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

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

Saturday, 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,
Behind that,
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!


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.


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. 

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.