Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fireworks Meditation

I end my meditation early to go see the fireworks
with my friend and her daughter,
who is inconsolable when the bouncy castles close down,
then enraptured when the fireworks begin.
When the echo of the finale dies away,
and people begin to murmur their question,

"Is that it?"
she issues her demand:

And the thousands who have gathered for the show
will burst forth with color and noise,
then die away,
along with their unmet demands.
Anitya feels more solid than the ground beneath me,
and these thoughts, too, die away.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Finding Happiness

I wanted to share this masterful graduation address by David Guterson (the author of Snow Falling on Cedars) about the nature of happiness and how we might go about cultivating it. I really have nothing to add to his remarks. I understand that he has received some criticism for this speech, including some heckling at the event itself. His detractors have argued that the speech was too downbeat and beyond the understanding of many high school graduates. Personally, I found the speech liberating rather than depressing, and I feel sure that even as a new high school graduate I would have been hungry for this kind of honesty and wisdom. Hopefully the controversy will gain a wider audience for his remarks, and those who are prepared to listen will find something of lasting value in them.

Anyway, don't forget the sunscreen.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

For Whom the (Mindfulness) Bell Tolls

I recently listened to a talk by Joseph Goldstein entitled "The Buddha's Discourse on Non-Self" (no link, unfortunately, but you can find it on Dharma Seed). Naturally, I've already forgotten the name of the discourse, but in it the Buddha has a discussion with six monks about mindfulness of death. The upshot is that it is not enough to be mindful that we could die tomorrow or even at the end of the meal we are currently eating; we should consider that we may die after this breath or this bite of food.

This way of thinking would probably strike many people as rather morbid, and passages such as this may contribute to the common impression that Buddhism is about withdrawal from life. My experimentation with this perspective over the last couple of days has had precisely the opposite effect: the awareness of death has not only brought me immediately into the present moment, it has also changed the quality of presence. As the precious nature of the present moment is realized, preoccupations such as self-criticism or anger toward others become unaffordable luxuries. If all fear is really fear of death, as some have claimed, then fear itself becomes almost beside the point.

Though actual brushes with death can have a significant impact on us, the linkage of awareness of mortality and intimacy with life is such a commonplace in various forms of art and spiritual teaching that it has become something of a cliché. Aside from briefly snapping me out of the trance of life, I haven't found an awareness of mortality to be especially salutary, except as an excuse to avoid unpleasant tasks. Yet somehow, consideration of the possibility of death in the next moment, rather than the next day or even the next hour, seems to bring the mind more fully into the present moment. An hour or a day means time that needs to be planned.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Karma Confusion

A friend recently asked me what initially attracted me to Buddhism, and I explained that it was the straightforward and experiential nature of the core teachings, free of dogma and metaphysical mysticism. I told her that I have always thought of Buddhism as a practical psychology rather than a religion. Then she asked the question I was secretly dreading: “What about karma?” Writing anything about karma, whose workings were considered by the Buddha to be one of the Four Imponderables, is a daunting undertaking, especially for someone like me who’s not exactly an avid reader of the Pali canon. Still, it’s a teaching that’s too widely known and too central to the Buddha’s worldview to be ignored, and I think the basic idea is much less abstruse than it might at first appear.

When I learned about Hinduism and Buddhism in high school and college, I thought of karma as the ancient Indians’ answer to an age old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? And although there are certainly plenty of Buddhists who take a mechanistic view of karma, it is my understanding that the Buddha did not claim that everything that happens to us is due to karma. In fact, karma is just one of five natural laws that govern the workings of our universe. Though everything that arises is inextricably interrelated, different processes unfold according to their own nature. An earthquake arises due to conditions in the physical world; it is not the universe’s way of punishing the living beings that happen to be affected by it.
Regardless of the metaphysics, the heart of the Buddha’s teachings about karma relate to the effects of our own actions, not the meaning of impersonal forces. All of our volitional actions have the power to bring about karmic results, and the factor that determines the nature of that karma is our intention. We cannot easily predict the specific results of our actions, since the future is shaped by impersonal forces and others’ karma, as well as our own, but we can be sure that our current intentions will condition our future well-being. This conditioning need not involve mysterious forces; it operates most simply and directly through the formation of mental habits. This is where practices such as mindfulness can allow us to affect the course of our destiny.
Of course many people’s interest in karma does not relate to the critical but seemingly prosaic matter of intention; they are captivated by the supernatural possibility of rebirth. That is an issue on which I have little to say, owing to my lack of experience. I like the perspective of the Zen monk who, when asked by a layperson what would happen to her after she died, replied that “I am a monk, but not a dead one.” It’s worth noting that some teachers, such as Ajahn Chah, did not think belief in reincarnation was necessary to follow the dharma, since the egoic self is dying and being reborn all the time.
The possibility of reincarnation probably raises as many questions as it answers. For example, what is it that is being reborn? Also, why should the moment of death carry so much weight in determining one’s future conditions? This seems unfair not only because the moment of death is so often an unpleasant one, but also because there is so much variation in the degree of unpleasantness depending on the cause of death. Could anyone maintain the clear consciousness described by the Dalai Lama while being consumed by fire?

Well, I’ll leave these metaphysical questions to the scholars and philosophers. My point in writing this post is that karma is a lot simpler and more practical than all that.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Best Medicine

Q: What did the Zen monk say to the hot dog vendor?
A: Make me one with everything.

Sometimes meditation can seem like very serious business. That's certainly the impression of meditation that a lot of non-meditators have. I suspect that a lot of meditative traditions cultivate an aura of gravity and solemnity to discourage the uninitiated from noticing that practitioners are sitting around doing nothing. In my own experience, some of the most profound moments of insight have come with a healthy dose of levity. One such experience led me to ponder the nature of deep humor, and I thought I'd share what I came up with.

We laugh for all sorts of reasons. One of the most eye-opening presentations of research I ever attended was given by a sociology student named Tobiah Brown. Her disarmingly simple research question was this: Why do we laugh? She played snippets of conversation from brave souls who had allowed their phone calls to be recorded for research purposes. What surprised me was that the conversants' laughter had little to do with humor; mostly, they laughed due to discomfort or embarrassment. Even when it comes to humor, this article makes it clear that there's no consensus about what makes something funny.

I have no idea whether there is a common foundation underlying all humor, though I am skeptical of the notion. What I do know is that there is a common thread running through the humor I find most nourishing and profound: it provides a fresh perspective that snaps me out of the story of a separate self. Often, it is a reminder of the universality of human experience: either the situation described in the joke has happened to me, or the pattern is familiar enough that I can follow the other person's turn of thought. Meditation allows us to find this shift in perspective within ourselves, and when we do, it's hard not to be bemused by the limitations of our habitual ways of thinking. I like the way Hafiz describes this delight in possibilities:

What is the difference
between your experience of existence
and that of a saint?
The saint knows
that the spiritual path
is a sublime chess game with God
and that the Beloved
has just made such a fantastic move
that the saint is now continually
tripping over joy
and bursting out in laughter
and saying, "I surrender!" 
Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
you have a thousand serious moves

Friday, March 8, 2013

Starting with Samadhi

Is samadhi—the Pali/Sanskrit word used in Buddhism to refer to concentration—a good starting point for teaching meditation, and mindfulness meditation in particular? It is common for meditation instructors to ask their students to focus their attention on some object, such as the breath or body. A clear benefit of this approach is that many people are familiar with relaxation techniques that involve attention to the breath or body. However, one reason these techniques are so useful for relaxation is that they can be quite boring. Thus, they often produce sleepiness in the meditator, or restlessness in those feeling energetic and not inclined toward sleep. Moreover, asking someone to be mindful of just one aspect of experience is tantamount to asking them to endure repeated failure. Without a self-compassion practice to draw upon, this can be extremely disconcerting for beginning meditators. After all, the instruction to “Simply focus on the breath” sounds like it ought to be, well, simple. Add to the mix the inner turmoil and lack of self-efficacy felt by many therapy clients, and you’ve got a recipe for frustration and disappointment. At a minimum, I think the beginning meditator deserves to be apprised of the difficulty of the task he or she is about to undertake, and to be informed of its true purpose: the development of mental awareness and the ability to refocus the mind. If the immediate goal is relaxation/stress reduction, why not use breathing exercises or progressive relaxation instead of samadhi?

Today I shared this idea with a friend who finds meditation intolerably dull, and she thought that starting with something other than concentration would have been helpful to her, but then asked what I thought would make a better starting place. I need to give the question more thought. Since I started with Samadhi myself—and beat myself up for years about my lack of success, but also persisted because of the relaxing effect—it’s impossible for me to know how it would have felt to start with some other practice. My immediate guess is that a practice of self-compassion, mental noting, or simply saying “Yes” to whatever came up would have worked well for me. Of course, a hypothetical sample of one isn’t much to go on, and results may vary. I’ve heard from seasoned therapists that many people’s sense of their lack of self-worth is so ingrained that attempting a self-compassion exercise is an incredibly uncomfortable and unpleasant activity for them.

As a philosophical aside, I often wonder whether mindfulness of just one element of experience can be considered true mindfulness. I tend to think not, but I suppose it depends on the attitude in the mind. If I am practicing mindfulness of breathing, and I experience a sensation of pain in my leg, I can be accepting of the pain even as I redirect my attention back to the breath. My skepticism arises from the fact that, if the pain persisted for a significant length of time, I find it unlikely that I would be able to repeatedly redirect my attention without feeling that I was pushing away the pain. But that is really my limitation, not a limitation of the practice.

Clarity of Thought and Prose: Orwell and the English Language

“As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

                                                                                                                                  - George Orwell

Until today, I don’t think I’ve ever read Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language in its entirety, and his thesis hit home like a slap to the neocortex, both with respect to what I read every day in the media and what I write myself. His essay also ties in nicely to a post I’ve been meaning to write for weeks explaining why I blog so infrequently even though I have a lengthy and ever-growing list of ideas for posts. It's gotten to the point where once-meaningful jottings like "Ajahn Sumedho and principles" and "The simplicity of awakened awareness" no longer connect to anything in my brain--though I think the latter phrase could be an excellent title for a blank post.

Orwell argues that instead of writing each sentence to express exactly what we want to say, and using fresh imagery to make our ideas clearer, we often write in abstractions and string together a series of shopworn phrases (e.g., shopworn phrases) and unnecessary, superfluous, and infelicitous jargon. In doing this we not only muddy our meaning to the reader, but to ourselves.

This is a tendency I’ve noticed in my own writing for quite a long time. I’ll often write some statement that sounds very powerful and persuasive, but when I consider its truth in concrete terms, I realize that it’s an overgeneralization. Typically, my response is to further complicate the statement by throwing in some qualifiers. At other times, when I try to clarify the meaning of some abstract statement, I realize that I’m not entirely sure what I meant to say in the first place. This happens quite often when I try to write about Buddhism. I realize that I’m using some term, such as awareness, in a vague way, and even if I understand the meaning I’m trying to convey, I wonder whether my language is consistent with that of more learned students of Buddhism. As an example, is my experience of metta substantially similar to theirs? Is the common term “lovingkindness” really an apt representation of the experience? If I said “warmth and friendly good wishes” instead, would anyone understand what I was talking about? If I just stick with the Pali term so that people can choose their own preferred translation, will they think I’m being pretentious? How quickly I’ve moved from the sincere desire to write clearly and truthfully to a concern about the opinions of others, and all without having gotten down a single sentence.

I often find it even more difficult to express experiential phenomena or self-insights in clear language. What feels profound comes across as trite or banal on the page. Simple language is easy to overlook or dismiss as oversimplification. Orwell argues that employing fresh metaphors is a good way to clarify and concretize our ideas. There’s a reason a book like Animal Farm has such a deep and enduring impact on the mind, yet coming up with original metaphors is serious work, at least for someone like me who is not primarily a visual thinker. Oh well. As Boxer said in Animal Farm, “I will work harder.”

Friday, February 22, 2013

"Letting" Go

"If you let go a little you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace."
                                                                               - Ajahn Chah

Buddhist practitioners often talk about letting go, but what does that phrase really mean? I've often thought it was a little misleading, as though all we have to do is get out of the way and "let" mental phenomena go, and they will simply disappear of their own accord. Of course, this does seem to be how things go much of the time, even if we're not being mindful: the moving finger of the mind writes, and, having writ, moves on. However, this doesn't seem to be the way it works when it comes to things we actually want to let go of. Much like Dick Cheney, these mental states seem to hang on with tenacity, with no help from us. Letting them stay, and being with them with lovingkindness seems to be the best we can do.

The other night was one of those fortuitous occasions when the process seemed to work rather differently for me, so I thought it would be worth exploring the experience in more depth. The main thing I noticed is that my mind was repeatedly caught in the idea of letting go. Also, even though I wasn't consciously trying to force any thoughts out of my mind, there was still a subtle pressure toward emptiness. With that recognition, my mind was able to take a backward step that allowed all ideas and stories, including the pressure itself, to drop away. Without the mind's attachment to them, thoughts seemed to dissipate of their own accord before they were even fully formed. Although the experience did not provide any insights about how to be present with difficult mental states, it was a welcome reminder of just how much letting go is possible.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Robert Wright

Although I'm always skeptical of journalists who present themselves as intellectuals--and, frankly, of media elites in general--I've enjoyed Robert Wright's work since his days writing "The Earthling" column at Slate well over a decade ago. Accordingly, I was interested to learn that he has been dabbling in Buddhism for over ten years, has been blogging about it at the Atlantic's website, and is now writing a book about it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Longing for Stillness

The clouds move through our Valley
Drizzle then perfect sunshine.
Balancing the elements.
The sky too big for our own smallness.

Coming to this place with these simple instructions.
The vulnerability of this human intimacy challenged.
This breathing into our own darkness.
Somehow being alone in our own arrogant selfishness.

This sitting, allows the chaos of our world to gently yield.
Reaching out through the years.
Finding some grace; some medicine.
That shakes the heart; and loosens our grasp.

Stepping out of a life so long ignored.
Dipping back into one's uncertainty,
forgetting the strength in our own bones.
magnifying the prayer of this mysterious groudlessness.
Softening, for some final blow.

Having beaten the judger in ourselves 1000 times.
Only to crack the old” selfishness” .
What seemed like a battle becomes a symphony.
Holding this simple, wild, unfettered heart.

Our world open to the great stillness.

                                                                 - John Travis

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Sloth and Torpor, Incognito

One of my favorite Buddhist phrases is “sloth and torpor”, the translation of the third of the five hindrances to meditation. I was listening to a talk by Joseph Goldstein that touched on this topic. Though typically associated with sleepiness or dullness, he notes that at a deeper level sloth is simply the deep-seated tendency of the mind to retreat from difficulties. He also points out that sloth and torpor frequently masquerade as self-compassion: When we are tired or bored, instead of investigating those states, we often respond to a kindly voice inside us saying, “Let me be good to myself. A nap would be just the thing right now.” Perhaps because I believe Western adaptations of mindfulness practice have too often given short shrift to compassion—and to self-compassion in particular—I have frequently fallen prey to this vice in my own practice. As an antidote, I find it helpful to remind myself that true self-compassion is a willingness to be with what’s unpleasant.

When it comes to effort, there is always a balancing act. If we try too hard to be mindful, the effort itself can become a distraction, yet we can also fall too easily into daydreams and rumination. Goldstein suggests that skillful effort occurs when the mind is relaxed and open, whereas unskillful effort can be recognized by a forcing of the mind. This distinction sounds quite appealing to me, yet when it comes to everyday life, I frequently find myself resorting to cajoling.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


“O longing mind,
dwell within the depth
of your own pure nature.
Do not seek your home elsewhere.
Do not confine your innate infinity
within the mansions of finitude.
Your naked awareness alone, O mind,
is the inexhaustible abundance
for which you long so desperately.”

                                - Sri Ramakrishna

My favorite cartoon is titled “The Worst Thing about Being a Nomad”. It depicts a family traveling through the desert with camels, and the children are asking “Are we there yet?” When it comes to our basic nature, we are all nomads. We are constantly seeking out various forms of temporary refuge, and our minds are forever on the move, skittering away from the present moment. At the same time, we are also nomads in a deeper sense: each of us carries our real home with us wherever we go, and we can rediscover it any time we can “dwell within the depth of our own pure nature.”

Monday, January 7, 2013

Mindfulness as Intimacy with Life

Part of the impetus for this blog is my sense that, in its exploration and appropriation of Buddhist ideas, Western psychology has focused overmuch on the concept of mindfulness. Even so, I think it is valuable to continue to deepen our understanding of mindfulness, and to explore ways to communicate its meaning to a general audience.

I have to confess that the word mindfulness itself has always possessed a certain alienness for me. Until I began to explore Buddhism, it wasn't a term I had ever encountered, and the word mindful had a slightly negative emotional resonance, suggesting the need for alertness to danger (e.g., “Be mindful of your thoughts, Anakin. They betray you.”).

I've found that many non-Buddhists have no context in which to interpret the concept of mindfulness, and that which is unfamiliar is often viewed with skepticism or even fear. One way I like to talk about mindfulness--and a way that has resonance in my own practice--is in terms of intimacy: intimacy with the body, intimacy with the breath, intimacy with the senses, intimacy with thoughts, intimacy with the heart, and, of course, intimacy with life. In addition to connoting deep attention, patience, and lack of judgment, the term also seems to evoke for many an attitude of caring.

Of course, for some the word intimacy has more negative associations, and may evoke fears of vulnerability or engulfment. Nevertheless, when working with those for whom the term has a more positive emotional resonance, I believe it can serve as an intuitive point of connection to the notion of mindfulness. In my own practice, it has often allowed me to enhance the depth and quality of presence.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

                                      - Rumi