"Mindfulness Practice isn't just about escaping to some magical inner realm devoid of life's challenges. The Practice is about calming your mind and opening your heart enough to engage Life directly, to be more fully Present in a kind, clear, and helpful way."

Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call:
Musings on Life and Practice
by a Longtime Student of Meditation

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Judgement Day -- Not!

“The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.”
― J. Krishnamurti

“We sow the seeds of our future hells or happiness by the way
 we open or close our minds right now.
 ― Pema Chodron

I don't think there is any greater freedom than being Present -- engaging life as it is -- without the distortion caused by Judgment Mind.  

Growing up immersed in a society that is highly judgmental, most of us have been deeply conditioned to experience our lives in terms of good/bad, right/wrong, should be/shouldn't be.  In fact, our ego sense, with its perceived separation and isolation from "the other" is maintained by the thoughts, opinions, and various mind states that emerge from this conditioning.  Even in its mild form of liking/disliking, Judgment Mind can generate thoughts and feelings that serve to separate us from the peaceful, calm, and caring Presence we have access to in every moment.  
If we are overly self-absorbed, distracted, stressed, moving too fast, it's easy to get lost in our conditioned reactions to Life.  Adrift in Judgment Mind, we loose Presence.  We get lost in the alternative reality we have created -- and forget that the world is really not as it appears to us at that moment.  This deeply ingrained process of evaluating what we experience as bad, wrong, condemnable, is part of our social conditioning.  It appears as discontent, diatribe, enmity, blame, and self-blame.  If we aren't paying attention, it can and will dominate our lives, moment to moment.
Seeing For Yourself
One of the fruits of meditation is that we can see how that process works directly.  We can see for ourselves that Judgment Mind isn't only the thoughts going through our heads at the moment.  It's deeper than that.  It is embedded in the emotions we are experiencing.  It's embodied in the tightnesses and discomforts of our body.  It directly effects the quality of our consciousness, our state of mind.  
It is actually quite fun to see for yourself how that plays out on the meditation cushion.  

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Getting Real


“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
-- Albert Einstein
"Compassion and resilience are not, as we might imagine, rarefied human qualities available only to the saintly... In fact, these essential and universally prized human qualities can be solidly cultivated 
by anyone taking the time to do it." 
-- Norman Zoketzu Fischer,
Trainings in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong

Really, Dude?
"Yikes.  I did it again," I thought.  

Moments before, I had proclaimed with utter certainty that MY take on the facts at hand was absolutely the truth of the matter.  I was even a bit uppity about it.  

Then, quite quickly, Reality asserted itself.  

My certitude that my friend was "wrong," and that I was "right," disintegrated in the clear light of a sunny day.  


Thankfully, she was gracious and didn't skewer me for, once again, not immediately noticing the tightness in my chest -- and shutting up to pay better attention to the emergence of ego's hard headed clinging to its limited point of view.  As it emerged, the tightness in my voice was the first clue.  My eyes soon verified that I had to give it up.  My interpretation of what was happening was clearly mistaken.


Once again, the Universe had pointed out that who I am at any one moment, how I'm seeing things, how I'm reacting, is likely to be just a bad habit.  Thankfully, these days I can bow to that reality with a grin.  

I blame the Practice for that.

The Real Deal

Over the years, it has become more and more obvious to me how much of our lives are dictated by habit.  Although it may not feel like it, who we are is not a fixed, free standing, independently existing, reality.  Our current "point of view" emerges from a cauldron of causes and conditions, many of them beyond our ken -- or our control.  Encountering our lives through what Albert Einstein called an "optical illusion" of consciousness, we learn to experience ourselves as fundamentally separate from everything -- and everybody -- else. 

Lost in our thoughts and conditioned feelings, driven by a set of deeply ingrained, often subconscious, beliefs about ourselves and the world, we rarely are Present to the deeper dimension of life that exists in each and every moment.  The noise in our heads resonates with the noise in the world.  It dominates our attention.  Oblivious to the subtle energies dancing within the infinite space and silence of each and every moment, we suffer.   

All this is nothing more --and nothing less than -- a bad habit. 

Awash in a culture where capitalism, scientific materialism, and religious dogma have been woven into most every nook and cranny of human life for generations, we have spent years feeding this habit.  Each individuated point of view emerges from this collective pool of awareness.  It then creates our day to day life as the struggle it appears to be.  Most of the time this operates quite subconsciously.  
And all the while, in our "heart of hearts," there is a still and silent space of clear, open awareness.  From there, emerges a way of being that is truly clear, calm, kind, compassionate and wise.  This is our True Nature. 
But, here's the rub.

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Once Upon a Time

“The Buddha’s principal message that day was
that holding on to anything blocks wisdom.
Any conclusion that we draw must be let go." 
---Pema Chodron

"We have to be open. And we have to be ready to release our knowledge in order to come to a higher understanding of reality."
-- Thich Nhat Hanh

The irony is exquisite.  

I'm sitting here at the laptop poised to sprinkle some thoughts across the screen in an effort to capture the essence of the thought that thoughts can't really capture the Essence. 

To be honest, after choosing the two quotes for this post, my next thought was, "Ah, I'll just leave it at that, choose a graphic, and hit 'send.'"
But, that seemed like a cheap shot, a bit too cutesy.  When I was in residence at Zen Mountain Monestery, Roshi Daido Loori would just roll his eyes at such stuff, claiming it had "the stink of Zen."

I have, after all, been committed to publishing a weekly post here in cyberspace for the past seven and half years.  Although for quite some time now I've been going back through a couple of hundred previously written posts and polishing them up,  this weekly commitment is part of what Uchiyama Roshi called a "life of vow." 

It seems to me that a set of commitments and the actions produced is all that I really have to bring to the plate.  The rest is in the hands of the Cosmic Pitcher.  All I can really do is commit to showing up, stepping up to the plate, and taking my best swing if it appears to be in the strike zone -- or let it go by if it ain't.  (Egads, I'm thinking in baseball metaphors, again.  It must be spring.)

And here's the Pitch.....

Saturday, April 2, 2022

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

“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  

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

Although most of us were too young and crazy to pull it off at the time, many of us had been to the mountain top to be touched by the One Love.  
During that era's Collective Kensho,
we saw the Real Deal. 

But seeing that-- and even believing that -- isn't enough.

The task of freeing ourselves to BE a peaceful and loving human being became the Mission -- and we quickly learned that this is no mean feat.  It takes deep commitment, effort, discipline, courage, persistence --  and patience.  Lots and lots of 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 pretty sloppy with the word "love". 

In English, what we call "love" has a wide range of meaning.  Love can be the warm glow that emerges from the ethereal domain of unconditional, unselfish agape -- or it can be the 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 what Jesus and Buddha had in mind when they taught about Love, right?  
So, what is Love?

Saturday, March 19, 2022

When You Wish Upon a Star

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

"What you are looking for is already in you…
You already are everything you are seeking."
-- Thich Nhat Hanh 

Sometimes, it seems like a previous lifetime.  
Almost twenty 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? 


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.  

Monday, February 21, 2022

Imagine That!

"So, with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world, spreading upward to the skies
and downward to depths, outwards and unbounded."
--- from Karaniya Metta Sutta of the Pali Canon*
"Imagine all the people living life in peace."
--- John Lennon, Imagine 

Margo Adair 1950-2010
Good fortune had me stumble across a copy of Margo Adair's Working Inside Out: Tools for Change, in the sale section of a local store a few years ago.  I immediately grabbed it, plunked down a dollar, and put it in my pack. 
That night I dove into it for quite awhile before rolling over, turning off the lights, and meditating into sleep.  

Then, in the wee hours of the morning, I experienced a quite wonderful sequence of lucid dreams.  For the first time in quite awhile I was able to experience the thrill of consciously leaving my body and taking flight.  
Although Margo passed to the other side twelve years ago, hers is a Gift that keeps on giving. Thanks, Margo.

Outside the Box
Being a bookworm, I'm grateful to all those who were led to offer their insights and practices through books.  Just reading about altered states of consciousness, whether it be Presence in the here and now -- or a lucid out of body experience --  can sometimes set the stage for their emergence.  
Although, Mindfulness Practice has tended to focus my attention more consciously on my "in-body" experiences, the times that I've experienced lucid dreaming, "astral travel," and other OBE have been powerful events in my life.  They have allowed me to experience directly a magical and much more expansive realm of human possibility than the constraints of "conventional" consciousness.  
Let's face it, we've been conditioned to perceive our world in a society steeped in scientific materialism and capitalism for several hundred years.  Add to this mix the systematic oppression of patriarchy, racism, militarism, ageism, etc.,  and we've each developed perceptual filters that determine what we take to be true, what we believe to be "real." 
This, of course, mostly operates subconsciously.
With Practice, we not only can see reality as it is, we can develop the insight and skill to change ourselves from the inside out.  As well as produce less suffering in our own lives, this gives us more agency to consciously influence the world around us. 
Here, too, is where Margo Adair's Gift keeps giving.

Engaged Spirituality
In the mid-1980's Working Inside Out: Tools for Change brought Margo's brilliant synthesis of Spirituality and Activism to a wider public.  It made quite an impact on many of us who were -- and still are -- convinced that Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the late Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh had it right.   
Even as a teenager, before I'd ever heard of the Bodhisattva Vow, my heart was inspired by the civil rights movement.  Confronting the racism at the heart of legal segregation just seemed like the right thing to do.  As time went this led to recognizing and working to overcome other forms of systemic oppression.  As I came of age, I realized that the quest for peace, equality, and social justice was a profound and challenging spiritual practice. 
Margo Adair, was a master theorist and practitioner in this tradition.  Terming her special craft "applied meditation," her life's work was dedicated to healing the wounds of racism, sexism, homophobia and environmental degradation.   Offering a rich collection of guided visualizations and group mediation practices, Adair's work dissolved the perceived differences between inner work and outer work.  Like others who emerged in the spiritual uprising of the era, her work was grounded in a non-dual perception of being.  It emerged and returned to a space beyond 
the perceived barrier that appears to separate the self and other, real and imagery, the momentary and the eternal. 

Although Mindfulness Practice focuses on bringing our attention more fully into the present moment, there are many meditative techniques in Buddhism and other spiritual traditions that  make use of mental visualizations.  With these practices, we use words and images to consciously bring to mind states of being and events that may or may not be here -- yet.  These techniques enhance our ability to influence the future.  This is the realm of prayer, affirmations, and visualization practices.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

The Passing of Thich Nhat Hanh

As Plumvillage.Org completes their livestream schedule of events memorializing the life of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, I share a recent article by Norm Stockwell, the publisher of the Progressive Magazine.  Norm and I were co-conspirators on a number of projects in the past, and I feel honored that my old friend reached out to me as he wrote the article.     

With a deep bow of appreciation to Thay, to Norm, and to all those who devote their lives to the welfare of this planet and its many beings, here is the article:

The Passing of Thich Nhat Hanh

Late monk used engaged Buddhism to build a foundation for a peaceful world.


Saturday, January 22, 2022

To Everything There is a Season


“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child -- our own two eyes. 
All is a miracle.” 
 ― Thich Nhat Hanh

“Birth and death are a game of hide-and-seek.
So laugh with me, hold my hand,
let us say good-bye,
say good-bye, to meet again soon...”

― Thich Nhat Hanh
No Death. No Fear.

Dawn today at St Benedict's Cemetery
The announcement that Thich Nhat Hahn had died today at Tu Hieu Temple, the monastery that he entered as a novice monk at age 16, didn't surprise or sadden me. 
The venerable Zen Master, stricken by a massive stroke in 2014, had obviously chosen to return home to his beloved Vietnam to make this transition.   
Instead, when I read my friend's message, a full and deep in-breath emerged naturally.  My heart was filled with an expansive sense of gratitude.  Thay's teachings and his kind, clear, wise, and peaceful presence has graced my life -- and the lives of countless others.    
It continues to do so.
I was fortunate enough to cross paths with Thich Nhat Hahn twice during the 1980's. I first attended a five day retreat where I took the 14 Training Precepts of the Tien Hiep Order from this wise and gentle soul.  Then I attended a one day retreat at a Thai Buddhist Temple west of Chicago.  There, I sat in the front row, about ten feet from him, as he stood at a chalkboard and displayed the depth of his scholarship with a gentle brilliance.  Yet, I never had a personal conversation with him.  
I had asked about meeting him during the five day retreat. 
"He's not that kind of teacher, "Arnie Koestler, Thay's disciple and founder of Parallex Press, explained as we chatted during a stroll in the woods of the Catholic retreat center that hosted the retreat.
"What kind of a teacher is he then?" I wondered.

I may have been given a hint the next afternoon at the end of the lay ordination ceremony.  There, I was given a folded slip of paper announcing the dharma name that Thay had selected for me.  As a couple of hundred other retreatants there had done, I'd submitted a photograph with my application for membership in the Order.  I was told that Thich Nhat Hanh would meditate for a few moments on the photograph then assign me the "appropriate" dharma name.  
Although I can be somewhat skeptical about such things, I was blown away as I opened the slip of paper to read the name he had chosen for me.  At that point in my life, as well as being the Executive Director of the Center for Conflict Resolution, I was an on-again, off-again, folksinger/singer-songwriter.  There, inscribed in both Vietnamese and English was Thay's take on my path: True Heartsong.  When I returned home to Madison, Wisconsin, I took the instruments out of the closet and dusted them off. 
Then and Now

If you've been following this blog as I've meandered through the past ten years of Life and Practice, you may have noticed that the teachings and practices of the Lojong tradition of Tibetan Buddhism have often taken center stage in my life after I came across the teachings of Pema Chodron in 2006.  I cast a Lojong slogan each day.  I practice Tonglen often as I encounter the more troubling aspects of the human condition. 
During this past decade, I've also continued to integrate the experiences and practices I had in retreat and conversation with the venerable Joanna Macy, and with the late Stephan Levine years ago, as well as the experiences and conversations I've had with other teachers and students while I was in residence at Insight Meditation Society and Zen Mountain Monastery.  
Yet, sitting here right now, I realize that for weeks and weeks, the simple and clear mindfulness guidance that Thich Nhat Hanh offered in a 2010 Lion's Roar article that I re-read and shared with a friend in December has become my "go to" practice during each morning's meditation.  
It's felt like returning hOMe.
Distilling the Anapanasati Sutra to its essence, and adding instruction on walking meditation, Thay provided five basic practices in that article that have readily allowed me to bring my awareness to the sacred miracle of the present moment -- on and off the zafu -- each day.  Sitting here at this moment, breathing in and breathing out, hearing the crows stirring to greet the dawn emerging outside the window, feeling my fingers dance along this keyboard, the teachings that Thich Nhat Hanh presented in No Death. No Fear become self-evident.  There is no boundary between this moment and eternity, no barrier separating nothing and everything.  Who we truly are is nothing more, nothing less. than everything that has ever been, is, or could possibly be.  I know that in my heart.  
Death? What's to fear?
OMG!  You just can't make this stuff up.  Although Lion's Roar has published many articles over the years on Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings, I surfed over to their website just now to include a link to that particular article.  Guess what?  They've re-posted that very same article today with the announcement of his death.  Here's the link.  
Coincidence? Synchronicity? The Master playing hide and seek?
Maybe, Thich Nhat Hanh is that sort of teacher!
Perhaps, it's time to dust off the instruments again?

Monday, January 17, 2022

A Time to Break Silence

Yesterday, I spent much of the day in silence.  Today, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I'd like to share a piece my identical twin Brother Lefty posted at Rambling On with Brother Lefty Smith, S.O.B.* If you haven't heard Dr King's "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" -- delivered at Riverside Church, exactly one year to the day before his assassination, you can listen to it at the bottom of the page.

"When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, 
are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, 
extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
-- Dr. Martin King Jr.
Speech at Riverside Church, April 4, 1967

"It is my firm belief that Europe of today represents not the spirit of God or Christianity but the spirit of Satan.  
And Satan's successes are the greatest when he appears with the name of God on his lips.  
Europe today is only nominally Christian.  
In reality, it is worshiping Mammon."
-- Mahatma Gandhi, 
Young India, August 9, 1920.
The Truth, The Whole Truth, and....

For decades now, the corporate media has celebrated Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech -- and assiduously buried Dr. King's views on economic justice, materialism, and militarism.  Like Mahatma Gandhi, King's message was essentially Spiritual.  They each saw clearly that Mammon worship, the soul-sucking evil of materialism/consumerism, was alive and unwell, lurking in the belly of capitalism.

Throughout history, racism and economic exploitation have always walked hand in hand.  The prosperity of the capitalist English Empire and that of it's rebellious offspring, the USA, were built squarely on the horrors of genocide and slavery.  Sadly, although its current forms (cultural genocide, systemic poverty, and jailhouse slavery) are widely ignored or explained away, this continues today.

Like my identical twin brother, Lance, I usually tend to be more Buddhist than Christian in my lingo.  Yet, I just gotta say it out loud:  Capitalism is the work of the freakin' DEVIL!  I agree with Mahatma Gandhi. Capitalism the dark side of the force.  It is built on exploitation, and it fosters greed.  It is capitalism that drives climate change -- and it is taking aim on the survival of the planet.

The Bottom Line

Dr. King, like Gandhi, was a Holy Man.  He sought to alleviate the suffering created by a political and economic system that feeds on greed, hatred, and delusion.  Like many other prophets throughout history, both King and Gandhi threatened the ruling order  -- and were martyred. 

Although Dr. King focused on the evil of racism in his "I Have a Dream" speech that late summer day in Washington DC, his words were delivered to the throng that had assembled for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  This effort, which he had helped organize, challenged economic exploitation and suggested bold governmental action to alleviate poverty. The FBI claimed the event was inspired by Communists and lobbied to prevent it from happening.

King continued to march.  He continued to preach love and championed a non-violent response to a system that has always used violence.  Like Jesus of Nazareth, and a myriad other martyrs, Dr. King knew full well that he would most likely be killed for challenging the ruling order -- and he chose Love instead.

Dr. King's assassination, five years after the "I Have a Dream" speech, occurred when he traveled to Memphis to support striking Afro-American municipal sanitation workers as the leader of the National Poor People's campaign.  That campaign demanded an Economic Bill of Rights which included five planks:

1. "A meaningful job at a living wage"
2. "A secure and adequate income" for all those unable to find or do a job
3. "Access to land" for economic uses
4. "Access to capital" for poor people and minorities to promote their own businesses
5. The ability for ordinary people to "play a truly significant role" in the government

When's the last time you saw the Economic Bill of Rights highlighted in the corporate media coverage of Dr.  King's life? 

A Time to Break Silence

These are unsettling times.  There is no doubt that Trump's legion of misanthropes, materialists, and military men waiting in the wings to reclaim power.  Now, more than ever, it is a time to break silence.  Dr. King did so, dramatically, on April 4, 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City.   

On that day, Dr. King proclaimed, "these too are our brothers," and came out against the US involvement in the Vietnam War with a passion and an eloquence that many believe caused his assassination exactly one year to the day later.

The corporate media today ignores this speech and remains silent.  I hope you don't.  Please listen and pass this along.  Then join some folks and speak out -- with love in your heart!

It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it!  

(More Rambling on with Brother Lefty )

Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence