January 21, 2017 § 5 Comments
Meditation is the continuous waking to the present moment from distracting thoughts. This description implies a need to learn the difference between thinking and non-thinking. In practice this means we must be as the heron that has one eye out for food, while the other looks steadfastly to the sky.
It is a sad fact that the vast majority of humanity is so caught up in distraction that life seems barren without it. There is little of the light of the higher life in these masses who disdain the silence of meditation in a fruitless quest to satisfy their cravings.
Above the majority are those whose circumstance and desire has enabled this light to burn a little brighter. These are the quasi-intellectual, semi-cultured ones who often gravitate towards ideology and dogmatism. In these the conceit of ego often erupts in senseless disputes that may at times lead to political chaos and even war.
There are fewer still above these two lower levels who, though still possessing of ego, have learned to put it aside in favor of humanity. We may say of them that their stream of thought is actively dedicated to helping others.
For the most part, thinking dominates the minds of all who are led by ego and desire. In the actual day-to-day experience it plays out as an on-going dialogue and stream of emotion that is often described as a movie projected onto an inner, mental screen. To the greater mass of humanity this movie is fragmented and chaotic. The quasi-intellectual may have more of a story line but it is the rare few above them whose movies may be of ‘epic’ proportions.
For those who meditate and practice mindfulness it may take a long time before they can just observe their movies without being caught up in them. The individual suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder provides an extreme example of this.
For most of us, even when focused upon a simple task the mind plays a story that we soon find ourselves following. When we become aware of this we can usually drop it and return to the task. For the individual suffering PTSD, however, there is no end to the movie. Worst still, the movie doesn’t just involve the mind but has the entire body reacting to the horrific images being screened. And at the height of anxiety the movie may even jump off the screen into the outside world, leaving the individual feeling as if he or she were trapped in a theatre with no exit.
Whereas PTSD is produced by trauma, our movie producers are our culture, family, personal talents and other attributes that go into making us who we are. It is because our movies are so intricately involved with our identity that they are difficult to drop. And why when we persist on the path that a point comes when anxiety sets in. This anxiety is a signal that we are loosening the very attachments that make us feel safe and secure. Having pruned the tree of distraction, we begin to realize that we must leave its cool shade if we are to fully enter the light.
This is where many fail to progress to the next level that we may call Cosmic or Transcendent Consciousness. The ego, in sensing a Voice that says “I am I yet also Others,” fears the loss of its personal identity. So it hesitates. But if we continue to set one eye on the sky and the other on what lies below the surface, we will eventually see that we’ve been standing in an Ocean of Consciousness, all along.
September 27, 2016 § Leave a comment
Meditation is the practice of continuous wakening to the present moment; a process that is aided by realizations, where the emphasis is on the word real.
At their core realizations are neither conceptual nor grand but humble, in the sense that they are a simple awareness of bare reality. When they happen there are no flashing lights or blaring trumpets. One just sees things the way they really are. Once seen, however, the effect on transforming an individual can be far-reaching. Yet the individual must not be sidetracked into a searching for these effects, for they come only after the realization.
Realizations are simple but hard to come by, as they require the mind to put aside its clutter of thoughts, feelings, truths and stories.
A few weeks ago, while recuperating from some surgery, I had the opportunity to observe a man who shared my hospital room. I noticed that his every activity was designed to manipulate others into considering his feelings before they did anything.
At first it appeared this man was just being self-serving but it turned out that he had suffered from spinal meningitis when quite young. Back then the doctors performed many painful procedures that to him seemed done without regard for his feelings. In the following years that assessment was woven into a story that became the truth of his life. When I met him, caring hospital staff surrounded him. But all he could see were the little things that confirmed his truth that no one cared.
To see what was really happening about him, this man would first have to be willing to give up his story that people didn’t care. We could imagine his initial struggle to do this would be punctuated with numerous examples of people not caring. If he were able to drop these ‘proofs’ he might see that there are some who do care. Of course, he would still believe some didn’t. To the Buddhist this is an example of dualism, the perception of things as opposing pairs of opposites.
To see the world, as it is, this man would have to drop his dualistic truth. In doing so he would come to see people as neither caring nor not caring. He might then expand this into seeing people as neither right nor wrong, neither good nor bad. People would be just as they are, unadorned by labels.
The interesting thing about this process is that realizations come only after we have dropped our judgments, truths and stories. So, because nothing has been added, when we have one we are actually realizing nothing. We are just seeing what was right in front of us all along but which was veiled by the debris of our thoughts.
As realizations are seeing life stripped of thought, what is, is not what we think it is. And when we ultimately drop every thought, all that remains is bare awareness. Yet with the realization of bare awareness we realize that nothing, is everything.
August 14, 2016 § 1 Comment
Practice is really about waking up to life. Your life, as it actually is each and every moment.
In practice ‘waking up’ is a continuous process of letting distracting thought go and returning to the present moment. Thought is typically described in Buddhist literature as thinking, where something grabs the attention and a thought arises that is followed by other thoughts. Becoming aware of an ache, for example, may produce a thought of adjusting the sitting position that is then followed by another thought of how moving will mar the practice. Other thoughts might then follow such as questions on whether one has any idea what practice truly is.
There is another way to describe thoughts that follow one upon the other and that is to call it a story. In the above example the collection of thoughts that started with an ache may become a story of low self-esteem and self-doubt. Or it may become a story of the practitioner as an honest seeker of the way. Whatever the story, becoming caught up in it takes one away from the present moment, which is the only place to find your actual life.
There is an advantage to rephrasing practice as dropping a story. Most inner stories aren’t actually told in words but arise all at once as a feeling with some vague images. As these feelings can be quite strong there is a tendency to seek a solution to them that necessarily creates more thought. When emotions and images are simply identified as a story, however, there is no compelling need to solve them so they are more easily dropped.
The average person isn’t usually tuned into what is actually going on in each and every moment of life. Moments are not seen for what they are but are wrapped in stories and vignettes that are constantly replayed as the day goes on. Convinced that these stories are real, he lives out life in what is at best a waking dream or, at worst, a state of complete delusion. We need only look at the actions of the terrorist to see the global effect of a deluded mind.
It is easy to see vignettes simply by watching our reactions to strangers or even words. Well-dressed strangers provoke a story that is quite different from those who are dirty and poorly dressed. Words like cancer, divorce or security provoke reactions of their own. We may think that because there is such a thing as cancer that our story about it is real. But the fact of something lends no validity to the stories we tell about it, any more than the existence of science makes a science fiction movie real.
In everyday life each moment is accompanied by a little vignette that is draped over what is seen and heard. These little stories are contained in broader stories that we call the story of our life. They are deeply embedded in the mind and shape how we feel and act regardless of what the situation may actually be. Yet for all the value we place upon this story it is, nonetheless, an empty work of fiction. It is not our true life.
In practice we find just how invasive our storytelling has become and how addicted we are to retelling our stories over and over again. Yet as we turn away from each retelling and return to what is actually happening, we start to realize their emptiness. Then, as our practice deepens to include the thought of self, we begin to see that who and what we believe ourselves to be is also a story. A false story that had us believing the fiction of separateness when, in fact, we are connected to all life. And when we start to drop that story, we start to awaken to our actual life that is Life, itself.
April 28, 2016 § Leave a comment
To walk with the soft spot is to reclaim the disowned self and openly acknowledge its vulnerability without trying to change or “solve” it. To do this, the psychological barriers that prevent contact with the vulnerable self must be peeled back. In doing so there is a risk of prematurely exposing the inner self but if we never do it our suffering will never end.
It is not difficult to imagine why the soft spot was disowned. It sensitivity to things like disapproval and criticism is easily felt. And if you add trauma to the mix this sensitivity may be raised to a level that is comparable to a surgeon’s scalpel probing a raw nerve! To avoid this suffering we isolate the soft spot, much like we do a broken arm with a cast.
The mental cast that keeps you safe is a psychological barrier that directs attention away from the soft spot. Often formed in childhood these barriers appear as subtle or intense urges to do or not do something. The inability to focus when feeling anxious is an example of how a mental barrier directs the attention away from the soft spot.
Psychologists have described the interplay between the soft spot and these barriers as an authority facing someone without authority (e.g., the ‘inner child vs. inner parent’ or ‘top dog vs. the underdog’). However one describes it, their interaction is marked by an inner conflict that seeks to deny the self.
A key form of denial is identifying the soft spot’s vulnerability as some essential flaw in your nature that must be kept hidden if you are to remain safe. Over time, openly admitting this vulnerability then becomes tantamount to exposing your self to direct danger or even death.
One could spend a lot of time analyzing the psychological results of believing the self to be essentially flawed. It’s clear that feeling unworthy might evoke feelings of depression, anger or anxiety. Certainly dysfunctional living results from trying to disown this seemingly flawed self. But such analysis is only useful to the extent that it enables us to remove the barriers that keep the attention off and away from the vulnerable self.
In meditation we have a unique opportunity to turn our attention to the soft spot and reclaim the vulnerable self. Initial attempts to observe the soft spot may be brief as mental barriers will turn the attention elsewhere. You may find yourself mesmerized by seemingly real dangers that only later are seen to be imaginary. In general, you’ll feel even more vulnerable as you begin to explore what lies beyond your barriers. This is normal and there will be times when it is better to step back rather than plunge into emotional chaos. Only you can judge how to best proceed.
As barriers start to fall we uncover the false connection between our sense of value and vulnerability. We find that it simply isn’t true that if some hardship befalls us that it did so because of some essential flaw in our nature. We find that if someone says something critical that it does not mean we are bad. And we see that what we’ve feared all along is the judgment that we are bad. But that judgment is false!
Up to this moment we have disowned the soft spot because we mistakenly believed that we could not make a defense against our own essential badness. Seeing this is not so, that we are not bad, we start to walk with the vulnerable self in our daily life. Our first steps will be faltering as we still are under the habit of denying our soft, vulnerable self. But as we strive to hold this self in awareness we slowly come to understand that the only way to protect self is to be self, vulnerabilities and all. And when we do, we discover that the vulnerable self is, and has been all along, the Venerable Self.
April 7, 2016 § 3 Comments
The Buddhist teacher, author, nun and mother, Pema Chodron tells us that if we follow fear down to the core of our being we will ultimately find that it represents a fear of self; a fear of self’s innate vulnerability. She calls this the ‘soft spot’.
The soft spot reminds me of the Sacred Heart of Christ that is described, in part, as pierced by a lance-wound, encircled by a crown of thorns and bleeding. Christian dogma tends to the interpretation that Christ’s heart bleeds because of our sins, which suggests a connection to the concept of original sin. I mention this because it parallels the experience of the soft spot as a place of suffering that we wish to avoid, and as some fundamental flaw in our nature that we wish to correct.
The approach to the soft spot requires care for in it we find our deepest fears. Serious psychological damage can occur if the undisciplined or weak mind enters the soft spot. It is therefore important to strengthen the mind through meditation where, in its early stages, we learn not to follow thought but remain focused upon a single object.
When the mind has reached a certain level of discipline the attention can be trained on the soft spot. The strategies employed to protect this weakest and most vulnerable area then start to show. We may see, for example, how status or a sense of humor is used to cover deep feelings of fear, shame or guilt. The strategy most used, and which underlies all strategies, is denial. Over the years we have trained ourselves not to look at our soft spot because of the deep discomfort and fear that lay there.
As we learn to drop our strategies, we invariably feel the discomfort of the soft spot ever more keenly. We feel the fear of being vulnerable to illness, injury, disapproval or loneliness. We feel the shame or guilt over believing that it is somehow our fault that we feel this way. “Other people,” we think, “aren’t like this. So it must be me!”
As uncomfortable as these feelings are it is necessary to stay with them. Yet, at times when the feelings become too intense, it may be necessary to walk away for a while. You must use your own wisdom in this regard. But each effort puts us a little closer to being able to sit with our fear and neither come under its influence nor push it away.
As we hold this soft spot gently in the awareness we join Zen master Hakuin Ekaku who sat with his terror of falling into hell. We sit with Jesus as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. We sit with the Buddha in those final hours before his great enlightenment when Mara conjured up hosts of terrifying demons, throwing spears, firing arrows and trying to burn him with fire.
If you do not turn from your suffering but, as Mumon wrote in the koan Joshu’s Dog, “enter this MU and there is no discontinuation, your attainment will be as a candle burning and illuminating the whole universe.” You can then enter any world as if it was your own playground and you will be free of life and death.
The ultimate freedom spoken of by Mumon does not come easily. Yet there are rewards along the way. Fear becomes more manageable and as we stay with our own vulnerability our hearts open to the suffering of others. Fear of illness may turn to compassion for the sick. Fear of loss may turn to a desire to help the poor. The willingness to open your heart to your own suffering, opens your heart to others. And all this starts with a simple willingness to sit with your own fear and vulnerable self as did the Great Masters of Old.
March 15, 2016 § 2 Comments
At the start of spiritual practice, ordinary mind is like a house built on thought and experience that over the course of time has come to be seen as our natural state. Even if the weeds are encroaching and the powers been cut off we are often reluctant to leave this house because it feels like home.
We construct our mental homes to serve our individual needs. If the need is to acquire, then the house is designed to amass what it desires. If the need is self-protection, then the mind operates to keep us safe. If we desire approval, then the mind seeks approval. But in doing the one, the mind necessarily rejects the other.
The mind that seeks approval, for instance, will shy away from disapproval. Over time it may come to find that avoiding disapproval becomes more important than finding approval. In abstract terms we may think of this as the mind rejecting a negative to obtain a positive, only to find all it’s energies becoming consumed in the negative.
For example, a person seeking harmony may find him or herself spending the rest of their life avoiding anger. Or one with low self-esteem who may originally have desired acceptance comes to find him or her self focused only on their self-defined unworthiness. This is obfuscation at its worst yet many of us believe that this is the way to stay safe and achieve our end goals!
The ordinary mind as just described is not our natural state but we do not see this. Our true state is open and boundless but over years of obfuscation we have become closed and constricted. This condition is compounded by a tendency to select bits and pieces of the outer world to confirm our false beliefs.
In meditation we come to see how the ordinary mind asserts the world to be one thing by infusing it with “evidence” it finds in the outer world. Someone who believes the world to be a violent place, for example, will point to scenes of violence in the news. Another who fears being judged will cling to memories of those times when they were criticized. There is no doubt that this evidence is real but it is selective. It ignores contrary evidence and, in so doing, locks us into a false view of the world and ourselves.
Through the spiritual practice of just observing the ordinary mind we come to know its obfuscations. As we see them more and more clearly we learn to stop following these thoughts. In doing so, we start to awaken from false belief and come to know mind without restriction. This is not something that magically happens but comes about through continued effort and courageous self-honesty. This is true practice that leads to enlightenment.
February 21, 2016 § 1 Comment
The mind does not like unpleasant things. As surely as the ear ducks from sharp noise and the body recoil from high heat, so does the mind turn away from mental anguish.
If suffering comes from a momentary cause then the strategy of turning away is useful. If it stems from a direct threat to one’s identity then turning away acts as a barrier that blocks awareness of what will relieve that same suffering.
It is a common experience to run headlong into a blockage while sitting in meditation. Where one sitting may be relaxing and easy, the next may be filled with tension as a blockage arises from which one can neither turn away nor think beyond. So unpleasant is this that it is often easier to take a break from meditation than be caught in a block.
The way through any block is to turn the attention directly upon it with the aim of letting the blocked thoughts and feelings flow freely into awareness. For this to progress it is necessary to let go of one’s position and identity, at least a little.
In the attempt to keep things as they are in the face of on-going change lay the cause of mental anguish. The more we identify with what we hold “dear” the stronger the resistance to allowing loss and how it reflects upon us to enter our mind. This resistance stops the mind from considering new possibilities. Once blocked, we become stuck in the impossibility of trying to stay the same and safe when things have changed. Yet simply accepting the possibility of your position and identity being different initiates a resolution to this conflict.
A blockage may be described as the statement, “I don’t want this! This is not me!” I found myself saying or, rather, feeling this way when the possibility of a change in my life arose. Though I knew I could survive the change I felt great stress, as if my life was about to be torn away. My mind naturally turned away from these unpleasant feelings creating an impasse that I could not see beyond it.
All my turmoil was contained in a rather vague image that I could not dismiss that someone was going to come to my front door. I realized latter that behind this image lay a complex web of fears about my worth, being judged and anger. It was these fears that I was blocking and that block was symbolized by the image of someone coming to my door.
It was only after much mental suffering that I unblocked the image by actually allowing myself to see this person coming to my home. Bit by bit this new image released the emotions the first image blocked. As I accepted my fears their power began to wane and the mental block dissolve.
We all block unpleasant emotions as a means to self-protection. We neither want the suffering these emotions evoke nor want others to see our vulnerable points. These blocks naturally arise in the meditative life as a subtle form of thought following. The thought being, “Don’t look at this!”
People can be caught in these blocks thinking they have achieved silence when, in fact, they have built a wall of blocks around themselves. We must therefore heed the advice to let thought and feeling arise and fall naturally. So when you find yourself blocked, move to let your awareness include what lies behind the block. Accepting unpleasant feelings and allowing them to flow through us is perhaps the true meaning of practicing non-resistance.