"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."

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

Monday, January 1, 2018

Practice: It's Positively Habit Forming!

"Spiritual practice, exactly like training in a gym, takes time and effort. Just as there are stationary bicycles, treadmills, weight machines, and other devices, so in spiritual practice there is prayer, meditation, ritual, study, and other techniques."
-- Zoketsu Norman Fischer

"Every moment is incredibly unique and fresh, and when we drop into the moment, 
as meditation allows us to do, we learn how to truly taste this tender and 
mysterious life that we share together."
-- Pema Chodron

Back when I was addicted to cigarettes, I was often haunted by the spectre of New Year's Day arriving.  

Quite often over the years,  I had made QUITTING SMOKING my first New Year's resolution -- and decades of failures shrieked like banshees through my mind as Day One loomed.

It was not a pretty picture.

Now, with a brand new 2018 sparkling across the gleaming white snow outside my window, the scenery of my life has changed substantially.  I haven't smoked a cigarette in years.  

Today, the shrieking banshees have disappeared.  Or, perhaps, they've been transformed into the gleaming white seagulls that I saw this morning pirouetting overhead in the crystalline blue sky.  As I sit here at the laptop, this moment emerges like each moment: unique, complete, and --when I'm really paying attention -- full of beauty, mystery, and wonder. 

I haven't sought to make New Year's resolutions in quite awhile.  

Day by Day  

Although, admittedly, I have made special commitments during Fall Ango for the past few years, my fundamental commitment to Practice seems to have been made long ago.  It informs each and every day.

Today, like most days, l woke up without an alarm.  I did a few simple stretches before I got out of bed, then I cast a Lojong Slogan for the day.  After the usual bathroom ablutions and recycling operations (and, sometimes, a cup of coffee), I returned to the altar, bowed, settled onto the zafu, set the timer, and meditated for an hour.  Towards the end of that hour, I mentally recited the Four Bodhisattva Vows three times, a practice I picked up years ago as I wandered through the world of Zen on my way here.  I then did a few more simple yoga stretches on the zafu before I rose to move into the day. 

Although this may be called a commitment to a regular daily Practice, the True Commitment is deeper than any of these activities and rituals. It emerges as an aspiration that has been ringing silently in my Heart of Hearts for a long, long time, emerging from a place so deep within me that it is beyond me.  I experience it as a simple, heartfelt yearning to be of Service, to be Present to each moment with an open heart, a relaxed and clear mind -- and a helping hand.   (In some circles that is known as Bodhichitta)

Of course, actualizing that aspiration is no easy task.  It takes Practice.  Ceaseless Practice.

Just A Bad Habit 

It seems that our basic hard wiring as human beings includes a level of mind that turns back on itself to take a peek. This, in itself, isn't necessarily a bad thing.  A mirror can be useful.  We don't want to walk around in public with a piece of leftover spinach accompanying our smile, right?  Yet, when we fixate on that mirror image and take it to be a real "thing" rather than the moment to moment appearance of a particular point of view emerging from an infinite web of energy sparkling throughout space and time, we run into a lot of unnecessary suffering.

Most of us, especially since we've been raised in a very materialistic, deeply clueless capitalist society, have been conditioned to experience ourselves and all of reality as separate, isolated "things" engaged in a "dog eat dog" competition with one another.  Although some of that conditioning may be hardwired into the biological development of our species, most of our current conditioning emerges in the matrix of the life that we have experienced.  It runs deeply into our childhood, has been reinforced by our society, and has formed a set of habits that we experience as a "point of view" created out of belief structures, thoughts, bodily sensations, and and bevy of often debilitating emotions.  This conditioning determines how we habitually "see" and react.  In fact, without Practice, most of us are nothing more, and nothing less, than a bad habit!  Who we are is a collection of patterns unconsciously set in place in an attempt to produce happiness and avoid pain.  This set of habits usually doesn't do such a good job of it.  As most of us have found out, a life lived this way is sort of a drag at best.  At worst its a freakin' nightmare.

Fortunately, it doesn't have to be this way. 

As many of us have discovered, with Practice, each of us is capable of changing it up.  We can transform the conditioning that serves to create our lives as an incessant struggle of "I. me. mine."  With commitment, time, skillful effort, and patience, we can move through the layers of our own conditioning, stop, and look so deeply into that mirror that we experience the vastness beyond it.  Rather than running along in the same rut, we can actually groove. 

Along the way, we may encounter deeply challenging emotions, pain, anger, fear, etc.  Yet, with patience and effort we can relax through these energies to we see clearly that we've been barking up the wrong tree.  The "conventional wisdom" of the "real world" is illusory.  The Universe isn't "dog eat dog."  In fact, dogs actually don't eat dogs as a general rule.  We can see for ourselves that dogs (and cats, etc.), like us, have a fundamental connection to Life, to everything else, and to the One Love that permeates Reality.   

There is an old Zen koan where Master Chao-Chou was asked "Does a dog have Buddhanature?  There are volumes of commentary on the answer.  Both yes and no have been recorded as the "correct" answer in the various versions of this classic teaching story.  WTF? How can that be?  With Practice you may see for yourself.  You may end up joyfully howling at the moon!  (Deep down, you've known this all along, Dog!) 

Habit Forming

There are many meditation techniques and other practices available among all of the major spiritual traditions.  I have found great value in many.  At this stage of the journey, though, I've found that the Mindfulness (Shamatha and Vipasyana), Brahmavihari (Four Aspects of True Love), Tonglen Practice, and the Lojong Slogans of Buddhism, as taught by Pema Chodron and others, are my most helpful, day-in, day-out, "go to" tools. As well as the links embeded above, there are numerous teachers and teachings available on the web and, increasingly, in person throughout the world.  Most of these teachers recommend the development of a Daily Practice.  (I, myself, prefer the term Regular Practice.  Missing a day here and there is okay.  Life happens.)

Yet, whatever Spiritual Path, you (or, more correctly, that aspect of your mind that experiences choice) choose, it is clear that Practice takes a commitment.  No less than Olympic Sport, it takes serious training.  Enlightenment is a matter of time on task.  (Although, the task becomes not-doing more than doing.  lol)  With Practice, experiencing your life with a Clear Mind and an Open Heart increasingly becomes a habit

Even if you start with just a few minutes a day, you are actively cultivating the ability to access a quality of consciousness that will blossom and grow within your own experience -- both on and off the meditation cushion.   If you, like so many of us, begin a regular daily practice for awhile, then falter.  It's no big deal.  Just begin again.  (And yet again, if necessary.)

At a certain point, it kicks in.  

Then, at another point, it becomes obvious that the Practice is doing you more than you are doing the Practice. Wonder of wonders, getting out of your habitual rut of "I, me, mine", to engage the moment with an open heart and clear mind becomes positively habit-forming!  

As 2018 unfolds, it seems like today might be a good day to begin -- or continue.  In fact, you could turn away from the screen, take three conscious breaths and get started.  There is no Time like the Present ! 

Happy New Year!


Anonymous said...

In viewing ones behavioral patterns, it's reality to understand that we are not the product of our circumstances. we are the product of our decisions.
For one to want to clear out the habits engraved by 'human doing' is to focus more on 'human being,' to be aware that identification with the egoic mind is the sickness, Samadhi, is the cure.


rinus nienhuis said...

Dear Lance Can you please explain what is calm abiding meditation? Love rinus

Lance Smith said...

Hi Rinus,
Calm abiding meditation, also known as Shamatha (or samatha in pali) is the basic sitting meditation practice found throughout the schools of Buddhism and other spiritual traditions. Although various methods involving differing objects of meditation are taught, the most widespread method is to focus one's attention of the breath. The energy and concentration that is involved in doing so serves to slow the "monkey mind" of discursive thought down to point of stillness.

A metaphor widely used is taking a glass of muddy water and allowing it to sit undisturbed for a period of time. After awhile the particles of dirt settle to the bottom of the glass, leaving the water clear and calm.

The state of mind experienced through Shamatha, is stable, tranquil and energetic. It is seen as a foundation for other practices that produce insight into the nature of reality and compassion.

There are many teachings regarding calm abiding meditation. I will gladly share what I know, but there are many teachers, much more able and advanced than I am, whose teachings are readily available on-line.
One Love,

rinus nienhuis said...

Hi Lance
maany thanks for your answer
This looks very much on Vipassana, but i guess there will be a little difference...


HFSurfing said...

is there a difference Lance?


Lance Smith said...

Hi HF Surfing (and Rinus),
Thanks for reaching out here. I had thought of continuing the discussion but life flowed on.

There are many different ways of viewing the terms Shamatha and Vipassana among the various traditions and schools of Buddhism. I actually think that the author(s) of the Wikipedia article on Vipassana present a pretty helpful overview of how these two terms are used throughout Buddhism. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vipassan%C4%81 ).

My simple take on it is that the process of meditation cultivates a calm and clear quality of heart and mind, one that can perceive reality directly. A level of concentration is required to slow down and stop the prattle of discursive thought that so often dominates our awareness. That can be termed Shamatha. The quality of awareness that perceives the Real Deal is Vipassana or "insight".

As I see it, the "difference" between the two is only a conceptual designation. The are actually "inseparable". Both can emerge with the simple (but not easy) task of paying close attention to the actual sensations of body and breath in the present moment, although there are various other practices offered that can also help to cultivate what I like to call the Awakened Heart.

So, is there a difference? Absolutely Yes and No! LOL
One Love,

rinus nienhuis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rinus nienhuis said...

Dear Lance

Many years i do now Vipassana and what you describe is exactly my experience.
But...also i have experienced something else ...maybe you know more of this...
A few times i have experienced a presence ...Near my bed i have a alarm clock/radio controlled
and on one time i reach out for that clock...and just at that moment. i asked myself /how late it would be....but then i heard a ""voice"" ...it said , it is "07.30"" exactly and then i pressed
the clock and exactly...i have read somewhere that radio controlled clocks are so accurate,,,just 2 seconds in a million years...
Another time , again, just between sleep and awake,,, the presence waked me and said : hey, wake up, you have a price in a lottery... i waked my wife and told her and she said: just go to sleep,,,,but i said, i am not dreaming....it is 100 % true....i know for sure , more then i know that i live and we had won 1000 dutch guilders
Another time...i experienced the presence , just between slape and waking up and i asked , who are you and the voice said: i am , that i am that i am....and then de voice faded out
and the last time i experienced the presence , i saw another beautifull world , with seas and oceans and a unbelievable Peace and quietness
Do you know more Lance of what could be : i am , that i am that i am...or did you ever hear of meditation practioners of this experiences?
Many thanks for your help...!

Lance Smith said...

Hi Rinus,
The human mind is capable of connecting with all sorts of "psychic" phenomenon, including precognition, contact with "beings" in other dimensions, hearing voices, having visions, etc. It's a lot more common than one would think and depending on the setting, it's viewed quite differently. Some people in some cultures who experience such things would then receive training to become shamans and healers and oracles. In the modern west, some people are hospitalized for communicating about it or acting out in ways that seem strange and bizarre. There are many ways to interpret such things.

I have certainly experienced telepathy, precognition, out the body experiences, lots of interesting stuff in that realm between waking and sleeping as well. I've also had profoundly compelling experiences of "voices and visions" along the way -- both on the meditation cushion or elsewhere.

The Teachings in Zen tradition have made the most sense to me. In Zen, all these phenomenon are called "Makyo", mind experiences that ultimately aren't all that important and that can even sidetrack a person who is sincerely committed to "enlightenment", the cultivation of Insight and Compassion in their lives.

One of my favorite stories in the Zen tradition addresses the Zen "take" on such things.

The Bodhisattva Manjurshi, the Diety of Ultimate Wisdom, appeared over the Soup Kettle in the kitchen of a certain monastery as the Teisho, the Senior Monk in charge of feeding the community of monks, was preparing the evening meal. The monk didn't hesitate. He shoo'ed Manjurshi away with his wooden stirring spoon and kept focused on preparing the evening meal.

My own take, having seen such things come and go myself, is that they are cool when they happen, they are part of the Grand Tapestry of Cosmic Reality. Just don't let them get in the way of living your life in the present moment with an open heart and clear mind, ready to do what needs to be done next. That takes Ceaseless Practice.

Does that help?
One Love,

rinus nienhuis said...

Dear Lance
Many thanks for your help, i really appreciate it
Your answer certainly helps and it is coming from a experienced Meditator!
And good that you point on Makyo. I was already familiar with that and i think and feel it is the right approach to these experiences.
My only question left to this is: did you ever hear from other persons that they had contact with a presecence that called himsself "'i am , that i am , that i am"'
Love rinus

Lance Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lance Smith said...

Dear Rinus,
I have never heard from others that a presence identified him/herself as "I am that I am, that I am." Of course it brings to mind the Old Testament passage that describes Moses asking the Voice of the burning bush to identify himself. The reply from the God of the Jews sometimes called Jehovah is said to have replied:
I am that I am. What you experienced, with the addition of a third I am, is certainly interesting. Was that the "voice of God Almighty" speaking directly to you with an "update?"

The Universe is vast and mysterious. There are certainly numerous scripture from the world's religions that relate tales of pronouncements, conversations and/or visions of gods and goddesses, buddhas, bodhisattvas, angels, spirits and other beings that exist in other dimensions.

I,myself, had a period of time in my life, when like St Paul, I heard a voice that asked "Why are you persecuting Me?" several times. It led to vision where I was standing with others at foot of the cross peering up at Jesus crucified. I then swept up into the bosom of Jesus as he exclaimed in pain and tears "Forgive them Father for they know not what they do." The experience was profound. I touched the Heart of Infinite Forgiveness and Compassion "from the inside." This continues to inform my life and my sense of things. Did the Voice of Jesus lead me to this Vision? Did I see Him and hear his voice? Was that experience Real?

The Universe is Vast and Mysterious. The human mind is, likewise, vast and mysterious. These are not two separate things. We each create meaning and develop systems of belief that then inform our experiences and actions. At this stage of the journey, I am grateful to have experienced our Essential Oneness deeply, to feel the Presence of a transcendent One Love.

At this point, I believe that the cardinal singing outside the window is the Voice of God, as are the hissing tires along the road, and the clicking sounds made as my fingers dance across this keyboard to be the Voice of God. So are your words on this screen describing your voice and visions, Brother Rinus. So is the Vast Silence that this all floats in.
I don't conceptualize the Ultimate Being as a "person" or distinct energy separate from you and I. It's not "the" Ultimate Being, even. It's just Being!

You have the freedom and ability to discern the meaning of the experiences that you've had. Each of us is gifted with that ability -- and that responsibility!
Be well. Stay in Touch.
One Love,

rinus nienhuis said...

Dear Lance

I am very Gratefull to have met you. Thank you very much for your help and kindness. I have read your words over and over i not only think but feel your words. My inner resonates with them and you

I certainly stay in touch
Love !