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

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Kind Awareness

    The more deeply we learn to live, the less we value & busy ourselves with material possessions, most experiences, achievements & social status (our own & others'); and the more we simply value & embody kind awareness - intimacy & unconditional love.
     The journey is often on "a long and winding road":

     “Painful self-doubt and self-criticism are epidemic in our culture, and can wield a power that is enormously destructive and paralysing. Although perhaps the seeds of such distortions of view are only completely eradicated through (deep meditative insight), in most cases it is vital to find various means to at least somewhat disempower their claims right at the beginning of the path. There are so many helpful possibilities and a great deal could be said in relation to these difficult inner constellations. Here though, we will just mention a few things very briefly.
     Perhaps the most important is to reiterate the wisdom of proceeding gradually (in our meditation practice)... By witnessing the freeing success of one’s efforts step by step, confidence develops naturally. Implicit in this statement, however, is that we each need to find what actually works for us in meditation. Very often a large part of what underlies the proliferation of self-doubt in relation to practice is that we have not yet discovered ways of working in meditation that we can really feel for ourselves are helpful. With experimentation we can find out; and once we do, self-doubt begins to melt as confidence slowly develops.
     We might emphasize too the importance of kindness in meditation in general. And in particular, the gradual transformative and inexorable healing power that comes through devotion to regular loving-kindness (metta) practice should not be underestimated. Here again, it is absolutely vital to find ways of cultivating metta that work for you. There is no ‘right’ way of doing that. Creativity, playfulness, and experimentation are indispensable.
     Often untapped, there is also an equally great power accessible in heartfully connecting with our own deepest aspirations. Self-criticism tends to squash these aspirations and obscure our connection with them. Conversely though, tuning into & sustaining a focus on the felt force of these aspirations within oneself – in ways that allow them to gather strength, and allow the being to open to that strength – can significantly undermine the dynamics of self-criticism.”
       Rob Burbea. “Seeing That Frees. Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising.” Hermes Amara Publications, 2014. - an excellent book for experienced meditators.

     I HIGHLY recommend Bill Morgan's wonderful 10-minute talk on being kinder to ourselves during meditation (followed by a 20-minute meditation), after clicking the link below, scroll to the bottom of the page & play the video immediately below "July 21":

Sunday, July 12, 2020

In the Newness of Each Moment ...

     A chronic sense of discontent haunts most of us. "I can't get no satisfaction" as the song goes. We assume that 'if only this' or 'if only that' THEN I'd be happy. If not happiness, then at least a temporary dulling of this insatiable hunger in our belly should be attainable 'if only' I work hard enough, long enough, smart enough, etc, etc. Being trapped in & being driven by discontent leads to endless negative consequences: workaholism, other addictions & compulsive behaviors, burnout, nihilism etc.
     Meditation practice can bring much-needed clarity to our lives.

     “At the base of the conditioned mind is a wanting. This wanting takes many forms. It wants to be secure. It wants to be happy. It wants to survive. It wants to be loved. It also has specific wants: objects of desire, friendships, food, this color or that color, this kind of surrounding or some other kind. There’s wanting not to have pain. There’s wanting to be enlightened. There’s wanting to be as we wish they were.
     Our daydreams are imaginings of getting what we want; nightmares of being blocked from what we want. The planning mind tries to assure satisfaction. Most thought is based on the satisfaction of desires. Therefore, much thought has at its root a dissatisfaction with what is. Wanting is seeking elsewhere. Completeness is being right here.
     When we see the depth of wanting in the mind, we see the depth of dissatisfaction because wanting can’t be satisfied: when we get finished with one desire there’s always another. As long as we’re trying to satisfy desire, we’re increasing wanting.
     Ironically, when we experience the depth of dissatisfaction in the wanting mind there follows a great joy. Because when we see that no object of mind can in itself satisfy, then nothing that arises can draw us out and we begin to let go because there is nothing worth holding onto. The more we see how the mind wants, the more we see how wanting obscures the present. To realize that there is nothing to hold onto that can offer lasting satisfaction shows us there is nowhere to go and nothing to have and nothing to be – and that’s freedom.
     When I first heard the Buddhist ideas about suffering, I strongly resented and resisted them. I thought it was a pessimistic trip. I thought, ‘Oh this is Buddhist stuff from the East, where half of the children die before they’re five years old. Of course they think the world’s full of suffering, people are starving all around them and lying dead in the streets. But we’re not suffering here! I’m not suffering, damn it!” But seeing the scope of my wanting showed me how deeply and subtly dissatisfaction created my personal world, and that seeing freed me from much grasping, from thinking that all my wants had to be satisfied, that I had to compulsively respond to everything that arose in my mind. I saw that things can be a certain way without needing to be acted on or judged or even pushed aside. They can simply be observed.
     When I saw how vast, how potent desire is in the mind, I became frightened. I thought there was no way out, not realizing that the power by which I had recognized this condition of suffering was itself the way out. Gradually, seeing the dissatisfactory nature of much of the content of mind was opening a path to freedom. When we see that what we’re grasping is on fire, we stop reaching for it. Slowly, the mind is reconditioned to see what it’s doing.
     And we discover there are many ways that desires cause this dissatisfaction. There are, for instance, things we want that may never come our way, or things we only get once in a while, or which don’t stay for long. There are also things we get, and, after we get them, we don’t want – which is really disconcerting. Sometimes I see this with my children. They will want something so badly that we’ll go from store to store until we find it. Then, we get it and an hour later they’re saying, ‘I wish I hadn’t gotten this … I wanted the blue one.’ That’s really the heartbreaker. And, that’s in all of us. We want and we want and we want … and nothing can permanently satisfy us because not only does the thing we want change, but our wants change too. Everything is changing all the time.
     Can we think of any pain in our life that was not caused by change? But when we deeply experience this flux we don’t recoil in fear of what might be coming but rather begin to open to how things are. We don’t get lost in fatalistic imaginings or ‘noting matters’ nihilism, but instead recognize that everything matters equally.
     When the wanting becomes the object of observation, we watch with a clear attention that isn’t colored by judgment or choice; it is simply bare attention with nothing added: an openness to receive things as they are. We see that wanting is an automatic, conditioned urge in the mind. And we watch without judging ourselves for wanting. We don’t impatiently want to be rid of wanting. We simply observe it.
     Only that bare attention, that non-wantingness that can just be in the moment, has the power to decondition our compulsive reaction to wanting. It disconnects the intense pull of conditioning toward satisfying its wants. Each moment of non-wanting is a moment of freedom. Mindfulness allows that non-wanting. When there is just clear attention, when there is just watching, there’s not wanting. If you’re watching desire, wanting doesn’t continue to seek the object of satisfaction, wanting itself becomes the object of attention and the momentum that leads to action is absorbed.
     When we come to see what is freeing and what is not, we come to appreciate what will create more grasping, more painful wanting, and what will take us to wisdom and set us free.
     As this practice matures, we come to trust ourselves more. Buddha spoke about these teachings as being ‘open-handed.’ The nature of these teachings is ‘come taste for yourself; it’s for all to see.’ Experience it for yourself. We practice not because we like the teacher or the appealing way the teachings are offered or the people who are practicing the teachings, or even because we admire someone who seems to be working with the method. When we taste if for ourselves, that taste of freedom convinces us.” 
       Stephen Levine. “A Gradual Awakening.” Anchor Books, 1989.

     “Letting go of our suffering is the hardest work we will ever do. It is also the most fruitful. To heal means to meet ourselves in a new way – in the newness of each moment where all is possible and nothing is limited to the old.” Stephen Levine

Rebecca Burke - Deer - oil on canvas 2019

Monday, July 6, 2020

Two Levels of Consciousness

     "Everyone is normal until you get to know them." Dave Sim

     "Bow to your own weakness, your own craziness, your own resistance. Congratulate yourself for them. Truly it is a marvel, the extent to which we are selfish, confused, lazy, resentful, and so on. We come by these things honestly. We have been well trained to manifest them at every turn. This is the prodigy of human life bursting forth at its seams, it is the effect of our upbringing, our society, which we appreciate even as we are trying to tame it and bring it gently round to the good. So we make offerings to the demons inside us and we develop a sense of humorous appreciation for our own stupidity. We are in good company! We can laugh at ourselves and everyone else.”
       Norman Fischer, Shambhala Sun, March 2013

     ALL of us have (at least) two levels of consciousness or 'kinds of psychological history':
     "One is the history of pain, discouragement, missed opportunities, unfulfilled hopes, and unrealized possibilities in relationships. Such a history of neurosis has a compelling quality that can freeze the therapeutic relationship into an endless dissection, searching for the origin of inhibited development. The implicit question becomes, ‘Where did things go wrong?’ Such a story is frequently filled with fear, guilt, blame, and aggression; it resembles the history of nations at war, where one war inexorably triggers another in the ageless recycling of insult and territorial revenge. The story line threads together a variety of memories with an explanation of why one event follows another and how one got to be the way one is.
     On the other hand, embedded within the history of neurosis is another kind of history – the history of SANITY. The history of sanity is episodic and often appears fleeting and subtle. This history of wakefulness, dignity, and patience is often lost by people in despair. To perceive the history of sanity, we need the curiosity and effort to look beyond immediate appearances
     When the psychotherapist relates directly to wakefulness and becomes curious about the history of sanity, a different kind of relationship can develop: one of mutual appreciation and trust, not based on dependency, hope, or even memory." 
       Edward Podvoll MD in John Welwood ed. “Awakening the Heart. East / West Approaches to Psychotherapy and the Healing Relationship.” Shambhala, 1983.

     In Zen meditation - zazen - we 'just sit.' We sit still, letting go of all the baggage - all our habitual physical / mental / emotional gymnastics. What remains is our original nature - 'our original face, before our mother & father were born.'
     These gymnastics can have a lot of momentum & can keep arising, but instead of habitually entertaining / maintaining / reinforcing these, in this form of meditation we only observe their arising, abiding & natural passing away (which all phenomena do) and we keep embodying our original nature
     With patient skillful practice, the intrusiveness of the gymnastics progressively, strikingly diminishes, and gradually & progressively we embody our original nature with growing consistency, regardless of internal / external conditions.

     "The term 'perennial philosophy' was coined by Agostino Steuco (1497-1548) and refers to a fourfold realization: 
          (1) there is only one Reality (call it, among other names, God, Mother, Tao, Allah, Dharmakaya, Brahman, or Great Spirit) that is the source and substance of all creation; 
          (2) that while each of us is a manifestation of this Reality, most of us identify with something much smaller, that is, our culturally conditioned individual ego; 
          (3) that this identification with the smaller self gives rise to needless anxiety, unnecessary suffering, and cross-cultural competition and violence; and 
          (4) that peace, compassion, and justice naturally replace anxiety, needless suffering, competition, and violence when we realize our true nature as a manifestation of this singular Reality. 
     The great sages and mystics of every civilization throughout human history have taught these truths in the language of their time and culture. It is the universality and timelessness of this wisdom that makes it the perfect focus for the spiritually independent seeker."
       Rami Shapiro. “Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent.” SkyLight Paths, 2013.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Religions, Languages & Wonder

     “Religions are like languages
• all languages are of human origin; 
each language reflects and shapes the civilization that speaks it; 
all languages make meaning out of the raw facts of our existence;
no language is true or false; 
there are things you can say in one language that you cannot say (or say as well) in another; 
the more languages you know, the more nuanced your understanding of life becomes; and 
as important as languages are, the final ‘language’ of wisdom is silence.” 
       Rami Shapiro. “Holy Rascals. Advice for Spiritual Revolutionaries.” Sounds True, 2017.

     About those conversations in my head:

          “When there is silence,
           one finds the anchor of the Universe
           within oneself.”                                         Lao Tzu

     “Perhaps as a child you sensed a world that touched a deep and mysterious wonder. You may have had an experience you felt certain no one would understand and so you never shared it, but it has stayed in your heart – some kind of knowing that seemed at once completely true and yet confusing to your mind. Perhaps there was a moment in a temple of trees when a shaft of light from the rising or setting sun struck the jewel of your heart. You may have been hiking on a mountain when you suddenly were stopped by joy, wonder, or a sense of awe. It was not just the view, the misty colors of the many ridges you could see in the distance. Your senses touched the Infinite, and you experienced beauty; something vast touched the vastness within you. Its radiance may have come as moonlight playing on the ocean’s waves. It may have shone through a piece of art, a poem, or a dream that touched what connects us.
     You may have had a glimpse while sitting in a church or a temple, when the silence and reverence of place seemed to invite you to the silence within your Self. Perhaps you felt it when a baby gazed into your eyes from the eyes of such innocence that all of your defenses melted in such sweetness. The jewel may have shone through the stories you have read, heard, or experienced from great spiritual masters in various traditions. What sparkles is not the stories or words; it is something deeper that touches your heart.
     The jewel seems to shine most brightly when we experience love – love for a person, a pet, a moment. … 
     It is the jewel that gives rise to our impulse to know it more deeply and to want it to be revealed more consciously. Bubbling from the hidden depths of our Being arises an impulse to know what seems to lie beyond our limited ideas of who we are. There arises a sense of mystery, an impulse to know God, Truth, Self, enlightenment, love, or peace. This is spiritual impulse. Infinite Truth or Spirit has placed a longing in our heart, in the heart of our awareness, to know itself, to awaken itself beyond egoic consciousness. This impulse transcends both ego and self. We could call this impulse ‘the seed of enlightenment,’ a seed that has been planted deep within and perhaps has lain fallow in the rich soil and silent ground of our Being.

     Spiritual practices are methods that can begin to soften our stance toward our self, toward life in general, and to open us to what transcends the habitual. They are invitations to become intimate with the wisdom of silence and stillness.” 
       Dorothy Hunt. “Ending the Search. From Spiritual Ambition to the Heart of Awareness.” Sounds True, 2018.

      Awareness born of love is the only force that can bring healing and renewal. Out of our love for another person, we become more willing to let our old identities wither and fall away, and enter a dark night of the soul, so that we may stand naked once more in the presence of the great mystery that lies at the core of our being. This is how love ripens us -- by warming us from within, inspiring us to break out of our shell, and lighting our way through the dark passage to new birth.” John Welwood

Don Pentz - West River, Keji - acrylic on canvas -