Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Meditation - Why?

     "These days there are increasing numbers of meditation apps available for busy people who are dealing with a wide range of problems from anxiety to poor sleep. These mindfulness-based, problem-focused meditations are helpful on a practical level, but they aren’t the kind of meditation that I will be describing. If you are interested in discovering your true nature, a different approach to meditation is needed."
     John J. Prendergast. “The Deep Heart – Our Portal to Presence.” Sounds True, 2019

     Those who register for an 8-week Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction course are generally there to improve some aspect of their life and realize that "meditation" is part of the deal. Much more variable however, is how they imagine, or have up till now experienced, meditation, and what specifically they hope to accomplish through meditation practice.

     Certainly relief from stress, anxiety, depression, anger, reactivity etc is an important initial step for many of us. But here's a surprise: there's no off-switch for these tendencies. As we heal & mature, their impact on our life becomes progressively less problematic, but doesn't completely disappear.

     So we start this journey with the wish to perhaps eliminate one specific problem eg stress, and for many, some stress reduction makes life "livable" again, and that's good enough, at least for a while. However, a gnawing sense of "lack" remains, only its intensity fluctuates. 

    Some of us are called to search deeper for a profoundly satisfying quality of life, an "intimacy with all things." We sense that through our meditation journey "a more intimate, honest, loving, and open-minded participation in the human experience can flower.” Adyashanti 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Between Stressful Striving and Sleeping

     Much of our day is spent rushing about, at times physically, but almost always mentally & emotionally. Relentless stressful self-talk continues while traveling to & from work, and sadly, even while trying to spend quality time with loved ones! No wonder we zone out or fall asleep during guided meditation - a break is long overdue. Sadly, most of us are so used to "the rat-race" that we completely forget who we really are.
     So we furiously keep tap-dancing in a futile effort to be recognized as "good enough," worthwhile members of society, and then zone out from exhaustion.  

      “Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
Thomas Merton

     Mercifully, there are some exceptions. Here are a few situations I can think of when we're thriving, fully alive!
     • being at a baby's birth - especially our own child;
     • being with a baby, young child, puppy or kitten who connects directly with our heart;
     • hugging someone we love when words aren't even considered;
     • being with a dying loved one;
     • awed speechless by the magnificence of nature;
     • doing anything (work, play, practice) with loving-care & commitment.
     What do all these activities associated with thriving share in common? I would say intimacy - an open-hearted, direct, sustained bond between ourself and someone or something we deeply care about. Perhaps these are all forms of nurturing, based on pure love (instead of fear, anxiety, neediness).

          “When we quit thinking about
          ourselves and our own self-preservation,
          we undergo a truly heroic transformation
          of consciousness.”  
                                     Joseph Campbell 
     Meditation practice is basically remembering to be intimate with our self, others, life itself. And we do this by learning to "let go of patterns in our mind and heart that violate love & violate openness.
     ... if we sit in meditative silence infused with love, the state of wonder, we intimately taste directly for ourselves for which no words can be found. That’s why we long for the experience to which our words are eluding to, and how to stabilize in it, and how to share it with people.”
      James Finley PhD

     “There is a light in the core of our being that calls us home – one that can only be seen with closed eyes. We can feel it as a radiance in the center of our chest. This light of loving awareness is always here, regardless of our conditioning. It does not matter how many dark paths we have traveled or how many wounds we have inflicted or sustained as we have unknowingly stumbled toward this inner radiance. It does not matter how long we have sleepwalked, seduced by our desires and fears. This call persists until it is answered, until we surrender to who we really are. When we do, we feel ourselves at home wherever we are. A hidden beauty reveals itself in our ordinary life. As the true nature of our Deep Heart is unveiled, we feel increasingly grateful for no reason – grateful to simply be.”
     John J. Prendergast. “The Deep Heart – Our Portal to Presence.” Sounds True, 2019 

Bonnie Baker

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Why Listen Deeply?

     The world's constant hustle & bustle and our never-ending self-talk (heavily influenced by "negativity bias") dominate our attention & lives. No wonder it's rare for anything new - especially the quiet voice of wisdomto enliven us.

          “Because the volume of the world is so loud,
          it’s drowning out the whisper from the heart.

          That whisper in your heart
          may not have wings,
          but it has the power to fly.”               Muhammad Iqbal


     We can, however, learn to intentionally shift our attention away from noise, and increasingly towards what we deeply value: the more subtle, nuanced, far more meaningful, interesting, PLEASANT aspects of life. This shift is like switching from the clanging of metal garbage cans to quiet classical music. It takes a while for the ringing in our ears to subside, & develop the skill to actively listen with our whole self to all that is quiet, gentle, meaningful.


          ‘How can we claim the years have taught us anything,
          if we’ve not learned to sit and listen
          to the secret that whispers in the brooks?’  
         Carl Jung

     "So if I look at a fire, for example, with ego-consciousness, I see a fire. But if I gaze into the flames, in that contemplative gazing at the flames, I sense in the flames the intimations of the holiness and the mystery manifesting itself as this flame. That’s why I think when we try to talk about it, we’re trying to grab it in words. But if we sit in meditative silence infused with love, the state of wonder, we intimately taste directly for ourselves for which no words can be found. That’s why we long for the experience to which our words are eluding to, and how to stabilize in it, and how to share it with people.”
       James Finley PhD


     “No relationship can thrive without the sense of spaciousness that comes with stillness. Meditate or spend silent time in nature together. When going for a walk or sitting in the car or at home, become comfortable with being in stillness together. Stillness cannot and need not be created. Just be receptive to the stillness that is already there, but is usually obscured by mental noise.” 

       Eckhart Tolle


     “We are on a voyage of discovery with no endpoint ... an endless exploration of how to be in the world for the benefit of ourselves and all beings.” Adyashanti


      I highly recommend Bill Morgan's 10-minute talk "Why Practice Meditation?" - near the bottom of the page, "August 16":

Alexandrya Eaton  "Pink Apple Blossoms"

Monday, August 10, 2020

Towards a Maturity that Surpasses Common Understanding

     Some of us are sufficiently motivated to work towards a state in which we are deeply happy, quite independent of the usual assumed prerequisites of happiness. This requires dedicated, wise meditation practice, patience & perseverance.

     The longish quote below is from Jim Finley PhD, an advanced, experienced, mature meditator in both Christian & Buddhist traditions. In this talk, he was addressing a Christian audience (hence some of the terminology), but his message resonates with universal, timeless wisdom - see:

     "One sign of spiritual maturity is that a person is in a stable habitual stance of non-violence. They are somebody who respects and even reverences the gift of being a human being. And therefore they do not intentionally do anything to violate that, compromise that, and betray that. They’re like a field with no stones in it. They’re not part of the problem. But they’re there as a non-violent presence in the world.

     Another characteristic is that the person is a nurturing person. They’re nurturing. Realizing how fragile life is, how delicate and mysterious it is, they’re always there, ‘How can I be present to this situation that will help the people feel nurtured, feel met to create an atmosphere of growth and security?’ And so they have this dual quality of being a nurturing person that respects, even reverences the gift of life. And they’re a non-violent person.

     Another characteristic, I think we can look for in ourself, is that the mature spiritual person has a heightened response to suffering. … They don’t live in some kind of ethereal realm above sensitivity to those around them. But a mark of a mature spiritual person is a heightened sensitivity to the preciousness of people, and in that preciousness, they have a heightened sensitivity to their suffering. 

     Another characteristic is that in being sensitive to suffering, they pay the price for that. You can’t have your valet carry your cross up the hill. You can’t be a genuinely caring person by proxy and go send someone on your behalf to be a kind person, while you stay home and grumble. You have to put yourself out there to let yourself be in the presence of the one who suffers. And when you’re in their presence, you feel something of the heat of their suffering. You see it in the look in their eyes, you see it in the world they live in, you see it in the situation they’re in – sometimes pretty overwhelming situations. And you feel that, you feel that. This is why we have to pace ourselves at our tolerance level for suffering. Because if we’re indifferent to it, nothing changes. But if we don’t humbly acknowledge our limits, we move in too close and we drown in it. So how do we pace ourself to be present to suffering – in our spouse, in our children, in our grandchildren, the people on the news? How do we stay open & grounded & present to the suffering of the world and keep a joyful, grounded, wakeful heart? How do we do that?

     And therefore, another characteristic is this. The mature spiritual person is a non-violent, nurturing person, who’s sensitive to suffering, responds and meets the suffering – ‘How can I be helpful?’ – but here’s the key: they live in an inner peace that’s not dependent on the outcome of the effort to help. For us in the ego, we’ve not yet come to mature spiritual awareness. It’s not like this for us, because our inner peace is dependent on the outcome of the effort. It kind of goes like this: ‘You want to talk about inner peace, I’ll tell you what, you tell me that my cancer diagnosis isn’t real, and it’ll go away - I’ll have inner peace. But don’t talk to me about inner peace. And I’m struggling with this.’ ‘You talk about inner peace. I’ll tell you about inner peace – my marriage is falling apart here. And the more I look at it, I don’t know if it’s going to make it. And I don’t even believe in divorce. And it’s crumbling.’ – or – ‘My son or daughter’s marriage is falling apart, or they’re with someone in a hurtful situation. You want inner peace? I’d like to restore things, and heal this situation, and deliver the people I care about because I’m afraid they’re going under here. If you can do that for me, I’ll be happy to talk about inner peace. But don’t talk to me about inner peace.’ ‘You know about inner peace? My home went into foreclosure. We have to move out. I don’t know what we’re going to do. You talk to me about inner peace? Get my home back.’ That’s how we talk. But the mature spiritual person, they feel that too, because they’re a human being. It doesn’t mean they’re not angry. It doesn’t mean that it’s not sad. It doesn’t mean any of that. But rather that their heart is established in the realm of the spirit that utterly transcends the circumstances of this world, even as it permeates through and through and through the intimate hurting edges of life in this world. The realm of the spirit is a realm that utterly transcends suffering. It’s a realm of oceanic abyss of eternal peace. ... This is the peace that’s utterly beyond time and space. But it’s not dualistically other, like we’re trying to look for it, look for it, look for it. This peace that utterly transcends the suffering of the world, mysteriously permeates the suffering of this world. It permeates your heart; it permeates my heart; it permeates the heart of everybody who lives. The mature spiritual person is established in that peace. 

     Elizabeth Kubler-Ross talks about the stages of dying, and the last stage of dying is acceptance. Not everyone comes to the stage of acceptance. They go through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, & acceptance. And Elizabeth Kubler-Ross says that when you’re in the presence of someone who’s come to the stage of acceptance, and you go to visit them on their death-bed, it’s uncanny to be with them, because although they’re still here, they’ve already crossed over, and they’re established in the realm of peace that is not threatened by what’s happening to them. This is freedom from the tyranny of death in the midst of death. And so the one who comes to the acceptance of death is the mature spiritual person. So it’s nice not to wait till the nursing home to do this. Why not try it now? ‘I only have a few hours left, I hope I make it in time.’ 

     Imagine you have a friend who says, 'Might you come with me and visit my wife who’s in hospice?' And you gladly go because you’ve known them for years. Your children and their children played together. You remember when she got the diagnosis; you followed them together through the course of the treatment; there were moments of hope when she was in remission thinking she’d get better, then finding out that it wasn’t. It’s just been an incredibly sad, sad situation. And so you say you’d gladly go. And you go into the room and she’s in the bed. And there’s a chair in the corner – you sit over in the chair. And he approaches the bed. She’s having a hard time talking. And he says to her, ‘You don’t need to say anything, we’ll just sit here.’ And he pulls up a chair and he just holds her hand. You’re watching this. It is so, so, sad. This is sad. And yet it’s not just sad. You can feel it filling the room – the deathless gift of love. We know we’ve learned to love someone when we glimpse in them that which is too beautiful to die, (Gabriel Marcel) and love never dies, because God is love, and God’s love is incarnate in their love for each other. It doesn’t take the sadness away, as a matter of fact the person may have to go through a very bumpy road for a while. But if they let it, what comes bubbling up through, it kind of mellows the heart. And how fragile life is. And when you’re watching them together this way, you almost want to get down and kneel on the floor like you’re on holy ground – like there’s something here that’s incredibly important – to all of us, all the time. And my life would be so much better if I had this awareness every moment of my life

     These people I live with every day, soon we will not be living with each other, very soon. We’ll all be gone. Life’s a temporary arrangement. Meister Ekhart says, ‘What is the joy that death does not have the power to destroy, and how might I discover it?’ This is the great question for all of us. How not to let the conditions of our mind & heart be determined by the conditions that we’re going through. What if the only happiness we know is the happiness we can have because of conditions conducive to happiness – my health is good, family is good, my loved ones? I think I’m pretty good here. But if I don’t have conditions conducive to happiness, I do not have happiness. But what is the happiness that’s not dependent on conditions conducive to happiness? Like a deathless love that utterly transcends all of this even as it so mysteriously permeates our body, permeates our heart, permeates our life, and how can I learn to find my way to that happiness? This is a deep thing. … How can I learn to find inner peace that’s not dependent on conditions conducive to peace? 

     ... And how can I find this? When I hear it spoken of, it speaks to my heart. I know this is true. But it’s hard to find it. Why is it hard to find it? Because the gravitational field of circumstances is very strong. We spin and spin, and we spin out towards the edge. And we get caught up in the momentum of the day’s demands. In the momentum of the day’s demands, we’re skimming over the surface of the depth of the life we’re living. And it’s hard to find the off-switch. Thomas Merton once said, ‘If you wait for the world to cooperate, for it to politely step aside so you can become contemplative, you’ll never do it.’ You have to make the decision. Someone once said, ‘To be a contemplative in today’s society, is like trying to make a U-turn on the freeway at rush hour.’ It goes against the stream. But if I don’t do it … I’m disappearing here. And wouldn’t it be great to wake up to what really, really, really, really matters in every single moment of my life – to sink the taproot of my life in that and live by it every day? I think that’s worth something. 

     Rollo May, the existential psychotherapist, has a lovely little essay called ‘The Pause.’ He said if you look at an Olympic high-diver, when they stand on the platform, just before they dive, they pause. And he said the dive is eloquent, because they dive out of the pause. He said if their ego would stand there – all these people are watching me, cameras are rolling – their ego would dive, and it wouldn’t do it. It’s eloquent when you’re grounded in the pause, because then the taproot of the diver’s heart is sunk in a certain blessedness, and they somehow flow with that. Rollo May says also, when people are speaking, when they’re really speaking from their heart, that there are a lot of little pauses where the speaker doesn’t know exactly what they’re going to say next. Notice when you’re having a really intimate conversation with each other, and it’s really happening, you’re right there, notice it’s unrehearsed, it is unrehearsed. Notice when someone’s hurting, and you say something that helps, and you don’t know how you knew how to say that. And so if we can pause, and relax into the graciousness of ourselves, God can flow through that, and little by little, by little that can become a habit. And this is prayer and meditation." 

     "The Peace that Surpasses Understanding" with Dr. James Finley 


Suezan Aikins "Sound of Wings" Japanese Woodblock

Friday, July 31, 2020

Towards Awakening ...

     Life can, at least at times, feel an awful lot like a bad dream. So some of us start meditation practice with the aim of waking up from our personal nightmare. The changes we undergo always surprise - in a good way!

    “Awakening is not going to magically solve all of our problems, but it can become a foundation from which a more intimate, honest, loving, and open-minded participation in the human experience can flower.” Adyashanti

    "Most beginners start with the idea that meditation is supposed to be peaceful. If they feel peaceful, they conclude that they are doing things right. Soon enough a disturbing thought or emotion erupts, and this is identified as a problem. We do not like disturbances. We start off with this dualistic preference. We want smooth ocean waters with no waves. When the waves come, we say we cannot meditate; or we assume that the presence of the waves means we are not meditating correctly. But the waves keep coming anyway, always. It is how we perceive them that changes. We can relate to these waves as threatening monsters and try to push them away. We can apply certain mental techniques to subdue them; or we can pretend not to notice them or try to deny their presence. But there is no liberation in trying to get rid of the waves; and actually, if you examine the mind that is trying to get rid of the waves, you will discover that it’s stuck on the problem. It is making a mountain out of a molehill. We can also tell ourselves intellectually, These waves are essentially empty. We can play with the ideas and concepts of emptiness and use intellectual logic to convince ourselves that the wave is not really a monster. But our hearts still feel the threat, and react to protect ourselves from it. This describes the first stage of working with the mind.

     In the next stage, we are introduced to resting the mind in the spacious, nonconceptual aspect of mind that transcends the limited self. The waves might still be terrifying, but we begin to glimpse the boundless expanse of water beneath the surface, and this gives us more confidence to let them be. We do not yet see them as just waves, but our perspective has become so much bigger than the waves. Our personal stories of fear and loss, of rejection and self-recrimination are there – but they do not pervade every bit of space in our heads. Our fixed minds have loosened up a little; and once we recognize that our own version of reality exists within a vast impersonal experience of reality, these same stories do not disturb us as much. We might begin to think, Oh there’s a wave forming on the surface of my mind. Or, There’s a monster in my head. Okay, no problem. We can acknowledge the problem without reacting to it. We see it, but we do not feel it as much as we did earlier. The understanding of emptiness is dropping from the intellectual head to the experiential, feeling heart. The ratio is shifting: The more we rest in recognition of the spacious empty mind, and the more we embody the wisdom of emptiness, the less impact the disturbances have. The wave is there, but now it is just a tiny movement in the vastness of the ocean. But at this point, we still get stuck on the surface with the waves, and lose touch with the ocean beneath.

     In the third stage, the wave no longer appears as a problem. It’s still a wave – big or small – but we don’t get stuck in it. We have become comfortable resting within the ocean itself.

     The ocean does not become calm and still. That is not the nature of the ocean. But now we have become so familiar with the full expanse of the ocean that even the biggest waves no longer bother us. This is how we can now experience our thoughts and emotions – even those we have spent our lives trying to be free of. Every movement of the mind, and every emotional reaction, is still just a small wave on the vast surface of the awakened mind.

     But this is not freedom from distress and anxiety. It is freedom that can be experienced with stress and anxiety. We are liberated from suffering by correctly perceiving reality; this means that we have the insight and experience to know that our minds are so much vaster than we generally think they are. We are not the size and shape of our worries. To recognize reality as-it-is makes recognition and liberation simultaneous.”
     Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, Helen Tworkov. “In Love with the World. A Monk’s Journey through the Bardos of Living and Dying.” Spiegel & Grau, 2019.

W. Jim Lee photograph

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

A Breath of Fresh Air

     Central to Zen meditation (zazen) is maintaining attention on the breath in the lower abdomen (hara). With patient, persistent practice, this cultivates both a stabilizing & energizing force - anchor, ballast & power plant - not just during meditation, but throughout life. This practice is central to all Chinese, Japanese, & other Eastern martial arts & is the basis of "core strength" in gymnastics, diving, dance, figure skating etc.
     A baby sleeping on her back will breathe slowly, regularly, the chest remaining still, the abdomen slowly rising & falling. This is normal, healthy abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing. When a deep breath is taken, first the abdomen rises (due to the diaphragm bowing towards the stomach, thus displacing the abdominal organs outwards), then near the end of the inhalation, the (intercostal) muscles between the ribs become activated, expanding the chest. On exhalation, the intercostal muscles relax, the chest returns to normal, then the diaphragm relaxes, allowing the abdomen to return to normal.
     This is very efficient breathing and is naturally slower than the way many today breathe - chest breathing - which is intentionally (self-consciously) holding the abdomen in, and breathing primarily in the upper chest.
     James Nestor wrote a very interesting short article (based on his book: "Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art"):  In it he writes about the benefits of abdominal breathing:
     "But lest we forget, nature is simple but subtle. For me, the perfect breath is this: inhale for about 5.5 seconds, then exhale for 5.5 seconds. That’s 5.5 breaths a minute for a total of about 5.5 litres of air. You can practice this perfect breathing for a few minutes, or a few hours. When we breathe like this, breathing practitioners suggest that circulation in the brain and body will increase while the burden on the heart decreases. All the while the diaphragm – that umbrella-shaped muscle in our chests – will drop lower and rise higher, allowing more air to enter the lungs and assisting in pushing blood throughout the body. For this reason, the diaphragm is sometimes referred to as 'the second heart', because it not only beats to its own rhythm but also affects the rate and strength of the heartbeat."

     A key component needs to be added - the quality of our relationships. A surprising number of us relate to our own breath much like the new owner of a car who has absolutely no interest in or affection for their car other than to use it to go places. Disconnection / dissociation from not only our own breath, but also from the rest of our body, from our own deepest values, from our family, friends & co-workers, from our community, from the environment, from nature, from the present moment, from our very life - is more common than we realize AND is profoundly alienating, lonely & unhealthy.
     A small but important step towards re-establishing a healthy, normal relationship with life is through our breath. A normal healthy relationship is modeled by our hands. How do our left & right hands naturally relate to each other? That's a deep question to silently ponder - and then bring to ALL of our relationships.
     We can all use a breath of fresh air in our lives.

Monday, July 27, 2020


Increasingly we restrict our life to the self-talk swirling in our own head. The more time we spend online, the more we're swept up in the global mind storm. It's as if humanity has unwittingly found itself immersed in one huge hot tub, filled not with healing salts, but neuroses. See:

“A mystic sees beyond the illusion of separateness into the intricate web of life in which all things are expressions of a single Whole. You can call this web ‘God, the Tao, the Great Spirit, the Infinite Mystery, Mother or Father,’ but it can be known only as love.” Joan Z. Borysenko 

A seeker once asked a Sufi Master to teach him “What is Heaven?"
The Master replied, “Heaven is Love in your heart.”
The student then asked: “And what is Hell?”
to which the Master responded,
“Hell is the absence of that.”         Sufi story as told to us by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

"Imagine love wants to see
your true face

Imagine that nothing matters
except love

Imagine love as you

Imagine love as everything
you’ve ever given attention to

Imagine love abides in difference

Imagine love as a force
that gives us meaning

Imagine love abhors a vacuum

Imagine love wants to know love

Imagine everything matters
because love is real

Imagine love is a power
uncontainable & inconceivable

Imagine love as language, as selfless action,
as water, as purslane, as voles, as dragonflies, as wind

Try to imagine a love
able to rise whole into thin air,
invisible to our eyes
holding our entire awareness
on the thin new blade
of a brightness soon to come

Imagine the imperfections of love
that love adores

Imagine love imagining
your radical truth &
trusting your courage
your vision
your journey
to recognize
your self
in vastness"                                Poem by Qayyum Johnson

“Inside the chaos, build a temple of love.”           Rune Lazuli