Sunday, March 21, 2010

Mindfulness of Body: A Guided Meditation

This short (23 mins) guided meditation on mindfulness of body was given last Saturday morning, during the "Do Something Meaningful" weekend program at Nalandabodhi New York. Elsewhere in this blog, I've written about the profound practice of mindfulness of body. This talk guides listeners through a simple 'body scan' in order to bring awareness out of our heads and down into our bodies. By being more fully present with our embodied experience in each moment, we are more awake to What Is.

What are your experiences with mindfulness of body? Post your comments and share them with others.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Monk in Manhattan

I recently spent a week teaching and visiting friends in New York City, where I lived for almost 20 years. It was my first time back to New York since coming to Gampo Abbey, and my first major trip outside of the monastery (with the exception of a weekend trip to Halifax last summer for a workshop).

The strangeness of the trip began before I ever left Cape Breton. I noticed that the driver of the shuttle van that took me to Halifax had written my name down on his passenger list as Dennis Hunger, which somehow seemed oddly fitting. I had to chew on that one for a while.

In Antigonish, halfway to Halifax, it became apparent that a big part of the strangeness of my journey would be the experience of being a monk in Tibetan robes, in a culture that has few reference points for such a thing. I often go into Cheticamp (the local town near the Abbey) wearing my robes, but people there are so accustomed to seeing monks and nuns from the Abbey that most of them don’t give us a second look. But in places like Antigonish and Halifax, I was an object of puzzlement, sometimes veering towards open derision and other times towards great curiosity and friendliness. The Indian manager at the A&W franchise in Antigonish came over to me at my table and said, rather matter-of-factly, while I was wolfing down a fast food meal during our 10-minute stop: “Buddham sharanam gacchami.” I smiled and nodded at him with my mouth full, and he proceeded to explain to his very curious employee (who had tagged along with him to my table) that it’s a phrase people in Buddhist countries often say to each other as a form of greeting or respect. I was as surprised by this information as his employee was. It’s a phrase included in our chants at the Abbey when we say our vows and take refuge in the Three Jewels every morning, but I’ve never heard it spoken outside of that context.

At the airport in Halifax, people seemed to take in my appearance as something of a spectacle. I sat in the restaurant near my departure gate and absorbed 20 minutes of open hostility and suspicious glares from a businessman dressed in tight jeans and an ostentatious cowboy hat and cowboy boots, jabbering into the wireless device embedded in his ear. When I went to the restroom, I paused in front of the two doors and looked at the signs. One sign showed a human being in pants. The other showed a human being in a skirt. I looked down at my robes. I looked up at the signs. I looked down again. Disobeying the signs, I entered the door that showed the human being in pants.

I arrived in New York City during the evening rush hour, a time of day that does not reveal New Yorkers at their best. I took the Airtrain from JFK, then the LIRR and the subway to 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue where my friend lives. As soon as I left the airport and began to see the people and the buildings and the city, I felt a surge of intense familiarity, as though I had never left this city, or had merely been away on a short jaunt, an overnight getaway. But it also rapidly became apparent how much I have slowed down internally during a year in the monastery. The pervasive feeling of speed and aggression in which New Yorkers move and breathe – which is at its most intense during rush hour – was more visible to me than ever before, and more painful to witness.

New Yorkers, needless to say, have seen it all a hundred times over, so the spectacle of a white guy in Tibetan robes, on the street or in the subway or in a museum, was not quite as eye-catching to them as it was to folks in Halifax. The majority of people in New York didn’t give me a second glance. But sometimes my robes would catch someone’s attention, and they would come over and ask me questions, or want to tell me about whatever spiritual trip they might happen to be on. A man in the airport asked me if I was a monk, and told me he practices “self-realization” (I didn’t ask what that means). A man in the bank asked me if I was a priest. A young man at the Shambhala Center asked me if I was a monk, and when I said yes, blurted out enthusiastically: “Cool!” While I was waiting to meet a friend in the East Village, two young Hispanic women passed me on the sidewalk, and one of them called to me: “I love your outfit!”

The strangeness of being a monk in the city varies depending on the neighborhood. In the East Village people expect strangeness, they thrive on it, and so as a monk in robes I felt welcomed as part of the clan. In Chinatown, I blended into the scenery and was largely invisible; the people in the Chinese Mahayana temple did not even look up at me when I came in and took photos. In midtown and the Museum of Modern Art, I was highly visible, part of the big-city experience that tourists had paid good money to see; they gawked and seemed to appreciate me fulfilling their expectations and being part of the scenery that gave them their money’s worth. In Chelsea, my old stomping ground, I stood out like a sore thumb. People on the sidewalk stared in disbelief, and even whispered to their friends as I passed, suggesting the presence of a small-town, provincial mentality right in the middle of the biggest city in America. Walking with a friend on Eighth Avenue, I almost had a Marilyn Monroe moment as I stepped over the subway ventilation grates and a sudden wind from below began to blow up my robes. I got off the subway grates very quickly, and was careful not to walk over them again.

Of course, the robes are just an outer symbol of something inside, which are the vows I’m holding as a temporary monk. That was, for me, the real strangeness and novelty of being a monk in New York City. No cocktails or wine with dinner, no bars or clubs, no dancing. No flirting or cruising. Not even the idea was really there (although, of course, many things caught my eye and took my mind in familiar directions). It wasn’t the first time in my city life that I’ve disengaged from such things, but they were very much part of my New York experience before coming to the monastery, and their absence during this trip seemed somehow conspicuous.

I expected that when I returned to the Abbey after this trip, the place would feel different somehow – but I wasn’t gone long enough for that to happen. Rounding the road into the hamlet of Red River, at the base of the mountain where the Abbey is nestled, I felt quite simply like I was coming back home again. The contrast, in scale and tone, between New York City and Gampo Abbey could hardly be any more extreme, but maybe that’s why I like them both (though for different reasons); I’ve always been a lover of extremes. Ani Pema was teaching the same afternoon I arrived, so I slipped without a pause back into the humming life of the Abbey.

As I reflect on my recent journey back to the city, I sometimes feel waves of nostalgia or loneliness. I already miss my friends in the city. I miss the freedom of deciding my own schedule, of going where I want to go, of choosing exactly what I want to eat and when. I miss the sheer volume of entertainments and distractions and spectacles available at all times in a place like New York. Yet, I know that placing myself in this small pressure cooker for the past year has been, unquestionably, one of the best things I have ever done in my life. And I know that staying here and living as a monk for another year is probably the best thing I can do right now. Beyond that, I cannot presently see – and I know that I don’t need to.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

First Article in Chinese

My First Article in Chinese

My monastic friend, Miao Lin, generously translated one of my recent articles, "The Dark Side of Emotions", into Chinese. If you speak Chinese, please check it it out and let me know what you think. Or, if you know Chinese-speaking people who are interested in the dharma, feel free to forward the link. Other Chinese-language articles may be forthcoming soon. Click here for the Chinese page.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Of the Two Witnesses, Hold the Principal One

This article is part of a series of short commentaries on proverbs or slogans from the Lojong ("mind-training") teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. Several other such commentaries will be offered soon, in addition to the ones that have already appeared here in previous months. To see the whole series of commentaries on Lojong slogans, click here.

Of the Two Witnesses, Hold the Principal One

When we look for spiritual guidance, there are basically two places we can look: outside and inside. On the outside, we can benefit from the advice and opinions of other people, particularly those who are further along the path and can guide us skillfully. Other people can often tell us when we have somehow gotten off-track, or validate that we are doing something correctly and making good progress. But other people’s evaluations and advice can only go so far. Other people can’t read our minds (at least, we hope not!). They can observe a certain amount from our outward actions, but they can’t see what’s really going on inside us. They can only guess at our true motives for doing the things we do. And sometimes we pull the wool over other people’s eyes by putting on a good show for them.

At the end of the day, we are the only ones who really know our own minds. Another person can be a helpful sounding board or a mirror, but she can't make our choices for us — and she doesn't have to live with the consequences in quite the same way as we do. We are the only ones who experience our lives first-hand. We are the only ones who know when we’re acting selflessly and when we’re acting selfishly. We are the only ones who have to suffer the pangs of regret when we’ve done something that wasn’t up to our own ethical standards. We can, with great effort, hide our regret from others — but we cannot hide it from ourselves.

Our own minds are imbued with innate wisdom and self-awareness. That inborn wisdom is the principal witness, the one we should hold and trust above all others. Learning to trust ourselves and our own wisdom is a process that unfolds across the entire span of our lives. It is our own wisdom that guides us to seek out and follow the spiritual path in the first place, and it is that same wisdom that guides us when we cross the threshold into full awakening. When the Buddha touched the earth at the time of his enlightenment, it was a gesture symbolizing that he no longer needed any external witness to validate his awakening. He was, himself, the principal witness.

A few months ago I wrote here about the power of intuition, which is one of the ways our inborn wisdom can shine through the chinks in our armor of rational thinking. Intuition and conscience, in some sense, are not really different things; they are different facets or manifestations of that inborn wisdom or awareness that knows itself. When we are out of touch with our conscience, we are also out of touch with our intuition: we do not know ourselves, we do not see clearly that which is right in front of us. We don’t know how to distinguish real, non-conceptual insight from ego’s arbitrary labeling of things it likes and dislikes. We don’t distinguish skillfully between what is helpful and what is harmful. We resort to all kinds of rationalizations to justify and explain our own thoughts, feelings and actions to ourselves, proceeding from dumb to dumber. But when we learn to listen to our intuition and follow our conscience, we develop confidence in our own innate wisdom. Then we can really begin to hold and trust ourselves as the principal witness.

When I was a child, there was a ubiquitous public service ad campaign featuring a cartoon mascot named Smokey the Bear, who held out a pointing finger at the observer and said: “ONLY YOU can prevent forest fires.” Smokey was a very wise bear.

Only you can hear the voices of your intuition and your conscience. Only you see the world from your perspective, and experience the things you do. Only you really know when you’re kidding yourself, or when you’re trying to get away with something. Only you can prevent the fires of negative habitual patterns from burning down your own forest.