"Mindfulness Practice isn't just about escaping to some magical inner realm devoid of life's challenges. The Practice is about getting out of your head enough to engage each moment wholeheartedly. When we are Present in an open, kind, clear, and helpful way, the vast, mysterious, magical reality of life itself becomes self-evident .

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

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Me and My Shadow

 

"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
 
“…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



Many folks experiencing a lot of stress in their lives are drawn to meditation.  It's only natural.  There is a deep yearning 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:
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Thursday, July 27, 2023

Once Again -- Lighten UP!

 

Stephen at Monday Night Class, San Francisco circa 1969
In my humble opinion, Spiritual Practice isn't about the bright lights and fancy magical stuff.  Yet, sometimes the Universe really does lay One on you.  You experience an event that defies any rational explanation.

This happened nine years ago on a steamy July morning as I struggled to write a fitting memorial to Hippie Spiritual Teacher Stephen Gaskin. I major force in my life as a young man, Stephen had recently made the Grand Transition at that point. I was sitting there with my old MacBook at a picnic table at Atlas Farm, when...
 
Ooops. I almost let the cat out of the bag.

With another deep bow to Stephen Gaskin -- and to a Most Amazing Universe -- I want to share, once again, the post from that day.   Beyond the Mysterious Magic Manifested, it's encouragement to "lighten up" bears repeating.  With my own conditioning, prone to caffeinated perfectionism, and well aware of all that needs to be done to help change this world, I need hear that every day.

Lighten Up!   
Originally Posted July 12, 2014

A couple of night's ago, unable to get back to sleep after a nocturnal "nature call."I had tried to write a memorial to Hippie Spiritual Teacher Stephen Gaskin, whose Life -- and recent Death -- touched me deeply.   I got nowhere.  I gave it up and read a bit of a Tenzing Norbu Mystery before finally stretching out to meditate into sleep once again.

Still on the mend from the events of the past month, I've been mostly laying low, staying away from the computer and cell phone as much as possible, allowing myself to Heal.   A couple of false starts had showed me quite clearly how energy depleting my addiction to these devices can be. 

This morning, I was quaffing my first cup of coffee in a couple of days (another addiction under modification) watching bubbles of confusion and angst float through my awareness.  I wasn't quite sure what to do this week about my commitment to the MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call.  

I still was struggling with an attempt to put into words my thoughts and feelings about the passing of Stephen, a man whose Presence and Teachings had such a profound impact on my life.

Then, (probably with a furrowed brow), I decided to reach for my cell phone to check my email, perhaps just fall back and, perhaps, just select an old post to republish this time.

At that very moment the phone "dinged"with an incoming email. Peering down I read the notification:
"Monday Morning Mindfulness:
Lighten Up! Posted 18 January 2014"

WTF!!!???

I have no idea what strange permutation of the Google space time cyber continuum could have possibly generated and delivered to me the email version of a post I'd written  almost six months before.  That it dinged at that very moment??   

How could I not lighten up?  

I broke into a bemused grin as I clicked it open.  Just receiving this unsolicited and inexplicably"cosmic" MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call would have been enough to make my decision (just read, introduce and re-post this one for sure) -- and make my day.  

Then, I began reading the post.

It got even more mind blowing!
(READ MORE)

Friday, July 14, 2023

High Times and the Timeless

With A Bow to Stephen Gaskin
 
"There is a plane of experience, other than the three dimensional plane, which can be felt by a human being...If people never get above the merely signal level of communication, and don't become telepathic, they haven't explored their full human birthright."
-- Stephen Gaskin

"We are all parts of God.  Each one of us has an electrical body field that surrounds us, and a mind field that goes on to infinity."
--Stephen Gaskin

Stephen Gaskin (February 16, 1935 - July 1, 2014) and his wife, Ina May
In meditation, the subjective nature of Time becomes obvious. 

Sometimes, an hour zips by.  At other times, I've felt like a dazed prizefighter hanging onto the ropes of a painful existence waiting forever for the bell to ring.

And that's only one hour.

As I get older, it becomes increasingly impossible to grasp the nature of concepts like a week, an month, a year, a decade.  At this stage of the journey, it's easier, at times, to directly sense the mysterious nature of the Timeless glowing in the boundless expanse of each moment.  I blame that on jumping heart  first into Bodhisattva Practice years ago.  

I first came across the Bodhisattva Vow as it was expressed by Stephen Gaskin in Hey Beatnik!  I was hooked. At that moment the vow took me. 

So, did Stephen Gaskin and the Farm.

Although I only had three conversations with him in my life, Stephen was a major influence my life.  I'm not surprised that he came to mind for the first time in a long, long time during a conversation with an old friend recently.  It was time.  Gaskin passed away ninth years ago on July 1. 

In some traditions, the anniversary of a guru's passing is a high holy day.  Although I don't usually put a lot of weight on the "spooky" stuff.  Gaskin's "Mahasamadhi" brought about his mysterious "appearance" in my life eight years ago during the first week of July.

For some inexplicable reason, Google re-delivered an email  I'd sent six months before, announcing the week's blog post.  (As usual, I'd sent that email to myself and a .bcc to a list of others at the time.)  As I sat at the laptop, struggling to write a commemorative post on the first anniversary of Gaskin's death, the iPhone dinged.  When I opened the phone, I was amazed to find a quote from Stephen staring me in the face!  (I'd only quoted Gaskin twice before in the epigram of a Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call post in hundreds of posts to that point.)  Google had never re-delivered an old email I sent before -- or since.  Wierd!?  Synchronicity? Coincidence? 

All I know is that I found myself grinning from ear to ear. 

Stephen Gaskin and the Farm

Stephen Gaskin always maintained he was more of a beatnik than a hippie.  Yet, wearing tie-dyes til the end, Gaskin was a central figure in the burst of spiritual energy that encircled the globe during the 1960's and 70's. A Marine Corp veteran of the Korean War, he was teaching in the English department at San Francisco State College when the hippies of Haight-Ashbury mushroomed into a worldwide counter-cultural phenomenon.  He became known in some circles as The Acid Guru.

What Gaskin started as an experimental evening discussion class with six students in 1968 grew into Monday Night Class which drew as many as 1500 people to meditate together in silence, then listen to a extemporaneous talk on psychedelic spirituality before engaging in questions, answers and informal discussions. Within three years, Gaskin and those who considered him to be their spiritual teacher had established an intentional community called the Farm in rural Tennessee.  At it's peak it had about 1600 residents.

This, of course, gathered a lot of public attention.   It sure caught mine.  I devoured the books the Farm's publishing company distributed.  I visited it three times during its first 5 years, staying a month at a time twice. (When push came to shove though, I couldn't make the choice to live 700 miles away from my ex's and children.)

High Times -- With or Without Drugs

If the truth be told, I was a lightweight when it came to psychedelics.  Introduced to marijuana in the Spring of 1968, I went on to experience a number of trips on mushrooms, and on what was presented at the time as  "synthetic mescaline." (who knows what it was...)   Yet, as I began to explore Yoga and Meditation, I soon sensed that the drugs weren't the only means to accessing transcendental forms of consciousness.  Intrigued, I read extensively about spirituality, religion, and mysticism.  I met regularly with a small group of friends involved in the peer counseling and human potential movement.  At one point, we even began to form a small intentional community.    

Although I continued to pass a joint around once in awhile during those years, I actually avoided LSD out of concern that I wasn't "ready"-- until I took a few trips in 1979.

It didn't matter!!  

The Collective Consciousness was so energized as the 60's became the 70's, that I had a number of compelling out-of-body experiences, saw aura's, and experienced moments of synchronicity and telepathy that were absolutely mind-boggling -- even without drugs in my system at the timeThen, in the spring of 1972, I had an experience of Perfect Oneness that fulfilled my deepest aspirations for Spiritual Connection and dispelled a fear of death.  I knew, as did St John of Liverpool, we all shine on!
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Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Judge Not and ...

“The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.”
― J. Krishnamurti
 
“People talk about entering nirvana, but we are already there.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh


I don't think there is any greater freedom than being Present in the moment to life as it is.  
 
In the expansive vision of an open heart and clear mind, the barriers and boundaries that appear to separate us from ourselves, from one another, and from Sacred Oneness become increasingly permeable, translucent, transparent.   
 
Being Present, we feel the Presence of something vast and boundless. 
 
I believe most of us, if not all, have experienced such moments -- at least as children.  Unfortunately, accessing these moments and making them a regular part of our life is easier said than done.

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Day by Day: Sustaining a Daily Practice

 “The gift of learning to meditate is the 
greatest gift you can give yourself in this lifetime.” 
-- Sogyal Rinpoche

“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 Hạnh


I would say that ninety percent of the folks who have wandered into one of the Mindfulness Circles I host have already tried meditation.  

Comparing notes on Practice, most of those folks said that there was an obvious improvement in the quality of their consciousness --and in their lives -- during the times that they practiced.  Yet they had been unable to maintain a regular daily practice.

Sound familiar?

The inability to maintain a daily practice is quite widespread.  It's fun to see a newcomer to the Circle mention, often somewhat sheepishly, that they hadn't been able to sustain a daily practice, only to discover when I ask for a show of hands, that everyone in the Circle has had -- or continues to have -- that same problem.

It only stands to reason. 

In today's world we are individually and collectively awash in noise, stimulation, and activity.  Creatures of habit, the entire thrust of our social conditioning operates against sitting still in silence.  Often feeling stressed and fatigued, we scurry ahead,  sometimes aware of a subtle (or not so subtle) discontent with ourselves and our lives.  Taking the time to notice to stop, relax, and get in touch with what is actually going on inside of us isn't widely supported. 

The Good News is that it can be.

More than anything, the establishment of a regular daily meditation practice may be the key to making the difference.  At this stage of the journey, I've learned that there are some things that  have helped me and others to bring this about.  Perhaps, they can help you as well.
(READ MORE)

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

IMHO*

"All ego really is, is our opinions, which we take to be solid, real, and the absolute truth about how things are.  To have even a few seconds of doubt about the solidity and absolute truth of our own opinions, just to begin to see that we do have opinions, 
introduces us to the possibility of egolessness." 
-- Pema Chodron

“Do not seek the truth, only cease to cherish your opinions.”
-- Seng-ts’an, Third Zen Patriarch


I love when the Universe is kind enough to deal the cards to me in a way that makes a specific lesson inescapable.  This happened to me in spades on a brilliant May morning several years back.

Luckily, hearts were trump.
 
Following the lead of one the irregular regulars in our Monday Morning Mindfulness  Circle, I had been re-reading Pema Chodron's When Things Fall Apart, one chapter a day. 

In that morning's chapter, entitled "Opinions," Pema suggested that noticing and labeling our opinions as "opinion" --  just like noting our thoughts as "thinking"--  can be an extremely helpful practice.

Although, I had read that chapter several times before over the years, this time something clicked.  

It made what could have been a heated argument later in the day an interesting and constructive engagement.

Taking Note: Some Thoughts about "Thinking"
 
I had been meditating on and off for over twenty years before I was introduced to "noting practice" by a teacher in my first retreat at Insight Meditation Society  Before then, after being introduced to meditation through the lens of Yoga, I had gravitated toward Zen Buddhism.  I read extensively, practiced regularly at a local Zen center, dialogued with several Zen teachers, and attended Sesshin. 
 
To be honest,  that first introduction of the noting practice didn't take.  The instruction to make a mental note -- "thinking" --  whenever I noticed that thoughts were dominating my attention seemed clunky and intrusive.  I hadn't yet come across that in Zen teachings I had heard or read to that point.  I just shrugged it off.  After all wasn't Zazen just zazen?  Who needs such"techniques!?" 
 
I spent the remainder of the nine day retreat at Insight Meditation Society practicing Shikantaza, the Soto Zen practice of Just Sitting.  I took the formal posture, watched my breathing for awhile to settle into a more concentrated state, and then just sat still for hours and hours trying to stay in the present moment's experience beyond just being wrapped up in my thoughts-- for days and days.  
 
As had happened before in intensive retreat,  I was able to access a quality of consciousness that was extremely tranquil yet crystal clear and highly energized.  Being Present in the moment to moment experience of life, I felt a Presence.  Mission accomplished.  
 
Or so I thought.
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Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Body of Wisdom

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

“In Islam, and especially among the Sufi Orders, siyahat or 'errance' - the action or rhythm of walking - was used as a technique for dissolving the attachments of the world and allowing men to lose themselves in God.
-- Meister Eckhart

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.
 
Later that day, I was introduced to formal walking meditation practice on the opening evening of my first zen sesshin.  That weekend, I got a taste of a different way of being.

Embodied Practice
 
The first of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Mindfulness of Body is a practice that stretches back to the earliest texts of Buddhism. The Anapanasati and Maha Satipathana Suttas spell out the details of this and other meditative techniques. They’ve been taught and practiced for about 2,500 years. 
 
Beginning with focusing the attention on the process of breathing, Mindfulness of Body can be practiced in a number of ways to more fully experience the play of sensations dancing through our bodies.  
 
This can change everything.
 
As Mindfulness Practice deepens, we become more fully present.  We can connect with ourselves, with others -- and with Life itself -- on deeper and subtler levels.  
 
There, we may find that Reality asserts itself.
 
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 array of experiences, most of this occurs without our full presence of mind.  Generally, conditioned as we are in the modern capitalism of Western civilization, 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 attention to include a universe of experience that we generally aren't aware of.  Without Practice we are liable to "sleepwalk,"only half-awake, through our lives. 

Reverend Kubose, most definitely, was not sleepwalking as he dry mopped the floor of the Zendo.  I could feel his Presence. He was awake to the present moment, connected with something very special, doing what needed to be done to prepare for Sesshin.  

Saturday, May 6, 2023

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 May flowers here in Western Massachusetts. 

Thick gray clouds moved in.  The sun disappeared.  And, for days and days and days, the world became cloudy, chilly, and wet.  We got doused.  Drizzled upon. Misted. Drenched.  

The flowers loved it, and -- believe it or not -- 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 propelled by the unexplored grief of a traumatic childhood, I'd invariably cloud up on gray days.  When storm clouds gathered, I'd rain on my own parade. 

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

Whether it's an overcast sky, a soft foggy drizzle, a thunder-booming rip-snorting whizz banger -- or anything in-between --  if 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.

As I sit here with fingers dancing across the keyboard, I see the sun finally emerging to play hide and seek with the storm clouds. Through the open window, I hear the wind singing in the trees, a collection of birds twittering, the pulsating surf of 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 29, 2023

Kicking the Habit

"Compassion and resilience are not, as we might imagine, rarefied human qualities available only to the saintly.  Nor are they adventitious experiences that arise in us only in extraordinary circumstances.   In fact these essential and universally prized human qualities can be solidly cultivated by anyone willing to take the time to do it."
― Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong

“Because you are alive, everything is possible.”
Thich Nhat Hanh,  
Living Buddha, Living Christ

 

I think one of the most exciting discoveries to emerge from medical science is neuroplasticity.  

Even in cases where there has been fairly severe physical damage to the brain, research now indicates that new neural pathways can be created. With proper stimulation, undamaged neurons can even sprout new nerve endings.  Certain functions can even be transferred from a severely damaged hemisphere of the brain to the other!  Faculties and behaviors can be restored.  Healing can happen.
 
How cool is that!? 
 
Creatures of Habit 

Most schools of psychology agree that our basic personality is formed very early in our lives through the interplay of our genetics and the conditioning we receive in our interactions with the world around us.  As we mature, most people come to experience a "me," with a recognizable set of beliefs, attitudes, emotions and behaviors.  This "me"seems to be substantial and real -- and fixed into place.   
 
Modern science -- and, of course, the traditional teachings of Buddhism -- both challenge that widely shared perception.  Neuroplasticity  indicates that we can alter the elements of that personality.  We can transform the ways we view and act in the world in fundamental ways. 
 
As research techniques and imaging technology have advanced, modern science has been able to get a much better understanding of the brain and the vast network of nerves that are involved in creating our experience of life.  What we perceive, feel, and do relies on neural pathways, deeply conditioned sequences of synapses in our brains and elsewhere firing in predictable ways.  For the most part, this operates "out of sight" beneath the level of our awareness.
 
This certainly explains why many of us seem to go stumbling along entertaining deep yearnings to do certain things (or not do certain things) -- and we fail to change.   In my case, I want to be a kind, caring, compassionate person.  I've wanted to act constructively and productively in my life.  All too often over the years, I've ended up being a jerk -- and not getting the job done. 
 
Thankfully,  Western Science is now indicating what many of us have sensed to be true.  The phenomenon of neural plasticity indicates that change is possible.  It even happens at the cellular level!
 
Contrary to the old adage, you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Kicking the Habit
 
I'm grateful to have come of age at a time when the spiritual traditions of Asia brought various forms of meditation into my life.  Mindfulness Practice has been crucial in transforming how I experience and act in the world. With Practice, I have been able to bring awareness to what had previously operated subconsciously.  In doing so, over time, I have been able to "rewire" my responses. 
 
Research has shown that meditation can and does alter the way that our brains function.  Studies even indicate that, over time, there are positive organic changes in the brains of longtime meditators!  This affirms what the sages, seers, and saints of the world's spiritual traditions have been saying all along.  We human beings have access to more exalted ways of being.  We are capable of incredible courage, deep compassion, and insight.  We are capable of Love.  
 
With Practice, we can kick the habit of being who we have been --  in deep and fundamental ways.  We can become the persons that we yearn to be.  We can get it together.  
 
I know this to be true.
 
To wit: I had a violent temper.  I was raised in a household where angry outbursts occurred often.  Like my father and older brother, I could readily fly into a rage and lash out verbally-- or physically.  My younger brother and I fought often.  Even though I was inspired by the teachings of Dr Martin Luther King as a high school student, non-violence was only an aspiration. I struggled with anger into adulthood.   

Monday, April 17, 2023

Sad But True

This world-
absolutely pure
As is. 
Behind the fear,
Vulnerability. 
Behind that,
Sadness, 
then compassion
And behind that the vast sky.
 -- Rick Fields
 
  “This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we’re arrogant and soften us when we’re unkind.  It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. ”
-- Pema Chodron


Sometimes, insight and healing emerge slowly during the course of Practice.   Like spring gently unfolding across the palette of April, our world slowly greens and blooms.  What was dark, harsh and frigid, slowly brightens, softens and warms.  At a certain point we notice:  It's different now than before.

At other times, insight and healing emerge like a bolt of lightning!

Zap! 


Sometimes coming with a torrential downpour of tears, sometimes not, a Grand Gestalt comes together in a heartbeat. In a flash, in an instant,  we really Get It!  Or perhaps, more accurately -- It Gets Us! 

We can't help but notice.  It's different now than before.

I love comparing notes with others on such awakenings.
 
I was fortunate enough to be at Himalayan Views, a nearby spiritual gift shop/bookstore a few years ago, to hear about a woman's experience of one of those moments.  
 
Suffering from what had been diagnosed as "clinical depression" since adolescence, she had struggled through a series of medications for nearly twenty years before coming across a passage on "the genuine heart of sadness" in a book by Pema Chodron.

Zap!

As she read that passage an awakening had come in a flash.  In a burst of tears -- she knew.  At that instant, she discovered a whole new way to view her experience.  Rather than accept that she had a "broken brain" and needed medication to correct a chemical imbalance, she knew that she could trust her heart.  In that moment, she saw clearly that her deep sadness about the human condition wasn't a sickness, it was an essential Connection to Bodhichitta, the soft and tender core of our Spiritual Heart.  

Like many of us, this woman had felt the power of this deep connection to the Mysterious Reality of Life/Death as a child, but nobody in her life knew what it was.  Her parents didn't understand. Neither did her teachers.  In a society steeped in scientific materialism and a pharmaceutical industry run amuck, she was diagnosed and "treated."  
 
As she read the teaching from Pema Chodron that day, she understood.  Her sadness wasn't a personal flaw.  It wasn't an illness.   That day, she knew that in her Heart of Hearts that she had touched what the Buddha had touched.  Suffering was inherent in the fabric of human life.
 
Now, she just needed to learn how to work with it.  

With the assistance of a supportive counselor and a regular meditation practice, she successfully decreased, and then discontinued, her use of antidepressant medications.  At the point she was sharing her story, had been successfully, sometimes quite joyfully, navigating her life for several years -- drug free.

Please understand: My point here is not that medications are always the wrong approach.  (As a child of the sixties, how could I ever claim that drugs are always a bad thing?)  Drugs simply are what they are.  
 
Over the years, I have had dear friends whose quality of life has been improved through the use of prescription drugs to address their psychological and physical health. Yet, I also have friends who, like the woman I met that day, found that their quality of life improved only when they stopped relying on medications.  There is no "one size, fits all" mode of healing.

Instead, what I am pointing to here, is that there is a great value in exploring what our society conditions us to avoid.  When approached skillfully, the emotional energies of honest grief can be the gateway to a deeper Connection to our True Nature. 
(READ MORE)

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Know What?

“Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all.”  
― Pema Chödrön
 
"I vow to live a life of Not-knowing, 
giving up fixed ideas about myself and the universe."
-- The First Tenet of the Zen Peacemakers
 
Over the years, the assumption that I absolutely understand what is going on, and know exactly what to do about it, has tripped me up -- a lot.  The presumption that I know all the salient variables and know exactly what someone else should to do about it, has wrecked havoc.
 
In this vast interconnected web of energy floating through an infinite sea of space and possibility, the thought that I really know what is going on is just a presumption.  Grasped tightly and clung to, it can be patently presumptuous

The Summer of '62
 
My first boss, Charlie Winchester, foreman of the maintenance department at a small factory in a small town north of Chicago, had a decidedly less delicate way of making the point.  The memory brings a smile and warm glow to my heart.

In those days, I was able to get a relatively good paying union job for the summer at the factory where my dad worked.  It was time.  I had to start saving money for the college education that would, perhaps, propel me up a notch in social status, if not in income.  I wanted to be a public school teacher.

Charlie was a kind and able mentor.  His spirit pervaded the maintenance crew.  During the seven summers I worked there, I was well supported by a small team of guys willing to show "the kid" the ropes.  I learned a lot about how things work -- on many levels.

One particular lesson emerged when Charlie came around the corner to find me standing in front of a piece of production machinery.  I'd been trusted to replace the belt that connected it's electric motor to the drill assembly.  It should have been a simple repair. 
 
It wasn't.

Belching smoke, the entire machine was lurching erratically and making threatening noises.  As soon as I saw him, I began to explain what I had done and why.  Interrupting me mid-sentence, he immediately shut the machine down. (Duh!) 
 
Then, with the ever-present cigar stub clenched in his smile,  Charlie took a pencil and a small spiral bound notepad from the plastic pencil holder that always rode in his front shirt pocket.  He opened the pad to a blank page, and in large, capital letters, he wrote the word "ASSUME."

"You know what happens when you assume?" he asked.
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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

When You Wish Upon a Star

"What you are looking for is already in you…You already are everything you are seeking."
-- Thich Nhat Hanh
 
 
"The real meditation practice is how we live our lives from moment to moment." 
-- Jon Kabat-Zinn


Sometimes, it seems like a previous lifetime.  
 
Almost twenty years ago, I sat on the front porch of a rustic A-frame perched on a ridge overlooking the campus of Zen Mountain Monastery. It was nearing midnight.  Inside, my housemates, also in Zen Training at ZMM, were asleep.  
 
We''d all been up in time to walk down to the first meditation at 4:30 am that morning.   
 
Then, after a long full day, I'd walked up the ridge in the dark, alone.  As if a high pressure deadline day of producing a set of CD's during "work practice" wasn't enough, I had been assigned the service position of Evening Jikido.  I was in charge of ringing, banging, and clacking a collection of wooden blocks, bells, drums, and gongs to announce the evening service, time the meditation periods, lead the walking meditation, and close the service.  Then, as others headed back to their quarters, I had to straighten up the coffee service counter, clean out the coffeemakers, and set them up for morning coffee.  It was well after the obligatory "lights out" at 9:30 pm by the time I climbed back up the ridge.  Exhausted, I crawled into bed as soon as I arrived.  
 
I couldn't sleep. 

After about an hour, I  slowly and silently made my way outside into the crisp, clear,  mountain air.  There I Just Sat Still, breathing, and gazing into the deep blue-black infinity of a  star-filled Catskill Mountain sky.  
 
At that point, I knew ZMM wasn't working for me.  
 
Yikes.
 
Moving Right Along
  
Over the course of the past six months, it had become increasingly clear that the rigid, hard-driving, and unabashedly authoritarian nature of the Roshi's Eight Gates of Zen Residential Training didn't ring true to me.  For sure, I was grateful to have experienced some openings at ZMM and made some new friends.  Yet, to be honest, the community culture at Zen Mountain Monastery wasn't all that different than the outside world. It seemed like the same old story. Business as usual in a capitalist society.
 
At Zen Mountain Monastery there was a "big boss. " He ruled the roost and ran the show. His word was the law. He, his protege, and a few senior monk/supervisors told us what to do, when and how to do it.  Being a spiritual training program, they told us what to believe in, to boot.  (I was incredulous when one of the senior monks --who has since become a "transmitted" teacher -- snarled at me that Thich Nhat Hanh wasn't teaching Real Zen!  WTF?) 
 
The senior monk/supervisors, and the worker-bees put in long, often quite strenuous, days on a strictly timed schedule keeping the retreat center and grounds, publications operation, and the mail-order businesses going -- as well as attending the mandatory daily meditation periods and zen services. 
 
It was stressful. 
 
As well as our "work practice" assignments, we each were required to rotate through ritual service positions which could require intricate and demanding physical moves performed in public.  Supervisors and meditation hall monitors barked out orders and corrections, even during silent meditation practice.  We were "on," with very little down time between required activities, through days that began at 4:30 am and ended with lights out 9:30 pm.  
 
It was exhausting.   
 
Meanwhile, the Roshi, had his own space and seemed to come and go as he pleased.  He rarely was around at early morning meditations, communal mealtimes, or evening services.  He showed up in the Zendo to give talks on Sunday, to meet privately with students in Dokusan a few times a week, to preside over special ceremonies, and to hold court during the monthly sesshin.  Of course, as the Top Dog, he also met with his managers and the board when he thought it was necessary.  There was no doubt that this guy was in charge.  At one point during my residency, he unilaterally changed the entire organizational structure to conform more closely to what he had just come to believe was the structure of Dogen's medieval monastic community. 
 
The rest of the time (if he wasn't traveling to teach/recruit elsewhere, including New Zealand,) he appeared to hang out doing what he wanted to do in his modest, but spacious, home. It's large yard fronted on the Esopus, a beautiful mountain river.  As well being the Roshi, he was a pioneer digital photographer.  (The first iteration of ZMM was the Zen Arts Center that he founded on that site.)  
 
The couple of times I was sent down to do his yard work as "work practice," I saw that he had two state of the art Mac computers running .  As I picked up winter downfall and raked leaves, he spent hours and hours at the computer screens doing what he was doing.  He had articles, books, and interviews in publication.  His art was on the newly emerging world wide web. 
 
Right across the road, the rest of us were living communally in cramped quarters, spending hours in the zendo each day, and working away under the close, and sometimes verbally abusive supervision of the senior monk/department managers.  I was on a scholarship, but -- believe it or not -- folks were paying for the privilege of being in residence.
 
Looking back, I guess this was not a big surprise.  
 
We live in a capitalist society that prides itself as "democratic," yet operates in hierarchical,  authoritarian patterns.  There are inequalities of power and privilege in all areas of life. Our families, schools, churches, and workplaces are all set up that way.  But, unlike the usual workplace, where folks had the opportunity to bitch about things when the boss wasn't around,  those types of conversations didn't take place at the lunch table.  (Such behavior violated a number of the traditional Bodhisattva Training Precepts).  We also, couldn't look forward to punching out and going home -- although we did have a couple of days off schedule each week.
 
When I entered residency, I knew that this would be the deal.  I'd been involved in the community for over a year.  I already had spent a month in residence during the Fall Ango training period before entering residency in the Spring. Yet,  at the point that I entered -- at age 59 -- I thought that I might be able to suck it up and ride it through for a year's commitment. 

I was wrong. 
 
Toward the One
 
I had come of age in the late 60's and early 70's.Like many others, I was part of the widespread counter-cultural ferment of that era.  By the time I had graduated from college with the infamous Class of 1969, I had experienced altered states of consciousness (with the various medicines available).  I soon began an exploration of meditation and Eastern mysticism.  
 
I had a peak experience in 1972 that affirmed to me the existence of the One Love that is the ground of our being.  It was experienced with an outpouring of tears of joy and wonder at the Perfect Beauty embedded in the fabric of existence.  It only lasted for about twenty minutes or so. I wasn't on drugs at the time.  I was actually sitting at my desk writing up a lesson plan for the High School Civics class I was to teach the next day. 
 
It blew my mind.  It was beyond belief. 
 
By then, being the geek I am, I had poured through volumes of literature on the nature of mind and mysticism, including the scriptures of the world's religions and numerous commentaries . It had become clear to me that there was spiritual dimension of being that had been experienced by seers, sages, saints, avatars throughout the ages.  Intellectually, I had accepted that there was a direct experience of Divine Oneness at the heart of reality.  Now, I felt it in my bones.   
 
I now knew, in my heart of hearts, that we are not only all in this together -- we are all this, together!  

Unfortunately, even a trip to the Mountaintop wasn't enough to heal the deep wounds of a traumatic childhood.  Radicalized, I wasn't able to accept the American Dream as the path to happiness.  My marriage collapsed.  Addicted to romantic love,  there were more marriages and more kids. I  still experienced bouts of anxiety and depression. I suffered a number of serious "career" burnouts and returned to low status jobs as a matter of principle.
 
Yet through it all, I still continued to return to mediation.  I studied and practiced with a number of teachers, mostly in the Buddhist tradition.  I read extensively, corresponded and compared notes with kindred spirits.
 
So, when I was finally in a position to retire and become independently poor, I had followed the longstanding, and fundamentally disempowering convention that it was necessary for an "authority" to validate my own experience of the Sacred for it to be real.  I thought I still might be missing something essential

I wasn't. And, as best I can tell, neither are you!  

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Nothing Special. No Big Deal. (Part Two)

“One can appreciate & celebrate each moment — there’s nothing more sacred. There’s nothing more vast or absolute. In fact, there’s nothing more!”  
-- Pema Chodron

“Living Zen is nothing special: life as it is. Zen is life itself, nothing added.” 
-- Charlotte Joko Beck

There's a first time for everything.  

I suppose there is a last time for everything as well.  Each unique moment arises and passes away within the flow of eternity.  It occurs so quickly that we can't actually grasp it.

With any luck at all, though, we can notice it, And, it seems to me, being Present, without judgement or commentary, is where the Real Magic exists.

Of course, this is easier said than done -- especially when I'm sitting at the computer intent on scribing a blog post.   

Usually I complete a piece and let it go.  Last week, I came to a point where I realized there was much more to say about the notion that there is really Nothing Special, that each moment of experience is No Big Deal.  I judged the commentary as incomplete.  Although what I was trying to communicate was beyond words, I still wasn't done.
Such is the human condition.
 
Sigh.

Which brings me to the Present.  Sort of...

Looking back to that post, I see that I wasn't satisfied with having proclaimed that in my Heart of Hearts I believed that everyone and everything should be loved and appreciated.  I then immediately went on to say that this was no big deal.  Seemingly, I'd proclaimed that Unconditional Love was nothing special.  Another way of saying that is "God is No Big Deal!" That sounded a bit blasphemous, no?

And yet, as I Sit here this morning with the sun playing hide and seek with the clouds in a crisp blue sky,
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Monday, March 6, 2023

Nothing Special. No Big Deal. (Part One)

"Though my heart burns like a glowing hot coal, 
my eyes are as cold as dead ashes"
--  Soyen Shaku, Roshi

"If nothing is special, everything can be."
-- Charlotte "Joko" Beck, Nothing Special, Living Zen


Mother Nature's roller coaster ride continues.
 
 
In the past few weeks, she blasted us with sub-zero windchill, then turned on a dime to above average temperatures.  This past week, she's dumped two significant snow storms on us  -- then quickly began to wash them away with a mix of rain and sunshine.  It seems a bit more like April than the beginning of March.

Gazing at the melting snow outside the window, my mind can readily create a rant about the specter of global climate change. There certainly appears to be ample scientific evidence that we humanoids are stewing in our own juices.  We're melting glaciers and an ice pack that has been around for eons. Damn.

On the other hand, having seen lots of my friends suffer through some sort of nasty respiratory bugs (including COVID) again this winter, I can readily forget about the global condition and narrow my horizons. What about a freakin' personal climate change!? 
 
Why in the world don't I move my tail to warmer winters? 
 
But, wouldn't that be selfish?  Shouldn't I get off my tail and try to do more about the proposed change in the local zoning ordinance that may bring on more environmental degradation? What about all the kids willing to get arrested in an effort to bring about the needed change in public policy?

Buzz. Buzz. Yada yada yada.

Jeez Louise!

A Breath of Fresh Air
 
Ah!  A moment of Recognition emerges.  Then a grin.  Then, one slow, deep breath  -- and "poof!"  

Sitting a bit straighter at the computer, feeling the sensations of my breath and body, I come to my senses and gaze out the window.

It's beautiful out there!  The sun-splashed tapestry of color outside the window is dazzling.  A deep silence, occasionally augmented by the twitter of a sparrow, washes over me.  In its embrace, it's easy to let the troublesome story lines dissolve.

The weather?  Nothing special.  No big deal.  It simply is.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Keeping It Real

"Truth is by nature self-evident. As soon as you remove 
the cobwebs of ignorance that surround it, it shines clear...
All that I can, in true humility, present to you is that Truth is not to be found by anybody who has not got an abundant sense of humility."
-- Mahatma Gandhi

The truth is the truth, whether or not it is accepted by the majority.” 
-- Thich Nhat Hanh


Mahatma Gandhi 
Although I haven't seen him in awhile, and the entire course of our friendship emerges from a few dozen conversations, mostly at an upstairs table at Green Fields Market Co-op, I still consider Gary to have been one of my most valuable teachers.  
 
A few times during our first conversations, Gary had challenged me to clarify what had slipped out of my mouth -- often as a quip or facetious comment. (It seems I often default to my youthful personality as a Chicago street kid, a wannabe wise guy, the perennial, if not all that proficient, class clown).  
 
I learned.  
 
In Gary's presence,  I had to slow down and be more mindful of what propelled my words, what the words may mean, and how they may land.  I'd have to listen deeply to him, feel his energy, meet his eyes.  With an open sense of humility, he was sincerely trying to communicate, to listen carefully, to speak with care.  He did his part to make a true human connection, not just pass the time of day. 
                                                                                                          
What a blessing!
 
Whether we were talking Co-op Policies (he sat on the Board), world events, the in's and out's of daily life, or spirituality,  when I was sitting with Gary, I had the opportunity to engage in a sincere, shared exploration about the truth of the matter at hand.  In Gary's Presence, I had to be Present.  I imagine sitting with Gandhi would be something like that.

In one of our interactions, Gary thanked me for the fundraising effort I'd made a on behalf of two friends, codgers like myself, who were facing eviction as a result of ill health and their extended unemployment benefits being cut by the Republican-controlled US Congress.

When Gary first brought up the topic, my first reaction was a subtle feeling of fear in my solar plexus.  The week before, with my heart in my throat, I had bombarded each and every one on my email contact list, google+ circles and Facebook friends with that fundraising appeal not once, but twice. Even though I had feared that some folks may roll their eyes or maybe even get pissed at me for this blatant appeal -- I had done it anyway. Trying to help out a couple of folks in need felt that important to me.

When I told Gary about that fear, that I was set to apologize for bothering him, our eyes met and we Connected, heart to heart.   He smiled and said " It's okay man.  Thanks for keeping it real."
 
At that moment, there was communion in its true sense.