"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."  
 
Zap!  
 
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.
(READ MORE)
In with the Bad.  Out with the Good.

Tonglen Practice, like the Lojong Teachings from which it arises, turns what our highly individualistic and competitive society sees as"common sense" on its head.  Rather than racing ahead in a continuous effort to strengthen and fortify our egos with possessions, status and power (or even enlightenment) we turn things around.  We choose to slow down, to feel. We allow our hearts to be touched by the entire gamut of human emotions.
 
In addition to the  spacious formlessness of a clear, open mind and the insights that we may have cultivated in our meditation practice, Tonglen opens the doorway to another crucial quality of the Bodhisattva path, the cultivation of compassion.  Gently and persistently, we learn to open to the soft, vulnerable, "achy-breaky" tenderness that exists in our hearts.  Rather than resist or avoid the darker emotional energies of life, we learn to befriend them.

In Tonglen Practice we learn how to cultivate a deep, gentle kindness toward our own experience and that of others.  Opening our hearts to feel fully what we are usually regarded as the negative emotional energies of the human condition, connecting with our aspiration to relieve the suffering involved in those energies, we breath in deeply and slowly.  This is where the healing begins.   In opening our own hearts as we breath in, we open to the unconditional openness of shunyata, the One Love.  This is where the healing happens.  
 
On the out breath, we then release, relax, and open to send out a sense of relief, peace, light, and healing.  Riding on our heartfelt aspirations of goodwill, the energy of the out breath can be directed towards ourselves, towards specific individuals or groups, or toward all beings.  We can bring to mind specific situations and individuals or just engage the thoughts and emotions as they arise on or off the meditation cushion.  On the out breath we can engage specific visualizations of the desired outcomes -- or not. 
 
At times, Tonglen can evoke deep tears as grief is released.  At other times it may emerge an incredible, expansive sense of peace.  Sometimes, it is simply being present as we take a deep, full, conscious breath.  As with all meditation techniques, we each learn how to work with it as it appears to us, moment to moment.  
 
There are four stages in the formal Tonglen practice taught by Pema Chodron.  Yet Tonglen can be practiced "on the spot" by simply opening to and breathing in any "unwanted" emotions as they may emerge during the day, relaxing a bit, then breathing out a sense of ease and goodwill. 
As Joanna Macy, another Buddhist teacher and environmental activist, expresses it, the practice is just simply"breathing through" the more challenging emotions of our life.

Yet simple doesn't mean easy.   
 
Maybe that's why I find myself rambling on about Tonglen again. (See Your Courtesy Wake Up Call: Taking It to Heart)   At this point in the journey, I need to keep reminding myself that the thrust of my own conditioning leads me to turn away from fear and sadness, from anger and jealousy, from feelings of humiliation, shame, guilt, etc.  Why would I want to feel that stuff? "Taking on" these energies, my own or those of others, seems counter-intuitive.    

Yet, through Tonglen, as with the Lojong Teachings in general, I've come to see for myself, that as my heartfelt aspiration to heal expands beyond the narrow limits of my own individual concerns to embrace the joys and suffering of others, something shifts.  There, I connect with my Heart of Hearts.  There, the infinite oneness of our interconnected being, the One Love, heals. 

The Real Deal

Over the past decade and a half of working gently and persistently with Tonglen, I've come to see clearly that my own human heart and the boundless and limitless expanse of the One Love are inseparable.  If this is true for me, I believe it is true for others.
 
Breathing in, breathing out, we each are able to connect to the infinite space and energy of the spiritual dimension of our being.  Opening our heart to embrace the One Love, we are embraced by the One Love.  There, Life in all its grandeur, and in all its messiness, becomes simply what it is -- a sacred miracle.
 
Still sound like I'm a bit touched in the head? 
 
Perhaps.  
 
But, IMHO, touched in the heart seems a bit more accurate.  Yet, don't take my word for this.  If this resonates with you, check it out for yourself.

2 comments:

Stephanie said...

Lance...you were homeless on the street at one point? I don't think I knew that! Thanks for sharing the links.

Lance Smith said...

Hey Stephanie,

Yes, indeed. (I do think I alluded to this in the Circles a number of times over the years, but...)

I was "unhoused" a few times over the years. It always followed a major burnout or relationship/life transition. Without the insight or emotional skill or even the willingness to navigate it in a more conventional way, I fled/escaped from my life situation. Experiencing it as a spiritual crisis, it was my own "dysfunctional" way of launching forth to reConnect with the One Love that had touched me deeply in 1972.

So, I was on the streets or in the forests or hitching the highways at certain points during those periods of my life. At other times, I lived in a car or a van. Although I slept in Port Authority, Washington Square Park and an alley in NYC for a week or so during one of those periods, most the time I was a bit "easier", in less urban areas.

Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have a frame of reference (wandering monks and musicians, hobos, Buddha and other seekers,etc.) that gave it a sense of meaning, and the ability to connect constructively with people. I also had the ability to play music and exchange labor for sustenance when it was necessary.

I also was blessed with a network of loved ones and friends who I was able turn to in order to "couch surf" my way back into a more normal relationship with contemporary society a couple of times when I was ready -- and the great fortune to connect with new friends and "begin anew" as well.

It certainly has been an interesting incarnation. LOL