Monday, September 23, 2019

Sudden and Gradual Awakening

     Full or complete awakening or enlightenment, from a Buddhist perspective, is freedom from greed, hatred & delusion and therefore is a state of "unshakable" peace, equanimity & joy. Unshakable means independent of life's inevitable ups & downs ("8 worldly conditions"): gain & loss, disrepute & fame, blame & praise, and pleasure & pain; and of course also independent of: constant change, aging, sickness & death. To be able to experience peace, equanimity & joy through all of that is literally beyond imagination.
     So is awakening an all-or-nothing situation? Can we gradually work our way towards achieving this desirable state, and gradually reap more & more of its rewards OR must we take a direct path towards sudden awakening?
     Adyashanti recently gave an online course ("30-Day Wake up Challenge") focused on this topic. Below is a short excerpt from one of his talks in the course, discussing sudden & gradual awakening. Adyashanti / Sounds True will offer this (IMHO excellent) course again in the near future:

     "The debate about sudden vs gradual awakening has been going on within Buddhism for hundreds of years. Gradual development of course is a really important part of being a human being. Whether we have sudden awakening or not, if you think you’re going to get out of gradual human development, you’re fooling yourself. In awakening, you can transcend all of your suffering and false identity in the snap of a finger, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that some amount of it isn’t going to be waiting for you when you come back from your transcendent honeymoon. Usually a lot less is waiting for you, but there’s generally something there.
     When we’re really engaged in a progressive path, the positive part is that it can create a real stable container. A stable psyche is not to be underestimated. A good stable psyche is useful. A good functional ('quiet') ego is of profound benefit spiritually.
     And there will often come a time when you just start to feel like OK, I’ve been doing this gradual path but I really want to know the depth of my being. I really want to know that. Then you can really look towards the essential. That’s what this whole ‘30-Day Wake up Challenge’ is. … It’s going after a very particular aspect of spirituality that I think is extremely fundamental – the awakening aspect. That’s the reason I constructed it the way it was. It’s purposefully not dealing with the full spectrum of a human being because we can’t really do the full spectrum really well all at the same time.
     So generally we know what’s relevant to us because it’s what we feel deeply called to. That’s when we know. If I’m called to get my life together, get my ego strong, healthy and also more gradual spiritual development, then great. There’s great value to that. But all of a sudden it might hit you, ‘OK, there’s something I’m still not satisfied with. I’m feeling like there’s a deeper breakthrough that I’m looking for. That’s when you engage in something that’s a little more direct – direct meaning it really zeros in on your true nature. It just zeros right in just like a bull’s eye. That’s kind of what we’ve been doing during this ‘30-Day Wake up Challenge.’
     Most of the questions (posed by participants) deal with things that come up for people (doing direct path practices), so obviously the challenges of being a human being don’t just disappear when you go for a direct path. But the direct & gradual paths really go together more than people think they do. As human beings, we’re all going to be growing our entire lives, whether we awaken or not.
     Hopefully, and at any point in that growth, we can feel really called to get right to the point. Who is this that I call ‘myself,’ that is healing, that is expanding, that is growing, that’s doing all of that? What am I really talking about? What do I really mean when I say ‘me’? 
     When that kind of question hits you, you know it kind of grabs you. When it authentically hits you, you’re not doing it because you’ve fallen for the sales pitch for enlightenment: ‘What’s it going to get me?’ ‘I’ll get bliss’ or ‘it’s going to take care of all my problems.’ When it hits you in a really authentic way, it’s not because of even what you think it will do for you, it’s that something in you is innately wanting to wake up. And at that point, it’s not really relevant any more how that’s even going to feel. When your time’s right, you just have to know. And when you do, that tells you, ‘OK, focus in that direction for a while.'" 
         Adyashanti. "30-Day Wake up Challenge." Q&A session, Sounds True, August-September, 2019.

     IF you're deeply interested in awakening, via the gradual or direct path, (IMHO) a very useful, deep, well-written book is: 
       Guy Armstrong. “Emptiness. A Practical Guide for Meditators.” Wisdom Publications, 2017.
Illustration by Pascal Lemaître in "Listen" by Holly M. McGhee, Roaring Brook Press 2019

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Feeling Our Way Back Home

     Under stress, we automatically rush to our head, quickly trying to figure out how to get rid of danger & find safety, security, comfort. Increasingly however, we're feeling stressed almost continuously. Not surprisingly, for most of us, our heads have become home - an unhappy home.
     Can you feel when your center of gravity is in your head? It's all thinking / self-talk / self-concern isn't it? Can you sense a heaviness between the ears, even a continuous mild headache, often with tightness in the jaw / neck / shoulder areas? While "in your head," you're disengaged from the here & now - "absent-minded", "spaced-out." Such inattentiveness creates the false impression of being uncaring, that you're ignoring & disrespecting people around you, and contributes to accidents - adding to our stress.
     So under stress, we habitually escape into our head, often making the situation worse. We easily recognize the feel of this in our head as well as in the rest of our body - trembling, increased heart rate, butterflies in our bellies etc. We feel tight, alone, isolated, disconnected, anxious & afraid. Such unbalanced thinking is clearly useless, harmful, and feels wrong. 
     Balanced thinking - intentionally planning a project, preparing a menu, designing a garden, solving a math problem etc - is being fully engaged, in a relaxed, sustained manner, with what we're doing, being & feeling at home both in our body and in the present moment.
     Full engagement means that our mind, heart & the rest of our body are working in harmony, in a relaxed, joyfully efficient manner! This feels good! "Flow" is one term used to describe the enjoyable state in which an activity is performed fully immersed in energized focus & full involvement. We feel spacious, intimately connected & engaged with life.
     When we care for a beloved young child, puppy or kitten, we joyfully hold them in love & safety. This is the easiest way of remembering the feel of fully engaging all of our intelligences: mind (reason); heart (emotions & connection to others & environment); and body (physical power & groundedness or connection to the earth / reality). It's a fascinating combination of nurturing, interconnectedness, power & groundedness - like a mother grizzly with her cub. Other examples of this felt sense: hugging a loved one or looking into their eyes (person or animal); doing work (or hobby) that we consider to be our calling; when we see, hear, or read about anything that deeply resonates or touches us.
     We ALL know this felt sense of intimacy with the present! We know & remember this! It's a matter of remembering to return home to our whole self and learn to trust that it's safe & infinitely more pleasant to live our authenticity.
     Mindfulness training very gently, very slowly, eases us back into trusting that it's safe to leave our disembodied stressed-out thought-world, and return to be grounded, at home in our balanced mind-heart-body.
     1) Learn to recognize the unpleasant feel of being in your head: stressful repetitive thoughts, often with the feel of stress in the rest of the body.
     2) Relax, allow, feel awareness descend from your head, down into the heart area. In the heart region, with infinitely patient practice, you will (sooner or later) feel warmth radiating in all directions, outside & within your body. No forcing, no impatience - patiently, gently, feel, sense your way along. This radiating warmth is the physical / energetic feel of your interconnectedness with others, the environment, life itself. This viscerally felt sense of connectedness is profoundly restorative & healthy (vs sad & unhealthy sense of isolation, "me against the world", loneliness).
     3) The warmth extends downward to include your belly, within which your "hara" resides. The hara is the energy center in the middle of the abdomen, 2 inches below the navel, deep along the body's vertical axis. This is your body's power center, from where meditators, martial artists, opera singers & weight-lifters cultivate & generate power, the point around which gymnasts & figure skaters twirl, etc. 
     Even if your abdominal area feels unsafe, the hara is in a protected place, deep within the vertical core of your body. Far from being vulnerable, it is your own power center, never harmed, always reliable. The hara connects & grounds or anchors us to our body, present-moment reality, sanity, stability, the earth.
     4) Keep noticing whenever you get lost in your head, and allow yourself repeatedly to sense your way back down to hang out in the heart & hara centers. See how it feels to perceive life from this balanced mind-heart-body perspective
     If this works better & feels healthier, saner & more joyous, then keep patiently, gently practicing - it just gets better & better, despite challenges along the way.

     "All profitable correction comes from a calm, peaceful mind.”  
                                                                                                                         St. Francis de Sales 

(Hurricane Dorian was barreling towards us as I wrote this blog. The eye of the storm was expected to, & did hit our small city a few hours later. It was raining, windy, and ~80,000 homes had already lost power. We were without power, landline, cable & internet for over 24hrs, many trees were downed, along with power lines. Many remained without power for up to a week.)

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Depth of Being

     A frequently-used metaphor for human nature is that of the ocean, with its obvious surface - from crashing waves to brilliant calm; and the hidden depths - dark, mysterious, silent, deep & still. 
     The surface easily grabs & can completely dominate our attention - and when it does, we are the stormy, salty, soggy "me, myself & I."
     Ultimately, we sense that there has to be more to life than splash, noise & self-concern. Indeed, if we relax, settle into stillness, and listen deeply with all our senses, we naturally sense, return home to, spacious, peaceful, silent wholeness.

     We are BOTH of these!

     When we're sweating in a storm, can we remember to embody our depth of stillness? 
     And when we encounter someone battling a storm, can we remember the fragile, soggy aspect of our own nature?

     "Everything is perfect, but there is always room for improvement." Shunryu Suzuki

     “Some years ago in London the Dalai Lama explained that '... there are two kinds of mindfulness: contrived and natural.' While we can 'practice' contrived mindfulness through effort and intention, 'natural mindfulness' is engaged simply by remaining 'naturally and gently in the essence of awareness itself.' He explained that as soon as the mind is disturbed by ordinary notions and reifications, we become lost in identifying with the contents of the contrived mind. Yet underlying this ever-changing creative display of mental activity is our true nature, or home, of natural mindfulness, an elusive though accessible quality of effortless, abiding, natural awareness (rigpa) that is the ever present dimension of awake awareness within each of us in every moment of our lives. The Dalai Lama acknowledges that this experience of natural mindfulness, or rigpa, 'is beyond words, thoughts, and expression and is difficult to communicate.'” 
        Joel & Michelle Levey 

     "When all the layers of false identity have been stripped off, there is no longer any version of that old self. What is left behind is pure consciousness (rigpa). That is our original being. That is our true identity. Our true nature is indestructible. No matter whether we are sick or healthy, poor or wealthy, it always remains divine and perfect as it is. When we realize our true nature, our life is transformed in a way we could not have imagined before. We realize the very meaning of our life and it puts an end to all searching right there." Anam Thubten

       “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?” Thomas Merton