"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! The Musings of a Long-time Student of Meditation

Sunday, March 22, 2020

When Things Fall Apart

“We awaken this bodhichitta, this tenderness for life, when we can no longer shield ourselves from the vulnerability of our condition, 
from the basic fragility of existence."
-- Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

"This practice trains us to see and feel that our pain and difficulty in this life, 
and the pain and difficulty of others, is the gateway 
that will lead us down the path of love."
--  Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion: 
Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong

For years now, my life has seemed relatively stable within the flux of impermanence.   Samsara was samsara, of course. Yet things seemed to change incrementally, moment to moment.  Life had its ups and downs, but it appeared fairly predictable. 

And Then.

Zap!

The world was turned upside down by the COVID19 pandemic.  The unimaginable has happened.  And it is clear. It is only going to get worse before it gets better here in Western Massachusetts.

To be honest, I'm fried.  This post will be brief.  I've spent hours and hours over the past ten days reaching out to network with friends and family.  Hours and hours, at times tied in knots, sitting here learning Zoom and other programs, tying together the technological strands of the web, so that my Mindfulness CircleMates and I can close the distance in this time of "social distancing."

Yet, at this moment, after days and days spending too much time in front of a computer screen, the Practice still sustains me.  I can still breathe deeply and feel the sacred space of the Present moment beyond the buzz.  Sitting here this moment, I can feel my Heart.  Grateful to the Teachers of Tonglen Practice, I can breath in the turmoil, the pain, the fear, and let it heal within the boundless space of our shared heart.  In the pause between the in-breath and out-breath, I can touch that place in my heart of hearts that wishes to alleviate our suffering.  Then, I can allow its release with my out-breath into the gracious spaciousness of life as a prayer.

Chinese Nurses Shave Heads and Carry On
I come to tears here.  But these tears are not of grief alone.  

They also are tears of profound appreciation for the work of those on the front lines of this pandemic.  For the doctors and nurses, of course.  Their efforts are heroic.  

Yet, these tears are also for the grocery store workers, drug store staff, the countless millions of people across this vast planet who continue doing what they do because what they do is essential to the support of life.  These tears are for the nobility central to the human spirit, for Italians serenading one another from their balconies, volunteers delivering food to their homebound elders.  These are tears of gratitude and appreciation for the awesome and fragile majesty of the human condition.

Now, more than ever, it is obvious.  Not only are we in this together.  We are this together. We, and all beings, are -- beautifully and terribly* -- inextricably woven together into an unimaginably intricate tapestry.  A tapestry grander than words can express.

May all beings be safe.  May all beings be at peace.  May all beings rest in our True Nature. 



* this phrase is from the poem "Pandemic" by Reverend Lynn Ungar.  You can view the entire poem here:

Saturday, March 7, 2020

When You Wish Upon a Star

"The real meditation practice is how we live our lives from moment to moment." 
-- Jon Kabat-Zinn

The important point is to realize that you are never off duty.”
-- Chogyam Trungpa

Sometimes, it seems like a previous lifetime.  

Fifteen years ago, I sat on the front porch of an A-frame perched on a ridge at Zen Mountain Monastery gazing at a star-filled Catskill Mountain sky.  At that point, I knew it wasn't working out.  I was going to leave. 

I had absolutely no idea what my next move would be.

For decades, I had thought, "once the kids are grown, I can finally DO IT!" At long last,  I would leave the chaos of contemporary life and head for the hills.  There I'd find the Teacher and a sangha -- and really get spiritual. 

Now, after only six months of residency, I knew I was done.

So much for that idea.  Now what? 

Clueless...

Although I had, again, experienced a number of deep "openings" in the cauldron of Roshi John Daido Loori's version of Zen Training, I discovered that the rigid, hard-driving, and unabashedly hierarchical nature of the Roshi's "Eight Gates of Zen Training" didn't ring true for me.  A longtime peace activist, I deeply valued egalitarianism and the shared power experienced in consensus democracy.  I knew that a monastic life wasn't going to be that.   Yet, I thought that I was ready to "get with the program."

I wasn't. 

Though I respected many of the folks involved, and saw that the monastic life appeared to work for some, I now knew it wasn't for me.  I wasn't going to get off that easy.  I was going to have to get out there on the streets and work it out for myself -- again.

As I sat there, absolutely clueless, an image of the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull came to mind. Then, like that intrepid avian seeker of perfection, I thought, "Just hang onto the wind and trust!"  That very instant, a shooting star flashed across the night sky directly in front of my eyes.  As it disappeared into the tapestry of countless stars and fathomless blackness reaching overhead, I knew.

I wish it was always that easy.  
(READ MORE)

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Know What?

“Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all.”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: 
Heart Advice for Difficult Times 

"It is only when the mind is free from the old that it meets everything anew,
and in that there is joy.
― Jiddu Krishnamurti


Bodhidharma by Shokei, 15th Century
Not having a clue rarely stops me these days.  In fact, at age 73, it seems to be the best stance to take in any given moment.  It certainly seems the most appropriate.  

The presumption that we really know what is going on is most often only just that.  It's a presumption.  Clung to, it can be patently presumptuous.  

This can lead to all sorts of problems.

My first boss, Charlie Winchester, foreman of the maintenance department at a small factory in a small town north of Chicago had a decidedly less delicate way of making the point.  The memory brings a smile and warm glow to my heart.

I started working at that factory as a high school sophomore in the summer of 1962.  A working class kid, I had come of age.  Dutifully eschewing summer days splashing in the local lake, I needed to get serious and start saving money for the college education that would propel me up a notch in status, if not in income, as a public school teacher.

In those days, like many of us, I was able to get a relatively good paying union job for the summer at the factory where my dad worked.  Although I began as a stock handler on one of the assembly lines, I was soon able to transfer to the maintenance department where my tasks ranged from mowing the extensive grounds to learning how to fix things.  Although it was often noisy, dirty, and sometimes even dangerous, I loved it.  

My boss, Charlie, was a kind and able mentor.  That spirit pervaded the maintenance crew and during the seven summers I worked there, I learned a lot about how things work on many levels.

One particular lesson on the nature of reality that first summer began when Charlie came around the corner to find me standing in front of a simple piece of production machinery gone amuck.   Lurching erratically and making tortuous noises after my attempt at repair, it threatened mayhem.  The afternoon's production quota now in question, I quickly explained what I had done and why.  

With the ever present cigar stub in his mouth, Charlie quickly shut the machine down, then immediately took a pen from his shirt pocket pen holder and wrote the word "ASSUME" on a piece of paper.

"You know what happens when you assume?" he asked.
(READ MORE) 

Monday, February 17, 2020

What's Love Got To Do With It?

"Hatred never ceases by hatred. It is healed by love alone. 
This is the ancient and eternal law."
-- Buddha
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul
and with all your strength and with all your mind. 
Love your neighbor as yourself.”
-- Yogi Jesus


With the chocolate-laced, commercialized carnival of Valentine's Day now disappearing in the rear-view mirror,  I find myself again musing about the true nature of love.


I don't know how it plays out in other languages, but it seems to me that in English the word love is amazingly imprecise.   

The very same word, "love," applies to both the ultimate self-sacrifice that Jesus spoke of when he proclaimed, "Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life, " and the most possessive and jealous form of desirous grasping imaginable.  The very same word, love, casts a net that includes both the enlightened activity of the Bodhisattva Green Tara -- and the painful flailing of folks ensnared by the Green Eyed Monster!

Yet, we have it on "good authority" (see introductory quotes,) that the key to the Real Deal is Love.  So, what does the word "love" really mean? 

Mean?

Yikes.  Here we go again: What does the word "mean" really mean?  

Its "meaning" runs the gamut from ultimate significance and purpose, to simply being nasty!  It reaches from the perfection of the Aristotelean  (and Buddhist) Golden Mean to the obnoxious underwater antics of the Blue Meanies.!?

Damn.  I mean give me a break here. 

It's Only Words...

Love? Meaning? These words certainly seem important, yet getting to the Truth of the Matter seems a bit problematic, no?  Conditioned as we are in a world that stresses the importance of conceptual thought, of words, much of our awareness is tied up in the stream of thoughts that dominate our attention.  Yet it's obvious that those words can be quite sloppy, even paradoxical.  Perhaps, words are not all that useful in our quest for fundamental clarity.

The Zen tradition stresses this point.  

At one point, during a teisho in sesshin years ago at the Rochester Zen Center, Bodhin Kjolhede Sensei asserted, "Every time I open my mouth,  I'm lying!"  He had obviously -- and very passionately -- opened his mouth at that moment.  I sat there bemused. 

Was Sensei telling the truth in that assertion -- or was he lying?

You tell me!
(READ MORE)

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Day by Day:Sustaining a Daily Practice

 “The gift of learning to meditate is the 
greatest gift you can give yourself in this lifetime.” 
-- Sogyal Rinpoche

“When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment,
our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be
filled with acceptance, joy, peace and love.”
― Thich Nhat Hạnh


I would say that ninety percent of the folks who have wandered into one of the Mindfulness Circles I facilitate have already tried mediation.  

Comparing notes on Practice, most of those folks have expressed that there was an obvious improvement in the quality of their consciousness --and in their lives -- during the times that they practiced, but they had been unable to maintain a regular daily practice.

Sound familiar?

The inability to maintain a daily practice is quite widespread.  It's fun to see a newcomer to the Circle mention, often somewhat sheepishly, that they hadn't been successful in sustaining a daily practice, only to discover when I ask for a show of hands, that everyone in the Circle has had -- or continues to have -- that same problem.

It only stands to reason. 

In today's world we are individually and collectively awash in noise, stimulation, and activity.  Creatures of habit, the entire thrust of our social conditioning operates against sitting still in silence.  Often feeling stressed and fatigued, we scurry ahead,  sometimes aware of a subtle (or not so subtle) discontent with ourselves and our lives.  Taking the time to notice to stop, relax, and get in touch with what is actually going on inside of us isn't widely supported. 

The Good News is that it can be.

More than anything, the establishment of a regular daily meditation practice may be the key to making the difference.  At this stage of the journey, I've learned that there are some things that  have helped me and others to bring this about.  Perhaps, they can help you as well.
(READ MORE)

Monday, February 3, 2020

The End Game

"It's only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth - and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up, will we then begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.
  -- Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

"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



This past few weeks, a number of friends and Mindfulness Circlemates have lost loved ones.  Others have faced diagnoses of life-threatening illness. 

Sometimes, life is like that.  

In fact, when you take the long view, life is always like that.  

As the legendary Zen Master, 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.  What happens at the end point may be a Grand Mystery.  Yet, one thing is pretty obvious: Life itself is a terminal condition.   

In mainstream society today, it seems that most folks assiduously avoid bringing that aspect of our shared human condition into the their awareness.  Until their boat (or that of a loved one) is about to sink -- or sinks -- most of us don't seem to want to rock that boat.  We don't want to face the sinking feeling that may emerge. 

Yet, until we actually face death's inevitability, it may not be possible to engage our lives fully and directly with an open heart and clear mind.  We'll always be somewhat haunted, skating over the thin ice of our own subconscious fear of one of the truths of our existence. IMHO, this is no way to live.

Buddhism makes no bones about this.  

If you are going to perceive the truth of our existence, death has to be acknowledged.  In the Theravadan tradition, Asian teachers still cite the Satipatthana Sutta of the Pali Canon, and sometimes send monks off to meditate on corpses at the charnel grounds to practice.  That may be a bit hard core for Western practitioners who, unlike their Asian counterparts, live in a society that shields us from the reality of death as much as possible. 

The Mahayana traditions also call for a 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.  The inevitability of death is also 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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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Give It 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

"Breathing in, I calm body and mind. 
Breathing out, I smile. 
Dwelling in the present moment
 I know this is the only moment."
-- Thich Nhat Hanh

As someone who is approaching my 74th birthday, I grin when I find myself sometimes talking about "the good old days."  

As a teen, I used to roll my eyes whenever Dad proclaimed 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.  He had come to believe that the entire fabric of life in his homeland, Communist or not, was better than what he and his family was experiencing in the US.  He was making plans to go home.

And that was thirty-five years ago!  

That was before everyone had a PC, a cell phone, and a gazzillion cable channels to choose from.  Back then, I still had the time to sigh and stretch out when I got home from 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, sped up and wired for action in most every waking moment --or thinking about it.  Even at rest, our minds are constantly 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 often 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 Vast, 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, January 17, 2020

It Takes One to Know One

“Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the Great Mystery into which we were born.” 
― Albert Einstein
 
  “The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness, call it Intuition or what you will, the solution comes to you and you don't know how or why."
― Albert Einstein

As a kid I was immensely curious.  I think we all were--although many of us were quickly conditioned to drop it and "get with the program." It seems parents and schoolteachers couldn't deal with our incessant questioning.

I remember stumbling across a broken camera in the alley when I was about 9 years old.  I took it home and immediately took it apart.  I then wondered why the heck the world was upside down when I looked through the lens. What? I then extracted the other lenses from the viewfinder, and after fooling around for a while, I figured out how to right the image and make a telescope.  I then plotted the movement of a planet across the sky outside my bedroom window for a couple of weeks.

Later that same year, I discovered that a battery-powered car I'd received as a Christmas gift made static on the radio's speakers whenever its path took it close to the radio.  What? Again curious, I took the car apart and discovered that the sparking of its electric motor created radio waves! Before all was said and done, I had extricated the motor from the car, cobbled together a homemade keying device, and learned Morse code so that I could send messages through space using these invisible waves of energy.   

This early interest in invisible waves of energy continued.  In junior high school I became a ham radio operator -- and learned to play the guitar.  Sound waves, radio waves, light waves.  They all fascinated me.  The idea that invisible waves operated at different frequencies, at different rates of vibration was clear to me. I learned how to tune my guitar.  I learned how to tune my homemade transmitter to deliver maximum power at a particular frequency. There appeared to be certain principles involved. 

So, by the time the Hippies were happening in Haight Ashbury a handful of years later, even at a distance, I was quite inclined to believe in "good vibrations."  I didn't find it odd at all to believe that there was a dimension of experience that involved invisible energies.  I was soon exploring yoga and meditation practice. 

In the course of the next few years, with the support of a number of friends/kindred spirits (we actually formed a short-lived "commune" in the early 70's), I learned that one didn't have to do drugs to be in touch with a subtle dimension of energy.  If I paid attention, at times "the vibes" were (and are) as perceptible as the wind on my skin.  Then, I came to see that, just like in music and radio, there were certain principles at work.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

One Step Forward. One Step Back.

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers
within yourself that you have built against it.”
― Rumi

"When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality. ”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times


The National Weather Service is predicting an all-time record high tomorrow here in Springfield, MA.  After an overnight rain, the skies will be clearing.  Under sunny skies, the temperature is expected to hit 65° F. 

Zounds!

In the past two weeks, we have seen days of clouds, days of sunshine.  We've experienced high winds, snow, ice, and rain, endured frigid nights of single digits and enjoyed balmy days with springlike temperatures.  

Mother Nature is doing her part to remind us of the nature of Life itself.   With or without the specter of global warming, everything is in constant flux.  What the Buddhists call anicca is one aspect of Reality as it is.  Everything is impermanent.

I notice that as I sit at the keyboard to muse about the Practice, there is a particular quality of consciousness that emerges again this morning.

Although there are certainly moments of befuddlement and confusion, sometimes swaths of time in which I stammer and stumble ahead haltingly, only to hit the backspace key and take a few steps, it seems that I generally return to being quite aware of a vast and clear spaciousness beyond any of the thoughts find their way into my fingers.  In this morning's meditation, and now, sitting here at the keyboard, when I pause and simply breath, I am aware of Awareness itself.  I like it when that happens.

There is a problem with it, though.

In reading over some of my past posts this past week, I found myself wondering if I was too quick to present the high side of a Life of Practice without acknowledging how very difficult and challenging it can be to truly open one's heart to the reality of the human condition as it is actually lived in our day to day lives.  It seems to me that I can spend a bit too much airtime raving about the fact that Life is Miraculous and Beautiful, not enough time acknowledging that Life Sucks.
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