July 17, 2019 § Leave a comment
The last post introduced the image of a baby bird learning how to fly by watching its parents. The image symbolizes a watching that naturally turns to flight without the intermediary of thought. As such, it is a symbol of shikantaza, or ‘just sitting’ meditation.
When practicing shikantaza you don’t focus on anything in particular or try to make thoughts go away. You simply watch whatever arises in the present moment come and go, allowing everything to be just the way it is. Sights, sounds, smells are left to rise and fall away on their own accord. Thoughts are watched with no attempt to follow or suppress them. You take the pose of a baby bird who diligently watches its parents knowing that in doing so your true nature will spontaneously manifest.
The key to practicing shikantaza lays in allowing everything to be just the way it is. Watching is not a looking for something. It is an alert looking at things as they are without any mental commentary of good or not-good. Your aim is to abide with whatever unfolds without interference or resistance.
In the koan, “Everyday Life is the Path,” this watching is described as neither belonging to the perception world, nor the nonperception world. As neither cognition, nor noncognition. It is the practice of placing yourself “in the same freedom as sky.” It is non-thinking.
On the simplest level non-thinking is awareness of awareness.
Right now, where you are, you’re aware of most things around you, but it is only when you direct your attention to one of these that you become aware of being aware of it. For instance, when you turn your attention to your breath it doesn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere. You know you’ve been aware of your breathing before you turned to it. Keeping your attention on a thing is awareness of awareness-with-an-object. Taking a mental step back from the object by shifting your attention to the awareness itself is awareness of awareness-without-an-object. It is the baby bird watching its parents.
Though it may seem contradictory, awareness-without-an-object still contains objects of thought and the senses. In fact, it is because you are aware of objects that awareness-without-an-object is conceived as possible. And it is through watching that you begin to recognize the space in which these objects arise. This space is awareness- or consciousness-without-an-object.
Through continuous watching, thought falls away in what Zen Master Dogen called “dropping off body and mind.” What’s left is awareness-without-an-object or what the Buddhist calls emptiness. This dropping off happens naturally so there is no need to try and manufacture it. In fact, trying to make it happen only inhibits it’s natural arising, as in doing so your focus has returned to the objects of awareness and not the awareness, itself.
It naturally follows that when you practice letting everything just be as it is, that you include yourself in the equation. As much as possible you refrain from labeling yourself as good or not-good. You cease trying to fix yourself. Instead of trying to improve or change, you just watch yourself as you are. Everyday life is the best place to practice this because everyday life will always bring you back to where you’re stuck.
Life will always show you where you’ve boxed yourself in. Where you’re resisting. Where you turn away and close your heart. All things done out of a deep-seated fear of the vast and uncontrollable nature of life that leaves you feeling small and helpless, like a baby bird. But a baby bird does not think of success or failure. It does not see itself flying or falling out of the sky. It just watches its parents and in doing so its own innate ability to fly manifests itself. If you just watch your thoughts come and go in the present moment, practicing awareness of awareness, then your true nature will spontaneously appear, too.
I am reminded of a hike my brother and I took up Windy Joe in Manning Park. We had just come to a 180 degree turn when I spotted some baby quails sitting motionlessly beneath a bush. I called out to my brother but even though we were just a few feet away he could not see them. Again, and again I pointed directly at them until, suddenly, whatever was blocking him fell away and he saw the quails.
Enlightenment is like that. We sit with attention on the breath, a koan or in shikantaza. Watching. Letting things be just as they are. Then one day, a day in which we’ve done nothing different from all the days before, we see what has been before us all along. And we soar.
March 30, 2019 § 1 Comment
In the last post I spoke of an experience I had many years ago in which my heart opened and all the boundaries that separated me from the surrounding space dissolved. I had a general idea of what was going on at that time but recently a clearer explanation came to me.
The experience began with a seemingly innocuous statement from a security guard that no photographs were allowed in the area where I stood. Upon hearing this all the boundaries that my ego had worked so hard to establish over the years fell away. I was left feeling completely vulnerable and my nervous system a raw nerve without any protection or covering whatsoever.
I see now that some part of me felt as if the fundamental mistake that I believed myself to be had been revealed for all to see. It was this mistake, this original sin, if you like, that my ego had been working so hard to cover up all my life.
The belief that my own nature was a fundamental mistake began that first time I was hurt so long ago. Looking for an explanation to the cause of the hurt led me to the belief that I was somehow fundamentally wrong. There must be something wrong with me, I thought, or I wouldn’t have been treated so.
Now I don’t remember who had hurt me, nor does it matter. What matters is that being hurt is a universal event for all people. And from it the early beginnings of the human ego take shape as the developing mind seeks to hide its vulnerable spot beneath layers of defenses meant to protect it from further hurt. This is done by selectively denying the hurt-self, as I call it, while developing qualities that will compensate for its perceived weakness. Qualities that are essentially the opposite of these weaknesses.
Some of this ego development is simply a part of one’s normal development where perceived weakness is turned to strength. A child, for example, may find his social skills lacking and begin to study his popular friends to learn how to be more social. However, if this lack was the source of an early hurt, he may eventually find himself to be a very popular fellow but still believe that he is fundamentally a fraud. He may go through life with a deep fear that others may discover this pretense and that some catastrophic rejection will occur when they do.
The relationship between the ego and the hurt-self is akin to a house and the foundation on which it is built. On a firm foundation a house will be able to withstand a lot of stressors but where the foundation is weak the house may easily crumble. Similarly, an ego built upon trauma will easily fall when the stress is great, or even when there appears to be little or no outer stress. One should not conclude, however, that where there is no trauma an ego will stand firm. Each of us have our own particular soft, vulnerable spot and when that is exposed the ego can crumble quite easily.
The ego will do everything it can to keep awareness away from the vulnerable spot because that is the one place it cannot survive. There it begins to fall away and that feels like death to the ego. As it begins to dissolve the sense of separation from the outside world drops away. It is possible at these times to feel a sense of joy and union with the world, but it is also possible to feel very vulnerable, as I did in my experience. When that happens, it means the ego is still holding on, still trying to protect itself. It’s doesn’t want to let go because it fears this new open space, which is really life in all its immensity.
The ego wants to keep you from opening your heart to that vast open space. That space is all about you right now. To know it, all you need do is to drop your thoughts. How do you do this? Just turn your attention towards something simple. The branches moving in the wind outside your window. The sound of the cars driving by that come in waves like the surf. Your own breath. Any of these are doorways to this open space, aka., the present moment. Don’t look beyond these simple things for some grander sense of consciousness. Just stay with the awareness. And when the ego starts thinking again, just drop it, too.
February 28, 2019 § Leave a comment
My mother was a devote Catholic. I grew up in a house decorated with Christian icons. Crucifixes hanging over doors were never given a second thought. One icon that did stick in my mind, however, was the image of Christ pointing to his exposed heart. “Why?” I thought, “Would anyone expose his heart to the world like that?”
Years later my heart was suddenly, and unpreparedly, exposed. It happened when a security guard said I couldn’t take any photographs in the area. Suddenly all the boundaries that separated me from the surrounding space dissolved. Although nothing in my surroundings changed, everything had opened up and I felt as a raw nerve, left exposed and unprotected to the harshness of the world.
In spite of my extreme sense of vulnerability I could not help but notice that this open space seemed a lot like the various experiences of higher consciousness I had read about. Except that there was nothing pleasant about this. I was completely sensitized to everything and felt entirely unsafe. The intensity of that experience waned after a few hours, but it took two years for the effect to work its way out of my system.
It was of great interest when, years later, I read Pema Chodron’s writing on the soft, vulnerable spot, or what I have recently come to call the hurt-self. I immediately recognized the vulnerable spot to be the area I had come into contact with so many years before. Pema Chodron confirmed in her writings the relationship between this soft spot and higher consciousness. And, if you want to advance along the path toward enlightenment, that you must connect with this soft spot. Like the iconic image of Christ, you must live with an open heart.
To live with an open heart is to live in the present moment without bias to anything that arises. Mindfulness meditation is the key to that life. In fact, mindfulness meditation may be described as the practice of opening your heart to life, as it is, in the present moment. You begin this practice by continually watching your own mind to see how you turn away from suffering and your own hurt-self. Then you expand your practice into daily life to see how you turn away from the suffering of others and the world.
The more you practice, the more you see how your conditioned awareness looks away from that soft, vulnerable spot that is your wounded heart. The key word here is awareness. I can’t stress that enough because you’re not looking to judge or fix anything. You’re just watching your awareness. Each time you find it dimming or moving excitedly to find something else to think about, you take note and return to the present moment. Over time you’ll find patterns in this movement. Patterns that reveal a history of trying to avoid some unpleasant thought or feeling. Patterns of self-protection that have led you to turn away from suffering, whether it’s yours or another’s, and close your heart.
I learned from my own experience that it’s best to ease into an open heart. You are, after all, dropping all your defences, and doing that too quickly can induce trauma. It’s best to do it slowly. As you do, as you become friends with yourself, something interesting happens. You discover that your suffering actually decreases. That’s because your very resistance to suffering is the major cause of suffering! To quote Rumi, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
January 1, 2019 § 1 Comment
In the 1973 film, “The Paper Chase,” Professor Kingsfield begins the first day of class with these words to his students, “You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.” Other than the fact that I’m not going to be a lawyer, that was me when I started meditating. My skull was definitely full of mush.
The “mush” was mostly fear. My skull was full of it. I had spent many years trying to figure it out through psychology and dream interpretation but to no avail. It was only when life presented me with the opportunity to devote myself to a course of daily meditation and Buddhist study that things started to turn around. Even then it took quite a while before I started to believe that all those things my skull was telling me was real, wasn’t real, at all.
I also had a lot of mush about enlightenment. Still do, I suppose. Looking back, I don’t really know what I thought it was. I know I conceived it as some higher state of consciousness that I suppose, because of my fear, I saw as a place of refuge. The joke, as I later discovered, was that the door to enlightenment was exactly where my fear was most intense! It wasn’t a place of refuge from the world. It was, is, being fully alert, while facing the world.
But I’m not there yet. I’m still dealing with my mush. Sitting, watching, trying to discern the difference between the thinking state and the present moment. It’s becoming clearer but only in my seeing just how much more mush there is to clear away.
By ‘clear away’ I don’t mean fix. That’s what I was trying to do through psychology. Trying to fix myself. Turns out that’s an endless road to nowhere. The only solution I know of now is to see the difference between the thinking state and the present moment, and then choose to be in the present moment. Sounds simple but there’s nothing harder.
Like everyone else there are years, if not lifetimes, of conditioned thinking to see through. Conditioning that has left me identifying with an aggregate of thoughts and things that go into the making of my fear filled self. Conditioning that has me shy away from my mind’s most sensitive and vulnerable areas, while simultaneously trying to protect them. I am buoyed, though, by the growing certainty that success will come. Maybe not in this life. Maybe not in the next or even in ten lives after that, but at least I know nothing can stop it, now.
In the past I thought meditation would lead to some alternate state of consciousness that was somehow “elsewhere” from the one I was in. It never occurred to me that the alternate state I sought was the one I was in, just minus all the mush. And that just by watching and being friendly to all that is going on right now, without looking to the past or to the future and without trying to “fix” anything in myself, that I may realize this present moment consciousness, right now. And that it has been here all along. Life unfolding in the seemingly mundane activity of daily existence. My life. Your life, that is all Life.
December 25, 2018 § 2 Comments
After Siddhartha Gautama, who was to become the Buddha, became an ascetic, he went to Alara Kalama. Kalama taught a particular style of meditation called the “sphere of nothingness” that emphasized deep inner penetration. Gautama became so adept at this practice that Kalama asked him to take his place, but Gautama refused. For Gautama it wasn’t enough that he realized his true nature in a profound state of deep contemplation. He knew that true enlightenment had to extend to every aspect of life. So, he left Kalama and continued his search.
Today you will find many classic references to meditation as a state of “one-pointed concentration” that sounds eerily suggestive of what Gautama rejected. These instructions, it should be noted, were often written for students living in monasteries undergoing intensive training. Once they realized their true nature, the students would continue their training to actualize this realization. Fortunately, there are instructions that provide alternatives to one-pointed concentration that are more suitable to today’s lifestyle. One is described by Pema Chodron in her book, “When Things Fall Apart: heart advice for difficult times.”
In her book Pema Chodron describes Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s approach to meditation as one that instructs students to give 25% of their attention to the breath, “so that one was still aware of one’s surroundings and didn’t consider them an intrusion or an obstacle to meditation.” Later he asked his students to label any thoughts that arise as “thinking” but not with the aim of extinguishing thought. The attitude to cultivate, writes Pema Chodron, is “one of unconditional friendliness toward whatever arises in your mind.”
Being friendly to whatever arises in the mind is not new. It is what the Buddhist means when she asks that you give up labelling things “good or bad.” When she asks that you let thoughts arise and fall of their own accord. Or in the simple request that you first be compassionate to yourself. These are all directives to be open and inclusive to whatever is met in your mind and in your life. As so viewed, meditation becomes the practice of watching the breath amid the physical environment and the sea of thought that surrounds it.
Thought is still not followed with more thought while meditating but it is not suppressed either. And here we come across an aspect of meditation that is not often covered in meditation instructions. I’m referring to a sub-category of thought following that may be called keeping up appearances.
Each and every one of us has an ego that sees itself in a certain way and likes to be seen in a certain way, too. This is your self-image and to maintain it the ego must continually deflect awareness away from some things and towards others. In essence, the ego is saying, “I am I, and no other.” When this “I” is threatened, it will put up a fierce resistance. You may find this resistance the greatest obstacle you face to finding your true self. Yet, when it comes down to it, keeping up appearances is just another way of following thought.
The key to overcoming ego resistance is to reverse the process and turn your awareness towards whatever it is the ego doesn’t want you to look at, think or feel. That is, to become unconditionally friendly towards whatever arises in your mind.
When, for example, you feel uncomfortable, take that feeling into your meditation and look towards, not away, from whatever is making you anxious. Don’t think about it. Just turn toward it, staying with the discomfort as best as you can. Over time this simple discipline will decondition your impulse to retreat into your head and think even more convoluted thoughts to avoid the stress.
Turning toward suffering, rather than seeking relief through distraction, places you in the present moment. There you may find that you suffer less because you are no longer resisting what is by trying to replace it with what isn’t or what might have been. When you practice this way on smaller woes, you’ll be better able to face life’s bigger challenges, such as the death of a loved one or a serious illness. But don’t think that this is a way of avoiding intense emotion. Rather it is the path to an open and unresisting heart that can bear anything it meets in life.
A final note. One-pointed concentration of mind may sound sexy, but it can easily be appropriated by the ego to keep the awareness only on what it finds acceptable. Rather than dropping self, you end up keeping up appearances, instead.
November 30, 2018 § 2 Comments
It common while meditating to find yourself thinking rather than attentively watching the breath. When you do, the instruction is to take note of the distraction by labeling it as ‘thinking’ and then return to watching the breath. Although this simple act may seem inconsequential it is the foundation of awakening.
Meditation is the practice of continuous waking from distraction to the present moment. This statement should be understood as descriptive, meaning that it describes what goes on during meditation more than it tells you what to do. Anyone who’s taken up the practice knows it to be true. During meditation you rarely sit with unwavering attention on the present moment. The mind wanders. You stray from the breath. ‘Waken’ to the fact that you’re thinking and return to the breath where, after a time, you again become distracted.
In simple terms, waking is a recognition that you’ve strayed from watching the breath. What takes your attention away is called a distraction, which includes environmental or physical conditions of the body, such as excessive noise or pain in the legs. Usually when Buddhists speak of distraction though they mean thinking (which includes concepts, imagery and the emotions). It is important to note that waking to thinking does not mean stopping thinking. It means not being carried away by it.
In his book, “Opening the Hand of Thought,” Kosho Uchiyama spoke of three kinds of distraction. The first he called chasing thoughts, by which he meant ‘to follow some initial thought with more thought.’ The second is drowsiness or nodding off. The third is when you forget where you are and what you’re doing. Of this latter type he wrote, “Without being aware of it, we may start associating with or carrying on a dialogue with some vivid figure… that has been totally fabricated within our own act of chasing after thoughts.”
To Kosho Uchiyama’s list I’d like to add a fourth type of distraction. This is the “I” thought. The “I” thought exists both as a singular thought and as a thought that is attached to, and identified with, other thoughts and things. As a singular thought it is your sense of self or sense that you are, however vague that feeling might be. When the “I” thought attaches to other things it produces thoughts that identify it as ill or healthy, worthy or unworthy, smart or stupid, and a whole host of other concepts that combine into an individual idea that defines who and what you are.
In the sense that a thought is about a thing and never that thing itself, the “I” thought, whether it stands alone or as attached, is not the ‘real’ you. It is a fabrication, just like the characters you have dialogues with in Uchiyama’s third type of distraction are fabrications. It differs from these other fabrications only in its tendency to persevere throughout your life. (Reminiscent of Einstein’s, “…reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent illusion.”) As fabrications go it is very useful in navigating your way through life. But when it comes to meditation it is a distraction that you need to wake up from if you want to discover your true nature.
When you sit with awareness on the breath the “I” thought sits with you, as a subtle sense of a self that stands in opposition to the breath. It is this thought that creates the sense of separation you have with life. When you wake to the “I” thought the instruction is the same as waking to any other thought. You label it as ‘thinking’ and then return to your breathing. However, as the “I” thought is very persistent, no effort need be undertaken to stop it. As with any other distraction the aim is to continuously return to your breathing as best you can.
Perhaps you heard or read of someone who said she suddenly became one with everything. That, for example, there was no longer a bird singing; there was just singing. Consider this in terms of what is written above. Does it not seem the experience of oneness would be the natural result of the “I” thought dropping away, taking with it that sense of separation from the world as it goes? And does it not seem equally likely that as you practice waking from your own sense of self that you, too, will have this experience? Assuming, of course, you don’t let that thought distract you.