Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Everybody breathes

It is not surprising that in a book entitled, Breath by Breath, Larry Rosenberg would emphasize following the breath as a support for meditation. In a chapter called, "Breathing With Daily Life", he talks about applying the practice to ordinary situations. Here is a sample:

That is the wonderful thing about the breathing, and the reason it is such a helpful object of attention. It is both perfectly ordinary (we are all doing it, all the time) and extremely special (if we weren't doing it, we'd be dead)... Everybody breathes. It is also extremely portable. We take it everywhere we go. So if you choose to practice with the breathing, it has the advantage of always being there. No matter how many times you forget it throughout the day, you can always take it up again. There's another in-breath. There's an out-breath.

Sometimes people think that when we speak of following the breath throughout the day, we are exaggerating for effect. We really can't mean such a thing. And maybe there is no one who can be mindful of every breath throughout the day. It is also true that there is a great deal of temperamental difference among practitioners. Some people who like to follow the breathing while sitting do not like to follow it in other postures, and that is all right. It is meant to be an aid to mindfulness, not an impediment. If you are better able to be mindful without it, fine.

Yet you really can't know until you make a sincere effort. One thing that many students find is that the more they pay attention to the breathing throughout the day - while eating, washing the dishes, listening to music, walking in the woods - the easier it is. The capacity to stay with the breath gets stronger and stronger, and the breath itself becomes more vivid and available and alive. It doesn't do much good for me to say that, of course. Really to discover it, you have to try it.

When I first worked at training myself to be mindful throughout the day, I was using mantra as my meditative support. And I decided on certain prompts, cues, in the environment to help me. Fastening my seatbelt was one. Looking at a time piece was another. Any sudden noise like a siren was still another. I recommend that you pick reminders in your environment that will help bring you to mindfulness. Then try using breath for your support as Rosenberg suggests. Sound will also work quite well as a meditative support throughout your day. Give either one a try. The equanimity that is cultivated through such a practice is very stable and reliable.

Monday, May 30, 2005

The ultimate letting go

It seemed to me that a posting about death would be appropriate for Memorial Day. I offer you another passage from A Gradual Awakening by Stephen Levine. I think this is utterly beautiful and deeply consoling. May it be so for each of you as well:

The death of the self may be full of the fear of letting go, of stepping off into the void, thinking that nothing will stop our fall, not recognizing that the void is our true nature. The void is the vastness in which we are occurring, it is the truth itself, and the whole idea of "someone" stepping off is just another bubble passing through. And we don't any longer need to define who we are, because who we become each moment is so much more than what we ever imagined. There's no need to limit who we really are with any definition. We are all of it. And only the contents of this vastness of mind, once identified with as a separate self, limit who we are.

Think of the void as absolute openness, spaciousness, receptivity, non-limitation. It is not annihilation. It is the ultimate becoming.

Monday Meditative Picture Blogging

Image hosted by Photobucket.com
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

Taking ourselves lightly

One of the enormously valuable benefits of meditation for me is that it taught me I don't need to take myself so seriously. Stephen Levine speaks to this in his book, A Gradual Awakening:

Sometimes we take our sittings so seriously. We think in terms of "my progress," shortsighted to the gathering power of awareness and the universe in which progress is happening. We lose sight of the joy of our growth. But the expansiveness which comes with understanding creates a lightness that sees beyond all our self-centered attempts to overcome the imagined self.

When we're "working hard on ourselves," we sometimes push away our easy mind, our happiness at being on the path in the first place. We lose the sense of our absurdity which can serve as a balance to the seriousness of our practice. When we lose that openness to the cosmic humor of it all, we lose perspective. We become like the rooster who thinks his crowing makes the sun come up each morning. We think it is "me" beating "the ego" rather than appreciating the universe coming home to itself. The whole melodrama of our attempts at capturing freedom benefits greatly by the balance a well-developed sense of the absurd allows the mind. Indeed it is said that the angels can fly 'cause they take themselves lightly. A bit of aerodynamics it is well for all of us to remember.

I often coach myself by saying, "It doesn't matter; it doesn't matter," about whatever I might be taking too seriously. And it really doesn't - whatever it is. Think in terms of the big picture. Only the grasping ego thinks that impermanent things matter.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

More on self-image

Yesterday we took a look at how the mind gets trapped by its own self-image. Stephen Levine speaks to the same issue in his book, A Gradual Awakening:

We're constantly building a new image of ourselves and wondering what's next. We have allowed ourselves very little space for not-knowing. Very seldom do we have the wisdom not-to-know, to lay the mind open to deeper understanding. When confusion occurs in the mind, we identify with it and say we are confused; we hold onto it. Confusion arises because we fight against our not-knowing, which experiences each moment afresh without preconceptions or expectations. We are so full of ways of seeing and ideas of how things should be we leave no room for wisdom to arise. We desire to know in only a certain way, a way which will corroborate our image of a rational, separate, autonomous self. When we open our minds, our hearts, not trying to understand, but simply allowing understanding to occur, we find more than was expected. When we let go of our ignorance and confusion, we allow our knowing mind to arise.
By clinging to what we think we know or don't know, we block our deep knowing. By gently letting go of everything - not through force, not by slaying it, but simply seeing all the content as passing show, as process and flow - we become the whole of our experience and open to our natural understanding.

It might be useful to further define "letting go." Letting go means not dwelling on something which has come to mind. It also means experiencing that quality of non-grasping awareness which pulls nothing from the flow - experiencing a great spaciousness which simply lets everything come and lets everything go.
I like what Levine says about letting go meaning not dwelling on what comes to mind. Many people believe "letting go" means "getting rid of". Can you see that such a belief is really about control? And that's the opposite of letting go! The thought or feeling may still present itself but we don't dwell on it or get involved in it. So let go of the self-image. Just don't dwell on it, don't get involved with it. Slowly your identification with it will dissolve and you will know that spaciousness that Levine describes.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Trapped by the ego

Here's an amazingly powerful observation by Larry Rosenberg in Breath by Breath:

I once knew a Canadian monk in Thailand. He seemed an impeccable monk from the outside, but he confessed to me that he was extremely unhappy. The problem was that all through the day he kept being bombarded by the thought, "I'm a monk. I'm a monk." Sometimes that self-image made him pleased with himself, when he thought he was living up to it. Other times he was tormented by the thought that he was failing it. Either way, it was a burden.

If a man were going to Wall Street every day in an expensive suit, Italian shoes, the finest overcoat money could buy, and he was just dressing that way because it was a convention, he didn't think it identified him at all, he would be freer than the monk, though the monk was wearing humble robes. Monastic life hadn't freed that man. It had become one more trap.

The final question of this practice, and of all spiritual life, is, Who are you? At the beginning you answer with conventional ideas about yourself. But as you look at them carefully, they don't stand up. They come and go, empty of an essential core. As they fade away, you come into contact with something that has tremendous depth and space, that is very alive. It's a vast extraordinary space that can be lived in and from, but it is unnameable. As soon as you name it - and the ego gets hold of it - it shrinks. You're just a small person once again.

You know, I want to pay tribute here to the role of faith in meditative practice. The kind of faith I'm talking about is a confidence in the reality of that unnameable something that has "tremendous depth and space." It is real. And it is so much better than an idealized self-image that can only contribute to either false pride or inner torment. Letting go of the image brings true liberation. Yes, have faith in this truth.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Friday Cat Blogging!

This is Sox who lives next door to Paul and Adrienne Rogers. Here's what Paul wrote:

This is the next door cat Sox. He wishes he could come in and hang out with us and eat some of our food, but Tux says this is his house and most certainly his food so he will not even allow visits.

(You can see a picture of Tux over on Child of Illusion!)

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

Cultivating steadfastness

Nobody coaches the meditation practitioner through difficulties quite like Pema Chodron! Here's a passage from her book, The Places That Scare You, on dealing with restlessness:

In meditation we discover our inherent restlessness. Sometimes we get up and leave. Sometimes we sit there but our bodies wiggle and squirm and our minds go far away. This can be so uncomfortable that we feel it's impossible to stay. Yet this feeling can teach us not just about ourselves but also about what it is to be human. All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don't want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. it goes against the grain to stay present. These are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.

The pith instruction is, Stay...stay... just stay. Learning to stay with ourselves in meditation is like training a dog. If we train a dog by beating it, we'll end up with an obedient but very inflexible and rather terrified dog. The dog may obey when we say "Stay!" "Come!" "Roll over!" and "Sit up!" but he will also be neurotic and confused. By contrast, training with kindness results in someone who is flexible and confident, who doesn't become upset when situations are unpredictable and insecure.

So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to "stay" and settle down. Are we experiencing restlessness? Stay! Discursive mind? Stay! What's for lunch? Stay! What am I doing here? Stay! I can't stand this another minute! Stay! That is how to cultivate steadfastness.

One of the reasons I don't avoid meditation is that I know I will be kind to myself while I'm meditating. It's one of the most important principles I've learned along the way. Make that commitment. Make the commitment to be consistent in compassion toward yourself and you will find yourself looking forward to your practice time.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Deep inner silence

Larry Rosenberg speaks eloquently on inner silence in his book Breath by Breath. Here's one passage on the subject:

Silence is extremely shy. It appears when it wants to and comes only to those who love it for itself. It doesn't respond to calculation, grasping, or demands; it won't respond if you have designs on it or if there is something you want to do with it. It also doesn't respond to commands. You can no more command silence than you can command someone to love you.

There are concentration practices that achieve silence, but that silence is relatively coarse, willed, provisional, and brittle, very much subject to conditions. The silence I'm talking about is much deeper. It awaits us; it can't be grasped for. We don't create it; we find our way into it. But we have to approach it with gentleness, humility and innocence.

The road to silence is filled with obstacles. The major obstacle is ignorance. We don't experience silence because we don't know it exists. And though I am emphasizing the difficulties, it is important to understand that silence is an accessible state for all human beings. It isn't just for hermits who live in caves in the heights of the Himalayas. It is available to everyone.

Perhaps the best way for us to start is simply to give ourselves permission to experience silence. And I like what Rosenberg says about humility. Silence runs from spiritual pride. So simply let go and be willing to experience this deep reality. Slowly you will be able to return again and again and silence will be real for you on a regular basis.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Wednesday life form blogging

Image hosted by Photobucket.com
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

That issue of time again

Here's another passage from Larry Rosenberg's Breath by Breath - this one on the perennial issue of finding time for practice:

The often-heard complaint (especially in the modern world) that people don't have time for meditation practice relates to a fundamental misunderstanding. What people mean is that they don't have time to sit, which may or may not be true. They feel that way because they haven't established the true value of sitting. Once they do, they are much more likely to find time for it.

But practice isn't just about sitting and has nothing to do with finding time. Practice is for every moment of your life. Wherever you are, whatever your circumstance, whatever your mental state, that is a perfect moment for practice...
I don't want to pretend that sitting isn't special. It is the place where we have intentionally limited our responsibilities so that we can be with ourselves as we are. We are not talking, eating, working. We are not using our bodies to go somewhere or do something. Even thinking is toppled from its lofty position of authority and seen as just one more phenomenon over which we have no control. We simply sit and get to know ourselves as we are.

You know, we not only are willing to find the time, we become eager to find the time when we truly value ourselves. Realizing that we are ultimately enlightened beings will make us want to wake up to that reality no matter what it takes. Remember who and what you are deep within and the motivation to practice will be there!

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Lion mind

Larry Rosenberg tells this marvelous story in his book on insight meditation entitled, Breath by Breath:

One time when I was visiting a friend, he kept playing with his dog, throwing a plastic bone for the dog to go fetch. It not only wasn't a real bone, it wasn't even a convincing fake; pieces of meat were painted on the plastic. Yet no matter how many times he threw the bone, the dog ran after it, with great excitement. He kept chasing this plastic bone, which had no nourishment whatsoever, as if it could somehow satisfy him. Suddenly I realized: that's my mind, chasing after thoughts. The mind doesn't think it's chasing a plastic bone with pieces of meat painted on it, of course. It thinks it's pursuing something that will have a vital effect on its life. But if we look more closely at the objects that the mind chases, we notice a similar lack of nourishment.

In contrast to that, think of a lion. Can you imagine how a lion - sitting in that majestic way they have - would react if you threw him a bone (especially a plastic one)? He wouldn't even notice. He'd just stare at you. Lions stay focused on the source. That's the attitude we need to have, sitting with that deep calm, that steadiness of purpose, not chasing after every bone that flies our way. We need to develop lion mind.

Really making a commitment to bring the mind back to the meditative support is what will give us this quality of mind. So practice makes a difference. An enormous difference. I like the idea of "lion mind". There's an invincibility to that image that reminds me of the importance of aspiration. Let's try using the lion as an initial visualization and see what happens!

Monday, May 23, 2005

The center of your being

There is no need to run outside for better seeing. Nor to peer from a window. Rather reside in the center of your being. The more you leave it, the less you learn.

Trusting the wind

Here's a wonderful story as told by Sharon Franquemont in her book, You Already Know What To Do:

Once upon a time, a great river rushed with all its power into the desert, but its roaring presence only evaporated into the desert sands. The harder the river rushed, the more it disappeared. In its struggle, the river heard the voice of the wind saying, "Let go and trust me." The angry river rejected the wind. "I can't trust you. I am a mighty river and very determined. I can't even see you." The river continued to struggle; the wind continued to whisper, "Let go and trust me." Finally, the exhausted river gave up and, not knowing what else to do, turned itself over to the wind. Then the wind swooped down and gently picked the river up into the sky, where it disappeared into the air. The wind carried the river across the desert, and let it go against the mountain ranges on the other side. The river's waters fell to the Earth. Soon the mighty river flowed again for all to see and enjoy. When the river trusted, it learned that the best and only course for its re-emergence abided in what appeared to be nothing.

The key here is willingness. Letting go is excruciatingly difficult when we're not willing and amazingly easy when we are.

Monday Meditative Picture Blogging

Image hosted by Photobucket.com
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

Sunday, May 22, 2005

One of my favorite prayers

Back in 1996, when I was installed as solitary-in-residence for the Diocese of Oklahoma, the bishop gave me a wonderful little volume entitled, Prayers edited by Peter Washington. It has prayers from all the different religious traditions throughout the world. By far, my favorite prayer in the collection is this one:

May there be peace in the higher regions; may there be peace in the firmament; may there be peace on earth. May the waters flow peacefully; may the herbs and plants grow peacefully, may all the divine powers bring unto us peace. The supreme Lord is peace. May we all be in peace, peace, and only peace; and may that peace come unto each of us.
Shanti - Shanti - Shanti!

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Finding inner and outer space

I want to share another passage from Spirit of the Home by Jane Alexander. This one is about finding our own space - even if it is only within:

Perhaps you don't have the luxury of a whole room to yourself. It doesn't matter - you can still find a place for the soul in the smallest space, in the busiest, most totally shared home. You just have to think in a more interior way - and be rather more inventive.

In Russian orthodox spirituality there is a concept known as "poustina". Poustina can mean either a physical place, a retreat, or the secret place inside you - the hermitage within. It's a lovely thought: that even in the busiest, most crowded place, no-one can enter into our own internal poustina - unless we invite them. This sense of creating an internal sanctuary is how people have survived against incredible odds and is something worth remembering if, by now, you are moaning that you cannot possibly create a sanctuary - because you simply don't have the space.

In actual fact, few of us are so impoverished of space that we cannot find a single corner to call our own. Think laterally. Are there any spaces in your home which are neglected or not used? Do you have a dusty attic which could be transformed into a private retreat? Or a cellar or shed?....[O]ther places can be...soothing: a particular step on the stairs, the kitchen table when everyone has gone; a rug in front of the fire; the bathroom or laundry room... So, for the sake of your soul, reclaim a chair, or a corner - just somewhere which has your name stamped on it; where others knock before entering or ask before using.

Visualization can help with the inner sanctuary. Create a place you can go to in your imagination and use that for the hermitage within. It might be a cabin in the woods or a hut on the beach or a monastery in the wilds. Practice "visiting" this place during some of your meditation time so that you can go there easily whenever you need to.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Home as Sanctuary

One of the slogans of the Seven Points of Mind Training indicates that we have a responsibility to "create conditions conducive to practice". One of the most effective things we can do is to create space in our home for practice or to have the sense that our home is a blessed place for us. This involves making decisions about where we live and how we organize our living space. Today I happened to pick up a book I had forgotten I have called, Spirit of the Home: How to Make Your Home a Sanctuary by Jane Alexander. Here's one suggestion that I came across for increasing awareness about how our surroundings affect us:

If you're not sure how sound affects you, try living without it for a day or a weekend. Go on a sound fast - no television, no radio, no music, no inane chatter. If you share with people, see if you can manage a day in quiet companionship - if you need to say anything obviously you should, but try to cut out conversation for sound's sake. This can be a very interesting exercise. When I tried it - on a five day retreat - I realized for the first time just how important silence and peace is to me. I also realized how much rubbish I speak just to be polite and sociable! Being silent can also be a real eye-opener on even deeper levels. When you stop the external chatter and noise, the mind can focus inwards and sometimes you can find quite unexpected insights appearing.

Then there are soothing and healing sounds that can help us. Ms. Alexander makes these simple suggestions:

* Search out simple sound-making equipment. Bells can be tinny and irritating or mellow and stunning. Find one whose voice suits you. Tibetan singing bowls make eerily mystical sounds. Drums echo our heartbeat - in Native American tradition you could make your own drum or buy one which "calls" to you. Drumming can be very grounding and calming after a hard day's work.
* Introduce natural sounds into your home: wind chimes, waterfalls and so on.
* If you live in a very noisy neighborhood, invest in some recordings of soothing sounds from nature - and maybe a pair of earphones. The sound of birdsong, dolphins, waterfalls and the sea can give an instant sense of soothing peace...
* Try singing or making sounds yourself. Most of us forget how to sing but it can be truly liberating. sing along with the radio when you're on your own; sing old songs or make up your own; chant sacred sounds like "omm" or vowel sounds like "aah", "eee" and "ooo". See how they affect you. Sing everywhere and anytime: in the garden or the bathroom; in the wind and rain; to the dawn and the dusk. Just sing.

Of course, don't forget simply using sound as a support for meditation. Give relaxed attention to whatever sounds are present without discrimination. When the mind wanders, gently bring it back to sound. I experience this as a very soothing form of meditation - especially if I'm in a situation in which the sounds present would seem like a distraction with some other meditative support.

Friday Cat Blogging!

Here's Edgar looking very pleased with himself!
Image hosted by Photobucket.com
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

Thursday, May 19, 2005

We are all connected

Naomi Ozaniec talks about global consciousness in her book, Meditation for Beginners:

Meditation may appear to be a solitary pursuit even when it is performed in groups. However, far from being an isolating or self-centered activity, meditation brings expansion and connection to others. Meditation inescapably brings the world into your heart. Meditators have always known this.

We live upon one world and breathe one air, yet we consciously divide all that we have into "mine" and "not mine". We are convinced by the illusion of separation. We are steadfastly wedded to territorial principles. Global consciousness, on the other hand, unites where we choose to divide, connects where we choose to isolate and unifies where we choose to fragment.

Mystics through the ages have recorded the personal experience of unity and affirmed the wholeness of all creation. Such individuals were not informed by global communication or holistic philosophy. Yet testaments of mystical experience from all traditions and times tell us what we have only recently come to know, that Life is a Unity which takes on the appearance of a myriad of forms.

So don't ever worry that your meditative practice is selfish. It will only bring you more and more into an appreciative compassion toward others.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The lotus of enlightenment

Perhaps you remember from Foundations class how the lotus blossom is the symbol of spiritual practice. Here's an exercise I found in Meditation for Beginners by Naomi Ozaniec:

Allow yourself to enter a meditative state. Imagine that you sit beside a shallow lotus pool. the surface of the pool is dotted with lotus plants. Most are closed, tightly budded upon the surface. A few are beginning to open, revealing a glimpse of creamy white beauty. One lotus catches your eye. It is in full bloom; its many petals lay open to the sunlight. It is quite beautiful.

You allow your eye to descend into the waters beneath the surface. The waters are shallow and you see that these wonderful plants are all rooted in the mud. Each plant must make its way to the surface. Only then can it flower, revealing its true beauty. Sustained in the darkness, nourished by the depths, the lotus root will generate a humble shoot which will rise to the heights to reveal its natural beauty. Here is the symbol of the enlightened mind reaching up for light, awakening from the depths, fulfilling its own nature. Record your own thoughts.

When we are out in the world, we should not forget to bring the meditational state of mind to bear. Full concentration, full awareness and total mindfulness enrich all life activities whether at work or in leisure time. Meditation is not a withdrawal from life, but a way of deepening our experience of life.
I love the symbol of the lotus. It reminds me that the dark, murky, seemingly slimy aspects of my consciousness are not to be despised or rejected. They provide material for my practice.

Wednesday life form blogging

Doesn't the swan look like it's laughing?
Image hosted by Photobucket.com
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

A mindfulness exercise

Here's an exercise I found in Meditation for Beginners by Naomi Ozaniec:

Ideally the exercise of mindfulness should fill the whole day. This is not practical outside strictly regulated conditions. Being mindful for even an hour will give you the flavor of this approach.

The subject for this meditation will be the body itself. Become fully aware of your bodily posture, paying particular attention to the four basic postures of going, standing, sitting and lying down. These will naturally flow one into the other as you move. Become aware of the posture you have adopted, and of any change that takes place including the intention to change position. Also note any sensation connected with each posture. The aim is simply to note what is happening continuously and simply.

You might like to note how often your attention wandered away from the task in hand, and any feelings that this simple exercise evoked for you.

I think you can tell that this is a mindfulness practice you can do anytime, anywhere throughout your day. It's a wonderful way of checking in with yourself and bringing the mindfulness attitude to all your other activities.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Monday Meditative Picture Blogging

Two different people gave me these two tiny nuns and they make a pair!
Image hosted by Photobucket.com
Photo by Cynthis Burgess

Resistance to practice

Charlotte Joko Beck, in her book, Nothing Special, takes a look at how living in concepts instead of experience relates to our lack of patience with ourselves:

Nasrudin, the Sufi sage and fool, was once in his flower garden, sprinkling bread crumbs over everything. When a neighbor asked him why, he said, "To keep the tigers away." The neighbor said, "But there aren't any tigers within a thousand miles of here." And Nasrudin said, "Effective, isn't it?"
Good practice always entails moving through our concepts. Concepts are sometimes useful in daily life: we have to use them. But we need to recognize that a concept is just a concept and not reality and that this recognition or knowledge slowly develops as we practice.
To do the work of practice, we need endless patience, which also means recognizing when we have no patience. So we need to be patient with our lack of patience: to recognize when we don't want to practice is also part of practice. Our avoidance and resistance are part of the conceptual framework that we're not yet ready to look at. It's okay not to be ready. As we become ready, bit by bit, a space opens up, and we'll be ready to experience a little more, and then a little more. Resistance and practice go hand in hand. We all resist our practice, because we all resist our lives. And if we believe in concepts instead of experiencing the moment, we're like Nasrudin: we're sprinkling bread crumbs on the flower beds to keep the tigers away.

I've found that regular practice helps remove the need for that extra layer between event and awareness that concepts provided. Directly experiencing the moment helps us bypass the reliance on a general conception or framework on which to hang our experience. Think about it. When you are really experiencing love, you are not thinking about the concept of love, you are experiencing the thing itself. When you have the pure awareness of a glorious sunset, you are not thinking about the concept of a sunset, you are directly experiencing the sunset itself. This is what is meant by letting go of concepts.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

A philosophy of great peace

I want to offer one more posting from the Stoics today. I came upon a passage this morning in the Enchiridion by Epictetus that has really given me great consolation over the years. It offers an amazing insight into why some people misuse or slander others:

When any person treats you ill or speaks ill of you, remember that he does this because he thinks that it is his duty. It is not possible then for him to follow that which seems right to you, but that which seems right to himself. Accordingly if he is wrong in his opinion, he is the person who is hurt, for he is the person who has been deceived; for if a person shall suppose the true proposition to be false, it is not the proposition which is hindered but the person who has been deceived about it. If you proceed then from these opinions, you will be mild in temper to him who reviles you: for say on each occasion, "It seemed so to him."

It seemed so to him. It seemed so to her. That's a way of not making it "all about me" isn't it? Part of responding skillfully to mistreatment is to find a way to break out of our narcissism; being able to see things from the other person's point of view (even if we're sure that point of view is wrong) will certainly help.

I like to pair the above passage with a short quote of Marcus Aurelius - who was greatly influenced by Epictetus:

The best way of avenging yourself is not to become like the wrong-doer.

Can you imagine what a different world we would have if that bit of advice were widely followed? We can train ourselves to follow it, no matter how counter-cultural that commitment may be. The very real danger is always that we will become what we despise. Letting go of anger and hatred will prevent that great ironic reversal from taking place.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Complaining is non-acceptance

Here's a quote I just discovered by Eckhart Tolle:

See if you can catch yourself complaining in either speech or thought, about a situation you find yourself in, what other people do or say, your surroundings, your life situation, even the weather. To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself a victim. Leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.

I really like his affirmation of action. Leaving a situation is usually an option even if it is an option that carries with it certain difficulties. But if we can't or won't leave the situation, then the way to inner peace and happiness is acceptance. And even if we leave, acceptance is still necessary: we accept that the healthy thing for us to have done was to leave.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Friday Cat Blogging!

Someone gave me this meditating cat quite a few years ago.
Image hosted by Photobucket.com
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

The wisdom to know the difference

Most people know the Serenity Prayer in which we ask for the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. That is what the philospher Epictetus is talking about at the very beginning of his Enchiridion, or Manual:

Of things, some are in our power and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement towards a thing, desire, turning from a thing; and in a word, whatever are our own acts. Not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. And the things in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint nor hindrance: but the things not in our power are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the power of others. Remember then that if you think the things which are slavish by nature to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will blame both gods and humans: but if you think that only which is your own to be your own, and if you think that what is another's as it really is, belongs to another, no one will ever compel you, no one will hinder you, you will never blame any person, you will accuse no person, you will do nothing involuntarily (against your will), no person will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer any harm.

This is not saying that bad things will not happen. It is saying you will not interpret something that is not in your power to be ultimately harmful. This is a philosophy that makes a person spiritually invincible no matter what another person says or does -- no matter what might happen through nature.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Everything is the best

Many years ago, I found a little book entitled, "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and pre-Zen Writings complied by Paul Reps. My favorite story of all time is this one:

When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.

"Give me the best piece of meat you have," said the customer.

"Everything in my shop is the best," replied the butcher. "You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best."

At these words Banzan became enlightened.

Just for today, try letting go of the hierarchies we build in the mind for the purpose of judging and ranking other people, ourselves and our experiences. Instead, let every encounter be the best encounter. Let every experience be the best experience. Let every moment be the best moment. Then watch frustration and resentment just dissolve.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Wednesday life form blogging

I just love its sweet face!
Image hosted by Photobucket.com
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

The true meaning of life

We are visitors on this planet. We are here for ninety, a hundred years at the very most. During that period we must try to do something good, something useful with our lives. Try to be at peace with yourself and help others share that peace. If you contribute to other people's happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.
-- The Dalai Lama

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Tuesday meditative picture blogging

I forgot the Monday meditative picture blogging yesterday so I'm making up for it today!
Image hosted by Photobucket.com
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

This is a photograph of a cutout that hangs in my office. I commissioned it years ago from an artist friend of mine to illustrate a true story. Ryonen was a Japanese noblewoman who was born in 1797. She decided to enter monastic life over the strenuous objections of her family. Unfortunately, no Zen master would accept her, all of them saying that her great beauty would only cause trouble. Finally Ryonen (the name means "to realize clearly") took a hot iron and held it to her face, destroying her beauty forever and the first master to whom she had applied then accepted her as a disciple. She has always been to me an example of aspiration and faithful perseverence.

Monday, May 09, 2005


Here's another passage from Nothing Special by Charlotte Joko Beck:

In ordinary thinking, the mind always has an objective, something it's going to get. If we're caught in that wanting, then our awareness of reality is gone. We've substituted a personal dream for awareness. Awareness doesn't move, doesn't bury itself in dreams; it just stays as it is.

At first, the distinction between ordinary thinking and awareness seems subtle and elusive. As we practice, however, the distinction gradually becomes clearer; we begin to notice more and more how our thoughts are occupied with trying to get somewhere and how we become caught in them so that we fail to notice what's really present in our lives.

My own meditation teacher, Rob Nairn, has said that meditation is "knowing what's happening while it's happening no matter what it is." This is awareness. Thinking about what is happening, however, is different. Letting go of thoughts that arise and bringing the mind back to the meditative support over and over trains the mind in simple awareness so that we do, indeed, notice what is really present.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

The deep satisfaction of practice

I found another passage from Nothing Special by Charlotte Joko Beck I'd like to share with you. I commend this to you if you've ever found meditative practice to be tedious. Beck offers another way to look at it:

In a way, practice is fun: to look at my own life and be honest about it is fun. It is difficult, humiliating, discouraging; yet in another sense, it's fun - because it's alive. To see myself and my life as they truly are is joy. After all the struggle and avoiding and denying and going the other way, it is deeply satisfying for a second to be there with life as it is. The satisfaction is the very core of ourselves. Who we are is beyond words - just that open power of life, manifesting constantly in all sorts of interesting things, even in our own misery and struggles. The hassle is both horrendous and wholesome...

As we patiently do this work, we come to a different sense of our lives. Recently, I had a call from a student who lives some distance away who told me, "I can't believe it. Most of the time my life is very enjoyable." I thought,yes, that's great, but... life is enjoyable. An enjoyable life includes heartache, disappointment, grief. That's part of the flow of life, to let such experiences be. They come and go and the grief finally dissolves into something else. But if we are complaining and holding on and being rigid (which is what we like to do), then we have very little enjoyment. If we have been aware of the process of our lives, including moments that we hate, and are just aware of our hating - "I don't want to do it, but I'll do it anyway" - that very awareness is life itself. When we stay with that awareness, we don't have that reactive feeling about it; we're just doing it. Then for a second we begin to see, "Oh, this is terrible - and at the same time, it's really quite enjoyable." We just keep going.... That's enough.

Charlotte Joko Beck is a Zen teacher. The Zen folks love paradox and this passage is a good example. For something to be terrible and enjoyable at the same time is actually quite possible and is a very rich way to live.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Stability of heart

And once we have the condition of peace and joy in us, we can afford to be in any situation. Even in the situation of hell, we will be able to contribute our peace and serenity. The most important thing is for each of us to have some freedom in our heart, some stability in our heart, some peace in our heart. Only then will we be able to relieve the suffering around us.
--- Thich Nhat Hanh

What about justice?

Ever since we were children, the judgment of "It's not fair!" has marred our happiness. Are you surprised that I called that a judgment? Well, don't we typically suffer when we complain about unfairness? So the problem is our attachment to things being "fair".

Charlotte Joko Beck speaks to the issue of justice in her wonderful book, Nothing Special:

In spiritual maturity, the opposite of injustice is not justice, but compassion. Not me against you, not me straightening out the present ill, fighting to gain a just result for myself and others, but compassion, a life that goes against nothing and fulfills everything.

All anger is based upon judgments, whether of ourselves or others. The idea that our anger must be expressed for us to be healthy is no more than a fantasy. We need to let these judgmental, angry thoughts pass before our witnessing, impersonal self*. We gain nothing by expressing them. It is a mistake to suppose that our unexpressed anger hurts us and that we must express it and thereby hurt others.

The best answer to injustice is not justice, but compassion, or love. You ask, "But what am I to do in this difficult situation? I must do something!" Yes, but what? Always our practice must be the basis for our actions. An appropriate and compassionate response does not come from a fight for justice, but from that radical dimension of practice that "passeth all understanding." It's not easy. Perhaps we must go through agonized weeks or months of sitting. But the resolution will come. No person can provide this resolution for us; it can be provided only by our true self - if we open wide the gates of practice.

I've given you the Amazon link for Nothing Special. You might like to click through and read the reviews.

* What Beck calls "witnessing impersonal self" is what we call "observer consciousness" at the Center. "Impersonal" in this case means we do not impose the preferences of our personality on what we are observing.

Friday, May 06, 2005

The way of wisdom

As many of you know, I moved recently. And I'm still in the process of unpacking and organizing my books. Today I came across a little volume that has traveled with me for years all over the world. It combines the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the Enchiridion of Epictetus - two of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Rome. Theirs was a philosophy of complete acceptance. Stoicism has much in common with the meditative principles of accepting without judgment and seeing suffering as coming from attachment.

So I offer you two quotes from Epictetus:

Remember that it is not the one who reviles you or strikes you who insults you, but it is your opinion about these things as being insulting. When then a person irritates you, you must know that it is your own opinion which has irritated you.

If it should ever happen to you to be turned to externals in order to please some person, you must know that you have lost your purpose in life.

Powerful words. Inspiring words to confront our "people pleasing" tendencies and our attachment to being respected and admired.

I have always experienced consolation from the prayer at the very end of the Enchiridion:

Lead me, O Zeus, and thou O Destiny,
The way that I am bid by you to go:
To follow I am ready. If choose not,
I make myself a wretch, and still must follow.
But those who nobly yield unto necessity,
We hold them wise, and skilled in things divine.

Cat and dog blogging!

Many of you have heard me talk about Izzy but haven't ever seen her. Well, I was going through old photographs recently and I found two pictures to share with you.

Here are Izzy and Henry settling down for a nap. This is in the old Center - in the room which became Cynthia's office. My futon was there because I had a guest at the time in the upstairs bedroom.
Image hosted by Photobucket.com

And here's Izzy nuzzling Leroy when he was a little kitten. This was taken in the old meditation hall.
Image hosted by Photobucket.com

I'll try to get some new pictures of Izzy for you before too very long!

Thursday, May 05, 2005


The quality of mercy is not strain'd.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes...
-- Shakespeare

Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill will wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings, radiating kindness over the entire world
-- The Buddha (from the Metta Sutra)

Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.
-- St. Paul

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The power of thought

The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character;
So watch the thought and its ways with care,
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings...

As the shadow follows the body,
as we think, so we become.

--- from the Dhammapada
(Sayings of the Buddha)

Wednesday life form blogging

Image hosted by Photobucket.com
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

Life 101

Someone sent me this in an email today. I thought it was worth passing on!

Life 101

Work hard. Then play, play, play!
Laughter is the leading antacid.
Control is an illusion.
When your hands are open to give, they are open to receive.
Kind words cost so little, but mean so much.
Try a different route.
We together can do what two alone cannot.
Focus on what you want, not on what you don't want.
You are always on your way to a miracle.
Life is what's happening today, when we are so busy worrying about the future.
Happiness is a choice.
(1996, Thoughts from the Behavioral Health Services Staff, Tulsa Regional Medical Center, Ardent Health Services.")

My absolute favorite: "Happiness is a choice." When I really became convinced of this, happiness was real for me and has been ever since.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Learning to relax

It will not surprise you to learn that in my work I see a lot of people who suffer from too much stress in their lives. Learning to work skillfully with this predicament is really important for a healthy meditative practice. Learning to relax is a critical component in effective stress management. Akong Tulku Rinpoche addresses this in his marvelous book, Taming the Tiger:

There seem to be two main problems when people try to relax. Some people cannot relax because there is a feeling, "I have to be relaxed" and when the feeling of calmness does not come then a feeling of panic arises. So when we try to do relaxation exercises, it is very important that we do not over-react - whatever happens. Even if we are unable to be calm, just simply accept whatever comes.

The other problem is that when a feeling of relaxation does arise one can get involved with it and consequently attached to it. Happiness and excitement can arise from this relaxation one day but when one comes to do the exercise the next day, one has expectations that a similar feeling should arise. If it does not, again there is a tendency to either panic or become very disappointed. You think - "good feelings arose yesterday, then why not today?" There is a kind of warfare going on with oneself. This is itself an obstacle to relaxation. So the important thing is to have no expectations and to simply accept whatever happens.

The way to relax is to learn how to accept yourself. Let go of any expectations about, "I'm doing this exercise - I should have this result or that result." Instead cultivate the ability to know yourself and be with whatever you are thinking or feeling. Making friends with yourself without fighting yourself - that is the way to find relaxation very easily. To someone whose mind is really mature, they can be very happy wherever they are, whatever happens because they have learned to accept themselves and whatever they experience.

I'm a great believer in self-coaching. When I have a feeling arise that could, if I let it, be a disappointment, I coach myself with the words, "accept without judgment; accept without judgment". I know that adding judgment to the challenging thought or feeling will only bring about more suffering. And of this, I'm unshakably convinced: the prevention and alleviation of suffering in myself or others is truly a good thing. It is the foundation for a life of happiness and compassion.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Monday Meditative Picture Blogging

Here's a wind god that Cynthia found in Eureka Springs. It now lives in her backyard.
Image hosted by Photobucket.com
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

More on anger

Here's a passage from Kathleen McDonald's How to Meditate about dealing with negative energy:

As mindfulness develops we become increasingly sensitive to our negative states of mind such as anger, irritation, pride, depression and so forth. Why are they considered "negative"? It is not that anger or desire are inherently evil or that we should feel ashamed when they arise. It is a matter of seeing them as the delusions that they are, distorted conceptions that paint a false picture of reality. They are negative because they lead to unhappiness and confusion.

Like all your experiences, negative emotions are impermanent, neither fixed nor concrete. They are simply mental energy, like love and joy, whose nature is clear and pure. Sometimes you might feel overwhelmed by them and doubt whether you can ever control your mind at all. But don't worry. Delusions come and go in your mind; they are not you. With proper understanding, every experience, whether positive or negative, can be a constructive step on the path.
I've learned over the years to let go of the need to control my mind in the tight, grasping sense of that word. I actually like the word "tame" a bit better. "Train" is also helpful. But I agree with McDonald that we do eventually learn to "control" the mind but we do it the way a skilled rider "controls" his or her horse. The rider is not "controlling" in a tense or obsessive way. Rather, the rider has trained the horse with acceptance and compassion and affirmation - not with harshness. Then horse and rider become a wonderful team as they engage the adventure that is life.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Afflictive emotions

Here's another passage from the Dalai Lama's words in The Art of Happiness:

Generally speaking there are many different kinds of afflictive or negative emotions, such as conceit, arrogance, jealously, desire, lust, closed-mindedness, and so on. But out of all these, hatred and anger are considered to be the greatest evils because they are the greatest obstacles to developing compassion and altruism, and they destroy one's virtue and calmness of mind.
We cannot overcome anger and hatred simply by suppressing them. We need to actively cultivate the antidotes to hatred: patience and tolerance. ...[I]n order for you to be able to successfully cultivate patience and tolerance you need to generate enthusiasm [and] a strong desire to seek it. The stronger your enthusiasm, the greater your ability to withstand the hardships that you encounter in the process. When you are engaged in the practice of patience and tolerance, in reality, what is happening is you are engaged in a combat with hatred and anger. Since it is a situation of combat, you seek victory, but you also have to be prepared for the
possibility of losing that battle. So while you are engaged in combat, you should not lose sight of the fact that in the process, you will confront many problems. You should have the ability to withstand these hardships. Someone who gains victory over hatred and anger through such an arduous process is a true hero.

It is important in engaging a metaphor like that of combat not to forget that we always need to have compassion for ourselves. Remember, the anger or hatred comes from attachment. The attachment itself is not our true nature. It is a function of the ego. It is fine to want to dissolve the attachment and to see that as true combat. But we are not fighting against ourselves. Remember the slogan from the Seven Points of Mind Training: "Begin the exchange of compassion with yourself". Never lose sight of the fact that all your training is for the purpose of bringing happiness to yourself - never unhappiness!