Friday, June 29, 2012

You Can Always Wake Up

My companion and I were walking back to out B&B in Galway along a street lined with bars and restaurants. We'd spent the evening watching Eurocup football in a bar, being mistaken for French because we rooted for the team. That resulted in a man kissing my companion on the cheek at the bar, and she returned to our table with two Bulmers and a bemused expression. Later we were chatted up by two older gentlemen with incomprehensible accents. Excellent fun.

But the dark side of drink showed itself on our walk back. Two men came out of a bar arguing loudly. Then it became physical, with punches thrown. One man fell to the ground, and the other kicked him in the ribs.

We were on the other side of the street, fairly far away, but then stopped across the street. Several people were standing, watching, including the attacker's friends, who stood back.. No one cheered. No one egged things on. Everyone seemed to want it to stop, but no one knew how to make that happen without becoming the target of drunken aggression.

Then a taxi driver parked at the kerb honked his horn.

The man looked up, then stepped back onto the foot that was extended to deliver another kick. His friends immediately surrounded him, and they walked him away. The man on the ground lay still, and time stopped moving, until he raised his head. Three people who looked like they knew what they were doing rushed over, including a well-dressed woman in heels who'd been standing next to us. Within seconds the man was sitting up, his white T-shirt torn and ringed with blood, being talked to by those who'd gone over.

I looked for the Gardai as we walked on, a police officer, who could get help, if it was needed. Then I realized that the people on the scene probably had cellphones and could call for help.

I don't know if we could have done anything differently. Interfering would not have stopped the fight, only provided a new target.

But I do know this: We can always wake up. No matter how fast our train of thought is speeding down the track, something can stop us in our tracks, allow us to choose whether to continue or change directions. In this case, the taxi's honk interrupted the blind, drunken, aggression that had taken over that man's mind and body.

And if that can happen, I believe, our train of thought can always be brought to a screeching halt.

May we be open to those auspicious interruptions. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Give Comparing Mind a Vacation

Comparing Mind works 24/365. It's like Santa Claus that way -- it knows when you're sleeping and seeds your dreams with fears of falling short (showing up on stage naked or not knowing your lines or how to open the door); it knows when you're awake. It knows if you've been bad or good -- and whether you've been badder or better than the person at the next desk or on the next yoga mat or the next meditation cushion.

But it goes into overdrive in summer. Not many people can go to the beach without pulling out the mental tape measure -- that person's bigger/smaller/about my size. I'd look better in that/I could never wear that/why would anyone wear that. Too tan/not tan enough/ouch pink. Ocean beach/lake beach/private pool/public pool.

We're a competitive breed. And an insecure one. The Buddha's First Noble Truth, dukkha, says that we suffer because we always suspect that there's a better now somewhere, if we could just find it. Dukkha literally refers to a wheel that doesn't fit right on the axle -- think of a shopping cart with a wonky wheel and how you have to fight to keep it from crashing into a tower of cracker boxes.

 And as we wheel along we constantly check to see how we're doing in comparison to everyone else as if it's a run for the roses. But we can't stop and smell the roses because the next race looms.

Unless we realize that we can. Stop. Smell. Roses.

What does that smell like? Does it remind you of something? Of someone? Of sometime? What does it bring to mind? To heart?

And what does a rose look like, really look like, if you're not counting how many other roses are in the bouquet and whether the dancer down the line at the recital had more in her bouquet, or wishing that they were yellow instead of pink or a better shade of pink or had more buds and fewer flowers?

Feel it. The petals are soft like moss like velvet like fine sand. And the thorns are hard like razors. Such contrast. Such metaphorical possibilities.

The mind that can be with a rose, just one rose, and be dazzled by its appearance and contradictions, is the mind that can go to be beach and be with one body -- the one that carries it around -- seeing the other bodies for what they are without letting Comparing Mind take over and make Awareness Mind feel fat or out of shape (or fit and superior).

Need some inspiration? Check out ctworkingmoms.coms Goddess Gallery -- photos of real women's post-pregnancy stomachs. They got tired of photos of celebrities who bounced right back to pre-pregnancy shape seemingly within days. They took photos of themselves in yoga pants and sports bras and put it on the Internet for everyone to see -- and compare to themselves.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Zen of Air Travel

I am on a lonely road, and I am traveling
Looking for some thing. What can it be?
I hate you some I hate you some I love you some
I love you when I forget about me

(Joni Mitchell)

Serious travel takes me to a zen state. I say this knowing something about Zen -- not a lot, but more than marketers who talk about the zen of yoghurt, for example. Serious travel, involving airports and and airplanes and ground transportation, is best dealt with by letting go of expectations, dropping preferences, and abandoning the concepts of good and bad. Getting frustrated about missing or broken planes only leads to suffering. You are in this airport now -- and for an undetermined number of hours, and no one will tell you how many hours that might be. They will tell you only what you could observe for yourself: you are in an airport and you are not inflight, even if the sign at the gate says the flight is on time for a time that has long passed.

See what I mean?

You can't take it personally. There's no god or karma that's going to inconvenience hundreds of other people to get back at you for something you did.

So you sit -- or stand in line -- with whatever comes and observe your reaction. How does the mind that is angry see things? And how about the mind that is simply aware?

No problems so far this trip. I'm just being at the airport.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Kindess can change the lives of people

Maybe there should be a Noble Prize for kindness. Winners of the Peace Prize seem to feel it's important.
Aung San Suu Kyi last week received the Nobel Prize for Peace, 21 years after it was awarded. In her speech, she said:
Of the sweets of adversity, and let me say that these are not numerous, I have found the sweetest, the most precious of all, is the lesson I learnt on the value of kindness. Every kindness I received, small or big, convinced me that there could never be enough of it in our world. To be kind is to respond with sensitivity and human warmth to the hopes and needs of others. Even the briefest touch of kindness can lighten a heavy heart. Kindness can change the lives of people.
The Dalai Lama, who won the prize in 1989, speaks often of the importance of kindness. He's often quoted as saying that kindness is his religion. (Or philosophy.) Here's another:
Love and kindness are the very basis of society. If we lose these feelings,society will face tremendous difficulties; the survival of humanity will be endangered.
 Photo by Jeremy  Russell/ OHHDL
The pair met privately on Wednesday in London. Both are touring England now, promoting their message of peace, care, and good works.
Kindness, though, is not a trait for only internationally recognized peace makers. It's a practice that's available to anyone, from birth through sickness, old age, and death. We rely on the kindness of strangers, even if we're loathe to admit it, and we make the world a better place, even if it's only the world of one person, when we practice kindness.
Everyone appreciates kindness, the Dalai Lama says.
Perhaps these two have a deeper appreciation than many of us because they have known such suffering. Aung San Suu Kyi was a political prison for 15 years; the Dalai Lama is a refugee from Tibet who cannot go back as well as the spiritual head of the Tibetan people, who suffer under Chinese rule.
As the poet Naomi Shahib Nye writes:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.
May kindness go with you everywhere. May you extend kindness to yourself and to others. May your kindness be firm when it needs to be, fierce when it needs to be, and may kindness prevail.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Don't believe everything you think

Say you smell the odor of a hamburger cooking. That's just a sensation. Quickly you have a reaction -- you're hungry and you like it; in fact you want one. Or you're a vegetarian and you're repulsed. Or things are fine the way you are and it doesn't make much of an impression.
The pure sensation is mindfulness of body.
The unpleasant-pleasant-neutral overlay is mindfulness of feeling tones.
And the thought about the sensation is mindfulness of mind.
Why does this matter?
These are the components of experience. This is how we interpret the world and how we respond to the world.
As with most of the Buddha’s teachings, the foundations form a logical progression.
We practice mindfulness of body to see what our experience is in this moment in a real, tangible way. Our form, our body, is what we experience as reality. We are with the sensations of what’s happening within the moment, rather than through ideas we have of it. When we are present with our body in this moment – without visualizing or interpreting or worrying – we are meeting reality with full integrity.
The experience of sensation usually is followed by a feeling tone, a subtle mental experience that’s present in every moment. It precedes conscious thought or emotion – no matter how much we think that emotional reaction just happens, the feeling tone comes first.
If it’s pleasant, we want more or we want it to stay as it is, and we manipulate experience or reality to try to make that possible. This leads to grasping and craving, which leads to suffering. Unpleasant and we run from it or push it away or push it down, or bring in something else, something we perceive as pleasant, to try to dislodge it. This gives rise to fear and anger and other negative reactions. Neutral and we look elsewhere – or go to sleep.
Seeing the link between attraction or aversion and the mind’s immediate response is liberating, the Buddha says. And liberation is the path to nirvana.
The Buddha says that an “untaught, worldly person” – most of us – who experiences an unpleasant body sensation, such as pain, worries about it, grieves, gets upset, gets resistant, gets angry. When we do that we actually experience two kinds of unpleasant feelings – the physical pain and the mental pain. In the Buddha’s example, the physical pain is like being struck by an arrow; then when you react with anger and resistance, it’s as if you’ve been struck by a second arrow: the unpleasant mental feeling.
An awakened being will still feel unpleasant sensations, but that person recognizes that it’s an unpleasant feeling and dodges the second arrow, the self-inflicted one of worry and anger and resistance. When you can just be with things as they are, there’s freedom and ease.
Or let’s say the original sensation is like a string around your wrist that’s gotten tangled and is too tight and becomes uncomfortable. When you stay with that discomfort, you notice it, you may notice it changes, and you may decide that the skillful action is to unwrap it or cut it off. But when you’re caught in your reaction, it’s like wrapping more string around your wrist so that it gets tighter and tighter and you panic or become paralyzed, unsure how to get out of the trap.
Which leads to the third foundation, mindfulness of mind, or consciousness of consciousness. In Buddhist terms, consciousness is the sixth sense; it is a moment of knowing – seeing, hearing, smelling. When consciousness arises with a particular mental factor, an emotion or quality, the mental factors color it. So in Mindfulness of Mind, we’re talking about knowing a moment of consciousness AND what’s coloring it.
The traditional teaching, taken from the Sattipattana Sutta, is about mindfulness of mind states. The Buddha outlines a bunch of specific ones.
A monk knows the consciousness with lust as with lust; the consciousness without lust as without lust; the consciousness with hate as with hate; the consciousness as without hate as without hate …
Through lust, hate, ignorance, the shrunken state of consciousness, the distracted state, the concentrated state, the freed state, and their opposites.
Note that the Buddha doesn’t judge the value of the mind states. He doesn’t talk about hating the mind with lust and loving the mind free from lust, or even seeking to develop the mind free from lust. He talks only about knowing what is there. The mind is contracted or the mind is spacious; the mind is full of ill will or free from it.
Think of being in love. Particularly newly in love. The world is bright and shiny. Everything is beautiful. Has everything changed? No. Your mind state has.
Think of when you are grieving or sad. The world is dull. Sunlight is too bright and washes out the colors instead of enhancing them. In the cartoon strip "Mary Worth," there’s a story line about a young woman who’s boyfriend has broken up with her and who has a new girlfriend. In every panel that she appears, this young woman is lying on the couch saying, “Life is brutal.”
If we’re not aware of the mind states that are coloring our perceptions, we think that our perceptions are true.
Contemporary western teachers often teach this as Mindfulness of Thoughts, rather than mind states. The thoughts are the signs that point us to the mind states.
(Think of the mind as bartender or an ice cream store clerk, and thoughts are the customers – the mind welcomes thoughts, observes them, hears what they want, takes care of them, and move on. Do they come in a big rowdy group? Alone? You can’t spend all night waiting on one customer, but that’s what we do with our thoughts, stay with one and worry it to death.)
Most of the time we don’t see our thoughts as visitors. We just believe them.
“Nobody likes me.”
“I can’t do this.”
“This is too hard.”
And then we act from those thoughts.
If you believe the thought that no one likes you, you’re less likely to open up to others and your life becomes contracted. You become isolated.
If you believe you can’t do something or that it’s too hard, you won’t try. You give up – or you don’t start.
There is a real difference between the thought “my back is killing me” and the sensation of back pain.
When we watch the quality of mind, we become less identified with the thought or the emotion. We still feel anger arising, but we don’t leap to the judgment that we are angry people – and therefore always act with anger. We feel fully angry, in body and mind, but we know that it’s not who we are. Because we pay attention to the state of consciousness, we see that it changes. We may experience conflicting emotions coming up very rapidly.
The terrible, horrible, very bad day does not have only negative things in it, if you pay attention moment by moment. There’s something good there – the smell of coffee, the quality of light, the one person who smiled at you. Every state of mind is transitory. It’s only by noticing them in detail that we truly appreciate it and let go of our tendency to identify with any particular one. Then we can be with whatever happens without becoming so tightly wound that we can’t move.