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

Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call! Musings on Life and Practice by a Long-time Student of Meditation.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The End Game

"Healing is bringing mercy and Awareness into that which we have held in judgment and fear."
-- Stephen Levine, Who Dies?: An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying

"At a fundamental level we can acknowledge hardening; at that point we can train in learning to soften. It might be that sometimes we can acknowledge but we can’t do anything else, and at other times we can both acknowledge and soften. "
-- Pema Chödrön, "Signs of Spiritual Progress", Lion's Roar


When Chico climbed the fence to face his death a couple of weeks ago, it seems that he was in the vanguard.*  Since then two folks in our circle of human friends have been touched by the death of loved ones and we have learned that a family member now faces an inoperable, life-threatening condition.  

Sometimes, life is like that.  

In fact, when you take the long view, life is always like that.  As Suzuki Roshi once said, " Life is like stepping onto a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink."  The moment we are born, we're headed on a trajectory that ends in death.  Although what happens at the end point is a Grand Mystery, one thing is pretty obvious:  Life itself is a terminal condition.   

Yet, in mainstream society today, it seems that most of us assiduously avoid bringing that aspect of the journey into the our awareness.  Until our boat (or that of a loved one) is about to sink,  we don't seem to want to rock that boat -- and face that sinking feeling that may emerge.  Yet, at a fundamental level, it seems to me that until we do, we will not be able to engage our lives fully and directly with an open heart and clear mind.  

Buddhism makes no bones about it.  In the Theravadan tradition, Asian teachers still cite the Satipatthana Sutta of the Pali Canon and send monks off to meditate on corpses at the charnel grounds.  That may be a bit hard core for Western practitioners who, unlike their Asian counterparts, are generally shielded from the reality of death and dying.  Yet, even the Mahayana traditions that practice here in the West call for some focus on death.  A recognition of the inescapability of death is one of the Four Reminders in the preliminary contemplations seen as necessary to begin the Lojong Trainings of Tibetan Buddhism, and is one of the Five Remembrances chanted regularly in Zen services.  

So what is the deal here?  Why is an awareness of our inevitable demise so important?
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Thursday, October 23, 2014

What Now?

"Life will give you whatever experience is helpful for the evolution of your consciousness.
How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience
you are having at the moment."
― Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose

“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”
― Pema Chödrön


After raining heavily all night, the sun broke out as I came upstairs a few minutes ago.  Streaming through the south facing windows of my room here at 108 House, it played across the floor as I entered.  The windblown dance of light and shadow, woven of sun, tree and partially open blinds brought a smile to my face.

Then, as quickly as it had emerged, the sun again disappeared into the thick sea of gray clouds.  That brought a smile to my face as well.  

I walked over to raise the blinds, expecting to see the glistening, now pink-brown, late autumn leaves of the maple tree outside the window waving in the wind.  Startled, I was face to face with the stark gray brown of empty branches.  Only a few leaves, scattered among the wet branches remained.  "Oh yeah," I thought. "It rained hard all night.  Duh."  I smiled again.

I guess I'm pretty easy these days -- at least much of the time

Once the fundamental Impermanence of what Uchiyama Roshi called "the scenery of our lives" is directly seen -- and accepted -- we have the opportunity to embrace Life with an increasing degree of grace and kindness.  Within the ever-flowing energies that we encounter, there is always nothing more, and nothing less, than Life as it exists in the Present Moment.  Although the thoughts and emotions that emerge from the causes and conditions of our personal and collective histories can make it appear otherwise, what is right there in front of us is a constant invitation to the Dance.  We can either explore the possibility of opening our hearts and minds (and our eyes and ears and arms, etc.) to appreciate the Absolute Miracle of the Mystery that we are part of -- or not.  It's just that simple.

Of course, simple doesn't necessarily mean easy.  
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Friday, October 17, 2014

And The Seasons Go Round and Round...

“I have seen many die, surrounded by loved ones, and their last words were ‘I love you.’ 
There were some who could no longer speak yet with their eyes and soft smile left behind that same healing message. I have been in rooms where those who were dying 
made it feel like sacred ground. ”
― Stephen Levine,
A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
― Jesus of Nazareth

"Enlightenment for a wave is the moment the wave realizes it is water.  
At that moment all fear of death disappears."
― Thich Nhat Hanh

Chico
I could see it in his eyes.  Something had shifted.  Chico was different. 

After accepting the constraints of the backyard fence for years, our beloved bundle of canine energy had learned how to climb the fence and escape.  For the past couple of days, whenever he and his sidekick Pedra were released into the backyard, Chico would immediately run to the corner of the yard and inelegantly, but effectively,  hoist his chihuahua/terrier frame over the man-made barrier to run freely through the fields and forests surrounding the house.  Although with his newfound wildness he had uncharacteristically ignored my calls and commands to "come",  I had always been able to coax him back -- eventually.

Unfortunately, Betsy and I hadn't fully appreciated what his new found wildness meant.  The other night, we let Chico and Pedra out to do their business in the evening and Chico didn't return.  Although we didn't realize it until the next morning, our newly reincarnated creature of the wild had shed the fetters of his domestication.  A Free Being, his senses fully alive in the crisp air of the night, our precious Chico was off to meet his Destiny

To Every Thing There is a Season

Betsy spied his lifeless body a couple hundred yards away from the cottage the next morning and asked me to retrieve it.   With a heavy heart I walked down the hill.  It appeared Chico had encountered another creature of the wild during the night.  Within the wildness, it was simply a matter of Life --  and Death.

As I returned with his body, Betsy had already begun digging his grave amidst the flowers in the garden behind the house.  I sobbed as I completed the task of burying his body.  For us humanoids, Life and Death is not such a simple matter -- especially in our society, where we are conditioned to assiduously avoid facing the inevitability our demise.   

The stark truth is that none of us are going to get out of here alive.  Death is an unavoidable tragedy.  The greater tragedy is that the opportunity to truly open our hearts to ourselves, one another and to the miracle of life itself through an deep and honest exploration of death and dying is generally not taken.  

It doesn't have to be this way.

Conscious Living.  Conscious Dying

I had the good fortune to attend "Conscious Living. Conscious Dying", a retreat offered by Steven and Ondrea Levine years ago.  With incredible grace and skill,  these two masters of openheartedness created a meditative and caring community over the course of five days among the nearly 300 people gathered at Mt. Madonna Center in Northern California.  Although about a third of the participants were, like myself, caregivers exploring tools useful in hospice work, this was not just a stock "professional" workshop on the theory of confronting the issues surrounding death and dying.  Two thirds of the participants were already face to face with the reality of the final frontier.  They were either terminally ill themselves or with loved ones who were. 

This wasn't just theory.  This was Practice. 

Through periods of silent meditation, guided meditations and exercises, talks and conversation, each person there had the opportunity to explore the armoring around their heart, the frozen grief and fear we each accumulate through the years of our lives in a society that generally doesn't support the honest and skillful exploration of our emotions and our ideas about either life or death.   For me, the experience of progressively accessing that armoring to feel it fully and release it in the Shared Heartspace that was created through a sequence of guided Grief and Forgiveness Meditations was profoundly healing.  It didn't seem that I was alone in that. during the closing exercise on the fifth day, it felt like I was dancing to Pachebel's Canon with a room full of open-hearted angels .  

Being There Together

Perhaps the most deeply inspiring moments came for me during the final moments of a guided two person meditation that the Levine's had adapted from a Tibetan Practice used by monks gathered at the bedside of a dying person.  My partner was a man named Eddie who had entered the final stages of his encounter with AIDS.  

Under Stephen's instruction, each of us in turn took the position of laying down on our back and focusing our attention on our breath as the other person sat meditatively to carefully observe the rising and falling of our chests/bellies.   The seated person was instructed to synchronize his breathing with the that of the person laying down and then entone the syllable "AHHHHHHH" during each shared outbreath.  In the 40 minutes that ensued (20 minutes each), each of us became aware of the deep, deep calm and clarity of a vast and spacious mind. 

That, in itself, would have been enough, right?  It gets better.
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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Give It A Rest, Buddhy!

"Be still and know that I am God!"
-- Psalm 46:10

"We seem to have lost the ability to just be quiet, 
to simply be present in the stillness that is the foundation of our lives. Yet if we never get in touch with that stillness, we never fully experience our lives."  
-- Roshi John Daido Loori, Finding the Still Point



As someone who is halfway through my 69th year of life on planet earth, I grin when I find myself sometimes talking about "the good old days."  I used to roll my eyes whenever Dad tuned into that particular channel to proclaim that "progress' had distinct problems.  As Bob Dylan once sang, " Ah, but I was so much older then.  I'm younger than that now."

As I glance at the cellphone sitting alongside the keyboard and notice that I'm currently sitting here with 6 tabs of information on this browser awaiting my beck and call (quotes, pictures, wikepedia, dictionary, email, blogger), I am quite aware that there is something deeply unsettling about the nature of "life as we know it" on planet earth today -- at least here in 21st century America.  Having compared notes with other geezers, it seems there is a consensus: The rat race has only gotten worse.

Although, I can't speak about how it may feel in other parts of the world today, I do remember having a conversation with an immigrant from Vietnam years ago, a co-worker in a spiffy New Age natural foods restaurant, bakery, retail store complex in Madison, WI.  As we sat in the alley out back (with one eye out for the manager), he lamented that the entire pace of life in the U.S. was unhealthy, uncivilized and inhumane.  Communist or not, he was planning on trying to return to his homeland.  And that was thirty years ago, when I still had time to sigh and stretch after work, reach for the TV Guide, look through the listings, then get out of the chair to stroll across the room to change the channel. 

Now, in today's world, it seems that most of are on remote control,  wired for action in most every waking moment --or thinking about it.  Even "at rest", our thumbs twitch, and we are on the move with a dizzying kaleidoscope of images and sounds and thoughts zipping through our awareness continuously.   Awash in constant stimulation, scurry, and noise, time seems to have collapsed -- leaving no time at all.  

And -- surprise, surprise -- most of us are left feeling breathless; increasingly stressed out, restless and anxious.    

Give it a Rest, Buddhy!

In all the major religious traditions that I've studied over the years, there is a deep recognition that Stillness and Rest are not only important -- they are crucial.  As mystics throughout the ages have proclaimed, at the core of Reality, there is Quiescence, a Profound Stillness.  It is an essential part of Our Being.  Although we can get swept up in the activity and constant sensory bombardment of today's world, I think it's important to remember that even the OmniProductive God of the Old Testament, working hard enough to create the entire Universe in only six days, then took a day off  --and proclaimed it Holy!

Of course, as God Almighty, Yahweh could probably kick back and settle right into the Stillness.   For most of us, 
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Friday, October 3, 2014

Down in the Valley

"The valley spirit never dies.
It is the unknown first mother,
whose gate is the root
from which grew heaven and earth.

It is dimly seen, yet always present.
Draw from it all you wish;
it will never run dry."
-- Tao Te Ching (tr. Waley, 1934)

"When conditions are sufficient things manifest. When conditions are no longer sufficient things withdraw. They wait until the moment is right for them to manifest again."
-- Thich Nhat Hahn, No Death, No Fear



Yesterday's drizzle turned into a more substantial rain last night here in the Pioneer Valley.  I came awake at about 4:30 AM, then rolled over to face the open window.  I listened as the rain's song wove itself in and out of dreams for a couple of hours.  It was simply luxurious. 

By the time I emerged to shower and Sit, the rain was again a whisper of a drizzle.  A few moments later,  as I took the trek across the field in pursuit of a cup of coffee at Atlas Farm Store,  that whisper faded into a few shrouds of mist wandering south along the ridge.  Then I watched as one,  then another faded from view, disappearing into the arms of the gentle breeze sweeping along the ridge.

Now you see it.  Now you don't. 

That brought to mind the time that Betsy and I sat on the shore of a pond north of here a few years back and watched in amazement as white puffs of clouds emerged from the womb of a clear blue sky.  One by one, flowing from north to south, each took form to stream across the sky for a few moments before again disappearing from view.

Mother Nature couldn't  have painted a clearer picture of the Real Deal.  

As Practice develops,  it becomes more and more apparent that we are of the nature of clouds emerging and disappearing in the vast sky of existence.  Watching closely, we see this is happening each and every moment in the stream of sensations, feelings, and thoughts that play through our awareness.  They emerge and disappear.   As we take the time and make the effort, we are able to move through the pain and fear that may surface to gain some semblance of calm, some semblance of of spaciousness, and some semblance of clarity in which to observe the reality of our own experience.  We come to sense directly the ephemeral nature of all phenomenon, of our existence itself.

That, I suppose, doesn't necessarily sound like good news.  
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