Saturday, July 27, 2013

Direct experience

It's said that studying the dharma, the Buddha's teachings, without putting them into practice is like
reading a recipe but not preparing it. Reading the recipe doesn't alleviate hunger – if anything, it may
intensify it. To satisfy hunger, you have to follow the recipe. And once you've made it and tasted it, you may decide it would taste better if you tweak it a bit, adding more of something to increase the nutritional value or throwing in a complementary ingredient.
Then it has value to you.
Study it, contemplate it, try it out, and see if it holds true. And if not, what are the aspects that seem wrong or uncomfortable? Is it an old resistance or habit of thought, or is something there that's not right?
Buddhism offers tools to facilitate this direct experience, specifically many methods of meditation. It's said that the Buddha taught 84,000 ways to meditate in order to reach as many people as possible.
The first step, though, is always to make contact with the moment, which means dropping your stories about what is happening in the moment or what should happen in the moment, what happened before this moment began, and what will happen 20 moments from now.
Finding the breath – which takes place in this moment and no other – is a handy way to do that. More broadly, being in your body (without judgments or comparisons) anchors you to the present moment and its transcendent mysteries. You can let your thoughts settle, like mud in water,
to reveal the natural clarity of your being.
To find a moment, start by becoming still in whatever posture you want (sitting, standing, lying
down). Feel the parts of your body, the parts that are in contact with the earth or things on the earth, the parts that are held up by your skeleton, the parts that touch clothing and the parts that touch air. Just notice.
Then find your breath – see if you can locate a point where you're most aware of it – and observe it.
What is the quality of it – long, short, deep, shallow? How does the air feel in your lungs? What is it like to be a body breathing, just breathing, with no particular effort?
Maybe you can feel the transcendent wonder of the fact that all of the very complex internal systems in your body are working right now, without your effort. That your life, and all life, goes on within and without us. Maybe you want to open your eyes and look at your surroundings – you can connect with the wonder of nature without praise or blame (you can add those later when you analyze; now you're investigating).
Even in an office, the computer becomes a marvel of science, not “this outdated piece of garbage.”
Your coworkers become marvels of transcendence in their own right, breathing the same air and
using the same light but coming to different conclusions than you because of the causes and conditions that brought them here.
You'll find what you find, not what I or the Buddha tell you to. It's your experience, after all. And that's what you should believe.

Friday, July 19, 2013

No Instant Liberation

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican is offering indulgences for “virtual” participants of the upcoming World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro — but there's a hitch.
The Vatican's social media guru, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, warned Friday that merely checking the pope's Twitter feed won't result in an indulgence, the ancient church tradition related to forgiving sins that roughly amounts to a “get out of Purgatory free” card.
Rather, Celli told The Associated Press, a Catholic seeking an indulgence for participating in Rio — either physically or virtually— must truly be contrite and have a moment of deepening faith.
I rarely agree with the Vatican, but this time the archbishop's got it right.

Knowledge isn't transformative. It takes experience -- that "moment of deepening faith," what a Buddhist might call a moment of realization. It's that experience, that lightning flash of insight or understanding, that brings lasting change.

“When we are touching spirituality, the problem resides not in what I do but what is in my heart,” Celli said.

In Buddhism, it's said that karma comes from our intention, not our actions. If we inadvertently kill an insect, here's no karmic seed, unlike if we do it deliberately.

It's said that studying the dharma, the Buddha's teachings, without putting them into practice is like reading a recipe but not preparing it. Reading the recipe doesn't alleviate hunger – if anything, it may intensify it. To satisfy hunger, you have to follow the recipe and make a meal.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Justice Begins with Inner Peace

War begins when we harden our hearts, and we harden them easily -- in minor ways and then in serious, major ways, such as hatred and prejudice -- whenever we feel uncomfortable. It's so sad, really, because our motivation in hardening our hearts is to find some kind of ease, some kind of freedom from the distress we're feeling. Pema Chodron

The news of the not-guilty verdict in George Zimmerman's trial in the death of unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin brought out strong emotions for millions of people. President Obama called for calm in the wake of the verdict and the protests that sprung up around the country.
How do people who perceive a grievous injustice has been done stay calm? And is that, in fact, the wise thing to do in the face of injustice?
Pema Chodron answers both in "Practicing Peace in Times of War."
First, the how:
-- Rather than lashing out, pause. Feel what you are feeling -- anger, upset, a desire for vengeance, hatred. Don't think about how you should feel; just feel it. Emotions are energy, and there is no correct or incorrect emotion -- there just is emotion. Feel where that is in your body -- is your stomach churning? Are your hands clenched? Is your thought tight, your eyes burning with tears?
-- Let go of all the labels and all the stories. For now, don't think about justice or right and wrong. Just sit with the feeling. Observe it. Is there a change in intensity? Does it ebb and flow? Does it move? You may feel like you have to move, have to talk, have to yell, but you don't. It's uncomfortable, but it won't kill you. No one dies from feeling a feeling, only from what they may do to try to make it go away. Pema calls it "compassionate abiding"
-- Let the energy settle down. Then clarity can emerge. And you can act wisely instead of acting out.
As long as we keep strengthening our anger and self-righteous with our thoughts and our words and our actions, they will never go away. Instead, we become experts at perfecting our habits of hard-heartedness, our own particular brand of rigid heart and closed mind. Pema Chodron
Why should we do this? Hatred never defeats hatred, the Buddha said. A line from a song by The Mountain Goats runs through my mind: When the house goes up in flames, no one emerges triumphantly from it.
But the best explanation I heard came from an African-American woman who spoke during the time for sharing at the Unitarian-Universalist meetinghouse I attended on Sunday:
May this open our hearts and minds to creative ways to work with this situation.

Is your attention your mind?

Remember the debate about the value of mindfulness meditation when stripped of Buddhist teachings on ethics and interdependence. Read here for a refresher.

Add in ReWire,  an app that's designed to train you brain to focus your attention with video-game like methods. You can listen to music (your own or theirs) and tap on the screen when it stops to measure how well you're paying attention. You can graph your progress.

With ReWire you don't just sit passively, you actively participate with your experience allowing quick training of your attentional muscle while gaining greater control over your mind and syncing up with each moment.
ReWire builds on the work of Shinzen Young, who, according to his own website, "is known for his innovative 'interactive, algorithmic approach' to mindfulness, a system specifically designed for use in pain management, recovery support, and as an adjunct to psychotherapy." He presents a mathematical view of the techniques -- if you do this, that will happen. His pain equation (Suffering = pain X resistance) has been helpful to me in separating out how much of pain is physical sensation and how much is the thoughts I have about the pain.

He writes: "A person’s base level of physical strength can be dramatically elevated through a well-organized regimen of physical exercise. Analogously, a person’s base level of mindful awareness can be dramatically elevated through a well-organized regimen of mindful awareness practices." Mindfulness-awareness practices, which he calls MAP, are "a tool of immense power and generality that can be applied to improving just about every aspect of human happiness.

"I use the phrase “Mindfulness – The Path” for the process of applying mindful awareness to achieve specific aspects of human happiness."

You can read about his approach in detail here 

Buddhism talks about training the mind, which is more than attention. The Eight-fold Path lists concentration as one factor in the cessation of suffering; others include livelihood, speech, action, view, intention, and wisdom.  Without those aspects, you might as well play Angry Birds.

Friday, July 12, 2013

I have met the enemy

I recently started a new meditation practice that includes working with enemies. Enemy is a strong word -- often, we  might describe them differently: annoying, irritating, or difficult people, those who don't have our best interests at heart, someone who creates obstacles or causes harm. In my mundane, middle-class, New England life, I don't have anyone directly in my life who I see as an enemy. As a friend says, there's no tigers chasing me, no men with guns, no fire. No person or event deserving of the word "enemy."

The trick, then, is simply to invite the enemies and see who shows up. And guess who that is?


Which is not to say that it's like looking in a mirror. I see other people's faces, but the only reason they are enemies is because I think they are. Specifically, the people who annoy me, the people who irritate me are people who I feel judged by. Not people who are openly critical. I can work with open criticism and consider whether it is indeed something I should own, is a projection by the other person that maybe I have provoked, or is part of a dance, the result of ephemeral causes and conditions that will arise and melt.

No, these are people whose judgments are intuited, not stated. I don't even know, for the most part, if those people are making the judgments I think they are. But I take no chances -- I make them the enemy, put up my defenses, and prepare to fend them off.

But ...

The only real enemy here is in my mind and my projections, not those people. Seeing that is a key that unlocks things.

If I fear your judgments, I won't open myself up to interactions. I'll judge you first and find a reason why you don't get to judge me. It's a hall of mirrors of suspicious people concerned mainly with self-preservation. But if I look closely enough, if I am truly present, maybe there is just us, looking at each other. There may be an endless series of mirrors with ever-so slight differences in distortion between them, but with one-pointed concentration, maybe they don't have to be such a distraction.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Six Realms of a 20-Hour Flight Delay


I spent the last week on retreat in the Colorado Rockies, leaving the final ritual early to make my plane -- only to have my flight delayed, finally leaving 20 hours after scheduled. It was, in its way, an excellent opportunity to practice. As part of post-retreat practice, we were told to contemplate the Four Thoughts that turn the mind to the dharma -- precious human birth, impermanence, karma, and the suffering of samsara -- each day, starting with the precious human birth.

"Life is precious; I am extremely fortunate to have the privilege and leisure to study and practice." 

On this morning:

I am fortunate to be alive. A maintenance delay is an annoyance, a change of plans. During the  layover between my second and third flights, I heard about the plane crash in San Francisco via Facebook posts. Consider that, and the emptiness of inconvenience shows clearly. (Please consider doing tonglen for those victims and their families.)

I am grateful not to be in a hell realm of true suffering but to be in an air-conditioned van heading back to the airport to restart my trip 20 hours after the first try. I am happy to have had breakfast, even if there's not much on the breakfast buffet for a gluten-free vegetarian. But the orange juice is cool and sweet, no matter how many actual oranges are involved. And there are bananas!

It is precious to be a human and not a deer, or other grass-eating resident of the animal realm in this drought-plagued land. Our driver tells us that the greenest grass is near the road because the water runs off the pavement and gives the plants extra moisture. The deer come to roadside at twilight and dawn and sometimes wander into the path of cars. Not so great for humans, either.

The Jealous Gods think it's all about them, and any attention they're not getting is skin off their backs. At the airport during the long day's night of delay, as we were rebooking our flights, the airline employees both went over to the next airline and appeared to be chatting with the agent there, who was helping an older man. "Hey," yelled the man in line behind me. What about us? It takes three of you to help one guy?" The agents explained that they were checking whether seats were available on that airline. The Jealous Gods think everyone is out to take what they think they deserve.

The gods, the gods. When the flight delay drags on, they start to sweat (one of the signs that they've used up their god karma). And they fall rapidly through the realms, suspecting that people are holding out on them, never satisfied, piling suffering on suffering.

I moved through those psychological realms along with my partners in flight. I had those thoughts. I wanted to be home, not in airports. But fresh from a week of retreat, I see thoughts arise -- or see them manifest in others -- and they pop like iridescent soap bubbles in the sunlight.


May all beings be safe.