Distraction

December 24, 2016 § 1 Comment

christmas-presents

The more we practice, the more difficult it seems to stay in the present moment. Hardly a moment goes by that we are not drawn into some pleasant fantasy or actively engaged in some inner act of denial. When walking, our minds are elsewhere. When listening, we are formulating a response. It seems that all that’s needed for a new distraction to arise is a turn of the head or a blink of the eyes. Yet distracting thoughts have not increased. Practice has simply made us more aware of their presence.

Lest we become discouraged, remember that just before his great enlightenment the Buddha’s mind was filled with images of greatness, riches and beautiful women; followed by frightening images of armies threatening his life. These, we are told, were caused by the demon Mara. But if we strip away the mythology are they not just distractions? The same distractions you and I have everyday? If so, it seems that up to the moment of his enlightenment, the Buddha’s mind was not unlike our own.

The Buddha saw through his distractions. We, on the other hand, have yet to penetrate the fog of distraction that stands between the world and our awareness of it. When we sit in practice, however, this fog begins to reveal itself as our own judgments, fears, hopes and desires. It is these we drift into in our effort to stay in the present moment. It is our deepest fears and greatest longings into which we are pulled. “Desire,” said some adept, “is never-ending. The mind is always thinking.”

Through mindfulness practice we see this fog descending upon our awareness in daily life. Yet it is just because we are more aware of our distractions that we are better equipped to wake from them to the present moment or, that is, our actual surroundings. Admittedly, we are like the dreamer who only dreams he is awake but that, at least, is a start.

If we are diligent in our practice some small hints of what’s to come will appear. These will be brief glimpses of the unreality of thought. It will be easier to resist falling prey to fear and anger. Desire may take a bit longer as we find ourselves praying, as St. Augustine did, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Nevertheless, if we have reached the point where we see a difference between the awareness of now and the distracted state, we have created a foundation to deepen our practice. And, we have taken the first step on the long path to Buddhahood.

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Squaring the Circle of All-Encompassing Awareness.

November 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

evolution-of-thought-3a

There is a simple power that grows as we learn to just sit in the present moment. Each time we return to the moment from distracting thought and emotion this power grows. Each time we disengage from the constant chatter in our heads, it becomes stronger. At first we do not notice anything different. Yet behind the stories we endlessly tell in our heads there is a change going on. Deep within, adjustments are being made. These we need not attend to. In fact, we cannot attend because they are taking place in a realm beyond thought. All we need do to promote it is to just sit. This power is the power of awareness squared.

In mathematics, a square is the result of multiplying a number by itself. In life, awareness is squared when it becomes aware of itself. It is Life realizing Life! In meditation and mindfulness, awareness is squared when there is a continuous waking to the present moment from each distraction.

Waking is a good word as we are always aware but not always awake to this simple fact. At any given moment we experience many things. The breath, the pressures of clothe on the body or some distant sound. All lay within the awareness even though we are not attending to them. When we turn to these sensations we do not say we were unaware of them. We know we were. We were just not aware that we were aware.

In the practice of meditation and mindfulness we cultivate the awareness of being aware or, if you like, awareness squared. It starts with the simple act of focusing upon a single object or activity. As the mind settles on this activity it becomes aware of being aware of the item. This awareness squared is not long maintained, however, as the mind soon slips back into distracting thought and feeling. When the mind becomes aware of this distraction it brings its attention back to the meditation object or activity. Again and again this dropping from awareness squared to awareness and back again takes place, all with the aim of training the mind to remain mentally alert.

Over the course of weeks, months and perhaps years, practice unfolds as a matter of continuously returning to the present moment from each distraction. During this time many things are happening behind the scenes, not the least of which is the appearance that thoughts are becoming more and more numerous.

In spite of appearance, thoughts are not becoming more numerous. They are always arising in a manner that neither increases nor decreases their number. What in fact has happened is that the awareness of thought that has always existed has been squared. The mind has become aware of all the thought that has been going on all the time.

Just as certain sensations (as in the above example of clothes and sound) always exist in awareness, so the mind is constantly thinking. It takes an act of effort to be aware of this thinking and a continuous effort to maintain this awareness. Even with effort there is no initially awareness that these thoughts lack substance and exist only in the mind’s imagination. Only through constant practice does this awareness develop.

When the awareness squared has reached a certain level of maturity the mind will have a sudden insight and see that thoughts are just thoughts. They are not things that exist in the outer world but insubstantial dream illusion with no power to rule or dictate the terms of how you are to live and feel. For that brief instant the mind is free from the tyranny of thought.

If the ground has been properly laid there may arise a deeper awareness that the self, too, is just a thought or construct in the mind. The identification with thought will stop, if only for a moment, but there will remain a lasting Value regarding the true nature of self. The self is not thinkable. Identity lies outside the realm of thought where it sits watching the ever-flowing stream of thought.

This, by the way, is not the end of practice. It is just the first resting place along the Path.

The Nature of Thought

October 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

thinking

Meditation is the practice of keeping the mind awake in the present moment. It is awareness without mental commentary. “When we are mindful,” says the Buddhist nun, Tenzin Palmo, “there is no commentary.”

The mass of humanity is closely identified with the mental commentary that streams through their heads every minute of every day. While so identified, people believe that they are these thoughts, and that what they think must be right and true because it is who they are. Meditation aims to curtail this belief through a continuous process of waking up from this mental commentary. This is not an exercise in self-analysis but it may include an analysis of the nature of thinking to break its hypnotic allure.

Part of thought’s allure is that it seems real. This seemingness leaves us believing that what we think is something that actually exists outside of our heads. We become convinced that thought is something we must deal with. And the way to do that is through further thinking that only leads to more thought and more things to deal with.

One quality of thought is what I like to call ‘looping’. The idea is taken from the days when magnetic tape was used to record sound. When the ends of that tape were joined the tape would loop around, playing the same thing over and over again. A lot of thinking is like that. What we felt and thought yesterday is replayed today, and will be replayed tomorrow in an endless loop. (Something to consider when you think mindfulness is boring!)

Identification, the seeming reality of thought and its loopiness, affect us in many ways. Like a sound fading into the background when heard over and over, loop thoughts fade to lower levels of awareness. If we are not actively engaged in some outer activity we follow them down into a bubble of thought that dims our awareness of the present moment. There, we  make the same judgments, have the same desires and feel the same anxieties over and over. All the while believing we are engaged with the real world.

We can easily see others caught up in their bubbles, such as the person who believes his way is the only way. Or in the person who exhibits compulsive behavior or suffers Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is harder to see our own bubble but it’s there, acting to distort our perception of the world and self. When we start to practice meditation and mindfulness the true extent of this bubble starts to show.

To again quote Tenzin Palmo, “…the difference between being aware of the thought and just thinking is immense. It’s enormous…” When caught in our bubbles we are just thinking. When we practice waking up to each moment we are aware of the thought. We see that they are just recordings. We see that we are continually reacting to them as if they are real. And we begin to question whether we actually are what we think and feel; or someone and something more?

What is Practice?

July 31, 2016 § 3 Comments

Laughing Buddha

Practice is being in the present moment and returning to it from each distraction.

There is a tendency when reading this description to isolate the idea of the present moment and assume that success in practice is a continual state of undistracted awareness in the now, something we might call ‘enlightenment’. This, however, is not the case.

In psychology there is a process called habituation. It happens when repeated exposure to a stimulus results in the stimulus fading into the background making it, for all intent and purpose, unconscious. As practice is as much a psychological process as a spiritual one it is not immune to habituation. As a result it is not possible to hold the present moment in focus for a prolonged period without becoming distracted into drowsiness or thinking.

The reality of practice is that unbroken awareness of the present moment will always meet with distraction. This reality is the reality of life where something always comes up and nothing ever remains the same. Practice is the continuous “waking up” to this ever changing present that is nothing other than your everyday life.

Usually considered a temporal event, the present moment is actually known only in spatial terms. Hence, the typical instruction for practice is to focus upon some point in space, such as the breath, the posture or a wall. Or, as in mindfulness, upon whatever task is at hand. When thoughts and feelings arise to distract, the instruction is to let them go and return the focus to that point in space as it is in the present moment. Letting go and returning to the present are just different ways of saying “waking up”.

In the immediate experience of practice when the attention is turned to a chosen point in space, the awareness is brought into the present moment. When a thought arises that is followed by more thought, or the mind becomes drowsy and is pulled into imaginings, the awareness of the present moment becomes foggy.

This ‘fogginess’ can easily be experienced with a simple exercise. Take a moment to focus on some object about you. Then start thinking about something else. Note the immediate shift away from the outer object to the thought inside your head and how this shift acts like a veil to cover or fog your awareness of the object. When full attention is returned to the object the fog lifts, and you momentarily waken to the present moment.

Practice is not so much the continuous waking to the present moment as it is the attempt to waken to each moment. That is why it is called practice. In the course of practice we go from thinking to drowsiness to the present, back to thinking, back to the now, and so on and so forth. Continued daily practice over the course of years will bring greater clarity to the moment but as each moment is in a process of continuous creation, practice, too, must be continually renewed. Exercising this ability to wake up to the present moment and returning to it after each distraction is practice and why, perhaps, Zen master Dogen said, “Our practice is enlightenment itself.”

 

The Stories We Tell.

October 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

The stories we tell

You may have noticed that the thinking mind likes to solve problems while you’re trying to meditate. There’s a thump and the mind immediately goes out to identify it. A slight pain starts in the leg and you wonder how to move without disturbing your concentration. Then you question if you’re meditating properly. On and on the mind goes trying to solve problems, even at times when none exist. There is nothing unusual about this. The thinking mind is designed to solve problems. That’s its primary function and it will continue to do this throughout your life.

One of the minds favorite ways of problem solving is through the telling of a story. After an argument, for example, your mind will rewrite the scene, typically in ways that show you winning. This is not just ego. By reworking the story to your favor, the thinking mind attempts to dispel the bad feelings the argument created. Dreams perform a similar function when they seek to discharge feelings created by negative or traumatic events of the previous day. Journal writing and artistic expression are other ways of releasing pent up emotions but sometimes these negative feelings just don’t go away. When that happens, you may end up telling yourself the same story over and over again for some time.

Typically, the stories that are continually retold and tie up energy revolve around sensitive or important issues related to your identity. They are core stories that maintain your self-image by affirming your worth, justifying your fears, making you the hero or the victim, etc.

Retelling these stories keeps your image intact by stopping you from looking in some inner direction that will release the tied up energy. As such, they act as barriers to knowing and expressing your true nature. The same barriers that meditation and Zen koans are designed to resolve.

When meditation deepens, your core stories start to come to the fore. At first you may only notice them as persistent images and feelings that seem to encompass the full story in an instant. Prior to meditation you probably didn’t even notice them, as the image or feeling came and went so quickly. But meditation allows you to slow them down so you may see how they block you from expressing yourself.

These barriers are maintained by intense emotions, the arousal of which signals that you are in danger. Overcoming these emotions is one of the most difficult things you might ever have to do because the threat they signal feels very real and very imminent. Because of their intensity they should not be taken lightly. Approach them as you would any thing else that arises in your meditation. That is, by neither suppressing nor being overwhelmed by them.

In meditation you learn to stabilize your mind through fixed attention. As you learn to fix your attention on one object you can then turn this ability on the sensitive areas of your mind and the stories you’ve built around them. As you become comfortable with their intense emotions and uncertainty you can then investigate your stories to see if they are real or true. Then you may see what they are blocking you from feeling and expressing in the name of self-protection.

Dropping your core stories is necessary if you wish to know your true nature. But dropping them, you will find, is what you’ve been afraid of all along as your true nature, as seen from the perspective of the ordinary mind, is no nature at all. So letting go of your story is equivalent to stepping into nothingness that is often described as the great or mystical death.

The mystical death happens in the instant you let go of your story. But getting to that instant may take a lifetime because the desire to cling to your story is so strong. But ultimately that story is not you and will be released anyway at the time of physical death. But if you can release it before your body dies you will enter a free state that is infinitely richer than any story you tell yourself.

A Japanese Warrior was captured by his enemies

August 27, 2015 § 3 Comments

Warrior

“A Japanese warrior was captured by his enemies and thrown into prison. That night he was unable to sleep because he feared the next day would bring interrogation, torture and execution. Then he recalled the words of his Zen master, “Tomorrow is not real. It is an illusion. The only reality is now.”

Heeding these words, the warrior became peaceful and fell asleep.”

Of course, the warrior represents you, captured and imprisoned by your own thoughts. When you get up in the morning you wonder what the day will hold. When you go to bed at night you wonder what tomorrow will bring. At times you cannot sleep for worry, and you know that telling yourself that tomorrow isn’t real will not help.

Buddhists know that once worry appears that there is no use trying to suppress or deny it. Trying will only drain your strength, which even then will give you no rest. So they tell you that you do not have to struggle with tomorrow. You do not have to prevent anxious thoughts from arising or prevent thoughts of anger or jealousy once they have arisen. You do not have to prevent, stop or change any of these. You need only realize that they have no real existence.

Thoughts arise in dependent origination or dependent arising, as the Buddhist would say. That means what you are thinking is dependent upon a host of other things, all of which is dependent upon every other thing. As everything depends upon everything else, nothing has self-existence or exists of and by it self. The essence of all you see, hear, feel and think is emptiness. This means that none of your thoughts point to anything real. They are all appearance-emptiness.

To the ordinary mind emptiness is seen as nothingness. Seeing thoughts arise in this nothingness leads the mind to conclude that thoughts, and the objects they point to, must be real. Having reached this conclusion the mind moves to attach itself to what it desires. Toward what it does not like it moves with aversion and denial. All this is done in the context of avoiding falling into nothingness.

Seen in this context it is understandable why you would not want to abandon your thoughts. Doing so leaves you with nothing and that is equatable to death.

The Japanese warrior of our story found himself in just this predicament. All that he had was taken from him. He’d been separated from his colleagues, lost his freedom and had no means to defend himself. He had no armor, no sword or hope. He had, in other words, come face to face with nothingness.

It was then that he recalled his master’s words and, heeding them, the nothingness dissolved into luminous emptiness. And, as the story goes,”the warrior became peaceful and fell asleep.”

The Far Side of the Moon.

May 28, 2015 § 3 Comments

butterfly moon

In Genjokoan, Zen Master Dogen wrote:

“Conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion. All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.”

Although these words may sound daunting, Dogen is really just giving us some practical advice on meditation or practice-enlightenment.

When we first take up meditation we find that our attention easily wanders after thoughts and sensation. As we progress, we find ourselves looking for some experience called enlightenment. Later, we see that every meditation is accompanied by a thought that we call myself or “I”. All of these are part of what Dogen calls “conveying oneself toward all things” because in each we are moving outwardly to seek the self in thought and experience.

When we finally realize that the subject of practice is not found in things we begin to abandon the outward search. We do not follow our thoughts so much when they beckon. We do not heed our cognizing mind when it tells us the solution lays this way or that. Thought and experience do not end but instead of running after them we begin to just watch as they arise and fall. To paraphrase Dogen, all things come through the self yet no thing is mistaken for that Self which just watches.

In a recent post I likened this realization to sitting in a field looking up at a full moon knowing that, although you can’t see it, its far side is always there. Likewise, the Self is here, right now. It’s you! Yet in your very search for it you move away from it.

It may seem paradoxical but the value of practice lies in its ability to lead you to a place where you give up your search for enlightenment or Buddhahood. You just sit, expecting nothing, looking for nothing, not seeing self as anything. It is then that enlightenment unfolds of it’s own accord and the meaning is made clear of, “All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.”

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