torma offerings that are tossed out, like clockwork, behind the monastery during evening chants at the close of each day. A place where my meditation cushion sits close enough to the window that I can see the fox sneaking across the lawn at the close of chants, stealing for the torma.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Four Circles of Mindfulness

As I'm entering my fourth week at Gampo Abbey, I can observe myself slowly beginning to settle into practice. It is as if pieces of myself that were trailing somewhere behind me, still in New York City perhaps, are now arriving one by one, and joining the rest of me here. Many days these past three weeks, meditation has been a struggle between me and my own mind, an encounter with what Buddhists refer to as 'monkey mind.' But over the past few days, I've noticed the monkey beginning to quiet down and settle into being in this new zoo.

One thing that has helped me a great deal with this, in terms of meditation practice, is working with what are traditionally called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. I had always thought of the Four Foundations as a long practice that unfolds in sequential stages over the course of weeks or months or years, and in viewing it that way I'd always struggled to relate to it (no wonder!). In fact, in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha even advises his monks to practice the Four Foundations of Mindfulness for seven years. But this week, I have stumbled upon a way of bringing the Four Foundations into my meditation sessions in a much more immediate, practical way. Others, no doubt, have been practicing this way for years, but it came as something of a revelation to me. I've begun to apply them as an actual meditation technique, on the spot, and it seems to have a powerful settling effect on the mind.

Here's how I've been working with them:

FIRST, close your eyes and bring a gentle awareness to what is going on in your body at this moment. Notice your posture, and the connection between your body and the ground beneath you. Feel your torso and your legs and ankles and feet, your shoulders and arms and hands, your neck and head and face. Scan over your body and note any places where you might be holding tension, and gently let it go wherever possible. Bring a soft attention to the sensations of your body breathing, and to whatever other bodily sensations you may notice. This is the first foundation, Mindfulness of Body.

SECOND, open your eyes but keep your gaze directed downward, about three to six feet in front of you. While maintaining an awareness of what is going on in your body, gradually expand your awareness to notice how you experience sensations and phenomena as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is the second foundation, Mindfulness of Feeling. The word 'feeling' is a problematic translation here, because we usually think of 'feelings' as emotions -- but that's another layer of the onion (coming up next). Here we are quite simply looking at the very basic way in which we categorize everything that arises in our experience in one of three ways: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Developing a mindfulness of this is so important because we are so strongly programmed to react to these three ways of perceiving our experience: we pursue and grasp at what is perceived as pleasant, we recoil from and struggle against what is perceived as unpleasant, and we tune out or ignore what is perceived as neutral. From a meditative point of view, that's where all our problems really begin. One of the interesting things we discover when we work with this level of mindfulness is that our labels of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral are often, to a greater or lesser degree, projections onto experiences that are actually pure sensation arising, beyond categorization, beyond label or concept. Sometimes if we disengage from our habitual storyline about that pain in our back or our knee, rather than dwelling on it and feeding it by constantly slapping it with the "unpleasant" label, it begins to lose much of its force and we experience it in a different way.

THIRD, raise your gaze a little further, about six to twelve feet in front of you. While maintaining an awareness of the body and of sensations that are pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral, expand your awareness to include the thoughts and emotions that are passing through your mind. This is the third foundation, Mindfulness of Mind. Thoughts and emotions come and go all the time, passing through our minds like bicycles without riders. Normally what we do is to jump on each and every bicycle that passes by and start pedaling, pedaling, fueling the thought and building it up into a storyline or a fantasy that swamps our awareness. Some thoughts and storylines are so juicy that we clear a whole space for them and set them up like stationary bikes or hamster wheels, and we just keep coming back to pedal away on them. If we just watch the illusory bicycles come and go without jumping on them and pedaling, they peter out eventually and fall down, dissolving back into the nothingness from which they arose. As it says in the Sadhana of Mahamudra, "Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish like the imprint of a bird in the sky." (This line has become something of a mantra for me, and I find it's worth memorizing and repeating frequently.)

FOURTH, raise your gaze completely so that you are looking out at the horizon (or, if you're feeling daring, even a little above the horizon, into open space). While maintaining an awareness of body, of feelings and sensations experienced as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral, and of thoughts and emotions passing through the mind, expand your awareness outwards to include all the "dharmas" of phenomenal experience: sights, sounds, smells, and so on. Simply be present in your environment with a relaxed, all-encompassing awareness that embraces whatever is happening in your surroundings. This is the fourth foundation, Mindfulness of Dharmas. Gradually the distinction between internal and external experience begins to blur and dissolve, and mindfulness-awareness becomes open, spacious and relaxed.

Instead of calling these the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which sounds very linear and hierarchical, I prefer to think of them as Four Circles of Mindfulness, with each circle building out upon the previous one, extending mindfulness outward through concentric circles of increasingly expansive awareness. You can picture them like a radar screen, starting with the innermost circle of body, the second circle of feelings, the third circle of mind, and the fourth circle of dharmas. Mindfulness-awareness becomes like the sweeping arm of the radar, scanning each of these concentric circles and noticing when a new blip appears somewhere on the screen: an itch or a sensation experienced in the body as unpleasant, a new thought that emerges into awareness and passes through the territory of conscious mind.

Sometimes a blip will seem to appear in one area and cross over into another: someone sneezes in the shrine room and it startles you (unpleasant), and then you begin to actively think about sneezes and germs, then you begin to feel anxiety and fear about getting sick. At that point you've basically lost the thread -- no problem, simply come back and start again at the innermost circle, mindfulness of body, and work your way back out.

I think of this practice as being somewhat like the Shambhala practice of invoking Windhorse, for those who are familiar with that set of teachings. It's a way of dispelling the various layers of resistance and obstacles to being present, and invoking a sense of confident, self-existing awareness and presence that embraces all the various layers of our experience. Applying these circles of mindfulness doesn't need to take very long -- you can spend as much time as you want or feel that you need to in each circle, but running through the sequence doesn't need to take more than a few minutes, or even half a minute once you get the hang of it. Gradually it becomes a less sequential exercise as you develop a thread of awareness that runs across all four circles.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Be Like Water

"Don't get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless -- like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; you put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; you put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend."

-- Bruce Lee

The shrine room here at Gampo Abbey perches on a cliff high above the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and it sometimes feels like you are in the steering room of a tall ship at sea, looking out at the ocean as it stretches below you into the distance. At this time of year, many chunks of ice, large and small, drift slowly northwards and out to sea.

A few weeks ago in this blog, I wrote about the Buddhist teaching of "anatta" (from the Pali language, or "anatman" in Sanskrit), meaning "no-self" or "selflessness." The gist of it is that, while we do appear here in some form, there really is no inherently existent, permanent "self" at the center of our experience, as we commonly assume there is.

Buddha suggested that we think about this paradox in terms of what are called the "two truths" -- relative truth and absolute truth. From the perspective of relative truth, we appear -- you're over there and I'm over here, and we seem to exist as separate entities. From the perspective of absolute truth, however, neither of us can be said to exist inherently and permanently. We appear for a certain time, in a certain form, with certain capacities and characteristics, due to a confluence of causes and conditions that are temporary.

Consider those chunks of ice floating in the water. Each one seems to exist as a thing unto itself, separate from the water, with its own distinct shape and form and even personality. Some are large and difficult to ignore, others are small and may slip past unnoticed. In a relative-truth sense, that is how it manifests. On the level of ultimate truth, however, the ice cannot be said to exist independently of the water or to have any solid identity that can be pinpointed. An iceberg arises from the water, is made of nothing other than the water itself, exists within the water, and melts back into the water. For a certain time, causes and conditions conspire to shape this water into a seemingly solid form that appears to have an identity of its own -- but at no time is the ultimate nature of the ice any different from the ultimate nature of the water in which it appears. Whatever relative form it takes -- water, ice, snow, rain, fog -- its ultimate nature does not change.

Even the largest, most distinctly shaped iceberg, capable of sinking ships, does not have an inherent identity that can be pinpointed. Where is its essential "icebergness?" Slice the iceberg into three pieces -- in which of the three pieces does its inherent self remain? Slice it into a billion pieces -- it's still just water.

The Buddha taught that this is how we exist. There is an ultimate nature of mind that underlies everything, or you could say it *is* everything, and yet it has no form that can be pointed to, no center and no circumference, no inside or outside. For a time, due to causes and conditions (what we call "karma"), this "unborn awareness" that has no form has frozen into a form that appears to us to be a self, just as the iceberg floating in the water appears to be a thing unto itself. But this "self" has never been anything other than the naked, original mind, the unborn awareness, from which it has arisen.

"In the boundless space of suchness,
In the play of the great light,
All the miracles of sight, sound and mind
Are the five wisdoms and the five buddhas.
This is the mandala which is never arranged but is always complete.
It is the great bliss, primeval and all-pervading. HUM
It is boundless equanimity, which has never changed.
It is unified into a single circle beyond confusion.
In its basic character there is no longer any trace
Of ignorance nor of understanding.
Nothing whatever, but everything arises from it.
Yet it reveals the spontaneous play of the mandala."

-- from The Sadhana of Mahamudra

We awoke here this morning to find the ground and the trees and the mountains freshly coated with two inches of pure white snow -- it looks like a Christmas postcard. Later in the morning, a thick fog drifted in from the sea and blanketed everything for a few hours. Later still, the fog cleared a bit and revealed, anew, the snow and ice and water.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Few Things I've Observed in My First 10 Days at the Monastery

The mind can be both dull and agitated at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive.

The more you find it annoying when someone suggests a better way of doing something, the more your ego is getting in the way.

Living in a community, people will be full of suggestions about better ways of doing just about everything.

On your day off, if a local tells you that a certain hiking destination in the mountains is 3 hours away, assume that it will take you 5 hours to get there. (At 4 hours, you might begin to realize this, and turn back.)

Black Brook, where I stopped to have lunch (a little over 2 hours of mountain trekking away from the monastery). To continue hiking towards the elusive Pollets Cove, I had to take off my boots and socks and wade through the frigid water. Those are small icebergs floating offshore where Black Brook empties into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Physical labor can help clear the mind.

Moose poop comes in two varieties: pellets and patties. (Why? Does it depend on what they ate?) Sometimes the two will appear right next to each other.

Photo: The two varieties of moose poop. Left: patties. Right: pellets.

Fox poop, on the other hand, is small, black and shiny. Sometimes a fox will sniff around another animal's poop (such as that of a moose) and add his contribution to the pile.

Crows and other birds actually make an audible noise every time they flap their wings. It's so quiet up here sometimes, you can hear birds flying. (On the other hand, when it's this quiet, the tinnitus in my ears seems to grow louder, filling up the available space. Perhaps the noise in my mind is doing the same.)

One would logically assume that sitting still and being silent for 3 hours, breathing naturally and resting one's mind, would be easier than hiking up a densely wooded mountain for 3 hours. The opposite is sometimes true.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

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 music as far, as humans do. It 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. Music has the power to stir up and perpetuate emotional states of mind, both positive and negative.

I find myself thinking a lot about music right now because of its sudden, noticeable absence from my life. I have just begun a year-long (or more) stay at a Buddhist monastery where music is regarded as a form of entertainment and escape that is unnecessary and distracting (though, truth be told, it is occasionally indulged in of the senior nuns here recently succumbed to a swooning infatuation with Jacques Brel love songs, which she confessed to us with a guilty, self-deprecating giggle). Except for liturgical purposes, listening to music, singing, dancing, whistling, and other musical expressions are not permitted in public here.

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 cogitive 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 Billy Joel or Rod Stewart 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. The jukebox karma is just too strong.

For the past week, I've had several songs from Marvin Gaye's album "What's Going On" recycling themselves through my mind every time I start to become quiet. On the scale of musical choices to be stuck on, it's not a bad one. It's a great album, full of meaning and power but not laden with the emotional baggage and mental associations that make many other albums treacherous territory. It was the last album I listened to before leaving New York, as I packed up my last belongings and prepared to leave my life (including my CD collection!) behind to come here. But no album, however good it might be, is much appreciated when you can't get it out of your head for a week.

I trust, or perhaps I should say I hope, that as I spend more time here and move further into practice, further away from the CD collection I left in safekeeping with a friend in New York, my jukebox karma will begin to soften and my mind will make room for other experiences to emerge besides old Marvin Gaye albums. But the Buddhist teachings on karma say that karmic seeds, once planted, are always there in the mindstream. Even if it takes lifetimes, they remain there until they meet with the proper conditions to sprout, and then they bloom into fruition.

Here's hoping that many of the jukebox karmic seeds I planted during my teenage heavy metal years do not soon meet with the proper conditions to come back and haunt me.