"Mindfulness and Meditation allow us to open our hearts, relax our bodies, and clear our minds enough to experience the vast, mysterious, sacred reality of life directly. With Practice we come to know for ourselves that eternity is available in each moment.

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

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Sounds of Silence

"Be still and know that I am God."
Psalm 46:10

I remember my dad yelling, angrily, demanding that we kids shut up so he could get some "peace and quiet."  The threatening tone of his voice and likelihood of imminent violence usually did shut us up--at least for awhile. 

Dad loved to fish.  One of my strongest visual memories of him is of the day I looked out the front window of our apartment and saw him silhouetted against the sunsparkles of the lake a couple of hundred feet offshore, sitting quietly in his beloved rowboat, fishing pole in hand.  He could sit like that, motionless, surrounded by the stillness of that small Northern Illinois lake for long periods of time just peering at the red and white bobber.  Often, he returned to shore seemingly in a good mood, quieter, more content. 

I noticed. 

It wasn't at all surprising that when his doctor advised him to finally retire and "just go fishing", my dad did just that. He bought himself a camper and a trailer, and for much of final year and a half of his life, he traveled and fished from coast to coast.

I think the quest for "peace and quiet" is probably universal.  Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote that even the businessman's smoke break was an attempt to stop and breath, to find a moment's peace within the busyness.  The promise of the Practice is that we that we can engage in that journey with some degree of skill, that there is actually some method to our madness.

As today's quote from Ram Dass points out, there are deeper and fuller realms of experience available to us.  As we cultivate Mindfulness, we are more likely to notice ourselves being calmer, quieter.  The cacophony of random thoughts and feelings and bodily tensions tend to release their grip a bit, and a sense of silent spaciousness emerges in our lives. Yet--and here's where it gets interesting--we are also more likely to experience sounds and other sensations more vividly.  Sometimes it may be helpful to remember to look at Ram Dass's statement a bit differently:
The quieter you become, the noisier it gets!

As more time and energy are devoted to Mindfulness Practice, there will be times when the volume

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Who Knows?

"As long as you have certain desires about how it ought to be you can't see how it is.”
---Ram Dass

"Not-knowing is the first tenet of the Zen Peacemakers. Not-Knowing is entering a situation without being attached to any opinion, idea or concept. This means total openness to the situation,
deep listening to the situation."
---from the Zen Peacemakers website

Last week, Jane brought a question to the MMM Circle that was one of those questions.  A good question is like a good mirror.  You can sometimes see things about yourself that are otherwise hidden.

Although there are often quick answers that can seemingly take us off the hook, a really good question, if you take it to heart, can peel back layers and layers of "stuff".  It can shine a light on the unexamined assumptions and beliefs, subterranean feelings, and inner conflicts that so often keep us sleepwalking through our days.   Although I did  come up with a quick answer and hit the snooze button (Jane had emailed me the question before we met on Monday), this question has started ringing again.  I love it.

"My question this week, Lance, is how do you let go without giving up?"

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Suffering Is Not Enough: Take Two

(This is "Take Two" because I first posted a piece entitled "Suffering Is Not Enough" with the same introductory quote from Thich Nhat Hanh on May 30.)

"Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. 
They are within us and all around us, everywhere, any time."
---Thich Nhat Hanh, "Suffering is Not Enough"

“Rejoicing in ordinary things is not sentimental or trite. It actually takes guts. Each time we drop our complaints and allow everyday good fortune to inspire us, we enter the warrior's world.”
Pema Chödrön,
 The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times 

During  the MMM Circle* last week, one of the regulars wondered aloud if some of the difficulties she had been experiencing were related to the fact that for the past several weeks folks had been sharing a lot of the "darker stuff" during our Monday morning sessions.  Although we didn't really address Stephanie's comment directly as the conversation unfolded, it certainly caught my attention.  A cartoonist may have drawn me with a little light bulb over my head (or perhaps the word "duh!" written in a little thought balloon). 

I think I, for one, perhaps had lost sight of that simple truth: Suffering is not enough!

 Grandson Demetri and Daughter Persephone Pappanikou
Although it is clear that the Practice deepens our ability to perceive and work with the darker and denser emotional clusters that so often keep us frozen in the patterns that cause us to feel disconnected from the Ongoing Miracle, it is also clear that at times we need to turn our attention to the simple blessings that surround us at each moment.  For the most part, they are always there.  Stephanie's passing question reminded me to make a more conscious effort to notice! It changed the nature of my experience for the rest of the week.  The world became lighter and brighter again.

One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Stephan Gaskin, taught that Attention = Energy.  At a very fundamental level, what we choose to attend to, what we focus our attention on, we energize in our lives and in our world. The Practice enables us to see how that operates more clearly.  We come to notice the impact that even the quality of attention has on ourselves and others. We see directly how cultivating our kindness and compassion and freeing ourselves from judgmental reactions dominated by subconscious grasping and aversion allows us to make healthier choices in the world that we are co-creating moment to moment. 

Unlike some new age teachings that believe that giving any attention to "negative" feelings or thoughts is not helpful, the Practice invites us to open to "the places that scare us", to be willing and able to feel fear and sadness and anger and all the modes of experience that we have learned to repress and avoid.  Unexplored and unaccepted, that stuff forms an armoring over our hearts that prevents us from deeper contact with the Sacred Reality that we are immersed in. 

Yet, it is obvious that we can sometimes get stuck in the darker and denser mind states and allow them to dominate our awareness. They will, of course, eventually pass, (especially if we can successfully let go of the storylines), yet at times it can be quite helpful to make a conscious effort to "change the channel." We can, in that moment, decide that suffering is not enough and place our attention on the dance of clouds in a summer sky, or pause and look around at the beauty that we've created in our living space.  At times just turning our attention to the sounds around us can recreate the sense of spaciousness that allows even the darker emotions to float like clouds within the clear blue sky rather than dominate our consciousness.  The Practice, in developing our ability to point our attention gently and precisely where we choose, affords us that opportunity.

(If a shift doesn't happen immediately: take a walk, listen to your favorite music, do the dishes and actually feel the warm water on your skin and look for the rainbows in the soap bubbles, etc.  You'll find what works for you.) 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Though it is impossible........

"When you turn the corner
And you run into yourself
Then you know that you have turned
All the corners that are left"

---Langston Hughes, The Final Curve

There is nothing like a weekend in New York City to bring you face to face with yourself.  I generally consider myself to be pretty open-hearted, relatively unafraid, able to meet most folks eyeball to eyeball without withdrawing into myself.  That is, afterall, the essence of the Bodhisattva Vow, right?

And then there are those times..........

As folks met for Monday Morning Mindfulness at Community Yoga in my absence this week, I had the opportunity to explore Practice quite differently.  The setting was a Manhattan bound R train heading for the notorious confines of Port Authority.  At one point,  a women, disheveled and smelling of urine, stumbled and fell across my lap.  Lost in a non-stop rant about everybody being "into her business";  she then recoiled from me, apparently aghast.   Regaining her balance, at least physically, she arose and then sat next to me, all the while continuing the agitated conversation with herself.

It took me a couple of minutes to move through the initial shock of the physical contact.   Watching feelings of repulsion and fear arise and pass, observing thoughts emerge and dissolve (Eeek. I'm freaking infected with something, etc.), I took a long, slow breath and began to relax. Here it was--what my buddhy Peal might call "hard core Zen"--yet another chance to do Tonglen on the front lines. Absorbing what I could into the expansive space of the Heart on the in-breath, breathing out to extend my aspirations for peace and well-being--hers, mine, theirs, ours--into a subway car rattling through the darkness, I practiced.

Breathing in, breathing out. 

At one point, as I began to allow my gaze to turn toward her, I noticed that her agitation increased immediately.  Her ire at other folks "being in her business" was, afterall, the locus of her current hell.  I cut loose of any attempt to engage her more directly--and that's when the real work began for me.
I felt completely powerless, utterly helpless. 

Oh no, not THAT!

As a child I witnessed my mother's struggle with the demons of her own psyche, up close and personal.  Diagnosed at times as a paranoid schizophrenic, at times as manic-depressive, her struggle to navigate through life were a painful journey that, of course, affected me deeply.  Although I certainly enjoyed many perfect moments of childhood (wandering through fields for hours in awe of grasshoppers and butterflies, sitting on a hillside watching a rainbow emerge and dissolve, etc.), I also was often profoundly frightened and saddened as, again and again, my mother would disappear into the throes of her mental illness.  As a young child feelings of utter helplessness were not uncommon.  I ached to have Mom "re-appear"--and was powerless to bring that about.  I could see those same feelings emerge--in spades--as I sat there that morning hurtling toward Port Authority.  I can feel those feelings emerge now as I sit here at the laptop. 

Breathing in.  Breathing out.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

On the Road Again

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

" I have arrived. I am home. My destination is in each step."
Thich Nhat Hahn

This journey didn’t start with a single step exactly.  I staggered through a series of missteps and minor mishaps, stumbled through several misdirections and mistakes.  Originally planned as a “mini-tour”, spending time with friends in NYC and the Jersey Shore, Life interjected a series of changes that have me on a Peter Pan bus three days later than the original image. In the process “the Plan” has changed a number of times and a handful of unused tickets lay strewn in my wake.  

 Now, here I am, perched on a Peter Pan bus with Wi-fi, on the Road to New York City—finally. 

As always, Life is being just what it always is; a dynamic, everchanging, fluid, web of causes and conditions. If fortune graces this particular permutation of “the Plan”, I should be able to spend some time with my good buddhy Howard this evening and again on Sunday.  An unanticipated “day off” on Saturday (Howard now has to go to NJ for the day) could have me just hanging loose in Astoria or wandering over to Manhattan, maybe picking and grinning in a park somewhere.  And, although I can plan it one way or the other, I really won’t “know” until I get there. (It’s not unlikely that I’ll do neither or both of the above.)

In traditional Buddhism and Hinduism the ultimate goal of spiritual practice is often characterized as “liberation”.  In Christianity this notion of ultimate “freedom” from the vagaries and vissicitudes of Life is also found.  Jesus was reported have said “Then you shall know the Truth and the Truth will set you free.”  Freedom is cool, right?

More so than some other cultures, we Americans are steeped in ideas about the value of personal freedom.  For many of us, our perceived quest for freedom has often involved figuring out how to extricate ourselves from external forces, to free ourselves from the expectations and demands of others.  If only “they” would go away—whether that is the State or our Mom—we’d be free.  Then we can really step out and do as we please.  That seems simple enough, right?

Why then does Pema Chodron’s root guru, Chogyam Trungpa, entitle one of his books The Myth of Freedom? Maybe something else is going on.

The Practice, more than anything, involves examining the process of our own Life as carefully and deeply as possible.  If we engage this inquiry with a degree of steadfastness and a modicum of skill, we come to see for ourselves that it really isn’t the expectations and demands of others that imprison us, it’s our very own expectations and demands--on ourselves and others--that most often create the shackles that we drag along with each step we take.  At the deepest levels, our need to control our world to fit our own models of who we are and what we think we need can keep us stumbling along feeling very un-free.   

With Practice, we come to see how this process can and does operate in our own lives moment to moment.  Seeing that clearly, the next step isn’t so much a matter of deciding to let go. Things just shift.  Life emerges as it will and the journey boils down to taking this very step.  More so than a set destination, our basic intentions inform the direction and nature of that step.

And now, I discover that the Wi-fi isn’t working anymore and there is no electricity in the onboard outlet! So, once again, the Plan— to have this entry on the Web on Friday afternoon—has dissolved. 

I trust that this will make it to the web on Saturday morning--or not! 

(Although I'll be on the Road, Michelle Tetreault will open the doors for the Beginner's Mind and Beyond Intro to Meditation Group at 8:30 on Monday, August 5.  The Early Bird Meditation Session 7:00-8:30 is cancelled for the day.  Things will return to abnormal on Monday, August 12.)