Saturday, December 31, 2005

Compassion for oneself

If we are not compassionate toward ourselves we cannot truly be compassionate toward others. This is a fundamental reality of the spiritual life. Yes! magazine has a wonderful little article by Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim that speaks to this:

My grandfather, Maulana Hedayatullah, a Sufi Muslim teacher and healer in northern Bengal, often reminded his students to be compassionate with themselves.

“If I cannot be compassionate with myself, I cannot truly be compassionate with others,” he said.

To be compassionate with self does not mean that you avoid or deny what needs to be looked at and worked on in aspects of your personality.

“Work on what is necessary in your personality, but with the quality of soul,” he said. “The primary qualities of the soul are mercy, gentleness, and graciousness. The soul makes no judgment and is filled with unconditional love.”

When you are locked in a just combat with a wrongdoer, remember you are fighting the antagonism, not the antagonist. Do what is necessary but do not banish the antagonist from your heart.

Grandfather used to ask his students to add a word of endearment to their names and to use that affectionate term whenever talking to themselves. The truth is that we talk to ourselves very often and a lot of the talk is negative. Become aware of this internal conversation. Make it a practice to relate to yourself with affection and compassion. This practice, Grandfather claimed, encourages one’s divine identity to step forward.

What would happen if we chose the endearment that means the most to us and used that to address ourselves in our mind? Try "dear one" or "beloved" or "my friend" and see how that affects the tone of voice you use with yourself. I see this as being a powerful method of cultivating compassion and lovingkindness for oneself.

Bridging our divisions

In a world so torn apart by rivalry, anger, and hatred, we have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that can bridge all divisions and heal all wounds.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Friday cat blogging!

Here's Ethel basking in the sun. I'm amazed I got this picture. She's never let me get this close with the camera before:

Image hosted by
Photo by Ellie Finlay

Meditation saves time!

Today I want to address once more the complaint people often voice about not having "enough time" to meditate. But suppose the truth is that you don't have enough time NOT to meditate? Here's a way of looking at it that I found on the website. This explanation is by Norman Fischer:
Spiritual practice is the the flesh and bones of our life. The truth is, although it may seem counter-intuitive, at least mathematically, prayer or meditation saves time! If you wake up a little earlier than usual, every day, and spend the first thirty minutes to an hour of your day in useless activity (which is what prayer or meditation is: the supremely useless activity, gratuitous, without practical benefit, coming out of and feeding into gratitude itself) then you will find that a lot of what you would otherwise be doing during the rest of your day- all that seems to prevent you from practice - just falls way.

So many of our busy daily tasks are really unnecessary- some because they are inherently unnecessary, and others that are necessary but would never have been on our list in the first place if we had been more mindful (such as "apologize to John for blowing up at him yesterday," or "go back to the store to buy the xerox paper I forgot to get yesterday when I was there").

When we begin our day with practice the whole day unfolds more beautifully and more smoothly. We find we have a lot more time that we thought we had. We
realize that what didn't get done today didn' t really need to get done.

There's always time for spiritual practice.The unfolding of time is in itself the most profound practice there is.

Things just go more smoothly when we meditate. And that's truly a time-saver!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The cosmic surprise

The greatest surprise is that there is anything at all -- that we are here.

-- David Steindl-Rast

Patience and justice

When I was in Wild Oats last week shopping for my Christmas dinner, I picked up a copy of Yes! Magazine - subtitled, "A journal of positive futures". Matthew Fox was on the cover and the issue was entitled, "spiritual uprising". I thought I'd share with you a couple of observations by Matthew Fox from his interview by Yes! editor Sarah Ruth van Gelder:

Sarah: What impact do you think Katrina has had on our national consciousness?

Matthew: ...I think we've had a revelation about the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots., and it's time that we wake up. What is injustice is not sustainable, and what is unjust will eventually break open. In the Bible there is talk about the widow and the orphan - if they are treated unjustly, the whole Earth is off-kilter. I think people are beginning to sense that something is off-kilter here.

Sarah: Have you found concern for those left behind to be universal among spiritual traditions?

Matthew: Absolutely. Buddhism is explicit about compassion, for example, although I think that the Jewish and therefore Christian traditions are more explicit about justice - but justice is a part of compassion. The Western prophets bring a kind of moral outrage, what I call a holy impatience, whereas the East brings serenity and an emphasis on patience. I think there's a time for both, but I think we are in a time now of holy impatience.

It occurs to me that my two blogs represent my Buddhist and Christian commitments using Matthew Fox's model. Child of Illusion is certainly about my passion for justice and emerges from what could be called a "holy impatience". But the meditation blog right here is about serenity and patience. I agree that justice is a part of compassion. But I know that without serenity, without deep acceptance, we will burn out in striving for justice - so meditation is essential.

Update: In the interview I blogged above, Matthew Fox refers to the 95 theses he nailed to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany as did Martin Luther some 500 years ago. The Yes! website has those 95 theses listed. Here are the first ten (along with number 78 which is of obvious interest to me):

1. God is both Mother and Father.
2. At this time in history, God is more Mother than Father because the feminine is most missing and it is important to bring gender balance back.
3. God is always new, always young and always "in the beginning."
4. God the Punitive Father is not a God worth honoring but a false god and an idol that serves empire-builders. The notion of a punitive, all-male God, is contrary to the full nature of the Godhead who is as much female and motherly as it is masculine and fatherly.
5. "All the names we give to God come from an understanding of ourselves." (Eckhart) Thus people who worship a punitive father are themselves punitive.
6. Theism (the idea that God is "out there" or above and beyond the universe) is false. All things are in God and God is in all things (panentheism).
7. Everyone is born a mystic and a lover who experiences the unity of things and all are called to keep this mystic or lover of life alive.
8. All are called to be prophets which is to interfere with injustice.
9. Wisdom is Love of Life (See the Book of Wisdom: "This is wisdom: to love life" and Christ in John's Gospel: "I have come that you may have life and have it in abundance.")
10. God loves all of creation and science can help us more deeply penetrate and appreciate the mysteries and wisdom of God in creation. Science is no enemy of true religion.

78. Inner work is required of us all. Therefore spiritual practices of meditation should be available to all and this helps in calming the reptilian brain. Silence or contemplation and learning to be still can and ought to be taught to all children and adults.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Wednesday life form blogging

Image hosted by
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

From fear to peace

Did you ever think that gratitude could help dissolve fear? See what the wonderful website has to say about that:
Peace, rightly understood, is inseparable from gratefulness. When we are grateful, we peacefully accept what is. As long as we are merely thankful, we give thanks for what we perceive to be beneficial, but there always remains the lurking fear that something harmful may come our way instead. To be grateful is more. It is our courageous trust that life itself – kind or harsh, happy or sad -- is good, if only we receive it as gift.

The moment we trust in this truth, we are at peace. A person at peace will serve as an agent of peace in the world.

Activism for peace is necessary. Yet no matter how sincere and how admirable, it will have no effect unless our own heart is at peace, because gratefulness has made us fearless.

Since fear is at the root of all that is wrong with our world, we start healing the world by overcoming fear through gratefulness.

I am in a daily state of gratefulness about meditation. The fact that I am a meditator, that I have had the wonderful good fortune to receive meditation instruction, fills me with gratitude. No matter what else is going on in our lives, no matter what challenges beset us, we can be grateful for our meditative practice.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Tuesday dog blogging

This is Ginger, Cynthia's dog-niece. Earlier this year she broke her leg jumping off a deck. Then this month she fell on the ice and cracked her other knee. She just had surgery a week ago Thursday. So send some good healing energy her way, okay? Doesn't she have a sweet face?

Image hosted by
Photo by Cynthia Burgess


Wholeheartedness is a precious gift, but no one can actually give it to you. You have to find the path that has heart and then walk it impeccably....It's like someone laughing in your ear, challenging you to figure out what to do when you don't know what to do. It humbles you. It opens your heart.

-- Pema Chödrön, The Wisdom of No Escape


The week between Christmas Day and New Year's Day is a good time to reflect on the year that is past and to look forward to the year to come. One important practice in this regard is that of gratitude. I was interested today to stumble upon a website called Here's an excerpt from one of their pages entitled, Count Your Blessings.
We begin by waking up to the gifts around us. Although our webteam isn't omniscient, we can pretty much say for certain that you're in front of a computer. We also guess that you can read, which sets you apart from two billion people in the world who cannot. So already you can tally opportunities you have that not everyone can claim.

Look around at your surroundings, your own body included. What can you add to your list of blessings? You might mention such joys as comfortable clothing, good health, satisfying work, or a home to call your own. And what beyond your immediate surroundings: nourishing food, faithful friends, spiritual moorings? You may even discover less obvious blessings; for instance, a difficult relationship forces you to mature, or deep distress over violence spurs you to spread peace. On a sheet of paper or a word-processor at your fingertips, record a few of these gifts.

You might actually make this into a more leisurely project if you have time. Gather a little pile of magazines and catalogues, and make yourself comfortable. Make sure you have a pair of scissors and a glue stick at hand. Now you are ready to clip out pictures and words that remind you of your blessings. Then paste these into a gratefulness collage, and keep it in a prominent place as a reminder.

Collages are actually a lot of fun. They can be a part of your journaling practice. Here's an idea: Get a blank journal for the New Year and do both gratitude reflection exercises in it as well as small collages. Then, when the book is filled up, you go back and review what you have entered in it. Try living gratefully. Find something about every day that you are grateful for. There's so much in life to worry about and be distressed about that it takes real intention to bring gratitude into our consciousness. It's truly worth it to cultivate that intention.

Monday, December 26, 2005

How to be in love with everything!

There's an Episcopal monk named Prior Aelred who posts regularly on Eschaton. Yesterday he said this:
Someone asked an old monk on Mount Athos what they did & the monks answered, "We have died and are in love with everything."

Ah, yes, that's it, isn't it?

What holds you back? Which attachments? Go ahead and die to those things. The love is incredible!

Monday meditative picture blogging

Image hosted by
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

The interfaith perspective

Today I found a website called "Contemplative Outreach Ltd." It is basically about meditation from the Christian point of view (using the approach taught by meditation teacher John Main) but has this thoughtful passage about the role of faith and the value of interfaith practice:
What makes meditation Christian is your Christian faith. It isn't the technique that makes it Christian -- or Buddhist or Hindu. It is the faith that you bring to it. That is why it is such a marvelous way for each person, whatever their faith, to fulfill their faith journey and personally verify the truths of their faith while, at the same time, sharing deeply a spiritual experience with people of other faiths. The terrible error is saying, "Well, I believe in my faith, and that means that somebody else's faith must be wrong." Logically, intellectually, that is where we get stuck. But at the level of the spirit, we experience unity, and unity is what meditation leads us to. This becomes quite a perceptible reality as you meditate in a group. You don't communicate through language or through the body when you meditate. But there is a deeper communication at work. You will find, too, that when you have meditated with someone you relate to them quite differently and more easily, from a deeper level of personal unity.

And I found this encouragement about meditating with a group:
It is important to meditate on one’s own and most of the time this is our situation. However, many people find it difficult to keep up regularly on their own, especially when going through difficult times. John Main believed in the importance of the community that meditation creates. The silence in a group can often be deeper than when we are alone. The group gives support and encourages people to keep on practising on their own. People who meditate together find that the experience bonds them to each other at a deep level even when they do not know much about each other. Thus, groups have all these functions. But there are some people who do practice regularly on their own without the support of a group. They also know that whenever they meditate they are never alone, but are united to all other meditators around the world.

Perhaps the coming of the New Year will inspire you to embark on meditation anew if perhaps you have let it slide or to come back to class if that has fallen by the wayside. But remember, we can make a fresh beginning any day of the year and any time of the day!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

A Christmas blessing

Image hosted by

May you don the breastplate of Wisdom:
protection of evergreens guard your heart,
brightness of pine,
sharpness of holly,
protection of juniper,
courage of laurel,
nobility of cypress,
endurance of yew,
health of eucalyptus,
splendor of cedar,
beauty of arbutus.
Nine evergreens to guard your breast,
this Yuletide day
this Yuletide night.
- Caitlin Matthews (adapted)

Saturday, December 24, 2005

My little Christmas tree

Image hosted by

Calm in the chaos

I went to Wild Oats this morning to shop for my Christmas dinner and picked up a copy of Utne Magazine in the checkout lane because of the title of its cover story: "Calm in the Chaos". The subtitle is, "Find inner peace, then take it outside." One of the articles is called, "Spirited Dissent: Five activists talk about staying centered." Each activist is asked to describe both his or her challenges and practices. It thought I'd share with you what Karen Mahon said:
Challenges: Despair and burnout, and they're interrelated: One feeds the other. The greatest offering an activist can make is a positive vision, painting a picture of a new world and shepherding us there. But when we let despair and negativity overwhelm us, that's not possible. A positive vision helps people do the work in a more balanced way. Activism is not a balanced lifestyle - it never has been - but it can be livable. I have an ax to grind on this because the way that many people do activism is such that you can only do it in your 20s and 30s, when you have fewer responsibilities, so that means you grow no healthy elders. Reinventing activism from a place of love means being able to have an activist culture in which you can do this as a lifelong practice.

Practices: The only thing I truly do every day - and I teach people this - is a meditation in the shower, because I know I'll be there every day. I also do several spiritual retreats each year, sing in a weekly community choir, do yoga, and dance. I tell people to do whatever spiritual practices they can do and try to bring this into their work and into their lives. We do a little meditation before our staff meetings

Karen is the executive director of the Holyhock Leadership Institute which has a mission to reinvent social change activism so that it is deeply informed by spiritual traditions. She has also worked for Greenpeace.

Yes, if you shower mindfully rather than in a stupor, it becomes a meditation. And both dance and yoga are meditative practices. Get creative! Make meditation an integral part of your everyday life no matter what you do for a living.

If you are observing Christmas tonight, may it be a truly joyful and blessed occasion for you. Peace on earth, good will to all people!

Friday, December 23, 2005

Friday cat blogging!

Here's Henry holding down the sofa:

Image hosted by
Photo by Ellie Finlay

Some distinctions

I just discovered a page on the web of questions and answers regarding meditation and I thought I'd share this particular question and answer with you:

How is meditation different from relaxation, thinking, concentration or self-hypnosis?

Relaxation is a common by-product of meditation. Relaxation itself can assume many forms, such as taking a hot bath or reclining in the Lazy-boy and watching tv, etc. Meditation is an active process where the meditator remains fully aware of what the awareness is doing. It also attempts to transcend the thought process whereas many forms of relaxation stil lengage the thought process. Meditation allows the body to relax and can offset the effects of stress both mentally and physically to a potentially much greater degree than passive relaxation.

Thoughts generally consume energy in the process of their formation. Constant thought-activity, especially of random nature, can tire the mind and even bring on headache. Meditation attempts to transcend this crude level of thought activity. Through regular practice one becomes aware that they are not their thoughts but that there is an awareness that exists independent of thought. Descartes ("I think, therefore I am") obviously was not a regular meditator!

Meditation begins with concentration, but after an initial period of concentration, thought activity decreases and keeping the awareness focused becomes more spontaneous. At this point the person may or may not continue to employ the object of concentration.

Self-hypnosis, like meditation, involves at least an initial period of concentration on an object. However, in hypnosis one does not try to maintain an awareness of the here-and-now, or to stay conscious of the process. Instead one essentially enters a sort of semi-conscious trance.

It's important to remember that meditation is meant to rest the mind. I sometimes use the phrase "rest the mind" as a mantra to help me settle when I begin to meditate. Don't allow your meditation to be strained or forced.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Body scan meditation

Here's a process I found on the HolisticOnline website:

1. Lie on your back with your legs uncrossed, your arms at your sides, palms up, and your eyes open or closed, as you wish.

2. Focus on your breathing, how the air moves in and out of your body.

3. After several deep breaths, as you begin to feel comfortable and relaxed, direct your attention to the toes of your left foot. Tune into any sensations in that part of your body while remaining aware of your breathing. It often helps to imagine each breath flowing to the spot where you're directing your attention. Focus on your left toes for one to two minutes.

4. Then move your focus to the sole of your left foot and hold it there for a minute or two while continuing to pay attention to your breathing.

5. Follow the same procedure as you move to your left ankle, calf, knee, thigh, hip and so on all around the body.

6. Pay particular attention to any areas that cause pain or are the focus of any medical condition (for asthma, the lungs; for diabetes, the pancreas).

7. Pay particular attention to the head: the jaw, chin, lips, tongue, roof of the mouth, nostrils, throat, cheeks, eyelids, eyes, eyebrows, forehead, temples and scalp.

8. Finally, focus on the very top of your hair, the uppermost part of your body. Then let go of the body altogether, and in your mind, hover above yourself as your breath reaches beyond you and touches the universe.

I would also say that this meditation can be done sitting or standing. It's a good process to use when it's difficult to settle for formal sitting. Use this as a warm-up, so to speak.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Wednesday life form blogging

Image hosted by
Photo by Cynthia Burgess


Here's a concluding remark by Laura Silva Quesada to a little article she wrote about meditation:
Meditation is done by choice, and is vital for overall well-being. It improves the quality of your health, relationships, job performance, creativity, and problem solving ability. It also allows for you to make better choices and decisions. With meditation you can make the most of your life, and enjoy it, and those you share it with to the fullest.

I really like the emphasis on choice. Choosing to meditate actually puts us more in touch with all our choices and is profoundly empowering.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Compassion and humility

Here's a meditation technique that is really more in the realm of a contemplation exercise. I found it on the Meditation Station website:
An ancient Buddhist meditation technique that is applicable to any religion and even to the non-religious, is wonderful at teaching appreciation and compassion for others. It is done thusly: Survival depends on the efforts of other people. Relax your mind, body, and emotions and contemplate on all the ways you are dependent on others. For example, if no one grew grain and no one brought it to market and no one manufactured it into bread, how would we eat? If no one dug up metal from the earth and no one turned it into steel and no one formed it into parts, how would we have a car to drive? And if no one cleared land and no one paved over it, how would we have a road to drive on? And so on and so on. With this meditation, one becomes warm toward others where previously coldness, uncaring, or even looking down upon others existed. The meditative tradition holds that compassion and humility are the two most important components of spiritual growth. This meditation generates both.

This is a good time of year to reflect on our connectedness with others. I commend this meditation to you.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Monday meditative picture blogging

Image hosted by
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

What meditation is not

I regularly tell students in the Foundations in Meditative Practice class what meditation is not during the first session because there are so many misconceptions out there. I was pleased to see that Jeffrey Brantley goes over this material as well in his wonderful book, Calming Your Anxious Mind:
Meditation is not "positive thinking." In fact, it is not thinking at all, but includes paying attention to thinking. In mindfulness practice, thoughts become objects of attention just like everything else.

Meditation is not just another relaxation technique. Although it is supported by relaxation and calm, mindfulness meditation is far more than that. Mindfulness meditation seeks increased awareness, and that awareness brings wisdom and freedom from habitual reactions.

Meditation practice does not mean going into a trance. You are not trying to leave or change the experience in this moment; you are trying to stay present with it.

Meditation does not mean trying to "blank your mind." By practicing mindfulness, you will become more conscious and will have a deeper connection with yourself and life, moment by moment.

Meditation is not just for priests, monks, and nuns. You don't have to do or be anything special. Meditation is a way of remembering and reconnecting with the natural quality of awareness and presence all humans have.

Meditation is not selfish. Self-full might be a better word to describe the changes that come with mindfulness meditation. True, you can neglect your duties and relationships in the name of meditation but this is a distortion of meditation. As you practice mindfulness meditation correctly, you will become more aware, and others will be more likely to experience you as helpful, present, and compassionate.

Scan your recent thoughts about meditation and see if you've slipped into any of these misconceptions. And then remember my favorite definition taught to me by Rob Nairn: Meditation is knowing what's happening while it's happening no matter what it is.

Sunday, December 18, 2005


I was wandering around over in Wikipedia today and came across the entry for compassion. Here's part of what it says:
Compassion (in Pali: Karuna) is a sense of shared suffering, most often combined with a desire to alleviate or reduce such suffering; to show special kindness to those who suffer.

Compassionate acts are generally considered those which take into account the suffering of others and attempt to alleviate that suffering as if it were one's own. In this sense, the various forms of the Golden Rule are clearly based on the concept of compassion.

Compassion differs from other forms of helpful or humane behavior in that its focus is primarily on the alleviation of suffering. Acts of kindness which seek primarily to confer benefit rather than relieve existing suffering are better classified as acts of altruism, although, in this sense, compassion itself can be seen as a subset of altruism, it being defined as the type of behavior which seeks to benefit others by reducing their suffering.

In the words of Dalai Lama - Compassion makes one clearly see the picture clearly; when emotions overtake us, the lack of seeing clearly clouds our perception of reality and hence the cause of many misunderstandings leading to quarrels (even wars).

Whatever we can do to cultivate compassion for ourselves and for others is all to the good.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Accepting everything

Jeffrey Brantley talks about accepting the full range of experience in his book, Calming Your Anxious Mind:
Remember that practicing mindfulness means exploring ways to be more aware and awake in all corners of your life. It calls for recognizing the entire range of inner experience and trusting yourself to connect with, and to allow, all of these experiences. It invites a compassionate connection with the contents of your inner life and a real willingness to allow and experience each one.

In this sense, practicing mindfulness becomes a process of growth and self-discovery supported by kindness and compassion for your own pain and distress. It is an art that you teach yourself. Give yourself permission to move at your own speed as you learn this art.

You are invited to discover a spaciousness within that can contain the flux of experience. You can learn to apply precise, noninterfering awareness and sensitivity to each element of life experience as it arises in the present moment. As you discover the spaciousness and stillness within, you will be able to listen for the song of each experience and to recognize the lesson it has for you.

Often, we accept the pleasurable experiences we have and we reject those that are not pleasurable. Let us make a commitment not to judge ourselves in that way but rather to practice deep acceptance about whatever arises within.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Friday cat blogging!

Here's Leroy with his demon eyes!

Image hosted by
Photo by Ellie Finlay

Being grounded

Char Stone sent me this marvelous quote:

I like to walk alone on country paths, rice plants and wild grasses on both sides, putting each foot down on the earth in mindfulness, knowing that I walk on the wondrous earth. In such moments, existence is a miraculous and mysterious reality.

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child--our own two eyes. All is a miracle.

-Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The importance of experience

While it is valuable to read about mindfulness meditation for both information and inspiration, nothing can take the place of actual experience. Jeffrey Brantley speaks to this in his book, Calming Your Anxious Mind:
Mindfulness is a word in the English language. In any word, or concept which the word represents, there is limited understanding. If you read different books about mindfulness, or hear different people talk about it, you will likely hear different definitions. There are different cultural uses of the concept, as well as different word and symbols used to represent it. So from the beginning, you must recognize that simply to talk about mindfulness, to think about it, or to read about it is not adequate to understand mindfulness.

The words we use to convey ideas about mindfulness are only symbols, only a kind of map. The actual experience of mindfulness lies beyond words and ideas. You can only get this experience through your direct practice. In the truth of your own direct practice experience is the real understanding of mindfulness.

Here's where I remind you of the Nike slogan: Just do it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Wednesday life form blogging

True contemplation:

Image hosted by
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

More on loving-kindness meditation

I've talked to you before about the "metta" practice - or loving-kindness. Here's what Jeffrey Brantley has to say about it in Calming Your Anxious Mind:
With a kind and compassionate heart, all you attempt - including your practice of mindfulness - will flow more easily. Loving-kindness meditation uses repeated phrases, images, and feelings to evoke kindness and compassion. It is not exactly a mindfulness practice, yet the qualities it cultivates are crucial to the practice of mindfulness.

This meditation is not about sentimentality or about manufacturing "good" feelings. It is about connecting with and cultivating a capacity for kindness and friendliness that is already within you. At first it may feel mechanical or clumsy. It may arouse painful feelings like anger or grief. Don't let this disturb you. Keep up your practice and discover what happens next. When you have difficulty, hold yourself with
kindness and compassion.

As you remember, I have recommended the phrases, "May I be happy; may I be well; may everything be well in my life," and then extending that to others. Here is the formula Brantley recommends:
May I be happy.
May I be healed and healthy.
May I be filled with peace and ease.
May I be safe.

Then, of course, as you extend the practice out from you, change the pronoun to "he", "she" or "they".

As Brantley says:
With some practice a steady sense of kindness can develop. You will be able to work with directing kindness toward all kinds of people - even difficult people.

This is a good time of year to work on loving-kindness practice. It is a wonderful antidote to stress and tension and an overall sense of busyness.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Calm attention

Well, I've come across a very interesting book by Jeffrey Brantley called, Calming Your Anxious Mind. And the subtitle goes like this: "How mindfulness and compassion can free you from anxiety, fear, and panic."

Here's an excerpt on using the breath as a support:
This is a simple yet profound meditation practice. The sensation of the breath is the primary object of nonjudging, allowing awareness. You practice by simply paying attention on purpose to the direct sensations of breathing as they arise, change, and disappear. Whenever your attention moves off of the breath sensation, just notice that and gently escort your attention back to the breath.

Concentrating attention in this way connects mind and body to the present moment and to a deep inner calm and steadiness. In this practice you actually experience the capacity of your mind to be calm and stable, even in intense moments. The calm and steadiness extends to the body as you practice. Over time, in both formal meditation periods and informally in daily life, with consistent and regular practice, you can expect to feel a deeper sense of ease and relaxation in your body. You will discover a much more grounded and stable present-moment awareness.

With attention established on the breath, you can use this conscious breathing practice to stay connected in difficult situations. By learning to breathe consciously into and out with whatever is happening, you teach yourself to remain present with calm attention. The breath is truly the anchor in the present moment.

What Brantley describes is actually how a meditative practice can be applied to challenges in everyday life. We practice in formal sitting; that's where we get the hang of it and build up a back-log, so to speak, of mindfulness. (It is also where we learn to cultivate observer consciousness.) Then the mindfulness we learn in formal meditation carries over into all the situations in which we find ourselves thereby equipping us to work skillfully with any challenge we may happen to meet.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Monday meditative picture blogging

Image hosted by
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

Thoughts to ponder

Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the entire path. Until you have developed this awareness, all other practices are obstructed.

- The Dalai Lama

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

- Anne Frank

Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.

- Edmund Burke

Duct tape is like "the Force". It has a light side, and a dark side, and it holds the universe together.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Check out Wikipedia

Well, it never occurred to me before to look up "meditation" on the Wikipedia website. (I love Wikipedia!) Here's the link and here's an excerpt from the article:

Mindfulness meditation and related techniques are intended to train attention for the sake of provoking insight. Think of it as the opposite of attention deficit disorder. A wider, more flexible attention span makes it easier to be aware of a situation, easier to be objective in emotionally or morally difficult situations, and easier to achieve a state of responsive, creative awareness or "flow".

One theory, presented by Daniel Goleman & Tara Bennett-Goleman (2001), suggests that meditation works because of the relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. In very simple terms, the amygdala is the part of the brain that decides if we should get angry or anxious (among other things), and the pre-frontal cortex is the part that makes us stop and think about things (it is also known as the inhibitory centre).

So, the prefrontal cortex is very good at analyzing and planning, but it takes a long time to make decisions. The amygdala, on the other hand, is simpler (and older in evolutionary terms). It makes rapid judgements about a situation and has a powerful effect on our emotions and behaviour, linked to survival needs. For example, if a human sees a lion leaping out at them, the amygdala will trigger a fight or flight response long before the prefrontal cortex knows what's happening.

But in making snap judgments, our amygdalas are prone to error, seeing danger where there is none. This is particularly true in contemporary society where social conflicts are far more common than encounters with predators, and a basically harmless but emotionally charged situation can trigger uncontrollable fear or anger - leading to conflict, anxiety, and stress.

Because there is roughly a quarter of a second gap between the time an event occurs, and the time it takes the amygdala to react, a skilled meditator may be able to intervene before a fight or flight response takes over, and perhaps even redirect it into more constructive or positive feelings.

In meditation language this is about lengthening the gap between "thought arising" and "judgment of thought". It is in this gap that we are able to make decisions; it is where our choice making faculty resides. And now you know the physiology involved!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The door to happiness

Jim Mulcahy sent me the following quote. Definitely worth sharing:

"When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us."

– Helen Keller

Everyday mindfulness

I regularly recommend using prompts from our environment and from everyday life to train ourselves in mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn speaks to this in Wherever You Go There You Are:
Try to use ordinary, repetitive occasions in your own house as invitations to practice mindfulness. Going to the front door, answering the telephone, seeking out someone else in the house to speak with, going to the bathroom, getting the laundry out of the dryer, going to the refrigerator, can all be occasions to slow down and be more in touch with each present moment. Notice the inner feelings which push you toward the telephone or the doorbell on the first ring. Why does your response time have to be so fast that it pulls you out of the life your were living in the preceding moment? Can these transitions become more graceful? Can you be more where you find yourself, all the time?

This time of year it's very easy to lose mindfulness in all the rush and busyness of the holiday season. Let's use simple occasions like the above to help us settle and truly be in the moment.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Friday cat blogging!

Henry all curled up in a tight little ball!

Image hosted by
Photo by Ellie Finlay

Holiday donations

Please remember that animals are sentient beings too and need our concern and protection - particularly this time of year. So, when you're making your list for holiday gifts, don't forget PETA, The Humane Society and Noah's Wish. These organizations represent the principle of compassion in action.

You know, you don't have to give a lot to make a difference. As many of you know, I sent out an appeal letter for the Center asking for just $5 from everyone on our mailing list. Of course, some people ignored it (sadly, a LOT of people did) but enough people responded (many with small donations of just $5 - $25) that we made up our deficit for 2005. Try sending just a small amount to one of these animal welfare organizations. You'll be glad you did. And, more importantly, the animals will truly benefit.

Reverence for life

Late on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed through my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase, "Reverence for Life." The iron door had yielded: the path in the thicket had become visible. Now I had found my way to the idea in which affirmation of world and life-affirmation and ethics are contained side by side!

Alsatian-born physician, organist, and philosopher

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Mindfulness and spirituality

Here's a paragraph by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book, Wherever You Go There You Are, that explores the word "spiritual" in a helpful way, I think:
Mindfulness allows everything to shine with the luminosity that the word "spiritual" is meant to connote. Einstein spoke of "that cosmic religious feeling" he experienced contemplating the underlying order of the physical universe. The great geneticist Barbara McClintock, whose research was both ignored and disdained by her male colleagues for so many years until it was finally recognized at age eighty with a Nobel Prize, spoke of "a feeling for the organism" in her efforts to unravel and understand the intricacies of corn genetics. Perhaps ultimately, spiritual simply means experiencing wholeness and interconnectedness directly, a seeing that individuality and the totality are interwoven, that nothing is separate or extraneous. If you see in this way, then everything becomes spiritual in its deepest sense. Doing science is spiritual. So is washing the dishes. It is the inner experience which counts. And you have to be there for it. All else is mere thinking.

Meditation is the path by which we learn to "be there". And how wonderful that everything is connected - that we're not isolated, cut off, separate! Remember that interconnectedness whenever the word "spiritual" comes to your attention. That too is spiritual practice.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Wednesday life form blogging

Image hosted by
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

Meditation and healing

I found the following on the website of the Mind and Life Institute:

In "Healing Mind, Healing Body," Tricycle Magazine gives a short excerpt from Jon Kabat-Zinn's book, Coming to Our Senses, about a case study on how mindfulness practice can aid medical treatment. The story describes how Kabat-Zinn became involved with a study on the positive aspects of meditation with psoriasis patients at the University of Massachusetts Department of Medicine in the early 1980s.

After meeting with Jeff Bernhard, the chief of dermatology at the university, the two decided to test the effects of meditation on healing psoriasis. They offered standing meditation, breathing meditation, hearing meditation, and watching-the-mind-get-stressed-out meditation to psoriasis patients undergoing phototherapy treatments. They also included a visualization about the skin healing in response to the light as part of the meditation in the later stages of treatment. They used two groups of patients, one that meditated and one that did not.

Kabat-Zinn says, "We found that the meditators healed faster than the non-meditators, . . . almost four times as rapidly."

He notes, "The psoriasis study is an example of what is now being call 'integrative medicine,' because it integrates mind-body interventions such as meditations right into the delivery of more conventional medical treatments."

Kabat-Zinn further notes that the study has numerous implications. The mind can positively influence healing in some circumstances, and participatory medicine is a big money-saver for both the patient and the medical system.

One more piece of information to help us with motivation!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Tuesday meditative picture blogging

Sorry for not giving you a picture yesterday. The Blogger program was down so I was unable to post anything. Apologies for any meditative inconvenience!

Image hosted by
Photo by Bill Miller

Monday, December 05, 2005

Meditation and arthritis

Today I found an article called, "Meditation Makes RA Easier to Bear". Here's an excerpt:

SAN DIEGO - Meditation can ease the physical and psychological impacts of rheumatoid arthritis, a small randomized study suggests.

After two months of participating in weekly meditation classes and at-home meditation and relaxation techniques, patients in an intervention arm had significantly less disease activity and improved psychological well-being than those in the control arm, said a University of Maryland group.

It is not clear exactly how meditation improves the physical symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, said Elizabeth K. Pradhan, M.P.H., who will present the study results at the American College of Rheumatology meeting here on Thursday. She noted, however, that stress induces disease flare-ups in rheumatoid arthritis, so anything that decreases stress could help.

The investigators randomized 63 patients to immediate intervention or delayed intervention arms, matched for baseline disease and demographic characteristics.

Both physicians and the phlebotomists assessing the patients were blinded about who was in the active intervention arm and who were controls. Participants were predominantly female, college-educated and in a middle-to-high socio-economic status.

The researchers assessed disease symptoms using the Disease Activity Score for 28 Joints (DAS28), which measures swelling and discomfort in joints, as well as the erythrocyte sedimentation rate as an indicator of inflammation, and a visual analog scale for pain.

I encourage you to use information about research like this as motivation for being faithful to your own practice. Anything that can help us keep meditating is valuable material!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Consciousness based education

I happened to be in the car today while To the Best of our Knowledge was playing on NPR. The film maker, David Lynch, was being interviewed and he spent most of his time on the air singing the praises of meditation - in his case, Transcendental Meditation. He is so committed to this practice that he has started a foundation to promote what he calls, "Consciousness-Based Education". Here's part of what he says in the introduction:

“In today’s world of fear and uncertainty, every child should have one class period a day to dive within himself and experience the field of silence—bliss—the enormous reservoir of energy and intelligence that is deep within all of us. This is the way to save the coming generation.” These words from the great educator and scientist of consciousness, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, simply and beautifully describe the urgent need in education today.

I have been “diving within” through the Transcendental Meditation technique for over 30 years. It has changed my life, my world. I am not alone. Millions of other people of all ages, religions, and walks of life practice the technique and enjoy incredible benefits.

Someday, hopefully very soon, “diving within” as a preparation for learning and as a tool for developing the creative potential of the mind will be a standard part of every school’s curriculum. The stresses of today’s world are taking an enormous toll on our children right now. There are hundreds of schools, with thousands of students, who are eager to relieve this stress and bring out the full potential of every student by providing this Consciousness-Based education today.

Our Foundation was established to ensure that any child in America who wants to learn and practice the Transcendental Meditation program can do so. The TM program is the most thoroughly researched and widely practiced program in the world for developing the full creative potential of the brain and mind, improving health, reducing stress, and improving academic outcomes. We provide scholarships for students to learn the technique and to receive the complete follow-up program of instruction throughout their student years to ensure they receive the maximum benefits. We also provide scholarships for students who want to attend the growing number of highly successful schools, colleges, and universities founded on this Consciousness-Based approach to education.

I think this is quite marvelous. I do think, however, that the foundation will provoke intense opposition by fundamentalists who believe meditation is of the devil and that this opposition will prevent meditation from being taught in schools on a widespread basis.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Meditation: the benefits

It's been a while since I've brought you an article about the scientifically demonstrated benefits of meditation so I was happy to discover that the Boston Globe has published a piece called "The power of Om". Here's how it gets started:

Meditation seems to energize the sleep-deprived. It seems to help with concentration. It even seems to bolster the very structure of the brain as we age.

Neuroscientists presenting their latest research at a convention of 34,000 colleagues last week had so much praise for meditation that it was starting to sound like a mantra.

Their work fits into a growing body of data that tries to bring modern science to bear on age-old methods to quiet the mind. Enthusiasts have long touted the health benefits of meditative practices such as chanting, yoga, and prayer.

Now, using the latest high-tech tools of neuroscience and biochemistry, they are teasing out how those benefits work. And increasingly, they are focusing on how meditation may help not only the body but the brain.

''As time goes on, we're understanding this phenomenon in ever more advanced scientific terms," said Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and a Harvard Medical School associate professor who has studied the body's ''relaxation response" for nearly 40 years. ''And why it's so important today is because over 60 percent of visits to the doctor are in the stress-related realm."

While some of the most striking studies have involved monks who were experts at meditation, the new research also backs up claims that garden-variety meditation can bring scientifically demonstrable benefits.

Let this be motivating for you this holiday season. Come to class - even though you're very busy. In fact, when you're stressed out from busyness is when you need to come to class the most! And don't neglect your daily meditation sitting. Even five minutes will bring benefits and nobody's too busy for five minutes!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Friday cat blogging!

Cynthia sent me this marvelous picture of Simon the other day. This is one photogenic cat!

Image hosted by
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

The importance of reflection

I often recommend the reflection process of dropping a question into the consciousness as if one were dropping a pebble into a pool of water and then writing down what bubbles up. In fact, we do a reflection question during every ongoing class at the Center. One helpful method is to write an issue in your life at the top of your paper. Then underneath it write, "What is this really about?" and reflect on that.

A powerful pay-off that the reflection process offers can be seen in this observation by Gerald Jampolsky and Diane Cirincione in their book Change Your Mind, Change Your Life:

One of the most difficult realities perhaps any of us has to face is the fact that what I dislike or cannot tolerate in other people is the personality trait that I still haven't come to terms with in my own life. Whatever is bothering me about the other person mirrors something that I have not forgiven either in myself or in someone from my past. My intolerance in my present relationships is ultimately an intolerance for myself or someone from my past. For example, let's say you become very upset by a person who has a very domineering attitude in the workplace. Though you're upset, you do not seem to be able to change the way you feel when you're around him. Then, one day, you realize that this person reminds you of your father, whose domineering ways frightened you when you were a child.

Another possibility is that you are a domineering person in your home life and you cannot face that. Or you control your tendency to be domineering but you have not really made peace with this personality trait.

Simply writing at the top of a piece of paper, "Can't stand domineering co-worker" and then underneath writing, "What is this really about?" will give you a powerful exercise for awareness. Always begin and end this process with simple mindfulness - that is, tranquility - meditation to settle the mind.

If you feel stuck after doing this process for a while or if very painful or distressing material comes up, be sure to seek out a skilled person to talk to about it. If you're already seeing a therapist or a spiritual director, going over reflection process results with that person can greatly enhance those conversations and support the inner work you're doing.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Standing meditation

In ongoing class we have been exploring concentration exercises. One of them involved standing meditation. Here's a description of standing meditation from Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn:

Standing meditation is best learned from trees. Stand close to one, or, better still, in a stand of trees and just peer out in one direction. Feel your feet developing roots into the ground. Feel your body sway gently, as it always will, just as trees do in a breeze. Staying put, in touch with your breathing, drink in what is in front of you, or keep your eyes closed and sense your surroundings. Sense the tree closest to you. Listen to it, feel its presence, touch it with your mind and body.

Use your breath to help you to stay in the moment... feeling your own body standing, breathing, being, moment by moment.

When mind or body first signals that perhaps it is time to move on, stay with the standing a while longer, remembering that trees stand still for years, occasionally lifetimes if they are fortunate. See if they do not have something to teach you about stillness and about being in touch. After all, they are touching the ground with roots and trunk, the air with trunk and branches, sunlight and the wind with their leaves; everything about a standing tree speaks of being in touch. Experiment with standing this way yourself, even for short periods of time. Work at being in touch with the air on your skin, the feel of the feet in contact with the ground, the sounds of the world, the dance of light and color and shadow, the dance of the mind.

The exercise Kabat-Zinn describes here is really a contemplation practice. And I think you can see how engaging in it will enhance one's ability to concentrate. It will also give one a great appreciation for the natural world.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Wednesday life form blogging

Is this an amazing picture or what?

Image hosted by
Photo by Cynthia Burgess


This week in the ongoing classes we reviewed the five hindrances of craving, ill will, torpor, restlessness and doubt. All these are obstacles to making progress on the spiritual path. It occurred to me that they begin to interfere at the point of motivation. Lama Surya Das has some observations on motivation in his book Awakening the Buddha Within:
Those of us who embark on spiritual paths are motivated in different ways. Some of us want to know the unknowable; others want to know themselves; still others want to know everything. Some people want transformation; others want miracles. Many want to alleviate suffering, help others, and leave the world a better place. Most of us are seeking love and fulfillment in one way or another. Everyone wants inner peace, acceptance, satisfaction, and happiness. We all want genuine remedies to feelings of despair, alienation, and hopelessness. Don't we all want to find spiritual nourishment and healing, renewal and a greater sense of meaning?
Reflect on what your motivations are for engaging in a meditative practice. Then resolve not to allow the hindrances to take those motivations from you.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Tuesday meditative picture blogging

Well, I usually give you a meditative picture on Mondays but yesterday was a particularly busy day so I'm a bit late. Here you go:

Image hosted by
Photo by Bill Miller

The art of letting go

Often people say they want to let go of a mind state when what they really mean is that they want to get rid of it. These are not the same thing! Jack Kornfield speaks to this in his book, A Path With Heart:

When difficulties arise and we are able to do so, we can simply let them go. But beware! This is not as easy as it sounds. Often we find ourselves too attached and entangled with the story or feeling to do so. Other times we may try to "let it go," because we don't like something. But this is not letting go - it is aversion. In the early phase of spiritual practice, many of our attempts to let go of difficulties are misguided in this way. They are actually gestures of judgment and avoidance.

Only when there is balance in the mind and compassion in the heart can true letting go happen. As skill in meditation develops, it then becomes possible to simply let go of certain difficult states as soon as they arise. This letting go has no aversion in it - it is a directed choice to abandon one mind state and calmly focus our concentration in a more skillful way in the next moment. This ability arises through practice. It comes as our composure grows. It can be cultivated but never forced.

We can cultivate this true letting go that is not avoidance by practicing something known as "distress tolerance". Remember, the ability to tolerate distress is an aspect of maturity. Frame this tolerance as a positive and it will truly be easier. Sometimes all that is needed to improve our distress tolerance is the inner conviction that it is a skillful, positive thing.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Meditation on difficulty

Here's a reflection process offered by Jack Kornfield in his wonderful book, A Path With Heart:
Sit quietly, feeling the rhythm of your breathing, allowing yourself to become calm and receptive. Then think of a difficulty that you face in your spiritual practice or anywhere in your life. As you sense this difficulty, notice how it affects your body, heart, and mind. Feeling it carefully, begin to ask yourself a few questions, listening inwardly for their answers.

How have I treated this difficulty so far?
How have I suffered by my own response and reaction to it?
What does this problem ask me to let go of?
What suffering is unavoidable, is my measure to accept?
What great lesson might it be able to teach me?
What is the gold, the value, hidden in this situation?

In using this reflection to consider your difficulties, the understanding and openings may come slowly. Take your time. As with all meditations, it can be helpful to repeat this reflection a number of times, listening each time for deeper answers from your body, heart, and spirit.
Of course, at the Center, we have the custom of working with reflection questions on paper. I recommend this approach.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The importance of gentleness

It's very important to be gentle with ourselves when we meditate and not force the mind in a harsh way back to the meditation support. This point is made by meditation teacher Gabriel Zappia in his online article on beginning meditation:

The most common question I get when I teach someone to meditate is "What do you mean by "think the mantra gently and easily?" My best answer is an analogy. When you read you take the effort to look at the page, to focus on the page and the words. And you intend to discern the meaning of the words. That is usually enough and the meaning comes without much effort, yet there is some effort involved. Thinking the mantra is similar in that you direct a similar level of effort (which is very little, yet it is there) toward thinking the mantra. You do not force yourself, brow furrowed, to think the mantra to the exclusion of all else. Just let it come, and if that is not enough, then encourage your mind to think it with a small effort.

This is the middle way, isn't it? Some effort, of course, is necessary. To think otherwise would be silly. But we let it be a relaxed, moderate effort. That way we encourage spaciousness in the mind rather than rigidity.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Letting go of black and white thinking

It's seductive to view the world in black and white categories and, sadly, our current culture in the United States supports this. But, in fact, the world and its people are not so neatly divided. Learning to appreciate the many shades of gray is part of what it means to grow emotionally and spiritually. I found a wonderful quote by Jack Kornfield on this subject. It's from A Path With Heart:
As one matures in spiritual life, one becomes more comfortable with paradox, more appreciative of life's ambiguities, its many levels and inherent conflicts. One develops a sense of life's irony, metaphor, and humor and a capacity to embrace the whole, with its beauty and outrageouness, in the graciousness of the heart.

This is about letting go of rigidity and learning to be deeply open and flexible in our attitude toward ourselves and others. Make it something of a game: See how many different ways you can find to look at various issues. You don't need to approve of or agree with a point of view to recognize it as a point of view. Notice then how this capacity helps you be more open and accepting of people and situations even if they don't represent your preference. Notice, too, how this gives you greater peace of mind.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Friday cat (and dog) blogging!

Okay. Here's what happens if I don't make up the bed right away! (Oh mercy!) Trust me, you don't want to try to move them when they get like this:

Image hosted by
Photo by Ellie Finlay

Accepting our current situation

Here's a passage I found on the Wildmind website about the importance of acceptance even when there's something about ourselves we really want or need to change:
One interesting thing about meditation is that if we try too hard to change it actually makes it harder to change.

I'll tell you a story. There was once a man who wanted to become the finest swordsman in Japan, so he went to seek out a hermit who was reputed to be the best teacher, although it was said that he lived in a remote place and rarely took on students. After a long search, the seeker found the hermit deep in the mountains and asked how long it would take him to become a great sword master.

The hermit looked him up and down and said, "Maybe five years." The seeker thought this sounded like a long time, so he asked, "How long would it take if I tried really hard?" The hermit stroked his beard and thought about it. After a while he said, "Maybe ten years."

Desiring to change is okay, but longing for change actually hinders our growth. An important aspect of developing acceptance is learning to avoid craving. Craving is when we long for something, and unfortunately craving can make us very unhappy. One common form of craving is to crave experiencing something different from our current experience. This longing actually creates an unhealthy form of dissatisfaction with what we're currently experiencing since the flip-side of craving is aversion. Craving and aversion are polar twins. When we crave to be experiencing something different then we reject our current experience.

We will never learn to change until we learn to let go. And if we refuse to accept where we are, it's impossible to learn to let go.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Consecrate the day

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Today I bring you a paragraph from the writings of Sarah J. Hale, the mother of our Thanksgiving observance. For many years she lobbied for an official national observance of Thanksgiving. She did not see it merely as a time for feasting with family and friends but also saw it as a time to give compassion to those less fortunate. Here is what she said one year in Godey's Lady's Book, of which she was the editor:
Consecrate the day to benevolence of action, by sending good gifts to the poor, and doing those deeds of charity that will, for one day, make every American home the place of plenty and rejoicing. These seasons of refreshing are of inestimable advantage to the popular heart; and, if rightly managed, will greatly aid and strengthen public harmony of feeling. Let the people of all the States and Territories set down together to the "feast of fat things" and drink, in the sweet draught of joy and gratitude to the Divine giver of all our blessings, the pledge of renewed love to the Union, and to each other; and of peace and good-will to all the world. Then the last Thursday in November will soon become the day of AMERICAN THANKSGIVING throughout the world.
Of course, now the official day is the fourth Thursday in November. May yours be happy and blessed.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Here's a marvelous description of what can happen in meditation if we just get out of our own way:
In meditation, awareness of the open ground breaks through as we wear out the projects and distractions of thought and emotion. Suddenly there appears a gap in the stream of thought, a flash of clarity and openness. It is neither particularly mystical or esoteric, nor any kind of introverted self-consciousness, but a clear perception of direct reality, or suchness.

This is from one of my favorite books on the relationship between meditation and psychological inner work, Toward a Psychology of Awakening by John Welwood. We can't make an experience like this happen but we can let it happen through consistent non-judgment of thoughts and a willingness to let go.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Life form blogging a day early!

Maria Palacios sent me this marvelous picture today of her little dog Titan (pronounced tee-tahn). Maria is about to go out of town for a while so I wanted to blog Titan early so she can see him on the blog before she goes! (Isn't he adorable?)

Image hosted by

Mindful conversation

Andrew Weiss discusses mindful conversation in his book, Beginning Mindfulness:
We have many ways of being with one another, but conversation is one of the most meaningful. Through our words we exchange information and we learn about each other. We humans tend to be language-based. Most of us think in words and in the concepts that words express. As you deepen your practice of mindfulness and become more aware of the consequences of your actions, you will also discover the deep impact that your words have on yourself and others. We know from our lives and encounters that words can make us feel great or lousy. We've all spoken rashly and regretted it later (or sometimes immediately), and we've all been on the receiving end of angry or hurtful words and have felt the impact they had on us. Most of us have also encountered someone who listened to us with such understanding that we felt better just from talking.

Mindfulness can help make our conversations deeper, more meaningful, more satisfying.

In the next couple of days, I'll share with you more of Weiss's remarks about mindful conversation. For now, remember that compassion for self and for the other - both - are the hallmarks of this practice.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Monday meditative picture blogging

Image hosted by
Photo by Bill Miller

Hanging in there

Here are a couple of suggestions from Beginning Mindfulness by Andrew Weiss about persevering in a regular practice:

* Please try not to get entangled in expectations. Just because you are easily mindful of turning on the light one day does not mean it will be exactly the same the next. One trap to look out for is trying to recapture an experience or feeling you had the last time you sat (or walked or whatever). Go with the experience you are having now, even if it seems hopelessly confused or painful. That is your present reality.

* When in doubt, go back to basics. Remember your breath [or other support] is your anchor, and simple, honest mindfulness of breathing can lead you right back to the present moment. Don't get caught up in technique. Remember that the instructions and techniques, and even the words of great teachers, are no more than a finger pointing at the moon: Always go for the moon.
I really agree with the instruction not to get entangled in expectations. All the great spiritual teachers have warned us against chasing after experiences or trying to recapture an experience. The words "accept without judgment" mean just that. Accept whatever happens and bring the mind back to the support. That's really all you have to remember.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

More on stress and thoughts

The World Wide Online Meditation Center website has another reassuring question and answer on the subject of what to do about thoughts arising during meditation:

Sometimes I feel school and life in general can be very stressful, and I've always been interested in meditation as a way to relax and become happier. I was reading your instructions for meditation and noticed that you said that the point is to accept whatever occurs in meditation... but if school work is the only thing on my mind, how is this going to help me?

Are you are using a specific meditation technique... one in which there is a primary "object of focus," such as breath, an image, etc.? If you are using a method such as this, and putting forth a relaxed effort, then thoughts - no matter what their content - become a run-off of tension and stress.

Relaxed effort means easily focusing on the primary object, and when your mind drifts off, gently bringing it back, no matter how many times this occurs. There will be times when you spontaneously shift into a deeper, quieter state... but if you have begun your technique, even the thought-filled meditations will be having the effect of relieving stress. In most cases, people say they feel more relaxed after meditation, even if it seemed as though nothing happened and they were just thinking.

"Object of focus" is what we call the "support" at St. John's Center. Keep coming back to the support. It really doesn't matter what else happens. I like the expression "a run-off of tension". That's exactly what happens. It doesn't mean you're failing at meditation when you have this happen. It means the meditation is actually working!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Letting go of the story line

What is really going on when we think we can't let go of thoughts? Andrew Weiss speaks to this in a marvelous paragraph in his book, Beginning Mindfulness:
When we say that we are caught up in our thinking, we are really saying that we are attached to our narrative. The narrative is the story we tell ourselves about our lives: all the reasons we are the way we are, all the reasons why things happen to us. Our attachment to the narrative keeps us powerless. The narrative's job is to remind us that we are subject to forces we cannot control - other people, heredity, social problems, and of course, our habits and feelings. Our attachment to the narrative keeps us in the role of victim. The reason for this is simple: The narrative is the intellectualization of our emotions. It is also the creator, and the result, of our habits. It doesn't let us understand that we can choose how to face our feelings or that we can decide whether or not to follow our habits. Once we are locked into the narrative, we think and act out our lifetime's patterns of behavior.

Keep the word "choice" always before you. We have more choices than we readily acknowledge. Getting in touch with those choices is the way to liberation. Just try letting go of the story line and see what happens. The choices become wide open.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Friday cat blogging!

Here's Cynthia's Simon looking very elegant in black and white:

Image hosted by
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

Meditation and stress

All of us experience stress in life and each of us has certain triggers that tend to prompt a stress response. One of my triggers is traveling. I have a way of forgetting stuff I need when I travel and the very fact that such forgetfulness is habitual causes me to experience stress in getting ready because I'm trying so hard not to forget anything. (Yes, I traveled to Norman last night for the Convention of the Diocese of Oklahoma and so this is rather on my mind!) So I want to share with you another passage from the question and answer page of The World Wide Online Meditation Center website:

How does mindfulness meditation physically relieve stress? In other words, what goes on in the body during mindfulness? Does it reduce the production of stress hormones? Does it decrease blood pressure? Why and how does it work to relieve stress?

Mindfulness Meditation - as well as other methods of meditation - reduces stress in a number of ways, although the entire process is interconnected.

First, the deep relaxation of body and mind allows the body's muscles to let go of tension, and the mind's "muscles" to release the negatively charged energies of accumulated stress. This also gives the nervous system a break from its constant rapid-fire mode.

Yes, the blood pressure is lowered, and the release of stress hormones are decreased. This is largely due to the relaxation of the fight or flight mechanism centered in the cerebellum.

At a deeper level of this process is the expansion of consciousness, in a very literal sense. Expansion equates with relaxation and release, while contraction equals tension and holding. Energy follows consciousness, so when consciousness expands in meditation, the entire body-mind system follows suit, letting go of both surface and deeply rooted stress.

As mindfulness develops in meditation, the practitioner begins to bring a greater degree of the calm mindful state into daily life, which is a major key to stress prevention.

For the meditator, even if stress is experienced with certain triggers, the response is less intense than it would be if the person didn't meditate at all. What's even more beneficial is applying the meditative process for working skillfully with the stress response while it is happening. The ability to accept any feeling without judgment - without condemning it or justifying it - and then to bring the mind back to the present moment, to the task at hand, is wonderfully powerful.

Don't expect meditation to eliminate stress altogether. But you can certainly count on it giving you the skills to manage the stress effectively and beneficially throughout your life.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Can we "get it right"?

Often beginning meditators are concerned about not being able to focus throughout the meditation period. This issue is addressed on the website, "The World Wide Online Meditation Center" in the question and answer section:
I've been trying to meditate for a while now but I haven't been able to concentrate... When I do, I don't know if I am in the state of meditation. I need to know if I'm doing it right.

Your experience is fairly common with new meditators. However, when you begin to meditate, it's best not to expect yourself to be able to concentrate or stay focussed for very long. After all, you are just beginning and it's natural for your mind to wander a lot. Try to accept that this is ok, and bring your attention back to your object of focus (breath, light, mantra, or whatever) as many times as you need to. As you continue, you will gradually begin to find it easier to stay focussed.

In regards to correct meditation, there is no particular state of meditation that you are supposed to achieve, and there really is no absolute right and wrong way to meditate. It's best to put aside the idea of doing it correctly, and of trying to know what state you are in. There are many states that can occur in meditation, and they are all a valuable part of the meditation process. If you simply follow the guidelines of a particular method, put aside all the expectations, and accept whatever happens, you will begin to find meditation easy and enjoyable, and you will start seeing many positive changes occurring in your life.

Remember, all that you need to do for your sitting to qualify as "correct" meditation is to bring your mind gently back to the meditation support whenever you notice that your mind has wandered. It doesn't matter how frequently it wanders off. Just be willing to bring the mind back and your meditation is fine.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Wednesday life form blogging

My friend, Bill Miller, sent me this wonderful photo of Smokey the pit bull curled up in a pot!

Image hosted by
Photo by Bill Miller

Meditation and the brain

A number of people have sent me links to articles about the latest research on meditation and the brain. I'll share one with you called, "Meditate on This: Buddhist Tradition Thickens Parts of the Brain". Here is an excerpt:

Meditation alters brain patterns in ways that are likely permanent, scientists have known. But a new study shows key parts of the brain actually get thicker through the practice.

Brain imaging of regular working folks who meditate regularly revealed increased thickness in cortical regions related to sensory, auditory and visual perception, as well as internal perception -- the automatic monitoring of heart rate or breathing, for example.

The study also indicates that regular meditation may slow age-related thinning of the frontal cortex.

"What is most fascinating to me is the suggestion that meditation practice can change anyone's gray matter," said study team member Jeremy Gray, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale. "The study participants were people with jobs and families. They just meditated on average 40 minutes each day, you don't have to be a monk."
Most of the brain regions identified to be changed through meditation were found in the right hemisphere, which is essential for sustaining attention. And attention is the focus of the meditation.

It's interesting that last night and this morning in ongoing class we examined the principle of attention as part of our discussion on the topic of "right concentration".

So here's another motivation for sticking with your meditation and for coming to class. It really does improve your brain.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

How do you know when you're relaxed?

Here's some help with cultivating observer consciousness from Joel and Michelle Levey's book, The Fine Arts of Relaxation, Concentration, and Meditation:

Many of us are more familiar with the symptoms of tension than those of relaxation. Listed below are some frequent indicators of relaxation. Which ones are familiar to you? What others might you add to your list?

I know that I'm relaxed when I experience:
breathing slower
breathing easier
flow of feelings
emotional release
eyes softening
muscles softening

I would add a profound sense of okay-ness and general well-being. Think of some words you associate with relaxation and use the comments function here to share them.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Monday meditative picture blogging

Image hosted by
Photo by Bill Miller

The way of peace

Before me peaceful
Behind me peaceful
Under me peaceful
Over me peaceful
Around me peaceful

-- Taditional Navajo Prayer

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Another mindfulness technique

I've brought you ideas before from the website, Meditation Society of America. Here's an exercise entitled, "Review of the Day" that is designed to strengthen ongoing mindfulness:
Every night, before falling asleep, review the events of the day. Start with the first thing you remember and then continue as if you were watching a movie starring you. Try to remember everything. For instance, you may remember the alarm going off and you turning it off, pulling down the blanket and swinging your legs over the side of the bed to get out of bed. You may have then walked into the bathroom and washed up prior to getting dressed. Try to remember every detail as precisely as possible. Don't simply rehash how you usually go through your life's routine but rather note each nuance. An example would be if you dropped the bar of soap when you were washing up or heard alarming news over the radio while brushing your teeth. Try to recall how you reacted physically, mentally, and emotionally to every event of the day.

When you first try this technique, you may be amazed at how little you can recall. It may become obvious that you can easily recall highly emotional times like when you had an argument with a co-worker but you may not be able to remember anything about how you got to work. Similarly, if you had an accident in your car on the way to work, the events of that incident may be all you can remember. Anything that happened at work would be a blur.

The more you do this "review of the day", the more you will start paying attention to your life as it takes place and the more you will be able to remember about the events that transpired. We all have a tendency to not pay anything but the most minimal attention to the here and now and instead spend our time rehashing the past and fantasizing about the future. This meditation technique can return our awareness of the present, which is the only time reality takes place, as well as bring an excitement and enthusiasm to our life. Think about a baby who is so amazed and fascinated with the newness of everything that occurs in every moment. We should be experiencing at least that exquisite a response to our moment-to-moment existence because each moment is absolutely unique and intriguing and since we are adults, we can ponder the remarkable way we are reacting to each event we experience physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

I recommend that you try a shorter review than a whole day right at first. Try taking a midmorning break and do a review then. That way you'll only have a few hours to remember rather than a whole day. Then gradually build up. And observe how mindfulness is enhanced as a result!

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Common sense meditation

I just found a website that has some very sensible advice about meditation on its general information page. Here's a sample:

Some Misconceptions about Meditation

Misconception #1.
Meditation is turning off your thoughts or making your mind a blank.

Not True ...Inner quietness is experienced in meditation, but not by willfully turning off thoughts. Quieting the mind results naturally from:
* the effectiveness of the method used... and
* an uplifting spiritual energy that is beyond our own efforts.

Misconception #2.
Meditation is difficult and requires great concentration.

Not True ...Meditation can be easily learned and practiced. Meditation is only difficult if we become too concerned with doing it correctly or incorrectly. Although staying focussed in meditation does become easier with time and practice, it is definitely not a requirement for beginning to meditate. Thinking that we should be good at focussing when first starting out, is essentially putting the cart before the horse.

Misconception #3.
Meditation is not successful unless we see interesting things in our mind.

Not True...Although some meditations are specifically for visualizing, many are not. In those meditations, seeing things may be entertaining, but is not essential. Even visualization does not necessarily require seeing. Some people sense or feel things inwardly, and that's all right.

Sometimes we all need a little reassurance about the basics. Let the above debunking of misconceptions be that reassurance for you today!

Friday, November 11, 2005

Friday cat blogging!

Here is my favorite picture of Leroy that Cynthia has taken:

Image hosted by
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

More about mindfulness

Here are some wonderful comments on mindfulness by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche from his article How to Meditate:
How we tame the mind is by using the technique of mindfulness. Quite simply, mindfulness is compete attention to detail. We are completely absorbed in the fabric of life, the fabric of the moment. We realize that our life is made of these moments and that we cannot deal with more than one moment at a time. Even though we have memories of the past and ideas about the future, it is the present situation that we are experiencing.

Thus we are able to experience our life fully. We might feel that thinking about the past or the future makes our life richer, but by not paying attention to the immediate situation we are actually missing our life. There's nothing we can do about the past, we can only go over it again and again, and the future is completely unknown.

So the practice of mindfulness is the practice of being alive. When we talk about the techniques of meditation, we're talking about techniques of life. We're not talking about something that is separate from us. When we're talking about being mindful and living in a mindful way, we're talking about the practice of spontaneity.

It's important to understand that we're not talking about trying to get into some kind of higher level or higher state of mind. We are not saying that our immediate situation is unworthy. What we're saying is that the present situation is completely available and unbiased, and that we can see it that way through the practice of mindfulness.

I like the statement that we are not trying to get into some kind of higher state of mind. Many people come to meditation instruction thinking that the objective is to be in some lofty, ethereal state of altered consciousness. But meditation is about being fully present to what is. And the more we train ourselves to do that, the more liberated we become because we are then not trapped in the past or full of obsessions about the future.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Here's another pointed passage from Kathleen McDonald's, How to Meditate:
Don't forget to bring the good experiences of meditation into your daily activities. Instead of acting and reacting impulsively and following your thoughts and feelings here and there, watch your mind carefully, be aware, and try to deal skillfully with problems as they arise. If you can do this each day, your meditation will have been successful.

Don't let your thoughts take you hostage. Stay in the moment. Let go of attachments. And remember: This stuff works!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Wednesday life form blogging

Image hosted by
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

Wise words

Neither giving nor taking
Neither for nor against
Leave your mind at rest
with perceptions remain unconcerned
the great Way is a mind open to everything
which clings to nothing
which fixates nowhere
Radiant and stainless
Rest in the unmoved, uncreated and spontaneous
and you will soon reach enlightenment.

-- Tiolopa, 1oth Century

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Mantra Meditation

Well, I've found a new book. It's called The Fine Arts of Relaxation, Concentration, and Meditation: Ancient Skills for Modern minds by Joel and Michelle Levey. Here is an excerpt on mantra meditation:
The actual practice of mantra meditation can be quite simple. You can just sit quietly and mentally recite a mantra or meaningful phrase, resting the mind on its sound or its inner resonance within you. Whenever your mind wanders, simply return to the repetition and keep your attention on what you are doing. To elaborate on this method, visualize waves of light and healing vibrations pouring from your heart to others, bringing more lights, love, and happiness into the world, and dissolving the darkness, pain, and fear that fills the minds of so many beings.

When you have a feeling for it, working with a mantra can help to calm and focus the mind when you are busy in the world. It is a simple, effective method for strengthening and developing positive qualities of the mind in moments that are ordinarily wasted - driving to work, waiting in line, holding the line on a telephone, walking down the street, and so on: all ordinary activities that can be easily integrated into your meditation practice.
I recommend these simple ways of bringing mindfulness into your everyday life.