"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

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."
-- 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 -- or, if they had, they were afraid to break with the pack.  I also saw that consistently being kind and caring 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.

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 Burmese Buddhists, 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.


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?"

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.

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.