without harshness, without deception, can we let go of harmful patterns. "
“Just continue in your calm, ordinary practice
and your character will be built up.”
― Shunryu Suzuki
There was a time when that realization would have immediately brought on a stream of troubling images. My shoulders would have hunched up alongside my ears and a feeling of deep dread and discomfort would have emerged with the thought "WINTER is coming!" (string of expletives deleted...)
Nowadays? Not so much.
Being Present to what actually is, is usually a whole lot more fun. The scene outside the window at this very moment is Just Perfect as it is. Pausing to take a slow deep breath, my eyes feast on the dance of stark branches silhouetted against the boundless expanse of the predawn sky. A deep Silence rings soundlessly as I sit here.
For that matter, the scene inside the window is Just Perfect as it is. My zafu, a familiar friend who has shared morning meditations with me almost very day for a long, long time, returns my gaze with a bow. At this moment, even the clicking of the keyboard don't disturb the silence as these letters dance across the screen of this old beat-up MacBook.
Feeling my breath and my body, I come to my senses. Life is Just Perfect as it is.
I blame the Practice for that.
Reality is an Open Book
I am extremely grateful to have come of age in the rarefied atmosphere of the late 60's and early 70's, when the spiritual teachings and practices of the the world's religions became widely accessible. It was an era when even a working class kid from Chicago like myself had an odds on chance of experiencing altered states of consciousness that freed us to apprehend the Sacred. Although, some of us didn't seem to"get it"at the time, others realized that these experiences were not just the product of magical herbs and modern chemistry. These experiences connected us the Truth of the Matter. Many of us saw that here is a Reality that exists within and beyond the conditioned appearances we'd been programmed to consider as the "real world".
With the influx of Eastern teachers drawn to the United States during the Collective Kensho of that era, I learned that mystics, seers, sages and saints of all the world's religions had been exploring this terrain for a long, long time -- and some of them kept notes. There was a vast ocean of literature on the matter.
I had always been an avid bookworm. Without leaving Chicagoland, I had traveled the world and explored the human condition through the magic of the printed page throughout my childhood. There was always a stack of books on my nightstand. By my senior year of college in 1969, I was beginning to fumble my way through learning hatha yoga and meditation -- by the book.
Although I experienced a number of profoundly impactful moments -- both on and off the meditation cushion -- it was years before I sat with a "real" meditation teacher. Now, almost a half century later, after having explored a variety of meditation techniques with a number of gifted teachers, attended numerous meditation intensives, and spent time in residence at a couple of meditation centers, I find that I'm still a nerd, a Spiritual Geek.
There are still stacks of books on my nightstand.
By the Book
A number of books have determined the trajectory of my own spiritual journey over the years. Back in the day, Ram Dass's Be Here Now brought me to a deeper understanding that specific practices were important in one's spiritual life. I came to see that Spirituality wasn't solely a matter of Grace. Life wasn't just happenstance. There was something we could actually do to cultivate our Connection to the Sacred. I was drawn to the idea that we could more fully embody the qualities we valued by spending time engaged in yoga, meditation, study, and service.
Although I continued to explore a wide variety of literature on the matter (and still do,) I was drawn to the specifically Buddhist teachings and practices found the Zen tradition in the early 70's. Then, in the 80's, I spent time with the insights and practices that emerge from the Theravada before gravitating back to Zen, ordaining in Thich Nhat Hanh's lay Order of Interbeing at one point, then going into residence at Zen Mountain Monastery once my youngest child had graduated from college.
For a number of reasons that I won't go into here, that really didn't work out. As is always the case, whether we realize it or not, there is always more to learn about our own relationship to what some folks may term God. The path to the Infinite is, well, infinite. Duh.
The Pick of the Litter
About thirteen years ago, a new friend handed me a copy of Pema Chodron's Start Where You Are. When I read the epigraph, my mind was, once again, completely blown. It read, simply:
Although I still use a variety of meditation techniques, Pema Chodron's approach to Basic Sitting Practice have become the bottom line for me for over a decade. (No anatomical pun intended...)
Not unlike the basic meditation practices of Soto Zen and other Buddhist schools, we are instructed to ground our awareness in the actual sensations of our body and our breath. Yet rather than the "tight focus" that is taught in other traditions in Buddhism and elsewhere, Ani Pema passes along the Basic Sitting Practice (Shamatha-Vipasyana) taught by her teacher, Chogyam Trungpa. Here we are instructed to lightly focus our attention (only about 25% percent!) on the sensations of the out-breath. The rest of one's awareness is left open to notice-- without reacting, judging or assessing -- whatever happens to be floating through the gracious spaciousness of mind moment to moment.
This has worked wonders for me. It has resonated deeply with the essential wisdom found in gentleness. No longer a project of mind prone to harshness and the judgmental demand to do it "right", a period of meditation becomes an opportunity to choose, moment to moment, what Pema Chodron characterizes as unconditional friendliness towards the reality of our own experience.
It's as simple as that.
Yet, simple doesn't necessarily mean easy. Although is true that a meditation practice will bring greater ease and calm into our lives, at times the thoughts and emotions that have been consistently repressed, denied and avoided will emerge into our awareness. Most of us have been conditioned to spend our lives escaping from these aspects of our experience. Yet, this is precisely here that true healing can occur.
The "pith instruction" presented by Chodron is simply to stay. Rather than turn away from what might appear to be frightening or painful or troubling, we stay to face it directly, even "leaning into" those aspects of our experience. Letting go of the narratives that emerge ("thinking, thinking"), we soften and open to the underlying energies. With care, curiosity, and gentle persistence, we stay with it. We increasingly embrace the reality of our own experience.
As we do this over time a transformation occurs. With Practice, we get kinder, more compassionate, calmer and clearer -- and life seems increasingly more manageable. In my case, a steadiness, balance, and ease emerged. Paradoxically, I am able to feel more deeply the amazing array of emotional energies that are inherent in Life As It Is.
Then, at a certain point, Reality asserts itself. We see clearly that even our more than apparent "quirks, flaws and imperfections", are just perfect. Our heart awakens. We come to know more and more deeply that we are inherently worthy -- and so is everyone else!
So, Now What!?
More and more are able to dwell in the moment. We lead with our hearts, not with our heads. Even when things don't exactly "meet our standards," we know that there really no other place to be than where you are. In fact, as the heart continues to awaken (this is an ever- unfolding process), we also come to know more deeply that there is no place we'd rather be.
If things are cool, that's cool. If things are a bit a funky, you don't bitch and moan about it. You take a deep breath, relax, feel your heart -- and figure something out. As Practice deepens, you know that, just like ourselves, some folks may be frightened and confused, and they're mucking things up. So, you roll up your sleeves and get to work. That's the essence of the Bodhisattva Vow.
That, of course, takes real staying power.
It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it, right?
PS. If your not yet convinced that meditation is worth the effort, maybe Pema Chodron's own take on it will help. This woman's got a way with words.
Five Reasons to Meditate by Pema Chodron, Shambala Sun, September, 2013