"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

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 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.
Live and ...

Pema Chodron
Although meditation had been helpful over the years in bringing me more calm and clarity at times, I still struggled quite dramatically with navigating my way through life.

Over the years, I had stumbled up the slopes to the mountaintop to get a good glimpse of the Sacred Oneness a few times -- but navigating the marketplace of life in the mainstream capitalist maelstrom "successfully" was still beyond me.
I would come to see that there were had still been layers and layers of conditioning that remained unexplored.  These subconscious energies continued to propel me.  To be sure, I had some significant "successes" in life.  Yet, I always cycled back into burnouts and breakdowns.  The deep wounds of a traumatic childhood, probably augmented by a genetic propensity toward experiences of other dimensions of reality and extreme states, continued to propel me. 

 ... and Learn
In 2006, a friend handed me a copy of Pema Chodron's Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living.  When I read the first line in the Preface -- all in CAPS -- THIS BOOK IS ABOUT AWAKENING THE HEART, I got goosebumps!  
OMG!  AWAKENING THE HEART!?  Something deep within me stirred.
As I poured through her presentation of the Lojong Trainings of Tibetan Buddhism,  she mentioned the Noting Practice in her instructions on basic sitting practice.  This time it took.  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 the mental note, "thinking" as we became aware that we'd become lost in thoughts.
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, which also brought more attention to the emotional energies involved my experience of life,  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 I create the appearance of a solid reality out of thin air.  Lost in a vortex of both conditioned thoughts and feelings, the vast and flowing sacredness of life escapes me.  Instead, of being truly Present, I can be imprisoned in a world created out of a haphazard hodgepodge of my own 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 can invest in clinging to my opinions as the absolute truth. 
In fact, an over-identification with our opinions, known as "attachment to view" in traditional Buddhist teachings, is a common cause of human suffering.  In it's relatively benign form it can prevent us from actually seeing what is right in front of our nose. At it's extreme, it can create a harsh, judgmental, angry quality of consciousness that can and does, all too often, lead to disconnection -- and even violence.
Being a "political activist" for most of my life, I could see pretty clearly how much of my own ego can emerge as deep attachments to my political opinions.  Although I had been involved with the Peace Movement for decades, and my commitment to non-violent action was deep and strong, in one on one encounters, my underlying ego need to be "right," to win the argument, etc. could create a deep disconnect with others -- and with my own heart.   Rather than feel the pain of a painful situation, I would go on the attack to "fix it." Convincing another of MY opinion was, the way to that. 
Sitting there, I got the point.  The deep attachment to my own opinion was the source of a lot of suffering for everyone involved.  Now, could I actually approach things differently? Could I put it into Practice?
After I put the book down, the Universe dealt me the perfect hand to play. 

Within an half an hour, I ran into an old Zen DharmaBuddhy on the bus.  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.  I really paid close attention to what he was saying, what he was feeling, I could sense his deep caring, his sincerity, his keen intellect, and his concern for peace.  I could 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 would undoubtedly 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" 


Anonymous said...

Oh so true. In my career as a psych nurse I learned the incredible power of truly "listening". Took away my JCB,s (judgement, classification, & belief systems) & amazed me how when I truly "listened" their negativity & sadness evaporated.

Anonymous said...

AMEN anonymous ❣️❣️🙏

Lance Smith said...

Yes. Deep Listening, to others -- and our own hearts -- is a healing art. I'm grateful for the opportunity to Just Sit Still and let that happens each day. 🙏❤️