"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

Saturday, May 1, 2021

When It Rains

"The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face...When we want to complain about the rain, we could feel it's wetness instead."
-- Pema Chodron

“The best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain. ” 
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


When it rains, it pours...

As April waned, Mother Nature showed up to do her part to bring on the flowers of May here in Western Massachusetts.   

The sun disappeared for days at a time.  On and off, for over a week, we got doused.  Drizzled upon. Drenched.   

The flowers loved it.  

So did I.

This wasn't always the case.  There was a time that "rainy days and monday's would always get me down."  Prone to bouts of depression, primarily emerging from the unexplored grief of a traumatic childhood, I'd invariably cloud up on gray days, and rain on my own parade. 

Nowadays, I find gray days and stormy weather energizing.  It is always a chance to get real.

Whether it's an overcast sky, a soft foggy drizzle, a thunder-booming rip-snorting whizzbanger -- or anything in-between --  once I remember to just be present for the actual experience, there is something immensely alive and vibrant about such weather.  Dancing beyond our ability to control it, Mother Nature just is.  She will just do what she will do -- no matter how we think or feel about it.  So, why not relax and dig it!? 

At this very moment

I feel a lot of gratitude for Mindfulness Practice at this very moment.  

As I sit here with fingers dancing across the keyboard, I see the sun playing hide and seek with storm clouds outside. Through the open window, I hear the wind singing in the trees, a collection of birds twittering, the tires hissing along the rain slickened asphalt of High Street.

Pausing, letting go for a moment of "thinking mind," I'm aware of my breath and the sensations of my body sitting here.  I feel the wind dancing across my skin through that same open window.  The sounds ebb and flow.  The sensations ebb and flow. 

Life is like that, too.  
(READ MORE)

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Starting Where You Are

"If we are willing to stand fully in our own shoes
 and never give up on ourselves, 
then we will be able to put ourselves in the shoes 
of others and never give up on them. 
True compassion does not come from wanting 
to help out those less fortunate 
than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings."
-- Pema Chodron, 



I certainly was no "newbie" to meditation and spiritual practice back in 2006.


I was sixty years old, I had practiced meditation, taken vows, lived in several spiritual communities, attended numerous intensive retreats in various traditions, and had a regular daily practice for large swathes of time over the course of 35 years.  
 
And yet...
 
Although I had experienced a number of "peak experiences" over the years --on and off the zafu -- little did I know that my mind was about to be blown once again.  

I had never heard of Pema Chodron when a friend handed me a paperback copy of Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living that day.  Longtime Director of Gampo Abbey, an American student of Chogyam Trungpa, Pema Chodron had me hooked with the very first sentence of the Preface:

"THIS BOOK IS ABOUT AWAKENING THE HEART."

The Heart?
 
As a inveterate bookworm, my introduction to Zen had been through D.T Suzuki and Alan Watts back in the 1970's.  It was pretty heady stuff.  Somewhere in my own mind, I had locked into the notion that awakening was a matter of mind over matter.  It was all about Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, right?  
 
OMG! Awakening the Heart! Duh.  Something deep within me stirred.

Although I had read Chogyam Trungpa's classic works as a young man, and had spent a bit of time with Tibetan Buddhist communities in Madison WI and Woodstock NY over the years, my primary focus had never turned to Tibetan practices.  To be honest, after being drawn to the simple aesthetic of Zen, I was pretty turned off by the somewhat cluttered and gaudy opulence of Tibetan Buddhist Temples, by "guru-worship," and by what appeared to be a highly ritualistic approach to spirituality.  The relative simplicity of the American incarnations of both Zen and Theravada seemed much more in tune with my own, working-class, moderately Marxist, sensibilities.

Yet, as I poured through Start Where You Are that day, I was transfixed.  An American female monk steeped in Tibetan practice, Pema Chodron offered a fresh, accessible, down to earth presentation of the traditional Lojong Teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.  Chapter by chapter, her teachings helped me to establish a new and deeper relationships to the dharma, to practice -- and to my life.  Although many of the concepts were familiar old friends, something deep inside me shifted

Starting Where I Was

I had always considered myself a pretty compassionate dude.  I was one of the "good guys." I was dedicated to service.  I had taught school, worked with troubled youth, been a peace and social justice activist, a union activist, a mediator.  The Bodhisattva Vow had been the foundation of my personal practice for decades.  
 
Yet, I had also struggled through a series of severe burnouts during that time.  Although the reality of our Essential Oneness was part of my own experience, it was clear.  I really didn't have a clue about navigating my way through life in a sustainable way.  I could "be there" for others.  But, I was blind to the various deep-set patterns that prevented me from being there for myself.  
Ultimately, this deep, unexplored conditioning sent me into descending spirals of anxiety and depression that prevented me from being there for anybody.
(READ MORE)

Saturday, April 17, 2021

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

Good Grief
 
"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.  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.  

Duh.

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.  

The tightness in my voice was the first clue.  My eyes soon verified that I had to give it up.  My take was clearly mistaken.

Whew.  Once again, the Universe had pointed out that who I am at any one moment, how I'm seeing things and being, 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. 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 the 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 10, 2021

The Defense Rests

"There is a vast store of energy which is not centered, which is not ego's energy at all.  It is this energy which is the centerless dance of phenomenon, the universe interpenetrating and making love to itself." 
Chögyam Trungpa
 
"Many of us spend our whole lives running from feeling with the mistaken belief that you can not bear the pain. But you have already borne the pain. What you have not done is feel all you are beyond that pain."
-- Khalil Gibran
 
Attributed to Hieronymus Bosch 1450-1516
I'll admit it.  These days, I'm a real softie. 
 
Of course, it's taken me years to get here.  
 
After all, I am a 75 year old, white, working class, cis male.  A freakin' Aries, ex-collegiate wrestler, too boot.  I launched into adult life heavily programmed by my upbringing to defend my ego at all costs.  
 
A "little guy" at 5'2", having survived a traumatic childhood (sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, physical abandonment, time in institutional settings and foster care, etc.), "proving myself," became a full-time job.  Most of my conditioned propensity toward over-achievement, chronic workaholicism, and behaviors that ranged from unbridled argumentation to throwing objects -- and even fists -- operated subconsciously.  Even as I came of age in the late sixties and early 70's, heavily influenced by the non-violent civil rights movement, the peace movement, and Woodstock, I didn't have a clue about the nature of ego.  I didn't really know how to be peaceful -- or truly loving.
 
To this day, if I'm not paying attention, I still get caught up at times in those ancient patterns. Thankfully, a day in, day out, commitment to the Practice usually allows me to sense fairly quickly when the attachments that create and reinforce ego emerge.  I can usually detect the sparks of disappointment, fear, and frustration soon enough to keep them from roaring into flames.  Most often, I am able to notice what is going on, take a few conscious breaths, get in touch with my heart, and clear my head.  This usually allows me to make better choices on how and where to focus my attention, and decide what to do -- or, oftentimes, better yet -- not do,

Unfortunately, usually doesn't mean always.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

One Day at a Time

"In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion."
-- Albert Camus

“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
 
I was looking forward to it.
 
Although  a regular daily meditation practice is the foundation of Life and Practice for me, I've also experienced, first hand, the transformative power of silent meditation retreats.  
 
For months now, I had planned to take a three day personal retreat on the weekend of the Vernal Equinox as I had done in the past.  I even penciled it in on my kitchen wall calendar in BIG CAPITAL LETTERS.

The Best Laid Plans...

As Saint John (Lennon) once proclaimed, "life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."  It was a good thing that I had used pencil.  As it always does, Life happened.
 
With two Pfizer shots in my arm, and the strict isolation of the past year beginning to disappear in the rear view mirror, two out of my four children reached out for Papa Lance to jump into grandpa duty, including some in-person child care.  So, in a couple of blinks of an eye, not only was my weekend scuttled, my ritualized flow through a weekly schedule that had evolved over the past year was up for grabs.
 
I guess Springtime has a way of shaking things up. 
What was only a hidden potential unfolds its wings and takes flightNew sprouts push their way toward the sun.

In fact, within a week, a new sprout emerged.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Silence is Golden

 “Be still.  Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity. 
When there is silence one finds the anchor of the universe within oneself” 
― Lao Tzu

 "Be still and know that I am God."

― Proverbs 46:10 

Sometimes the magic happens when you are sitting alone in silence.  The thin veil dissolves. The Ultimate Connection is made.  

Sometimes the magic happens when you are meditating with others.  In the silence, the illusion of our fundamental separateness evaporates.   The "I" becomes "we" -- and we know it.

I think it's even sweeter when it happens that way.

I remember one of those times distinctly.  Sitting here now, it seems like it happened in a different world, a long, long time ago.  I guess it was.  The year was 6 B.C.  You know --  six years Before COVID. 

There were fifteen of us gathered to Just Sit Still during the Wednesday Evening Mindfulness Circle at the Recovery Learning Community's Greenfield Center that night.  As is our Practice, I rang the bell three times and we sat in silent meditation for twenty minutes.

At a certain point, it happened.  It got really quiet.  Really, Really -- Quiet

In the silence,  I could feel our Shared Presence.

When I rang the bell to end the meditation and begin the Heart Council, the air was electric.  I knew that what I had just experienced wasn't just a subjective personal event occurring within the confines of my own skull.  I could see it in people's eyes.  

As we went around the Circle to compare notes on what we had each experienced during our meditation, the first person exclaimed, wide-eyed, "you could actually hear the silence!" 

"Yes.  The Silence was deafening!" a second added.  Others nodded.  

The magic had occurred.  In the silence, what my first Zen teacher called the Soundless Sound had emerged as a shared experience.   Whenever that happens, even for a  few moments, our Essential Oneness within the embrace of the One Love becomes less theoretical.   Reality Asserts Itself.  You can feel it in your bones.

I love it when that happens.

The Theory and the Practice

Immersed as we are in a patently materialistic society, a milieu that fosters individualism, greed, speed, fear and frustration, Just Sitting Still can be challenging.  We have been conditioned to experience our world through mental and emotional states that manifest a lot of noise, restless motion -- and a deep sense of separation.  Bombarded with stimulation and stress, our minds habitually filled with incessant chatter, most of us have spent much of our lives being constantly distracted and disconnected from our True Nature.  Disconnected from ourselves, we are disconnected from one another.  A direct experience of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls Interbeing, our fundamental interconnection with one another and the entire Web of Life, is rarely encountered on a conscious level.  Yet it is always there -- always here, more correctly -- in the embrace of what contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle and others have called the Eternal Now.
(READ MORE)

Saturday, March 6, 2021

How Sweet It Is

"Love is the only reality and it is not a mere sentiment.
It is the ultimate truth that lies at the heart of creation."
 --  Rabindranath Tagore

"“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek 
and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
Rumi



When I woke up that morning over 50 years ago, I had no idea that the trajectory of my life would be profoundly influenced that afternoon.

It was the summer of 1965.  I had just finished my freshman year in college and was back home in a small town north of Chicago, working in a factory again for the summer.  As I had done since my sophomore year in high school, on Friday I cashed my paycheck, pocketed $5, and deposited the rest in the bank to fund my college education. 
 
I spent three dollars of that week's "personal entertainment" budget in a matter of moments, as I pawed through at a table of used books at the annual Lion's Club White Elephant sale in the park near the center of town.

For years now, I've realized that two of the books that I bought that day had a profound influence on me. The first, The Wisdom of Buddha, published by a Buddhist organization in Japan was my first introduction to Buddhism.  When I flipped it open and scanned a few pages, I thought, "Wow.  That's interesting.  Greed, hatred and ignorance don't cut it.  This sounds like what Jesus was teaching in the Bible!" This was my first introduction to the Buddhist teachings and practices that were to inspire and sustain me over the years.

The second book was another small tome, The Wisdom of Gandhi.  Deeply touched by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, I had read that Dr. King had been deeply touched by Gandhi.  That was good enough for me.  I poked my nose into the book.  One of the first passages I read described an encounter between a British journalist and the Mahatma.  When Gandhi was asked if he was a Hindu, he replied, “Yes I am.  I am also a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Jew.”   
 
I got goosebumps Something stirred deep inside me.  His words rang True.  I Immediately brought forth another 20% of that week's allocated "mad money."

It was only today, after a compelling experience yesterday, that I remembered that there was a third book that I bought that afternoon. 

Connecting the Dots

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you probably know that the Lojong teachings of Tibetan Buddhism have been part of my path for the past seven years.  I've read and re-read a handful of commentaries, and spent countless hours in the study and practice of the 59 slogans that comprise this system of mind training.  Each morning, I cast a slogan to focus on for the day. (See Your Courtesy Wake Up Call: Lojong:Training the Heart and Mind).  
 
Yesterday, it was back to square one.  I cast slogan 1: Train in the Preliminaries.  The preliminaries include a contemplation of the Four Reminders:
    1. Maintain an awareness of the preciousness of human life.
    2. Be aware of the reality that life ends; death comes for everyone.
    3. Recall that whatever you do, whether virtuous or not, has a result; what goes around comes around.
    4. Contemplate that as long as you are too focused on self-importance and too caught up in thinking about how you are good or bad, you will suffer. Obsessing about getting what you want and avoiding what you don’t want does not result in happiness.  ( -- Pema Chodron in Lion's Roar)
Although the horror of the COVID pandemic has put the Second Reminder, "Be aware of the reality that life ends for everyone," front and center these days, I was reminded today of the importance of the First Reminder.  What would my life look like if I really did maintain an awareness of how precious life is?  Sitting there at the computer, allowing my mind to flow gently down the stream of this contemplation, relaxing to focus on and soak in the Preciousness of Life, a title for this post emerged: How Sweet It Is!

I had no idea where that would lead.
(READ MORE)

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Body of Wisdom

 “Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. 
Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is the only moment.”
― Thích Nhat Hạnh, Being Peace

"When you listen to your body in this way, you can also feel that it’s the Earth’s body. Its bones are made of Earth minerals, calcium and magnesium, and there is seawater in your blood. Your body is everything you eat. It’s not just your body but part of something bigger: you are the Earth come alive."
-- Jack Kornfield

Reverend Gyomay Kubose (1905 - 2000)
When I observed my first Zen teacher dry mopping the wooden floor of the Zendo at the Buddhist Temple of Chicago years ago, I was awestruck.  
 
I hadn't seen anything like it before. 

There was a simple grace in his bearing, a Presence in his slow mindful steps that was astonishing. 

It was obvious to me that Reverend Gyomay Kubose, in his 70's at the time, was connected to his body, to the smooth wooden floors of the Buddhist Temple of Chicago -- and to Life itself -- in an entirely different way than I'd seen before.  

Embodied Practice

The first of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Mindfulness of Body, is a concept that stretches back to the earliest texts of Buddhism.  The Anapanasati and Maha Satipathana Suttas spell out the details of meditative techniques which have been widely taught for about 2,500 years.  In these teachings, the development of a fuller awareness of our bodies is seen as a means of cultivating a calmer and clearer sense of the entire realm of our own experience.  

Beginning with focusing our attention on the process of breathing, attention can be directed in a number of ways to more fully experience our bodies.  As Mindfulness Practice deepens and we become more fully present to what we are experiencing on deeper and subtler levels, Reality asserts itself.

At a certain point, the Real Deal becomes self-evident.  
 
Getting From There to Here

Conditioned as we are, most of us are "in our heads" most of the time.  Although we are always breathing, and our bodies and our sensory apparatus are operating to generate a whole realm of experiences, most of this occurs without our full presence of mind.  Generally, conditioned as we are, the focus of our attention is primarily on the thoughts running through our head.

Fueled by emotional energies, subconscious beliefs, and conditioned filters that we are largely unaware of, these thoughts dominate our awareness in a way that sweeps us along the stream of our own conditioned ego patterns most the time.  Mindfulness Practice, both on and off the meditation cushion, offers us a means to  expand our range of awareness to include a universe of experience that we generally aren't aware of.  Without Practice we are liable to "sleepwalk,"only half-awake,  throughout our lives. 

Reverend Kubose, most definitely, was not sleepwalking that day.  He was awake to the present moment, to the Oneness of Life Itself. 
(READ MORE)

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Be Still and Know

“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” 
 -- Zen Koan
 
"Be still and know that I am God. "
Psalms 46:10

In all the major religious traditions that I've studied over the years, there is a deep recognition that Stillness is important to connect with the sacred dimension of life.  The core mystical experiences of many of the sages, seers, and saints involved retreating from the noise and busyness of life, and Simply Sitting Still.
 
This is not only emphasized in the religions of the East, it is central to the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as well.  Making time to withdraw from the incessant noise and activity of "business as usual" is seen as crucial.  Even the OmniProductive God of the Old Testament, working hard enough to create the entire freakin' Universe in only six days, then took a day off.  He proclaimed it as Holy!

Of course, as God Almighty, Yahweh could just kick back and settle right into the Stillness.  In fact, God being God, he/she is the Stillness, the Infinite Source at the foundation of all sound, all activity.
 
Yet, for most of us, being still is not that easy.  It takes a commitment, some skill, and some discipline to cultivate our own ability to slow down the seemingly incessant chatter of our mental activity.  It takes time and effort to become Present to what my first Zen teacher, Reverend Gyomay Kubose, called the Soundless Sound.
,
It takes Practice.  
 
The Way It Is

Immersed in the buzz of contemporary society (which, itself, could be diagnosed as ADHD), most of us have internalized the incessant noise and relentless activity of a social system build on greed, fear, and ignorance. The noise and activity doesn't just exist "out there." It lives on in our bodies, our emotions and, perhaps most of all, in our thoughts.  Even at relative rest, our minds are usually abuzz.  Lost in our thoughts, we often feel stressed.  It is often acted out (and reinforced) through constant movement.  Even "at rest", there is liable to be gum chewing, toe tapping, hair twirling, nail-biting, etc. 

Even if we are sitting still in an incarnation as couch potatoes, internally we continue to bop until we drop. We keep our minds busy.  Turning toward the distractions of "news and entertainment," our attention is consumed by video and audio stimulation.  It never is allowed to settle into the deep tranquility available to us -- until we finally fall into a deep sleep. Even that, for many, seems to be difficult to do.  So-called sleep disorders are more and more prevalent.

Thankfully, in this day and age we also have access to an entire world of Spiritual Teachings, and to meditative practices developed through the ages to free us from this vicious cycle of incessant physical and mental activity.  I'm grateful to have stumbled across this vast pool of wisdom as a young man.  I have maintained a regular meditation practice for decades.
 
This I do believe: If a extremely neurotic, addictive, and workaholic personality like mine can experience what St. Paul called "the Peace that passeth all understanding," anybody can.  If someone takes the time and makes the effort, they can learn to slow it all down, to let all of that go, to Be StillSimply Sitting Still, we can connect with the vast, expansive, glowing, spacious stillness that exists at the heart of Reality.  

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Light Reading

"There is a vast store of energy which is not centered, which is not ego's energy at all.  It is this energy which is the centerless dance of phenomena, the universe interpenetrating and making love to itself"
--  Chögyam Trungpa
Tibetan Buddhist Rinpoche

"
The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.
-- Meister Eckart
Christian Mystic



Sitting here, I realized, yet again, that I'm a strange old coot. (If you've been following this blog for awhile, you probably have known that all along. LOL)

An inveterate bookworm, a perpetual student, I'm a Spiritual Geek of the first order.  There are several full bookcases, and stacks of books on a number of horizontal surfaces in my apartment.  

Lately, I've been thinking it's about time to re-read  Chogyam Trungpa's The Myth of Freedom: and the Way of Meditation.

There's nothing like a little light reading, right?

This book was my first exposure to Trungpa Rinpoche. and his presentation of Tibetan Buddhism.  I first read it back in 1976.

By then, I'd already been swept up in the collective kensho of the late sixties and early seventies. Yet most of my actual contact with Buddhism at that point had been with the Zen tradition and the Hippy Zen of Stephen Gaskin. Along the way, I'd already experienced a number of openings and peak experiences   -- as had many of us. By then, I knew that there was a spiritual dimension to life.  


The Good Old Daze

I was recently asked how I "got into" the a life of spiritual study and practice. As best as I can tell,  I didn't get into it.  It got into me.  My teen years and young adulthood spanned the 1960's and 1970's.  This was the era of the Civil Rights Movement, the Peace Movement, the Summer of Love, and Woodstock.  I was born at the right place and in the right time. 

Riding on the waves of  what was called "the generation gap" at the time, I was one of many.  A large number of  youth throughout the world rejected "business as usual." Yearning for something beyond the nationalism, racism, materialism, senseless violence, and warfare, we intuited that there was more, much more, to life.  And, just like the Beatles, many of us turned to the teachings of Eastern religion to better understand just what that "more" might look like.  This cultural revolution was so widespread that by the early 70's, I was practicing yoga and meditation, and was able to buy paperback books like "The Sermon on the Mount According to VedantaHow to Know God, and a translation of the Bhagavad Gita right off the bookshelves in the local supermarket! I was also able to read the works of Father Thomas Merton and other Christians who were establishing an interfaith dialogue.  

In this Hippy Pentecost, a lot of us had mystical experiences.  Although some of these were related to the various psychedelics and medicinal herbs available in those days, many emerged from meditation and other spiritual practices.  It was an amazing time. Whether it happened in a meditation hall, around a campfire in the Rockies, in a rock hall, or elsewhere  -- for at least a few moments -- many of us touched the Sacred and the Sacred touched us. 

With those experiences, we knew: There is an Ultimate Reality.  We discovered, first hand, that there is a dimension in which we are not only all in this together -- we are all this together. We saw that the Universe is a unitary field of energy, an interconnected web of life dancing in an infinite expanse of luminous space.  Inseparable from all that is, we knew we were each like waves dancing along the surface of an infinite sea. 

I have come to call this Ultimate Unity the One Love. 

Getting Real

Yet, glimpses of the One Love were one thing.  Actually becoming an unconditionally loving human being is quite another.  Although the systems of ethics and morality that were embedded in every religious tradition provided some guidance, I came to understand that there was a lot more involved.  Although I sensed that commitment to a life of service was essential, I discovered  that it was going to take commitment, study, and specific tools and practices to really get my act together.  I needed to uncover, and then heal, the conditioning that prevented from actualizing the Love in my heart and bringing it into my day to day life.  It became clear that Moksha, the liberation alluded to in the Eastern traditions, just like the "Truth that shall set you free" proclaimed by Jesus, wasn't just about a set of beliefs.  It was beyond belief and dogma. It called for a way of being.  

Chogyam Trungpa 1939-1987

I had been exploring meditation for about seven years, and had just turned 30 when, I first came  across The Myth of Freedom: and the Way of Meditation in 1976.  As a young man who had entered the Hindu, then the Buddhist paths of Practice with the goal of  "liberation," the title that Trungpa chose was mind-blowing.  The MYTH of Freedom?  WTF?  Wasn't Freedom the ultimate goal?

As I remember it,  I poured through the book, intrigued and haunted by the imagery, but mostly confused.  I didn't yet understand the frame of reference, and I wasn't able to grasp the subtleties of his descriptions of various meditative states.  

Having heard via the grapevine of Trungpa's "unconventional" lifestyle, I was also quite skeptical. Then, when I got to the final section of the book, which proclaimed the importance of devotion to a guru, I put the book down. Although I revered the folks that I considered to have been my teachers, I had come to believe that all hierarchical structures were fundamentally dis-empowering and could lead to exploitation and abuse. (Jesus had reportedly said that we should call no man Teacher, no man "Father," which certainly challenges the way most religion is institutionalized. ) 

I didn't get back to The Myth of Freedom for another thirty years.

During those decades I stumbled my way forward through relationships, numerous jobs, successes and failures, even homelessness. Yet, through the peaks of valleys of my life, I continually returned to meditation as the foundation of my spiritual practice.  And, although I maintained a connection to other spiritual traditions through study and shared worship services, my primary focus continued to be Buddhism.  Like institutional Christianity, Buddhism had evolved into separate several different branches, and I practiced with both Theravadan and Zen Buddhists.  Along he way I spent time in residence at Insight Meditation Society and Zen Mountain Monastery before again launching off to continue a daily meditation practice and my own interfaith exploration of the Bodhisattva Vow, and a life of service.

And Then 
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Friday, February 5, 2021

One Love. One Heart.

“In Chinese, the word for heart and mind is the same -- Hsin.
 For when the heart is open and the mind is clear 
they are of one substance, of one essence.” 
-- Stephen Levine

"Love is not what we become but who we already are."
-- Stephen Levine

I slept in this morning for the first time in quite awhile.  

Although I did awaken at around 4:30, to participate in my early morning recycling project, I immediately returned to bed.  There, I followed my breathing into "dozing/dreaming meditation." 
 
A long, rather vivid, dream quickly emerged.  It was unsettling.  
 
With echoes of my many "personal failures" ringing through my mind, I awoke again.  I glanced at the clock.  It read 6:45! That's wicked late in my world.  Yikes!

Feeling harried and hurried, I went into the bathroom to do a bit more recycling.  Then I picked up the iPhone and cast my Lojong Slogan for the day: Number 49. "Always meditate on the difficult emotions that emerge."

That sounded right on, I could feel a deep sadness welling in my chest  -- but, damn,  it was LATE!  I had a long list of things to do today.  The hiss of the morning traffic on High Street concurred.  It was rush hour.  Just keep moving! 
 
To Sit or Not to Sit

For decades now, settling into a one hour morning meditation "first thing in the morning" has come quite naturally most every day.  I committed to it long ago.  Usually, the momentum of this commitment carries me along like an autumn leaf floating on the surface of a dancing brook under a clear blue sky.  Life flows on.  I flow on.  When it's night time, I read a bit of dharma.  Then I meditate into sleep.  When it's morning, I awake. Then I get up and pee.  Then, I Sit Still for an hour.    

That bedrock ritual became a bit rocky this past week, though.  

I actually missed my morning meditation three days in a row, then only sat for 20 minutes the next day.  Yet, what's the big deal? After all, I still meditate -- a lot.  
 
Since the COVID pandemic made in-person meetings a health hazard, I Zoom into the Morning Mindfulness Meditation Meeting that I facilitate at 9 AM, Monday through Friday.  I facilitate three other Mindfulness Heart Circles on-line each week as well.  (BTW.  All these are free and open to all.) Although, wintry ice and an unmaintained parking lot have prevented me from dawn meditations at Unity Park on the Connecticut River, I still occasionally make it to the Noon Meditation Vigil on the Greenfield Town Commons as well during the week.  So. What's the big deal about my personal morning meditation?

To be honest, most of time, I don't know.  I just do it.

What I do know, though, is that this morning, I woke up late and was off and running!   I actually had sat down in front of the computer, ready to tackle the first thing on the list, before I hit the pause button.  I stopped, sat up a bit straighter and took a long, slow, deep breath.   Sitting there, I sensed that place in me that appears to make choices.  It became clear to me.  Rather than just "go with the flow"this morning, I had to stand in the way of my own momentum.  A real decision had to be made.  
 
After a few more conscious breaths, I stood up and headed back to in the bedroom.  I faced the altar.  As I've done thousands of times before, I bowed, set the timer for an hour, and Sat.
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Sunday, January 31, 2021

Mission Impossible

"May the frightened cease to be afraid
And those bound be freed;
May the powerless find power,
And may the people think of benefiting one another”
― Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva
 
"Taking the bodhisattva vow implies that instead of holding our own individual territory and defending it tooth and nail, we become open to the world that we are living in. It means we are willing to take on greater responsibility, 
immense responsibility. "
-- Chögyam Trungpa
 

Although the teachings of Pema Chodron have had a profound influence in my own practice for the past fifteen years, I'd have to say that Stephen Gaskin is my "root guru".  

I came of age in the late sixties.  The Spirit was on the land.  More than anyone else, Stephen Gaskin seemed to capture the essence of the Collective Kensho that occurred during era.  A marine veteran of the Korean War who went on to become  an English instructor at San Francisco State, he transformed the energy of tripping with friends in Haight-Ashbury into a bustling community in Tennessee that at one point included about 1700 people.    (He also was a central part of an inexplicable occurrence that touched my life the week after he died in 2014.  (See Your Courtesy Wake Up Call: Lighten Up!, July 12, 2014)

When I first saw"Out to Save the World"boldly displayed in the destination window of Gaskin's Greyhound Scenicruiser, it brought a grin to my face -- and stirred something deep in my heart.  I thought, "Of course.  What else is there to do?"

As I reflect on it here at age 74, I sense that I had already been propelled in that direction by a series of events in my youth.  In the midst of the trauma and pain of a chaotic childhood, I had been touched deeply by the kindness and courage of "strangers" more than once.  There was a type of energy in those interactions that was palpable.  I felt it.

Then, one day in eighth grade during recess, I discovered something about the nature of reality that still rings true.  Standing alone, once again the new kid in school (I had gone to ten different schools by then), I was watching the schoolyard interactions on a surrealistically gorgeous autumn day.  A dance of color and sound, Life played out in front of me like a movie.  Some kids were being kind.  Others were not.  Some kids appeared to be having fun.  Others were not.  At a certain point  -- Zap!  I got it.  It was obvious.  Through our attitudes and actions, we humanoids are individually and collectively creating the world we experience each moment!

Seeing that clearly, the key to life seemed like a no-brainer.  What Jesus was preaching in the Bible was just plain, common sense.  (It would be another ten years before I read that Buddha had a similar take on things.) As you sew, so shall you reap.  If we would just get our act together and love one another, the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.  

Easier Said Than Done

Of course, I quickly learned that a lot of folks hadn't quite seen that yet.  I also saw that consistently being kind was not all that easy.  Fear and doubt and confusion were powerful forces. It was going to take some serious work to pull it off.  It would take a real commitment. 

Stephen Gaskin brought that point home as I discovered his teachings in my mid-20's. Although I'd read about the ideal of the Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, I hadn't actually seen the four fold Bodhisattva Vows until I read Gaskin's rendering of it in Hey Beatnik*:

Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.
The deluding passions are inexhaustible, I vow to extinguish them all.
The way of the Dharma is impossible to expound, I vow to expound it.
It is impossible to attain the way of the Buddha, I vow to attain it.


I got goosebumps when I read that.

Although I was a couple years away from sitting with my first embodied Zen teacher, those four lines seemed to capture the essence of what I felt my life to be about, and it pointed out the work to be done.  A few years later, when I discovered the Mahayana Buddhist teaching that there could be no final and perfect enlightenment until everyone was enlightened, I broke into tears.  It just made sense.  Like many of us back in the day, I'd already peaked out (even without LSD) to experience our Essential Oneness.  It just made sense that a Bodhisattva wouldn't punch out and go home to Buddhahood until everyone was covered. 

Rather than me taking the Bodhisattva Vow at that point, the Vow took me.  Looking at the condition of the world around me, I couldn't see anything more worth doing then to get my act together and try to help out.  Now, fifty some odd years later, it seems even more important as our species continues to careen toward disaster.
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Friday, January 22, 2021

The Heart of the Matter

"My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness."
--Dalai Lama

"What we expect is to be truthful; to be kind; to try to share; to try to love one another. Some folks don’t recognize that as a discipline: They say, "Oh, that old stuff…." And it may not sound too difficult, unless you’ve ever tried it. But if you ever try it, 
you’ll know it’s an exacting discipline."
--Stephan Gaskin, This Season's People

 
On of my favorite moments at Insight Meditation Society years ago was when the severe looking Burmese meditation master, U Pandita, raised his hand to his head during a dharma talk and begin to laugh. The entire crew of monks in his entourage sitting behind him on stage dissolved into a cacophony of hoots, snorts, and belly laughs
 
After a few moments, U Pandita regained his composure.  He placed his hand to his heart and continued.  The translator (who had also lost it) caught his breath and caught up with the venerable monk's discourse.  I don't remember the exact words used but the point was clear: Westerners believe that the mind, that aspect of a human being that perceives what is true and correct, is in the head.  We, of course, know that  it resides in our heart. 
 
That certainly resonated with my own understanding.  Jesus, Buddha,  -- and the Beatles -- had it right.  It's all a matter of heart.  Love is the way.  Love is all you need
 
It's just that simple.  But, of course, simple doesn't mean easy.  Staying connected with our Heart, being truly kind, clear, and compassionate is, like Stephan Gaskin pointed out years ago, an exacting discipline.

Getting It Together 

In 1976, I learned from my first Zen teacher, Reverend Gyomay Kubose, that heart, mind, and spirit are actually the same word in Japanese.  Derived from a Chinese character, the word shin makes no distinction between these three realms of existence.  Our bodies, our minds, and our spirit are seen as a seamless whole. 

Although we may conceptualize them as distinctly different, I've come to see for myself that in Reality there is no such separation.  They are one.  So is everything else that is, has been, and could possibly ever be.

Really!?

Conditioned as we are in a materialistic society on overdrive, it sure doesn't feel that way for most of us much of the time, right?  We experience ourselves as separate, isolated beings in a competitive and stressful world.  Disconnection is the operative word.  Often, our bodies are doing one thing and our minds another.  In our heart of hearts we know what is right, yet we stumble ahead doing the opposite much of the time.   It's disheartening.  

That's what led me to meditation. Following a deep yearning in my heart of hearts, I was intent on getting it together.  I knew there was more.  I wanted to connect the dots and live a life of Integrity.  

This process began, and continues on, with the commitment to spend time regularly, Sitting Still, carefully observing how this heart/mind/spirit operates.  I wanted to discover the ways that my conditioning operates to separate me from my own heart, from others, and from the exquisite and intricate Web of Life.  With Practice, both on and off the zafu, I began to get a handle on how to slowly and gently become the person that, in my heart of hearts, I yearned to be.  

Then, at a certain point in meditation at Zen Mountain Monastery years ago, I realized that I actually AM the person I yearned to be--and always have been!  At that moment, in a torrent of tears, I knew that with all my flaws, with my abundant neuroses, conditioned patterns, and quirkiness, I was absolutely perfect, and lovable, as is--and so is everybody else!

Nothing had really changed.  I was still sitting there in the meditation hall with sunshine streaming through the windows.  But, everything had really changed.

It Just Takes Practice 

Zen Master Suzuki-roshi once said:  Each of you is perfect the way you are ... and you can use a little improvement.”  I've noticed that smiles and laughter often emerge when I've shared this quote in the Mindfulness Circles. In his own inimitable style, Suzuki-roshi had reached beyond logical paradox (how can you improve on perfection?), to express the heart of the matter.  In fact, the major question that propelled Eihei Dogen, the founder of the Soto School of Zen, to leave Japan and seek a teacher in China was "If we are all already perfect, why bother practicing meditation?"
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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Oh, Good Grief!

"Nothing is more natural than grief, 
no emotion more common to our daily experience.  
It's an innate response to loss in a world where everything is impermanent."
-- Stephen Levine, Unattended Sorrow

"The problem, therefore, lies not with our pain for the world, 
but in our repression of it."
-- Joanna Macy, Coming Back to Life

Five years ago, on January 17, 2016. poet, author, and Spiritual Teacher, Stephen Levine, died at home after a long illness.  I was fortunate enough to attend a Conscious Living, Conscious Dying retreat with Stephen and his wife, Ondrea, years ago.  There, I experienced, first-hand, his ability to create a Community of Healing over the course of five days.  
 
About 300 people were gathered there at Mount Madonna Center.  About one third of those attending were terminally ill.  Another third were their loved ones.  I was a member of the final third, people involved with the emerging hospice movement.
 
What I experienced during that retreat was astounding.  Levine's talent of crafting and delivering guided meditations and interactive experiences allowed me, and many other folks, to access the Open Heart of Awareness.  With Levine's passing, the world lost a Master Guide.

I wrote the following post two years before his passing.  The piece also highlights the work of another gifted Teacher, Joanna Macy that I had the privilege to practice with along this long and winding trail of Practice.  She, too, continues to be a guiding light for me.  I'm sure that Stephen won't mind sharing the limelight here.  In my experience his light, and hers, are inseparable from the Boundless Light!

*Originally Published, November 21, 2014. 

With the events of the past month, the emergence of grief in my life seems to be a reoccurring theme.  I awoke in tears from a lucid dream a few minutes ago.  As I transitioned from dreaming to the waking state, I felt my heart open through grief into the boundless spaciousness of the One Love.  I came fully awake feeling energized, grateful --  and at peace.  I was ready to face the day.

I'm no expert practitioner, but it seems that my renewed focus on Dream Yoga is working.  Extending Practice into the borderland of mind states that emerge in and out of dreams has been rewarding.  It's nice to be able to sleep on the job.

Although the recent dreams I've had of levitation and flying have been a lot more "fun," I'm deeply grateful to have had this dream emerge from the cradle of an afternoon nap.  At age 68, I've found Napping Practice to be quite wonderful.
 
The dream gave me an opportunity to further process the losses that have incurred in my life, and to move through personal grief to connect more deeply with the genuine heart of sadness that is part of our shared human condition. I've found that tears are often the key that unlocks the Gateless Gate to the One Love. A good cry can be the portal to boundless beauty, joy and gratitude.  As Jesus proclaimed long ago, "Blessed be those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

In the Dream State, I did -- and I was.

Grief is rarely that easy, but thankfully, it's become easier over the years. I've had lots of help.  I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to attend retreats with two contemporary American Buddhist masters of a "good cry":  Stephen Levine and Joanna Macy.  Although the focus of their work is different (Levine serves in the field of death and dying. Macy empowers ecological activists), each of these gifted Teachers gets to the Heart of the Matter with incredible grace, insight and skill.  Through periods of silent meditation, guided meditations, talks, and experiential exercises, they each have the ability to skillfully guide their retreat participants toward an experience of the Open Heart of Awareness.  True spiritual elders (Macy is 85. Levine, 77), they each are able to bring the essence of the Teachings out of the Sutra books and into real, lived experiences.  Through their being and the gatherings they create, they each bring the limitless energy of love, compassion and forgiveness to Life.  
 
It is a high and holy magic.
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Saturday, January 2, 2021

In It for the Long Haul

  “Be still.  Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity.
When there is silence one finds the anchor of the universe within oneself.”
― Lao Tzu

"As the mind becomes a little more quiet the sacredness of everything 
within and without becomes clear to us.”
-- Zen Teacher Norman Fischer
 


Well,  the 12th Day of Christmas has come and gone.  I'm pleased to finally bid farewell to the holiday season.  
 
Even with the traditional travels and family gatherings reduced to telephone calls, texts, Facebook, and fleeting moments on Zoom, it's been a busy, and oftentimes unsettling, holiday season.

In the midst of the scurry of the past couple of weeks, I was especially aware of how precious each morning's meditation was to me.  
 
Although this year I was able to avoid the energy of the "over the top" Christmas morning paper ripping rampages that characterize our cultures distorted and materialistic celebration, I'm still a parent and grandparent.  I hopped on-line -- and went a bit crazy.  
 
There, in the realm of clicking mice and cyber-versions of real goods, a series of on-line buying misadventures added hours and hours of sometimes stressful re-do's to my world.  It took a long time before everything was finally signed, sealed and delivered.  Thankfully, I was able to fall back on the tradition of the Christmastide and give myself a bit of elbowroom.
 
Sitting here now, mindful of my breath and body, relaxing into the space that surrounds these sensations, I come to rest in this moment's open awareness.  In my mind's eye,  I can see light at the end of the tunnel.  Continuing to relax and open, the tunnel and the light dissolve into the clear, luminous brilliance that is beyond endings and beginnings.  Sitting still, my heart glows in gratitude for Practice.  
 
Touching Stillness, even for a few brief moments, is like feeling the warm glow of a fireplace, snuggling at home on a snowy evening peering through the window at the moon.  Paradoxically, it's also like sipping clear, crisp spring water on a steamy summer day.  In Stillness, the Presence emerges.  In a silent whisper, it sings of the Ineffable, that infinite space where the fundamentally mysterious and completely ordinary meet to form the fabric of Life itself.  

Just Sitting Still
 
Although I use a variety of meditation techniques, the foundation of my personal practice for decades has been shikantaza: Just Sitting Still.  Seated erect, my attention is allowed to rest in the moment to moment experience of breath, body, and the expansive spaciousness of an open heart and mind.  I simply Sit with what Zen teacher Norman Fischer calls "the basic feeling of being alive."  This is often easier said than done.  It takes Practice.

Conditioned as we are, our attention is usually drawn into the thoughts and images and memories and daydreams cascading through our mind.  Rather than sitting still, observing the present moment with a relaxed open gaze, we find ourselves scurrying along the sidewalks of New York City, or rewriting a scene from yesterday's argument to put us in a better light, or working out the budget for the month...
 
This happens, again and again and again.  

Yet, the moment we simply notice this, a moment of Practice emerges.  If that noticing is clear, open, calm, and non-judgmental, we have engaged Mindfulness, a qualitatively different mode of consciousness.  Mindfulness becomes the Gateless Gate to Pure Awareness.  As Practice deepens, there are times that Reality Asserts Itself.  In a flash, we are Present in a qualitatively different way -- and we know it.  Ultimately, we come home to our True Nature.  We realize that that we are inseparable from the Universe.  
 
At times, it is just that simple.  Yet, simple doesn't necessarily mean easy.

Throughout our lives, we have developed complexes of thoughts and emotions that have a great deal of power over us.  They arise, unbidden, to dominate our attention.  Without Practice, we are unconsciously propelled into each moment by our past, again and again. 
 
Much of who we are at any one moment, the way we "see" and react to our experience, is just a bad habit.  We are, literally, creatures of habit.  Most of the time, we don't choose to think what we are thinking or to feel what we are feeling.  It just bubbles up from our subconscious.  Without Practice, without a conscious commitment to put in the time and effort to discover who we really are, we are held in bondage by our past.  Without Practice, moment to moment, we are likely to continue to create a future that contains the same old, same old, suffering that characterizes much of the human condition.   
 
Thankfully, there is Practice.