Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Is Mindfulness Out?

Twice today, I heard the use of the word mindfulness questioned. First, was by a well-known teacher of Vipassana meditation, and second by someone at work, a person with a long time practice. Both expressed annoyance with the way mindfulness has now been co-opted by the mainstream and put to uses that are denaturing its original intent. 

While I value this purist assessment, I can also appreciate Jon Kabat-Zinn's diverging view.  Not everyone has the good fortune of awakening to the Dharma on their own. In fact the percentage of dedicated practitioners is infinitesimal. That leaves 99% of the population without potentially any chance of ever tasting the sweetness from mindfulness practice. And in there lies the genius of Jon Kabat-Zinn, to make the Dharma palatable to many, even those with lots of dust in their eyes. What's wrong with using the promise of less stress and less suffering, to get regular folks to eat a few raisins and finally sit still? I have seen some pretty wondrous transformations during the course of MBSR classes.

Sure, there are those now teaching 'some mindfulness', and who only have a shallow understanding of the Dharma, and little practice. I have had the opportunity to sit and listen to their words, and caught myself wishing they would not speak. And I realize that is a small price to pay.

I say let us keep spreading the good news about mindfulness practice, and let us do so skillfully, respectfully, while drawing deep from our own practice. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Staying Calm With the Panic

Anxiety has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It comes and goes, and just when I think I am done with it, here it is again. "Elle a un temperament anxieux"*, my mother used to say. The anxiety  tends to strike most while I am driving on the freeway. Mini-panic attacks that seem to come out of the blue, and that I have learned to survive by focusing on the breath, and the touch points between hands and steering wheel, and feet against floor. And when that fails, I distract myself, by giving the mind something to do, like switching stations on the radio player. That usually does the trick. 

Quite humbling!

From Mingyur Rinpoche, I have learned this about panic:

Tonight, sitting at my desk, writing this post, I can feel the anxiety rising again. There are no concurrent thoughts to disassemble with cognitive therapy techniques. Only buzzing energy to be aware of and befriend. 

Meditating on the panic . . . 

*She's got an anxious temperament.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Down the List of Ten Perfections

In Pali, the Paramis. In Sanskrit, the Paramitas. They are the Ten Perfections, the inner qualities called for by the Buddha. For a long time, I stayed away . . . Hindrances, suffering, impermanence, not self, cravings . . . those I could take. The Ten Perfections on the other hand, reminded me too much of my long ago struggle with, well . . . perfection.

Going past the word itself, I finally took a good look at the Paramis list, and realized I had been in fact cultivating every single one of these qualities during the course of my practice, on and off the cushion. Only, I had not thought of them as 'a list', but rather as separate qualities that sprung up organically, as required by inner and outer circumstances.

Here is the list of  Ten Perfections:

Although I do not consider myself a particularly generous person, I realize my definition of generosity has been too limited. I used to think of generosity only in terms of money and sacrifice. More recently, I have expanded its meaning to signify a natural impulse from the heart to give of one's resources. In my case, this has meant volunteering, connecting people, sharing my knowledge, and providing psychological help.

Not until I went on last year's retreat with Ruth Denison, did I connect the dots between morality and being blameless with the ability to lead a peaceful and happy life. During the retreat, I was able to clearly see the impact of past misdeeds on the mind. That was enough to convince me of the merits of the virtuous life, not just for others but myself also. To ask the question often, 'Is this the right thing to do?'

I would say my whole practice has been about renunciation. Recognizing that which is causing unnecessary suffering, i.e. clinging, and letting go of it. Dwelling in the body has been most useful in that regard, seeing the direct connection between the unpleasantness of physical tension and craving mind states. Shifting the attention away from the objects of craving to the pain of the craving itself, and working on relaxing it.

Oh! wisdom . . . Wisdom from reading the teachings, and listening to talks from wise teachers. Wisdom from finding out for myself, during formal meditation and also the endless string of situations from daily life. Wisdom, or the ability to know and understand rightly. 

Looking inside, I feel strong even during moments of weakness. This strength comes from knowing the value of all the wisdom stored within, always accessible. That certainty gives one the energy to go on, and to address any situation. Every moment lived mindfully, a new opportunity to strengthen one's wisdom muscle, and to grow stronger. 

If not a patient person to begin with, life will teach you. I have found that out . . . Many times, I have not been dealt what I wished for, and I have had to wait. Like a wild horse, I used to complain, and try to hasten outcomes. And I learned the hard way, about the foolishness of impatience. Much suffering, I could have avoided, if only I had been able to tame the horse. From such repeated experiences, I have come to honor patience.

This quality, I have cultivated for a very long time, and in turn have strived to inculcate it into my daughters. I do not suffer fakes gladly. From a childhood spent hiding behind a false self, and the exorbitant price I ended up paying in my young adulthood, I learned the value of being real to myself, and with others. No time to waste in pseudo exchanges. Instead, appreciating the value of heart to heart connections, even with strangers.

To keep on going on the path, even in the midst of great difficulties, inner or outer or both, takes persistence. Most convincing factor has been to find out what happens whenever I step off, and I stop practicing. I have observed this often during the course of my travels, when I do not have the support of my home practice and local sangha, and I take my mind off things. How painful then, the feeling of being  estranged and cut off from the well of aliveness within. It pays to stay determined. 

To take the hard edge off determination, comes in loving kindness, a warm quality that I am learning to appreciate, more and more. Telling oneself the magic words, to rewire the brain. 'May I be at peace, may I be happy, may I be at ease, may I be well and free from suffering . . .' Meanwhile directing one's energy toward the heart, relaxing tensions in the body, allowing space for the harder qualities to do their work. Loving kindness, it's soft and fuzzy, and very powerful.

Welcoming everything, pushing nothing away . . . as I was taught during Zen Hospice training. So much calm to be gained from not dreading any outer or inner circumstances. Again, from practicing, I have learned the joy of turning toward, rather than shrinking away from. Often summoning Rumi's words from his poem, The Guest House. Anger, fear, desire, sorrow, . . . welcoming them all, steady as a rock. 

Now, I invite you to go down the list again, this time engaging in an exercise I learned from Gil. Looking at each perfection, ask yourself those three questions: Do I value it? Do I overlook it? Do I not resonate with it?

What comes up?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Images Over Thoughts

Letting images jump out of old magazines. No thinking. Only tearing and taping . . . 

I am a big fan of self-collages where the unconscious gets to show itself.  And I know better than to fall into the temptation of interpretation!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Finding Nothing, Only Energy

It was five months ago, when I spent two and a half weeks with Ruth Denison at Dhamma Dena, her place in Joshua Tree.  This morning, I felt called to reconnect with her:

Being fully conscious, in this moment, in this body, the 'I' created concepts about what one's experience ought to be, recede to reveal only what is.

Beyond the words, is Ruth's awakened presence. Such a huge inspiration for my practice . . . 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Practice and Wisdom

If mindfulness is so good for the mind and the body - an established fact by now,  how come then, do so few of us end up with an enduring practice? Looking no further than inside myself, I can see why. Mindfulness practice is hard. More often than not, suffering comes up, and with it the temptation to distract oneself from the pain. Anything but this moment . . . 

This is where wisdom comes in handy.

In his new book, 'Awareness Alone Is Not Enough', U Tejaniya explains:
When you are new to the practice you will not have much confidence in the Dhamma because there are still a lot of defilements in the mind. In order to make your confidence in the Dhamma grow, you have to clearly understand the benefits of what you are doing. you have to see how Dhamma benefits you in your life. Understanding this is wisdom, and this wisdom will then increase your faith, your confidence . . . What benefits do you get from being aware? You need to discover this for yourself. You need to continuously learn from your experience. If you cultivate this kind of ongoing interest in your practice you will understand more and more. Awareness alone is not enough! You also need to know the quality of that awareness and you need to see whether or not there is wisdom. Once you have seen the difference in mental quality between not being aware and being fully aware with wisdom, you will never stop practicing. Your interest will grow, you will practice more, you will understand more and therefore your will practice even more - It's like a cycle that feeds itself. But this process will take time; It will take time for your awareness to become stronger and for your understanding level to grow.
Taking the long view, I keep on practicing because I know from experience the difference between life with and without practice. From regular practice, one gets to feel joy flowing beneath all moments, including the difficult ones. The joy of being reconciled with oneself, the joy from knowing that one is meeting the moment with the right attitude. 

And I forgive myself, when I take breaks, and I let the mind wander . . . 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Evil of Selfing

I got to hear Jim's tale of how he was treated in the hospital. Hordes of eager residents hovering over him, while the doctor in charge discussed his case. His personal life uncovered in great details, without any regard for his privacy. Many voices heard, except his. "It was as if I did not exist as a person."

This could have taken place in any hospital, not just that particular one.

This is what happens when we forget to live in the present. Not seeing, not hearing the person in front of us, but instead operating out of ideas about the situation. I am a doctor, you are my students, this is the patient in Bed 3. The roles are set, and I, the doctor have unwittingly shrunk the reality to a pre-established script that boosts my sense of self.

I tell Jim I have to go meditate with the other volunteers before we officially start our shift. And I get a kick out of his response: "Sounds like a healthy version of rounds" . . .

I am not a doctor, but I too succumb often to the easy temptation of automatic 'selfing'. I do it when I bring the past into the present with a loved one and I do not give him a chance to start anew in this moment. I do it when I fail to listen to a stranger's story, because I am more interested in telling my own story. I do it when I play the same role over and over, even if it does not make sense. I do it when I obsess over 'me'.

Tonight, I thank Jim for being my teacher. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Breath and Body Practice

Buried in an old talk from Gil, I found a confirmation of what I learned from Ruth last year. That the mind does not do well left on its own device. That concentrating on the breath is not enough sometimes, particularly during the gaps between in and out breath. That the mind is then to land on the various touch points in the body. Feet touching the floor, hands clasped, buttocks resting on the chair. Back and forth, between breath and feet, or breath and hands . . . whichever part of the body is most compelling.

This is a practice that has served me well whenever I seek to cultivate concentration. Try it if you haven't already!

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Gift of Pain

A few improper strokes in the pool a few weeks ago, that's all it took to bring me into the body, (almost) completely. The pain in my right shoulder has become hard to ignore. Nothing major, only unpleasantness and the added burden of aversion. In other words, a wonderful opportunity to practice and to become a little bit wiser. Every moment, a dance between the sensation of pain, the unpleasant feeling, and the next link in the chain of suffering, the craving for a pain free state. Dependent origination is not a theoretical construct . . . 

Physical pain, emotional pain . . . whatever unpleasantness has come your way today, how do you choose to live it? Do you use the experience as a way to practice a different way of being? Or do you let the aversion solidify into full blown "Why me?"? Or do you try to distract yourself into temporary non existence?

So many chances we have, to become more awake!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Disrupting the Chain of Suffering

The Buddha's Wisdom Teachings on Dependent Origination.

I did not want to miss the daylong with Leigh Brasington yesterday at IMC. Leigh is the Senior American Student of Ayya Khema, the late German nun whose teachings have made such a difference in my understanding of the Dharma. The day was a benefit for Ajahn Santikaro, another great teacher and colleague of Lee, currently struggling with cancer.  Leigh spent the day on the Dependent Origination teachings, a core concept at the heart of the Buddha's wisdom teachings, and an elaboration on the Four Noble Truths. Dependent origination is often described as a chain of 12 links, and exists in two forms: 1) Mundane Dependent Origination refers to the chain of causes and effects leading to our common human experience of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), 2) Transcendental Dependent Origination refers to the chain leading to our liberation from dukkha

Here are my partial notes from the day, with an emphasis on the first form of dependent origination. Mundane Dependent Origination (MDO) goes like this - all illustrations Buddhanet (Outer circle of Dependent Origination in Tibetan Wheel of Life)

old age, sickness, death (dukkha
also unsatisfactoriness from passing phenomena*

depends on
birth (jati
also arising phenomena* 

depends on
becoming (bhava
Pregnant woman
to do with the creation of the notion of self

depends on
clinging (upadana)
Monkey grasping for a fruit

depends on 
craving (tanha)
Person who keeps on drinking

depends on
feeling (vedana)
Eye pierced by an arrow
Feeling from contact between sense organs and object
(either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral)

depends on 
contact (phassa)
Couple embracing
Meeting of sense organs with object

depends on 
sixfold sense base (sakayatana)
House with six windows
(eyes, ears, nose, tongue, touch, mind)
and a door

depends on 
mentality-materiality (name-rupa)
Mind and Body
Two people in a boat
One is steering
Who is in charge? 

depends on
consciousness (vinnana)
Monkey mind

depends on having an object
concoctions of the mind (sankhara)
Potter setting the wheel in motion

depends on
ignorance (avijja)
Blind woman

Each link is the expression of necessary conditions: with this [phenomenon], that arises, with the ceasing of this [phenomenon], this ceases. Dependent Origination takes place moment to moment, with all twelve links occurring with every sense contact. This is not a linear process. In figuring out Dependent Origination, the Buddha was mostly concerned with what to do about old age and death. In the end, the Buddha was able to overcome being bummed out by old age, sickness, and death (his experience of it, not the thing itself). The practical application of this teaching lies in figuring out the necessary conditions which we have most chance of manipulating.

The usual translation of the Pali word, sankhara does not capture its depth. Better is the translation into concoctions of the mind, meaning that we create the world out of ignorance, through distorted thoughts, emotions, memories. Our view of the world as separate pieces tends to hide the depth and holistic nature of what is really going on.  Because of our limitations, we take the universe and break it into good and bad and pick out one part as most important and that is 'me'. Everything other than nibbana (freedom from dhukkha) is concoctions. We need to pay attention to our interpretations because we often misinterpret things. This can happen if we are alert enough to see, through mindfulness. 

A short term strategy for diminishing dukkha is to look at the critical link between vedana and craving, including our ability to become mindful of pleasant vedana when it occurs and our craving for it. In that gap lots of concoctions and false perceptions take place. We can also guard the sense doors to temper vedana. A longer term strategy to uproot dukkha is the abolition of ignorance.

Leigh's teachings on Dependent Origination and Anatta (not self) came as a great complement to Gil Fronsdal's recent series of talks on Anatta. When thinking about the self, we should not think in terms of an entity that roams. Rather, all that there is is dependently originated. Our mistake is not that we are identifying with the wrong object, but rather that we are identifying with any object at all. One thing arises due to cause and condition, then becomes cause and condition to something else, e.g. I am an English speaker due to certain causes and conditions. There is not identity to be found. No running to the past or the future, or asking 'am I?' or 'am I not?'. We make the mistake of thinking in terms of entities and nouns, when it is in fact all processes that are interrelated. Our small brains cannot take it all in. So we separate things out into convenient bundles, starting with 'me'. We are a mobile sensing device that makes the mistake of thinking of itself as separate from the universe. It is an optical delusion of some sort. In reality we are a part of the universe, that cannot exist without air, air pressure, etc. 'Me' is just a convenient way of referencing that mobile sensing device.

Leigh also addressed the concept of emptiness. We should deal with the craving for becoming by looking at the process of dependent origination, another way to say emptiness. We get caught on the notion of existence. One with right view does not take a stance on 'myself'. The middle way is between the notion of existence and non existence, eternalism and annihilation. It is about looking at the way in terms of dependently originating phenomena. I love this quote from Leigh, quoting his grandmother:

"Where does your lap go when you stand up?" :)

We make the mistake of going through life with the view of "What is inside is me, What is outside is mine." Emptiness is different from non existence. Rather emptiness deals with the non fixed nature of things that are all dependently originated. We realize the non existence of the essential nature of things. And we go back and forth between two views: the relative/conventional/partial view that enables us to function in this world, and the absolute/ultimate/sublime view that puts us in touch the true nature of the world, thus enabling us to be liberated from our ignorance.

Next I want to spend time reading reference materials shared by Leigh:

The Paradox of Becoming - Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Upanisa Sutta - Bikkhu Boddhi
Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving
Verses from the Centre - Stephen Batchelor

and I invite you to do the same. You may also listen to most of Leigh's  talk here on AudioDharma.

* added by me, not from Leigh's talk.

Friday, March 18, 2011

How Heroic Are You?

A Reflection on Heroism, Spurred by the 'Fukushima 50'.

Relatives from the 180 workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant are sharing tales of their loved ones' heroic acts:

"My dad went to the Nuclear Plant. I never heard my mother cry so hard. People at the plant are struggling, sacrificing themselves to protect you. Please dad come back alive." 

"My husband is working knowing he could be radiated,"  He told me via email, "Please continue to live well. I cannot be home for awhile." 

"My father is still working at the plant -- they are running out of food…we think conditions are really tough. He says he's accepted his fate…much like a death sentence…"

I have been thinking a lot about those 'ordinary' men (and women?), and I wonder what prompted them to volunteer their lives? 

Philip Zimbardo, from Stanford University has been asking the same question, as part of his 'Heroic Imagination Project':

Villain, reluctant hero, hero . . . it's hard to tell what lies within each one of us. How would you act in the following situation?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Not Breathing, Being Breathed

Sitting, I used to tell myself, 'breathing in, breathing out' . . . This is how I had been taught. Still plenty of meditation teachers use that language, or variations of it. 

Since my retreat with Ruth Denison, I have switched to a different tune. Sitting, I now become  aware of 'being breathed, being breathed in, being breathed out'.

The former implied an act of will, as if 'I' was the one doing the breathing. The latter does away with that delusion. The truth is, breathing is an automatic process that does not require our involvement. The proof is during sleep, when we are no longer conscious, and breathing takes place just fine. 

'Being breathed', I can relax completely. Nothing to do, not even breathing.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Like an Elephant

A Buddhist Response to the Japanese Disaster.

Earthquake, tsunami, are scary enough, but news of the nuclear disaster of the kind  in Fukushima have taken my anxiety to another level. I have had the hardest time concentrating and doing work during the past twenty four hours. Gil's talk last night about the Buddhist Approach to Facing Challenges in Life  came as a welcomed balm of wisdom. Here are my notes from the talk:

We train to have the capacity to be present for whatever happens in the world so that we don't get pushed around by our reactivity. 

The Buddhist teachings challenge us to meet the tremendous existential issues that befall us. Meditating is a radical act, that we continue throughout the day as we stay present for what is. The Buddha's life can be viewed as a metaphor, as he leaves the protection of his castle, and encounters the tsunami of life, i.e. old age, sickness, and death, and chooses to face it instead of retreating back. 

Our first task is to develop the capacity to be present and see. Then comes the question of, am I obligated to respond? Buddhism obligates no one to do anything. Rather it leaves us to the workings of our own heart. The open heart will want to respond. Hence the Buddhist response is, listen to your heart and let it move you. If we do not respond, we do violence to ourselves by bottling up our response. 

We ought to become aware of attitude present in our response. If a fly lands on an ant, it is a big deal for the ant. If a fly lands on an elephant, it is not big deal for the elephant. When faced with a challenge, do we react as an ant or an elephant? Hopefully, our practice is training us to be an elephant that can respond and take action in the world. We don't need a metaphysical understanding of the world. It is enough to respond. 

Regarding the current situation in Japan, we can donate money. Or, we can take the energy in our urge to respond and apply it to doing what we are already doing even better. If we are a teacher, we become an even better teacher, etc . . .

First, seeing crippling anxiety for what it is, a manifestation of ant like powerlessness, and a hindrance to overcome. Second, transforming the fear into action, pouring even more energy into what matters to me most, i.e. bettering the lives of those living with Alzheimer's.

How are you responding to the news in Japan? What are you doing? How is your practice helping? Please share.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Funny Thing About Grief

In the midst of reorganizing my home office, I found, forgotten in one of the cabinets, the sewing machine my mother had bought for me during her before-last visit to the States. That was seven years ago, exactly, and the time when I started noticing that not all was well with her mental state. The mind, my mind instantly went to a place of sorrow. And I got to watch the way grief creates itself. 

From seeing sewing machine, to remembrance of mother buying the desired object as her going away present, to a feeling of great love. Then a flood of associated memories related to her visit, the last one in our old house. The good times spent with her and my daughters. Her attempts to cook dinners for us still, and the realization that she needed help. Her sitting at the edge of my bed one evening and sharing her ruminative thoughts about her daughter-in-law. How she nearly got lost one evening during her usual walk with Amy, our dog. My despair as I realized what lied ahead. The image of her patiently sitting at the kitchen table, as she let me make a mold of her hands. My frantic efforts at giving meaning to what was happening. The solo show I put together to honor her life. 

'In My Mother's House' (detail)
(cast bronze & embroidered cloth)
It all came back and I watched my heart go into a funk. A sewing machine, that's all it had taken to switch from a perfectly happy state to a tearful one. 

Grief can take one down. It can also heighten one's awareness of the inner workings of the deluded, desiring, aversive mind. Deluded about the truth of life and its impermanent, unsatisfactory, uncontrollable nature. Desiring what could not be had, the mother I used to know. Desperate in rejecting the reality of her  deteriorating condition. Grief is like that. It can be a great teacher.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Up in Flame

This picture from the recent tsunami in Japan really got to me:

We rest our well-being on so many (false) assumptions:

that the earth beneath our feet is to be trusted
that our house will shelter us always
that we can stay warm in the midst of the winter cold
that we can eat as much as we need
that we can drink to quench our thirst
that our loved ones will be around for a while
that we will be around for a while
that we can visit the ATM whenever we want
that we are safe from destruction

Upon these, rests our relative happiness. 

You and I are on shaky ground, literally, and figuratively. A most uncomfortable place, and the source of much suffering. And why we need to keep on practicing to free ourselves from the prison of conditioned happiness.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Loving the Stranger

No dog, no iPod, no friend. This morning, I went for a long walk with myself only. 

And before long, encountered a familiar presence. Sad, depressed, lonely. With it,  I kept on walking, along the quiet streets, past the new Facebook campus, across and amidst the Stanford students housing, back into my neighborhood. A whole hour, I stayed with this company. I thought of the dying ones I sat with yesterday at Zen Hospice, and the patience that arose naturally in me, as I sat at their bedside. Being there for their fears, their pain, their aloneness in the face of impending death. And I realized how much more difficult it is to be present for one's own suffering.  How tempting it is to ignore one's reality, and to anesthetize oneself with busyness, or food, or Dharma talks even . . . Crowding the mind with thoughts not related to the moment. Keeping the body in constant motion so as to not feel the physical pain from difficult emotions. Hyper connecting with a crowd to displace the focus of attention outside of one self. Anything to not feel the pain. 

The more I walked, the more tenderness I felt for myself. There was no denying the extraordinary effort required and at the same time, I knew there was no other way to be. Heart turning towards itself, doing exactly what it was supposed to. Again, I thought of the ones I have been privileged to serve, and who have taught me to love. It is said you cannot love others unless you can love yourself. I am convinced it works both ways. You cannot love yourself unless you can love others.  Stretching the compassion muscle . . . 

I came home happy, that I had not abandoned myself:

You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you 
all your life, whom you have ignored
for another who knows you by heart.

~ Derek Walcott ~

Today, will you take the time to love the stranger that is you?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wise Up Day

Today is my birthday. I had planned to write a heady post about the arbitrary nature of such celebration. Instead, I was presented with several opportunities to peak into the inner workings of a love hungry heart and a mind heavily into I-making mode . . .

First, was the flurry of sweet posts on my Facebook wall, from close and not so close friends. I was very aware of the flipside of my delight. Many notes as happened to be the case, lots of happiness. Had there be hardly any such kind greetings, lots of unhappiness. Talk about precarious well-being!

Second, was the painful realization that my mother would not remember my birthday, as she used to. Although I cheerfully lecture about the joy of caring for a person like her with Alzheimer's, another part of the truth is not so happy. There is grief, lots of it, from being attached to the mother I used to know, who was always the first one to call on my birthday.

Third, was my own insecurity as a mother, that got acted out this morning. Meeting my daughter in the kitchen, I felt anxiety rising. Would she remember? Five, ten minutes passed, and no 'Happy Birthday'. I swallowed my pride and figured I would ask. Young one had planned to surprise me, and now I was spoiling the whole thing. I admitted to my human-ness and we worked it out.

Fourth, was  the irony of celebrating the impermanence of one's life, a not so pleasant phenomenon particularly as one gets closer and closer to the end. Being on the path, and understanding the inevitability of old age, sickness and death,  does not make it any easier.

Impermanence, suffering, not-self, I am getting a lesson in all three. The best present I could wish for!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mindfulness of the Body

Last night, I had the good fortune of attending Gil's second talk on Mindfulness of the Body, part of his  series on the Satipatthana Sutta on The Foundations of Mindfulness. I came out enthralled. Here are my notes from Gil's talk, along with the original text - all quotes from Bhikkhu Boddhi's translation of The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha:
And how, bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu abide contemplating the body as a body? 
Mindfulness of the body in and of itself, without the filter of identification, comparative thinking, judgements, interpretations. Letting go of the stress of thinking. Keeping it very simple. 
Here a bhikkhu, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; 
Going to a place where things are simple and where we are supported in our process. A quiet place.
having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect and established mindfulness in front of him, 
Making the choice to plant myself in this place here and now. Taking the time to remind myself, 'I am here'. We are putting aside our life as usually lived, to instead examine life now. Maybe we use a ritual, as is done in zen - rocking back and forth, and side to side, finding our center, before sitting perfectly still.
ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out. 
Breath is always happening and has a rhythm. By following the breath, it is easier to let go of thoughts. This process takes time, and cannot be achieved right away. We find that we can be present more and more as we keep on returning to the breath.
Breathing in long, he understands: 'I breathe in long'; or breathing out long, he understands: 'I breathe out long.' Breathing in short, he understands: 'I breathe in short'; or breathing out short, he understands: 'I breathe out short.' 
We are not just following the breath. We pay attention to its characteristics and its sensations. We train the mind to see what's there. For this we have to be relaxed.  
He trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body'; he trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.' 
We feel the changes in the whole body as the breath moves in and out. Or a particular spot in the body.
He trains thus: 'I shall breathe in tranquillising the bodily formation'; he trains thus: 'I shall breathe out tranquillising the bodily formation.'
A bodily formation is that which is formed/created  experience in our body, and is conditioned by what the mind does. As for instance, a tightening up of the body as a result of desiring something. We don't just feel the tension to know it, but also to relax it, particularly as we breathe out. Some tensions can be relaxed, others can take a long time. At the very least, we can soften around the tension. It is easier to pay attention to the physical tension connected with thoughts, and to relax it, than to try to let go of the thoughts. Unless we relax the body, it is hard to let go of the tension in the mind. (feedback loop of some kind). This is why we need to meditate in a place that feels safe.

Sitting this morning, on my usual seat, in the quietness of my home office, I made sure to establish my intent to dwell in the present moment. And I practiced following the breath, returning to it every time the mind wandered off. And I felt the minute changes in my whole body, the expansion and the deflation with each going in and out of breath. And I became very aware of the familiar tightness in the midst of the stomach. A long held tension, that I could only hope to appease. Sending my attention to other parts of the body as well. The feet, the hands, the spine, . . . relaxed. Feeling what it's like to be at ease. Thoughts relaxing as well.

Acknowledging this latter point as wisdom, inherited from Ruth during my retreat with her last year:
'I went to her [Ruth Denison] wondering what to do about familiar experience of irritation and tightness in the throat and the stomach. In the past, I had followed other teachers' instructions to linger on the unpleasantness, and it had not worked. Ruth had a different take. "Don't focus on it. The energy is blocked there. Turn your attention to your hands instead, and feel them. Slowly move them up and down. Do you notice any change? What do you feel? Now open and close them. Feeling anything? Then now, rest your hands on your lap, and feel." So simple.
Now, will you join me? Mindfulness of the body, as a gateway to inner freedom . . .

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Gift of Kind Authenticity

Being real is one value I have strived hard to impart to my daughters. While I have succeeded, it was not always easy bearing the consequences of two very authentic teenagers . . . Still, I am glad. I did not want them to pay the price I did for years lived out of a 'false self'. Better be true and bitchy sometimes, than estranged from one's reality. It took me a very long time to retrieve the ability to be completely myself, owning the good, the bad, the pretty and the ugly.

I get taken aback whenever people comment on my authenticity both here in this blog, and also out in my offline life. As if being honest is out of the ordinary . . . I see it otherwise and ask, what is the point of being untrue to oneself, and pretending? How can one relate out of a facade? How can one have a heart to heart connection when one's heart is hidden by a camouflage of automatic behaviors? How can one live this moment, tied by concepts of how one should be instead? 

It is my sense that engaging on the Dharma path requires no less than complete transparency, to one self, and - most of the times - to others. Recognizing what is without any judgment, and relating to others in complete honesty is a great gift indeed. The trick lies in having the wisdom to also practice right speech while communicating the truth, asking oneself the following questions:

is it kind?
is it useful?
is it timely?
does it create concord?

May you be true to yourself, and others. May you be wise. May you be kind.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Such Good Company

Sitting this morning, I found myself full of joyful resolve and gratitude for the gift of mindfulness practice. 

Sitting this morning, I entertained three wise guests - a wink to Rumi :) . . . 

First was the Buddha whose words in the Satipatthana Sutta I could still hear,
". . . this is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and grief, for the attainment of the true way, for the realization of Nibbana-namely, the four foundations of mindfulness . . . here a bhikkhu . . . sits down . . . having set his body erect . . . and established mindfulness in front of him, ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out . . ." 
Second was Jon Kabat-Zinn whose simple recommendation to a few of us at the end of the Wisdom 2.0 conference stayed with me,
"Just get up a half hour early every morning and sit for 30', that's all."
Last was, the image of the elder nun, Uttama, sitting in one spot,
"For seven days I sat in one spot, absorbed in rapture and bliss. On the eighth, I stretched out my legs, having burst the mass of darkness."
Sitting in such good company . . . Do you #wannasit with me?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Removing the Veil

I love the intimacy of morning rituals, when the bathroom becomes a sanctuary, the perfect place for meditation in slow motion. Watching sensations in the body, palpitations of the heart, and thoughts passing through the mind . . . This morning, there was gratitude for the pleasure of warm cloth against my face,  and the surroundings of kind silence. A happy moment, on the surface.

Right below, familiar contraction in the stomach asked to be investigated. Why such unpleasantness? I  stood, listening and came across a bunch of thoughts. That there was something basically wrong with my life, as it is. That a better future was to be hoped for. That in order for me to be truly happy, such and such conditions would have to be fulfilled first. I let my mind go wild and imagine what it would be like if I had all my wishes, down to the most minute details. I could taste the sweetness, the satisfaction of changes 'for the better', and something else also. 

Not all would be well in that new scenario, I could see it. There would be suffering, difficulties, unpleasantness, coming along for the ride. My fantasies came crashing, one by one, like big bubbles bursting against a hard cement wall. Left on its own, this is what the deluded mind does. It leads one to operate under false beliefs, and false assumptions. As here, dismissing the present moment in favor of a utopic future.  

Removing the veil of delusions . . . 

Friday, March 4, 2011

The One Source For Mindfulness

Gil's talk this week got me interested again in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha's primary discourse of The Foundations of Mindfulness. If you are going to read only one sutta, this is probably the one, as far as mindfulness practice is concerned. Gil focused on the introductory paragraphs, and will cover the rest of the discourse over the next few weeks. Here is the original text:
This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and grief, for the attainment of the true way, for the realization of Nibbana - namely the four foundations of mindfulness.
What are the four? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. He abides contemplating feelings as feelings, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. He abides contemplating mind as mind, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. He abides contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world.
Satipatthana Sutta: The Foundations of Mindfulness (The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Bhikkhu Nanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi translation) ~ 
My notes from Gil's talk:
There may be many paths to the alleviation of suffering, but this path  is the shortest one.
This is not about paying attention to everything. Instead, we are to focus on four things: 1) body, 2) feelings, 3) mind (mind states), and 4) mind-objects. Advantage of focusing in the body is that it is always in the present moment.
Before we pay attention to any of those four areas, we first turn our interest away from the object  we are covetous or distressed about, and we focus instead on our subjective experience of the wanting or distress, as manifested in body, feelings, our mind states, etc. 
There is a difference between mindfulness and mindfulness practice. The latter is a combination of mindfulness with other factors. Different teachers emphasize different factors. Mindfulness in the traditional sense of sati means to hold something in one's mind. 
We practice being, 1) mindful: holding in attention the four areas of body, feelings, mind states and mind objects, 2) fully aware: having a clear comprehension of what we are doing, 3) ardent: being full of resolve, dedication and enthusiasm.
This understanding is of utmost importance to practice, and I am very grateful to Gil for his clarifications, particularly regarding the four areas of focus for the attention (not all is to be paid attention to, only these four), and also the turning away from the object of our wanting or distress, towards the experience of wanting or suffering itself. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

My Little House No More

There is no ignoring the sadness any more. No pretending it's not going to happen. The home that was mine for thirteen years is about to find a new owner. Freshly repainted, staged to show, priced to sell, it's got multiple offers, and today is the big day. I get to meet all the prospective buyers and decide.

Last night, I paid one last visit, and remembered the house while I lived there with my daughters, just the three of us. A girls' abode filled with art making, music, dancing, cooking, friends, our two dogs . . . The only house that I have ever lived in and could really call mine. The house the children remember fondly and never completely left. A messy place while we were there, and that was part of its charm. Eight years we lived in the house, the girls and I. 

After we moved out to a new home, with my new husband, the old house remained in my name. Tenants came and went, and treated it with various degrees of respect. It gave me comfort to know that it was there, a tangible connection to earlier, happy times with the children. Of course, hidden in that attachment, lied a lot of suffering. This morning, it's hitting me big, the wish for what can no longer be had, and the sorrow about the implacability of time passed. 

Impermanence. And nothing to be called mine.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

More Takes on Wisdom 2.0

During the Wisdom 2.0 conference, I ran into Rod Meade Sperry, Web editor at Shambhala Sun, and we made this video, now up on the Shambhala site:

Rod's got more videos of the conference coming soon!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

3 Rest Stops For the Mind

Isn't it wonderful? We carry with us all we need for the mind to rest. 

No need to go on expensive vacations, or to visit luxurious spas. No need to wait for another time. No need to take classes.

Right here, in the body, we can find 3 places where to give the mind a break.

First is the breath. Landing our attention on each breath, in and out, getting absorbed in the ebb and flow of each inhalation, each exhalation. Even if for only just one breath . . . 

Second are the feet. Feeling the sensations in each foot as it touches the ground. Whether standing, sitting, walking, or lying down. Becoming a sensing being, even if for only just one step . . . 

And third, the hands. The left hand, the right hand, resting, or clasped, or hanging at each side. Feeling each finger. The coldness, the warmth, the blood coursing through. Sensing, even if for only a few moments . . .

3 places of rest, accessible anywhere, any time.