"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

Wednesday, May 24, 2023


"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 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

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, I had gravitated toward Zen Buddhism.  I had read extensive before practicing regularly at a local Zen center, and attending a a few Sesshins.   I'd developed a regular daily practice, and I'd had some fairly compelling experiences both on and off the zafu.

To be honest,  the instruction to make a mental note -- "thinking" --  whenever I noticed that thoughts were dominating my attention seemed quite clunky and intrusive.  I hadn't yet come across that in Zen teachings I had heard or read.  Being a self-styled "Zennie," with no real formal training.  I just shrugged it off.  After all wasn't Zazen just zazen?  Who needs such"techniques!?" 
I spent the remainder of the ten day retreat at Insight Meditation Society practicing Shikantaza, the Soto Zen practice of Just Sitting.  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.
Live and Learn

Pema Chodron
Although meditation had been helpful over the years in bringing a bit more calm and clarity into my life at times, I still struggled quite dramatically in my life.

I had stumbled up the slopes to the mountaintop to get a good glimpse of the Sacred Oneness a number of times -- with and without psychedelics -- but navigating the marketplace of life in the mainstream capitalist maelstrom "successfully" was beyond me.
There were still layers and layers of conditioning that remained unexplored.  The wounds of a traumatic childhood, probably augmented by a genetic propensity toward extreme states, continued to propelled me "crash and burn" a number of times.  
 It was another ten years before I was re-introduced to a teaching about noting practice, this time in Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron.  
This time, I was hooked.  What made the difference for me (besides, perhaps,  another decade of Practice) was Pema's guidance to pay close attention to the tone of voice that was used while making this mental note.  
The tone of voice of a thought!!?? 
In the very next Sitting, I saw clearly that my mind's "tone of voice" was harsh and judgemental.  Following Pema's guidance, I was able to re-calibrate, take a deep breath, relax, and get in touch with my heart.   There, I was able to find a bit more compassion for myself and make a softer, kinder,  mental note.  What had been "THINKING (!!$#@!!)" became a soft, gentle, "thinking".  
It made a difference.

At that point in my journey, this simple instruction was the gateway to an ever-unfolding ability to experience and release the energies of fear, frustration, and anger that resided in the substrata of my own ego conditioning.  Along with metta and tonglen practice, this approach to noting practice became a valuable tool in cultivating a kinder, calmer, less judgmental quality of consciousness toward myself -- and others.    

As Practice has deepened over the years, I've become more mindful of both thoughts and feelings.  I've seen for myself clearly, again and again, how we create the appearance of a solid reality out of thin air.  Lost in our thoughts and feelings, as we often are, the vast and flowing sacredness of life escapes us.  Instead, of being truly Present, we are imprisoned in a world created out of a haphazard hodgepodge of our mental concepts, acquired beliefs, and emotional reactions. 

It doesn't have to be that way.

Now, both on and off the meditation cushion, the mental note "thinking" (or labeling the nature of thoughts and feelings more specifically, i.e planning, complaining, aching, worrying, etc.) can open the way to a moment of greater clarity and ease.  At times, I have literally made the passage from a self-created hell realm to the magical realm of the sacred at the instant that I noticed, and noted, that I was "thinking," and opened my gaze to embrace what else was happening.  
A Day's Lesson: The Theory and Practice

As I read Pema's suggestion that we consider that most, if not all,  of our thinking is merely opinion that morning, something else opened up for me.  Of course, I understood this point on an intellectual level.  Yet, later that day I was able to see quite clearly how much emotional energy I could invest in clinging to my opinions as the Truth.
I saw how these opinions could stand between me and a connection to the moment, to myself, to others, and to the One Love in which we are immersed.    
In fact, an over-identification with these opinions, known as "attachment to view" in traditional Buddhist teachings, is seen as a common cause of human suffering.  Being a "political activist" for most of my life, I could see pretty clearly how much of my own ego emerges as deep attachments to my political opinions.  The ego need to be "right," to win the argument, etc. had long been an aspect of my conditioning.  If I could be more aware of my attachment to view

I was soon able to put that theory into Practice.

As it turned out, I ran into an old Zen DharmaBuddhy on the bus later that morning.  As generally happens we found ourselves in an engaging conversation.  We decided to head to the coffee shop to continue the discussion.  As the conversation turned to the Presidential elections looming on the horizon, all hell could have broken loose. 

But it didn't.

Having just read Pema's presentation, I was primed to see my opinions as opinions. It was easy to see how clinging to them as some sort of absolute truth would have created something quite different than the what emerged.  

Again and again, I was able to let go of my own strong, well-rehearsed positions, take a breath, and let go into the moment.  I listened deeply before responding.  Paying attention to what he was saying, what he was feeling, I could sense my friend's deep caring, his sincerity, his keen intellect, and his concern for peace.  I could even see the logic of several of his arguments.  

As it turned out, we actually ended up finding significant areas of agreement -- although the votes we intended to cast will probably cancel one another out.  

(IMHO, In the great Cosmic Poker Game, Hearts will always trump Trump.  LOL)

That morning, rather than adding more aggression to the world, which would have been the inevitable result of my own clinging to my personal opinions, the Practice allowed us to share a sense of basic good will, one which Connected us within and beyond our areas of disagreement.  

In doing that, I believe we channeled a bit more respect and understanding into this old suffering world.  I think its part of the solution to the plight we find ourselves in.  I love it when it happens.  

It just takes Practice.

*Internet jargon for "In My Humble Opinion" 

No comments: