Friday, May 29, 2009

Protect Me from Myself

My latest topic of contemplation is the meaning of Refuge (in the Buddhist sense). This has been on my mind a lot because I'm (once again) doing the Ngondro practice of Prostrations and taking Refuge. It seems that anything I find myself repeating over and over (such as the Refuge recitation in the Ngondro practice, or the notion of "confidence" that I wrote about here previously) naturally becomes a topic for reflection and analysis.

In a general sense, Buddhists "go for Refuge" to what are called the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Buddha is the representation or embodiment of enlightenment and complete wisdom; the Dharma is the Buddha's genuine teachings that reveal the path to enlightenment; and the Sangha is the assembly of fellow practitioners who follow the Buddha's teachings and support each other along the path. One can look at the process of taking Refuge in different ways. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says:

"Generally speaking, there are two styles of going for Refuge. We are going through a two-stage process. There's a style of going for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in their external form as something separate from oneself. This is [the] approach of relative reality. There's another style of refuge based on absolute reality where you go for refuge to the Three Jewels as something internal, as something that is part of your mind. From this second point of view, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are not far away from you. They are quite close to you. As a matter of fact, they are so close that you can't see them."

-- Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

What I find myself chewing on these days is not so much the question of what the Three Jewels represent, per se, but more the question of what "Refuge" and "going for Refuge" to them, or "taking Refuge" in them, really means.

The notion of Refuge implies the presence or the danger of some kind of suffering from which one seeks protection or refuge. The desire to seek such protection, to go for Refuge, stems from a basic recognition of several key facts:

  1. In our lives there is always suffering and/or the threat of additional suffering; this is the first of the Four Noble Truths, the first thing the Buddha taught after attaining enlightenment. If we cannot recognize this basic truth about reality, or if we live somehow in denial of it, then we have no motivation for spiritual practice. (If everything is fine, then why bother?)
  2. We have been unable to stop this suffering on our own, despite our best efforts; in fact, if we've done a bit of reflection, we may recognize at this point that we ourselves seem to be the cause of much of our suffering. Our own ego and ignorance and self-centeredness and habitual patterns have brought us nothing but trouble, and it is time to grow up and abandon such childish ways, and take responsibility for our present life and our future lives.
  3. There is someone (on the relative level, from the perspective of our ego) bigger than us, wiser than us, stronger than us, who has conquered suffering, and who has taught the way for others to accomplish this. (As Munindra once said to Sharon Salzberg, "The Buddha's enlightenment solved the Buddha's problem, now you solve yours.")

Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels is a way of saying: "I recognize the great wisdom of the Buddha who transcended suffering and attained enlightenment; I recognize the great wisdom of the Dharma, the Buddha's teachings on the path; and I recognize the great wisdom of the Sangha, my fellow beings who are studying and practicing those teachings and following the example of the Buddha. I aspire to commit myself fully to following these Three Jewels and to discovering and manifesting this great wisdom in everything I do, from this moment forward. Please protect me from myself, from my own stupidity and habitual patterns, and show me the way to genuine freedom and complete awakening."

In the Ngondro practice of Refuge and Prostrations, we demonstrate this commitment symbolically by visualizing the objects of Refuge in front of us and prostrating on the ground each time we recite the Refuge prayer. Accumulating large numbers of prostrations, this becomes a very intense physical and mental activity, a vibrant and transformative offering of body, speech and mind. Moreover, we visualize and imagine that not only am I, the individual, prostrating before the objects of Refuge, but I am doing this alongside *all* sentient beings -- humans, animals, fishes, birds, bugs and all. Through this, we recognize our interconnectedness with all beings, the fact that we are all in this mess together, and we all need the same wisdom (whether we know it or not) in order to transcend the seemingly endless cycle of suffering in which we're all stuck. This brings in an element of the basic Mahayana view of compassion for others as the basis upon which genuine enlightenment becomes possible -- the view of the Bodhisattva path.

In a talk here at the Abbey recently, Tim Olmsted said that the nature of the basic Refuge vow is that we begin to take responsibility for ourselves, while the nature of the Bodhisattva vow is that we begin to take responsibility for others. Olmsted was a student of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (incidentally, I've been reading Urgyen's memoir "Blazing Splendor" at bedtime each night for the past month or so, and it's wild). He once asked Tulku Urgyen, "Rinpoche, my mind is not very strong. Please remind me again, what is the main point?" Tulku Urgyen replied: "Compassion for those who have not realized the View, devotion for those who have, and genuine love and affection for all beings without exception."

From the Mahayana point of view, that is the nature of taking Refuge: devotion for the view of liberation and enlightenment and those who have realized it, and compassion for those (including ourselves) who have not. On the basis of this devotion and compassion, love and affection for all sentient beings becomes possible.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Confidence Beyond Words

I've been thinking lately about confidence: what it is, what it isn't, why it matters so much in life and on the spiritual path. Our morning and evening chants here at the Abbey are spiked with references to confidence. We begin and end each day by paying homage to enlightened beings who possess "the confidence beyond words." So I find myself asking what that means, trying to imagine what such profound confidence might look like and where it comes from.

My teacher, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, always emphasizes the importance of thoroughly contemplating the Dharma (through analytical meditation), in order to really let its meaning sink into your mind and become mingled with your own experience. It is on the basis of this personal contemplation that certainty about the teachings will arise in your mindstream, and from this, confidence and devotion and diligence will naturally flow. Without certainty and confidence, our commitment to follow the path of truth and liberation, even our relationship to reality itself, will always be half-assed.

Confidence interests me, in part, because it is something that, for most of my life, I have felt that I lacked. I could list any number of reasons why this has been so: growing up in a household where there was (in addition to a great amount of love) mental illness, alcoholism, divorce and instability; growing up gay in a society and culture where, by and large, I'm despised and ridiculed for simply being who I am, and therefore learning to keep that identity a secret even from myself; falling under the sway of the Southern Baptist church, where I was indoctrinated in guilt and sin and the fear of eternal damnation; and so on. Those kinds of early karmic unfoldings did not establish the foundations of an abundant confidence in myself or the psychological ground under my feet.

Yet, it is also true that when I encountered the Buddhist notion of basic goodness or Buddha-nature -- the idea that I and all other sentient beings are, at our innermost core, fundamentally good and whole and sane and capable of manifesting complete virtue and enlightenment -- it immediately rang true for me. This idea, so much the opposite of the Original Sin doctrine in which we Western people are saturated, resonated with some innate confidence deep inside me, a primordial "confidence beyond words" that had remained unimpeded even by all all of the confidence-eroding instability of my early life. I felt an immediate certainty of the truth of this teaching -- the unfolding of an older, more original karma through which I somehow, despite having impaired vision, saw my own reflection in the mirror of wisdom.

"According to the teachings of buddha nature, each of us possesses, at our very root and core, a profound and irrestible longing. This is nothing other than a longing to become fully and completely who we are, to experience ourselves and our lives, fully and freely, without doubt, reservation, or holding back. This final realization of ourselves is described as all-loving and powerful -- we discover ourselves as everything that we need to be and, because of that, we become completely available to the world and its suffering beings, and discover utter trust and confidence in life."

-- Reginald Ray, from "Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body"

"Fearlessness" is another idea we talk about a lot in Buddhism, and in some ways it might be a good synonym for confidence. At the most basic level, what we mean when we talk about fearlessness is not a state of mind in which fear does not exist, but a state of mind that is completely open to working with fear when it does arise. This fearless mind does not shrink from meeting whatever circumstances arise in our lives; it is open and genuine and free from ego's squirrely, habitual patterns of escapism in the face of fear. In two of her talks here at the Abbey recently, Pema Chodron spoke about the feedback loop that develops between confidence and fear. The more confidence you have, the more fear can hit you; and the more you work with fear, the more your confidence grows. Fearlessness arises on the basis of some kind of trust in our basic goodness, the basic nature of mind itself which is fundamentally, primordially pure ("alphapurity," as they say in the Dzogchen tradition). Unfortunately, because we are so profoundly alienated from our true nature, such fearlessness often seems far away and unattainable. We remain caught up in the delusions of ego and in a false sense of self that creates the illusory perception of being separate from the great flow of life; this, in turn, gives rise to the fear of being cut off from life's flow and ceasing to exist.

One particularly puzzling way this self-centered fear can manifest is through arrogance and pride, which may superficially look like confidence but are actually symptoms of delusion or ignorance -- the insecurity of not knowing or trusting in one's own basic nature. As Pema Chodron pointed out, when we listen through the filters of arrogance and pride we can't really hear what someone else is saying to us unless it confirms our self-image and resembles what we already think we know. True confidence has much more to do with humility (or humbleness) than it does with arrogance or pride. And it has more to do with the Zen concept of "not-knowing" than it does with thinking we already know what's happening, or what should be happening, in any given situation. True confidence, the confidence beyond words, is completely open to the infinite possibilities that exist in every moment, while rooted in the knowledge that, whatever happens, it could not possibly alter the actual nature of mind.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Paldarbum / Milarepa

A dialogue between Milarepa and his female disciple Paldarbum. Melody credited to Binnie Clarke.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Hiking the Spiritual Path

Saturday was open day here at the monastery and the weather was beautiful, so I went for a long hike to a mountaintop spot someone had told me about, which has spectacular panoramic views of the ocean and the smaller mountains all along the coast.

Getting to a spot like this is not easy -- most of the trek is uphill, and steep in some places, so I was huffing and puffing most of the way. There were several times when I had to stop and rest, and I asked myself each time if getting to the destination was really worth the effort it takes to get there. There were places, too, where the terrain and the trees conspired to keep me from really seeing where I was, and I began to doubt that I was on the right trail -- I couldn't see the place ahead that my friend had told me about. I wondered if I had missed a turn somewhere and was trudging up the wrong mountainface. I began to think of perhaps turning back. But for some reason, I kept going. The forest kept getting thicker and the trail kept getting less distinct and harder to follow, and I was no longer sure where the path I was on would take me -- but I wanted to find out. So I kept slogging up the mountain, sniffing out the old trail that had become overgrown, climbing over fallen trees blocking the path. The mountain flattened out a bit at some point and I passed through an enchanted-looking forest, the shaded trail softening with the cushion of fallen pine needles that coated the ground. It was lovely, but I had lost the certainty that it was leading me where I wanted to go. Then I turned a corner and rounded the top of the mountain -- and suddenly the forest cleared and there it was in front of me: the wide, open view my friend had told me about.

The spiritual path, and especially meditation, is like that. Our spiritual friend tells us about the great view of mind that we can attain through meditation practice, and it sounds so amazing that we actually set out on this great journey -- only fully realizing after we're halfway there that it's mostly uphill. Meditation practice can feel like such hard work sometimes (though, oddly enough, meditation is supposed to be fundamentally about relaxing). And our view of ourselves, of the path, and of where we are on the path is not always clear. Sometimes we question whether we are getting what we thought we were supposed to get from the practice, whether it's worth it, whether this path or this practice is really leading us to our goals, whether we are on the right trail after all. Maybe we took a wrong turn somewhere, we tell ourselves -- maybe we should backtrack and start over, go in a different direction. When the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and attained enlightenment, it is said that the demons of Mara -- representing the last vestiges of his own self-doubt and lack of confidence -- appeared in various guises to try to dissuade him from continuing.

But if we dispel the demons of self-doubt, if we keep going, keep working on ourselves, keep climbing, keep practicing, keep traversing obstacles that seem to block our path, keep trusting that our spiritual friend did not mislead us and that we applied his instructions correctly and that we are, in fact, on the right path -- no matter how thick the forest or how obscured our view may be at the moment -- then at some point we can reach that place where the forest finally opens up and in an instant we step into a whole new perspective that blasts open our awareness. At that point the question of whether the journey was worth it is moot, because the view is right there in front of us and we can judge for ourselves. There may be numerous moments like this along the path, moments of clarity when we reach a clearing in the trees and we see at least a sliver of the view that has been described to us. These moments can seem to happen quite suddenly and when we least expect them. In my experience, progress along the spiritual path takes place in quantum leaps: for a long time things may appear to be static and unchanging, or even to be backsliding, but at a subtle level beyond awareness the conditions are being created for a sudden leap forward to occur. And when that leap finally does occur, all our former doubts and hesitations are blown away like dust.

One thing seems certain: if we lose heart or succumb to laziness, if we don't keep climbing and practicing, if we backtrack and always second-guess ourselves on the spiritual path, it will prevent us from enjoying the open, spacious view of mind that our spiritual friend has told us about.

From the ultimate perspective, it is said the practices and the spiritual path as a whole are unnecessary, because the view from the mountaintop is actually available to us in every moment, no matter where we are. We simply can't see it because we're so stuck in dualism, convinced that we're down here on the ground and that the lofty view is up there somewhere in the distance, far away and unattainable. Because we believe we're on the ground, we need meditation practice and the spiritual path to help us believe we're working our way uphill.

"Listen to me carefully. The awakened state cannot possibly change. Do you hear me? Once you notice this empty, awakened state, in which there is no thing that can change, then there is no need to create it by meditating nor is it something that can truly slip away. Do you understand? Once you have recognized that which cannot change, that's the awakened state. Now keep it in mind, always. Trust me, this is very important!"

-- Shakya Shri's last words to Tersey Tulku, quoted in "Blazing Splendor: The Memoirs of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche"

Thursday, May 21, 2009


I'm currently reading Dr. Reginald Ray's "Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body," which is based on the "Meditating with the Body" teachings he's been presenting for the past several years. I've twice taken weekend workshops with him on this topic, and highly recommend both this book and his workshops.

Reggie Ray writes that we modern people -- especially in the West -- have become tragically disembodied, alienated from the most basic level of our own experience as human beings: what it is to be embodied, to experience the world in and through the medium of this material and energetic body into which we have incarnated in this lifetime. The body is, literally, our karma made manifest.

We *think* about the body a great deal, sometimes obsessively, but this is not the same as being in and with the body on its own terms. In fact, it is our allegiance to *thinking* about everything -- mediating and managing our experience and our lives through the conceptual thought function -- that is at the root of our disembodiment in the first place. For the most part, we think of our bodies as mere tools (or sometimes obstacles) to serve our ambitions and our ego's goals of attaining happiness and comfort; we rarely descend into the darkness of the body itself and witness the naked experience that arises there. In his "Meditating with the Body" work, Dr. Ray presents a range of methods for helping us learn to do exactly that, drawn primarily from the esoteric (and usually quite strictly held in secret) teachings of Tibetan Yoga (presented in the most advanced practices of Tantric Buddhism such as those found in the Six Yogas of Naropa practiced by three-year retreatants in the Kagyu tradition). These esoteric teachings, says Ray, are all directed fundamentally at attaining enlightenment through the body, completely eradicating our preconceptions about the body and leading us to a state of total embodiment.

An Alex Gray painting I had hanging on my wall for several years.

In the workshops I took with Dr. Ray, he led us through a series of experiential exercises in which we progressively trained in bringing more and more subtle and open levels of awareness to previously unseen layers of somatic experience. One such exercise involved lying on our backs on a cushion with our knees lightly bound by a yoga belt so that our leg muscles could completely relax. Slowly -- very slowly -- sometimes excruciatingly slowly -- we scanned our bodies from toe to head, bringing our attention fully to each part of the body and taking time to experience whatever sensations were present there. Both times I took the workshop, I remember being especially amazed when we got to the face; as I dwelled with the sensations and energy in my face -- especially around my eyes -- I began to realize how much subtle tension I carry there, as if my face were almost imperceptibly contorted into a slight grimace at all times. As I became aware of this tension, I realized how painful it was to carry that tension around, and how deeply embedded this habitual pattern is for me. Each time I became aware of the mask of tension on my face, I could consciously relax it for a few seconds, but then it would slowly, insidiously reassert itself according to habit. Ray says that recognizing such patterns of holding and blocking in the body is the first step to transcending habitual patterns and becoming more embodied.

One manifestation of our disembodiment that Dr. Ray writes about is our tendency to live from the neck up -- in our heads and in our thinking mind, which we associate with the brain and the perceptual organs that are centered in the head. This is especially problematic for meditation practitioners because we can get very stuck in the misconception that meditation is primarily a mental and conceptual activity that happens -- where else? -- in the head. This problem can be exacerbated, Ray points out, if the meditation technique we are taught is one that further centralizes our attention in our heads by telling us to concentrate on the sensations of the breath passing through our nostrils; this would be like giving drugs to an addict and telling him to meditate on the sensation of the drugs in order to free himself from addiction. It only makes the situation worse.

We may see our bodies, at best, as tools to be utilized to achieve the meditative aims and ambitions of our mind, and, at worst, as pain-producing obstacles that stand in the way of getting where we want to go in meditation -- which in point of fact may be some kind of imaginary, totally disembodied nirvana-realm that lies somewhere other than where we happen to be right now. Somehow it never quite seems to dawn on us that meditation begins with the body and takes place in the body, with open and mindful awareness of our total, embodied situation in the present moment. We know that the Buddha's teachings on meditation began with mindfulness of body and that this is one of the main meditations that even the Buddha himself continued to practice in the 40 or so years *after* he attained enlightenment -- yet we still regard our own bodies, often, as little more than irritating hindrances to samadhi. But where do we think samadhi is going to take place, if not in and through the body?

In my work with my meditation instructor lately, I've been looking at the difference between mindfulness and distraction -- how the two states actually look and feel. One thing I've noticed is that at times when I'm lost in discursiveness, I also tend to be very absorbed in the level of experience that happens from the neck up; and the further I go into discursiveness, the more I begin to physically slouch and lose touch with what's going on in the rest of my body. By contrast, at times when I'm particularly mindful, I tend to be more grounded in the level of experience that happens below the neck, in the dark regions of the body where energy ebbs and flows according to its own patterns, beyond the control of my conscious mind; and by staying with that experience, I'm able to abide in a more present and relaxed way.

Traditional Western psychology speaks of the mind's conscious and unconscious aspects, with the conscious aspect being likened to the small part of an iceberg that sits above the surface of the water and the unconscious being likened to that far more vast part of the iceberg that is hidden and submerged beneath the surface. In a way, this is how we relate to our bodies, concentrating so much of our attention on that small and limited part of our experience that unfolds above the neck. Only rarely does our awareness descend into the vast regions of bodily experience that exist beneath the surface.

Ray cites a beautiful example from one of his own teachers, Malidoma Some, who moved to a West African village where there was no electricity. When he wanted to light some lamps at night to see better, he met with strong resistance among the village elders, who told him, "If we light the lamps, we won't be able to see." The elders explained to him: "You can't see anything real in the daylight. The only thing you see in the daylight is what you want to see. When you turn the lights off in the night, you see what wants to be seen, which is a whole different story."

Descending out of our heads and our thinking mind and down into our bodies is like turning off the lights in order to see better. In the "darkness" of the body's own perpetual unfolding of experience, we see not what we want to see, but what wants to be seen.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Animals R Us

I wanted to say a couple more things about the meditation inventory practice I wrote about here in my last post.

First, in terms of gauging one's level of mindfulness-awareness, it's important to say that the idea of an inventory practice is not so much to try to be as mindful as you can (skewing the effort too much that way could get into the territory of cooking the books) -- but, rather, to simply get an accurate reading on how mindfully aware you naturally are. You can even play with being intentionally sloppy in your meditation technique or your posture, and just see what kind of effect that has on your mindstream.

Second, in terms of the Six Realms, one's experience may fluctuate between realms from session to session, or even within a single session -- but chances are there are one or two realms that are your habitual favorites. Maybe you often find yourself churning in the hell-realm state of anger and hatred towards others, or wallowing in the poverty mentality and "can't get enough" obsession of the hungry ghost-realm, or blissed out in the prideful, carefree state of the god-realm.

For me -- to my surprise and chagrin -- the animal realm seems to be the place I go to most often when I exit mindfulness. It's a bit disappointing because I was hoping for something juicy and fun like the god realm or even a hungry ghost realm which would at least be dramatic. Even the fury of a hell-realm state of mind would be vivid and compelling. The animal realm is just so....well, dull and stupid.

I have been observing (or trying to observe) what happens when I go into the animal realm, how I actually experience that state of mind, what triggers it, how it arises, what happens when I bring awareness to it. There seems to be a sort of animal-realm fog that frequently descends on my mind; it clouds my awareness and carries away my mindfulness into discursive fantasies about food, conversations, work, and other agonizingly mundane concerns. The problem is that, when I try to really look at the fog and find where it abides, it's suddenly not there anymore....but the damn fog was here just a moment ago when I wasn't looking for it, so where did it go?

There seems to be a moment (sometimes I can catch it, but more often I can't) when my internal eye of discriminating awareness sort of glazes over and goes dull, and that is the moment when I exit into the animal realm. Once that moment arises, if I do not catch it, then I am off to the races and either spaced out or following a discursive thought (or both).

What seems to trigger this glazing over of the eye of awareness, and the exit into spaced out/dull/distracted mind is harder to put my finger on. It has something to do with laziness and resistance, not wanting to meditate (even though it's precisely to meditate that I brought myself here, to the end of the civilized world, to a monastery at that place where the North American continent drops off into the Atlantic Ocean), wanting to escape somehow into entertainment, perhaps wanting to avoid the boredom and tediousness of looking at my mind again for another three hours. This laziness and resistance, I have realized, is what has dominated my relationship to practice for the past few years.

A few days ago, when I was experiencing this strong resistance and aversion to practice coming up, the vivid image popped into my mind of a lazy farm animal (perhaps a donkey, or an ox....something quite stupid) not wanting to get up and do the day's work, but being forced to do so, and resenting it, and escaping into daydreams in order not to really be present for the unpleasantness of what it doesn't want to do.

The meditation inventory practice has opened my eyes to how much of this animal-realm karma of stupidity and dullness and laziness I have accumulated, and how it habitually comes up for me. I'm beginning to understand that it has been coming up for a long time (much longer than I've been here at the Abbey) -- and in relationship to other aspects of my life too (not only practice).

I'm mad...And that's a fact
I found out...Animals don't help
Animals think they're pretty smart
Shit on the ground...See in the dark.

They say they don't need money
They're living on nuts and berries
They say animals don't worry
You know animals are hairy?
They think they know what's best
They're making a fool of us
They ought to be more careful
They're setting a bad example
They have untroubled lives
They think everything's nice
They like to laugh at people
They're setting a bad example
(Go ahead) Laugh at me.

-- Talking Heads, "Animals"

Friday, May 8, 2009

What's Happening Here?

For the past couple of weeks, our daily three-hour meditation session in the morning has been a roller coaster ride, an object lesson in the ups and downs of my own mind-state.

My meditation instructor has me doing a meditation inventory practice that is very interesting and worthwhile. At first, I resisted the idea; my ego resists anything that seems like more work -- but after doing the practice for a couple of weeks I'm becoming a big fan of it. The idea is twofold: first, to more accurately gauge how present and mindful you really are (or are not) in your meditation, and second, to inquire into what your mind habitually does when it's not being mindful, or not staying with the meditation object.

Doing this type of inventory requires that you don't try to fix what you see or complain about what's wrong with it (that being said, be warned: what you see when you do a meditation inventory may shock you). Simply observe and report, just as you would if you were doing an inventory for your business -- don't cook the books. Simply keep a notebook near your meditation cushion, and at the end of each session, jot down a few notes -- keep it brief and simple. Do this for a couple of weeks or more. Applying this type of systematic way of evaluating your meditation can peel away layers of preconception and reveal what's actually happening in your mind in a fresh, surprising way.

The first part of the inventory involves an honest appraisal of how mindful you were during the session. The idea of evaluating a meditation session and rating your experience may seem like a bit of a heresy -- in meditation we are encouraged not to place value judgments on what happens but to simply look at our experience objectively, however it arises. Here, however, for a certain period of time, it is really useful to throw that rule out the window and engage in a very systematic evaluation of what's really going on (not what you think might be going on, or what was going last year, but what's going on right now). You can use whatever system feels right to you here. At the suggestion of my meditation instructor, I chose to use a simple scale of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning almost totally lost in discursiveness or daydreams, not even in the room most of the time, and 5 meaning almost totally present with not much discursiveness or distraction from the meditation object. I was stunned and humbled -- but not really surprised -- to see how low on the scale most of my meditation sessions rated.

The second part of the inventory involves seeing what happens in your mind when you "exit" mindfulness. Is there a dominant theme to the kinds of thoughts or emotions that tend to pull you away? What's actually happening in your mind when you're not with the object of meditation? Where do you go? In Buddhism we talk about the "Six Realms" (the hell realm, the hungry ghost realm, the animal realm, the human realm, the jealous god realm, and the god realm); these can be viewed as actual realms inhabited by beings, but they can also be viewed as psychological factors or mind-states in which we all find ourselves at various times. We tend to have one particular "realm" that is our favorite haunt, the realm we inhabit in our minds most often. Using the Six Realms as a reference point, if you are familiar with them, is a good way to determine what your mind is doing during meditation and postmeditation. What surprised me in doing this part of the meditation inventory for a couple of weeks is that the realm where my mind tends to go most often is not the one I would have expected.

Our daily three-hour meditation marathon here is divided into four sessions, and for me one of the really interesting things about working with the meditation inventory, these past couple of weeks, has been seeing how wildly my experience fluctuates from one session to the next, seemingly without cause, and how I can go through a whole funhouse ride of mindfulness and distraction and mental realms -- all in a single morning. One session might seem like the worst session I've ever had, completely swamped by mental chatter, and it gets rated as less than a 1 on my rating scale -- but then the next session is suddenly very good, with very little wandering from the object, and it gets a 4. What triggered the difference? By isolating variables I can begin to really see how different factors affect my state of mind. Even a subtle change in posture can have a profound effect.

The point of all this is to begin to apply some real curiosity to your experience, and attempt to figure out: what is actually happening here?

Photo: Pema Chodron with Gampo Abbey residents, May 5, 2009.