Saturday, April 23, 2011

Love's in Need of Love Today

This morning I attended a funeral service for an acquaintance who died last week. Most of the small, Acadian town here turned out for the service -- a very traditional Catholic funeral in the town's single, large cathedral.

Having grown up Baptist, I always feel like I've stepped into another world when I visit a Catholic church, with its alien liturgies and rituals and rich iconography. The feeling of being a visitor from another planet was heightened, this morning, by my being dressed conspicuously in the robes of a Buddhist monk, which literally marked me as an alien presence and made it impossible to pretend otherwise. But the local people here are accustomed to having Buddhist monks in their midst.

Since this morning, I've been reflecting on something the priest said during his homily. "In order to experience life in its fullness, we must share the fullness of God's love with others." To put that into more secular language: no man is an island. We are relational creatures, and we find and experience the fullness of meaning in our lives through the love, kindness and compassion that we give and receive in relationship to one another.

The Buddha expressed this as the truth of interdependence. We do not actually exist as solid entities, separate from one another; we "inter-are," as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it. In the fullness of realizing our interdependence, we feel others' pain as our own, and there are no barriers to the natural flow of love and kindness. Sounds like heaven, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, back on earth, there seems to be no shortage of barriers blocking the flow of kindness and compassion between human beings. Open the newspaper or turn on the TV. The world is hurting, burning with violence and conflict. "Hate's goin' round, breaking many hearts," mourns Stevie Wonder. "The force of evil plans to make you its possession. And it will, if we let it, destroy everybody. We all must take precautionary measures."

In his book Awakening Through Love, the Dzogchen teacher Lama John Makransky writes:

"Everything that is most important to human beings is dependent upon love. Powerful and enduring love, grounded in wisdom, is the panacea to cure the ills of this world, starting with our own. We all have this curative power of goodness within us; all we need are the means to unveil it."

Replace "God" with the "power of goodness within us," and that's pretty much exactly what the Catholic priest said this morning.

Oh, and here's that Stevie Wonder song, from 1976. Its message couldn't be more true, or more timely.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Descend into Your Body and Wake Up

Cross-posted today at the ID Project.

Lately I've been seeing more and more meditators and teachers talking about Mindfulness of Body -- which makes me very happy. Last month, Kate Johnson published a thoughtful piece at the ID Project blog called "Mindfulness of Bodies." Will Johnson had a fantastic article, "Full Body, Empty Mind," at Tricycle. A little further back, in November, I published (also at the ID Project blog) "You Are Not a Brain on a Stick (Or Are You?)".

In that piece, I wrote:

"...We modern people have become tragically disembodied, alienated from the most basic level of our own experience as human beings.... Most of us have lost the felt sense of 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 been born.

"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. Our allegiance to thinking about everything -- mediating and managing our experience and our lives through the conceptual thought function -- is the very root of our disembodiment in the first place. For the most part, we think of our bodies as mere tools (and 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, without an agenda, the naked experience that arises there."

As Reggie Ray says in his book Touching Enlightenment, it's not simply that we can find realization and awakening in the body -- there is actually no other place to find it.

But it would be just like us (wouldn't it?) to sit here in cyberspace and chit-chat and theorize about Mindfulness of Body, without actually doing it. So -- enough talk. Embedded below is a simple, 20-minute guided meditation on Mindfulness of Body that I led about a year ago at Nalandabodhi New York. You can download the MP3, or listen in streaming audio online. Close your Facebook and Twitter windows, silence your mobile phone, sit down in a comfortable meditation posture, click "Play," and explore the mystery of being alive in a human body. There is a world of somatic experience unfolding in your being at this very moment -- just waiting for you to notice it.

Note: Email subscribers may need to click through to One Human Journey's web page in order to see the embedded audio controls.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


This poem was written in Pleasant Bay, Cape Breton, on December 20, 2010 -- the night of the winter solstice and a full lunar eclipse.

Winter had urgent business elsewhere.
She stopped by to leave a note:
"I'll be back late this year:
don't wait up for me."
Her note lies melting in raggedy patches
of late December snow that pepper the ground.
Confident, we wait for her to return
and give us her full, devoted attention.
She never fails to come home to us --
although, last winter, she forgot
to freeze the Gulf of St. Lawrence
for the first time in fifty years.
Perhaps her memory isn't what it used to be.
Like a dancer, the mountain behind us flashes her eyes
through a veil of fog hiding her face.
First one eagle, then two, swimming above in a lazy circle.
Tonight, the longest night, the full moon will rise,
then dissolve in our shadow, and emerge again.
Stiff spruce trees, unruffled in the breeze,
flex their branches upwards, anticipating
the burden of snow they will be asked to bear
when winter returns as promised.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Practicing Dharma Without Becoming a Doormat

Recently someone wrote to me with the following question:

How does one who is on the path practice love, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness, etc. without becoming a doormat? Our culture is so plagued with fear greed, ignorance and anger that I find it difficult to rise above it all and work from a higher spiritual plane. When people violate me, I want to fight back instead of sort of "stepping off the playing field."

Over the years, I've found that this is a frequently asked question -- especially among people who are new to the path of meditation and Dharma practice. That is not to say that it's a naive question. It's a fundamental one, for it goes right to the heart of the matter. And there is no easy answer for it. The path of Dharma does not provide us with easy, prefabricated answers to living questions; we must find our answers in each moment, and then find them again in the next.

But I've observed that this is one of those questions that ceases to plague people as they continue going deeper into their practice and spiritual path. It's not that it ever really goes away; but we begin to understand that the question hinges on a perceived separation between life and spiritual practice that doesn't truly exist.

Practicing love, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness and so on does not, of course, mean that we should make ourselves into a doormat for other people's abuse. For starters, we should extend the same friendliness and compassion to ourselves that we aspire to extend to others. The Buddha said that we could search the entire universe and we would not find anyone more worthy of our love than we ourselves are. So putting ourselves in a position of being repeatedly violated by another is not practicing compassion or love towards ourselves.

The Buddhist path is often misunderstood (and mis-applied) as a practice of passivity -- dis-engaging from the world and retreating into oneself. Certainly, retreat (in the literal sense) has its purpose and value for a practitioner, in terms of deepening and stabilizing one's own experience of truth. But real Dharma practice is not navel-gazing, or fiddling while Rome burns -- it's being fully engaged in one's life and world and relationships, with no separation and no prefabricated rules.

In the Sadhana of Mahamudra, Chogyam Trungpa described -- in poetic language -- the wisdom of a fully realized being:

He is dark red in color, symbolizing the oneness of everything within compassion. He is inseparable from peacefulness and yet he acts whenever action is required. He subdues what needs to be subdued, he destroys what needs to be destroyed and he cares for whatever needs his care.

If being inseparable from peacefulness and yet acting whenever action is required seems paradoxical, that's good -- because it is. As Zen master Suzuki Roshi said, if something isn't paradoxical, it isn't true.

As we grow on our path, we begin to see that we can act whenever action is required, but that action can come from a different motivation. It's no longer "fighting back" in the usual sense, which comes from aggression and fear, a sense of closing down and tightening. Rather, our action can come from a place of compassion and staying open to other people's basic goodness (even when they're behaving atrociously).

Sometimes that means retreating from the situation and giving it space. Sometimes it means sitting down and having a frank conversation, and sharing your perspective. Sometimes it means protesting. Sometimes it means walking away entirely, and never looking back. Sometimes it means giving someone a gift to show that you care. Sometimes it means calling the police and pressing charges. You get the idea.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, no predetermined course of action. We meet each situation that arises with fresh awareness and open heart, and we respond in whatever way is most beneficial. Making ourselves into a doormat is rarely the appropriate response.