"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

Saturday, October 24, 2020

A Bit Touched

 "When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it's bottomless, that it doesn’t have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there, as well as how much space.”

― Pema Chödrön

 “Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.”
― Chögyam Trungpa

In some people's eyes, I'm definitely "a bit touched in the head."

These days, I spend much of my time meditating, studying spiritual texts, and comparing notes about matters of spirit, heart, and mind with as many folks as I can. 

I even let slip in some settings that I've directly experienced the Presence of God!  This, of course, can get me in trouble -- even (or maybe especially) in some of  the Buddhist circles I travel in.  
Yet, like Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley and the many others who subscribe to the Perennial Philosophy, I've come to see that there is a mystical experience of Reality, ultimately accessible to all, that underlies all the world's religions.  It's the Real Deal.  The rest is just window dressing.

Over the years I've learned to be a a bit more discrete about yakking about these experiences, though.

I try not to mention these moments of Being There -- or, more correctly, just Being -- where it is likely to lead to an embarrassed silence, furtive glances toward the nearest exit -- or, possibly, somebody dialing 911!  And, although I say that lightly, in all seriousness this has been an unfortunate reality for some folks in a society that doesn't understand such things.  I was usually able to travel under the radar.  I was lucky.  Even when I was homeless on the streets, I was able to stay out of jail or the psych ward. 
Live and Learn

Looking back, I guess I've always been a bit touched.  
As a child, at times I sensed clearly there was a profound beauty and magic in the world, a spiritual dimension to our being.  It was surprising and confusing to me that most folks didn't seem to notice.  In elementary school, I could also see clearly that the selfishness and cruelty I saw in the schoolyard created a living hell for all concerned.  Kindness and caring created its opposite.  I couldn't understand why everyone just didn't choose kindness.  It seemed pretty obvious to me that all we had to do was get our act together.  This was the Promised Land.  We could choose to create heaven on earth.

Needless to say, this was not the prevailing worldview.  I was often dismissed as a dreamer or an idealist, sometimes with obvious scorn by those who considered themselves to be"realists." Long before I had heard of the Bodhisattva Vows, I was stumbling ahead trying to be kind, to serve all sentient beings.  It just seemed to make sense to be me.  

Then, like many of the folks who came of age in the cultural revolution of the 60's and 70's, those childhood perceptions were reinforced again and again -- with and without the assistance of various ingested substances.  It was just like Jesus, Buddha -- and the Beatles -- proclaimed.  All we need is Love.  That was the bottom line of the Real Deal. 

Yet, in the day to day reality of my life, I discovered that actually being a loving person wasn't all that easy.  Blinded by the subconscious patterns of a deeply wounded ego, immersed in the energies of a patently neurotic society, I continued to roller-coaster through relationships and jobs.  I made a lot of mistakes.  Much of the time I could be a real jerk, failing miserably to help others, or even free myself from suffering.  
Even after experiencing the Infinite Grace of the One Love, I still didn't have much of a clue about the sheath of armoring around my heart that operated to distance me from others -- and, perhaps more crucially, from myself.  Even with a couple of decades of a regular meditation practice, including a significant time doing intensive meditation retreats with major teachers, layers and layers of subconscious patterns still dictated much of my life.  I could quickly disconnect from my aspiration to be a kind and loving person and get swept away in confusion.  I could get to the mountaintop again and again, but I couldn't sustain the clear vision needed to navigate my own life skillfully.
Then, about 15 years ago, a friend gave me a copy of Pema Chodron's Start Where You Are.   I opened the book to epigraph: "This book is about awakening the heart."  
Although, I had experienced a number of profound "heart openings" over the years, somewhere along the way I had thought that enlightenment was all about a state of Mind.  Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind had been one of my gateways to the Practice and I'd sat shikantaza for a couple of decades.  Now, Ani Pema's presentation of the Lojong Trainings and Tonglen meditation, changed everything.  I realized that I had now had the tools to begin working with the realities of my life in a more skillful manner.  I saw the possibility that with commitment, time, effort, patience -- and grace -- I could really serve.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

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

"In all activities, train with slogans."-- The 9th Lojong Slogan

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 and Mind were passed on as secret teachings in Tibet by the ninth century emigre Indian teacher, Atisha, they were codified and opened to a wider audience by Tibetan teacher Geshe Chekawa in the 12th century.

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 of  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 the habits of a lifetime is another.  Since we were in the womb (if not before that,) we've each been immersed in a pool of energies that have conditioned us in ways that disconnect us from our True Nature.  Rather than face the world with an open heart and clear mind, we were taught to distrust ourselves, others, even life itself.  In light of this deep-set conditioning, the effort to recover our natural compassion and wisdom takes commitment, energy, and patience.  

It takes Practice. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

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
"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

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 situation where the word "swearing" could either describe what emerges when a person angrily launches into a foul-mouthed condemnation of something or it's opposite.  Swearing is also 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 that 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. 

I've found that, 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 real communication extremely interesting.  It involves myriad factors beyond the actual 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 operate to take us further and further away from the Truth.  Truth, I have found, is ultimately a matter of Heart, not the thinking mind.

Yet, staying connected to our hearts is not easy.  It takes Practice.  And Practice takes courage, effort -- and Commitment.


Oh no, not that!

Sunday, October 4, 2020

A Good Cry

“Crying is one of the highest devotional songs. One who knows crying, knows spiritual practice. If you can cry with a pure heart, nothing else compares to such a prayer.  Crying includes all the principles of Yoga.”

“In the Lakota/Sioux tradition, a person who is grieving is considered 
most Wakan, most holy."

Emmet Kelly 1898-1979
Some time ago,  I came across the above quote by Swami Kripalvanandji while preparing for a yoga class that I was going to teach later that day.  I immediately emailed it to a dear friend who was having a rough time.

She replied that it helped -- a lot.  After reading it, she had headed out to her garden to have a good cry.  It was exactly what she needed.

Growing up in today's society, most of us have learned to avoid crying like the plague.  Widely seeen as a sign of unacceptable weakness and frailty, we are conditioned to keep a stiff upper lip, to steel ourselves against this natural expression of heartfelt feeling.  
Although this conditioning is considered to be a "male," thing, most of the women I know often fight back their tears.  In our society, these patterns of resistance to a natural human expression are quite pervasive. 

That being said, I actually hesitated for a moment to plunge ahead here.  After all, you don't see glitzy promotional commercials proclaiming: Mindfulness Practice: Guaranteed to make you cry! Maybe I'd better "lighten up" a bit?  I might get sued by the professionals promising peace and joy.  After all, isn't Buddha's Third Noble Truth the freakin' Cessation of Suffering?

Sunday, September 27, 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

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 "progress" had distinct problems. 

Sometimes, he'd launch into telling me (once again) that his  grandfather believed that the automobile would be a destructive force in the world.  A man who had witnessed their emergence on the roads of southern California at the turn of the 20th century, he thought people were moving much too fast.  Sped up in their own self-contained worlds, they were loosing touch with nature -- and with one another.

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."  My great-grandfather had a pretty clear idea of the direction we were heading.

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 minor bureaucrat, he had left the country when the Communist government took power.

We were co-workers at a spiffy New Age natural foods restaurant, bakery, retail store complex in Madison, WI.  As we sat in the alley out back taking a break(with one eye out for the manager), he lamented that the entire pace of life in the U.S. was unhealthy, uncivilized and inhumane.  Staying in touch with his relatives, hearing of their lives, he had decided to return home.  He had come to believe that the entire fabric of life in his homeland, Communist or not, was much better than what he and his family was experiencing in the US. 

And that was thirty-five years ago!  

That was before everyone had a PC , a cell phone, the internet, and a gazzillion cable channels to choose from.  Back then, I still had the time and space to sigh and stretch out when I got home from work.  If I wanted stimulation, I would reach for the TV Guide and look through the listings, then get out of the chair to stroll across the room to select the channel. If I wanted to change the channel, it was a decision that required me to stroll back across the room.


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.  Our cellphones can capture us at the blink of an eye.  

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, Spacious, 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, it may not be that easy. 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Times They Are A-Changing


“One of my favorite subjects of contemplation is this question: “Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?””
― Pema Chödrön

"I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence..."
–– David Bowie, "Changes"

I was never really much of a David Bowie fan.  Yet, as I sat down to the computer to begin this week's post, strains of "Ch-ch-ch-ch changes..." started running through my brain.  
Curious, I surfed over to YouTube  and played the song a few times.  I then brought up a copy of the lyrics, and grinned as I read Bowie's personalized rendition of prototypically first-world existential angst facing itself in the mirror.
"Ch-ch-ch-ch changes.  Turn and face the strange." 

The Dharma in drag?
I would never had imagined that David Bowie would make an appearance in today's blog post.  How'd I end up here?  
Perhaps our first frost warnings of the season had something to do with this odd collection of firing neurons.  Summer is fading in the rear view mirror.  Today's high is predicted to be in the low 60's.  As September continues to prance toward the inevitable, it's "ch-ch-ch-ch changes," indeed.

The Fall Rising
The ensuing winter notwithstanding, autumn is my favorite time of year.  But it's not just the multi-colored majesty of the foliage and cooler temperatures that bring its music to the top of the charts.  
I wish it were that easy. 

Spring is easy to love. After the starkness of a New England winter, the world begins to explode with new life.  With warm breezes teasing us and daffodils poking their way through the snow, the irrepressible growth and greenery sings of "Ch-ch-ch changes" full of delight.  Fall, on the other hand, modulates the whole world into a minor key as leaves burst into color -- then die and cascade to form burial mounds on the forest floor. 
The dance of the seasons underscores the trajectory of our lives.

In the teachings of traditional Buddhism, human existence is said to have three basic characteristics: impermanence, non-self, and suffering.  Everything changes. We are not permanent, static, individuated beings, and we will die.  It hurts.  

Fall puts that right in our face. 

Friday, September 11, 2020

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

There were quite a few of us that were first drawn to Zen back in the 60's because of its seemingly irreverent and iconoclastic tenor and tone.  

To a bunch of self-styled hippies, peaceniks, and radicals, the stories of ancient monks kicking over water jugs, writing poems lauding drunkeness, unabashedly proclaiming that Buddha was a "shit stick", etc., were extremely cool.  Those Zennies 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 clear ethical framework.  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 vows and precepts.  I was faced with studying and practicing Taking Refuge in the Triple Gems, the Four Bodhisattva Vows, the Three Pure Precepts, and the 10 Essential Precepts.  It was part of the deal.


Jeez.  Growing up I only had to worry about the Ten Commandments! Now? Do the math. This is twice as many.  So much for "doing your own thing!"

Or so it seemed. 

Friday, September 4, 2020

'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

The sultry days of August have given way to September now, and the first hints of autumn have appeared here in Western Massachusetts.  The thermometer has already dropped into the upper 40's a couple of times.  Patches of orange leaves have emerged in a few of the maples inviting their neighbors to join them.  

It won't be long.

As they often do as autumn announces its presence, my thoughts have 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 period of intensive practice is widespread in Theravadan Buddhism.  It is observed in various forms in Tibetan Buddhism and Zen as well.  Here in the US, where hot summer weather is more problematic than monsoons, the rain's retreat seems to have evolved into periods of intensive practice that occur in the Fall and/or the Spring. 

At Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, the Rain's Retreat has become The Three Month Course, a meditation intensive that begins in September each year.  In 1991, I joined that retreat for the entire month of October.  

Saturday, August 29, 2020

A Love Affair

“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. 
You're able to keep your eyes open, your heart open, and your mind open.
 ― Pema Chödrön, 
Practicing Peace in Times of War

We now see that the only way that we could love ourselves is by loving others, 
and the only way that we could truly love others is to love ourselves. 
The difference between self-love and love of others is very small, 
once we really understand.”
― Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion: 
Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong

As I've mentioned before, here and elsewhere, I think the Hippies actually had it right.  It IS all about Peace, Love, and Freedom.

In the Collective Kensho of that era, many of us had been to the mountain top.  There, we were touched deeply by the One Love that permeates and transcends the universe.  We saw the Real Deal. 

But seeing it -- and even believing in it -- isn't enough.

The task of freeing ourselves to actually BE peaceful and loving human beings became the mission -- and we quickly learned that it is no mean feat.  It takes deep commitment, effort, discipline, courage and patience.

It takes Practice.

In the Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist worlds the term "Love" isn't generally used to refer to the Ultimate State of Being. They approach the Ineffable with different concepts and understandings. I think that is actually helpful to us Westerners.  We are incredibly sloppy with the word love.  It has a wide range of meanings.

In English, love could be the word that attempts to describe the spiritual glow that emerges from the ethereal domain of unconditional, unselfish agape on the one hand.  Or, just as readily, the word could be used to indicate the self-absorbed fiery emotion that erupts from the nether realms of green eyed monsters and wrathful, jealous gods.  (It's pretty clear that "I love you so much that I'll kill anyone who looks at you, and then you," isn't exactly what Jesus and Buddha had in mind when they taught about Love.) 

It seems that a bit more precision would be helpful.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Sad But True

This world- absolutely pure
As is. Behind the fear,
Vulnerability. Behind that,
Sadness, then compassion
And behind that the vast sky.
 --Rick Fields

 “Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.”  
― Chögyam Trungpa 

Sometimes, insight and healing emerge slowly during the course of Practice.   

Like spring unfolding across the palette of April and May, our world slowly greens and blooms.  What was tan, stark, and frigid, slowly brightens, softens and warms.  At a point we notice:  It's different now than it was before.

At other times, insight and healing emerge like a bolt of lightning in a late summer thunderstorm!


Sometimes bursting forth with a torrential downpour of tears, sometimes not, a Grand Gestalt crystallizes in a heartbeat.  In a flash, in an instant, we really get It! Or perhaps -- more accurately-- It gets us.  

We notice.  It's different now than it was before.

The Genuine Heart of Sadness

Several years ago, I had the good fortunate to stop by Himalayan Views, a spiritual gift shop/bookstore, to hear a woman describe one of those moments.  She was sitting in the back reading area of the store and, as is often the case, I found myself chatting with her about the book she was reading, then comparing notes on our lives and spiritual practice.  

Her eyes were clear, her voice gentle yet strong as she shared her story.  In her mid-thirties at the time of her awakening, suffering from what had been diagnosed as "clinical depression" since adolescence, she had come across a book of Pema Chodron's teachings.  When she read of what Pema's teacher, Chogyam Trungpa had called "the genuine heart of sadness, her life was transformed.


As the woman read that passage that day, the awakening had come in a flash.  Reality asserted itself.  At that very moment, She knew

Friday, August 14, 2020

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 otherwise 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 are programmed to just keep moving.  So, 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 at times.

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.   Full page bold print ads, billboards, and television commercials would proclaim something like:

Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Final Frontier

"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 Hanh

“Delight in itself is the approach of sanity. Delight is to open our eyes 
to the reality of the situation rather than siding with this or that point of view.”
― Chögyam Trungpa, The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation

When I was growing up, being called a "space cadet" was not a good thing.  

Unless you were an astronaut-in-training at NASA (or, perhaps, a Trekkie), the term was a put-down.  Not appearing to pay a lot of attention to the seemingly endless concerns and hassles of what most people called the real world, being a space cadet just wasn't cool. 

Although I didn't realize it at the time, it's now obvious that some of these space cadets were actually marching, perhaps even dancing, to the beat of a different drummer.  They were tuned into something real.

In doing so, they actually had a leg up on the rest of us.  The rest of us were fully engaged in spinning our hamster wheels in an invisible, but very compelling, mind cage.  
Lost in our thoughts and feelings about doing it right, going for the gold, being all we can be,  being "cool," etc., most of us were continually scrambling to get with the program in what society presented to us as the pursuit of happiness.  Yet, we didn't realized the the deck was stacked against us.  We had internalized the values and norms the mainstream society long before we had the insight or the skills to realize that our society's "conventional reality" was a bum deal.  It was merely a house of cards.

The space cadet seemed not to take the game so seriously.  Less driven, less engaged in being "with it," he or she could frequently let go, relax -- and journey elsewhere. One guy I knew quit the football team after one practice saying "that's crazy!"  He spent his autumn afternoons wandering through the woods, alone, instead.  Another friend almost always had her nose in a book, and would sit gazing outside the window with a Mona Lisa smile on her face for swaths of time.

I thought they were wierd.  Actually they were delightful.  Who knew?

Aboard the Starship Enterprise

These days, I will gladly accept the title of space cadet.   

Fortunate to have come of age in an era where many folks managed to "turn on, tune in, and drop out," I  found that "inner space," is the final frontier.   In fact, as I've journeyed through the vast, open expanse of consciousness, the boundary between inner and outer dissolves.  What remains is merely the eternal, pristine, immensity of the present moment.  Here, all that is, is simply all that is. 

It's been a remarkable voyage.  And, for sure, I've encountered some space monsters along the way.  Yet, in seeing them for what they are, I've seen that loving acceptance transforms them.  The beasties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, embraced in compassionate awareness, can then become able and helpful fellow travelers on the journey.

So, for decades now, most every day I make the choice to step off the hamster wheel for at least an hour, bow, take a deep, conscious breath -- and go into free fall.   Some people call what I do meditation. 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Child's Play

In post-meditation, be a child of illusion.
― the 6th Lojong slogan

“I tell all of you with certainty, unless you change 
and become like little children,
you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.”
-- Yogi Jesus of Nazareth

I awoke today to the sound of a gentle rain.  With crisp, cool air floating through the window above my bedroom altar, the neighborhood songbirds chimed in.  They sang their parts in this predawn symphony as I rolled over to set the alarm to 6:30 AM.  I thought I needed a couple of more hours of sleep.  Moments later, I rolled over again and turned the alarm off.  I was ready -- or so I'd thought. 

Today was blog practice.  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, and walked over to the altar. There, I lit three LED candles (there are no flames allowed here in senior subsidized housing.)  Then I turned to the four directions, gathering in the energies as I had learned from a Native American friend. Then, as I have done for decades of practice in the Zen tradition, I bowed to the zafu, then turned to bow to "the assembly."  Then, I and took my seat.   

Another, much more fulfilling, blank screen appeared.

Now, an hour later, I'm ready. 

There is a well known Zen 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 continued pouring as the cup overflowed onto the table, then the 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." 

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 much better handle on the Real Deal than most of my college professors.  I also sensed from the story that intellectual arrogance probably wasn't going to cut it with a Zen master, a fact that I've had verified any number of times number of times over the years as I ran into brick walls with Aries male bravado.

Little did I know, though, that this teaching, like the coffee down at a local diner, was being served in a bottomless cup.  

Then and Now

Several years ago, one of my CircleMates, knowing that I was an inveterate spiritual geek, encouraged me to study the Lojong Slogans and let her and the other folks in the Wednesday Evening Mindfulness Circle know what I'd come up with.  I took the bait.  I poured through five different translations and commentaries on this traditional Tibetan Buddhist system of mind training several times, taking notes, journaling, contemplating.

In my own inimitable style, I hit the books hard.  Yet, it was clear that study and knowledge were one thing.  Practice is another.  It was time to let go and explore how each day's slogan felt, how it played against the fabric of my life at the time.  So, for almost four years now, I've cast a slogan each day. I serve it up with a random number generator on my iPhone.  (How 21st century is that?)

There are times that a slogan absolutely nails an issue that has presented itself in my life at that point.  At other times, I've thought "Oh, I don't need that one anymore," to have a situation arise that clearly shows that I do.   At still other times, its relevance escapes me.  As always is the case in life, it is what it is.  I continue to be amazed at how helpful they have been.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

I cast the 6th slogan of the Lojong Teachings: "In post-meditation, be a child of illusion."  One of the most haunting of the 59 aphorisms that make up this 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 essentially ephemeral nature of "mind stuff"becomes more obvious.  With Practice, our perspective widens and deepens, and in the vast expanse of deepened Awareness, something shifts.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

One Step at a Time

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

"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

In Friday morning's Heart Council,  one of the CircleMates shared her first experience of walking meditation.  Linda's eyes were aglow.  I could feel her energy as it sparkled with enthusiasm-- even on Zoom.  

Although she'd never been instructed in "formal" walking practice, she obviously hadn't needed it.  Linda was experienced in meditation, and she had been an aerobics instructor for years.  This woman knew how to bring her full attention into her body -- and ZAP!  She was there!

As she spoke of her upright posture feeling regal, and the walking itself feeling sacred,  I thought, "Zen Mind, Beginners Mind.  I love it when this happens. "  

I'd experience that same glow, the look of wonder in a person's eyes back at Community Yoga and Wellness Center a few years ago.  After a brief instruction in South Asian slow-walking meditation, she and I walked slowly across the polished wooden floors of the studio for about ten minutes. That's all it took. 


The same glow, that look of wonder in her eyes.  A shift in consciousness had occurred.  At that moment, she was Present to Life in a fuller and more complete way.  

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 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 As It Is each moment remains beneath the level of consciousness.

The good news is that it doesn't have to be this way.  We don't have to sleepwalk through our lives.  We each have the ability to awaken. It can happen with the very next step.

Friday, July 17, 2020

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

In the first year of Monday Morning Mindfulness, a friend who had just participated in Heart Council Practice for the first time approached me after the Circle.

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

I smiled and thought, "Whoo hoo! We've co-created a space where people can be real. "

At that moment, I felt deep gratitude for what emerges in the Mindfulness Circles that I facilitate.  Sitting here, eight years down the road, I still do.  Meeting regularly with folks gathered to share meditation practice and hold space for one another in the Heart Council is an absolute blessing. 

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,  openly sharing the challenges and wonders of the deeper dimensions of our Lives and comparing notes on a Spiritual Practice 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 activist for much of the past 50 years.  Having been inspired by the Civil Rights movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi, I've considered the human movements for peace and justice to be a Spiritual Quest.  Being swept up in the Collective Kensho of the late sixties and early seventies as well, the mysticism and meditation practices of the world's religions and how they play out in the reality of our day to day lives continues to be profoundly interesting to me.  

So, religion and politics?  I can't think of anything I'd rather yak about.

Of course, communication, in it's deepest sense, is much more than just talking. 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Tonglen Practice: 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, taking a breath to relax -- and to make sure that I 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.  This could be my own sadness, fear, frustration, or the perceived suffering of others.  In fact, when I consider that there are countless others who have felt or are feeling what I'm feeling, my heart naturally expands with that in-breath and the energy is transformed in the boundless space of the One Love.  Then I breathe out a sense of relief, a healing energy of light and love with the aspiration that myself and others be healed, at peace, resting in their True Nature.  I imagine that that as radiating from my heart.

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

Hers was not an uncommon response.  Raised in a highly materialistic capitalist society, the basic premise of this ancient Tibetan Buddhist system of mind training seems "counter-intuitive."Rather than grasping at the "good" and pushing away the "bad,"we do the exact opposite.  Opening our hearts to the entire gamut of human emotions is seen as a path of Awakening.  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 Meditation (Shamatha-Vippasyana) and Tonglen.  Although I had practice Basic Sitting Meditaton in several traditions over the course of thirty six years, I had never been exposed to Tonglen.  It has changed my life.  For the past 15 years, Tonglen has continued to expand my ability to better engage the world with an open heart and an open mind.  

Although I still struggle at times with the various wounds of my conditioned personality, and am sometimes deeply saddened and confounded by the energies of greed, hatred, and ignorance that are all too prevalent in the world today, my life has changed for the better.  I now experience many moments of deep wonder, appreciation, and gratitude for the sacred miracle that sings silently within and beyond us.  I'm convinced that the One Love is always present. 

As I sit here and pay attention, I become aware of a clear, bright, vast, and open sense of spaciousness.  Pausing to breath and feel my body, 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 continues to fling words across the screen of this 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, and connected to the long lineage that crafted the English language -- an everything else -- they appear to be emerging by themselves, quite mysteriously.  

Although Western science claims that they are merely "epiphenomena," brain secretions of some sort, at this moment this process 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 as the letters emerge on the screen.  The sensations of my body, my breath,  the clicking contact of my fingers on the keyboard, the soft humming of the computer, the traffic outside the window are reminiscent of a being engaged with various psychedelics back in the day.  (Oops. TMI? LOL)

But, I digress -- sort of.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

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) and his wife, Ina May
In meditation, the subjective nature of Time becomes obvious. 

Sometimes, an hour zips by.  At other times, I've felt 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." It feels easier, at times, to sense the mysterious nature of the Timeless in the boundless expansiveness of each moment.

I guess my head goes to that place whenever Stephen Gaskin crosses my mind.  Interestingly, he came to mind for the first time in awhile just the other day.  Looking at the calendar, I realized it was the sixth anniversary of his passing -- to the day.  (I wrote about another such synchronicity involving his death here.)  Although I have only had three conversations with him over the years, Stephen's teachings had a profound impact on 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!  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. It was a Collective Kensho that transformed many of our lives.  Claiming that they were "out to save the world," Gaskin and 60 bus loads of Hippies left San Francisco to tour the country on a journey known as the Caravan.  After returning to San Francisco, they decided to acquire land, finally circling in for a landing in Tennessee.  There, in 1971, they created what became 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 without drugs in my system, 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.  Ultimately, in the spring of 1972, I had an experience of Perfect Oneness that fulfilled my deepest aspirations and dispelled the fear of death. (Admittedly, I also had some very powerful moments while under the influence of various powerful medicinal herbs and compounds back in the day.)

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Just Listen

"Listening is a very deep practice.You have to empty yourself. 
You have to leave space in order to listen...
In deep listening we listen with the sole purpose of 
helping the other person feel heard and accepted." 
-- Thich Nhat Hanh

"Healing comes from our innate capacity for deep listening.  
This deep listening or seeing is not through our eyes or ears, 
but through our heart and soul."
-- Jack Kornfeld 

There is, perhaps, no more important form of meditative discipline than what Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls deep listening.  It connects us to ourselves, to one another -- and to our true nature.

Our time on the cushion in formal meditation is essential.  Yet, it is what happens next that really matters. It is there, in the midst of our day-to-day lives, that our kindness, compassion, and wisdom are actualized -- or not.  

Beans in our Ears

Most of us have learned the prevailing form of listening in our society.  Much of the time we don't really listen.  We listen, not to connect deeply with the experience of another, but to reply.  Although our ears and eyes and finer sensibilities are operational as we listen, most of our attention is absorbed into the commentary running through our heads.   

As a matter of habit, we automatically analyze, compare, judge, relate it to an associated personal experience, advise, counsel, or otherwise react without a deep awareness of what is really going on -- either inside ourselves or the other person.  As a result, whole realms of emotional and intuitive energies remain beneath the level of our awareness.  Rather than connect, we often end up bouncing off one another.

It doesn't have to be this way.

We can actually learn an entirely different way of listening to another person -- and to ourselves!  We can go deeper.  We can empathize.    

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Wherever Two or Three of You Are Gathered

"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

"Everyone has the seed of Buddhanature within them."
--Thich Nhat Hanh

I've felt it distinctly.  I've heard it from lots of folks in the Mindfulness Circles over the years, too.

Meditating with other people is different than meditating alone. 

It only makes sense. 

After all, at a fundamental level, we are not inherently isolated individuals, separated from one another (and the rest of the universe) by some impenetrable barrier.  As Alan Watts wrote years ago, we are not merely,"skin encapsulated egos."  

As best I can sense it, we are, each of us, a focal point of energy in a interconnected web of energy that is inseparable from what some folks refer to as God.  Although I may not feel the truth of that in each and every moment, I've experienced this enough to know it to be the Real Deal. We are not just in this together.  We ARE this together.

So, sitting together in meditation will actually feel different.  Especially when we then take time to compare notes on our lives and meditation practice.  As we learn to open our hearts and minds to one another, to listen to one another mindfully, without judgment, we can actually feel our connection more readily.

Although the existence of a spiritual dimension to reality has been proclaimed by mystics and spiritual teachers throughout the ages, we live in a society where materialism has dominated the cultural landscape for centuries.  The entire thrust of our conditioning has operated to disconnect us from that spiritual dimension.  This has happened for generations.  Yet, with commitment, time, energy -- and grace -- we can return to our True Nature as spiritual beings.  

With Practice, we can get real.  We can access our heart's boundless wisdom.  In our heart of hearts, we can experience the healing power of Connection -- to ourselves, to one another, and to the infinite One Love that we emerge from and return to each moment. 

The Mindfulness Heart Circle

In 2012, I was asked to teach a meditation class at a local yoga studio.  I replied that I would gladly facilitate a weekly group meditation practice -- and do it for free.  Retired, living on a small fixed income, I would barter as the studio caretaker for use of the space as I had done in order to take classes there.

Having begun the exploration of yoga and meditation as a college senior in 1969, having practiced with a number of major (and not so major) teachers over the years, I felt quite deeply that the hierarchical nature of traditional institutional Buddhism was not unlike that of the other major world's religions.  The patriarchal structure that institutionalized power over rather than power among members of a community, was deeply problematic.  It was clear to me that authoritarian structures serve to disempower human beings, and lead to subtle, and not so subtle, abuse of the human spirit.  I'd seen that with my own eyes, felt it in my own body.  

I'd also seen that the commercialization of spiritual practice in our society, like all aspects of life in a capitalist society, operates to prevent access to people of limited economic resources.   The so-called New Age Spirituality that blossomed during my lifetime was nothing new.  A whole lot of money was changing hands.  The deep healing that is available through a committed meditation practice and alternative forms of healing flowed primarily through an economically privileged, mostly white, sector of our society.  American Buddhism had become the Upper Middle Way.  

As a person who had grown up in poverty, who had spent time in foster care as a kid and  experienced homelessness as an adult, I wasn't comfortable with putting a price tag on human liberation.  The healing I'd receive through Practice was priceless.  I didn't want to capitalize on it.