Saturday, April 30, 2005

Calmness of mind

I often have people express to me the concern that the non-judgment of meditation will leave them blank or unfeeling. Nothing could be further from the truth! The Dalai Lama speaks to this in The Art of Happiness which he wrote with Howard C. Cutler:

I should mention that when we speak of a calm state of mind or peace of mind, we shouldn't confuse that with a totally insensitive, apathetic state of mind. Having a calm or peaceful state of mind doesn't mean being totally spaced out or completely empty. Peace of mind or a calm state of mind is rooted in affection and compassion. There is a very high level of sensitivity and feeling there.

As long as there is a lack of the inner discipline that brings calmness of mind, no matter what external facilities or conditions you have, they will never give you the feeling of joy and happiness that you are seeking. On the other hand, if you possess this inner quality, a calmness of mind, a degree of stability within, then even if you lack various external facilities that you would normally consider necessary for happiness, it is still possible to live a happy and joyful life.

You know, a major breakthrough for me was coming to the inner conviction that it is right to want to be happy. And that's why I meditate. Because it works. With a reliable meditative practice I am a happy person. And I know that without a reliable meditative practice, I wouldn't be!

Friday, April 29, 2005

Friday Cat Blogging!

Someone gave me this little meditating cat a few years ago. Normally it lives on the music rack on my piano!
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Photo by Cynthia Burgess

Progress on the path

I've noticed that beginning meditation students naturally assume that "easier" is "better" and that "more pleasant" also is "better". That approach may be okay in the early days when we're developing a taste for meditation but the time will come when it will impede our progress. Ram Dass speaks to this in his book, Journey of Awakening:

As your meditation develops, you may find yourself drawn back to the methods you avoided when you began. You may get frustrated because the fire is not hot enough and you want to move faster than easier methods permit. So you work with one method after the next until all aspects - heart, mind, and body - are balanced. If you begin with one of them, sooner or later you will probably want to integrate the others as well. It makes no difference which technique you start with. Try to sense what you're ready for and what you need. Above all, be honest with yourself.

A useful tactic is to pick a method that feels right and do it for two weeks. During this trial run, agree with yourself, "I will treat all my negative reactions to this form of meditation as merely thought forms prompted by my ego to keep me from taking it seriously. I will suspend judgment, criticism, and doubt." At the end of two weeks, you're free to evaluate the method. Or, give yourself three months or six months.

I know that in the early days of my meditative practice, I was very attracted to Zen and then to mantra. I stuck with those two methods for years and years. Then the Tibetans got hold of me! I ended up learning very intricate methods of visualization to which I was not attracted at all and to which I had quite a bit of resistance. I'm so glad I stuck it out, though. Working with less appealing methods of meditation ended up giving my mind a flexibility I didn't know it could have. Don't dismiss difficult methods out of hand. In the long run you'll only benefit by persevering.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Working with thoughts - part 2

Today I found a a helpful image for working with thoughts in Journey of Awakening by Ram Dass:

Here's a way you can keep from getting too lost in your thoughts. See your thoughts go by as if they were autumn leaves floating down a stream. But focus on the stream. The leaves drift by, being moved this way and that by the eddying water. On some there are drops of water that glisten in the sunlight. Let the leaves, the thoughts, float by, but keep your attention on the water itself. Your mind may dwell on a sound, a memory, a plan, or any of a thousand things. When you notice your mind clinging to any of these, these leaves, very gently bring it back to the stream, back to the water flowing. Let the leaves float by. Don't get angry because your attention will get caught thousands of times. Each time, very gently but firmly bring it back to the flowing water.

The important word in this passage is "gently". Don't be harsh with your mind. The point is to let go - not to force.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Love without judgment

Kathleen McDonald has this to say about love in How to Meditate:

Love is wanting others to be happy. It is a natural quality of mind, but until we develop it through meditation and other practices it remains limited, reserved for a few select individuals. Genuine love is universal in scope, extending to everyone, without exception.

Although we might agree with this idea in principle, we probably find it difficult to actualize. Does love arise spontaneously for all the people in the street and the supermarket? Do we feel love for the politicians we don't like, racists, and parents who beat their children? If not, we have work to do!

We should begin with mindfulness: observing our reactions to the people we encounter, looking out for feelings of attraction, aversion and indifference. As long as we continue to discriminate between those we like, those we dislike and those we do not care about we can never even take the first step.

This is passage is written in the spirit of the benefit prayer in which we pray to be "free of the worldly bias towards friends and enemies". Yes, it's a radical commitment. It's meant to be. We will never be truly free, truly happy as long as we cling to the right to condemn others. This does not mean we are required to approve of everyone's actions. What we need to do is be conscious of each person's true nature underneath the actions. Each person, no matter what, is ultimately a fully enlightened being although he or she might not be awake to that. However, each one of us can begin to be awake to the true nature in others. In this way, our love will be non-discriminatory and universal.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Monday Meditative Picture Blogging

Rose Lynch sent me this picture of hers. I asked her permission to share it with you and she agreed.
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Awareness

Today I happened to pick up my copy of How to Meditate by Kathleen McDonald. Here's a helpful passage about the benefit of awareness:

Our usual view of life is unrealistic. Most of our pleasant experiences depend on external objects and situations, whose very nature is ephemeral. When these things do change or disappear we cling on, unwilling to accept the reality of the situation. We want pleasure to last and are disappointed when it doesn't. And so we go, up and down, from pleasure to pain and happiness to unhappiness, all our lives.

Awareness of this reality is a step towards eliminating suffering. We will stop expecting people and things to make us happy and instead see that it is our attitude towards them that determines happiness and satisfaction. Ironically, when we stop clinging unrealistically to things, we enjoy them all the more!

Another major benefit of this meditation is that we can see that others suffer in the same way, and as a result we inevitably develop more kindness and compassion towards them.
What she doesn't mention is that the development of kindness and compassion also gives us more enjoyment of whatever pleasures come our way. It's a beautiful paradox: grasping pleasure causes it to disappear; letting go enables it to be enjoyed. And the greatest happiness of all comes from compassion.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

The stuff of daily life

Here's another passage from Journey of Awakening by Ram Dass:

The final step in integrating meditation into your awareness is to use the stuff of daily life as part of meditation. There are ways of perceiving the world and the way you live in it such that each experience brings you more deeply into the meditative space. At the same time, however, this kind of meditation requires firm grounding: you must continue to function effectively in the world as you meditate on it. This is meditation in action. It finally becomes the core of a consciously lived life, a meditative space within you. This space stands between each thing you notice and each response you make, allowing a peaceful, quiet, and spacious view of the universe.

I agree with the point that we need firm grounding. Not only is this about functioning effectively in the world, it is also about regular formal practice. Regular practice gives us a backlog of experience so that we're able to apply the meditative process to the "stuff of daily life" with skill. I also really like the expression, "a consciously lived life". Isn't that what we want? To be aware? To wake up? Let's commit ourselves to living consciously and not lull ourselves into unconsciousness.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Skill in mindfulness

It's really important to be deeply accepting of our own mind and not give in to frustration when we lose mindfulness. Akong Tulku Rinpoche explains how to do this in Taming the Tiger:

How, then, should we react when we feel we are not being mindful or that we are unable to meditate as calmly and peacefully as we would like? First, there is no need to panic. In the deepest sense, there are no good thoughts or bad thoughts and our moods and mental states are a lot less solid and fixed than they seem. Nor should we over-react if too many thoughts and feelings arise and cause confusion or uncertainty. Instead, we try to relax and simply observe the play of the mind. However, if we're trying to visualize something in particular, or are purposely attempting to develop a specific quality - such as compassion - then the wandering or unruly mind should gently be brought back to the subject.

Remember, the present moment or the current reality is always the support for training the mind even when we're not formally sitting in meditation. Bringing the mind back to what is happening while it's happening will reliably tame a mind that is out of control. But don't try to control the mind as such. Just let go of the attachment to being out of control! The mind will settle eventually if we are both gentle and faithful to the meditative process.

Friday, April 22, 2005

The gift of humor

Many of you know that I just moved last week. Just next door. Somehow I thought that because it was so short a distance it would be an easier move than most. Now that was silly, wasn't it? All the usual hassles of moving still happened and more besides. The ultimate mishap was having the faucet to the bathtub snap off in my hand while I was trying to turn the water off. There I was with the water running, no working faucet and, to top it all off, my phone didn't work. Fortunately, I remembered the slogan, "If it will be funny later, it's funny now!"

Well, the plumber came and I got a new faucet and the phone company finally got its act together and I thought things had finally settled down. But wouldn't you know it, this morning they cut my water off! Seems the guy who lived here before me hadn't paid his bill and somehow the office folks hadn't yet transferred my account.

So I really appreciated the passage I found a few minutes ago in Journey of Awakening by Ram Dass:

Did you ever have a bad day? Everything seems to go wrong and you are completely lost in anger, frustration, and self-pity. It gets worse and worse, until the final moment when, say, you have just missed the last bus. There is some critical point where it gets so bad the absurdity of it all overwhelms you and you can do nothing but laugh. At that moment you uplevel your predicament, you see the cosmic joke in your own suffering.

Meditation, because of the space it allows around events, gives you the chance to see the humor of your predicament. Awareness of the passing show of one's own life allows a lightness to enter in where only a moment before there was heaviness.

Humor puts things in perspective.

Doesn't it just? I really am so grateful for the meditative process because I can now laugh about situations that used to infuriate me. What's really fun is the ability to laugh at my own inner reactions. Meditation has taught me that I don't have to identify with my thoughts. So it's easy to sit loose to what arises in my mind and see it as enormously funny. Sometimes I don't do that instantly but I think the process works retroactively! At whatever point I'm able to see the humor in a situation, then the whole event is something I can take lightly. Try this: Sit for a few minutes in meditation and to whatever thought arises say, "Well, that's funny," and then return to the meditative support. Do this over a period of a week or so and see if your sense of humor doesn't expand. You'll be amazed!

Friday Cat Blogging!

Here's Leroy, just enjoying being a cat!
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Photo by Cynthia Burgess

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Natural changes

Meditation changes our lives. Really. But we don't need to force change or be impatient about it. Ram Dass speaks to this in his book, Journey of Awakening:

Though you can start meditation any time, it's harder if your life is chaotic, if you're feeling paranoid, if you're overwhelmed with responsibilities, or if you're sick. But even starting under these conditions, meditation will help you to clear things up a bit. Slowly you reorganize your life to support your spiritual journey. At each stage there will be something you can do to create a supportive space. It may mean changing your diet, who you're with, how you spend your time, what's on your walls, what books you read, what you fill your consciousness with, how you care for your body, or where and how you sit to meditate. All these factors contribute to the depth and freedom that you can know through meditation.

You are under no pressure to rush these changes. You need not fear that because of meditation you are going to lose control and get swept away by a new way of life. As you gradually develop a quiet and clear awareness, your living habits will naturally come into harmony with your total environment, with your past involvements, present interests, and future concerns. There need be no sudden ending of relationships in order to prove your holiness. Such frantic changes only show your own lack of faith. When you are one in truth, in the flow, the changes in your life will come naturally.

Forcing change is not necessary. But perseverance is. This is where the community of practitioners becomes so important. The support of others makes all the difference in our willingness to "keep on keeping on" with our meditative practice. And if we do this, we will, indeed, see the changes in our attitudes and behavior that promote well being and deep happiness.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Wednesday life form blogging

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Persistence

One of the books I recommend to beginning meditation students is Journey of Awakening: A Meditator's Guide Book by Ram Dass. Today I was thumbing through my copy and came across a passage about meditating whether you feel like it or not:

Many times in the course of meditation you will think of things you'd rather be doing. There may be moments of boredom, of sexual desire, doubt, or fatigue. At these moments you must call upon your faith. Faith in what? Faith in the power of meditation to change your awareness and your perspective about reality.
...
Along with faith comes the requirement for dogged persistence. At first meditation may bring you mild highs or some relief from suffering. But there may come a time - just as there does in the development of any skill - when there will be a plateau. You may be bored, discouraged, or even negative and cynical. This is when you will need not only faith, but persistence. Often you will find yourself in training that forces you
to sit when you wish you didn't have to. You subject yourself to this because something deeper within tells you to go on...

Even to the end of the journey faith is vulnerable. For example, though your faith may be strong enough to sit in meditation, if you mix with people who sneer at it, their skepticism may weaken your resolve. But if you stay with meditation, faith in your path will strengthen until you can withstand any criticism, even your own doubt and dark night of the soul.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

A natural kindness

Here's a quote I just found. I'm afraid I don't know who Geri Larkin is but I like what he or she said:

If we hold on to our humility, if we let go of our egos and stop clinging to whatever it is we're clinging to, we'll find the wonderful surprise that behind all that gunk is a natural kindness, a love for everyone and everything that we never thought we had. And if we let ourselves act from that place, we'll discover a kindness without limits and an unutterable peace.

-- Geri Larkin

That is truly beautiful. How wonderful to know that we don't have to create kindness in ourselves but that it is already there. All we need to do is get out of the way.

Update: Paul Rogers googled Geri Larkin and found this.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Monday Meditative Picture Blogging

Tom Vinson sent today's picture and here's what he said about it:

I was out in the back yard last night with the camera and took this. It's one of Miriam's climbing roses. There's only one flower on the vine right now, but one is enough.

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Learning to listen

One important aspect of mindfulness is the ability to hear what another person is saying. Lamya Surya Das speaks to this in Awakening the Buddha Within:

As we become more conscious, more aware, we discover the joys of listening and we let go of our need to broadcast. I call this opening the third ear, the inner ear of genuine listening. If we are sufficiently sensitive and aware, we can listen through all the senses.
...
Mirror-like awareness clearly reflects things just as they are, without distortion, coloring, or expectation. True listening is a way of stopping and being present so that whatever is being said is immediately apparent, as are all movements in the entire inner and out energy field. This is one aspect of developing awareness. It's a skill that good psychotherapists use to clearly reflect, without distortion or interference, whatever is brought up in a counseling session so that their clients can better see and know themselves, and in this way discover for themselves what they want and need. Freud called it hovering awareness, just being present without judgment or preconception.

It actually makes life more enjoyable to listen carefully and well. It enhances our ability to perceive things as they are and helps us make rich and meaningful connections with others.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

The value of effort

How do you harness your spiritual energy? Lama Surya Das talks about the importance of spiritual effort in this passage from Awakening the Buddha Within:

When Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living," the sentence struck such a profound chord of truth that even now, more than two thousand years after Socrates' death, these words continue to resound. It takes sincere spiritual effort to examine our lives and work at cultivating ourselves. Through introspection, prayer, and contemplation - mindfulness and awareness practices - we utilize the timeless, tried and true, effective inner science of spiritual awakening and transformation.

It's the transformation part that truly gladdens my heart! The transformation is real. Spiritual effort supports the kind of change in our lives that brings peace and happiness.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Working with thoughts

Here's another passage from Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das:

Of course you will have thoughts in meditation. Thoughts arise all the time, like waves on an ocean. You don't have to iron out the ocean. Just notice the waves as they arise and disappear on the ocean's surface. In meditation, we maintain that same attitude regarding our thoughts. We observe the process of thinking. We notice that there is a thought; we watch it arise, and we let it go and pass by as we continue breathing. As we get deeper in meditation, we notice that the breath gets more still, the body gets quieter, and the thoughts become calmer. This isn't the primary goal of meditation, but it is a beneficial side effect and sign of progress along the way.

Through meditation, we come to know that we are not our thoughts. As we develop what is often referred to as "a steady mind," our thoughts lose the power to upset us or throw us topsy-turvy. We learn that we have a life apart from our thoughts. We are not what we think. We create our thoughts and we are responsible for our thoughts, but we are not limited by them or enslaved by the thinking process.

The realization that we are not our thoughts can be revolutionary. Often people resist letting go of their thoughts for fear of losing their identity. But if we realize that our true nature is far deeper and more wonderful than what we think, there is no fear.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Friday Cat Blogging!

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Equanimity

I often ask people who come to talk to me to make friends with their anger or their fear or their painful memories or whatever is the occasion for their distress. This is often hard at first because our habitual tendency is to move away from these experiences rather than toward them. But this is truly the way to peace because "what we resist, persists". Pema Chodron describes this in a passage on equanimity in her book, The Places That Scare You:

Training in equanimity is learning to open the door to all, welcoming all beings, inviting life to come visit. Of course, as certain guests arrive, we'll feel fear and aversion. We allow ourselves to open the door just a crack if that's all that we can presently do, and we allow ourselves to shut the door when necessary. Cultivating equanimity is a work in progress. We aspire to spend our lives training in the loving-kindness and courage that it takes to receive whatever appears - sickness, health, poverty, wealth, sorrow, and joy. We welcome and get to know them all.

Try just beginning. Just begin to make friends with whatever is inside you. Slowly you will gain skill in this incredibly beneficial practice.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

This fleeting world

The Radiant Buddha said:

Regard this fleeting world like this:
Like stars fading and vanishing at dawn,
like bubbles on a fast moving stream,
like morning dewdrops evaporating on blades of grass,
like a candle flickering in a strong wind,
echoes, mirages and phantoms, hallucinations,
and like a dream.

-- the Eight Similes of Illusion,
from The Prajna Paramita Sutras

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Wednesday life form blogging

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Nirvana

I've just started a series of sessions in the ongoing classes here at the Center in which I'm using Lama Surya Das's Awakening the Buddha Within as something of a springboard. Here are two paragraphs on nirvana:

Where is nirvana? If it's not right here, it is nowhere. So how do we experience it? Jesus Christ taught that the kingdom of heaven is within, and always available to everyone. The Tibetan masters teach that nirvana is ever present, just on the other side of our knot of clinging. According to the Tibetan teachings of Dzogchen, we can actually experience nirvana in a moment. It's not something that we have to build up or fabricate; it's available through spiritual breakthrough. These are the "Aha!" experiences that can be precipitated by simply letting go, by relinquishing craving, attachment, greed, and delusion, by waking up even for a moment from the dream of our semiconscious lives.

The word nirvana etymologically means extinction of thirst and the annihilation of suffering. Buddhist masters teach that within each of us there is always a fire. Sometimes this fire is quietly smoldering; other times it is raging out of control. This fire is caused by the friction of duality rubbing against itself, like two sticks. This friction is generated by me (as subject) wanting other (as object) and the interaction between the two. This ever-present friction that irritates us blazes up into the fires of suffering. When we realize emptiness and perfect oneness with all, the fires of duality go out. When even the embers themselves are cool, when conflicting emotions are no longer burning us - this is nirvana, the end of dissatisfaction and suffering. This is liberation; this is bliss; this is true freedom.
Sometimes I am just amazed and overcome with gratitude when I realize how unnecessary suffering is. The kingdom of heaven really is within!

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Notice what you notice

Here's another passage from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism:

Quieting your mind is like calming your breath. You're not trying to make anything happen. Your job's just to breathe and observe. Observe your breath, and all its qualities. And if thoughts come, observe them, too - but don't invite them to sit down with you for tea. Unattended, they'll go off on their own merry way. ("All conditioned things have their arising, and their passing away.")

Be like a mirror, or mountain lake, that reflects whatever passes before it. Tibetan Buddhists suggest just watching your thoughts the way an old person on a park bench watches children at play, without paying attention to which kids are yours or not. You thoughts aren't necessarily you. By your not identifying with them, they dwindle away.

I really like the image of an old person on a park bench watching children play. It's loose, spacious, accepting, free. And I can easily imagine myself actually doing it and experiencing that as restful while still having my mind be alert.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Monday Meditative Picture Blogging

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Four Limitless Qualities

Pema Chodron talks about the four limitless qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity in her wonderful book, The Places That Scare You. She refers to the importance of aspiration in cultivating these qualities:

Aspiration practice is different from making affirmations. Affirmations are like telling yourself that you are compassionate and brave in order to hide the fact that secretly you feel like a loser. In practicing the four limitless qualities, we aren't trying to convince ourselves of anything, nor are we trying to hide our true feelings. We are expressing our willingness to open our hearts and move closer to our fears. Aspiration practice helps us to do this in increasingly difficult relationships.

If we acknowledge the love, compassion. joy, and equanimity that we feel now and nurture it through these practices, the expansion of those qualities will happen by itself. Awakening the four qualities provides the necessary warmth for an unlimited strength to emerge. They have the power to loosen up useless habits and to melt the ice-hardness of our fixations and defenses. We are not forcing ourselves to be good. When we see how cold or aggressive we can be, we aren't asking ourselves to repent. Rather, these aspiration practices develop our ability to remain steadfast with our experience, whatever it may be. In this way we come to know the difference between a closed and an open mind, gradually developing the self-awareness and kindness we need to benefit others. These practices unblock our love and compassion, joy and equanimity, tapping into their boundless potential to expand.

I love the word "aspiration" because it is about energy and motivation but it keeps me in the moment rather than the word "goal" which is about the future. I commend it to you!

Sunday, April 10, 2005

The birds of spring

I really don't know much about birds so I can hardly consider myself a bird watcher but I truly enjoy seeing them each spring as they appear and go about their wonderful nesting activities. And so a couple of paragraphs in Precious Solitude on the subject really spoke to me this morning. Ruth Fishel writes:

Birdwatching is an activity that can be done with other people and still be a source of solitude, says author and therapist Sandy Bierig. She finds birdwatching a solitary adventure, taking her totally away from everything else. Once can become so absorbed in identifying each species, keeping track of the number of birds one finds in each species, naming them, and recording them that it doesn't matter how many other people are in the same area.

Sandy finds birdwatching nourishing and balancing. As a therapist who spends a great deal of time with other people, birdwatching fills her need to get away and find quiet time connecting with nature. She calls it a "respectable form of loitering."

I like that concept: "A respectable form of loitering"!!! I feel that way browsing among the books of a busy book store. There are lots of people around and yet I experience quality solitude in that situation. Walking my dog is like that too. I encourage each one of us to make a list of "loitering" activities that work for us. Then there is always a way of availing ourselves of rich and healthy quiet time alone.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The great aspiration

Today I picked up my copy of Pema Chodron's The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. Sometimes I think it's easy for us to go about our daily lives in a routine way and forget what's really at stake regarding our meditative practice. Pema Chodron has this marvelous paragraph in a chapter entitled, The Facts of Life:

How are we going to spend this brief lifetime? Are we going to strengthen our well-perfected ability to struggle against uncertainty, or are we going to train in letting go? Are we going to hold on stubbornly to "I'm like this and you're like that"? Or are we going to move beyond that narrow mind? Could we start to train as a warrior, aspiring to reconnect with the natural flexibility of our being and to help others do the same? If we start to move in this direction, limitless possibilities will begin to open up.

Powerful questions I think. And I like the idea of "warrior training". Much is at stake. Let us ever guard against complacency!

Friday, April 08, 2005

Friday Cat Blogging!

This is Tux Rains who lives in the home of Center participants Paul and Adrienne Rogers.
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Embracing Solitude

I'm sorry there was no update yesterday on the Meditation Matters blog. The Blogger program was acting up and wouldn't let me post. So I'm offering a make up entry now.

Here's another passage from Ruth Fishel's wonderful book, Precious Solitude:

Many times solitude has no special agenda at all. Those are the times when we aren't trying to solve or resolve anything. We are simply taking the time to be with ourselves. To be with whatever it si we discover. We just want to relax, get away from the turmoil of our daily routines, and rest within the silence. We want to renew, connect with our inner resources, and thus find serenity.

I so agree. I remember some years ago listening to a tape by Ram Dass in which he referred to his many years of intense and rather concentrated training in meditation and then one day realizing that he just wanted to sit and be quiet. Actually, that is a meditative practice! Just sit and be quiet. I recommend it. Nothing complicated. Nothing difficult. Just be with yourself and be okay about it.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Wednesday life form blogging

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Be still

"Be still and know that I am God." (Psalm 46) "Be still" means to become peaceful and concentrated. The Buddhist term is samatha (stopping, calming). "Know" means to acquire wisdom or understanding. The Buddhist term is vipassana (insight or looking deeply). When we are still, looking deeply, and touching the source of our true wisdom, we touch the living Buddha and the living Christ in ourselves and each person we meet.
-- Thich Nhat Hanh

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Fear in Meditation

Sometimes people resist meditation because they are afraid of not knowing themselves if and when meditation prompts real change. This is normal and the trick is not to judge the fear but to accept it deeply and then meditate anyway! Lama Surya Das speaks to this in his book Awakening the Buddha Within:

We might fear that we will lose our reference points and not know who we are or why we are doing things. We experience tremendous fear of the unkown. We worry that by going beyond ourselves we will go over the edge and lose ourselves. This fear is a response we can anticipate as the ego begins to lose its grip, and we start moving away from our habitual ruts and patterns of thinking. A spiritual path does not mean walking over the edge. If anything it is propelling us back to the center, the Golden Mean - back to health, sanity, and authenticity. All we are doing is opening up to truth and reality - the bigger picture.
For me, that bigger picture is always about freedom. I know that the way to inner freedom is through cultivating a well trained mind. Keep this aspiration always in mind and whatever fear arises will be manageable. And remember impermanence! Every feeling that arises will pass. We can count on that.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Monday Meditative Picture Blogging

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About Tonglen

Here at St. John's Center we are trained in the practice of tonglen during session 6 of the Foundations in Meditative Practice course. Tonglen is a Tibetan word that simply means "sending and taking". It is a compassion practice in that we visualize taking suffering off of someone and then sending that person health, healing and wholeness. Here is a passage on tonglen taken from Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das:

As we think, so we become. The tonglen meditation is done with the hope of healing one's attitude and restoring it to wholeness, as well as healing the troubles of the world. It helps train us to be genuinely present with difficult situations, and to bring more enlightened principles into daily life, without excessive reactivity. Through tonglen practice, we can change the entire atmosphere. We can loosen up and dissolve the dualism between light and dark, good and bad, positive and negative, wanted and unwanted circumstances. We take in the bad, and we give away all that is desirable. We do this as an exercise in generosity, transcendence, and nonattachment.

Tonglen helps me in every situation. When I'm feeling really great, it is marvelous to give that feeling away. When I'm feeling terrible, then I instantly feel stronger by being willing to breathe in someone else's difficulty and send that person happiness. No matter how I'm feeling, tonglen makes it better! Be sure to start with yourself first and then do the practice for whatever suffering being has come to your attention. This is a powerful, life changing, life enriching practice. I truly recommend it.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Awareness

Here is another passage from Precious Solitude by Ruth Fishel. I really like how she breaks down the experiential components of awareness. Most of us, most of the time, tend to value awareness because of what comes next. In other words, we want to be aware in order to make a decision or we want to be aware in order to get some specific information. But what would it be like to be aware just in order to be aware? We can cultivate awareness for its own sake. Fishel describes what that's like:

When we can let go of our "to-do" list and outside distractions we can simply be in the present moment. This offers us the opportunity to become aware of what is actually going on in any given moment. There are three levels. First there is the feeling. Then there is the awareness of the feeling. For example, I experienced a deep sense of inner peace. I then became aware that the boundaries of my skin felt softer and somehow merged with the air around me. Then I became aware that I was aware of this extraordinary feeling. Most of the time we are experiencing life and reacting with feelings. Solitude opens the door for us to be aware of our experiences, our feelings, and our reactions to them. This leads to our really getting to know ourselves at a much deeper level.

Meditation is only one way of expanding our state of consciousness. Prayer, visualizing and guided imagery can bring us to this place... [F]asting, chanting, drumming, dancing, running, and following a labyrinth can bring you there, too. It is a very spiritual state where one can feel connected with the entire universe. It is here that we find ourselves, the very essence of ourselves. We connect with our soul.
I can say from experience that all the methods Fishel mentions do, indeed, work. They are all aspects of spiritual practice. I really do encourage everyone to take part in those practices that appeal to you. I especially want to recommend walking the labyrinth. I wish we had room for one in the Center's meditation hall. But there are often opportunities to participate in labyrinth workshops and it's a good idea to keep one's eye open for them. Running and dancing can be done anytime as can prayer and visualization. There are many wonderful tapes and CDs available for guided imagery as well as for chanting. Please don't fast for very long unless you have experience with this but missing one meal won't hurt anybody and if you combine it with meditation you will experience the benefits from this ancient ascetic practice. One thing is certain: there are so many practices to choose from that one need never be bored on the spiritual path!

Saturday, April 02, 2005

The least you need to know

I finally replaced my copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism by Gary Gach. It's really quite excellent. My original copy was borrowed some years ago and never made its way home and I've definitely missed it. As it happens I was wandering around in Barnes and Noble yesterday and so I picked up a copy. This morning I looked through the chapter on meditation and decided to share with you some points at the very end labeled, "The Least You Need to Know":

* Meditation's like that center referred to when people speak of being centered. A grounding. Integral to wisdom and conscious conduct, it's a key to continual practice.

* Posture matters. The body isn't something to be escaped.

* Breath is a natural interface between body and mind, always available to us to work with. Conscious or mindful breathing means being aware of your breathing. Nothing else.

* You're not trying to control your breath, or your mind. Just be aware. Stopping and just being aware can calm your breath - and your mind.

*Quieting the mind doesn't mean turning into a stone statue. Trying to banish thoughts and control your mind only creates more thoughts and restless mind. Simple awareness can clear mental clutter and sharpen your mind.

* More than mere stretching, walking meditation is a powerful practice.

* Take a friendly attitude toward your mind. Everyone encounters difficulties. Learn from others' wisdom about common hurdles in meditation.
I'm always so glad when I find examples in the published works that emphasize the fact that we're not trying to exert control over our minds when we're meditating. One of the most challenging aspects of teaching meditation is that people often simply don't believe me on this issue. I'm amazed at the number of people who come to class convinced that they are only meditating if they force their minds into a certain rigidity. That, of course, is not meditation at all but its opposite because it is a form of grasping and judgmentalism toward the mind. Remember: rest the mind, rest the mind. Meditation is meant to settle the mind and help us relax.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Friday Cat Blogging!

Susan Jackson gave me this wonderful meditating cat!
Image hosted by Photobucket.com
Photo by Cynthia Burgess

Acceptance - all the way

It is a state of peace to be able to accept things as they are. This is to be at home in our own lives.
-- Sharon Salzberg

Today I want to offer you another passage from Precious Solitude by Ruth Fishel. I really think that everyone knows deep down that the way to peace and happiness is acceptance. But our culture which teaches us to grasp for what we want also teaches us resistance to this great truth. So we need all the reminders we can get. Here's another one:

Happiness and peace of mind don't have to be dependent on outside conditions. For example, a mother with young children finds less opportunities to take time for herself than someone who is retired. That's just the way it is. Unless you have a great deal of help, you probably have very little time for yourself. This is the simple truth of where you are in your life right now. The more you resist this and resent your reality, the more you suffer.

Perhaps you're older and living in a nursing home, or with a relative, where you must adhere to other people's schedules and rules. You might have more time than you want to yourself. Perhaps there are new situations over which you are powerless, such as your health, or when and what you eat. The more we resist and resent this reality, the more we suffer.

The secret is the same, no matter where we are in our lives. How can we accept that where and what we are doing is exactly where we need to be at this particular time in our lives? By taking our own quiet time, we can build within us the inner serenity that allows us to find a measure of peace, whatever our circumstances.

Remember, we will know what to do with that quiet time by being diligent in our meditative practice. When meditation has become a habit, we always know what to do with extra time and we also know how to be mindful when it seems as if we have no time.