"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

Friday, January 22, 2021

The Heart of the Matter

"My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness."
--Dalai Lama

"What we expect is to be truthful; to be kind; to try to share; to try to love one another. Some folks don’t recognize that as a discipline: They say, "Oh, that old stuff…." And it may not sound too difficult, unless you’ve ever tried it. But if you ever try it, 
you’ll know it’s an exacting discipline."
--Stephan Gaskin, This Season's People

 
The only time I saw a somewhat severe Burmese Buddhist meditation master break into a belly laugh was when he raised his hand to his head as he spoke.  The entire crew of monks sitting behind him on stage at IMS also dissolved into laughter. 
 
After a few moments, regaining his composure, he then placed his hand to his heart and continued.  Although I don't remember the exact words his interpreter used, the point was obvious:  Westerners believe the mind is in the head, we know that it resides in our heart. 
 
That certainly resonated with my own understanding.  Jesus, Buddha,  -- and the Beatles -- had it right.  It's all a matter of Heart.  Love is all you need
 
Yes.  It's just that simple.  But, of course, it ain't easy.  Staying connected with our Heart, being truly kind, clear, and compassionate is, like Stephan Gaskin pointed out years ago, an exacting discipline.

Getting It Together 

In 1976, I learned from Reverend Gyomay Kubose, my first Zen teacher that heart, mind, and spirit are actually the same word in Japanese.  Derived from a Chinese character, the word shin makes no distinction between these three realms of existence.  Our bodies, our minds, and our spirit are a seamless whole.  Although we can conceptualize them as distinctly different, in Reality they are one. So is everything else that is, has been, and could possibly ever be.

Really!?

Conditioned as we are in society on materialistic overdrive, it sure doesn't feel that way for most of us much of the time, right? We experience ourselves as separate, isolated beings, our bodies doing one thing our minds another.  In our heart of hearts we aspire to be a certain way, and yet we stumble ahead doing the opposite.  It's disheartening.  That's what led me to meditation. Following a deep yearning in my heart of hearts, I was intent on "getting it together"to live a life of Integrity.  

This process began, and continues on, with the commitment to spend time carefully observing how heart/mind/spirit operates within my own experience, to discover the ways that my conditioning operates to separate me from my own heart, from others, and from the exquisite intricate Web of Life.  

With Practice, both on and off the zafu, I began to get a handle on how to slowly and gently become the person that, in my heart of hearts,  I yearned to be.  

Then, at a certain point in meditation at Zen Mountain Monastery years ago, I realized that I actually AM the person I yearned to be--and always have been!  At that moment, in a torrent of tears, I knew that with all my flaws, with my abundant neuroses and conditioned patterns,  that I was absolutely perfect as is--and so is everybody else!

Nothing had really changed.  I was still sitting there in the meditation hall with sunshine streaming through the windows.  But, everything had really changed.

It Just Takes Practice 

Zen Master Suzuki-roshi once said:  Each of you is perfect the way you are ... and you can use a little improvement.”  I've noticed that smiles and laughter often emerge when I've shared this quote in the Mindfulness Circles. In his own inimitable style Suzuki-roshi had reached beyond logical paradox (how can you improve on perfection?), to express the heart of the matter.  In fact, the major question that propelled Eihei Dogen, the founder of the Soto School of Zen, to leave Japan and seek a teacher in China was "If we are all already perfect, why bother practicing meditation?"
(READ MORE)

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.