"Mindfulness Practice isn't just about escaping to some magical inner realm devoid of life's challenges. The Practice is about calming your mind and opening your heart enough to engage Life directly, to be more fully Present in a kind, clear, and helpful way."

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The Musings of a Long-time Student of Meditation

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Oh, Good Grief!

"Nothing is more natural than grief, 
no emotion more common to our daily experience.  
It's an innate response to loss in a world where everything is impermanent."
-- Stephen Levine, Unattended Sorrow

"The problem, therefore, lies not with our pain for the world, 
but in our repression of it."
-- Joanna Macy, Coming Back to Life

Five years ago, on January 17, 2016. poet, author, and Spiritual Teacher, Stephen Levine, died at home after a long illness.  I was fortunate enough to attend a Conscious Living, Conscious Dying retreat with Stephen and his wife, Ondrea, years ago.  There, I experienced, first-hand, his ability to create a Community of Healing over the course of five days.  
 
About 300 people were gathered there at Mount Madonna Center.  About one third of those attending were terminally ill.  Another third were their loved ones.  I was a member of the final third, people involved with the emerging hospice movement.
 
What I experienced during that retreat was astounding.  Levine's talent of crafting and delivering guided meditations and interactive experiences allowed me, and many other folks, to access the Open Heart of Awareness.  With Levine's passing, the world lost a Master Guide.

I wrote the following post two years before his passing.  The piece also highlights the work of another gifted Teacher, Joanna Macy that I had the privilege to practice with along this long and winding trail of Practice.  She, too, continues to be a guiding light for me.  I'm sure that Stephen won't mind sharing the limelight here.  In my experience his light, and hers, are inseparable from the Boundless Light!

*Originally Published, November 21, 2014. 

With the events of the past month, the emergence of grief in my life seems to be a reoccurring theme.  I awoke in tears from a lucid dream a few minutes ago.  As I transitioned from dreaming to the waking state, I felt my heart open through grief into the boundless spaciousness of the One Love.  I came fully awake feeling energized, grateful --  and at peace.  I was ready to face the day.

I'm no expert practitioner, but it seems that my renewed focus on Dream Yoga is working.  Extending Practice into the borderland of mind states that emerge in and out of dreams has been rewarding.  It's nice to be able to sleep on the job.

Although the recent dreams I've had of levitation and flying have been a lot more "fun," I'm deeply grateful to have had this dream emerge from the cradle of an afternoon nap.  At age 68, I've found Napping Practice to be quite wonderful.
 
The dream gave me an opportunity to further process the losses that have incurred in my life, and to move through personal grief to connect more deeply with the genuine heart of sadness that is part of our shared human condition. I've found that tears are often the key that unlocks the Gateless Gate to the One Love. A good cry can be the portal to boundless beauty, joy and gratitude.  As Jesus proclaimed long ago, "Blessed be those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

In the Dream State, I did -- and I was.

Grief is rarely that easy, but thankfully, it's become easier over the years. I've had lots of help.  I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to attend retreats with two contemporary American Buddhist masters of a "good cry":  Stephen Levine and Joanna Macy.  Although the focus of their work is different (Levine serves in the field of death and dying. Macy empowers ecological activists), each of these gifted Teachers gets to the Heart of the Matter with incredible grace, insight and skill.  Through periods of silent meditation, guided meditations, talks, and experiential exercises, they each have the ability to skillfully guide their retreat participants toward an experience of the Open Heart of Awareness.  True spiritual elders (Macy is 85. Levine, 77), they each are able to bring the essence of the Teachings out of the Sutra books and into real, lived experiences.  Through their being and the gatherings they create, they each bring the limitless energy of love, compassion and forgiveness to Life.  
 
It is a high and holy magic.
(READ MORE)

Saturday, January 2, 2021

In It for the Long Haul

  “Be still.  Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity.
When there is silence one finds the anchor of the universe within oneself.”
― Lao Tzu

"As the mind becomes a little more quiet the sacredness of everything 
within and without becomes clear to us.”
-- Zen Teacher Norman Fischer
 


Well,  the 12th Day of Christmas has come and gone.  I'm pleased to finally bid farewell to the holiday season.  
 
Even with the traditional travels and family gatherings reduced to telephone calls, texts, Facebook, and fleeting moments on Zoom, it's been a busy, and oftentimes unsettling, holiday season.

In the midst of the scurry of the past couple of weeks, I was especially aware of how precious each morning's meditation was to me.  
 
Although this year I was able to avoid the energy of the "over the top" Christmas morning paper ripping rampages that characterize our cultures distorted and materialistic celebration, I'm still a parent and grandparent.  I hopped on-line -- and went a bit crazy.  
 
There, in the realm of clicking mice and cyber-versions of real goods, a series of on-line buying misadventures added hours and hours of sometimes stressful re-do's to my world.  It took a long time before everything was finally signed, sealed and delivered.  Thankfully, I was able to fall back on the tradition of the Christmastide and give myself a bit of elbowroom.
 
Sitting here now, mindful of my breath and body, relaxing into the space that surrounds these sensations, I come to rest in this moment's open awareness.  In my mind's eye,  I can see light at the end of the tunnel.  Continuing to relax and open, the tunnel and the light dissolve into the clear, luminous brilliance that is beyond endings and beginnings.  Sitting still, my heart glows in gratitude for Practice.  
 
Touching Stillness, even for a few brief moments, is like feeling the warm glow of a fireplace, snuggling at home on a snowy evening peering through the window at the moon.  Paradoxically, it's also like sipping clear, crisp spring water on a steamy summer day.  In Stillness, the Presence emerges.  In a silent whisper, it sings of the Ineffable, that infinite space where the fundamentally mysterious and completely ordinary meet to form the fabric of Life itself.  

Just Sitting Still
 
Although I use a variety of meditation techniques, the foundation of my personal practice for decades has been shikantaza: Just Sitting Still.  Seated erect, my attention is allowed to rest in the moment to moment experience of breath, body, and the expansive spaciousness of an open heart and mind.  I simply Sit with what Zen teacher Norman Fischer calls "the basic feeling of being alive."  This is often easier said than done.  It takes Practice.

Conditioned as we are, our attention is usually drawn into the thoughts and images and memories and daydreams cascading through our mind.  Rather than sitting still, observing the present moment with a relaxed open gaze, we find ourselves scurrying along the sidewalks of New York City, or rewriting a scene from yesterday's argument to put us in a better light, or working out the budget for the month...
 
This happens, again and again and again.  

Yet, the moment we simply notice this, a moment of Practice emerges.  If that noticing is clear, open, calm, and non-judgmental, we have engaged Mindfulness, a qualitatively different mode of consciousness.  Mindfulness becomes the Gateless Gate to Pure Awareness.  As Practice deepens, there are times that Reality Asserts Itself.  In a flash, we are Present in a qualitatively different way -- and we know it.  Ultimately, we come home to our True Nature.  We realize that that we are inseparable from the Universe.  
 
At times, it is just that simple.  Yet, simple doesn't necessarily mean easy.

Throughout our lives, we have developed complexes of thoughts and emotions that have a great deal of power over us.  They arise, unbidden, to dominate our attention.  Without Practice, we are unconsciously propelled into each moment by our past, again and again. 
 
Much of who we are at any one moment, the way we "see" and react to our experience, is just a bad habit.  We are, literally, creatures of habit.  Most of the time, we don't choose to think what we are thinking or to feel what we are feeling.  It just bubbles up from our subconscious.  Without Practice, without a conscious commitment to put in the time and effort to discover who we really are, we are held in bondage by our past.  Without Practice, moment to moment, we are likely to continue to create a future that contains the same old, same old, suffering that characterizes much of the human condition.   
 
Thankfully, there is Practice.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

All Is Calm. All is Bright.

“When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it's bottomless, that it doesn't have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there, as well as how much space.”
― Pema Chödrön
 
Hold the sadness and pain of samsara in your heart and at the same time the power and vision of the Great Eastern Sun. Then the warrior 
can make a proper cup of tea.”
― Chögyam Trungpa


Outside the window, a brilliant white sun danced in a somewhat milky blue sky as I took my seat for this morning's meditation.  With a temperature in the upper 20's, it seemed like winter again.

Yesterday, Christmas Day, it sure didn't.
 
Here in Western Massachusetts, the temperatures had risen into the 60's by dawn.  Gale force winds and torrential rains swept through New England much of the day, leaving downed trees and power outages in their wake.  It seemed more like March than December.

With this thought, I immediately notice myself face-to face with the specter of the Global Climate Crisis.  It seems clear at this moment.  As a species we are racing toward an environmental armageddon.   Sitting here, I notice more thoughts tumble into view, then let them dissolve as I bring my attention to the feelings flowing through my awareness.  Fear, frustration, helplessness, horror, and more emerge.  Then they all melt into then a deep sadness as I soften, and open my heart.

Continuing to breath into my heart, I know that others feel this deep sadness too.  Opening, softening, inhaling deeply and slowly, I breath the fullness of this feeling into my heart as I recite two of the traditional Brahmavihara phrases:  "May all beings be safe. May all beings be free from suffering and the roots of suffering."

As the in breath continues, I notice a sense of spaciousness re-emerge as first my belly, then my rib cage expand.  My tender, warm, achy-breaky heart is comforted in the embrace of a calm, clear, expansive open awareness that seems to extend throughout and beyond space and time as the in-breath continues. 

As in-breath becomes out-breath, the words "May all beings be at peace" float on that breath as it dissolves outward into the Essential Oneness.  In my mind's eye glows a translucent visualization of the clear and brilliant eyes of countless beings resting in full awareness of their Buddha nature.  The visualization radiates outward from my heart on the wings of the out breath.

I continued Practicing this for awhile.  Breathing in.  Breathing out.
 
Sitting here now, my heart glows as deep joy dances with soft melancholy.  I've come to rest in the vast expansiveness of the One Love which resides deeply within each of us -- and infinitely beyond us all.  The world continues to glisten outside the window. 
 
All is calm.  All is bright.
 
Now, once again, I renew my vow to be clear enough and kind enough to help bring about the changes needed to create a sustainable, cooperative, and peaceful world.  Now, once again, I'm ready to face the day.  
 
How about you?

(For more on Tonglen Practice, see The Practice of Tonglen by Pema Chodron)

Originally posted December 2015.  Revised today as part of my morning Practice.