Friday, December 11, 2015

Embracing the darkness

Last winter was hard. It seemed like we didn't see the sun for several weeks, just a vague brightening of the sky as snow fell each day. It was cold, it was grey, it was hard to get around. It weighed on me, like a stone I carried each day as I cleared that day's inches of snow from my driveway.

It was, of course, impermanent, as weather always is. The sun came out; spring arrived, then summer.

But as the days got shorter in October, I felt my anxiety ramp up. The late afternoon darkness was back. I tensed, anticipating the weight of winter. My friend, a Buddhist teacher, suggested I flip my thinking, starting with noticing things I like about November.

That led me to examine my attitude toward winter in general. Instead of dreading the darkness, could I embrace it? Without becoming a Pollyanna who believes the pile of shit must indicate the presence of a pony nearby -- and surely one meant just for me! -- could I at least muster up equanimity about the advancing winter?

Could I learn to love the darkness?

In the bardo, there's not only the experience of light but of darkness. I've meditated on the light, on recognizing that as the ground of being, essential nature, but what about the dark? What about the absence of light? Could that also be a place of enlightenment? Endarkenment? Is there a difference between light and dark in emptiness?

Padampa Sangye advised Machig Labron:

Confess your hidden faults.
Approach what you find repulsive.
Help those you think you cannot help.
Anything you are attached to, give that.
Go to the places that scare you.

So I'm going to Iceland. In December. The sun rises at 11:11 a.m. It sets at 3:31 p.m. Four hours of sun. Twenty hours of dark.

I like to ponder potential tattoos. One of the things I consider is a phrase from a chod practice I do: Enjoy everything without attachment or aversion.

That's the intention. Enjoy the dark. Enjoy the light. Don't let enjoyment depend on external circumstances. Be the bliss.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Projectile defilements

While Pope Francis dominated the religious scene last week with his display of charm and compassion during visits to Washington, D.C., New York, and Philadelphia, His Holiness the Dalai Lama managed to cause a stir with his response to an interviewer's question about his possible successor.

Yes, HHDL said, of course the next Dalai Lama could be female. And, he added, pointing to his face, she should be attractive. The male interviewer was aghast. The Dalai Lama giggled. The video cuts to another question.

This is nothing new. HHDL has said for years that his mindstream might choose a female form next time around, maybe even a western woman. He's also said he won't come back. And the Chinese have said they'll find him.

And he's also said before that if his successor is a woman, she should be attractive. He points to his face. And giggles.

The interviewers' reactions seem to have more to do with their perceptions than his words -- ie, "You can't say that." Well, no, white male western interviewer, you can't say that because we have a pretty good idea of what you mean by it -- that looks matter more than wisdom. We don't know what HHDL means by it because interviewers stop there. I wish they wouldn't.

Maybe it's a joke -- she should be attractive like me, says the wizened monk. Maybe it's a reference to the padma, or magnetizing, energy a spiritual leader needs. Maybe it's a great big cosmic joke because enlightened beings see beyond the dualities the rest of us use to measure our progress -- hope/fear, good/bad, attractive/repulsive.

The lesson for me -- which I'm always learning -- is that when someone says something I find  offensive, before I jump on my high horse and ride off, I need to try to understand what they're saying. I don't need to agree with it, but I need to know more about what they mean.  You think vaccines cause autism? Why? Because someone told you about their experience?  Have you looked at the science?  Are you open to considering it? No? Got it.

There's an often-repeated story about HHDL meeting with a group of western Buddhist teachers a few decades ago. Sharon Salzberg asked him about working with self-hatred. The Dalai Lama was puzzled -- he had no context for understanding that since it wasn't part of the Tibetan experience. Maybe he's not familiar with the pressure westerners feel to be attractive.

When I feel self-righteous, I've learned, I need to look at the self. What part of me is reacting? What is her story? Does it apply to the situation in this moment, or can I let that go and see the situation differently, with more clarity?

We have a tendency to project our strongest defilements onto others. I listened to a talk today in which Matthew Brensilver, a teacher with Against the Stream, describes how our habitual reactions come out in stark clarity in retreat. We can become intensely angry, he says, that the kitchen has used the wrong beans, garbanzo beans!, when clearly the salsa-like dressing on the salad called for kidney beans. It's funny, but so true. We can be triggers looking for a target.

Surprisingly, to me, I'm not feeling righteous about HHDL's comment. Before he said he wants to be attractive in his next life, he expressed surprise that anyone would be surprised that a woman could be the leader of a Tibetan Buddhist lineage. It's happened before, he says, centuries ago. Why not again? There are many wise women teaching Tibetan Buddhism -- if that's what you need to feel like you belong here, find one of them. Or do you have issues with a woman teacher?

On a side note, the Dalai Lama has been advised by his doctors in the US to rest, to cancel a planned tour. He's 80, and his human body is aging, as all of our bodies do. I imagine that no one is better prepared for death than he is, but his death will create complications for Tibet and Tibetan Buddhists and the world. May he rest and recover and remain to teach for a long time. May we spend more energy following his example and teachings and less bickering over his words.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Off the cushion, on the dance floor

"It's a meditation," the dance instructor says, coaxing me to relax and follow him in the tango.

I immediately realize he's right -- or at least that tango requires me to bring my meditation training to the dance. Just before his comment, I'd been looking over his shoulder at the pairs of students moving around the studio, shifting my attention off my partner and his guidance. Wrong move. Like bringing my awareness back to my breath in shamata meditation, I bring my attention back to Jack, the instructor, back to this moment, this step, this gentle pressure that his palm exerts against mine, telling my body to pivot left.

Tango lessons are nowhere on my bucket list, but I'm visiting a dear friend who's just started and asks if I want to go with her. I can take the intro class and stay for the beginner class, if I'm inclined. After that we can go practice at nearby sushi restaurant that lets the tango-ers take over a back room that's under-used in the late afternoon.

I'm neutral on the tango, personally, but I'm delighted by her delight and willing to explore its spark. I've no personal investment in this -- if I somehow am unable to perform the duties of tango, I can sit on the side and watch. I love to watch dance, to observe bodies in space.

Why the tango? the instructor asks the three couples and me who are there for the rank beginner intro class (my friend opts for the more advanced technique side of the room). I'm just here with a friend, I say. I'm open to whatever the experience is. (That's meditation practice right there -- going in without hope or fear, free from attachment and aversion.)

And if it is a meditation, the tango is tantric meditation -- at least as I hear it explained by this instructor. It's less about following a set pattern of steps and more about sensing and playing with energy, he says. The leader doesn't push his partner into steps but feels her energy and uses that to guide her. It's a movement of active and receptive energy, subtle and silent, sensed rather than announced. It requires concentration and relaxation, stillness and movement. There's a leader and follower -- male and female, for this class -- but those roles are fluid; the leader actually follows the follower's energy; the follower guides the leader, taking languid pauses for a flip of the heel or a circle on the floor.

Most of all, it requires presence, the willingness to be there with the energy and let it flow. Try to anticipate, and you block the movement. Look around and compare yourself to others and stumble. It's only fun if you're doing only it.

And it is fun -- to take those attention-gathering skills off the cushion and bring them to the dance, to use them with bodies in motion -- and in relationship, not just in stillness. (I confess: I love the prostration part of my ngondro practice because of the physicality, a rare time when the body in the body-speech-mind triad gets to move.)

And if meditation training applies to tango lessons, maybe there are other, less exotic places 
where it also can bring vibrancy and delight and an awareness of energies interacting, giving and receiving, guiding and following.  Maybe we can be like the Padma deities in the Dechen Barwa, "magical dancers ... in the boundless net of illusion."

Maybe enlightenment is being able to tango with reality. Backwards, sometimes. And in glittery high heels.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

What's discipline got to do with it?

I hate Dallas. I hate Dallas with a fiery hate equal to the temperature on this August afternoon outside the terminal at Love Field where I'm waiting for an airport-to-hotel shuttle.

I hate Dallas. That's a broad statement, but it's the kind of thing I tend to say, consigning an entire city or category of things to the trash bin of "unpleasant experience." Tofu. Humidity. Feta cheese.

And I don't mean it. It's what Tsoknyi Rinpoche calls "real, but not true." If I look closely at the causes and conditions that give rise to the thought "I hate Dallas," what is there is not a concrete lump of hate for a whole city but discomfort with being hot, hungry, unsure of what will happen next.



The groundlessness of being in a space that's neither here nor there.

I want to be back at the retreat center I left a few hours earlier. I want to be home with my spouse. I just don't want to be in a 16-hour layover at Dallas-Forth Worth airport, waiting for a shuttle.

I'd been reading Tsoknyi Rinpoche's "Open Heart Open Mind" on the plane that brought me to Dallas, and I'd just read a section on how to work with difficult people. Rinpoche's one-word prescription: Discipline.

It takes discipline, one of the paramitas -- or perfections of the heart -- to stay with the difficult feelings, to accept that they are your feelings, and to see them as the impermanent, ephemeral things they are instead of treating them like a slab of marble, carving a statue, and writing a story that's engraved on a plaque to justify the whole thing.

I don't hate Dallas. I dislike how I feel at the moment, when I happen to be in Dallas.

When I see that, I see space around my feelings, space in which I know everything will be OK. The shuttle will come or I'll walk upstairs and get a cab. The hotel will be air-conditioned. I'll find food.

It's a similar process in working with a difficult person in metta meditation. When you tease out your feelings about this person, about their behavior, from the human being, you can see that they are just  getting through the day. It becomes easier to send lovingkindness -- the wish that they will be safe, happy, healthy, and live with ease -- when you see them as human rather than a monument to their irritating qualities. You don't have to like them or what they do, just see their humanity. Address yourself to their humanity, not their irritating qualities. You may find those qualities become less important and less irritating.

And then you can rest in that space, finding comfort wherever you are.

Friday, August 7, 2015

I love you anyway

Very early tomorrow I will be getting on a plane and heading off to a fairly remote retreat center in Colorado. Very early. The first flight leaves at 5 a.m., which means leaving the house around 2:30 a.m. to allow for check-in and security and all that.

I made the arrangements a while back. Lots of life has happened since then and I forgot what I'd booked. When I looked up my travel arrangements this week, my immediate reaction was, "What fool booked these flights?" Of course, it was me. And of course there were reasons -- cost, check-in time, etc.

At those moments, when my first reaction is to speak harshly to myself, I am reminded of a story Sharon Salzberg tells in "Lovingkindess." She'd been practicing metta meditation for a while but wasn't sure it was having an effect. Then one day she broke a glass and heard the automatic voice of her self talk, "You're such a klutz." And then the voice of metta spoke up: "And I love you."

Practicing metta meditation doesn't run you into a bowl of mush. It doesn't necessarily stop the voices of habit in your head. It does add the coda: "And I love you." Yeah, sometimes you make bad decisions, sometimes you don't pay attention, sometimes you mess up. And I love you.

You come to believe that you are loveable. And if you are loveable, even with your annoying habits, others are too.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Meeting meanness with metta

I don't have to tell you that the world is a mean place. You know that -- you're on the Internet, which some days seems like nothing more than a place to share hatred and rage and stories of the awful way people treat other beings. It can feel overwhelming.
Image by

What can you do when faced with a tide of aggression and ignorance?

Practice lovingkindness.

Lovingkindness -- often known by its Pali word, metta -- is a quality of friendliness, "a steady, unconditional sense of connection that touches all beings, without exception, including ourselves," according to Sharon Salzberg, a Buddhist teacher who literally wrote the book on loving-kindness 20 years ago.

I love that her book calls lovingkindness "the revolutionary art of happiness." Kindness, it seems, is directed outward, toward others. We do kind things for other beings. And yet we reap the benefits.

In lovingkindness meditation, we make the aspiration that several categories of beings (ourselves, a mentor, a loved one, a neutral person, a difficult person, a group, and all beings) experience happiness, health, freedom, and ease. We don't necessarily take action, just make the aspiration.

But thought is precursor to action. As the Buddha said, "With our thoughts we make the world." So if we see the world as filled with hate and aggression that threatens us, we react defensively. If we aspire to keep people a safe distance away from us, we don't create the connections we innately crave and need to have in order to thrive.

If we practice sending out kind thoughts in meditation, we begin to send out kind thoughts outside of meditation.

Last month I was coming home from a meditation retreat in Colorado, and I met the nicest people all along my two-airplane, multihour trip -- from the shuttle bus driver who talked about the herds of rabbits that live along the airport access road in Albuquerque to the woman who commented on my giant cinnamon bun to the other people squeezed into the second-to-last row of the plane (who spread out once we realized no one had been condemned to sit in the last row).

Did I have extraordinary luck in the people I encountered that day? Nope. But I had spent a week cultivating kind intention, so I didn't take offense when a stranger remarked on unhealthy snack. I didn't write off the talkative man as a distracting loudmouth. I experienced it less defensively, as people looking to connect with other people in their own ways.

It's not always easy to maintain that view outside of retreat when you're actively working on that. But it is possible to make time to work on that. August is Metta Month at the Interdependence Project; there are many opportunities to practice together in real life and online.

Besides, metta meditation can be practiced steathily. On my way to retreat, I sat outside a Starbucks at Love Field in Dallas, silently wishing happiness and ease to the stressed-out passengers going by me. I don't expect it did anything for them, except put one less cranky person in their path, but it made my trip more pleasant. Try it.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Make a wish

My mom recently heard about an organization that grants senior citizens' wishes, like those groups that send terminally ill children and their families to Disney World, but this was for regular seniors with no special issues. This led her to think about what she'd wish for, she told me.

Her first thought was a trip across the country to visit my aunt. Sadly, the wish-granting organization is bound by the laws of time and space, and she'd still have to undergo the actual travel, which is what's holding her back. She dislikes airplanes, and other methods would take too long (otherwise I, her daughter, could grant this wish). No tesseract, no travel.

So then she thought that she'd like to revisit our family vacations in Cape Cod. But again the organization lacked the capacity to take everyone back 20 years when the grandkids would be happy hunting hermit crabs and digging holes for hours on end while she doled out Twizzlers.

She decided she didn't really have a grant-able wish, so she would simply be happy with how things are. She's a wise woman.

Our conversation made me think, though, of how often our hopes and wishes and expectations -- conscious and especially unconscious -- would crumble under the light of awareness. Do we realize how much our good mood depends on the weather cooperating or our co-worker's mood or the arrival of an anticipated email? How much we expect consistency from our technology and environment and friends? How much we are thrown off balance when we don't get that?

We pin our happiness on achieving some ideal situation, big or small -- the dishwasher will be empty when we open it; we'll find a well-paying, fulfilling job that benefits society; the tomatoes will have ripened overnight. And if that doesn't happen, we're disgruntled at having to empty the dishwasher or answer phones cheerfully or eat plain salad.

We fail to see what we have, right now, because we thought it would be different.

But we can change that.

Monday, July 20, 2015

What has Buddhism done for you?

I was fortunate to spend a week this month on retreat with a teacher who had kickstarted my personal exploration of the Buddhist path a few years ago. By then, I'd been studying Buddhism for a while, but it had been largely intellectual until I did a weekend program with him, and later a weeklong retreat.

Since then I've seen him mostly for weekend programs and kept up with his podcasts and books. Sitting with him again in person was a push my practice needed -- and an opportunity for reflection on where I am and where I had been.

"Buddhism saved my life," I told him one evening after a session where several people shared their stories. (This was a retreat that emphasized building sangha; we were silent for half the day and spoke during the other half.)

Maybe I was being dramatic. Maybe not. Buddhism definitely helped me see and change negative patterns of thinking. It let me be touched by joy as well as suffering, to see the inseparability of the two. Suffering exists; it feels good to admit that, to not try to talk my way out of that. It arises from causes and conditions. It can be eased.

Today, July 20, is celebrated in Tibetan Buddhism as Chokhor Duchen, the anniversary of the Buddha's first teaching, which was on the Four Noble Truths. This is also known as the first turning of the wheel of dharma.

I am personally deeply grateful for the teachings, those who teach them, and those who study them. My all beings everywhere without one exception benefit.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

All beings tremble

All beings tremble before violence.
All fear death.
All love life.
See yourself in others.
Then whom can you hurt?
What harm can you do?

-The Dhammapada

Suffering arises when we see our selves as separate -- from the initial moment when our consciousness is aware of itself and mistakenly thinks that means it is separate from the ground of being rather than the truth, that it is an expression of the ground. Suffering is intensified when we solidify our selves and see them as separate from other selves, when we see others as a threat, when we think -- not that they love life and fear death, just like us -- that they want to harm us. We become guarded and defensive, maybe aggressive because we think it's better to avoid the threat by eliminating what we think is the source than to wait and see if the perceived threat is real.

Suffering is reduced when we see our interdependence, recognizing that we all have the same nature -- which is the same nature of the ground of being.

When I hear the words of the families of those killed at Emanuel American Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, spoken to Dylann Roof, the man who murdered them, I hear the grace that comes from that recognition. Speaking in court, while Roof was held in jail and listened over a video feed, they offered forgiveness.

"I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you," a daughter of Ethel Lance said. "And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you."

I hear sadness and pain, but not anger and righteous, not defensiveness and isolation. We are all one in God, the families of those murdered at a prayer service said, and God, not us, will judge you.

Not like Dylann Roof judged them. Judgment creates separation, isolation, suffering. It closes us down. Interdependence opens us up, lets us witness the separation and take action to overcome it.

Good and evil exist on the same plane, and operate by the same calculus. Evil is good covered over. Wherever we ourselves, in our confusion and in our unwillingness to look at life as it actually is, with all its pain and difficulty, commit acts of evil, we add to the covering. And whenever we have the courage and the calmness to be with life as it is, and therefore, inevitably, to do good, then we remove the cover. We transform evil into good. This is the human capacity. Evil is not a part of reality that can be excised, cast out and overcome. Evil is a constant part of our world because there is only one world, there is only one life, and all of us share in it.  

Norman FIscher, writing after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Is One Direction all together in a Pure Land?

Buddhism is often seen these days as a supremely rational philosophical system or belief system, depending on your stance. Investigate everything, the Buddha said. Do not believe anything just because I tell you it is so -- look into it for yourselves and see whether it is.

For 2,600 years, people have been doing that and discovering the Middle Way he described does work.

So how do we explain vajrayana Buddhism, with its tantric practices, with its deities and devotion, its study of unmeasured energies?

You can see it as a way of training the subtle mind, using archetypal figures to cultivate certain qualities in ourselves -- compassion from Tara and Avaloketeshvara, wisdom from Prajna Paramita, clarity from Vajrasattva. You can explain its effects by analyzing its symbolism, icons, practices.

There's support for the idea that it's not just folklore from no less than Stephen Hawking.
In a Q&A after a recent lecture -- presented in Australia by a hologram of Hawking, who was physically in England -- he was asked: "What do you think is the cosmological effect of Zayn leaving One Direction and consequently breaking the hearts of millions of teenage girls across the world?"

The legendary physicist replied:

“Finally, a question about something important.

“My advice to any heartbroken young girl is to pay close attention to the study of theoretical physics. Because one day there may well be proof of multiple universes.

“It would not be beyond the realms of possibility that somewhere outside of our own universe lies another different universe.

“And in that universe, Zayn is still in One Direction.”

So it's not out of the question that Pure Lands exist and may even be overlays onto our own world, or that Tara in one of her 21 manifestations can help us out, when supplicated.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Bisy backson

I've been writing for the IDP blog on a regular basis for almost five years -- not because I think I have great insights to share but because it needs to be done. I've worked on daily newspapers for all of my adult life (except for six horrible months immediately after graduating from college when I did public relations), and I understand the need for new content. I know how to produce content. So I do.

For me, it's been a practice in opening, sharing ideas. Since I don't have a live, in-person sangha, this has been a way to explore ideas and share thoughts. It's also about discipline and posting on Saturday mornings. And I've been good about meeting that deadline, providing content. Until recently.

Over the last month or so, I've left my slot empty or posted at other times. There were good reasons: Travel, retreat, events. I've been too busy.

It's interesting that in Buddhism, busyness is associated with both laziness and restlessness. In both instances, external activity is a way to avoid facing what's happening internally.

Gil Fronsdal, talking about the hindrance of restlessness, says:

Constant activity can channel the restlessness at the expense of neither confronting it nor settling it. Because restlessness is uncomfortable, it can be difficult to pay attention to. Paradoxically, restlessness is itself sometimes a symptom of not being able to be present for discomfort. Patience, discipline, and courage are needed to sit still and face it.
The traditional antidote for restlessness is to sit still.

In the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha said that when the mind is restless, "it is the proper time for cultivating the following factors of enlightenment: tranquility, concentration, and equanimity, because an agitated mind can easily be quietened by them."

A time of restlessness is not the time for study because that can cause further excitement, he said.

But you can study the restless body and mind. Focus on the sensations; get to know, intimately, the feeling of restlessness, without the narration the mind provides. Feel the muscles, the energy, the tension and release. Then look at the mind: Where is the razor's edge, the head of the pin, the moment where you go from awareness to I-can't-stand-this-for-another-second? Can you find it? Can you rest there?

Feelings become overwhelming when the physical sensation and the mind work together to keep the hamster wheel of samsara spinning. You can investigate either one on its own, but when they join they create a tsunami of restlessness/busyness/stress that sucks you under.

As much as I identify with that scenario, that hasn't been the case for me lately. I'm not overwhelmed, just short on time. I have a job, a commitment to Buddhist practice that takes 2-3 hours a day, a family.

For some people, establishing discipline is a hard practice. That hasn't been my problem. Meditation has been a daily practice for me since I started. For me, not meeting expectations is much harder because it means giving up the validation that comes with doing what you're supposed to do. It means relying on myself to validate that I'm doing what's right for me. That's hard.

And then that's what you sit with.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The ignorance of a depraved heart

The charge of "depraved heart murder" was filed against one of the Baltimore police officers accused in connection with the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. That's an odd term for most of us: "Depraved heart." 

Maybe it's more familiar as "depraved indifference."

"Depraved" is a strong and unusual word meaning morally corrupt and wicked. Most of us can look at this charge and assure ourselves that we're  not capable of this act, we're not depraved.

But "indifferent." If being indifferent, or apathetic, is a crime, I know I'm guilty. We don't think of indifference as a problem in the course of the day. Maybe it makes life easier, sometimes, not to notice, not to care.

In Buddhism, the three poisons are passion, aggression, and ignorance. They keep the wheel of samsara spinning. It's easy to see with passion and aggression -- they're fiery, fierce, make themselves felt. Ignorance? Meh. How do we relate to what we don't know? How does ignorance -- or delusion -- cause suffering?

A few weeks ago, I attended a refuge vow ceremony with the Karmapa. Over the last decade, I've attended probably a dozen such ceremonies -- usually they leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, connected. Not this time.

Why, the Karmapa asked, would we go for refuge to the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha -- the teacher, the teachings, and those who follow them? (Awareness, the paths that lead to awarness, and those who live in awareness.) Traditionally teachings cite two reasons: Fear and faith.
The Karmapa turned to another subtle and invisible danger: the inadequacy of our love. The fear of obvious dangers, such as war, famine or sickness, we can easily identify. Lack of love, however, is another story; it leaves too many people and animals without protection or refuge. Their terrible suffering could be prevented if we had enough love, His Holiness stated. Since this deficit is within us, we can recognize it and change, and change we must, as insufficient love poses not only the danger of eventual disaster for others but for ourselves as well.
A deficit of love ...

Under the law, the charge of second-degree murder/ depraved heart requires "the conduct must contain an element of viciousness or contemptuous disregard for the value of human life which conduct characterizes that behavior as wanton."

The reason to take refuge, Karmapa said, is the fear of living in a world with insufficient love.

Usually, he said, we limit our love and compassion to relatives and friends; we set a boundary to our caring that allow us to ignore others.
“We need to extend our love,” the Karmapa said, “and come to see that we are connected to everyone.” The Karmapa expanded the usual definition of fear: “When we think about how living beings harm one another, we can see this lack of love clearly. Fearing it within ourselves, we go for refuge to develop the love and compassion that the Dharma teaches.” 
The opposite of compassion -- of seeing others' suffering and aspiring to remove it -- isn't hatred or aggression. It's apathy. Not seeing. Not caring.

What are the boundaries of your love and compassion? Who do you not see? Where is your love lacking? What are you indifferent to?

Love the questions, even when the answers are hard to find or hear. That's how boundaries expand. That's where change happens.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Compassion requires action

Compassion is the heart of the Buddhist teachings. The Dalai Lama, head of one of the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and the face of Buddhism to much of the world, says that the purpose of life is to be happy, and the way to attain that is to develop compassion.

"The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes. Cultivating a close, warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. This helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the ultimate source of success in life," he says.

Compassion is listed as one of the Brahma Viharas, or Divine Abodes, along with lovingkindness, empathetic joy, and equanimity. While lovingkindness is defined as the wish for all beings -- ourselves and others -- to be happy, compassion goes a step further, seeing suffering and aspiring to end it.

Looking deeply at others' suffering may sound depressing, but the Dalai Lama says it's what gives us the ability to face our difficulties without getting swamped:
As long as we live in this world we are bound to encounter problems. If, at such times, we lose hope and become discouraged, we diminish our ability to face difficulties. If, on the other hand, we remember that it is not just ourselves but every one who has to undergo suffering, this more realistic perspective will increase our determination and capacity to overcome troubles. Indeed, with this attitude, each new obstacle can be seen as yet another valuable opportunity to improve our mind!
Thus we can strive gradually to become more compassionate, that is we can develop both genuine sympathy for others' suffering and the will to help remove their pain. As a result, our own serenity and inner strength will increase.

Compassion develops on three levels: aspiring (we see others' suffering and wish it could be removed); active (we take action to alleviate the suffering); and absolute (we see no difference between ourselves and others, and every action we take is for the benefit of beings).

How do we develop compassion? We allow our hearts to be touched. Compassion is sometimes described as being tender-hearted -- it's the "aw" we feel watching cat videos on the Internet or looking at pictures of babies; the tears that fall when we hear another's pain; even the anger at injustice. (Using anger as skillful means is a topic all its own.) There are specific practices in which we imagine exchanging places with another person or taking their suffering into our own hearts and transforming it.

By developing an attitude of compassion -- of seeing suffering rather than ignoring or denying it or blaming the person who is suffering -- we behave differently in the world. That's important. That's world-changing.

The 17th Karmapa, head of another of the Tibetan Buddhist lineages, is touring the U.S. for three months and has spoken frequently about the need to act to protect the environment. Intellectual knowledge of the threat to the planet has not produced action because our heartfelt awareness, known as bodhicitta, hasn't kept pace. We care more for consumer goods than the Earth.

His Holiness the 17th Karmapa plants a tree in New Haven. (
“The weakness of our compassion, and the weakness or outright lack of our bodhicitta has placed this world in grave danger," he said. "We know this, it is all around us and we are responsible for it. And yet we lack enough compassion to care. We lack enough bodhicitta to do anything about it. We need to work on that.”

Compassion depends on a personal, felt connection. When we act from that deep level, we respect the interdependent web of existence, cherishing all life as much as our own.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Is Buddhism's rep for tolerance deserved?

A new study reports that merely reading Buddhist terms in a word puzzle -- such as dharma, Buddha, and awakening -- increased the likelihood of "prosocial" behaviors among study participants, some of them familiar with Buddhism and others not.

Testing the theory of "subliminal priming," researchers found that introducing language associated with Buddhism decreased explicit prejudice against ethnic, ideological, and moral groups other than those of the person. The results challenge the idea that religion promotes prosocial behavior among its members but prejudice toward those outside the group, the authors said. Prosocial behaviors include having compassion and empathy, along with a sense of responsibility for others.

That doesn't mean Buddhism is better, the authors stressed.

"What we really want to argue is that Buddhist concepts are associated with tolerance, across cultural groups," Magalli Clobert, a post-doctoral student at Stanford and one of the study's authors, told The Huffington Post. "It means that, at least in people's mind, there is a positive vision of Buddhism as a religion of tolerance and compassion."
My immediate reaction is to list places where that's not true, a compendium of Buddhist behaving badly. That stems, in part, from my Buddhist training -- question everything, especially blanket perceptions. Ask yourself, when those perceptions arise: Is this true? Is it always true? Are there exceptions? Is this solid and permanent? Nope.

But after holding it for a while, I've decided that it's not untrue, either.

One of the beauties of Buddhism is that the Buddha doesn't mandate tolerance. He says, look into yourself and see what makes you intolerant. What makes you uncomfortable? Examine that -- if it is because the person is different, can you find areas of similarity? You both breathe, for starters. You both want to continue breathing. You both love things, maybe different things, but that feeling of love is the same. You're both humans in a confusing world. There's a common ground to start with, and if you dislike what the other person builds on that, you've still got that starting place to come back to so you can tolerate what does not harm your or the larger community and treat the other person with respect if you engage with them over their actions.

I saw this when I read a New York Times story about a woman who was asked to change her seat on an airplane because the man assigned to the seat next to her, an Orthodox Jew, was prohibited by his religion from sitting next to a woman who is not his wife.

I often use public transportation scenarios in equanimity meditation. I have a seat on a train. How do I feel if my BFF gets on and sits next to me? If an acquaintance I don't know much about takes that seat? If that talky, conservative co-worker gets it, or some smelly person?

My practice is about being OK with who other people are, not avoiding them. Seeing our shared humanity, even if we display it differently. Recognizing that we're all fighting our own battles and declining to escalate the war. Trying for tolerance and compassion -- and when I fail, knowing that I can keep trying, that small corrections lead to big changes.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

You can't win meditation

We're entering heavy sports season here in the U.S., with the month-long college basketball championships wrapping up -- March Madness that now extends into April -- and playoffs looming for professional basketball and hockey, even as baseball opened its season Monday.

In a world where ambiguity muddies most situations, sports offer blessed certainty: Someone wins and someone loses. There's comfort in that. (Of course, if you look into the elements that go into those wins and losses, it can get fuzzy. Someone used performance-enhancing drugs. Someone violated recruiting rules.)

We'd like to be able to apply that certainty in our lives -- remember when Charlie Sheen 
popularized the "Winning" as a description of his life -- but life's not like that. You could see it as a series of games, I suppose, but there's no championship to end the season, declare a winner, and let everyone go home to rest. Life is about getting up and doing it again.

We'd really like to bring the game dynamic to our meditation practice -- we'd like a score, a quantifiable result that says we've won (or at least made the shot, hit the pitch, touched the rim).

The 17th Karmapa, who's touring the U.S. for three months, touched on this attitude in a talk over the weekend. Asked about ngondro, the preliminary practices students of Tibetan Buddhism undertake to get ready for vajrayana practices, Karmapa noted that attention tends to focus on the uncommon practices: 100,000 prostrations, 100,000 purifications mantras, 1 million or more devotional mantras. Students like to count, he said. Numbers make them feel like they've achieved something.

But in truth, it's the common practices, the ones that don't require any particular initiations, that are most important, Karmapa said. Those include contemplations of the Four Reminders that turn the mind to the dharma: Precious human birth, impermanence, karma, and the suffering inherent in all six realms of samsara.

The problem with those contemplations is that there's no way to quantify the results, Karmapa said. Your mind and your personality improve through those contemplations, he said. But there's no score, no stat line, no trophy that tells you that you've done it right or that you're the best in the league at appreciating your precious human birth, you know impermanence better than anyone. There's just you and those around you experiencing how you live your life.

We find that "boring," Karmapa said, interrupting his translator to say that precise English word. (He speaks in Tibetan, but he occasionally corrects his English translators.)

Those who play sports, who aren't just fans following the hot team, know the truth of what he says, though. Games aren't about the score -- they're about the practices, about building muscle memory so that the body knows what to do. Breanna Stewart doesn't have time in a game to think, now I'm going to block that shot by jumping up; she's well-trained and reacts. Games are about showing up for every play, being present in the moment, no matter what the score. If you're focused more on the score than on the play, you'll screw up and let the opponent win. You need, as the sports cliche says, to keep your head in the game -- and out of dreaming about the victory trip to Disney World.

In shamata meditation, each breath is the only breath. In walking meditation, each step is the only step. In ngondro, every prostration is the only one. Each day starts fresh with no score.

Maybe someday, as secular meditation becomes more popular, there will be meditation competitions and there will be a meditation champion, just as there are yoga competitions now. But there is no outside acclamation or accumulation that can tell you when you're doing it right or doing it better than everyone else.

You'll know you're winning at meditation when that no longer matters.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

When life gives you mushy peas

As a child I was often told that starving children in China would be happy to have the mushy peas I carefully picked out from the Campbell's vegetable soup and left in the bowl. I felt bad for the starving children and guilty, but that wasn't going to make me like the mushy peas -- or the occasional lima beans that kept them company after everything else was gone.

I thought of that this week because of a couple of unexpected events that caused some strong shifts in the family Force. Nothing awful -- a car given a terminal diagnosis, a recurring expense that the new health insurance covers far less of than the previous policy. Unexpected. Unpleasant. Inconvenient. But not tragic.

It's interesting to watch where your mind goes when the earth shifts. There's a moment when you feel it, and then the mind starts to scramble. Uneven ground is uncomfortable. So the mind seeks level ground again. It looks for someone to blame -- or absorbs the blame itself. What was done? What was not done? Who did or didn't do it? What should have been done? What should happen now? What might happen next? Can I ignore it? Pretend it didn't happen? Assure myself it isn't important -- after all, there are children starving somewhere, buildings exploding, wars being fought, and I'm upset about a car.

And while there's value in putting our suffering into perspective, I think it's important to acknowledge the shock to the system, to be disconcerted, surprised, and confused. To accept the feelings that arise before deciding they're inappropriate.

Knowing that other people have it worse, that my problems are mushy peas while others deal with massive boulders, can convince me to disallow my feelings. And I fear I'm even worse when I'm dealing with other people's feelings. I want them to feel OK, and I may jump into telling them why they're OK before letting them be not OK with what's happening.

But the feeling isn't really about the car; it's about the loss, about change, about impermanence. It's a reminder of the inevitable breakdown of everything, the truth of impermanence. And that's universal. It's a connection with all of the humans who are discovering that. Change is scary, loss hurts. Touching that in myself opens me up to touching it in others; denying it in myself, even if it's because I see it as less legitimate than others' pain, closes me off to all of it.

It's OK to hate the mushy peas, even if someone else would like them or is so hungry that they'd appreciate them even if they didn't like the taste or texture. Let those feelings remind you that everybody is faced with things they don't much like to varying degrees -- and make the aspiration that all beings have good things that bring them happiness, that all beings don't have the things that bring them unhappiness, and that all beings have the equanimity to sit with both.

And do what you can to share what you have. Donate to a food bank. Hold a friend's sadness with love before cheering them up. Don't tell a serious-faced person to smile -- just smile at them.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The lotus and the mud

You often see lotuses in images of Eastern religions or philosophies. They stand for beauty, peace, purity -- in Tibetan Buddhist iconography, the buddhas sit on lotuses with as many as 100,000 petals, symbolic of their great wisdom and compassion.

But lotuses, as lovely as they are, grow in unlovely mud, not pristine pools. They live in the mud and the muck; they thrive there. They don't transcend the mud. They exist together, inseparable. As Thich Naht Hanh says, they inter-are. No mud, no lotus.

Merriam-Webster defines transcendent as "going beyond ordinary experience." But Buddhism celebrates the ordinary as the path to liberation. Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck started the lineage of Ordinary Mind Zen. Popular teacher Pema Chodron advises us to "start where you are." You work with what you have -- emotions, fears, irritations, pleasures -- and use that to wake up to the way habitual patterns rule your life and keep your from directly experiencing the world. "When nothing is special, everything can be," Beck writes.

Our tendency is to avoid those feelings, to pretend the lotus exists independently of the mud. That leads to suffering, as we blindly follow habits, doing the same things over and over to distract ourselves and wondering why it doesn't make us feel good. Buddhist psychologist John Welwood coined the term "spiritual bypassing," which refers to that tendency to use spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with the discomfort of life. Denying suffering or bypassing it without examining it, processing it, loving it, leaves it there, and you're likely to find yourself back there.

The Buddha taught that nirvana -- or liberation -- is not separate from samsara, the world of habit and struggle. They exist together, like the mud and the lotus. It's about all in how you see and understand it.  If we see the mud as an unacceptable, unpleasant aspect of life that needs to be cleaned up or covered over, we're creating suffering, trying to do what can't be done. If we accept it, we can appreciate fully the beauty of the lotus.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Bearing witness to the body

We create the world with our thoughts, the Buddha taught, but we experience it with our bodies. That's one of those fun conundrums of Buddhism.

It's an issue I work with a lot, particularly since my practice now involves visualizations. How do I keep from becoming a brain on a stick, a mind that observes sensations without feeling them? Where is my body if my mind is projecting the consciousness elsewhere?

Ruth Denison, a Buddhist teacher who expanded the teachings on mindfulness of the body, describes its value like this:
It is tangible right away, it makes sense, it is giving a bridge to modern physics, to modern science, and it gives you a personal touch with yourself. It is all spiritual and enlightenment. So it was not something to believe in or to bow to,you didn't need to pray to it. It brought me into daily life, where I know that everything is having this impermanence.
Denison, who studied body awareness before coming to Buddhist teacher U Ba Khin, describes the process with exquisite awareness, in her biography, Dancing in the Dharma:

When I breathe in and feel a deeper breath and allow that, then I feel a relationship between the breath energy and the body energy. The breath moves into the body and changes the sensations, that aliveness, and it is recharged with the in breath. Then it goes out and comes in again. I also discovered that when I am allowing more deeply the breathing that I have deeper access to the body sensations, because I can witness or feel that every part of the body is in my attention, like it is enlivened with the breath. It is always so, but now because of my attention I could experience that directly. So it was not anymore anything I have to worship or ask how to understand. I just thought, 'Aha, this is this.'
Denison's witness is embodied, engaged, embedded in her being. It's not sitting by, watching the breath flow by -- it is feeling it, down to the exchange of oxygen between the breath and blood. And in that observation of the smallest details, the whole of the universe is revealed.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Ruth Denison, Dharma Elder

I've been reading about Ruth Denison, a Buddhist teacher who died Feb. 26. I'd picked up a book about her, Dancing in the Dharma, because I liked the title. I had not heard of her. That's a shame, because Denison's work deeply influenced how Buddhism is taught in the west.

I'm deeply grateful for her work, even though I didn't know it was her work, that it wasn't always this way. I don't think I'm alone in that -- her Wikipedia entry is seven sentences.

Denison was among the first wave of westerners who went east, a contemporary of Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and others whose work formed the bones of Insight Meditation. She taught at their centers, at Spirit Rock and Insight Meditation Society, but in her own idiosyncratic way. She was not popular with students who wanted a traditional experience, Salzberg says in the book.

Denison's gift to the dharma and its students was to introduce and integrate body practices. Having studied in Zen before finding her teacher in U Ba Khin, she taught walking meditation. She taught students to ground in their bodies, to use sensation to integrate body and mind. When her contemporaries were experimenting with psychedelics and meditation, Denison was known as a person who could help those having a bad trip by keeping them anchored in their bodies. After she opened a dharma center, Dhamma Dena, she was known as a teacher who could work with students who had mental illness or other difficulties.

She also worked with women, creating the first retreat for women practitioners, and brought a strong feminine presence to Buddhism.

Dancing in the Dharma is written by one of Denison's longtime students, but it's unusually clear-eyed and straight forward, not sentimental or cloying. In that, it seems to be a fair reflection of Denison. She had a fascinating life, growing up in Germany between the wars, living through horrific experiences, and coming west to join the counter culture and then Buddhism. But she seems not have been particularly impressed by any of it, going about her life.

In her teaching and in her life, Ruth acts spontaneously; she is so fully committed to this moment that she may lose track of what she promised yesterday, or even the prescribed schedule of events at a retreat. At first this evoked little fits of exasperation in me -- until I discovered the obvious, that it was my own mind that was causing me to suffer. Then I began to understand that this was a great teaching for me: to get go of expectations, to not hold so tightly to my own precious agenda, to break the form and stay with the interest and joy of the present moment. -- Sandy Boucher, Dancing in the Dharma

Saturday, February 28, 2015

My Terrible, Horrible, Wonderful Night

I had plans last night to go into the city and meet a dear friend to see a very special performance. So many things went wrong that I could easily have had an terrible time. Instead -- thanks to practice -- it full of extraordinary lessons and beauty.

I left work early so we could meet before the show. Ten minutes later, I realized my phone was still charging in my office, and I knew I would need it. So I went back. "You're such an idiot," I said as I pulled back into the driveway. "And I love you." (That's a lesson taken directly from Sharon Salzberg's book on Lovingkindness.)

 The 20 minutes that took meant I'd miss the early train, but that was OK. The later train, though, was slow and got in 20 minutes late. I hadn't noticed because I was concentrated on a good book, avoiding the swirl of anxious thoughts.

Still time to get there before the show. I hopped onto a crowded subway train, standing in the aisle. I felt my bag bump the people sitting behind me and felt bad, but it was a crowded train and I couldn't move. A few minutes later, things emptied out and a seat opened up. The girl sitting in the seat near where I was standing smiled at me and went back to snuggling with her friend. A few minutes later, I noticed that the zippered compartment where I keep my Metrocard was open and the card was gone -- likely taken by the snuggling, smiling women.

Of all of the things that I carried, the Metrocard was the least important -- easily replaced and not needed until after the show. So I let it go.

When I got off, I still had 20 minutes to get to the show. But I got the address wrong and walked a half-mile past the venue, with encouragement from my phone map, before calling my friend to ask where I should be. I walked back and got there just after the show started. I picked up my ticket, stopped at the bathroom, got to the door and had no ticket. It was nowhere in my purse, where I'd put it; I retraced my steps and found it on the bathroom floor.

The performance had started.The usher offered to find me a seat; I showed her my friend's text that she'd saved me a seat in the fourth row. I expected the usher to tell me that there was no way I could take that seat and disrupt everyone -- instead she led me to it. I galumphed over people who weren't happy to let me through, but got to my seat. My friend squeezed my hand. I joined the audience and performers on a magical trip through the bardos.

So many things "went wrong" that night. Before I meditated, any one of them would have ruined my night. Since all of them were due to my own inattention -- forgetting my phone, not paying attention to where my bag was, not checking the address, walking in late -- I could have and would have beaten myself up, sending myself into a state where I could not have enjoyed a personal performance by Prince.

On this night, I didn't do that. On this night, I let it go and got beautiful and precious dharma teachings with clarity and grace. I let my friend love me even though I messed up. Being my dharma sister, she did.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Quivering hearts

Sylvia Boorstein, in her book "Happiness is an Inside Job," talks about being seated on an airplane, and just before takeoff a woman came and sat in the empty seat next to her. The woman explains that she hates takeoffs and landings and feels better if she can sit closer to the front of the plane -- she'll move back to her assigned seat once the plane is in the air. Boorstein expresses sympathy, but the woman waves it off. "Everyone has something," she says, which is the point of the story for Boorstein.

I think of this story when I fly -- and, being an editor, I wonder that there was an empty seat, that the flight attendants let her move out of her assigned seat, that this miracle of compassion could have taken place. But, of course, miracles of compassion take place all the time.

I thought of this story particularly this week as I flew. We had a three-flight trip planned to take us from sunny Oregon to frigid Connecticut. Checking flight statuses as we sat in a coffee shop, we learned that flights 1 and 3 were on time, but flight 2 was delayed so that we'd miss the third flight. The app said there were no options available; a phone call found there were no agents available to rebook us either.

So we went to the airport as scheduled. After 20 minutes of searching, the agent booked us onto a flight that was already boarding -- we were the last ones on the plane. I had a middle seat, and no plans to speak to my seatmates. The man on my left had headphones and a screen in front of his face the whole time. The woman on my right put her hands over her face during the flight attendant's safety demonstration. I thought about Sylvia's woman and that maybe this was just her something.

I asked her if she was OK. She said she was just tired -- she'd been visiting her son and sleeping on an air mattress. I'd been visiting my child too, so we talked about them. I was reminded, deeply, of the preciousness of human life -- not because we were in a metal tube flying (flying!) in the air but because of the humans we talked about and we are. We didn't become friends -- we didn't even exchange names, let alone email addresses -- but her "something" was my "something" for that flight.

Compassion is sometimes described as a quivering of the heart in response to suffering. Maybe it's a quivering of the heart in response to another heart's quivering, an attunement, a harmony, an energetic call-and-response. Boorstein writes that her book is about "restoring caring connection... and (that) maintaining it when it is present, is happiness." That caring connection sometimes start with just being present where you are and noticing those around you.

Compassion, or lovingkindness, opens our attention and makes it more inclusive, transforming the way we view ourselves and the world. Instead of being so caught up in the construct of “self” and “other” and “us” and “them” that we tend to see the world through, we see life much more in terms of connection to all.  -- Sharon Salzberg

Friday, February 20, 2015


Generosity was the first thing the Buddha taught to those he met as he traveled India after he became enlightened. For those seeking liberation from suffering or dissatisfaction, generosity teaches appreciation for what you have and develops the ability to let it go, to share it. Generosity, says Buddhist teacher Noah Levine, is "the natural response of the enlightened heart."

Our unenlightened hearts cling to the things that we believe keep us safe and comfortable. We're reluctant to share because we fear we may not have enough for ourselves at some time in the unforeseeable future.

Buddhism seeks to turn that around, to create an awareness of abundance rather than scarcity. "When we are present and connected, what else is there to do but give?" Jack Kornfield asks.

The Buddhist tradition is literally built on the practice of generosity, or dana, in Pali, the language closest to that of the Buddha. Without the Indian tradition of giving to mendicants, the Buddha would not have had the time to explore his path and come to awakening. Monks in the early Buddhist traditions even today rely on donations from the community, which are given freely.

According to Buddhist scholar Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the topic of giving was controversial in the Buddha's day -- for centuries, the Brahmins had required that gifts be given to them. To fail to do so would be to violate the social contract and would mean bad luck in this life and the next, the Brahmins taught.

In contrast, the Buddha taught free will in giving. When asked where a gift should be given, he stated simply, “Wherever the mind feels inspired.” In other words — aside from repaying one's debt to one's parents — there is no obligation to give. This means that the choice to give is an act of true freedom, and thus the perfect place to start the path to liberation, Thanissaro Bhikkhu says.

Additionally, the Buddha said, generosity does not involve only material items. It also includes intangibles, like attention, and living ethically, which is the gift of creating safety for ourselves and others. Generosity, Jack Kornfield says, is "a joyful way of being."

He continues: "Sometimes our generosity is the giving of a smile, silence, listening, warm touch. Sometimes it involves action, time, money, our commitment to justice, our vision for a better world. Every form of giving is a blessing."

Generosity acknowledges interdependence. We give not because we have but because we can. "In the end, there is no notion of separation, neither giver nor receiver," Kornfield says. "We are all the Buddha feeding ourselves" when we give to others -- because there are no others, just beings.

Friday, February 13, 2015

I'm not calm

In the movie "The Babadook," there's a moment when the viewer knows the evil spirit has infiltrated the main character. Until this point, she has been the embodiment of sweet patience -- responding gently and evenly to everyone, never with a hint of tension or irritation. But at this moment, as her son comes into the bedroom where she's trying to sleep and starts talking, we see her eyes narrow and shift as she lies with her back to him, not turning to respond. She snaps.

What she says is not all that bad -- "Don't you ever stop talking?" -- but the tone and the abrupt departure from her previous evenness tell us that this is the start of something awful. (It is.)

What I love about this scene is its humanness. Who hasn't had occasion to yell," Don't tell me to calm down. I am calm!" Who hasn't tried to hang onto tranquility until the last shoe falls and breaks the camel's back? Tell me I'm not alone.

We think -- in the popular imagination -- that meditation will get us beyond all that and make us perpetually calm. But mindfulness doesn't stop us from feeling, it only helps us to know what we're feeling.

Mindfulness is a relational quality in that it does not depend on what is happening but is about how we are relating to what is happening. That's why we say mindfulness can go anywhere. We can be mindful of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, beautiful music and a screech. Mindfulness doesn't mean all these flatten out and become one big blob ... The actual experience of mindfulness produces a vibrant, alive, open space, where creative responses to situations have room to arise, precisely because we're not stuck in the well-worn, narrow grooves of our habitual reactions." -- Sharon Salzberg "Real Happiness at Work"

I want to be mindful of calm and palm trees.  But that's not my reality right now. I'm mindful of stress, of getting ready to travel tomorrow and all the open possibilities inherent in that. I'm mindful of the tension in my jaw, the growing checklist in my head.

I could smile tightly and say I'm fine. Or I can admit that I'm stressed, that irritation that arises in  me is not the fault of the other person but my high baseline tension level, and wait in that space where I choose how to react.

As the evil spirit in "The Babadook" warns, the more you deny it, the stronger it gets. Accepting that it's there lets you work with it.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Be with the one you're with

Sitting meditation is practice for living meditatively. When I train my mind to concentrate -- gently focusing on the breath, recognizing when I drift off, and inviting my attention to come back -- while sitting in silence, I'm developing the capacity to do that in the rest of my life.

Sitting down to dinner with my spouse, for example, I can bring my awareness to the space where we're interacting. Sure, we're talking about our days and what happened in the hours before we sat down, but but my attention is here. I'm remembering events, not entangled in reliving or revising them. And that leaves space to see them and maybe gain some insight, from myself or my spouse. I'm here with him, not back at the office or on the highway, caught in an encounter that's over.

We went to a dance performance last night, which I'd been looking forward to, even though we'd seen this dance company perform before and not especially liked it. And it was possible to be in that space of gentle attention, watching the dance and allowing thoughts to arise without reacting to them. Good God, a 40-minute-long piece set to Gymnopedie? Really? Thinking. Is this the end? Oh, it's not. What!? Thinking. Even (whispered by my spouse) This is ridiculous. Maybe. Thinking.

Does it make the dance better? No. But it keeps me from going on an internal rant about the quality of the choreography. It keeps me from getting caught in a longing to be home in my comfy pajamas and denigrating where I am. It keeps me from feeling bad that I've brought my spouse to something he's not enjoying and trying to list all the things I've done and not enjoyed because he wanted to, from being wrapped up in defensiveness. It keeps me present and lets me see the beautiful moments among the ridiculous ones.

Really, that's what life is -- beautiful moments mixed in with ridiculous and painful ones. Meditation helps me to be present for them all.

The inner quiet engendered by concentration isn't passive or sluggish, nor is it coldly distant from your experience -- it is vital and alive. It creates a calm infused with energy, alertness, and interest. You can fully connect to what's happening in your life, have a bright and clear awareness of it, yet be relaxed. -- Sharon Salzberg Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation

Saturday, January 31, 2015

FInding the bright vein of goodness in February

Sharon Salzberg's Real Happiness 28-Day meditation challenge starts Sunday and runs through February. It couldn't come at a better time.

Blame it on the stars, blame it on the snow, blame it on my own failure to try hard enough to find the good in things as they are, the last week has been hard. It's not just the two feet of snow on the ground in my part of New England, but the lack of daylight even as the sun stays up for minutes more each day, and the number of things that need to get done. Life feels small, dry, and airless.

My days already do include meditation, which is a commitment and a joy, but I welcome the challenge to bring it more fully into life, to be more mindful about it. It's called "Real Happiness," and the reminder is to look at the real, look at the happy, look at the attachments and projects that get between me and that state.

In the introduction to Real Happiness, Salzburg writes:
Despite my initial fantasies when I began meditating as a college student, I haven't entered a steady state of glorious bliss. Meditation has made me happy, loving, and peaceful -- but not every single moment of the day. I still have good times and bad, joy and sorrow. Now I can accept setbacks more easily, with less sense of disappointment and personal failure, because meditation has taught me to cope with the profound truth that everything changes all the time.
I usually meditate right after I get home from work (after I feed the cats to facilitate a more tranquil atmosphere). I look out a window. I am intimately familiar with the sunset -- or the deepening of the grey on these dreary winter days when the sun never really pokes through the solid grey mass of clouds. It really does happen later every day. And the snow will melt -- even the additional foot that might fall on Monday. The profound truth of impermanence.

Once I learned how to look deep within, I found the bright vein of goodness that exists in everyone, including me -- the goodness that may be hidden and hard to trust but is never entirely destroyed. I came to believe wholeheartedly that I deserve to be happy, and so does everyone else.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Does Buddhism Need Men?

As a practitioner of Buddhism, I don’t think about myself in terms of gender. I try to cut through such concepts and rest in the true condition of unborn and unceasing luminous emptiness, the ground of being. -- Lama Tsultrim Allione

I went to a retreat on the sacred feminine in Buddhism last weekend, led by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. Predictably, it was practically all women. The few men there were congratulated for their bravery and openness in attending. This feels creepy to me, like when I took women's studies classes in college and the professor would make a point of calling on the men so we could hear their comments. Isn't it ironic. Male perspective is the ocean we swim in, and even when we put women first we still put men more first.

That weekend we learned a Green Tara practice. Lama Tsultrim calls Tara "the first feminist" in Buddhism. Tara was an Indian princess and highly accomplished practitioner who was told that it was a shame she was a woman; she'd have to come back as a man to get enlightened.

The princess answered back brilliantly, demonstrating her understanding of emptiness and absolute truth, saying: “Here there is no man; there is no woman, no self, no person, and no consciousness. Labeling ‘male’ or ‘female’ is hollow. Oh, how worldly fools delude themselves.” (Taranatha, Origin of the Tara Tantra).
And yet gender, while ultimately an illusion, on the relative level often is a veil as effective as a blackout curtain.

Western sanghas are predominantly female. Is that a problem? Do we need men? (Not according to a 109-year-old Scottish woman who says the secret to a long life is avoiding men.)

I went to an all-girl high school, and part of what that meant was that there were no boys to be class president, to be star athletes, to talk over or interrupt (traditional male speech patterns). Girls just did it all.

I'm not arguing that men --  or anyone -- should be excluded. Do they need to be courted? Does Buddhism, which hasn't cared about bringing women into its folds since it was founded, need to change to bring men in? Does it lose legitimacy if the sangha is predominantly female, if the ratio of male-to-female teachers reflects that? (For now, men predominate.)

Kozo Hattori, writing on the blog of The Greater Good Science Center, a project of the University of California at Berkeley, back-handedly explains why men need Buddhism in "Five Ways to Make Mindfulness More Manly." Men have embraced mindfulness meditation -- it's used by the military,
by tech companies, and sports teams -- but they stop at being mindful of what's happening with them. In Buddhism, it's taught that mindfulness leads to compassion -- as we become aware of our experience, we also become aware that others share the same experiences and emotions, and that touches our hearts, opening them. Not so with the modern mindfulness movement, Hattori says.

“Men tell you what is on their minds, but not what is in their heart,” says Elad Levinson, who has 40 years of psychotherapy and 20 years of leading men’s groups under his belt. Perhaps not coincidentally, boys and men commit the vast majority of violent acts, from domestic violence to murder. Many struggle with expressing empathy and compassion.

Would the world be better off if men were more compassionate? Absolutely, since men run the world. Therefore, it's the bodhisattva's work to bring men to Buddhism for the benefit of all beings, I suppose. Particularly into programs that focus on development of compassion, like Green Tara practice.

In one version of Tara's story, it's said that she came to life from the tears of Chenrezig, aka Avalokiteshvara, the buddha of compassion. He was crying because he realized the difficulty of saving all sentient beings from samsara; she sprang up to help him. If it happens, he'll probably get all the credit.

"The absolute truth of the emptiness of gender and the relative truth of a real historical misogynist attitude in Buddhism lay side by side in Tara’s story," Lama Tsultrim writes. The absolute doesn't trump the relative; both exist simultaneously. We can't live from our buddhanature without first peeling away the sexism that hides it.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Found in space

I've been feeling increasingly cranky lately, like the world is rubbing at the edges of my awareness with an increasingly coarse grade of sandpaper. Tis the season, in the cold and dark, to go inward, but it's been feeling more and cramped in my awareness. It feels like every block of time is filled, and even meditation is taking up place on a schedule that seems to have less and less air.

A friend and mentor says it sounds like I need to do some aimless wandering.

And that sounded like another scheduling challenge. How do I fit in aimless wandering when the laundry still hasn't been folded?

Then I realized that what had dropped off my schedule was my lunchtime walk. It has been too cold or wet or icy for the last couple of weeks, and I've been sitting at my desk through lunch. At first I made sure to move away from the computer, to do something unrelated to work, but even that's slipped to the side.

Aside from the obvious benefits of a 2-mile walk, it also gave me time for mental aimless wandering. It was the free space where things open up and thoughts float without direction. I notice the sky, the clouds, the trees. My walk is not aimless, but my thoughts are. And that creates space. Without that, the world closes in.

Space is necessary. It's important to find it. It may seem contradictory to schedule in time to do nothing but be open to what arises, but it's vital.

NASA released a series of composite images of space, made by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. They are stunningly beautiful. You can get lost in them, right there at your desk Learn more here