"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.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Lojong: Training the Heart and Mind

"True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those
less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings."
---Pema Chödrön, Awakening Loving-Kindness

"Whatever you meet unexpectedly, join with meditation."
---The 16th Mind Training Slogan of Atisha

I've had my nose buried in books a lot this past week, diving once again into a stack of works on the Lojong Trainings.

Although the 59 slogans of this Tibetan Buddhist system of training the Heart/Mind were passed on as secret teachings in Tibet by the ninth century emigre Indian teacher, Atisha, they were codified and then opened to a wider audience in the 12th century by Tibetan teacher Geshe Chekawa.

Now, in the 21st century, that audience has become worldwide.  Here, in the melting pot of American Buddhism, there are numerous translations and commentaries on these Teachings in English -- and not only by teachers in the Tibetan tradition like Pema Chödrön and her teacher Chögyam Trungpa.  In fact, these days my favorite book on Lojong is that of Zen teacher, Sensei Norman Fisher.  His book, Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong, rocks!

In print, in digital media, and on the web, viewing the vast array of material on Lojong available today is like peering at the rainbow facets of a diamond while slowly spinning it around in the sunlight.  It's dazzling.

How cool is that?

The Theory and the Practice

Of course, studying is one thing.  Unlearning a habits of a lifetime is another.  We've all been immersed in a pool of conditioning that often serves to disconnect us from our Heart of Hearts.  The effort to uncover our natural compassion and wisdom takes commitment, energy, and patience.  It takes Practice. 

At one point years and years ago, after having been struck by a suggestion by Ram Dass's in Be Here Now,
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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Opening the Hand of Thought

"To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away."
                                                         --Eihei Dogen, from Genjokoan

 "If we open the hand of thought that grasps "this person" (that is, our self) as the center of the world, then our lives broaden and our hearts open to all beings."
Shohaku Okumura, Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen's Shobogenzo


Eihei Dogen (1200-1253)
No doubt about it: I'm a Spiritual Geek.  Although Sitting is at the Heart of Practice for me,  I am an inveterate bookworm.  I always have a stack of books on my desk and alongside my bed.  I generally spend some time most days going over spiritual teachings in their written form. 

For awhile now, I had been re-reading Pema Chodron's Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, digesting it a chapter at a time once again before retiring at night. (I also acquired a series of talks she gave during a retreat that introduced the book and listened to it while commuting from Barre to Greenfield several days a week.)

With these offerings, Ani Pema presented a three fold Practice for engaging life directly "off the zafu." Rather than spin out in the habitual patterns of reaction as we're accustomed to doing, we can remember to:
    Be fully present (perhaps using a few breaths and the sensations in our body as anchors to the present moment)
    Feel our hearts
    Engage the next moment without agenda

This Practice can change everything -- when I remember to do it.

More of the Same, Only Different

Several weeks ago, I spied a copy of Shohaku Okumura's Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen's Shobogenzo laying in the back seat of my buddhy Peel Sonier's car as we're driving to Greenfield for the #OMG! Noon Sit.  Having been hoodwinked into a bit of koan study by Daido Roshi during my residency at Zen Mountain Monastery (a funny tale which I won't go into here), I had been deeply touched as I studied Genjokoan with the Roshi.   Having been also touched by the writings of Okumura, one of the founding forces of the Pioneer Valley Zendo in neighboring Charlemont, and his teacher, Kosho Uchiyama,  I immediately asked Peel if I could borrow the book.  He smiled and said "sure." 

The timing was perfect.  Sometimes the right book at the right time can make all the difference.
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Saturday, October 7, 2017

Taking It to Heart

 “You take it all in. You let the pain of the world touch your heart and you turn it into compassion.” It is said that in difficult times, it is only bodhichitta that heals.”
 -- The Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa
quoted by Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: 
Heart Advice for Difficult Times

"So, when we are willing, intentionally, with this kind of attitude, this vision, to breathe in the suffering, we are able to transform it easily and naturally; it doesn't take a major effort on our part, other than allow it."
-- Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion: 
Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong

"That's backwards isn't it? You meant breathe in the good and send out the bad, right?" she said, not unkindly.   Being gracious, she was making a space for me to realize that my aging brain cells had gone dyslexic.

I had been chatting on the phone with an old friend for first time in quite awhile,  talking about my continued wonder at the Lojong Teachings in general, and Tonglen Practice in particular.  After a moment's pause, to relax and reconnect with the basic openness of mind -- and to make sure that I really hadn't verbally zigged when I had intended to zag -- I continued.

"No, I actually did mean that I breathe into my heart the difficult and challenging darker emotions that have emerged with the aspiration that myself and others be free from such suffering and the roots of suffering.  Then I breathe out a sense of relief and healing energy " 

She paused for awhile (perhaps also to relax and reconnect with a basic openness of mind herself in light my rant), and simply replied, "Oh?" She didn't sound convinced.

Hers was not an uncommon response.  Raised in a highly materialistic society, the basic premise of this ancient Tibetan Buddhist system of mind training, that opening our hearts to the entire gamut of human emotions rather than grasping at the "good" and pushing away the "bad", is actually the path of Awakening to our True Nature, seems a bit crazy.  It most certainly is. 

Crazy like a fox.

The Lojong Teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, which consist of 59 training aphorisms are supported by two meditation practices: Basic Sitting Practice (Shamatha-Vippasyana) and Tonglen.  Each has a role in cultivating our Connection to the essentially miraculous nature of life.  Each contributes to our deepening ability to be Present to the Sacred Perfection in which we are immersed -- moment to moment.

As I sit here, pause,  and pay attention, I become aware of a clear, bright, vast, and open sense of spaciousness.  Pausing further, I can rest in its embrace.  Proceeding, still Connected to this invisible, formless, seemingly limitless expanse of awareness, the dance of my fingers along the surface of this keyboard is flinging words across the screen of an old Mac laptop.  

Becoming aware of my body and my breath,  I see that milliseconds before the fingers move, thoughts emerge instantaneously, seemingly from nowhere in particular.  Although, these thoughts are most certainly prompted by my intention to write this blog post, they appear to be emerging by themselves, quite mysteriously.  Although Western science claims that they are merely brain secretions of some sort, merely epiphenomena, at this moment it feels much grander than that.  There is a Presence, a boundless sense of wonder and joy that emerges from the luminous silence that embraces me, the letters emerging on the screen, the clicking contact of my fingers on the keyboard, the soft humming of the computer. 

But, I digress -- sort of.

In a Flash
(Read More) 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Love Love Love

"The moment we give rise to the desire for all beings to be happy and at peace, the energy of love arises in our minds, and all our feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness is permeated by love: in fact, they become love."
-- Thich Nhat Hanh, Teachings on Love

"All you need is love."
-- The Beatles

We've had it on good authority.  Jesus and Buddha, as well as many of the myriad seers, sages and saints of the world's religions seem to agree with the Hippies -- and the Beatles.  In the final analysis: All you need is Love.  

That seems simple enough.

So, what's the problem? Why are so many folks suffering and why does the world appear to be going to hell in the proverbial hand basket? 

First of all, what many folks have learned to believe is love, the terrain of much music and Hollywood Movies -- isn't love.  What is presented as love is a form of desire, energetic attraction, and attachment.  This "love" has a lot more to do with fulfilling one's own ego needs for sex, security, status, and self-esteem than the quality of consciousness that emerges from what my favorite Buddhist Teacher Pema Chodron calls an Awakened Heart.  Love is not the profound passionate grasping of deep attachment. True Love is much grander than that. (It's pretty clear that "I love you so much that I'll kill anyone who looks at you, then you, then myself." is not exactly what JC, Buddha and others had in mind, right?)  

True Love emerges, and is essentially inseparable from, Pure Being, the One Love that exists beyond the illusion of separation that characterizes the realm of relative reality.  Flowing from and returning to our Essential Oneness, True Love is the fundamental kindness, compassion, joy, and clarity that always exists in our heart of hearts.  Our innate ability to access True Love is the Ultimate Connectivity. 

Unlike the common contemporary understanding that views love as something that someone just "falls into",  in the Buddhist tradition, love is seen as a quality of heart, a mode of consciousness can be consciously cultivated.  Although, we may stumble into glimpses of Oneness through an intimate connection to "Otherness" in a romantic relationship -- especially in its initial honeymoon phase -- True Love emerges from a fundamental choice to embrace Life itself, to let go of who we think we are and open our hearts and minds to the actual experience of the present moment.  

Although this can happen with the very next breath, the process of actually becoming a loving person generally doesn't just happen.  It is a Practice.  (Erich Fromm characterized it as an art in his classic work, The Art of Loving.) True Love takes commitment, time, and effort.  Like any discipline, it takes knowledge and understanding -- and patience.  I hope to still be Practicing with my final breath.
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Friday, September 22, 2017

Step by Step

Walking with ease and with peace of mind on the earth 
is a wonderful miracle.  Some people say that only walking on burning coals or walking on spikes or on water are miracles, but I find that simply walking on the earth is a miracle.
--Thich Nhat Hahn


"Every path, every street in the world is your walking meditation path." 

-- Thich Nhat Hanh

Several times in the past couple of years of MMM, I've witnessed someone experiencing formal walking meditation for the first time.  

After sharing a few words about the various forms of meditation (it's not Just Sitting after all), I introduced the South Asian "slow motion" walking meditation I had learned it when I was in residence at Insight Meditation Society years ago.  Then we took a stroll across the glistening wooden floors of the studio at Community Yoga from one wall to the other, turned, and returned.

It only took a few minutes.

In a couple of instances, I then had the privilege of seeing a childlike sense of wonder emerge in a person who had just experienced, at least for a moment or two, "Beginner's Mind."  Meeting their eyes, it was obvious.  During the course of this relatively brief walk, they had been Present to Life in a fuller and more complete way than usual. 

I love it when that happens. 

Walking and Waking Up

The spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff claimed that most humans are "sleepwalking" through their lives.  I think he nailed it.  Sleepwalking is a perfect metaphor for the semi-conscious manner in which most of us have learned to move through our lives.  

In a materialistic society that stresses speed, production, and the accumulation of goods and status, we have been conditioned to scurry and stagger ahead without being fully aware of the present moment.  Distracted, lost in our thoughts much of the time, the miraculous sea of sensations and energies that constitute Life each moment remain beneath the level of consciousness.

The good news is that it doesn't have to be this way.  We each have the ability to awaken. It can happen with the very next step.
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Friday, September 15, 2017

Take a Rest, Buddhy!

"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


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



As someone who is halfway through my 72th 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 what folks called "progress' had distinct problems.  Now, decades later, I get it.  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 had come to believe that the entire fabric of life in his homeland was better than what he was experiencing in the US.  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. 

Nowadays, it seems that most of are on remote control, bombarded with stimuli and activity, 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 a bit 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, September 8, 2017

'Tis the Season

"Commitment is at the very heart of freeing ourselves 
of old habits and old fears."
― Pema Chodron

 “I think what everyone should be doing, before it's too late, is committing themselves to what they really want to do with their lives.”
― Thich Nhat Hạnh


Buddhist Nuns at Amaravati Monastery
As the often stormy days of August gave way to September, my thoughts turned to those times in my life that I have engaged in Intensive Practice in the Fall.   

In Buddhism, like many of the world's religions (Ramadan in Islam. The High Holy Days in Judaism.  Lent in Christianity,  etc.), there are extended periods of time each year that people move beyond "business as usual" to make a special commitment to their Spiritual Practice.    

In Buddhism, the tradition of the Rain's Retreat (Vassa or Ango) goes back to the time of the Buddha.  Traditionally beginning the first day of the waning moon of the eighth lunar month (June/July), it lasted about three months, the period of time that the monsoon season in India made travel difficult.  During that time the monks, who generally were homeless wanderers, would gather in one place to hear the Buddha's teachings and engage in intensive meditation practice.  

To this day, this extended period of intensive practice is widespread in Theravadan Buddhism, and is observed in various forms in Tibetan Buddhism and some traditions of Zen as well.  Here in the US, where hot summer weather is more problematic than monsoons, it often seems to have evolved into periods of intensive practice that occur in the Fall and/or the Spring.  (I participated in Fall and Spring Ango while in residence at Zen Mountain Monastery years ago.)

At Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, the Rain's Retreat has become the 3 Month Course, a meditation intensive that begins in September each year.  One year, I joined that retreat for the entire month of October.  
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Friday, August 25, 2017

Promises, Promises

Each of you is perfect the way you are ... and you can use a little improvement.”
Suzuki Rosh

“Daily sitting is our bread and butter, the basic stuff of dharma. 
Without it we tend to be confused.”
Charlotte Joko Beck


A Carmelite Monk and his Vows
There were quite a few of us back in the day that were first drawn to Zen because of its seemingly irreverent and iconoclastic tenor and tone.  To a bunch of us erstwhile hippies, peaceniks, and radicals, those ancient monks kicking over water jugs, writing poems lauding drunkeness, proclaiming Buddha was a "shit stick", etc., seemed like our kind of guys. 

Little did we know.

Once I actually connected with a teacher and a sangha, a different reality emerged.  I found that the foundation of Zen Buddhism, like that of other spiritual traditions throughout the world, rests squarely on a set of vows and precepts.  Rather than becoming a member of another tribe of free form hippies, I found out that engaging in formal Zen training with a teacher meant making a commitment to a set of clearly stated intentions: Taking Refuge in the Triple Gems, the Four Bodhisattva Vows, the Three Pure Precepts, and the 10 Essential Precepts was expected.  It was part of the deal.

WTF?  

Jeez.  In the Judeo-Christian world, we only had to worry about the ten commandments! Now? Do the math. This is twice as many.  So much for being hip and cool, for "doing your own thing!"

Or so it seemed. 
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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Our Gang

"To begin a sangha, find one friend who would like to join you for sitting meditation or walking meditation or tea meditation or sharing."-- Thich Nhat Hanh

"For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst."
-- Jesus, Matthew 18:20, Holy Bible (NAS)
 
Our Gang Contemplates Dog's Buddha Nature
Although these days I meditate alone for an hour in the morning as the day begins, and I seasonally observe a personal Day of Mindfulness weekly,  I also meditate with others.  A lot. 

It makes a difference.

In Buddhism, as in most of the world's religions, a community of kindred spirits is seen as an integral part of one's Spiritual Practice.  In fact, a commitment to Sangha (a group of one's fellow practitioners), along with "taking Refuge" in the Buddha and the Dharma, is one of the Triple Gems, the foundational vow of Buddhism.  In other faiths as well, a commitment to the fellowship found in churches, temples, mosques, ashrams and monasteries, etc. is also often seen as an important aspect of one's Path. 

I suppose that stems from the fact that humanoids, like most species of beings on this planet, naturally operate as members of groups.   We sentient beings travel through life, often moving as One whether we realize it or not, in packs, herds, flocks, prides, gaggles, colonies.  There are Buddhist, Islamic, Christian and Hindu schools and there are schools of tuna and salmon.  We live and breathe in concert with others.

Although human beings, especially here in the modern capitalist west, have a belief structure that reinforces the notion of "individuality", our fundamental interdependence plays out moment to moment.  Even when you are by yourself, alone in your room thinking, those thoughts are existing in a language you didn't invent that itself has been collectively evolving for a long, long time.  Even the structure and grammar of that language have a significant impact on your perceived world. The meanings emerge for you, not as isolated phenomenon, but in the context of your past interactions with other members of your family and tribe stretching back throughout time.  Most of this operates on a sub-conscious level.

With Practice, what had been sub-conscious increasingly surfaces into our awareness.  With time, effort and patience, on and off the meditation cushion, a whole new realm of experience becomes quite ordinary. As Practice unfolds we get a sense that Descartes seems to have gotten it "ass backwards." Rather than "I think, therefore I am", Reality is closer to "I am, therefore I think."  Then, looked at closely, even the notion of an distinct, solitary, isolated "I" independently existing becomes highly suspect.  

Getting It Together

Unlike most species, to some extent, we human beings have the ability to make a conscious choice about what groups to associate with.  Although we are born into a group, a clan, a village, a nation, if we are fortunate enough to realize and act on it, we then get to choose our gang, the folks we run with.  Unlike our fellow mammals, we human beings can choose our colors, costumes and customs.  For those of us on the Path, ideally, our gang is a group whose values, aspirations, and intentions support our own of cultivating wisdom and compassion, not one devoted to some sort of mayhem.  (although as Little Rascals, a bit of minor mayhem can be quite delightful, of course)  As myself and many others have found, the support and guidance provided by a meditation group can be  invaluable.   
(READ MORE)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Heart to Heart

“The intimacy that arises in listening and speaking truth is only possible 
if we can open to the vulnerability of our own hearts. ”
--- Tara Brach, True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart

"Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others 
and relieve others of their suffering....."
--- Thich Nhat Hanh
from the Fourth Precept of  the Tien Tiep Order



Quite awhile ago, a friend who attended  the MMM Circle for the first time was struck by the openness displayed in the Circle that morning.

"Folks were so honest" she said with her eyes glowing with amazement, 
" -- painfully honest!" 

I smiled and thought, "Whoo hoo! We've created a space where open-hearted intimacy is possible." 

At that moment, I felt deep gratitude for what emerges in the Mindfulness Circles each week.  A few years down the road, I still do.

The opportunity to speak openly and honestly about what is nearest to our hearts and soul is a rare and precious thing today.  In the hustle bustle of our sped up, noisy,  materialistic society, comparing notes on the Spiritual dimension of our lives doesn't happen all that much.  In fact, when I was a kid we were told not to ever talk about religion--or politics. 

I didn't follow the rules.  

I majored in political science in college--and have been an avid student of Spirituality for a long, long time.  The wisdom teachings that arise in the mystical traditions of all the world's religions and how they play out in the reality of our day to day lives in this world is profoundly interesting to me.  I can't think of anything I'd rather yak about.

Of course, communication, in it's true sense, is much more than conversation. 
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Saturday, August 5, 2017

It's Only Words

The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts,
in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.”
― Thich Nhat Hạnh,
  Buddha Mind, Buddha Body:
Walking Toward Enlightenment

"The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things
"

―  Tao Te Ching,
Chapter One


In the world of Zen, words and concepts are not generally held in high regard. 

It's not surprising that some students even got smacked by crotchety old Zen masters for their "loose lips."   Words can be pretty damn tricky.

A case in point:  The realm of words creates a world of thought where the word "swearing" could either describe what emerges when a person angrily launches into a foul-mouthed condemnation of something    -- or a what happens when a person wholeheartedly takes a sacred oath.

So what does the word "swear" actually mean?  (For that matter what does mean, mean? I mused about a bit in Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call: What's Love Got To Do with It?)

Over the years, it's become clearer and clearer to me that any particular word, or even a whole string of those slippery devils, at best, can only hint at the Truth.  Most often, they just lead to a more complicated web of endless definition.  (For example, is the statement "beauty is only skin deep" actually True?


Like Life itself, meaning is inseparable from context.  It emerges from an essential connection to a whole matrix of experiences which, in turn, are ultimately inseparable from the Whole Universe.  This makes True Communication extremely interesting. It involves myriad factors beyond the exchange of words.  In fact, if you are really paying attention during a conversation, what is not said may be more meaningful than what is said.   The devil isn't merely in the details.  The devil is the details -- when those slippery devils are devoid of a Connection to the Truth of the Matter.  That Truth, I have found, is ultimately a matter of Heart, not the thinking mind.

For me, staying Connected to the Heart takes Practice.  And Practice takes courage, effort -- and Commitment.

Commitment!?

Oh no, not that!
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Friday, July 28, 2017

ARGH!!!

We can suppress anger and aggression or act it out,
either way making things worse for ourselves and others.
Or we can practice patience: wait,
experience the anger and investigate its nature.
---Pema Chodron


“Just because anger or hate is present does not
mean that the capacity to love and accept
is not there; love is always with you.”
---Thich Nhat Hanh


The Universe is exquisite.  Once you hitch your wagon to Practice and roll out, you are going to get the lessons along the way that are needed to take you deeper --whether you like it or not!  (That might be especially true if you have the unbridled chutzpah to publicly ramble on about your experiences. )

More than once, I've spent time here presenting the notion that simply "cutting loose of the storyline", the process of refocusing our awareness from discursive thought to other aspects of our experience (preferably what we are feeling in our heart), can sometimes take us from hell to heaven in the blink of an eye.  (See Your Courtesy Wake Up Call: Once Upon a Time...)  

Although I certainly have experienced something approximating that quite often, perhaps a bit of Karmic Comeuppance was necessary to burn my tail -- and burnish my humility and compassion a bit.   During the last past week, Life interjected a pretty dramatic bout of upset apple carts and broohahas into the Grand Mix.  It's been enough to remind me that it certainly can take a bit longer than a "blink of an eye" to regain a sense of wonder about it all.  

It may even take what may seem like a hell of a long time.   

The lesson?  Being a calm and kind and clear and compassionate human being is NOT that easy.  It is a daunting discipline that takes courage, patience, skill, time and effort.  It takes Practice.

Then and Now

As a child and a young man I had what folks might call an extremely bad temper.  Having grown up in the midst of a lot of anger, I would react to things in my world with bursts of violent emotions -- and even physical violence.  I could fly into a rage and smash things and strike out with the worst of them.  Perhaps, the deepest gratitude that I have to the Practice is that I no longer am as likely to inflict harm on others due to angry outbursts.  (Although, admittedly,  I can still be pretty clumsy and stupid at times.  Sigh.)

Recently, I hit a deep pool of anger for the first time in quite awhile.  
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Saturday, July 22, 2017

High Times: In Memory of Stephen Gaskin

"There is a plane of experience, other than the three dimensional plane, which can be felt by a human being...If people never get above the merely signal level of communication, and don't become telepathic, they haven't explored their full human birthright."
-- Stephen Gaskin

"We are all parts of God.  Each one of us has an electrical body field that surrounds us, and a mind field that goes on to infinity."
-- Stephen Gaskin

Stephen Gaskin (February 16, 1935 - July 1, 2014) with his wfe, Ina May
In meditation, the subjective nature of Time becomes all too obvious.  Sometimes, an hour zips by.  At other times, you feel like a dazed prizefighter hanging onto the ropes of a painful existence waiting forever for the bell to ring.

And that's only one hour.  

As I get older, it becomes increasingly impossible to grasp the nature of concepts like a "year".  These days it feels easier at times to sense the nature of the Timeless in the boundless expansiveness of each moment.

I guess my head sort of goes to that place whenever Stephen Gaskin crosses my mind as it did this morning.  It seems surrealistic to me that it has been three years since he passed away at age 79 at his home on the Farm, the intentional spiritual community he had helped to found in rural Tennessee in 1971. 

More than anyone, Stephen's teachings informed my ideas about the nature of Reality and the work to be done during our sojourn on this planet.  I came across his rendition of the Bodhisattva Vow for the first time in The Farm's first book Hey Beatnik!  Although it was to be years before I would "formally" take this vow, I was hooked.  

At that moment the vow took me.  

A decade older than many of the young folks who flocked to San Francisco in the mid-sixties as part of the Psychedelic Revolution, Stephen always maintained he was more of a Beatnik than a Hippie.  Yet, wearing tie-dyes til the end, Gaskin was a central figure in the burst of spiritual energy that encircled the globe during the 1960's and 70's, catapulting many of us into a Collective Kensho that transformed our lives.  Claiming that they were "out to save the world," Gaskin and 50 bus loads of Hippies left San Francisco to circle in for a landing in Tennessee to form what was, for a time, the largest hippy commune in the world.  Although the size and structure evolved over the years, The Farm is still there.

Although I was a lightweight when it came to psychedelics, those were High Times.  The Collective Consciousness was so energized that even I had a number of compelling out of body experiences, saw aura's, and experienced powerful moments of synchronicity and telepathy that were mind-boggling -- without drugs in my system.  Ultimately, I had an experience of Perfect Oneness that fulfilled my deepest aspirations and dispelled any fundamental fear about death. (Admittedly, I also had some very powerful moments while under --or perhaps, over --the influence of various medicinal herbs and compounds.)
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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Judgment Day

“The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.”
J. Krishnamurti

"Judge not and ye shall not be judged"
 ― Yogi Jesus of Nazareth

I don't the think there is any greater freedom than being Present to our lives without the distortion caused by Judgment Mind.  

This mental/emotional process of evaluating what we experience as bad, wrong, condemnable can dominate our lives.

If one is paying attention, the difference between the warm, bright, spaciousness experienced as we maintain the clarity of an open heart and mind, and the constricted, narrow, claustrophic texture of a quality of  consciousness imbued with judgmental thoughts and feelings, is obvious.  In any one moment, it can literally be the difference between heaven and hell.

Growing up immersed in a society that is highly judgmental, most of us have been deeply conditioned to experience our lives in terms of good/bad, right/wrong, should be/shouldn't be.  In fact, our ego sense, with its perceived separation and isolation from "the other" is largely built on and maintained by the thoughts, opinions, and various mind states that emerge from this conditioning.  Even in it's mildest form, that of liking/disliking, Judgment Mind  generates thoughts and feelings that serve to separate us from ourselves and others in any particular moment. 

It is actually quite fun to see for yourself how that plays out on the meditation cushion.  

At times, we can clearly see Judgment Mind in full blown operation.  The gracious spaciousness of mind at rest collapses as the ranting and raving and blaming of judgmental thoughts cascade across the surface of discordant feelings.  

As Practice develops, we get more adept at noticing whether we can just take a breath and put some kindness and space around that and let Judgment Mind go it's merry way-- or whether we get swept away, ultimately getting judgmental about being judgmental!  Watching the process closely, it can pretty quickly become another obvious example of the Divine Sitcom that we humanoids are capable of co-creating.

In one of those episodes, I saw how the thoughts  "I don't like myself.  I'm bad." provided a wonderful opportunity to examine the experience carefully, in the lens of Mindfulness.  Letting go of that particular narrative, the experience became a kaleidoscope of momentary feelings, variations of what we might label as anger, fear, and pain.  Without the support of the storyline, these feeling states soon dissipated.  At that point, exploring the obvious paradox of just "who" the hell it is that doesn't like "who" eventually produced wonder -- and a chuckle.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Child's Play

“The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind.”
― Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

"I tell all of you with certainty, unless you change and become like little children, 
you will never get into the kingdom of heaven."
--Jesus, Matthew 18:3, ISV

I awoke this morning to the sound of rain and crisp, cool air floating through the windows alongside my bed.  Un-detered, the chorus of songbirds sang their parts in the pre-dawn symphony as I rolled over and set the alarm to 6:30 a.m to give myself a couple of more hours of sleep.  Moments later, I rolled over again and turned the alarm off.  Although I had thought otherwise, I was ready -- or so I'd thought. I got up and sat down to the laptop to stare at a blank screen -- and waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.

After awhile, I got up again, set the timer, walked over to the altar in the corner of my bedroom,  lit a stick of incense and Sat down in front of a different blank screen.

Now, an hour later, I'm ready. I think.

There is a well known story from the Meiji era (1868-1912) about a prominent university professor who visited master Nan-in to inquire about Zen.  As the professor prattled on, demonstrating his vast knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and doctrine, the master began pouring his guest a cup of tea.  He then continued pouring as the cup overflowed onto the table and floor.  No longer able to restrain himself, the professor shouted, "Stop. The cup is overfull! No more will go in!".  Nan-in replied, "You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can't put anything in. Before I can teach you, you'll have to empty your cup." 

Although I first read that story in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones back in 1970,  I now realize I had only glimpsed the rim of that empty cup.  Even as a 24 year old, fresh out of college and engaged in my first year of teaching school, I certainly "got" that there is a difference between the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom.  By then, I'd run into factory workers during my seven years of summer employment that appeared to have a better handle on what the Real Deal was than most of my college professors. I also sensed from the story that arrogance probably wasn't going to cut it with a Zen master, a fact that I've had verified a number of times over the years.

Little did I know, though, that this teaching, like the coffee down at Dolly's Diner, was being served in a bottomless cup.  

I cast the 6th slogan of the Lojong Teachings yesterday: "In post-meditation, be a child of illusion."   One of the most haunting of the 59 aphorisms that make up this Tibetan Buddhist system of mind training, it is also, perhaps, one of the most radical.  It seemingly flies in the face of conventional wisdom.  Rather than exhorting us to "grow up and get real", we are encouraged, instead, to recapture the open and spacious sense of wonder that characterizes the mind of the child as we arise from our meditation cushion to move through the day to day activity of our lives. 

As Mindfulness Practice develops and we become more acutely aware of the fluidity and transparent nature of our own thoughts and emotions, the ephemeral nature of "mindstuff"
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Monday, July 3, 2017

Here Comes the Sun?

 "Things are not as they seem - and nor are they otherwise."
-- Lankavatara Sutra
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake 
is to be continually thrown out of the nest.”
― Pema Chödrön


I'm awake at 4 a.m. and the birds are beginning to stir in the darkness outside the window -- an hour before sunrise. 

Sunrise? 

Calling that moment "sunrise" is, of course, a classic case of our human propensity to conceptualize things from a limited perspective.  That isn't really a problem.  The problem is that we then tend to grasp onto the words that describe those relative positions as the absolute truth.  This leads to a whole lot of delusion and suffering.

I imagine any number of Zen students over the years have been whacked by their teachers along the way for being so sloppy in their use of language as to appear to be claiming that they really know what is going on -- while missing the point entirely.

If I choose to believe what I learned back in science class in elementary school -- and in this case I do because it seems that we have actually had some folks brave enough (or crazy enough, perhaps) to place themselves on top of a huge tin can full of explosive chemicals to be then catapulted high enough into the sky to look over their shoulders and take snapshots of our situation from a different perspective-- the sun isn't actually rising at all.  It's got a different set of motions through space.  We could just as readily call that magic moment of cosmic peek a boo "earth-fall" -- although that doesn't seem nearly as promising. 
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Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Sky's the Limit

 “You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.”
― Pema Chödrön

“As the mind becomes a little more quiet the sacredness of everything 
within and without becomes clear to us.”
― Norman Fischer

 


Yesterday morning, I had yet another occasion to thank my lucky stars for having stumbled into the Practice years ago.

I awoke from a bevy of somewhat haunted dreams feeling quite sad.  Thanks to the Practice, a few moments later, I was plucked from my homemade rowboat as it skimmed across the River Styx hellbound for Hades, and wisked to seventh heaven by a guardian angel sent by God.  

No lie!

WTF?

Lest I risk blowing any shred of credibility I may have garnered and/or being plucked from this perch at my favorite coffeehouse by burly men brandishing straight jackets, perhaps I better reword that.

So:

When I first awoke on the embers of a dream to a gloomy, overcast morning yesterday, I was aware that I was feeling sad.  Having spent many hours Sitting Still Doing Nothing over the years, it seems that these days at least a modicum of Mindfulness is generally available.  So, I was aware that my first thought was "something's wrong".  This was quickly followed by the thought "I'm depressed", which evoked fear and fleeting memories drawn from earlier experiences of burn-out and despair.  The next thought was "these are just thoughts."

I then shifted the focus of my attention to what I was hearing.  A bird outside the window began to sing.  It was Beautiful.  My mood lifted immediately.

I can still thank my lucky stars, right?

(Although I still may have not recouped any semblance of credibility, the burly guys just shrugged and left.)
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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Me and My Shadow

“…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’re like messengers that show us,
with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck."
 --  Pema Chödrön

"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, 
but by making the darkness conscious...Knowing your own darkness is the best method
for dealing with the darknesses of other people."”
-- C.G. Jung

Many folks experiencing a lot of stress in their lives are drawn to meditation.  It's only natural to want to chill out and, to be sure, Mindfulness Practice can provide many moments of deep calm and clarity.

Yet -- and this is generally not proclaimed in the slick internet ads  -- it is also true that a regular mediation practice can bring to the surface a lot of feelings that we have assiduously managed to repress, deny or avoid as we scurry ahead in our lives.

Conditioned to operate in a fast-paced materialistic society, one that keeps us focused outwardly for fulfillment, we just keep moving.  Once we slow down and sit still for awhile to focus inwardly, our world changes.  Although we can experience greater calm,  it is also not uncommon to encounter darker, more distressing emotions.

Contrary to what we might think, this is a Good Thing.  It's a sign that the Practice is working!

In the process of a deepening Practice, we no longer skim across the surface.  We actually begin to get in touch with the aspects of our conditioning that have subconsciously operated to create the way we see and react to the events of our lives.  (How often have you winced and thought "damn.  Why did I say/do that!?)  The good news is that, with Practice, we are able to make conscious what had been subconscious.  Over time, we are able to observe and navigate the more troublesome aspects of ourselves with increasing clarity and ease. 

Truth in Advertising

Adrift in momentary delusions of grandeur, I sometimes joke about beginning a high profile advertising campaign for Monday Morning Mindfulness with full page bold print ads, billboards and television commercials proclaiming something like:
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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Trouble in Mind

"Trouble in mind, babe, I'm blue,
but I won't be blue always
Yes, the sun gonna shine,
in my back door someday
-- Big Bill Broonzy, "Trouble in Mind"

“When you open yourself to the continually changing, impermanent,
dynamic nature of your own being and of reality,
you increase your capacity to love and care about other people
and your capacity to not be afraid."
-- Pema Chödrön, Practicing Peace in Times of War


I Sit for an hour most mornings.  That's been the case for a long, long time.  

At this point, I have no idea whether this is a sign of advanced practice, personal inadequacy -- or outright addiction. 

I suppose it could be said that this daily ritual is a result of my personal commitment to Practice. It doesn't feel like that anymore.  It's just what happens when I roll out of bed.
For Better or for Worse 
Over the years I've learned that labeling a particular meditation session "good" or "bad" is missing the point.  Although I certainly notice my own tendency to prefer the pleasant sensations of a particularly bright, calm and spacious quality of consciousness over the claustrophobic storm clouds of doom and gloom or the buzzy feeling of endless discursive prattle, it is precisely there that Practice begins and ends: we notice.

I suppose this may be the primary lesson of Buddhism 101: A whole lot of needless suffering seems to emerge from the conditioned habit of mindlessly grasping onto the pleasant and reflexively rejecting the unpleasant.  Bringing that process into the light of Mindfulness opens a new world of possibility.  As we bring Mindfulness to the present moment, oftentimes we see quite clearly that the "trouble in mind" is quite ephemeral.  Most often, it is just held in place by the current story line, the narrative we carry on in that section of mind that emerges as thought.  

Seeing that clearly, the skies clear, the sun returns -- sometimes instantaneously.  

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Yet, it is true that there are deeply troubled waters in life.  Mindfulness Practice then becomes the bridge to a deeper understanding.  Gently and courageously opening our hearts and minds to the horrors and sadness of life, exploring and embracing the human condition as we experience it with diligence and care, brings forth a deep transformation.  And, wonder of wonders,  it increasingly allows us to open to deeper levels of joy and peace and amazement as well. 


When we are no longer deeply invested in grasping for one thing and pushing away another, a new sense of ease and appreciation emerges.  When we aren't attempting to dam the river of life to suit our own, generally un-examined,  preconceptions,  the flow gets to be even more deeply interesting and worthwhile.  

At times, the river of life dances and sparkles, reflecting the brilliant sun. At times it glowers. brandishing storm clouds as it broils downstream.  It is still the river.  As we taste our True Nature, we see that we, too, are the river.  At that point, as we flow inexorably to merge with the sea, True Love becomes increasingly possible. 

It just takes Practice.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Gateless Gate*

 Originally Posted July, 2013.  Revised.


"You knock at the door of reality,
Shake off your thought wings,
Loosen your shoulders,
And open.
---Rumi

"And you shall know the Truth,
and the Truth shall make you free."
---Yogi Jesus of Nazareth



Last Monday's MMM Circle again provided some food for thought--and the impetus to move beyond thought--as a we compared notes on Mindfulness Practice.  

At several points, as the group grappled with the various issues that had come up during the week as we worked to put the Practice into practice, the limits of discursive thought and "reasoning" became more than obvious.

I loved it.

At one point one of the Irregular Regulars, in her own inimitable style, jumped with both feet into the apparent contradiction between the dictum to always "be here now" and the need to take care of life's necessary activities such as planning, paying the bills, etc.  

She then moved on to the apparent contradiction between the notion that "we are One" and our individual uniqueness, asserting:
      "I mean we're all one, but we're not.  We're the same, but we're each different, ya know?"

I think  Zen monks of old would have had a ball.

As it was, the Circle spiraled onward and we turned to the more apparently "practical" concerns of Practice, comparing notes, exchanging tips, etc.  Yet, as best I can sense it, the points that Michelle had raised echoed themes presented in some of the fundamental koans of Zen.

It didn't surprise me, really.

It's become more and more obvious to me: when there is a commitment to live life consciously, when there is a willingness to examine our experience of Life in depth rather than allowing the messages we have internalized from our upbringing to create our realities from beneath the level of our awareness, Life Itself can and will provide us with the necessary questions -- and the necessary answers!

The fundamental paradoxes that Zen Koan study thrives on are inherent in the way conceptual thought operates.  With some time and effort, we each come to the Gateless Gate of Zen.  And, the good news is that we each have the ability enter into a deeper and richer reality than we've been conditioned to experience.   You don't have to be a formal Zen student to approach and gain admission.  You don't even have to be a Buddhist.

It's like Jesus proclaimed, "Ask and you will receive. Knock and it will be opened."
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Friday, May 26, 2017

Take a Hike, Buddhy!

Originally posted August 2014.  Revised.

"Some people say that only walking on burning coals or walking on spikes or on water are miracles, but I find that simply walking on the earth is a miracle. 
-- Thich Nhat Hanh, "A Guide to Walking Meditation

"I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, 
works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster 
than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.”
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking 

Thich Nhat Hanh leading walking meditation at Plum Village
This morning's meditation was buzzy 

It was one of those days when even a few moments of clear, calm and open awareness, unconstrained by the prattle of discursive monkey-mind, was greatly appreciated.  

For the most part though, it seemed like I was doing a mantra practice more than Mindfulness Practice.   Unfortunately, the chosen mantra wasn't something exalted like the Tibetan Buddhist "Om Mani Padme Hum" or Zen's "Gate, Gate, Paragate" Today's mantra was the mental note, "thinking thinking," repeated over and over.  

And over.  

And over again.

And Then

Fortunately, this is one of the mornings that my choice to give up a personal vehicle was worth its weight in gold.  

After this morning's one hour Sit, the walk from 108 House toward the bus was wonderful.  It allowed me to connect quite directly, once again, with the Ongoing Miracle.  Although it was abbreviated by the offer of a ride by one of my neighbors, I felt a great gratitude for the practice of walking meditation in my life.

Mindful of body and breath, mindful of the sensations of sight and sound and smell, I was again made aware that the Pure Land and the Kingdom of Heaven are to be experienced in this very life. 
(READ MORE)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

For Where Two or Three of You Are Gathered...

"To begin a sangha find one friend who would like to join you for sitting practice or walking practice or tea meditation or sharing."
-- Thich Nhat Hanh

"Mostly we think of awakening as an individual affair. The teachings can make it sound like that. But in Buddhism we practice together, awaken together, and understand together. "
 -- Norman Fischer

These past few weeks of Monday Morning Mindfulness have certainly reaffirmed a belief that I've held for quite awhile now: 

Anyone who makes an effort to explore the nature of their own experience consciously, and then has the opportunity to compare notes on this effort with others similarly engaged, will come to understand the reality of the human condition, the nature of suffering, and means of its release at a deeper level.  

Sharing the Practice works.

As the small group of us who have been meeting for Monday Morning Mindfulness "Beginner's Mind--and Beyond" have continued our exploration of Mindfulness Practice and examined the question "why bother?" together for the past several sessions, it's only gotten better and better. The essential sincerity--and competence--of those gathered on Monday morning continues to amaze me.   

It makes my heart glow.

As I sit here and turn my attention to the memories of those sessions, I am struck with a sense of awe and a feeling of gratitude for having shared those moments with other folks who have the heart and courage to explore Life and Practice in this way.  At a time in which clinging to problematic institutional truths (or living out our  un-examined reactions to those traditional worldviews) threatens our very existence on the planet,  I believe such efforts to share Practice are crucial.  

The survival of our species, and many others on this planet, may well depend on it.  
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Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Solid Grasp of Reality?

“In reality there are no separate events. Life moves along like water,
it's all connected to the source of the river is connected to the mouth and the ocean.”
-- Alan Watts, The Essential Alan Watts

It’s not impermanence per se, or even knowing we’re going to die, that is the cause of our suffering, the Buddha taught. Rather, it’s our resistance 
to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation.
All I could do was grin.  Eight of us had gathered at our Mindfulness Circle that week to meditate and then explore the second slogan of the Lojong Trainings: "Regard All Dharmas As Dreams".

Although all assembled, myself included, were essentially beginners in the study of these Teachings, I imagine the energetic, sincere, often profound, sometimes amusing, discussion that emerged could have been a conversation among senior monks somewhere.  Although a couple of folks, perhaps quite aware of the limitations, perhaps even the inadvisability, of placing our collective attention on words and discursive thought didn't participate, the rest of us jumped right in. 

As I understood it, what materialized was no more, no less than a conversation about the true nature of reality and our individual ability to actually experience the truth of our existence. Although none of us is really a Buddhist scholar and some of us may not even consider ourselves Buddhists with a capital B,  assertions about Emptiness, Impermanence, Non-Self, Co-dependent Origination, Interdependence and Oneness, were offered and explored,  dissected and re-assembled.  

In about forty minutes we covered a lot of ground exploring the "groundlessness" of existence.

I loved it.  

At several points the fundamentals of Zen were touched on as phrases were turned, then turned on their heads without altering the meaning at all!  Even when there was apparent "disagreement" with a presentation or mode of presentation, it still felt like we were all basically on the same page.  There was an underlying fabric of good will and good heart all the while.  It was an absolute hoot -- relatively speaking. 

It made my heart glow.

Gaining a "solid grasp of reality" is often considered to be one of the important aspects of growing up in
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Friday, April 28, 2017

When It Rains...

"The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face...When we want to complain about the rain, we could feel it's wetness instead."
-- Pema Chodron

“The best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain. ” 
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

It's been one of those weeks.  

Although I'm relatively busy for a retired old coot, it's not like I have to punch in for forty hours a week anymore and then take care of all the rest of the basic elements of life in this hyped-up version of human "civilization."  These days I often have the time and space to wander aimlessly a bit, maybe even take a nap in the afternoon a few days a week.  

Not so this week.  

Time and time again, when I thought I could finally get some down time, something else came up.  When it rains, it pours.

When it rains, it pours.  

Not content with metaphor, Mother Nature made that old adage literal this last week of April as well.  In the midst of all the unanticipated busyness, She even upped the ante to soak us with another old maxim.  It showered on and off all week.  She poured her heart out to insure that next week will bring abundant May flowers.  As a result, the sun disappeared for days at at time -- and I often had to juggle an umbrella along with my toolbox.

There was a time that "rainy days and mondays would always get me down."  If the truth be told, though, these days I actually don't mind rain.  In fact, I usually love it.  It is always a chance to get real.

Whether it's a soft foggy drizzle or a thunder-booming rip-snorting whizzbanger -- or anything in-between -- once I'm just present for the actual experience, there is something immensely alive and vibrant about the rain.  Dancing beyond our ability to control it, Mother Nature just is.  She will just do what she will do -- no matter how we think or feel about it.  Why not relax and dig it!? 

At this very moment

I feel a lot of gratitude for Mindfulness Practice at this very moment.  

As I sit here with fingers dancing across the keyboard, I see the sun playing hide and seek with storm clouds through the skylight. Through the open window I hear the wind singing in the trees, a collection of birds twittering .  I also hear the sounds of Betsy's twin grandkids chattering towards a nap downstairs.  

Pausing, letting go for a moment of "thinking mind", I'm aware of my breath and the sensations of my body sitting here.  I feel the wind dancing across my skin through that same open window.  The sounds ebb and flow.  The sensations ebb and flow. 

Life is like that, too.  
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