Monday, August 12, 2019

The Road Less Traveled

     As a species, we're deeply conditioned to stick to all that is safe & well-known. We have a powerful, genetic 'negativity bias.' 

     "All of life is but keeping away the thoughts of death." Samuel Johnson

     However, at a certain point in our life, some of us are drawn to, and are ready to take 'the road less traveled' - toward becoming intimate with the meaning of our own life, of life in general.

     “Yaksha:               What is the greatest wonder in the world?
      Yudhishthira:     Every day men see others called to their death, yet those who remain live as if they were immortal.” The Mahabharata

     “Just understand that birth-and-death is itself nirvana. There is nothing such as birth and death to be avoided; there is nothing such as nirvana to be sought. Only when you realize this are you free from birth and death.” Dogen

       David R. Loy. “Lack & Transcendence. The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism.” Wisdom Publications, 2018.

     “The word mysteries has long had religious connotations. In both ancient and modern cultures, there have always been priests and priestesses, nuns, monks, and shamans seeking to learn from the mysteries and thereby shift their relationship to themselves and others, to life and to death. This book is intended for those today who are drawn to these subtle realms. Emptiness is the theme, as it is a core teaching closely connected to the other mysteries. For the truth of emptiness to reveal itself fully in our hearts and minds will require inquiry and reflection, as well as a deep intuition born from meditation, which is simply another name we give to close observation. In truth the keys that unlock the mysteries of science also unlock the mysteries of spirit.”

       Guy Armstrong. “Emptiness. A Practical Guide for Meditators.” Wisdom Publications, 2017.

Morning Meditation

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Meditation, Thoughts & Emotions

     After years of serious meditation practice, many of us expect to reach a stable state of equanimity, if not pure bliss. When this doesn't happen, we wonder if we've messed up somehow.
     Thoughts, emotions & body sensations will always continue to change (anicca), and will continue, at times, to be unpleasant (dukkha). However, self-inquiry & meditative experience tells us that these things are not who / what we are (anatta). 
     It takes a LOT of wise, continuous practice - on AND off the cushion - to let go of being so thoroughly identified with our thoughts (self-referential internal narrative), emotions & body, and start to hold ourselves much more lightly.
     A few Buddhist perspectives on this common dilemma:

     “The meditator’s path is not about trying to become perfect. It is a path that leads to inner freedom. I have found meditators to be some of the most idealistic people in the world. It makes sense that we would be; after all, we are aiming for the highest happiness. But when idealism is self-centered – as in ‘I’ have to be perfect – it is debilitating and exhausting, certainly for ourselves but also for those around us upon whom we are projecting our need for perfection. As the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki reminds us, practice is making one mistake after another. 

     … Aiming for perfection can be seductive and compelling. Given that the society in which we live supports the idea that perfection is attainable, it can feel like our own personal fault if we are not.” 
       Narayan Helen Liebenson. “The Magnanimous Heart. Compassion and Love, Loss and Grief, Joy and Liberation.” Wisdom Publications, 2018.

     When practitioners complain about suffering, Zen teachers would ask them: "WHO is suffering?" The intention is to nudge the practitioner toward the direct experience of not being able to find any trace of a solid, fixed, unchanging "I". 
     If we ask ourselves this question, we immediately leave the victim role, and assume an observer role, which is MUCH more spacious, free & clear.

     “The fundamental change, the turning of the page from illusion to clarity and understanding in my process of nondual awakening, occurred after many, many hours of self-inquiry and yoga while working with ‘I am not this body’ and ‘Am I this body?’ …” 
       Gary Weber. “Evolving Beyond Thought. Updating Your Brain’s Software.” CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017.

     For a deeper insight into this essential topic: 
• Guy Armstrong. “Emptiness. A Practical Guide for Meditators.” Wisdom Publications, 2017. 
• Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. “Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree. The Buddha’s Teachings on Voidness.” Wisdom Publications, 1994.

Morning meditation

Thursday, August 8, 2019


     Many, perhaps most people are detail- or specifics-oriented. Their comfort zone is in dealing with widely-agreed-upon factual details, specific, familiar places & situations, immediate, tangible, material concerns. They're not comfortable engaging with general principles, broad concepts, & 30,000ft overviews. Particularly foreign, disorienting, even threatening are spirituality, mysticism, wisdom, etc.
     This is in sharp contrast to a small group of folks with a rare (<1%, "Advocate") personality type, whose real passion is getting to the very heart of issues, ideally to help prevent serious problems. These folks may have a facility for & interest in focusing less on individual trees, and more on the basic principles of forestry, in order to prevent catastrophic forest fires.

     Each of us is pretty well stuck with one personality type. Nevertheless, it's becoming terrifyingly obvious to most that human behavior is rapidly destroying the earth. Arguably, this is because most modern humans are ignoring spirituality:
     “our modern worldly values (desire for fame, money, etc.) acquire their compulsiveness from a misdirected spiritual drive.” 
        David R. Loy. “Lack & Transcendence. The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism.” Wisdom Publications, 2018. 

     So an innate aversion to spirituality does not eliminate our spiritual drive, but may actually ramp it up in a distorted manner. That's why so many of us are addictively "looking for [depth of meaning, community & fulfillment] in all the wrong places": electronic devices, alcohol, food, shopping, drugs, gambling, work, porn, etc, etc).

     But what exactly is spirituality?

     "Spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience — something that touches us all. People may describe a spiritual experience as sacred or transcendent or simply a deep sense of aliveness and interconnectedness.
     Some may find that their spiritual life is intricately linked to their association with a church, temple, mosque, or synagogue. Others may pray or find comfort in a personal relationship with God or a higher power. Still others seek meaning through their connections to nature or art. Like your sense of purpose, your personal definition of spirituality may change throughout your life, adapting to your own experiences and relationships."

     "Spirituality addresses qualities of the human spirit that include love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, a sense of responsibility, which brings happiness to self and others. It as well includes a basic concern for the well-being of others. And it has an emphasis on contemplative practices cultivating ethics, stability, and prosocial mental qualities." Dalai Lama 

     “Politics and spirituality are the two sides of the same coin. Politics is the driving force visible to the outside; spirituality is the internal force driving the consciousness to open up to the world and conjoin it. Politics bared of spiritual awareness always leads to violence and the abuse of power. Spirituality without political engagement resembles an escape from the world.” Gundula Schatz

     "Spirituality is about getting out of the conceptual realm of spiritual fantasy and theology. It’s a deep exploration of the direct experience of being. It’s not an attempt to escape the direct experience of being, which is often what’s happening." Adyashanti

     “Religion is for people who're afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who've already been there.” Vine Deloria Jr.

     In the following, "soul" IMHO is used very much like "spirituality":
     “I don’t use soul in a religious sense but rather the way psychologists Carl Jung and James Hillman and the Romantic poets like Keats, Wordsworth, and Blake use it: to speak of the experience of depth in our lives. Soul invites the marginal, the excluded, and the unwelcome pieces of ourselves into our attention. Soul is often found at the edges, both in the culture and in our lives. Soul takes us down into the places of our shared humanity, such as sorrow and longing, suffering and death. Soul requires that we be authentic, revealing what lies behind the image we try to show the world, including our flaws and peculiarities. Soul doesn’t care at all about perfection or getting it right. It cares about participation. Soul is revealed in dreams and images, in our most intimate conversations, and in our desire to live a life of meaning and purpose.” Francis Weller 
Morning breaks on Eagle Lake

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Three Wonderful Books

     Short quotes from 3 exceptionally useful books:

     “When nothing is needed from the object* to fill up my lack, it can be just what it is … no longer frustrating because there is no longer anything lacking in me that I need to project as something lacking in my world.” 
        David R. Loy. “Lack & Transcendence. The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism." Wisdom Publications, 2018.

     Loy's book is a detailed, slightly scholarly examination of our universal gnawing sense of "lack" - not being enough in some irritatingly impossible-to-resolve way: not good enough, not smart enough, not rich enough, not attractive enough, not happy enough, not secure enough, etc, etc. BUT Loy explains what, from a Buddhist perspective, we can effectively do about this.
     *"Object" can refer to people, animals, things, activities etc. we crave for, try to possess, try to hang onto, etc. in a futile (materialistic) attempt to resolve this sense of lack.

     A series of simple exercises presented in the next book, by Weber, show us how:
“a) thoughts are about the past and future,
b) thoughts are unpredictable and beyond your control,
c) most thoughts contain the I,
d) trying to not think is difficult,
e) thoughts are continuous,
f) you can’t predict your thoughts,
g) you have thousands of random thoughts,
h) your thoughts come from and go to emptiness,
i) your 'I' is a changing cast of ad-hoc characters.
     These insights are critical to having the mind see its nature and, amazingly, and fortunately, begin to unravel itself from its craziness.”

       Gary Weber. “Happiness Beyond Thought. A Practical Guide to Awakening.” iUniverse Inc, 2007.

     Weber's book is super-concise, straight-to-the-point. It's especially useful if you've already done a fair bit of reading about awakening, yet remain identified with your thoughts ("self-talk"). There are useful, beneficial types of thinking: such as for problem-solving, planning (vs catastrophizing), etc. The type Weber advises we learn to release is by far the most common form: self-referential internal narrative (SRIN) - obsessive, excessive self-concern - all about "me" "myself" & "I".

      “To recognize an emotion as an emotion is itself a wise response. This awareness of the truth of things, that an emotion is a mental state, offers a little bit of light. This light allows us to view the emotion wisely instead of through the eyes of delusion and ignorance. Awareness offers a pause. When we observe and accept, ‘Ah, anxiety is like this,’ for instance, we can experience an intimacy with the raw actuality of the experience instead of papering it over with thought.
     Because all conditioned things are impermanent, painful emotions are subject to change. We practice sustaining the awareness that an emotion is happening here and now. There is the object – the painful emotion – and there is the knowing of the object. Because the pain is happening here and now, it is workable here and now. The story of self begins to ease and dissolve: how I was in the past, what happened when I previously experienced this, why it is this way now, given it is this way now it will be this way into the future … all of this is just the arising of thoughts that are inherently empty and occurring here and now.” 
        Narayan Helen Liebenson. “The Magnanimous Heart. Compassion and Love, Loss and Grief, Joy and Liberation.” Wisdom Publications, 2018.

     Liebenson's book is warm, gentle AND wise. Emotional reactivity reminds us when our behavior is not quite as psychosociospiritually-evolved as we would like it to be. Maturation is a life-long journey - one step at a time ...

Fogo Island, Newfoundland

Friday, July 5, 2019

Why Cling to Bubbles in a Stream?

     It's very common, especially in our youth, not to acknowledge our limited & uncertain lifespan, and instead pretend we all live forever. Then, as acquaintances, friends & loved ones become ill & die, each one is a shock - as if death were a huge, tragic mistake, a grossly unnatural surprise. But the Buddha advised:

Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.          Buddha, Diamond Sutra

     The Buddha also advised regularly reciting and contemplating "The Five Recollections":

I am of the nature to age.
Aging is unavoidable.

I am of the nature to get ill.

Illness is unavoidable.

I am of the nature to die.

Death is unavoidable.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot avoid the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.

     "Contemplating these recollections encourages us to awaken from denial and avoidance. The recollections offer a pathway of nonattachment and equanimity and a deeper, more sustained appreciation of this moment, now. A lightness of being emerges when we face what is undeniably so. If we take these recollections up as a practice, we are deliberately calling these realities forth instead of simply being at their mercy, overwhelmed by the thoughts and emotions they activate. 
     ... it is not a fault to get sick and to age. We are not separate from nature.
     All sentient beings, without exception, are subject to these natural laws. This body is not ultimately in our control. This body belongs to nature. Even this mind isn't in our control. We cannot choose what arises. This mind belongs to nature. What happens when a deeper understanding of how little control we really do have leads to a diminishing or dropping out of the sense of self? Old age, sickness, and death are not dukkha {stressful / unsatisfactory / suffering} if they are not clung to as I or me or mine. When we see clearly that illness and death are not I, me, or mine, the dukkha that they ordinarily cause may lessen a great deal or even cease altogether."

       Narayan Helen Liebenson. “The Magnanimous Heart. Compassion and Love, Loss and Grief, Joy and Liberation.” Wisdom Publications, 2018.

Jetty - photo by P. Michael Lovas

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Ready to Start Meditating?

     Would YOU benefit NOW from starting a meditation practice eg by taking an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course? 

     "Timing" ("readiness for change") really is everything! In broad terms, if you're happy & feel that life will remain rosy, you probably don't want anything to change. If, however, you're somewhat unhappy & sense that genuine happiness is obtainable, you may be motivated to actively change your life. 
     An important timing issue to consider is recent major trauma: death of a loved one, or the recent end of an important relationship. It's best to give yourself adequate time to heal from such trauma before taking on the challenge of learning to meditate. 
     “Any experience that is stressful enough to leave us feeling helpless, frightened, overwhelmed, or profoundly unsafe is considered a trauma.” Pat Ogden To benefit from meditation, one has to be able to feel safe, relax, & play just past one's comfort zone, in their zone of learning. I use the word 'play' because the quality of effort required for meditation is much like looking after a beloved 3-year old child. It's kind, playful awareness, flexibility & curiosity (instead of struggling to drag a heavy suitcase up flights of stairs). 
     So, is this the right time for you to start meditating? Maybe the following can help you decide:

     1) For some, life is rolling along nicely and feel that if they just keep doing their part, life will continue to be satisfactory. While life is not always perfect, short of winning a lottery, they really can't see how life could be much better than it is now. 
     These folks tend not to be motivated to start, nor complete, an 8-week MBSR program. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"
     2) For some, life is tolerable - "ordinary unhappiness" - but they're certain, even dogmatic, that nothing can be done to substantially improve things.
     These folks are rarely interested in meditation.

     3) Some do not settle for "ordinary unhappiness" and are certain, even dogmatic, that they are markedly improving their lives by engaging in a specific path, practice, discipline, philosophy etc.
     These folks might be open to meditation IF they realize that their current seemingly successful path is not interfered with AND IF they believe that meditation can supplement or boost the depth & effectiveness of their current path, practice, discipline, philosophy etc.

     4) Some do not settle for "ordinary unhappiness" and seek a path towards genuine peace & profound happiness. They're ready to gradually let go of fearful (egocentric) self-concern, and shift to (allocentric, ecocentric) openness & loving curiosity about all aspects of life, including death. Such a shift clearly requires maturity in the form of self-compassion, self-acceptance, & acceptance of all manner of life's difficulties, complexities & apparent paradoxes.
     Folks like this are uncommon, BUT tend to be deeply interested in meditation practices.

     When the time is right, most people benefit from meditation.

     I've received VERY diverse, wise email responses to this post, which I will share by early July - stay tuned! 
     If you haven't already, please consider adding your unique perspective.

Kentville Ravine Trail

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Clear Perception

     Can I appreciate the "one taste" of reality?:

     Perhaps the ultimate level of psychosocialspiritual evolution, awakening or enlightenment can be defined as "intimacy with all things."

     "enlightenment ... only occurs as we reach a particular degree of sensitivity or openness to life." 
       Judith Blackstone. “The Enlightenment Process. A Guide to Embodied Spiritual Awakening.” Paragon House, 2008.

     "The Great Way is not difficult
       for those who have no preferences..."     Sengstan

      “When preferences for a particular experience fade, the myriad things come forward to play, shimmering with suchness. Obviously, flowers and trees do this, but so do beer cans and microwaves. They’re all waiting for our embrace. It is enormously empowering to inhabit a world so vibrant with singularity.” 
       Darlene Cohen, Buddhadharma: The practioner’s quarterly, Spring 2007

     "The mind creates the abyss
       and the heart crosses it."                         Nisargadatta

     “The apparently objective world is unconsciously structured by the ways we seek to secure ourselves within it. … precisely this attempt to ground ourselves in the world is what separates us from it.” 
        David R. Loy. “Lack & Transcendence. The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism.” Wisdom Publications, 2018.

     "When we give our hearts to whatever we do, to whatever we experience, or to what is happening around us, without personal agendas or preferences taking over ... the space of awareness, is exactly the same."
       Amaro Bikkhu "Small boat, great mountain." 2003