Sunday, January 31, 2010

5 Ways to Get in Trouble

Very much enjoyed Gil's talk yesterday, during all day retreat at IMC. Topic was the 5 Hindrances. I have highlighted the part that really spoke to me.

My notes from Gil's talk:
It is important to come to terms with 5 hindrances ('that which cover over'), so that mind is no longer fragmented. Hindrances are extra baggage that needs to fall away in order for mind to be able to make sound choices. The hindrances are:
  1. sensual desire
  2. ill will
  3. anxiety and restlesness
  4. sloth and torpor
  5. doubt
Each of us needs to become expert at how hindrances operate within us. Look at hindrances as an opportunity to be practiced directly with. 
One way to hold one's ground, and have upper hand over hindrances is to hold attention on an object, such as breath, going back to breath over and over.
Another approach is to turn to hindrance itself. Note this is very different than focusing on the object of the hindrance, which is what we usually do. Rather turn attention 180 degrees and look at hindrance itself. For example if feeling desire or aversion, rather than indulging fantasies about object of desire, take a look at what if feels like to be desiring. This leads us to realize that desiring itself is unpleasant. Same with ill will. Look directly at what it feels like to be ill willing, and you will see what cost ill will exerts on you. This is very significant movement, away from what we are thinking, desiring, having doubt, anxious, or having confusion about. Turning instead towards what it is like to be a thinker, or someone who desires, doubts, is anxious, or confused. When feeling anxious about something for instance - ping pong meditation - the more clearly we are able to feel the anxiety, the less fuel it has to go on. 
Desire and ill will are primary forces, deeply rooted in human psyche, particularly the desire for sensual pleasures. This is why it is such a hard lesson to learn that happiness does not come from pleasure. Pleasure is only skin deep, and dependent on how our nerves get stimulated. The happiness we are looking for runs deep and does not depend on pleasure. Meditation practice is a way of separating ourselves from temptations.
Breaking into sweat meditations are when we are feeling so much energy, and resistance coursing through, and yet sit in posture that embodies peace, just like the Buddha. 
Hindrances are opportunities to develop muscles of concentration, patience, letting go, compassion, insight. 
Sloth and torpor are different from tiredness. Refer instead to discouragement, shutting down, lethargy, boredom. Often a response to feeling of being challenged, a way of avoiding. Boredom is strictly an activity of the mind. Object is only boring in evaluation mind makes of it. If mind stop its activity, the same situation ceases to be boring. 
We take on hindrances as part of the path, the very stuff practice is about. Engaging hindrances with mindfulness is a very adult thing to do.
Doubt is most dangerous, very deeply rooted in psyche, most likely to get you to leave practice. It has most powerful camouflage, that says "This is the truth".
As you get to practice with hindrances more and more, they stop being hindrances. It's not the forces, it's the way we get hindered by them that get us.  
"Never make a decision when you are in the grip of hindrances."
Love having such clear directions for meditation.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

My Own Clinging, My Own Doing

Quick, down to tightness in stomach. Awareness zeroing in on the pain, not shying away, as U Pandita's words of urging, start dancing in my mind - from In This Very Life, chapter on Cutting Through to Ultimate Reality by Sharpening the Controlling Faculties:
If in meditation you are able to put on your glasses of concentration, you will be surprised at the variety of changes taking place in what would appear to be a stagnant and uninteresting spot of pain. The deeper the concentration, the deeper your understanding of pain. You will be more and more enthralled the more clearly you can see that these painful sensations are in a constant state of flux, from one sensation to another, changing, diminishing, growing stronger, fluctuating and dancing. Concentration and mindfulness will deepen and sharpen. At times, when the show becomes utterly fascinating, there is a sudden and unexpected end to it, as though the curtain is dropped and the pain just disappears miraculously. 
Exploring painful place. Holding on to what? many things, everything. All concentrated in tiny spot in body, sacred gateway. Joseph Goldstein's mantra, 'nothing to have', comes up, and so does Gil's image of tight hand releasing its grip. U Pandita, Joseph G, Gil, all three wise men supporting me in my investigation. Soon, I start feeling great joy, as I realize the power of no longer being passive victim of tightness, and of instead, taking responsibility for my active role in creating it in the first place.

Tightness gives way all of a sudden to neutral sensation in the chest, soon leading to involuntary shaking of body, sideways at first, then back and forth. Waves of energy rising up and down the spine, just like few days ago. 

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Wisdom of Tight Stomach

Reminded by U Pandita in his book, In this Very Life, that meditation is best conducted in a very quiet place, I seized early morning opportunity to sit when the house was empty. All to the joy of meeting self, undisturbed, I settled in usual black chair, making sure body was happy, and closed my eyes. Quick, breath did its job of taking me to place of quiet and contentment, where thoughts, and other surface phenomena couldn't reach. Lingering in blissful state for a while, I started to worry that it might not last. Somebody, something could interrupt . . . A realistic thought laced with not so wise fear, from grasping to what could not be held. Stomach acknowledged with a slight pinch. 

Hard knock on the door, from impatient daughter, needing "to make a copy right now",  jarred me out of meditative state. I retreated into the basement, where I was met by coldness of unheated room. Still perturbed by disruption, and unsure about the appropriateness of my new surroundings, I resumed sitting, nevertheless. And found full blown knot in the stomach. Here we go again, I thought, with all in anger manifesting into stomach. The link was clear, just like yesterday, and the day before. 

Clinging -> Fear, Frustration -> Contracted stomach -> Suffering

And I became incredibly grateful for tight stomach, that let me know whenever I start clinging. A clinging indicator of some sort. 

How things change! I used to dread the unpleasantness of tight stomach. Now I welcome it, as my most trusted friend along the path of liberation. 

Thursday, January 28, 2010

From the Gut

In case I did not get the message yesterday, today brought another dream, another sitting, about grasping. There, deep inside the body, was the tight knot, again. Same one I had felt in the dream, and also during yesterday's dream and meditation. Getting harder, tighter, more painful with each gentle breath. Making very clear, in case I had any doubts still, the connection between grasping and suffering. Right there in the flesh. The more holding on, the tighter the grip, and the more painful the feeling. It got to the point where knot seemed as if it had reached its limit, and more tightness was not a possibility any more. Something had to give. Awareness shifting to joy of being completely present to core experience. Breath relaxing into the joy, and the tightness, side by side. Knot loosening, a bit. Bell ring. Already?

From understanding the Buddha's words, that say "Desire is the root of suffering", to knowing that same truth from the gut, lies a world of difference.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

From Greed to Rapture

Still fresh from powerful sitting experience . . .

It started with just breath, and the imprint, still fresh in body, of contraction in earlier dream state. A dream about greed, and money, and fear of not having enough, and resulting tightness that did not let love in.

Quickly dropping into the depth of self, I meet contraction, right in the center. Feeling it tighten even more, under the gaze of intent awareness. Tightening, tightening, until it burns my whole inside. Oh! the suffering. From grasping, grasping, more and more . . .  Gentle breath, one after the other, enveloping the inferno, with great patience and love. Paradox of joy from great clarity, and the sense of being at one with reality of hell. Leading to burning mass dissolving into internal cavity, gradients evening out between hotness and coolness.  Happy feeling. Noticing subtle clinging to joy itself. And almost at once, strange sensation in body. Energy rising from base of the spine, and moving up in corkscrew motion, all way up. Soon whole upper body starts rocking back and forth, uncontrollably, in small motions. Energy now moving straight up, in waves. I become cylindric column of energy, and rocking body.

Going back to my notes from Gil's Dharma Day last Friday, about 'Rapture', part of his series on Seven Factors of Awakening - parts relevant to today's experience:
Joy is important part of Buddhist practice, and foundation for practice. It makes it easier to encounter our suffering. Paradoxical nature. Interesting juxtaposition, when seeing suffering and being happy. Often times, energy of mind and attention is fragmented, and drains us. Deep contentment and joy come when energy of attention is settled. Joy can then bubble up from within and fills us. Leading to concentration, energies being unified and flowing easily
Buddha's expected ways of having joy for renunciates:
  1. practice, knowing path of liberation
  2. freedom from not having mind that has mind of its own
  3. being secure enough in oneself to be able to share success of others
  4. joy of meditation when mind is deeply concentrated; meditative joy has a lot to do with being absorbed into object of contemplation.
  5. mind finds tranquillity 
Importance of being relaxed, and being open, allowing what needs to move through. Looking into currents of experience, feelings, energy.
5 different physical manifestations of meditative joy/rapture:
  1. goose bumps
  2. flashes
  3. waves
  4. light
  5. equalized
All with varying degrees of intensity. Eventually one becomes tired of it, and starts feeling ordinary again. This helps detach, and move to the next level of change. 
I appreciate Gil's ordinary approach to rapture. A normal experience, just like any other along the path. No more, no less. Not be clinged to, not to be pushed away.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Joy of Still, Flowing Water

Ajahn Chah's wisdom has been seeping through my mind, helping me see with greater clarity what true meditation is really about - from Living Dhamma, chapter on Still, Flowing Water:
You must allow your mind to fully experience things, allow them to flow and consider their nature. How should you consider them? See them as Transient, Imperfect and Ownerless. It's all uncertain. "This is so beautiful, I really must have it." That's not a sure thing. "I don't like this at all"... tell yourself right there, "Not sure!" Is this true? Absolutely, no mistake. But just try taking things for real..."I'm going to get this thing for sure"... You've gone off the track already. Don't do this. No matter how much you like something, you should reflect that it's uncertain.
Some kinds of food seem so delicious, but still you should reflect that it's not a sure thing. It may seem so sure, it's so delicious, but still you must tell yourself, "not sure!" If you want to test out whether it's sure or not, try eating your favorite food every day. Every single day, mind you. Eventually you'll complain, "This doesn't taste so good anymore." Eventually you'll think, "Actually I prefer that kind of food." That's not a sure thing either! You must allow things to flow, just like the in and out breaths. There has to be both the in breath and the out breath, the breathing depends on change. Everything depends on change like this.
. . . Start the practice for your own mind and body, seeing them as impermanent. Everything else is the same. Keep this in mind when you think the food is so delicious... you must tell yourself..."Not a sure thing!" You have to slug it first. But usually it just slugs you every time, doesn't it? If you don't like anything you just suffer over it. This is how things slug us. "If she likes me, I like her," they slug us again. You never get a punch in! You must see it like this. Whenever you like anything just say to yourself, "This is not a sure thing!" You have to go against the grain somewhat in order to really see the Dhamma.
. . . While sitting in meditation, some incident might arise. Before that one is settled another one comes racing in. Whenever these things come up, just tell yourself, "not sure, not sure." Just slug it before it gets a chance to slug you.
Now this is the important point. If you know that all things are impermanent, all your thinking will gradually unwind. When you reflect on the uncertainty of everything that passes, you'll see that all things go the same way. Whenever anything arises, all you need to say is, "Oh, another one!"
Have you ever seen flowing water?... have you ever seen still water?... If your mind is peaceful it will be just like still, flowing water. Have you ever seen still, flowing water? There! You've only ever seen flowing water and still water, haven't you? But you've never seen still, flowing water. Right there, right where your thinking cannot take you, even though it's peaceful you can develop wisdom. Your mind will be like flowing water, and yet it's still. It's almost as if it were still, and yet it's flowing. So I call it "still, flowing water." Wisdom can arise here.
This morning I experienced firsthand the joy of still, flowing water. From quiet mind, all into witnessing the succession of phenomena unfolding inside, and my reactions to them. With detached impartiality and wise knowing.

Vignette from morning sitting:
peaceful moment with just breath, pleasure, subtle clinging, awareness of buried suffering from transient nature, detachment, easier transition into subsequent pain in belly, pain, aversion, awareness of temporary nature like anything else, letting go, another quiet break, pleasure again, clinging even less, full knowing of pleasure nature, not as great as it seems, jarring noise, welcomed, including slight aversion (slighter than usual), noise is not mine, another transient phenomena, not worth getting hung up on, pleasure from peace again, . . .
Each moment, a teaching opportunity, a validation of the Four Noble Truths . . .

Monday, January 25, 2010

What Is Left?

Sitting perfectly still,
there was seeing

in and out breath,
sweet birth,
easy death,
endless loop,

and thoughts
passing, quick
in receptive brain
like shooting stars,

and sensations
arising and dying here
and then there,

and feelings,
all kinds
washing away
in succession.

Sitting perfectly still
there was seeing

awareness itself,
with a few bouts
of brokenness

in between,
from mind
in training

mind over mind,
bearing fruit
with flashes of insight
during high times,

no matter left
only empty shell,
without substance.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Clinging Trap

Like any mother, I always refer to my children, as, well, 'my' children. This innocent two-letter word, 'my', is loaded with implications that do not always bode well with the Buddhist way of life. I found out, yesterday.

In the middle of the night, I woke up, with painful emptiness in my core. Soon after, dream helped shed some light. My daughter was coming back home to pick up her belongings. She was with a friend, and was moving out to her friend's house. Just like that. Hardly any words exchanged, . . . Of course, dream is a metaphor for daughter's final step towards full independence as a young adult. Although my mind knows, the heart is having a hard time following, after what feels like a cold break.

Daughter as master teacher, dispelling long held illusion that she is 'mine' . . .

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Wisdom of No Doubt

Joy of sitting in completely quiet house. Enjoying the rhythm of just breath, and going down quick, to place deep in the center, where body and mind fade into complete stillness. Nice, very nice . . . Half-way through, creeping thought of 'So what?', coupled with feeling of boredom, and wish to end. Wise mind intervenes, to not let doubt do its dirty work,  and replace it instead with patience, and determination. One more breath, one more breath, . . . each time stretching waning concentration, amidst passing thoughts. Until bell rings, almost too soon.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Most Wonderful Meditation

The thoughts kept coming, disjointed, from part in the brain that obviously did not belong to 'me' . . . Efforts to go back to the breath, over and over, seemed almost vain. Still, I kept at it. Inside was emptiness, not the kind referred to by the Buddha. No, rather a formless state, same one that prompted me to hug pillow in the middle of the night. A void, asking to be filled. Lots of craving there. Body was protesting also, with pain jumping around from feet, to back, to shoulders, to neck. . . Mindfully, I slightly adjusted position, several times. Relief was temporary at best. In its place, suffering. I turned attention to the heart, wondering what kind of emotions might lie there. Elusive at first, hiding under seemingly absence of feeling, I found, irritation, around the edges. Irritation about my inability to control monkey mind. Irritation about the big void. Irritation about the physical pain. Irritation about the irritation.

Greater than the irritation, and the wish to end, though, was the love that urged me to keep on sitting, and not abandon myself in the midst of extreme unpleasantness. I felt as if sitting with most dear friend. Leaving her, just when she needed me the most, would have amounted to a terrible betrayal.

There was something else also. The satisfaction from newly acquired knowledge, fresh from the direct experience. A deeper insight about the autonomous nature of spontaneous mind, and body, and heart, that led me to wanting to seek refuge into wise mind even more.

All in all, a most wonderful meditation.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Not So Fast

Washing dishes, mind not completely on the task, those thoughts came to me. Hey, I am doing pretty well. Relationships are falling in their place, concentration is getting easier and easier, mindfulness is more sustained, insights are coming in drove, . . . I get it! Feedback from my Dharma friends  seems to confirm.

Then I remembered this teaching, straight from the Buddha's mouth - from In the Buddha's Words, as edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi:
So, this spiritual life, monks, does not have gain, honor, and renown for its benefit, or the attainment of moral discipline for its benefit, or the attainment of concentration for its benefit, or knowledge and vision for its benefit. But it is this unshakable liberation of mind that is the goal of this spiritual life, its heartwood, its end.
Now, if  I would just wash dishes . . .

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Mindfulness, Wisdom, and Gratitude

During the last stretch of swim practice, gliding effortlessly on my back, I saw boundless blue sky, and drops of water dancing over my head. Basking in gladness, I realized the preciousness of the moment. Transient, like everything else. Mind still fresh from recent contemplations on death and aging, I thought of times to come when old body would no longer be able to cooperate. And I became even more grateful.

Gratitude is coming easy to me, more and more. I am grateful for the smallest things. For breath, for moments without physical pain, for sharp mind, for feeling heart, for family and friends, for time, for finding the Buddha's way, for material comforts, for sensual pleasures, for beauty, for the wisdom lurking behind suffering, . . . I am grateful for everything, pretty much. That's really remarkable, given that I used to be a chronic whiner.

Such a dramatic change deserved investigation. What happened? First is a heightened awareness of all the good and bad that life brings. That, I attribute to my practice of mindfulness, moment to moment. Second is the wisdom of realizing the impermanent nature of each moment. When happy moment happens, I am moved to catch it,  by the memory of times before, when similar happiness was taken away, or the equally potent realization that this too shall pass.

Be mindful. Be wise. Be grateful :)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mind Over Body

This past weekend was a long ordeal of one physical pain after the other. Flu-like symptoms from typhoid shot, layered upon flare-up of chronic lower back-ache, on top of new pain from heel spur. What to do, but give into tiredness, and resulting dullness from mind? I tried to meditate, first sitting, then lying down, but did not have the energy to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time.

Now that I have regained happiness in the body, and alertness of mind, I can investigate further, so that I am better prepared the next time around. In his book, 'Living Dhamma', Ajahn Chah provides the guidance I am looking for. Here are some key excerpts:
We must be able to be at peace with the body, no matter what state it is in. The Buddha taught that we should ensure that it's only the body that is locked up in jail and not the mind be imprisoned along with it. Now as your body begins to run down and wear out with age, don't resist, but also don't let your mind deteriorate along with it. Keep the mind separate. Give energy to the mind by realizing the truth of the way things are. The Lord Buddha taught that this is the nature of the body, it can't be any other way. Having been born it gets old and sick and then it dies. This is a great truth that you are presently witnessing. Look at the body with wisdom and realize this.
. . . So the Buddha taught us to probe and examine the body, from the soles of the feet up to the crown of the head, and then back down to the feet again. Just take a look at the body. What sort of things do you see? Is there anything intrinsically clean there? Can you find any abiding essence? This whole body is steadily degenerating. The Buddha taught us to see that it doesn't belong to us. It's natural for the body to be this way, because all conditioned phenomena are subject to change. How else would you have it? In fact there is nothing wrong with the way the body is. It's not the body that causes suffering, it's wrong thinking. When you see things in the wrong way, there's bound to be confusion.
It's like the water of a river. It naturally flows downhill, it never flows uphill. That's its nature. If a person was to go and stand on the river bank and want the water to flow back uphill, he would be foolish. Wherever he went his foolish thinking would allow him no peace of mind. He would suffer because of his wrong view, his thinking against the stream. If he had right view he would see that the water must inevitably flow downhill, and until he realized and accepted that fact he would be bewildered and frustrated.
The river that must flow down the gradient is like your body. Having been young your body's become old and is meandering towards its death. Don't go wishing it were otherwise, it's not something you have the power to remedy. The Buddha told us to see the way things are and then let go of our clinging to them. Take this feeling of letting go as your refuge. Keep meditating even if you feel tired and exhausted. Let your mind be with the breath. Take a few deep breaths and then establish the attention on the breath, using the mantra word Bud-dho. Make this practice continual. The more exhausted you feel the more subtle and focused your concentration must be, so that you can cope with any painful sensations that arise. When you start to feel fatigued then bring all your thinking to a halt, let the mind gather itself together and then turn to knowing the breath. Just keep up the inner recitation, Bud-dho, Bud-dho.
. . . You can't do anything about the way the body is. You can beautify it a little, make it attractive and clean for a while, like the young girls who paint their lips and let their nails grow long, but when old age arrives, everybody's in the same boat. That's the way the body is, you can't make it any other way. What you can improve and beautify is the mind.
Anyone can build a house of wood and bricks, but the Buddha taught that that sort of home is not our real home, it's only nominally ours. It's home in the world and it follows the ways of the world. Our real home is inner peace. An external, material home may well be pretty but it is not very peaceful. There's this worry and then that, this anxiety and then that. So we say it's not our real home, it's external to us. Sooner or later we'll have to give it up. it's not a place we can live in permanently because it doesn't truly belong to us, it belongs to the world. Our body is the same. We take it to be a self, to be "me" or "mine," but in fact it's not really so at all, it's another worldly home. Your body has followed its natural course from birth, until now it's old and sick, and you can't forbid it from doing that. That's the way it is. Wanting it to be any different would be as foolish as wanting a duck to be like a chicken. When you see that that's impossible — that a duck must be a duck and a chicken must be a chicken, and that the bodies have to get old and die — you will find courage and energy. However much you want the body to go on lasting, it won't do that. 
. . . Even if you don't let go, everything is starting to leave you anyway. Can you see that, how all the different parts of your body are trying to slip away? Take your hair; when you were young it was thick and black. Now it's falling out. It's leaving. Your eyes used to be good and strong but now they're weak, your sight is unclear. When your organs have had enough they leave, this isn't their home. When you were a child your teeth were healthy and firm, now they're wobbly, or you've got false ones. Your eyes, ears, nose, tongue — everything is trying to leave because this isn't their home. You can't make a permanent home in conditions, you can only stay for a short time and then you have to go. It's like a tenant watching over his tiny little house with failing eyes. His teeth aren't so good, his eyes aren't so good, his body's not so healthy, everything is leaving.
. . . So you needn't worry about anything because this isn't your real home, it's only a temporary shelter. Having come into this world you should contemplate its nature. Everything there is is preparing to disappear. Look at your body. Is there anything there that's still in its original form? Is your skin as it used to be? Is your hair? They aren't the same, are they? Where has everything gone? This is nature, the way things are. When their time is up, conditions go their way. In this world there is nothing to rely on — it's an endless round of disturbance and trouble, pleasure and pain. There's no peace.
. . . When you see that there's nothing real or substantial you can rely on you'll feel wearied and disenchanted. Being disenchanted doesn't mean you are averse, the mind is clear. It sees that there's nothing to be done to remedy this state of affairs, it's just the way the world is. Knowing in this way you can let go of attachment, letting go with a mind that is neither happy nor sad, but at peace with conditions through seeing their changing nature with wisdom. Anicca vata sankhara — all conditions are impermanent.
To put it simply, impermanence is the Buddha. If we truly see an impermanent condition we'll see that it's permanent. It's permanent in the sense that its subjection to change is unchanging. This is the permanence that living beings possess. There is continual transformation, from childhood through to old age, and that very impermanence, that propensity to change, is permanent and fixed. If you look at it like this your heart will be at ease. It's not just you who has to go through this, it's everyone
I needed that shot of wisdom. The path is more clear now. While the body may be a lost cause, the mind is not. It is up to me to make peace with the reality of impermanent body, starting now with the contemplation of Ajahn Chah's teachings.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Her Last Gift

My mother has been in my heart a lot, lately. More than I want to admit. The dreams keep coming, announcing her departure for a place of no return. When I call, she still recognizes me, but I can tell, she is getting worse. I have been putting on a good face. Rationalizing, here on this blog, and elsewhere, that there are some happy parts to her illness. As in, she no longer remembers enough to be anxious, like she used to. Or, I get to practice the Buddha's way and be in the moment, for that is all she knows now. I even have this elegant theory, that Alzheimer's is like going full circle, back to the darkness of the unconscious.

You can't fool the heart, however . . . or the body. My stomach has been in a knot for quite some time. And frequent trips to the bathroom, speak of my fear of the inevitability of this  irrevocable loss.  To deny it, is of no use.

Down the fear ladder, I go, and find, right below the fear of loss, the fear of suffering. Wise mind takes the relay, and summons the Four Noble Truths - from In the Buddha's Words, edited by Bikkhu Bodhi:
The noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.
The noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving that leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.
The noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonattachment. 
The noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is the Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. 
Tonight I fully accept my mother's parting gift, the opportunity to practice love without the taint of attachment.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

An Old Blue Purse

It hit me at once. Fear, right in the pit of my stomach. Big, primal. In the midst of cleaning up my closet,  and sorting through all the purses. Some from years back, before I even had the children. Holding the pervenche blue Bottega Veneta bag, I felt pinch in my heart. Flashback to former self, long gone, of young woman, working as ad exec in Chicago. When brands mattered, and I felt completely estranged from myself. Sadness, and grief over years spent in oblivion, not really living. And fear of life turning, inexorably, towards certain death. Not one minute to be wasted, NOT being mindful. This is no joke.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Trying Too Hard

Gil offered this simple concentration technique for our walking meditation:

Use counting as you walk slowly back and forth. Give one count to each step, to actively encourage being present for that one step. Keep track of count as you go, counting up to 5, then start over, this time counting until 6. Then over, until 7. Then over, until 8. Then over, until 9. Then over, until 10. Then back down to 9, then down to 8, then down to 7, . . . then down to 5. Start over from beginning, starting with count up to 5, . . . Throughout, making sure that count is soft and relaxed, but also committed. If you lose count, don't worry, just start again from the beginning. And observe how it carries over into subsequent sitting meditation.

I took Gil's instructions to heart. I was going to make it through the 45', without skipping a count. Counting, counting . . . easy at first, surprising myself by how good I am with this. After a while, boredom, and a glance at the clock. 30 more minutes to go. I concentrate even harder, not enjoying process really. Feeling strain in the brain. Looking at the clock more and more often. Meanwhile keeping up still. I am going to make it to the end. Never mind nascent headache. I notice some people taking a break, and having some tea. Not me! Counting, counting, competitive streak is taking charge. By the end of the session, I inherit dim satisfaction from drill well done, and discomfort from full blown headache.

I tell Gil about the strain from concentrating so hard, and the headache. His answer: "You were trying too hard. It is supposed to have the opposite effect. You should be feeling relaxed afterwards, not more tense." Interesting how I took on the 'committed' part of Gil's instructions, and used it to feed my natural tendency towards competitiveness.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Unpredictability of Being

All day, I had been looking for an island of calm when I could finally sit and be with the fear. The feeling was large, and diffuse, and could teach me a few things, I felt. When the time came, all I found was breath, and thoughts, lots of them. Thoughts about what I had left undone, just before I sat. Slippery thoughts, easy to let slide, until there was only breath, and purring from nearby heater. Mid-afternoon soon brought its usual temptation of tiredness. Something had to be done, like opening eyes, and turning off the heat. Staring in the distance, I wondered  about earlier fear. Where had it gone?

Fear, emptiness, tiredness . . . What was next? Boredom set in, followed by restlessness, and desire to move out of still body. Wish indulged, with slight twist from neck, and a deep sigh. Temporary happiness, soon giving way to desire to sleep. Frustration from not getting my way. I am a craving machine, unpredictable, at the mercy of all sorts of passing thoughts, and emotions, and sensations.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Two Roads

Today, Gil expanded on the topic of intention, this time addressing choices we make not just in the long run, but also moment to moment. Here are my notes - talk was videotaped, so you should be able to view it very soon:
The teachings of the Buddha frequently refer to the two directions we can choose at any moment: either skillful or unskillful. This supposes we understand what is most beneficial. How de we meet every situation? Gil read following poem from Robert Frost:
'The Road Not Taken'
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.  

We always have the choice between two options: to go further into the woods and get more entangled, or to take the road less traveled. Most people choose the first one. We can have people walk the path with us, but eventually, we are the only one who can walk the path. No one can do it for us. There is a poignancy in all the choices we make, including small ones. Analogy of two parallel lines. If one nudges one even slightly, in the long run it can result in the big difference in direction. We can have a role in where our life is going, and the choices we make. How we meet each moment and circumstances.
I shared dream I had with Gil:
I am in a clothing store, shopping with my daughter. In a room off to the side, I find an installation with, on the surface some flint stones with chiseled hooks at the end. I examine them, one by one. The stones are resting on a large black circular rock. I lift the rock and find another smaller black rock underneath. The whole thing is resting on a huge, light colored rock, most of it buried under the ground. On the right, there are also some fragments of a large female Buddha, made out of green marble. Only the face and the hands are visible. 
I ask Gil about persistent weight in my stomach, that shows up every time I sit. Should I keep paying attention to it, or should I ignore it? Weight feels like black stone in my dream. The stone hooks make me think of various clingings I have been examining. Gil wonders how I feel about the huge rock in my dream. I like the solidity, and the vastness. Gil suggests I do not turn away from unpleasantness in the stomach. There is something there for me to learn. I need to stay with it, and experience it within wider context. It may be an important step towards feeling greater compassion for others.

Grateful for teacher who can help me make skillful choices, as here in where to place attention during meditation.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What Is Your Intention?

Gil's last night talk was about intention.  One of those talks that get you thinking, a lot . . .

My notes from the talk:
More important even than meditation, is intention we set for awakening. Discovering the meaning, values, purpose we want to organize our life around. And then have the courage to live it. Remembering that we can choose how to live our life right now. Are we being driven by pleasure, security, approval . . . or something else?
Like the Buddha, everybody has a palace that they need to leave. Need to discover for ourselves what is our palace? and what is outside of that palace? There has to be some turning away from one thing towards another. For that, we need to plum the depth of our intention, in the direction of the heart. By asking the question, what is my intention, over and over, the intention gets refined over time, and becomes purified from the ego. Dropping down every day, finding out the weak links, and our shortcomings. Each time, answering in one sentence. 
Do not settle for first answer. Do not allow fear or responsibilities to get in the way of what might be. Figure out things we need to renounce, leave behind, the palace, so that we can follow through with our intention. This is especially important in our culture, because we are faced with so many choices, that it is easy for our deepest intention to get lost. 
What do you spend your time doing? Human life is very precious. Hence do not waste it in meaningless activities. Instead focus on aspiration for awakening, and heart's innermost desire to be free. Also, talk to other people and share your search. It can be very interesting. 
When Gil asked us to spend a few minutes quiet to define our intention, all I could come up with was: "To love myself completely and love others just as much". Today, with more time to investigate, my attention turns towards the castle. The old barriers inside my body that keep love from flowing freely, in and out. The ego, that keeps making life harder than it needs to be, with its incessant demands for attention, and reassurance, and satisfaction. The need for an illusory security. The intellectual pride, that looks down on the heart . . . So many rooms in the castle, to open and close.

What is your life intention? What is your castle?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Meditation Etiquette

He yawned, loudly, not just once, but repeatedly. And burped, three times. And wiggled around, continuously. He, was the guy sitting next to me during group meditation the other night.  Half way through our 45 minutes of sitting, I found in my heart feelings like hate, and exasperation. The good Buddhist tried to intervene. Got to be compassionate, and equanimous. Maybe the guy had a long day at work, and stomach problems? Maybe he suffered chronic pain? Self-righteous one  would not have it. Can't be making excuses for the dude. He should know better. This is a meditation hall, not a frat house.

Of course, I had to make the best of the experience. After all, what better way to practice equanimity? Sitting, perfectly still, with thoughts, and feelings, and auditory sensations. Noticing all.

Does this sound familiar? Do you have similar tales to tell?

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Love Only a Mother Can Give

Half-way through sitting, I hit a hard patch, made up of impatience, hate, frustration . . . about the persistent impatient, hateful, frustrated one inside. Kind of being hit with a double whammy of suffering. James Baraz's words from yesterday, came whispering, "Have a relaxed, interested, kind attitude towards yourself". I tried, using each breath, as resting place. Wiping the board of thoughts clean, over and over. And renouncing (almost) all velleities of ridding myself of 'it'. Most useful though, was the image of mother holding her child.

As a mom, I had plenty of opportunities to practice over the years, learning to survive* my children's hate, first when they were toddlers, and later during their rebellious teenage years. This is what I have to do, during this phase of my journey on the path.  Hold myself, completely, steadily, regardless. Nobody else can do it for me.

*D.W. Winnicott's word

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Whose Meditation Is It?

It happened before, with Gil (Fronsdal), and with Ajahn Metta when she visited, and now this morning with James Baraz, during his Awakening to Joy workshop at IMC. Every time, I am 'subjected' to a guided meditation, discontent erupts inside. From being intruded upon, in the midst of very private process. All I want, is to be with breath, and feelings, and sensations, and whatever else presents itself. What I can't be with, are instructions telling me what to think of, or visualize. The irony of this morning workshop did not get lost on me. The more James tried to lead us down the path of joy, the more pissed off I got. I almost left mid course, but decided to stick it out, because of my trust in the teacher, and just as equally, my distrust in the mind's capacity to resist what could be good.

As it turns out, I did learn quite a bit about joy, from James. More importantly, I got in touch with another form of clinging, regarding MY idea of what sitting meditation is supposed to be.  Somewhere along the way, I gathered that meditation was another thing to call MINE. Thanks to James' innocent intrusion this morning, I am not so sure anymore, and I wonder, whose meditation is it anyway?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

6 Factors For Staying On The Buddhist Path

"You know, the kids think this (my Buddhist practice) is just another fad." Made in passing, this comment from Prad, hit a sensitive chord. After all, I have been known to indulge one passion after another. Giving to each, all I had, then ending after a few years, always with a good reason. While that ability to easily let go, can help with renunciation, it also raises the question of, how can I sustain the effort required to stay on the path? Here are some of  the ways that I have in place right now:
Remembering what got me to practice in the first place: that this life is suffering, and there is no way out but in - the Four Noble Truths.
Being mindful of doubt when it arises, as in questioning worthiness of practice, or becoming lazy about practice.
Honoring my vows: of mindfulness, and practice, that I am making repeatedly on this blog, on  Twitter, with my teacher, and with myself.
Studying the teachings: listening to teachers' talks, reading Dharma books, attending Dharma neighborhood group.
Seeking support from  IMC sangha, and  online spiritual friends: sharing openly the state of my practice, including the lows, and the doubts.
Drawing inspiration from the Buddha, his life, his struggles, his liberation: carrying him with me, wherever I go.
I am curious, what are some of the ways that help you sustain your practice?

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Prickly One

Down, down, in the subterranean layer, I found the old prickly nut again.

No cracking of that one, though. Only patient seeing, and feeling. Casting aside the reluctance, the wishing away for the sake of smooth niceness. That's wisdom speaking.

There is another part of me, that wonders about bringing the prickly nut into the public light. Ayya Khema quickly dismisses doubting voice:
In order to get to know oneself, one needs to probe into unknown depths. There are many hidden crevices inside oneself. We don't like to look, because we meet the not-so-nice aspects of ourselves. But that's why we are human beings, otherwise we might have wound up in the deva realm. We might as well acknowledge our failings. Only what we bring out into the light to see, can we clean up. The dirt under the carpet never gets cleaned unless we take the carpet away. The Buddha compared our defilements to wet hay. If it's kept in a closed barn, it will rot. But let the light of day shine on it, it will soon dry out and become useful fodder. Let's look into the hidden crevices and thoroughly examine our intentions. 
What do you see when you go down, down inside yourself?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sharing Some Delights

Grateful for gift of half-day retreat with Gil, yesterday. During my interview with him, I shared the joy of my progress. How concentration is becoming easier and easier. Earlier during sitting, I had been able to welcome pain in stomach with relaxed openness, neither trying to transform it, nor hoping for time in near future without it. As a result, pain had transformed into another sensation, higher up in the chest and head. Things were moving . . . We talked about my travels, and how that experience had served to make me more aware. I was pleased, and so was Gil. I left, giddy with delight, and a touch of doubt also. Dwelling in joy with my teacher seemed almost too easy.

At the end of the retreat, Gil talked about the conditions for delight and joy. Here are my notes:
How can we avail to opportunities for joy more often? I used to think joy was the product of something that gave me reason to be joyful. With Dharma practice, I have learned to recognize that joy can bubble up from inside, independent from outer conditions in the world. 
One of inner conditions for joy is being relaxed and at ease. Joy is like an open window, and hindrances such as fear and resentment act as blinds that obscure the window of joy.
The other condition is appreciation. Like joy, appreciation does not need and external reason. Also the ability to appreciate deeper things in ourselves, allows us to appreciate others more deeply.
Barriers to appreciation include: being afraid of each other, not trusting, thinking appreciation is too sentimental, wanting something from someone, . . .
Sources of appreciation of other people: appreciation of obstacles they are facing in life, and how hard they are working to overcome them, appreciation of others engaged in Dharma practice, . . . 
Think of the many opportunities for appreciation that are easily available in our life. At the same time, be careful to not paper over difficulties.
Experiencing joy and delight is such a beautiful thing! 
I wonder, when is the last time you felt joy? What were the conditions?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Danger of Excellence

Yesterday, Elephant Journal surprised me by including me in its list of 'Best Female Buddhist Bloggers of 2009'. Of course I delight in this honor. I also can't help but wonder about the juxtaposition of the two words 'best' and 'Buddhist'. Seems to me like an oxymoron, similar to the claim made of Tibetan monk Matthieu Ricard as 'happiest man in the world'. Nothing can escape our competitive culture, not even its antithesis, the Buddhist path.

The real question, when bestowed such an honor, is what to do with it? Again, mindfulness becomes of the utmost importance, as in paying attention to the ego's reaction. Do I identify with the idea of being one of best female Buddhist bloggers in America, or do I renounce that identification, which is after all, very relative and temporary?  If I choose the latter route, I will, as Ayya Khema explains in her talk about renunciation, keep my ego in check and unencumbered by spurious associations:
To renounce this identification is a very important step: only if one stands alone can one actually practice the path. That doesn't mean one has to throw everyone out of one's house. but as long as one is dependent upon what somebody else says, thinks or does, how can one practice for one's own freedom? Without this identification the ego returns to its normal size, just one 'me' and that's all. it doesn't mean that the ego has been eliminated, but it has become more manageable again. One body, one mind, without owning or identifying with a  whole lot of people and things. 
And last but not least, congratulations to the other sisters on the list, many of whom I discovered during a  search for '15 Great Women Buddhist Blogs', a few weeks ago.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Looking In the Mirror

Traveling to faraway places as I have during the last ten days, has been a wonderful opportunity to learn more about myself, mostly through careful observation of my reaction to others, outside of (relatively) predictable home environment. Desires, one after the other, came knocking during this trip.

Desire for the best Chinese food, and frustration when my company did not adhere to the same standards, although I almost always got MY way.

Desire for more shopping, unleashed by the many deals to be had, and the charm of visiting all the local markets. Wanting more things to call MINE, and continuing on with quest, way beyond 'to-buy' list. And not liking Prad's reluctance to oblige.

Desire to max out on touristic experiences. Taking in as many different, beautiful views as I could. Climb up and down Victoria  Peak, ferry ride to Kowloon, stroll through the stunning grounds of Chi-Lin Nunnery, discovery of hidden alleys in Central District . . . Annoyed at times, that we had to accommodate our friends' small children. How dare they put ripples in MY otherwise perfect experiences?

Desire for uninterrupted comfort. Readily going along with my friends' suggestion that "Here you just take cabs. Cabs are so cheap. No need to bother with public transportation." Tossing aside my environmentally conscious self, and pouting when Prad insisted that we take train to the airport instead of a cab. Suffering unpleasantness from holding on to MY view and intransigeant craving.

Hong Kong, and to a lesser extent Singapore, two beautiful cities, both acting as backdrops for hungry ego's playing out of its boundless demands. Loved ones holding mirror for me to see all of myself, warts and all. I am feeling so grateful for this most precious gift of truthful reflection.

Sitting in the plane taking me back to San Francisco, I have vision of hollow sphere, lined with rough surface made of prickly peaks and valleys. Inside roughness slowly dissolving with clear seeing.

Monday, January 4, 2010

More Hong Kong Temptations

Day before last of our Hong Kong stay. Lots of indulgences, starting with stroll down to Vickie, an awesome store where beautiful shoes can be had for very little. I bought shoes for the girls back home, and also for me. Then off to Wang Fu, a hole in the wall dim sum place that was just awarded one Michelin star. Their pork and watercress dumplings and Lu Da Gung dessert were out of this world. Next was a foot massage at Happy Feet, which left me feeling as if I was walking on air. Six hours of one pleasure after the next. All along, with great appreciation for my good fortune, and also  the awareness of the transient nature of  such conditional happiness . . .

Back home, sitting in living room, my attention is drawn to hungry stomach. Thoughts of two pieces of Lu Da Gung I  brought back and shelved away in the fridge. Sitting with craving.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Mara's Land

I am falling in love with Hong Kong. Tantalizing views, exquisite food, super friendly people, luxurious buildings, exotic shopping . . . I can't get enough. With the liking, comes not so pleasant feeling, in greed/envy/jealousy family. The depth of my cravings is surprising me. Mara is testing my resolve, and the best I can do is notice, in love. Sitting, watching Rose Bowl with Prad and his friends, I silently taste the bitterness from unsatisfied greed, and the dislike of the bitterness. Underneath, joy from mindfulness, well done.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Cold Feet in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, staying in our friends' apartment, up on 38th floor overlooking the city. The place is not heated. Last night, I suffered from cold feet. Unable to fall asleep, I quickly fell prey to unhappy thoughts. Yearning for comfort of warm bed in our Singapore hotel. Frustrated with laying awake, tired. Dreaming of a comforter. Then I remembered words from Ayya Khema, in 'Being Nobody, Going Nowhere':
It's essential that one understands that this is the cause of our human problems: wanting the pleasurable sensations, wanting the comfort, wanting the gratification, often not getting them and never being able to keep them. Letting go of wanting means letting go of dissatisfaction. But it isn't possible to do that overnight or just by talking or reading about it. It's a gradual process. The first step is to sit with an uncomfortable sensation. Not wriggling and shifting around, not trying to get out of this discomfort by changing position. There is no wriggling out of suffering. Suffering cannot be eliminated in this way. The only way out of it is to let go of craving. One can't wriggle out of craving. One really has to let got of it. So wriggling around isn't going of get us out of pain or dissatisfaction.
Breath, cold feet, and the sight of lit skyscrapers in the distance, become the objects of unplanned meditation . . . 

Friday, January 1, 2010

Purified Love

In the plane, heading to Hong Kong. Thought of parting soon with the children, who are continuing on to their final destination back home, while Prad and I are staying over in Hong Kong for a few days. With the sweetness of motherly love, comes the worries and the 'what ifs'. Daughter is talking about driving to friend's New Year's Eve party up in the hills. Fearful mind immediately brings up catastrophic image of drunk driver hitting her car in the middle of the night. Wise mind intervenes:
Although we think of affection as something positive, it has attachment in it . . . That attachment creates hate, not towards the people we are attached to, but towards the idea that they might be lost. There is fear and we can only fear what we hate. Therefore the purity of love is lost. The attachment makes it impure and thus less satisfying. No total fulfillment can be found. This is what happens within the family. That is why there is always unsatisfactoriness in that kind of love. (from Being Nobody, Going Nowhere, by Ayya Khema)
Sitting in 17D. Thoughts, all gone. Only heart, filled with love. And steady noise from the airplane. Transient moment, soon met with fear, again . . .