Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Second Time We Discovered Fire

In this darkest season we hang lights to carry on an ancient tradition, to remind ourselves of something our ancestors felt was important. But we have forgotten what their symbols were pointing to.

The light in me recognizes the light in you. That is the meaning of "Namaste." The light that looks out through my eyes and illumines the world in front of me is the same that looks out through your eyes and illumines the world in front of you.

There are not two different kinds of light. There is just light, refracted through different prisms shaped like people and animals and plants and rocks and oceans and planets and stars. It is the light of the divine itself, which takes countless names and forms but cannot be grasped through any of them.

Your human eyes were made to see but a fraction of the spectrum of light, most of which is masked from you, hidden in plain sight. The invisible infrared lies before you at this very moment, seen perhaps by other creatures gifted with different eyes but never by yours. "You may not look directly at my face," Moses was told by the pillar of cloud. "For no man may see me and live."

Light can shine or it can blind. It is a candle flame and it is a laser beam that cuts through rocks and diamonds. Light is a warm glow and it is a cosmic explosion and it is the unholy force unleashed when atoms are broken by human hands. Light is the sun, friendly to you only because you are shielded from its full power; the same sun would burn the flesh from your bones and turn your bones to dust, returning you to the state from whence you came. We are all stardust, after all. The very earth on which we walk is only borrowed temporarily from that nuclear ball of fire and light, and will one day be returned.

As theologian Teilhard de Chardin said, we live "steeped in divinity's burning layers." The holy fire in the burning bush is what we are made of.

And we are darkness too, of course. All that we cannot see or do not want to see. All that is hidden from us because the light does not reach into its depths. All that we do not know about ourselves; all that we do not want to know. The universe is made mostly of dark matter, and scientists do not yet even know what dark matter is; its existence is only hypothesized because it cannot be seen with our eyes or instruments. The darkness holds us in its infinite embrace.

And yet there is light. The whole universe is decked with points of light ornamenting the vast reaches of darkness, like a great tree. Each ornament a cluster of galaxies made of trillions of stars, each star creating worlds around it. And each illuminated world potentially crawling with beings like you and me: beings crafted from light and darkness. Beings lost in their minds and unaware that they are but the light looking out through their own eyes, which is the same light looking out through yours and mine.

The light in me cannot recognize the light in you until I recognize it first in myself. When I know the light and the darkness of which I am made, I will know that it is the same light and darkness of which you and all things are made, and that we live together in a fragile and temporary world of stardust where every invisible atom was bonded together with so much power that it could level an entire city if its nuclear bonds were broken. Look at how intelligent we are! We have mastered atomic energy, and unlocked the awesome destructive power hidden within matter. Look at how stupid and lost we are! We have forgotten how to love one another, and what all of this creation is for.

“Someday,” said de Chardin, “after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

Come, friend. There is something important for us here. Let us hang lights together and try to think of what our ancestors wanted us to remember.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Meditation in Times of Chaos

When he was fleeing his home country of Vietnam, the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh had a direct revelation of the real power of meditation practice.

“When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost,” he said. “But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”

Showing the way for everyone to survive. It’s a rather dire way of painting the picture, but it feels timely. Because the times feel rather dire and chaotic. Do they not?

A lot of people approach meditation as a self-improvement project. Meditation’s going to make me feel better, make me more focused, make me more productive, make me more happy, make me less crazy, make me more chill. Me, me, me.

But look around you. The world is on fire. People are hurting. They are freaking out. Have you noticed? Maybe you see it from a distance: things that are happening in the news, rifts that are opening up in the fabric of society. Maybe you feel it closer to home, in your circle of friends and loved ones: the ways they are being challenged, and the ways they are falling down and getting back up again. Maybe you feel it in yourself: the growing sense of malaise that gnaws from the inside, and occasionally erupts into full-blown panic.

“As individuals, we feel helpless, despairing,” Thich Nhat Hanh wrote. “The situation is so dangerous, injustice is so widespread, the danger is close. In this kind of a situation, if we panic, things will only become worse. We need to remain calm, to see clearly. Meditation is to be aware, and to try to help.”

That puts your personal meditation practice in a rather different light, doesn’t it? It’s not really about you. It’s about your whole world, and all the people in it, and the way your presence helps them. Sure, maybe it helps you become more chill, more focused, more productive, more blissful, more calm and centered. But what do you do with all that calmness and centeredness? What is it for?

It’s to be aware, and to try to help. The real benefits of your meditation practice will only become apparent to you when you find yourself in the role of offering them to others.

A few weeks ago one of my friends went through brain surgery to remove a large tumor. Before his diagnosis, he was never really into things like meditation, but being diagnosed with a brain tumor and undergoing radical surgery has a way of shifting your perspective on a lot of things in life. My friend began to ask for guided meditations and breathing techniques to help calm his fear. I don’t mean garden-variety anxiety, I mean real existential fear: the bone-chilling, “Will I survive?” kind of fear. But he knew that if he panicked, it would only make the situation worse.

And so he began to meditate, and at the hospital he restricted his visitors to friends who could bring that kind of calm and centered energy into the room—people who could help him find his way calmly through the most difficult situation he had ever faced, one challenging moment at a time. We were there when he woke up from the surgery, doing what we could to hold the space around him.

My friend is now back on his feet, and I’m happy to report that he’s still meditating regularly. And we are closer now than before, as people tend to be after they’ve gone through something very difficult together.

And that feels like where we all are right now. I don’t mean my friend, but you, me, all of us. We are all going through something very difficult together. And let’s acknowledge, to be fair, that it’s more difficult for some than for others; some need help more urgently than others. And there are no credible reasons to believe that it’s all magically going to get easier any time soon. It might get even more difficult before it gets easier. Those of us who are in a position to help, whatever that means in our particular case, should do what we can.

What I’m describing is in no way theoretical. I’m talking about matters of life and death, and how the effects of meditation play a very concrete role in helping us navigate through the most challenging situations.

“Humankind has become a very dangerous species,” says Thich Nhat Hanh. “We need people who can sit still and be able to smile, who can walk peacefully. We need people like that in order to save us. Mahayana Buddhism says that you are that person, that each of you is that person.”

It would be easy for someone to come along and say, “All this Buddhist crap about sitting still and smiling and being peaceful! It’s like fiddling while Rome burns. We need everyone to panic, and scream, and freak out! We need action!” But that would be a misreading of Thich Nhat Hanh’s words. If you know anything about his history of peace activism, you know that Thich Nhat Hanh has been no stranger to action throughout his life. His practice was never disengaged from the world. Quite the opposite.

Action is necessary. Storms need to be navigated safely. Pirates need to be dealt with. Injustices need to be addressed. Brain tumors need to be removed through surgery. Meditation by itself will never fix any of these problems. But all these things become so much more challenging when we freak out. Action can be taken more skillfully when it comes from a place of clear seeing. And I know from personal experience that it’s much harder for me to see clearly when I’m in panic mode.

As I look towards 2017, I’m recommitting to my own daily meditation practice—not because of what I think I’m going to get from it, or how it’s going to help me feel better, or even how I think it’s going to help me become spiritually liberated (whatever that really means). No, I’m recommitting to it because I know there are more storms brewing, and more pirates gathering, and more difficult situations ahead for all of us, and it will be more necessary than ever for me to keep showing up and helping people see the way to survive.

I hope you will join me in recommitting to your own practice, and know that its benefits will extend far beyond your little yoga mat or meditation cushion. The world is on fire. We need people like you to save us.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"Chips and Salsa" Meditation

In a recent Facebook post, my friend and fellow writer and meditation teacher Ethan Nichtern pointed out a popular trend these days depicting meditation as being all about relaxing. He even noted an ad that popped up in his feed calling meditation “like a super-charged power nap.” A meditation studio in my area often describes meditation as a form of “chilling.”

I encounter this idea often in my own work as a meditation teacher. Students come to classes very high-strung, their bodies full of chronic tension and their minds racing with thoughts, and they want to learn to relax. I applaud their efforts, and I help them as best I can. This work is important and beneficial for a variety of reasons. Relaxing generally makes people happier, and happier people on principle make for a better world. Relaxation down-regulates the nervous system and helps people better manage stress; it supports better decision-making, and even helps people cope better with painful situations in life, like job stress or being ill or going through a divorce or losing a loved one.

So relaxing, in and of itself, is fantastic. But it’s fantastic in the same way that chips and salsa are fantastic at the beginning of a nice Mexican meal. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking chips and salsa—they are amazing! But chips and salsa are an appetizer, not a main course. If you keep showing up to the restaurant and you always order chips and salsa and then you dash, your experience of Mexican food is rather limited.

Relaxation is awesome and useful, even essential to meditation, but it's not the whole enchilada. In my experience, relaxation is like a key that unlocks the practice of meditation; what you do with that practice once you've unlocked it is the important thing. Eventually, once you’ve practiced using it enough, you might become less curious about the key, and more curious about what’s on the other side of the door it unlocks.

A Tibetan teacher once said: "Little relaxation, little meditation. Middling relaxation, middling meditation. Great relaxation, great meditation." So the more you can relax, the deeper into your meditation practice you can go. And the deeper into your practice you go, the more you can wake up to your true nature and to the reality of the world around you and all the ways the world needs your help. That’s where I think the real value of meditation reveals itself.

In extended workshops, where I’m able to offer more explanation and guide students to a deeper meditative experience than is possible in a typical meditation class, I often speak about “three levels” of meditation. What I call Level One is what Tibetan Buddhist students refer to as shamatha meditation, with some specific relaxation-inducing breathing techniques borrowed from my training as a yoga teacher. Level One has two main components: relaxation and attention.

So it all starts with relaxation—it really does. Just like a Mexican meal might start with chips and salsa. But once you learn to relax, that’s when meditation gets really interesting. If chips and salsa are all you’re interested in, no problem. No judgments here. I’m a big fan of chips and salsa, and relaxation is the bomb. (But before you go, I just want to mention that there’s also a whole buffet of enchiladas, tacos, burritos, empanadas, and tostadas available....)

For the student who is committed to waking up, there are other levels of meditation waiting to be explored. But you have to have the appetite for them, and it helps to have someone to guide you through them. The menu in this restaurant is a strange one, with specials that change daily; it requires some interpretation and perhaps recommendations that are tailored for you.

It’s also possible to go to the other extreme, and turn your pursuit of meditation into a tasting menu. A small plate of this technique, a few bites of that one—and before you know it, you’ve got meditative indigestion. In culinary pursuits and in meditative ones, it’s helpful to have a solid grounding in one tradition, to know which practices lend themselves to a type of “fusion cuisine” and which ones don’t—when to mix it up, and when to stick with chips and salsa.

These are lessons that only come with time, and patience, and proper guidance, and getting your hands dirty in the kitchen of your own practice.


Dennis Hunter is a meditation teacher and author of You Are Buddha (2014) and the forthcoming The Four Reminders (2017). Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.