"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

Saturday, December 26, 2020

All Is Calm. All is Bright.

“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
Hold the sadness and pain of samsara in your heart and at the same time the power and vision of the Great Eastern Sun. Then the warrior 
can make a proper cup of tea.”
― Chögyam Trungpa

Outside the window, a brilliant white sun danced in a somewhat milky blue sky as I took my seat for this morning's meditation.  With a temperature in the upper 20's, it seemed like winter again.

Yesterday, Christmas Day, it sure didn't.
Here in Western Massachusetts, the temperatures had risen into the 60's by dawn.  Gale force winds and torrential rains swept through New England much of the day, leaving downed trees and power outages in their wake.  It seemed more like March than December.

With this thought, I immediately notice myself face-to face with the specter of the Global Climate Crisis.  It seems clear at this moment.  As a species we are racing toward an environmental armageddon.   Sitting here, I notice more thoughts tumble into view, then let them dissolve as I bring my attention to the feelings flowing through my awareness.  Fear, frustration, helplessness, horror, and more emerge.  Then they all melt into then a deep sadness as I soften, and open my heart.

Continuing to breath into my heart, I know that others feel this deep sadness too.  Opening, softening, inhaling deeply and slowly, I breath the fullness of this feeling into my heart as I recite two of the traditional Brahmavihara phrases:  "May all beings be safe. May all beings be free from suffering and the roots of suffering."

As the in breath continues, I notice a sense of spaciousness re-emerge as first my belly, then my rib cage expand.  My tender, warm, achy-breaky heart is comforted in the embrace of a calm, clear, expansive open awareness that seems to extend throughout and beyond space and time as the in-breath continues. 

As in-breath becomes out-breath, the words "May all beings be at peace" float on that breath as it dissolves outward into the Essential Oneness.  In my mind's eye glows a translucent visualization of the clear and brilliant eyes of countless beings resting in full awareness of their Buddha nature.  The visualization radiates outward from my heart on the wings of the out breath.

I continued Practicing this for awhile.  Breathing in.  Breathing out.
Sitting here now, my heart glows as deep joy dances with soft melancholy.  I've come to rest in the vast expansiveness of the One Love which resides deeply within each of us -- and infinitely beyond us all.  The world continues to glisten outside the window. 
All is calm.  All is bright.
Now, once again, I renew my vow to be clear enough and kind enough to help bring about the changes needed to create a sustainable, cooperative, and peaceful world.  Now, once again, I'm ready to face the day.  
How about you?

(For more on Tonglen Practice, see The Practice of Tonglen by Pema Chodron)

Originally posted December 2015.  Revised today as part of my morning Practice.


Saturday, December 19, 2020

For Unto Us a Child Is Born

Seven years ago ago, Keaton Izzy entered this incarnation.  As miraculous today as she was then, she is a on-going reminder of the Preciousness of Life.  As Christmas 2020 approaches -- and with four more grandchildren joining her for this Amazing Ride -- I thought that I would again share the post I wrote three days after her birth.
One Love,

"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

"Every child born is a living Buddha.  Some of them only get to be a living Buddha for a moment, because nobody believes it."
 ---Stephan Gaskin in Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin

Originally scheduled for a Christmas Day debut, granddaughter Keaton arrived in the wee hours of Monday morning, in plenty of  time to avoid head to head competition with Baby Jesus.  

Sporting all ten fingers and toes, sparkling with Buddhanature, her birth, like all births, is another obvious affirmation of the miraculous.  As she peered from Nana Betsy's face to mine following the sound of our voices later that day, I could feel her Presence. It was pure, unadulterated Life Force.  

Touched by the Great Mystery once again,  I felt a deep joy -- and a deep sadness.

Even as a child, the Christmas season always brought with it a certain sadness.  Something seemed more than slightly askew.  The messages of "peace on earth" and "goodwill to all" didn't resonate with what I was experiencing.  The prevailing narrative proclaiming this to be a special time to celebrate the God of Love didn't ring true.  Fermented spirits seemed more prevalent than the spiritual.  The mirth and merriment felt hollow. 

At the time, I imagined it was just the chaos and uncertainty of my own childhood that left me feeling somehow "out of the loop." As the years have rolled by, I have thought that less and less.   It's not just me.  As scientific materialism and its begotten son, capitalism, steamrolled their way through the past several centuries, they threw the Christ child out with the bathwater. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Working It

"There is no enlightenment outside of daily life."
-- Thich Nhat Hanh
"When you see ordinary situations with extraordinary insight, 
it is like discovering a jewel in rubbish."  
-- Chogyam Trungpa

Gold Is Not All That Glitters

Years ago, I was quite struck by a suggestion in Ram Dass's classic, Be Here Now.  It changed my life.
In the third section of the book, entitled "Cookbook for a Sacred Life," he pointed out that a yogi could take a regular mundane activity and turn it into karma yoga, a form of active meditation.  He suggested that choosing something that we disliked could be an especially valuable practice.
At that point, I chose washing the dishes, took a deep breath -- and immediately headed out to the kitchen to face the unsightly stack that had emerged over the course of the past few days.  (I really hated washing dishes. LOL)

The experience was transformative.  

Letting go of all the mental chatter and emotional grey clouds and focusing on the actual experience of the moment, dishwashing not only became tolerable, it became the keys to the kingdom.  Getting out of my head, becoming aware of my breath and my body, I came to my senses.  The warmth of the water on my skin was delicious.  The tactile sensations of plates becoming clean and shiny, smooth to the touch, was not only enjoyable, it was deeply satisfying.  
In my field of vision, the sunshine streaming through the window was sprinkling diamonds in the water pouring out of the faucet.  There were emeralds, rubies, and sapphires gleaming in the soap bubbles.  The curtains danced in the soft breeze blowing in the window over the sink. 
In the field of sound, I noticed that beyond the sound of water flowing into the sink and the occasional clink of a dish or spoon, a cardinal was singing outside the window. 

What's not to like?

I suppose you could say that there's lots not to like about such things -- but only if you buy into society's prevailing attitude toward manual labor!  Unfortunately, many of us made that purchase long ago.  We had no idea what the price was going to be, that there was hell to pay.  Hours and hours of were going to be spent either hating what we were doing or sleepwalking through it.

In the eyes of our society such work is unskilled, the realm of dishwashers, janitors, and housekeepers.  Considered lowly, even demeaning -- or experienced as heinous tasks that had been forced upon us by our parents -- the necessary activities of day-to-day life are often avoided, then raced through haphazardly while our minds race elsewhere.  Although many of us actually feel better if our living space is clean and organized, housekeeping itself often becomes an often-avoided, semi-conscious, harried, hustle through the hell realms.

Yet, it's never too late to clean up our act.  It just takes Practice.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

The Attitude of Gratitude

"A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depends on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the measure as I have received and am still receiving.”
  -- Albert Einstein

 "Be grateful to everyone."
-- The 13th slogan of the Lojong Trainings

I've been sometimes amazed -- and often amused -- as I've sat in front of a blank New Post page here at the computer and observed my mind floating down the stream of consciousness.

That particular day, with Thanksgiving looming on the horizon, my mind was just as blank as the screen for a few moments.  I then gathered my attention on my breath and body for awhile.  

Then, connecting the dots to Thanksgiving, I watched myself decide to wander around the web tracing the word "gratitude" along various strands of thought. 

And then -- Zap!

My heart burst open.  I found myself sitting with my chest heaving and copious, hot tears rolling down my cheeks.  Black and white movie images of Bing Crosby, clad in the black and white garb of Father O'Malley, played across the screen of my mind's Memory Lane Theater.   Each image brought on more tears.
"WTF? How in the world did I end up here?" I thought.

Saturday, November 28, 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

A grin comes to my face as I remember her voice on the telephone.

"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 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, to relax and reconnect with the basic openness of mind -- and to make sure that I really hadn't verbally zigged when I had intended to zag -- I continued.

"No, I actually did mean that I get in touch with my aspiration that we be released from suffering and the roots of suffering.  Then I breathe into my heart the difficult and challenging darker emotions that have emerged at the moment.  I then breathe out a sense of relief and healing energy.

She paused for awhile (perhaps, to relax and reconnect with a basic openness of mind herself? LOL)  Then she simply replied, "Oh?" 

She didn't sound convinced.

Hers was not an uncommon response.  Raised in a highly individualistic and materialistic society, the basic premise of this ancient Tibetan Buddhist system of mind training seems counter- intuitive.  Making the decision to open our hearts to the entire gamut of human emotions, rather than always grasping at the "good" and pushing away the "bad?  Seems a bit crazy, right? 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 Practice (Shamatha-Vippasyana) and Tonglen.  Each of these practices has a role in cultivating our Connection to the essentially miraculous nature of life.  Each contributes to our deepening ability to be Present -- moment to moment -- to the Sacred Perfection in which we are immersed.

To wit:

As I sit here and pay attention, I become aware of a clear, bright, vast, and open sense of spaciousness as I pause to become aware of my body, my breath, the room that I am sitting in, world outside the window.  I can feel its expansiveness in my heart.  I can relax and rest in its embrace. 

Sitting here, breathing in, breathing out,  I'm aware of the dance of my fingers along the surface of this keyboard.  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, they appear to be emerging by themselves, quite mysteriously.  

Although Western science claims that these thoughts are merely epiphenoma, just brain secretions of some sort, at this moment they are connectioned to something much grander than that.  My heart feels that connection.  I have come to trust that feeling.  A boundless sense of wonder and joy emerges from the luminous silence that embraces me as I embrace it.   Aware of my feet on the floor, the clicking contact of my fingers on the keyboard, the soft humming of the computer, the wind outside the window, the vast, open spaciousness of a clear and boundless open mind, my heart opens.  I feel the Presence of the Sacred.

But, I digress -- sort of.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Empty Handed

 "Emptiness wrongly grasped is like 
picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end." 
― Nagarjuna
 “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man's-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. ”
 ― Pema Chödrön

Mahakala: Wrathful Protector of Tibetan Buddhism
Years ago, when I was in residence at Insight Meditation Society, my Dharmabum Buddhy Jimi (not Hendrix) grabbed me by the shoulders, and with eyes as big as saucers,  he asked me "Have you had a direct experience of the VOID?!"

"Damn!" I thought.  The stark horror in his voice didn't incline me to want to do any such thing.

Unlike Jimi, at that point I had not spend much time with the Teachers and Teachings of the Tibetan tradition where the term the Void (or Great Void) were commonly bandied about.  Although I'd read a couple of translations of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, my wanderings through the gringo Buddhist world of the 70's and 80's had primarily been focused on Zen.

Like Jimi, though, I was then drawn to practice with the people at IMS.  Most of those folks drew their inspiration and practice from Theravada Buddhist teachers.  There, Nirvana seemed to be a more palatable ultimate destination.

Little did I know.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

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, November 7, 2020

Love. Love. Love.

"The moment we give rise to the desire for all beings to be happy and at peace, the energy of love arises in our minds, and all our feelings, 
perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness is permeated by love:
in fact, they become love."
-- Thich Nhat Hanh, Teachings on Love

"All you need is love."
-- The Beatles

We have it on good authority.  
Jesus and Buddha, as well as many of the other gurus, seers, sages, and saints of the world's religions seem to agree with the Hippies -- and the Beatles.  In the final analysis: All you need is Love.  

That seems simple enough.

So, what's the problem? Why are so many folks suffering?  Why does the world appear to be going to hell in the proverbial hand basket? 

First of all, what many folks call love, the subject of myth, music, and Hollywood Movies -- isn't Love.  Instead, what is pursued in the name of love is actually a form of desire, biological and energetic attraction, and attachment.  This "love" has a lot more to do with fulfilling one's own ego needs for sex, security, status, and self-esteem than the love that flows from the spiritual dimension.  True Love, instead, is the quality of consciousness that emerges from what the Buddhist Teacher, Pema Chodron, calls an Awakened Heart.  

Love is not the profound passionate graspings of deep attachment to the "other." True Love is much grander than that. (It's pretty clear that "I love you so much that I'll kill anyone who looks at you, then you, then myself." is not exactly what J.C., Buddha and the others had in mind when they spoke of love, right?)  

True Love emerges, and is essentially inseparable from the One Love that exists beyond the illusion of isolation and separation that we've been conditioned to experience.  Flowing from and returning to our Essential Oneness, True Love is experienced as the open heart's capacity for kindness, compassion, joy, and clarity.  Our innate ability to access True Love is the our ultimate connectivity. 

Unlike the common contemporary understanding that views love as something that someone just "falls into," in the Buddhist tradition, human love is seen as a quality of heart, a mode of consciousness that can be consciously cultivated.  Although, we may stumble into glimpses of Oneness through an intimate connection to "the other" in a romantic relationship -- especially in its initial honeymoon phase -- True Love is vaster than that.  It emerges from a fundamental choice to open our hearts and clear our minds, to embrace Life itself.  It involves the willingness to let go of who we think we are, lay aside our agendas, and get it touch with our experience of the present moment as it is.

Although we may get glimpses of this again and again, the process of actually becoming a loving person generally doesn't just happen.  It is a Practice.  Erich Fromm characterized it as an art in his classic work, The Art of Loving.  Like any discipline, the cultivation of True Love takes commitment, time, effort -- and patience. 

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Visible to the Naked Eye

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern. -- William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

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

The world is shrouded in fog this morning. Although there is still a whisper of deep red in the burning bush and a muted yellow orange in the maple across High Street from my perch here at the Weldon Hotel, the sky has disappeared.

There was a time when a grey, gloomy morning like this could send my spirits spiraling downward.  Confined to the tunnel vision of my own thoughts and feelings, I would become oblivious to the Ongoing Miracle.  I'd get really depressed

Today, that didn't happen. I blame the Practice for this turn of events. 

Although I would be dashed between the rocks and hard places of my own unattended childhood trauma and dysfunctional conditioning many times over the years, I was fortunate.  The Collective Kensho of the late 60's and my own Peek Experience of Infinite Perfection in 1972 gave me a strong enough jolt of the Real Deal to get serious about a spiritual practice.  Although there were some fleeting dry spells, I've mediated regularly for a long time.

Now, at age 74,  it seems I've found a way to Not-Do Depression so much.  Although I am no stranger to sadness, the Practice has transformed my relationship to this emotional energy.  The inner belief structures and narratives that operated to lock depression in place just can't seem get a toe-hold anymore.  Instead, the story lines arise and disappear within the Gracious Spaciousness of Awareness that is readily accessible much of the time.  Of course, I put my butt on the zafu for at least an hour most days, and try to take an entire day of mindful practice at least once a month. I also hit a deep re-set button with a three day fasting silent retreat each year.

The Theory and the Practice

So, here's the Deal.
Left without the continual mental chatter and conditioned reactions that create the "narrow chinks" of our habitual perception, sadness and the other elements of depression, like all phenomena, are impermanent.  They come and go of their own accord.   With Practice, I learned to see through what seems to be the fixed states of depression to the other side.  What remained was energy floating in the gracious spaciousness of Awareness.

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 with with as many folks as I can about matters of spirit, heart, and mind. 

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, accessible to all, that underlies all the world's religions.  This experience of Oneness is 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, for some folks, communicating about experiencing mystical states has been a real problem in a society that doesn't understand such things.  All to often, these experiences have been pathologized rather than been supported with skill or insight.  
 I was lucky.  I was usually able to travel under the radar.  Even when I was homeless, living in my car or 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 is 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 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 the suffering caused my the habitual mind states of a clueless, materialistic, society.
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, strictly 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. 

Saturday, September 5, 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,
Behind that,
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.